New York Times Article on African writers

This article on the new “wave” of African writers appeared in the New York Times on June 29, 2014.  I think it is wonderful that these talented writers are receiving international acclaim.

I am now officially putting these writers on my list of TBR authors.

Dinaw Mengestu, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi

By FELICIA R. LEE

JUNE 29, 2014

More than a decade ago, when the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was struggling to get her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” published, an agent told her that things would be easier “if only you were Indian,” because Indian writers were in vogue. Another suggested changing the setting from Nigeria to America. Ms. Adichie didn’t take this as commentary on her work, she said, but on the timidity of the publishing world when it came to unknown writers and unfamiliar cultures, especially African ones.

These days she wouldn’t receive that kind of advice. Black literary writers with African roots (though some grew up elsewhere), mostly young cosmopolitans who write in English, are making a splash in the book world, especially in the United States. They are on best-seller lists, garner high profile reviews and win major awards, in America and in Britain. Ms. Adichie, 36, the author of “Americanah,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction this year, is a prominent member of an expanding group that includes Dinaw Mengestu, Helen Oyeyemi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi, among others.

There are reasons for the critical mass now, say writers, publishers and literature scholars. After years of political and social turmoil, positive changes in several African nations are helping to greatly expand the number of writers and readers. Newer awards like the Caine Prize for African Writing have helped, too, as have social media, the Internet and top M.F.A. programs. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, black writers with recent African roots will make up more than 10 percent of the fiction students come September. Moreover, the number of African immigrants in the United States has more than quadrupled in the past two decades, to almost 1.7 million.

And publishing follows trends: Women, Asian-American, Indian and Latino writers have all been “discovered” and had their moment in the sun — as have African-Americans, some of whom envy the attention given to writers with more recent links in Africa.

“People used to ask where the African writers were,” said Aminatta Forna, author of “The Hired Man” (2013, set in Croatia). “They were cleaning offices and working as clerks.”

Some writers and critics scoff at the idea of lumping together diverse writers with ties to a diverse continent. But others say that this wave represents something new in its sheer size, after a long fallow period. (There were some remarkable exceptions, like Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize.) And it differs from the postcolonial wave, roughly beginning in the 1960s, which brought international acclaim to writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, among others.

There are more women, for one thing. More important, the stories being told, while sometimes set in Africa, often reflect the writers’ experiences of living, studying or working elsewhere and are flecked with cultural references — and settings — familiar to Western audiences.

Ms. Adichie’s “Americanah” chronicles the lives of Ifemelu and her lover, Obinze, whose adventures take them from Nigeria to America and Britain. In the United States, Ifemelu writes a popular blog about her growing racial consciousness and finds love with American men, both black and white. Back in Nigeria, her friends use the word “Americanah” to tease her about her Americanized attitudes.

Ms. Adichie, who divides her time between the United States and Nigeria and runs a summer writing workshop in Lagos, has now written three well-received novels and a book of stories. She has amassed awards and has a movie adaptation this year of her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” about the Biafran war. She even made it into a Beyoncé song: “Flawless,” released in December, sampled several lines about feminism from a public lecture she gave.

The success of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006), after the critical embrace of “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), was a major factor in sending publishers scrambling to find other talented African writers.

The flowering of new African writers is “an amazing phenomenon,” said Manthia Diawara, a professor of comparative literature and film at New York University. “It is a literature more about being a citizen of the world — going to Europe, going back to Lagos,” he said. “Now we are talking about how the West relates to Africa and it frees writers to create their own worlds. They have several identities and they speak several languages.”

But for all the different themes and kinds of writing, the novelist Dinaw Mengestu said that he saw a thread. “There’s this investigation of what happens to the dislocated soul,” said Mr. Mengestu, 36, the author of “All Our Names” and a MacArthur “genius” award winner, who was born in Ethiopia but left at age 2 and grew up in Illinois.

