Readers on Reading in 2017 — Mehul Gohil

Overall Reading Experience in 2017

The reading experience gets richer with each passing year. A number of new writers are publishing on the continent, and the more experienced ones are bringing out new works too. We are spoilt for choice these days when it comes to African literature. Genres like Science-Fiction and Fantasy are gaining a lot of traction on the continent. Online and print journals are coming up in numbers. Social media networking amongst writers and readers is robust.

For me, being a Nairobian, I am having the time of my life being a reader. The streets of Nairobi continue to prove a goldmine…great finds abound. The bookstores in the city are giving buyers a biggers choice. There are now even online outlets which deliver to the one’s doorstep. Entrepreneurs have set up small-scale logistics companies enabling rarer books available via Amazon or Ebay to be paid for locally and within just a week you have what you want. Electronic shops now also stock the latest versions of Kindle.

Avenues to discuss books with like minded people in the city abound. From book clubs to various informal gatherings over juice, coffee or beer. Even on public transport like inter-city trains and matatus, one can now easily find someone reading a book and start a conversation.

I see a great reading experience ahead for 2018.

Nonfiction

Multi-Party Politics in Kenya by David Throup and Charles Hornsby

An academic book that reads, most surprisingly, like a thriller. A fat book, over 600 pages long, that examines, deconstructs and analyzes the advent of pluralist politics in Kenya with a particular focus on the Kenya’s very first presidential elections in 1992. A quick but comprehensive summary of the timeframe from independence in 1963 to the late late 1980’s gives the reader a well-built up picture of the evolution of Kenyan politics and its main players. The turbulent, complex and chaotic times of 1990-1992 when pluralism was re-introduced in Kenya are written about in a riveting way. The authors cleverly build up the tension. The bulk of the book deals with the campaign period, the actual voting period and the aftermath of the 1992 elections. This is an essential read for all Kenyans. It is a good education on how we have come to be today and how the forces of the political past still hold us hostage today and why they do so. It was revealing how things remain the same the more they change.

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

Poems and prose sketches based on Melville’s travels around the Galapagos and Polynesian Islands. The key thing here is the beauty and Imax 3D effect of Melville’s prose. You can see the islands almost exactly, as if you were there. Besides just being a fine read, the slim volume is also of great instructional value for the writer. The prose is miraculous…clearly any human being dead or alive would be hard pressed to equal Melville’s. His ability to shift from one space to another just within a sentence is mesmerizing. I derived as much joy from analyzing his prose as I did from what he was simply trying to say and show.

The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Philippe Cousteau

I spotted this book in the sprawl and pile of one of Nairobi’s street book-hawkers. I read a page, liked what I saw, and thought I should give it a chance. This is a book detailing how a father and son team (along with other crew members) go about researching the behavior of sharks in the various oceans of the earth aboard their vessel, the Calypso. I discovered the elderly Costeau was like the father of Scuba diving and was a pioneer when it came to researching life of creatures in the ocean. In story-telling style and elegant prose, the technical details of how equipment is set up (shark cages, cameras, putting on scuba gear, repairing ship machinery etc.), how the ocean looks underwater and especially how the sharks behave are told. It is all fascinating. The authors also inject histories and legends about sharks. For example, the Zambezi shark that sometimes journeys upstream and how in the past a man’s strength in vintage-era Zambia was tested by his ability to fight such a shark with bare hands in the river. This book was a good find.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

I had never read a Murakami before and this was my first experience. The Japanese seem to have a special form for telling the account of a tragedy. There is a long piece in a New Yorker about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. The piece consists of several eye-witness accounts strung together one after another. Such a method creates a unique effect of compounding the terror as the same event is retold but from another person’s perspective. Here, Murakami employs the same form when telling the account of the Tokyo subway Gas Attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that happened on March 20, 1995. Murakami does not actually tell the account. He simply interviewed over forty survivors of the attacks and transcribed and translated the interviews. In the process he straightened out the prose in his style but kept the voice of the interviewed person intact. What emerges is a horrifying picture of what happened on the day. The compounded effect of different perspectives on the Tokyo Gas Attack is indeed chilling.

