Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

Open City- book review

I heard some good things a while back about Teju Cole being a young, hip, talented novelist but I honestly found it tough to enjoy his debut novel Open City, which came out in 2012 and earned him acclaim. Set predominantly in New York City, the narrator meanders while working as a psychiatrist and pondering various things. With a brief vacation to Belgium and some flashbacks of his childhood in Nigeria, which echoes the heritage of Cole as an American-born Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria, the plot fleshes out the narrator’s life as a series of diffuse and conflicting segments, such as a mixed upbringing and a distant relationship with his mother that then escalates into estrangement. It is, for lack of a better word, a haunting novel and I felt it drifted a lot without any focal point.

While that may have been deliberate, it seemed a little too contrived and dull. The book does make you think at some points, such as the narrator’s random but deep thoughts about the question of blackness and alien identities. I also did think part of the narrator’s life applied to mine as I do drift in life and wonder about issues randomly.
Another fault with the book, and it is a major one, is that near the ending, the narrator is confronted with a shocking accusation about his past by a female friend, but he doesn’t react to it and the book concludes without referring to it anymore. We never know how the narrator feels about this disturbing episode, and this just made me feel absolutely no sympathy or connection with the narrator. Which is also I felt about the book too.

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria – book review

Nigeria probably isn’t on any list of top countries to travel to, but for the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, it was a special journey. Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in England and was 19 when her activist father was arrested and executed by Nigeria’s ruling military junta in 1995, shocking the world and bringing significant outrage and disgrace onto the country’s leadership. As a result, she decided not to have anything to do with her country, only returning twice briefly for her father’s funeral and his actual burial. Eventually in the late 2000s after a successful career as a travel writer, she decided to return to Nigeria, not for good, but to try to reconcile and rediscover her nation. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria is the result.

It starts off in Lagos, Nigeria’s giant and sprawling metropolis, continues to the former intellectual center Ibadan, then the nation’s capital Abuja, the clean but sterile antithesis to Lagos, and moves on to the northern Muslim states and then the central regions. Saro-Wiwa then returns to her hometown Port Harcourt, in the oil-rich Delta region, and even her father’s village in Ogoniland. Finally, she goes back to Lagos.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation, which would seemingly make it Africa’s powerhouse, though South Africa might beg to differ. In reality, Nigeria is filled with problems that weigh it down and its oil wealth is contradicted by its gross corruption and poverty. As if that was not enough, whereas before it had unrest in its Delta region, it is now under threat from Boko Haram, a fundamentalist Islamic group that has committed terrorist attacks and mass killings and kidnappings in the Muslim northeast part.

Saro-Wiwa is unflinching in depicting all the problems she encounters, from the chaos to corruption to lackadaisical customer service. She is filled with frustration at times, struggling to reconcile her English middle-class upbringing with the completely different nature of Nigerian society. There are a few good aspects – the well-run Calabar, the lively culture, and the hustle and bustle of general Nigerian life. Even these still seem like mere consolations compared to the corruption and neglect that is seemingly prevalent across the nation.

There are striking examples of Nigeria’s potential in many areas like tourism and agriculture and how it is being wasted. For instance, Benin (not to be confused with the neighboring country of the same name) used to be where one of West Africa’s greatest kingdoms existed, which lasted until it was defeated by the British in 1897. In the present times, the state has preserved little of its past heritage and splendor. Another example is when Saro-Wiwa visits a farm run by Zimbabweans, who lauds the richness of Nigerian soil and its impressive natural resources (“richer than South Africa in natural resources, but you have nothing to show for it”) but lambast Nigerians for not doing much with it.

This is not to say it is a depressing book though. There are numerous amusing anecdotes and colorful episodes of cultural events and diverse places. Saro-Wiwa covers many places, but the most entrancing is when she visits Sukur, a mountain kingdom that is still “Stone Age” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The settlement’s remoteness means people may live as their ancestors did centuries ago, smelting their own tools with stone furnaces and so on, but they are free from the disorderliness of modern Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa also views the Durbar, a military parade involving horse-mounted warriors overseen by the Emir of the ancient Islamic city of Kano, a tradition that harks back to Kano’s horse-riding culture. Nigeria also boasts some ancient heritage, but sadly some of these artifacts such as Nok sculptues, which date back to BC times, and Benin’s bronze castings and masks were mostly taken by Europeans and held in museums across Europe.