The novelist Okey Ndibe, 54, said for his part, “My reflexes are shaped mostly by life in Nigeria, but so many aspects of me are in the American mode.” His second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” is about an educated Nigerian in New York eking out a living as a taxi driver. Mr. Ndibe, who arrived in America in 1988, said that as someone coming from a place where being black was the norm, he became fascinated by the experience of American blacks. “My protagonist’s life in America is as important as his life in Nigeria, if not more so,” he said.

Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agreed that “there is a new, self-aware internationalism” and “a much more welcoming interest” in this country, too. Earlier generations, he added, “had it much harder.”

Breaking in isn’t getting easier for everyone, however. Some professionals in the book world say that too many literary publishers would rather put out work by writers from Africa than work by African-Americans because in the current climate the Africans are considered more appealing for what is seen as a “black slot.”

Marita Golden, an African-American writer who is a founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which supports black writers around the world, acknowledged that those sentiments exist but disagreed with them.

“Black writers operate within a small, culturally defined sphere,” she said. “That space is not defined by us, so with any shifts people may feel victimized or that they’ve lost, or they’re experiencing a deficit.”

Ms. Adichie said she understood those feelings, too. “In the U.S., to be a black person who is not African-American in certain circles is to be seen as quote-unquote, the good black,” she said. “Or people will say, ‘You are African so you are not angry.’ Or, ‘You’re African so you don’t have all those issues.’ ”

Publishers, not surprisingly, tend to disagree with the idea that African-American writers are being overlooked now. “Hogwash,” said Robin Desser, vice president and editorial director at Alfred A. Knopf and Ms. Adichie’s editor. “When the next Toni Morrison comes around I can say that publishers will go crazy.”

Given the inroads they have made and the new roots they have planted, African writers say they have proved they are much more that a trend.

“My hope is we all become part of the canon, not just here but internationally,” said Ishmael Beah, 33, who lives in the United States. His 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” about Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a best seller. His novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” about the aftermath of that conflict, came out this year.

“We all have a lot to say,” Mr. Beah said, “and we realize that we have to speak for ourselves about the diversity, the difficulties, the beauty of this continent.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 30, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

 

LeConte Lodge, Smoky Mountains

In the summer of 2007, I hiked with a group of people in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We stayed at the top of the mountain at LeConte Lodge.  The pictures that follows this posting are taken from that stay.  LeConte Lodge sits at an elevation of about 6400 feet.  There are no roads leading to the lodge; the only way to reach it is by hiking (on trails ranging from 5.5 to 8 miles).  I suppose you could also hitch a ride from a llama.  They are used to transport food and other necessities.

The lodge provides substantial, wonderful meals to replenish guests after a long hike.  They also provide rustic cabins that protect from the elements but are devoid of electricity or plumbing.   There are flush toilets–but only in a communal outhouse.  There are no shower facilities.  On the other hand, the views are breathtaking!

I would highly recommend a stay at LeConte for people who enjoy hiking and who don’t mind a few days of rustic living as long as it is rewarded with gorgeous views.  For more information, check here.

 

Check Out These Great North African Woman Writers (Part II): Fatima Mernissi

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photo source here

Too often, the discussions Americans hear in the media about women in the Muslim world are marred by ignorance, distortion, politics and just plain bigotry. The subject is far too broad and deep to be elucidated by news bites, especially the kind found on right-wing media outlets.

As a partial antidote to the media noise, let me suggest that you check out another fabulous North African Muslim woman writer—Fatima Mernissi. (Click here for my previous post on Ahdaf Soueif.)

Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan, Muslim, feminist sociologist who used to teach at Muhammad V University, in Rabat, Morocco. Most of her published writings are scholarly rather than creative, with the notable exception of Dreams of Trespass, her memoir.

She has written many highly acclaimed books; the ones I’ve read are Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Sheherazade Goes West, and Dreams of Trespass.All of her works focus upon gender roles and Islam, each with a slightly different focus.

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A central argument recurring throughout Mernissi’s work is that there is nothing inherently sexist about Islam. Rather, she argues, the gender imbalance in Muslim societies is a result of the all-too-human male tradition of the ulama’—the male theologians/jurists who manipulate Islam to their own patriarchal ends.

