It isn’t always easy to concentrate on reading for me, as there is always a lot of work to do. This might come across as a surprise since, among other things, I am a writer, editor and publisher. But it is what it is. 2017 was an exciting year for me and though I didn’t get to read as many books as I would have wanted to, I got a taste of quite a number. Some of them were published by our publishing house, SEVHAGE, which made it all the way more fun. I am not sure I have a particular order for the books that made my top ten but I will talk about the very first ten that come to mind. They must have made an impact if they are the first that come to my mind, no? On my list are some literary biographies – and I was glad to have these since we don’t have so much of them in Nigeria, and also because the subjects of the books are fine writers who I adore, and who have become a big part of my life. The writers, Okey Ndibe and Niyi Osundare, are two fantastic men who have inspired me personally both as writers and as friends.
In January 2017, I found myself reading a lot of Derek Walcott, and my poetry was enhanced from reading him. My brother, Innocence Silas Katricia kept commenting on my devouring of him. Not long after, Walcott passed on and I had to wonder if it was his spirit that had been there. I enjoyed all his books and picking one of them as a notable book was hard, but for this piece, I will settle for his Collected Poems 1948-1984. But it wasn’t all literary biographies and poetry, there were some novels, poetry, and other non-literary books. Some of the fine works I really enjoyed came to me first as manuscripts but later found their way into proper works (like Egya’s biography of Osundare and Dul Johnson’s Nigerian Civil War novel, Across the Gulf, which eventually clinched the 2017 Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Prose.
In 2017, a lot of things happened that kept me from reading as many books as I wanted but hey, why do we have 2018? Well, ready or not, here are my top books, books that didn’t meet my expectation and books I hope to read in 2018.
Love Apart by Hyginus Ekwuazi (Ibadan: Kraftbooks, 2006)
Love Apart is a collection of thirty-one poems by the multiple award winning poet and scholar, Professor Hyginus Ekwuazi. That is, thirty-one poems if you remove the dedication and Preface/Introduction – themselves verse enough. The poems flow on in tales, which is the style of Ekwuazi. His poems are largely narrative and tell stories. The poems, or stories if you will, in this collection mourn different forms of loneliness; that of self, of love, of people, of death.
The tone of the entire collection is dark and largely melancholic, sweetly so. The language is endearing, with the narrative entertaining as it draws the reader into the book as each poem passes. It seems to call to the reader to listen, to listen to the cries of the lover apart calling for a love dying, a love dead. The poems are also to a son telling him not to despair, ‘I have been there’ seems to be the undertone. There is also verse casted to reflect hope, as if to say ‘though this happens, this, yes even this would pass.’ There is despair, there is chaos but all would pass. The loved one, the one who would love the persona, love the country, love all and make it all worth it, this loved one would come: a homecoming that sniffs hope with every breath/ and with Orion twinkling extra bright/ [would be] spread out a hope-full table/to welcome [this love] home, this coming day’ (‘Homecoming, this day’ 83).
There seems to be a single narrator in the whole work. This conductor, the poetic persona, is the ‘I’ across the world of this verse orchestrating its flow. As one would easily note, the ‘I’ tells the story owning it and borrowing us, the readers, a part of his life. More than this though, the ‘I’ transforms us into partakers. For while reading the singular ‘I’, we get to look through the eyes of this one – celebrating his joys at particular moments, sharing his hopes, cringing in the fear; till soon we discover we are no longer sympathizing but empathizing as the story and verse including the several woes slowly become ours.
There is the influence of Okigbo to whom the entire collection even take their name (the book is named after the title of a poem by Okigbo). It is a fine book and one that lovers of a good read – whether you are interested in poetry or not – can pick and read without any challenge. Matter of fact, if anyone needs a book that demystifies poetry without watering the essence of its value, this is a perfect option. To back this claim are some of its awards: the Association of Nigerian Authors/Cadbury Prize for Poetry, 2007; Association of Nigerian Authors/NDDC-Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry, 2007 and a nomination for the Nigeria (NLNG) Prize for Literature, 2009.
Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe (Manhattan: Soho Press, 2016)
Next is the memorable Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe which my wife gave me as a birthday present. This book is a hilarious memoir of Pa. Okey’s adventures in America, giving a fine background to his childhood and his parents. As one would expect, there’s a huge dose of Chinua Achebe there as well as other writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and the like. I had heard Pa. Okey discuss the books at different readings, from Abeokuta to Abuja, and Ibadan, heard him read delightful parts too. So, by the time I read it, I had an idea of what I was eating into but could I have predicted how delicious it was going to be? Okey Ndibe’s writing style is fluid, elegant and largely reminiscent of the traditional African bards. He has a hint of Achebe with some more modern flavor. He loves language and how it can be used to convey messages and tales in such a way that leaves a deep impression. However, Pa Okey also knows the power of the word in carrying culture and propagating his African, and in particular Igbo heritage. Thus, he laces his narratives with proverbs, aspects of culture and a language that is distinctly spiced with African flavor and nuances. His stories come across like that of the old man in the village who sits on a mat, under the African skies. This is what sets him apart. The official description for the book from the site’s website reads:
“Okey Ndibe’s funny, charming, and penetrating memoir tells of his move from Nigeria to America, where he came to edit the influential—but perpetually cash-strapped—African Commentary magazine. It recounts stories of Ndibe’s relationships with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and other luminaries; examines the differences between Nigerian and American etiquette and politics; recalls an incident of racial profiling just thirteen days after he arrived in the US, in which he was mistaken for a bank robber; considers American stereotypes about Africa (and vice-versa); and juxtaposes African folk tales with Wall Street trickery. All these stories and more come together in a generous, encompassing book about the making of a writer and a new American.”
However, it is the description by Sally Denton, author of The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men who Built the World which captures it more for me: “Okey Ndibe brings a keen eye to his delightful and insightful new memoir. His vision is clearer than 20-20. A writer who can arrive in America, be falsely accused of bank robbery in just 10 days, and still manage to keep his sense of humor, is a man with a story to tell. He writes it beautifully.”
In this book, you will learn a lot about Okey, his life’s adventures and important historical notes – like how he met his wife, how he got to write his first book, some of his adventures with the State Security Service, amongst other beautiful tales, told with a huge dose of humour. If ever you are having a sour day or need a book that can make you laugh, get this book, you will not regret it one bit!
Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography by Sule E. Egya (Makurdi: SEVHAGE Publishers and Whiteline Press, 2017)
Similar to Okey Ndibe’s book is the more scholarly Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography written by Sule E. Egya, Professor of Literature and multiple award winning writer who won the Commonwealth Book Prize (African Region). The ever-smiling Niyi Osundare is one of my heroes, so, it was lovely that I got the chance to read this work, as a manuscript, plus we got to publish it! Yaaay!
Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography tells the story of one of Africa’s most prolific bard, the poet of the market place. Egya takes readers on an entertaining journey that unveils the life of a deserving artiste in words that will inspire readers. The book is divided into ten chapters of varying length and traces Osundare’s humble rural beginnings, born to a farmer-father in Ikere-Ekiti, Nigeria. It follows his progress as a student in Ekiti, Ibadan, Leeds and Canada, then narrates his growth as a scholar, writer, poet and activist in different respects in the University of Ibadan and as scholar-writer in the United States of America, on one hand, and as a journalist/social commentator on the other hand. The timeline for the biography is from Osundare’s birth on 12th March, 1947 to 2014. In this regard, later events in his life are not captured.
One gathers a lot of interesting bits from the book including the tales behind the formation of certain literary works of his as well as generous sprinklings of these work and events which had hitherto been found in little bits from varied sources. Readers will get to know of the assassination attempt on Osundare’s life in the 80’s while in the University of Ibadan and how he survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His strict stance as a person, a humanist and liberalist is also highlighted in full. His various awards, both international and national, are showcased including his acceptance of some state awards which some people criticised. Osundare’s fights with the establishment and continuous uprightness is also given prominence in several sections, not forgetting his humility. To add colour to the book, there are eighteen pages of coloured pictures that show different aspects of Osundare’s life as well as important people and writers who have played one role or the other in his career and general life.