For Friends & Colleagues by Mark Dvoretsky

Mark Dvoretsky was by general consensus the best chess coach the world had ever seen. He nurtured from their junior years to grandmastery and even World Championship titles some of the very best players to have graced the sport. His various instructional books in chess are now considered to be some of the greatest ever written, used regularly by amateur and grandmaster alike. After his passing in September 2016, I felt I had to get a hold of his memoir: For Friends & Colleagues. This I did so in early 2017. The memoir is a brutally honest account of the dirty deeds in Soviet chess during the period 1960’s to 1980’s as he witnessed them. Famous personalities like Botvinik (the father of Soviet Chess) are not spared. Especially insightful are his observations on daily soviet life and how the ordinary Russian (his close friends and family) manages despite all to still live a ‘democratic’ life full of the freedom of thought.

Poetry

After 4:30 by David Maillu

I admit until recently my reading of the Kenyan classics was rather poor. Over the 2016-2017 period I managed to correct that by reading in English several novels, non-fiction books and poetry of the old school Kenyan writers of Ngugi’s and Meja Mwangi’s generation. Some of the old school works are devastatingly insightful. One of these is the legendary David Maillu’s poem-novel, After 4:30. I was left in shock and enlightenment after having read it. This is a timeless masterpiece. Every Kenyan, especially the male and the ‘boy-child’, should read this if he wants to understand the relationship between the Kenyan gentleman and the Kenyan lady today. This is a no-holds barred examination and elucidation of what makes the modern Kenyan lady tick. In its one hundred or so pages length, it is a complete encyclopaedia of the structure, make-up, psychology, dreams, desires, requirements of the Kenyan lady, as impossible and ridiculous as that sounds. Here is a by-the-way effect which shows the deficiency of the Kenyan male. Even as technology progresses and the cities of Kenya become more post-modern and demented, here is something to help us check where we stand and tell us who we really are.

Novels

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The Kwani? Manuscript Project has added significantly to the 21st Century African canon. Not a single novel from the project so far has proved a dud. The latest offering is Adebayo’s Stay With Me. Yes, the novel has a formulaic plot…typically contemporary Nigerian I would add. Yes, the imagination looks like it is working with a budget…no post-modern peeks into how a city breathes and seethes like a living thing, no hinting at the growing power of the TV and the Radio…the Babangida affair seems tacked on just to give some context…everything strictly confined to the limits of what is essential. But the novel was entertaining, heartfelt and homely. Yes, it was a tear-jerker towards the end, so what? The characterization was rich. Even the stock characters like Moomi had their depth. Especially interesting was how Adebayo created such emotionally rich and subtle male characters like Akin and Dotun. Also, the aspect of impotence is a growing problem not talked about much in our literature. Here it was highlighted in merciless but entertaining fashion.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

It is a good thing the Booker Prize opened its doors to the Americans, otherwise I would have never known a genius like Paul Beatty exists. This novel is therapy. I didn’t know I still have laughter inside me. This is the most intelligent rib-cracker I have come across. The riffs and thoughts are just so absurd and true you just have to laugh. How do you show the true depths of the darkest and saddest things? By tricking people into laughing and then pulling them deep in. This is a depressing novel. It rips apart man. It shows the man in minute detail…who he is…and makes sure the man…that is the reader…never forget…because we are now laughing at our ownselves only to discover deep inside we are crying and are utterly helpless. This is a great novel. Reading it has been one of the most important things I have done in my life.

Short Story Collections

Shadows by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

I believe this collection should be better-known. The stories in it are slices of the true Zimbabwean life. The ugly and the beautiful aspects of Zimbabwe are counterbalanced. This collection gave me a fresher, sharper and more realistic idea about Zimbabwe than the news and anti-septic nonfiction essays recently have. There is a vibrancy and shine in the writing. You see some great hope just somewhere there in the distance for Zimbabwe…the collection points to this. With a major novel expected soon from Novuyo, reading her debut short story collection would be a good way to get prepared for it.

Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto

Some diaspora African (and non-African) intellectuals and academics interested in the African short story have looked down upon the so called ‘Poverty Porn’ genre. Perhaps they are cowards and too privileged in their cosy first world setting to face the obvious realities of Africa and would rather not want to have to explain to their first world colleagues the slumdog things about Africa. The legendary Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto is someone who specialized in ‘poverty porn’. There is perhaps no African writer who can play ball with him in the ‘poverty porn’ genre department. Manto went in for the kill with particular explicitness. The slumdog, the ten rupee whore, the down and out misogynists, the slums, the pit-latrines, the houseflies, the shite everywhere, the hurried and depression-filled and passionless slumdog level sex, the smelly and rarely brushed mouths of ladies, the cockroach infested houses, the fucked upness of living in the slum in the time of the monsoon. His Bombay Stories collections explores all this and more. It explores poverty porn in and out. The person hardest to fully understand and feel pain of is the slumdog and slumdogess. It is easy to feel sorry for them because they circumstances are all out there. But how do we go inside them and truly feel like them. How? Manto showed it is done via the poverty porn approach. Despite all the crap, the humanity shines through in these stories. How much like us non-slumdog guys these people are. They are us. Manto also had a gift for craft and each of these stories are micro-millimeter perfect. Utterly flawless craftwise. This perfection just lends the poverty porn great poignancy.

Disappointing Reads

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Like many others, I had looked forward to Roy’s long awaited second novel. Her debut, The God of Small Things, was a memorable reading experience: it had great and unforgettable scenes and its characters continue to live in my memory.

The first chapter of Utmost Happiness was brilliant. The depiction of Anjum’s journey from childhood to adult life was heartfelt and written with imagination and passion; the dialogue on the rooftop between Anjum and Sadaam which closes out the chapter was hallucinatory and took the narrative to a special level.

Unfortunately, after that promising start the novel morphed into a ministry of utmost disappointment. Roy seemed to lose her grip on the and make us care for important things: the fuckery in Kashmir, the magic of storytelling. Many of the scenes felt like a re-hash of her interviews and non-fiction writing. Roy was clearly striving to show us plight of minorities in India, the destructive ambition of the Modi government. But it seemed her special abilities of prose that were so factories. Everybody seems to know what happened next year in Kashmir. evident in God of Small Things had deserted her. I also felt she underestimated the intelligence of the general reader in today’s world. The general reader’s awareness of various geo-political issues. Thus large sections of the novel came off as preachy. She failed to perceive that nowadays readers, wherever they maybe in the World, whether in Lagos or Nairobi, are bombarded by news from all sorts of social media It felt like there was nothing new Roy was telling me. And she wasn’t telling it in a new way either.

A few years back, whilst in the process of writing Utmost Happiness, Roy stated that she did not want to write another God of Small Things. Perhaps she should have.

Everyday is for The Thief by Teju Cole

Open City introduced me to the art of Teju Cole. I liked the novel. I sometimes feel novels that present a well-structured plot are psychotic and manic and not a representation of the true rhythm of an unfolding human life. Reading successive novels that show off a good narrative drive sometimes feels like an experience of living in a world imbued with unnatural and finely programmed energy. Most of the recent African novels have been of this type. Open City was something new with its staid and peaceful and meditative narrative rhythm. It even seemed to boast a lack of narrative and relied on pure observation and reflection to create the story. Therefore, it was with great anticipation I picked up Teju’s Every Day is for the Thief.

Just within the first few chapters of Every Day, I realized Teju was writing not for the reader living in Africa, but for the Western reader unfamiliar with life in an African city or country. I felt ignored as a reader. The polish of the sentences is there. The staid and peaceful rhythm of the prose is there. But I felt there was a lack of depth in the reflection…the writing seemed to come from a shallow place…there was the absence of the deep and meaningful meditation for things written that were so apparent in Open City. Every Day also showcased a binary sort of attitude to life in Nigeria. There seemed no attempt to say something about the happening life in Nigeria that is not only the lamentable. The disturbing and the unnerving are prioritized. It gets boring.


Mehul Gohil is a writer born and living in Nairobi, Kenya. He is part of the Africa39 group of writers which showcases the best 39 writers under the age of 39. He is also a founding member of the Pan-African literary collective JALADA. His short stories and creative non-fiction have appeared in various journals, both in print and online. He has a short-story collection forthcoming in 2019.


This is the fourth of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.

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