Another argument central to her work is that Islamic sexual ideology stems from its fear of female sexual power. Female power left unchecked would, according to this ideology, would wreak havoc on the social order and thus must be contained.

A third point she makes is that the current Islamic fundamentalist backlash against women that we hear so much about in the U.S. must be remembered as just that—a backlash against the very real gains women have made in Muslim societies—especially in terms of education. She notes that “The conservative wave against women in the Muslim world, far from being a regressive trend, is on the contrary a defense mechanism against profound changes in both sex roles and the touchy subject of sexual identity. The most accurate interpretation of this relapse, is as an anxiety-reducing mechanisms in a world of shifting, volatile sexual identity” (xxxviii).

In other words, she claims, the noise made by the fundamentalists can actually be read as an encouraging sign. It means that women have made real gains, which scares the pants off of some people.

Her work is obviously more complicated than this brief posting suggests.   Don’t take my word for it. Read Fatima Mernissi yourself if you want a smart, erudite, feminist, Muslim woman’s view on her own religious and cultural traditions.

Mernissi’s web site is here.

Would You Like Ruins With That Civilization? (Part Six of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Which best represents a civilization to you?  Architectural ruins or preserved calligraphy?

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Photo by Erin Silversmith, GNU Free Documentation License

 

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Calligraphy of Chinese Poem by Mo Ruzheng

(public domain)

My home is in the Midwest of the United States, where buildings more than 150 years old are relatively rare and are considered really, really ancient. When I travelled to Europe, I realized how funny it was to think of 150 years as being old.   I learned in Europe that honoring the past means to live surrounded by ancient edifices.

Therefore, I assumed that China, which is truly an ancient civilization, must be overrun with magnificent old structures.   Reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones changed my mind. Hessler, who spent several years living China, noticed that although the Chinese take enormous pride in their history, there are in fact very few really old buildings. The Chinese tended to build out of wood, brick, and tile—elements that were not designed to endure for centuries. Hessler also points out that, historically the Chinese did not pay a great deal of attention to their architecture. He finds that an odd lapse, as do I. But, Hessler, goes on to point out, that is because we, as Westerners, are taught since childhood that “the past was embodied in ancient buildings—pyramids, palaces, coliseums, cathedrals” (185). Antiquity, we are taught, is found in old buildings.

It’s true that I do think of ancient cultures as being embodied in architecture—so much so that it really disappointed me to read what Hessler said about the paucity of old buildings.   I can just see myself having a temper tantrum in the middle of Beijing, crying out, “Where are all the old buildings? I WANT some old buildings!!!”

I will try to control myself.

On the other hand, Peter Hessler observes that while the Chinese may be indifferent to old buildings, they ARE very interested in calligraphy. They will spend hours every day practicing their strokes and take great pride their accomplishments in writing Chinese. Hessler says that they were shocked at his own sloppy handwriting in English and could not believe that an educated man like himself could not write well—in the sense of creating beautiful letters.

When I travelled to the Persian Gulf, I noticed that the Arabs also took great pride in their calligraphy, displaying it on the walls, in museums, etc. To be honest, I found this obsession with calligraphy a bit of a yawner, and wanted to see some REAL art. Now I’m starting to realize how blinkered my views have been and how thoroughly they have been molded by a Western world-view.

What do you think? What do you think best captures the traditions of a culture?

“Literature Map”

Cool New Book Toy!
Thanks to “A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook,” I discovered this website. You can type in an author you enjoy, and it will pull up a constellation of other authors that you are likely to enjoy as well. Love it. Thanks “Guy”!

A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

I like to read. I have many “favorite” authors. Reading their work keeps me busy, but I try to keep open to authors I have not tried yet. Sometimes I get recommendations from family and friends, but I have begun to use the Internet for more recommendations. The literature map site is a new way for me to find authors I can expect to like. Type in an author’s name at the Web site and you get names of other authors. The other authors move away from the center. According to the site developer, the closer another author’s name is to the one you entered, the more you should like their work.