The biography is easily accessible due to the simple diction employed by the author and the flowing story-telling style employed by the author in narration. Osundare’s story is told in a straight chronological order from his birth to present times. As is the order with most biographies, Sule Egya weaves a tale while using the recollections and views of people who know Osundare, including classmates, colleagues, and Osundare himself. Professor Oyeniyi Okunoye notes of the book that “There can be no better platform to register the debt that Osundare owes his parentage, the rigorous discipline of his mentors and the diverse environments in which his outlook on the world has been shaped than this carefully crafted biography. [Sule] Egya highlights Osundare’s prodigious talent, his unwavering ethical compass, his infectious humanism, his enduring faith in the capacity of literature to reshape the world, and the harmony between his creative imagination and polemical writing.” Nothing else needs to be added.
A Rare Bluebird Flies with Me by the Moroccan writer, Youssef Fadel and translated by Jonathan Smolin
Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me is a postcolonial novel and a part of prison literature that covers the period in Morocco known as the Years of Lead (1961-1999), the reign of King Hassan II. It is the second part of a trilogy that explores the country’s history and culture during the 1970s and 1980s. The novel covers a season of series of imprisonments, maltreatment and killing of people in Morocco which began as the aftermath of the 1971 and 1972 coups against King Hassan II.
A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me is the troubling story of Aziz, a young pilot with a passion for the blue sky, who falls in love with sixteen-year-old Zina, a girl he defends and rescues from a life as a prostitute. After seriatim romantic adventures with Aziz (and insistence from her elder sister, Khatima), in the spring of 1972, Zina finally agrees to marry him. He disappears a day after their wedding, after “borrowing” a kiss from her, which he promises to return in the evening. The promised evening will not come until decades have passed between them. Zina searches for her husband in several places, meeting with great men and undertaking adventures, but to no avail. She gives up for some time but decides to go on a final quest when a stranger ignites hope in her.
Meanwhile, in the passing time, Aziz is a solitary prisoner in a casbah (an old fortress of sorts), passing through a long line of varying darkness in an old prison where his whole sense of time and purpose is lost. He develops a sense for counting, playing with time as a continuum devoid of sequence, and also begins to speak to animals. He makes a preoccupation of following the movements of rodents and roaches, giving special attention to birds who he seems to have an affinity with, being a pilot himself.
A major plus for the book is the author’s handling of language, which the translator also needs to take big credit for. The language is flowery, beautiful and inviting; it is poetry at its best. At some point, one gets lost trying to decipher meaning in some instances but it is all for good. The style of the author is also delightful as he tells his story through the eyes of different characters from Aziz to Zina, the prisoners, and even a dog at some point! It is all these, among others, that make it a book that stands out.
Collected Poems 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott (Canada: HarperCollins, 1986)
The late 1992 Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, is one of the finest poets in living history. His beautiful imagery and molding of the English language into pieces that are of exceptional class and simply beyond comment. His capturing of the beauty and complexity of the Caribbean is considered to be one of the best in written form.
Collected Poems 1948-1984 is a selection of most of Derek Walcott’s earlier poems. It has poems from all the seven collections he published in the period, in addition to ‘Another Life’, a long poem that is said to be autobiographical. The compendium is a true tribute to the prowess of one of the greatest writers to emerge from the Caribbean. It shows that the depth, intensity and wisdom that he came to known for did not just appear but was a part of his writing process from the start. Poem after poem shows a connection with general nature, history and the spirit of the people of the Caribbean.
Walcott’s use of language in the collection can throw a reader off at first as it is somewhat difficult to grasp at first glance. The patient reader would however find the person’s self seamlessly flowing with the waves of his lyrics as the pages count past. This collection is one that any serious writer or reader of poetry should get. There is also the updated version, Collected Poems 1948-2013 which might be worth going for due to its coverage of a larger expanse of Walcott’s poems.
With all this work achieves, it is no wonder that it won the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. It is a fine addition to any library and a good historical companion to lovers of anything that has to do with the Caribbean. I should mention that the book is about four hundred and seventy-four pages but have no fear, no one compels you to read the poems page by page. That is the beauty of poetry, you can grab a bite at a time and take it all in good stride at your pace.
Across the Gulf by Dul Johnson (Makurdi: SEVHAGE, 2017)
One doesn’t find too many narratives from the North on the Nigerian civil war so any addition is bliss. On the heels of some of his Nigerian civil war short stories collected in Shadows and Ashes, comes Dul Johnson’s Across the Gulf (ANA Prize for Prose 2017 winner). It is a love tale filled with (in no particular order) humour, thriller, bitterness, betrayal and action. I worked on the book as an editor, and later, publisher.