The book’s main problem is not the tone, but that at times there is not enough content. Saro-Wiwa describes history and politics and the ethnic diversity, but certain chapters seem like they would have been better with more background information. Especially perhaps a narrative that could have linked Nigeria’s places better together, though the country is a young one that was an artificial creation of the British. In the end, after the author returns to Lagos, she accepts she may not have the patience to fully handle living in Nigeria and coping with all the problems, but she has seen the good and bad of her country and is at peace with this.

While Nigeria still does not seem like a place most people would like to actually travel to, Looking for Transwonderland shows how diverse, interesting, and problematic it is. It is definitely one of the best, if not the only, books about the country and traveling it.

Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

Rather unusual in travel literature (or any other kind of literature for that matter), there’s an entire new book about Indonesia – Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. I haven’t read it yet but it seems an attractive future choice, based on the reviews about it. I admit I’m one of those guilty of not knowing or caring much about the world’s largest archipelago nation and fourth most populated. As Pankaj Mishraj says in his review, “on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.” The Guardian and New York Times also review it.

I’ve actually read a previous book by Pisani called “The Wisdom of Whores,” which was a critique of policies used to fight against AIDS, based on her knowledge and experience, that included working in Southeast Asia and getting to know prostitutes. Pisani is actually a epidemiologist, and before that a foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in Indonesia and decided to take a year off from her regular work to travel around the nation and experience its vast diversity and quirkiness. Indonesia Etc is the result of her travel.

Besides Indonesia, there are other developing countries which might be similarly fascinating, complex and dynamic but sadly get little attention from global media and entertainment circles. As much as I am interested by China and India and can’t get enough about books focusing on them, I wish there were more books about nations like Indonesia and similar major developing nations. Specifically, books that focus on a country and combine travel and social commentary.

Another such book is about Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and arguably dynamic country. There was a book released two years ago called Looking for Transwonderland written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because her father was the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Looking for Transwonderland is both a travel book and about Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria (she grew up in England) in an attempt to understand her homeland and come to grips with what happened to her father.

I’m definitely interested in the preceding books, and there have been a few other travel titles that I haven’t been able to read that cover a similar scope.

When it comes to Africa, there are several books that seemingly take on the entire continent, or rather a number of countries that are taken to represent the whole continent. Paul Theroux (first with Dark Star Safari, then this one) and South African Sihle Kumalo, a rare black African travel writer who has written 3 books covering trips to different parts of Africa, have put out books about this.

Punjabi Parmesan is an Indian author’s look at Western Europe, which seems an intriguing concept. The author Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who also lived in and wrote a book about China, which was also a rarity – an Indian writing a travelogue and commentary on China.

About China, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is rather self-explanatory from the title, but its scope is quite complex, ranging from the Northeast border with Russia to turbulent  Xinjiang to a “narco-state” in the jungles of southwest Yunnan province. It explores the farthest, wildest and least populated parts of the nation, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities. Another book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands, published 5 years ago, has a similar concept, focusing exclusively on ethnic minorities.

I have to say I haven’t read any of these books, except Theroux’s first Africa book Dark Star Safari, yet so I’m doing a bit of speculating in assuming that they’re good. I trust my assumptions are correct otherwise I’d be a fool recommending books I haven’t read that aren’t much good.

If any readers have recommendations, especially on nations like Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa etc, let me know.