Here is the result of typing Jorge Luis Borges into the site.
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The closest, interrelated authors are the ones I have read and highly regarded: Jose Saramago, T.S. Eliot, and Italo Calvino. They are authors whose imaginative power…

View original post 88 more words

Check Out These North African Women Writers (Part I): Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif

photo from Soueif’s web page

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian writer who has strong ties to England. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Lancaster, and her second husband was English. Her native language is Arabic, but most of her published writing is in English.

Her cross-cultural identity provides one of the recurring themes of her fiction. I have read two of her novels, The Eye of the Sun, and The Map of Love. Both of them are about women caught between (or perhaps within) two cultures, which leads them to grapple with cultural, sexual, political, and intellectual identities.

In the Eye of the Sun
In the Eye of the Sun

In the Eye of the Sun chronicles the coming-of-age story of a beautiful, upper-class Egyptian woman named Asya who tries to reconcile her intellectual, emotional, and sexual needs with the confines of Egyptian traditions. Like Soueif herself, Asya spends several years in a cold and lonely English university while pursuing her Ph.D.   Asya is married to an Egyptian man but is apart from him while pursuing her degree and ends up having an affair with an English man. In the Eye of the Sun has been compared to Victorian English novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch because of its style, scope and the exploration of the inner life of her main character. On the other hand, In the Eye of the Sun is more modern and daring (one might even say racy) in its unflinching exploration of the sexual desires and sexual politics of its characters as well as the sexism of both English and Egyptian cultures. In that sense, Soueif reminds me a little of feminist writers such as Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in women’s issues, especially in Arab women’s issues. Don’t bother with this book if you like lots of action in a novel. It is much more about psychology and culture than action. Keep in mind that this is a hefty read—over 800 pages. I sometimes wished Soueif had not been quite so wordy. In this sense, her writing reminds me of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. (I have been told by Arab-American friends that Arabs like their words—that what Americans might call “wordy” or “flowery” prose are compliments, not critiques. ) I do think that the novel is worth the time it takes in getting through it.   I do not know of other Arab writers (in English, alas) who have explored the psyche of female characters with so much depth and insight. (If you know of others, please let me know!)

 

The Map of Love
The Map of Love

Soueif’s Map of Love is the most famous of her works because it was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. It is a complex work that interweaves romance, history, and politics into a gorgeous Middle-Eastern tapestry. The plot is so complicated, in fact, it is rather difficult to convey briefly.

One thread of the narrative concerns Anna Winterbourne, a late 19th century English woman who travels to Egypt after the death of her husband. While there, she meets, falls in love with, and marries a dashing, upper-class English man (think Omar Sharif ). The 19th century plot is frankly romantic, complete with desert sojourns, kidnapping, and so forth. Normally that type of romance makes me nauseated, but for some reason it worked for me in this novel. Perhaps it worked for me because the romance was combined with a heavy dose of historically based portrayals of British colonialism and the horrors that ensued from it.

Another strand of the novel, however, is set in the present day (late 20th century). An American woman named Isabel Parkman finds some old papers of her mother that are written in Arabic. She meets an Arab man (think Omar Sharif meets Edward Said) who suggests she goes to Egypt to meet his sister Amal who can help her with the papers. (I told you it gets complicated). In any case, the novel intertwines the stories of the three women (Amal, Anna, and Isbael) and we find they are interconnected in unexpected ways despite being separated by time and geography.

Like In the Eye of the Sun, The Map of Love, also combines biting political critique with a sensitive exploration of women’s emotional terrains. The Map of Love, however, has a more complicated plot structure. On the one hand, this is good because it gives the novel a stronger scaffolding for the emotional exploration. On the other hand, juggling all the different characters, time periods, and historical references can be a challenge. Nonetheless, I loved this work. Again, I don’t know of anything else that combines the romantic with the political in such an intriguing style.

Soueif has written a number of other works, too, both fictional and nonfictional. Here is the link to her official webpage. Check her out!

Her official web page.

Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China, Part V. Oracle Bones: The Original Fortune Cookies?

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See source of photo here.