A young man, Ofala, has to say good bye to Ifunanya, on the eve of their wedding to join the Biafran side at the war front. Much later, while she is running from some destruction and aeriel bombardment that ushers in the war into their town, Ifunanya is injured and rescued by Captain Janbut Rinbut, a medical officer with the Federal troops, who looks like her fiancée, Ofala. A lot happens and in between the war, survival and a later life, the tale unfolds. The story is one that is as much educative as it is entertaining.
Considering that the war is one that is not often spoken about and seen as a taboo subject, in many quarters, this is a book that readers should go for, not just for the tale but the information within. Placing aside a modern classic like Half of a Yellow Sun will help, particularly readers who do not know much of the war, to have a firmer grasp. Dul’s work alternates from both divides of the war, before, during the war and after it, in such a way that creates some balance. His use of language and humour makes the handling of a terse subject lighter, even as he paints pictures of some traditions that will resonate with people who want to have a better idea of some cultural values in Nigeria.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and translated by Lucia Graves (Penguin Books, 2001)
This is one of the finest books I have ever read. It was originally written in Spanish and translated into English by the poet, Lucia Graves. The language used in the work slides off the mind’s tongue easily, melting like ice cream. From the first page, the reader is enraptured in the breathtaking description that Zafon gives of the Cemetery of Lost Books which Daniel is taken to by his father, Sempere (a book seller). We learn there that the boy has previously lost his mother and is afraid that he is forgetting her. In the cemetery, Daniel is given the chance to pick one book that is to become his life mate. By chance or fate, he picks The Shadow of the Window by Julian Carax. Little does know that this picking will set him on a course for the greatest adventures of his life. Soon enough though, he has people trying to get the book with a lot of money and through other means.
The young boy, who readers grow up with, holds on tight to dangerous consequences. At some point, he decides to investigate the intrigue of the book and its background. This sets him on a journey through Barcelona as the author takes his time to revel readers with poetic descriptions of the city giving a good dose of its history. Daniel finds himself in tales of such history that leaves him confused, searching and growing up.
Zafón’s book is a book of mystery, thriller, suspense, history, adventure, romance, comedy and wow! Yes, it is a book of wow that leaves you smiling – well, not really – more like, engaged. You are engaged from the first pages to the very last. At some points, you might find yourself losing interest a bit in the winding 506 pages. What I did at such moments was to hold on to the thrill of the plot and the lovely anecdotes appearing at every turn. Wise words and timeless truths retold in new ways. There was also the poetry flowing at different points, the pictures of so much including the world of books.
Once Upon a Purple Pill by Eugene Odogwu (2017: Okada Books)
Eugene Odogwu is one of Nigeria’s finest magical realism writers. He published his In The Shadow of Iyanibi to wide acclaim in a three-part series on Brittle Paper. Having established himself somewhat, he came up with another group of stories, which Once Upon a Purple Pill is a part of.
Once Upon a Purple Pill is part of a series of urban fantasy stories set in Fall Town, where dreams are more than just aspirations or alternate realities that people sleep into. They are hard currency and great substances that define a lot in the universe of the tale conjured by Eugene. The narrative of all the Fall Town stories (which Once Upon a Purple Pill is part of) are fluid and engaging. The author also adds some form of patois that gives an edge to the story giving it a razz feel. He is not afraid to explore his imagination to its limits and does so in all his writings, including this one. I could relate to it greatly more also because of my history in comics, where I explored similar themes, a lifetime ago.
I had the chance of reading of some of the books in their raw form and they left me smiling. If you haven’t read this book, then you should rush to Okada books and check for this name. Now, that is if you are a lover of magical realism, sci-fi or the like.
The Ideas Book by Kevin Duncan
The Ideas Book explains how to generate excellent ideas, and how to run brilliant brainstorms. The techniques can either be used to work on your own, or to stimulate ideas when convening a brainstorm. Combined with The Diagrams Book, it makes a powerful training course in how to have a Point of View and a persuasive Line of Argument. There are few words to describe a book like this and all one can suggest is, anyone who can, should pick this book. It is one of those books that if read thoughtfully, has the ability to change one’s life – for good.