Americanah- book review

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is a well-known Nigerian novelist who picked up a lot of acclaim for her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun. I have that book, because on my last day at my college newspaper, the arts editor offered me a box full of books and I picked Half of a Yellow Sun and two other books. I never regretted that choice since Half of a Yellow Sun, about a pair of grown-up sisters living through the Biafran war in Nigeria when the state brutally quelled an attempt by Biafra to secede, was poignant and striking. I just finished her followup novel Americanah, which is also a great read.
It’s about a two Nigerian lovers who separate when one emigrates to the US for college and the other eventually enters the UK and stays there illegally. The book traces their past through flashbacks, while showing how their lives unfold after leaving Nigeria. Eventually the woman goes back to Nigeria, where things get complicated. In this sense, you could see it’s not just a love story.  Americanah is a huge treat as it covers a lot of topics – race relations, being black, being an immigrant, Nigeria, returning to your country after going away, all with a love story in the background. In an interesting plot device, we are treated to a lot of blunt commentaries about race dynamics in the US because the woman, Ifemelu, is a star blogger who writes about race, terming herself a non-American black (a black person from Africa, the Caribbean or elsewhere). She doesn’t limit herself to black or African issues, often taking on issues like white privilege and the dynamics of race in general in US. When she decides to return to Nigeria, she starts a new blog and becomes famous right away with a huge, loyal readership, which is somewhat unrealistic. The novel focuses more on her than Obinze, who came back to Nigeria earlier after being caught by UK authorities and deported. Yet it is Ifemelu who is the more flighty and moody, and it manifests in her emotional struggles and various relationships. I can’t sympathize with how someone who is so thoughtful about issues like race can be so unreliable in how she feels around those close to her. However in the end, Obinze will also do something major that comes out as callous and irresponsible. Maybe it’s the cynic in me but I don’t trust the idea of happiness being the main determinant of how we live our lives.

By coincidence, this amazing story came out earlier this week. An American teen, born to Ghanaian parents, got accepted to all 8 Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc). It’s a great achievement, but race has come into the discussion. Some people have questioned whether affirmative action played a role in it (the boy is black), while others have pointed out that African-Americans who’re 1st or 2nd generation immigrants from Africa have done significantly well in academics, compared to African-Americans who’ve been in the US for generations. The latter is something Adichie touches upon in her book in Ifemelu’s musings about the chasms between these two groups and their different outlooks on society, with the former carrying less of a chip on their shoulders in the US.

Guangzhou Evergrande gets hardfought draw, and HK and Nigeria links

The first leg of the Asian Champions League proved to be as good a match as I thought it’d be. Too bad I only got to see the last 15 minutes due to not being aware of the correct starting time. Guangzhou Evergrande fought it out with FC Seoul in Seoul for a 2-2 draw, so the return leg in Guangzhou will be vital. There was some gamesmanship from Seoul as Guangzhou coach Marcelo Lippi slammed the shabby treatment his club received in being forced to train at their hotel since proper facilities weren’t provided.

Here’re a couple of random interesting articles.
The first is about Boko Haram from National Geographic. Boko Haram is a fundamentalist Islamic force that has killed thousands of people in Northern Nigeria since 2009 and been fighting against the Nigerian state for years. It’s become so dire that even vigilante groups have been formed to combat them while some Nigerians are so spooked they can’t even bring themselves to say the group’s name. The article is a little more hardcore and intensive (in terms of geopolitics) than what one usually reads in National Geographic but it is a very good article if not a little chilling.

A HK SCMP columnist, whose column shares the same name as my blog coincidentally, gives out a sensible bashing two lawmakers who tried to blame Hong Kong’s housing shortage on mainlanders. This is an issue I’ve constantly ranted about so I’ll just keep it brief and suggest reading this guy’s article. Here’s the closing paragraph of the column:

Given our trouble, our default position is to blame mainlanders for trying to take up space in Hong Kong. But even if we scrap all permit quotas, it’s unclear what impact that might have on housing supply. But it would be against every humanitarian principle as most permits go to mainlanders seeking family reunion in Hong Kong.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that Fan and Mo are just exploiting populist resentments against mainlanders.

Another SCMP column calls for some sense in the “crusade” by some HKers against the Philippines regarding seeking an apology and compensation for the murder of several HK tourists in 2010 in Manila. HK lawmaker and former Secretary of Security Regina Ip slams the “madness” of the vehement anti-Manila HKers and gives a logical critiques of their sentiments and the futility of proposed punishment against the Philippines.

While I’m heartened by HK people like the above two writers, I worry that many HKers are becoming consumed by ignorance, arrogance and hate in their attitudes towards mainlanders or Filipinos, for example, and have chosen to use this hate as a sort of substitute for real action in confronting the root causes of local problems, a development which is similar to Taiwan which is filled with anti-foreigner feelings and prejudice as well.