Like many people, I sometimes dabble in “fortune telling,” purely for entertainment. By that, I mean I will occasionally consult my horoscope or have my tarot cards read or my tea leaves interpreted.

(Yes, I know, that places me in Dante’s eighth circle of hell. Does it help, Dante, to know that I don’t really believe it?)

And of course I always read the contents of the fortune cookies found in Chinese restaurants.

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See source of photo here.

Perhaps that is one reason I am so intrigued by Peter Hessler’s discussion of Chinese oracle bones in his nonfiction book called, well, Oracle Bones.  I learned from his book that in China in the late 19th-early 20th century, some Chinese people discovered large caches of buried animal bones (mostly turtles and oxen) dating back to approximately 1300-1000 B.C. On these bones were written brief inscriptions (of no more than 200 words, usually much less) in Chinese. This discovery was important for many reasons. For one thing, these bones contain the earliest example of written language from East Asia. Furthermore, they provide archeological evidence of the existence (and many of the practices) of the Shang dynasty. Up until that point, people had no proof that it had actually existed.

I have to be honest, though. I find the oracle bones fascinating because I see them as the original Chinese fortune cookies. Here’s the way it worked. If you wanted your fortune told, you would have your question written on the bones of the turtle or ox by the diviner (the fortune teller.) Then the diviner would poke some holes in the bone to weaken it. After that, he would apply so much pressure to the bone that it would crack. They believed that somehow this process gave them access to the wisdom of spirit world.   The diviner would then interpret the cracks and inscribe the fortune on the bone.

Some of the fortunes they found were these:

  • “In the next ten days there will be no disasters.”
  • “There will be harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news.”
  • “The king goes to the hunting field; the whole day he will not encounter great wind.”

Just like fortune cookies, right?

We in the decadent West sometimes add the word “in bed” to the end of fortune cookie sayings in order to make them more interesting.   This technique works just as well with the oracle bones:

  • In the next ten days, there will be no disasters in bed.
  • There will perhaps be thunder in bed.
  • We will pacify the Wind with three sheep, three dogs, three pigs in bed. (Well, maybe that one doesn’t work so well.)

It should be noted that although the oracle bones and other archeological evidence have revealed that the Shang dynasty was advanced for its time, having an advanced civilization is NOT the same as having a humane and benevolent one. Archeologists also discovered that large numbers of human victims were sacrificed to be buried along with the kings. As W. Scott Morton and Charlton M. Lewis note, these humans victims were buried in groups of ten. “They were ceremonially beheaded with large axes, also found in the tombs. They were prisoners taken in war or captured from nomad shepherd tribes on the western borders of Shang” (China, Its History and Culture 15).

I wonder if these victims ever had their fortunes told by the oracle bones. If so, what did they say?

  • “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Start running now!”
  •  “You have worked hard in your life, and it is time for a very long rest.”
  •  “A challenge is near. Try not to lose your head.”

 What’s your favorite fortune cookie saying? Do you think the rulers of the Shang dynasty could profit from it?

Come Tease Me!

TeaserTuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

http://shouldbereading.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/teaser-tuesdays-june-10/

Thanks to MizB for starting this meme (and many others as well)!

My teaser for June 10 is this:

“We have seen that Daoism provided a channel for that other, more romantic side of Chinese human nature which was not satisfied by the pedestrian code of Confucianism. Although the full range of developed Confucianism did take account of the spiritual aspirations of man, in much of its practice it was confined to an ethic handbook for the scholar official and had little message and no solace for the common peasant or small merchant, whom it counseled to behave well and keep to his subordinate position.”

This comes from page 75 of China: Its History and Culture, 4th Edition by W. Scott Morton and Charlton M. Lewis.

I’d recommend this book for people like me who don’t know much about China and want a general introduction that is not too long.  I like the way they organize the book.  As with most histories, it proceeds chronologically. But in addition to including the facts of changing dynasties, wars, etc., each chapter also includes a section on cultural developments (such as religion, art, philosophy, literature, etc.)

Click here for the Amazon description.

What about you?  What are you reading?  Feel free to tease me with a couple of sentences!