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (Britain: Phoenix, 1995)
I tasted of this only shallowly and would definitely need to read it more. The book tells of a Norwegian schoolgirl, Sophie Amundsen whose world is turned upside down when she is asked two simple questions which she finds on two pieces of paper: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where does the world come from?’
If you know anything of philosophy, then you know that these are questions that have troubled the greatest of minds from time. Perhaps, you have asked this question too. Imagine then, a writer trying to give an explanation to this. This is what Gaarder tries to do through the character of Albert Knox, an enigmatic philosopher. Sophie and Albert undertake several adventures that will leave readers thinking about a whole lot and doubting quite a number of things in their reality.
Gaarder’s describes vividly and creates characters that can be felt. This is one of those books that I wish had my name on the cover but alas, I have to be content as having had the opportunity of a taste of the wonder of the beauty of the author’s mind. I will definitely be reading the book again this year and if it strikes me as much as it did before, then it might make its way into my list for 2018!
Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries edited by Joseph C. Anene and Godfrey Brown
That History has been taken off the Nigerian school curriculum isn’t news. Reading this book will show a lot of people how much they are missing. If you think that Africa has no history and that blacks are useless people with nothing to offer, then this is a book worth reading. I came across this book many years ago in secondary school. Reading it again as an adult was more enlightening. First published in 1966, the collection is an edited selection of thirty sound historical articles by nineteen scholars of note. There are seven parts to the book including a prologue that looks at the importance of History in education, teaching it and its role in African art; a look at the continent as a whole; North Africa and Ethiopia; South Africa; East Africa; and an Epilogue which looks at Pan-Africanism and nationalism.
The book incorporates some of the papers that were delivered by scholars from different countries in Africa and other parts of the world at the Workshop on the Teaching of African History held by the Institute of Education and the Department of History in the University of Ibadan in March 1965. It contains eight colorful continental maps and eight photographic plates.
Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries is one of the pioneer books published in Nigeria on the study of African development by African scholars themselves. It is a classic that historians would find invaluable, though it is difficult on how general readers would take it given the seriousness of the papers within.
There’s a Lunatic in Every Town by Bash Amuneni (Makurdi: SEVHAGE, 2016)
I got to read this book again, in depth in the year 2017. What stands out in the book is getting to see in print some of what Bash spits out as one of Nigeria’s most notable spoken word poets. It isn’t easy to transit from the stage to the page as they are worlds apart and seeing but Bash’s message is hard to miss in this collection. The book collects forty-five poems in three section; Resonance, Intimacy and The Human Condition. It lampoons the excessiveness of corruption and lawlessness that most politicians are known for in Nigeria. It also celebrates love, beauty, duty, sacrifice and faith in words that when spoken out loud would have an effect on any audience – especially if delivered in the cadence of the author.
Books I Expected More From
The Headline That Morning by Peter Kagayi
Peter is one of the biggest names in poetry in the Ugandan circle. His performance is top grade and I expected much, maybe a lot more from his collection. Well, stage to page isn’t always easy. I know. Maybe I should look forward to his next collection.
Iconography by Peter Akinlabi
It might be deceptive to put this here, as the collection, Iconography is not a book to scoff at. However, if you have read Akinlabi’s A Pagan Place, then you would know that there’s much to this author that was not explored in this first full length collection. Was he rushed? Could he have done better? We await our pagan Akinlabi.
Books I look forward to reading in the New Year
- The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo
- The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman
- Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef
- Snow by Orhan Pamuk
- Stories We Could Tell by Tony Parsons
- Man and Wife by Tony Parsons
- What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
- Poetry Collection by Daisy Odey and Agatha Agema
- Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- A Woman’s Body is a Country by Dami Ajayi
Su’eddie Vershima AGEMA, editor, development worker and publisher at SEVHAGE Publishers, is author of Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile (Winner, ANA Prize for Poetry, 2014), The Bottom of another Tale (Shortlist, Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories, 2015) and Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell (Longlist, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry 2013). He won the Mandela Day Short Story Prize 2016 and was shortlisted for the Saraba/PEN Nigeria Poetry Prize 2013. A former Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter), he was listed on Nigerian Writers Award 100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers under 40 (2017) and EGC’s Top 50 Contemporary Poets Who Rocked Nigeria (2012-17). He blogs at sueddie.wordpress.com and is on Twitter and Instagram.
This is the seventh of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.
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2017 Books… Do read.