Readers on Reading in 2017 — Two Readers on Books and Reading

Oluwakemi Falodun and Blessing Uche respond to 10 questions on books and reading.

  1. What does reading mean to you?

OF: Reading, for me, is communion. I read because it puts me in a space where I can have interaction with myself as a result of my encounters with the characters or my reflections on certain sections of the book.

BU: Reading, to my mind’s eye is multifaceted. Books are a suite of rooms — each room running into next and that one into next, a seemingly unending encountering of different, multiple worlds. Reading could possibly be the greatest subsidy toward the act of personal reflection: the bedrock of critical thinking, creating wings for the mind to soar, perch, reassess the horizon and take flight again. There is a great argument for reading being able to liberate the soul from itself. Reading is freedom. Reading allows me to explore other people’s minds, to communicate with characters to the point where their realness cannot be argued against. Reading is magical. Reading gives. Finally, in concordance with Descartes, “the reading of good books is like a conversation with the finest men of past centuries”.

  1. What books have influenced you the most?

OF: I like writers who can tell good stories from the mundane. This is not to say I don’t find stories with dramatic plot twists enjoyable, but more importantly, I want to be able to go through the routine of living with the characters, instead of just waiting for something extraordinary to happen to them, and that requires good writing. Nothing grand happens in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon for instance, or in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, but they’ve both greatly influenced me. Reading The Best American Essays anthologies, especially the 2014 and 2015 series, made me attempt writing nonfiction. I remember reading Strange Beads by Wendy Brenner, and thinking, Oh, I can do this too. I can if I keep on practising. It was a real confidence boost. There’s also Outline and Transit by Rachel Cusk (I’m eagerly looking forward to the third book in the trilogy) that just sort of opened my eyes to a different, unusual kind of writing, the kind that aims to really see things. Reading her makes me more aware of the little happenings around and within me. I loved The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath for the writer’s defiance, her vulnerabilities, the imagery, the thinking that must have gone into writing each poem, and everything just makes the collection precious to me. I also find it amazing how the complexities in human relationships can unfold against the backdrop of the ordinary daily activities, as skillfully done in Interpreter of Maladies and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li respectively.

BU: On account of being a sceptic, I would attest to A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and The Fact of a Body: A Murder and A Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich being up among the top three. There is another category of edifying books I have in The Epic of Gilgamesh, The The Leavers by Lisa Ko and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro I am also drawn to another set of books that have enabled me to how humans can be, when possessed by unruly objectives: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Bride Price by Buchi EmechetaThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut. I’ve always hated war, never minding which side is right. I’ve always hated war. There are a two books in which I have found justification for my hatred: The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, and The Biafra Story: The Making of An African Legend by Frederick Forsyth.

  1. Elena Ferrante asserts that once they are finished, books should have no need of their authors, how would you respond to this?

OF: I think books have their own soul. They have the capacity to hold a reader’s hand as they journey through the experiences of the characters. And so, once they are out in the world, books should be able to speak and stand for themselves. I mean, we read books written by dead writers and we don’t feel they’re incomplete just because the authors are no longer here to talk about them.

BU: Diving into the world of books is like exploring the consumption of products in a world where consumers do not know what they are about to get. Writers propel us into a world, and ensorcell us with any or a combination of elegance, wit, an unflinchingly keen power of observation and recording or even a single sentence as perfect and final as the word nothing. I think of writers as sailors. If a sailor gives me an unforgettable ride I remember that sailor far ahead of the vessel in which I rode. In this same light I also think of a book as a ship. After I drop at my destination I think with regard of and to the sailor who gave me the adventure. I think writers are sailors. If I read a book—great or inexcusable, I often lay the praise or blame at the feet if its creator. I think writers make their books, long before their books come around to make them.

  1. What characters have stayed with you as if they were real?

OF: Several of them actually. But no character has been dear and true to me as much as Lucy Barton. Sometimes, I can almost feel myself lying beside her on her hospital bed and looking through the window alongside her, at the Chrysler Building. Perhaps there’s something very familiar about her life, her essence, and her loneliness. I hear her say to me: I see you, too. It’s remarkable how Sefi Atta moulded Enitan in Everything Good Will Come. I loved how she grew and evolved, right before my eyes, from a regular child to an icon of activism. In Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, being present in Charlie Gordon’s life before the experiment, during his process of transitioning, and everything that came afterward, draws him close to me. I loved Charlie for his childlike joy and tenderness despite the depth of his agony. Yejide in Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me has stayed with me for her courage and optimism in the face of all odds, for her suffering and despairing loneliness. You know, there’s this part where, as a child, she sits at the doorway of her stepmother’s room, listening to stories. She can’t go in to be with the other kids, she doesn’t have a mother to run to either. I often remember this, her sitting there, and I think of many children like her all over the world, and it just breaks my heart. Faye in Cusk’s Outline and Transit has always remained with me because of her deep understanding of the human condition and her ability to draw people out of themselves while remaining almost unknown. As the narrator, we see other characters through her lens, but she’s elusive. She seldom talks about herself, even during conversations, denying other characters and we the readers the opportunity to know her.

BU: Whenever I reminisce on A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Miriam and Lilian come to heart. Their lives are heartbreaking. Miriam is a vivid demonstration of suffering and smiling. A woman who would sit, enjoy and endure pain and abuse with the calm of someone getting a spa treatment. Her life is both surreal and sadly, real. It reminded me of Beatrice in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Women, whose muteness mean more than silence because in a special delicate way, they can also be unpredictable. After having to endure long-term pain, they can kill their predator. I can only admire Lilian’s resilience. I do not ever wish to need to have it. From the moment I encountered her I knew she would do things, I knew she would validate her existence and likewise choose her own life, categorically. These women stayed with me.

Jude in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. His roles were real, he depicted for me, how a person can struggle with addiction, how life can give a person big scars that puts them in a state of persistent trauma. Jude stayed with because he treaded in the path of pain right from childhood to adulthood. He is suffering personified.

Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because of her strength. Olanna was the central character but Kainene is who I identified with more in many ways. Her character turned out to be more pronounced, more demonstrative and even more evocative of the woman I prefer. Kainene’s strength was my allure: strength unbroken by the affects of war and it’s chaotic ordeals. Alexandria in The Fact of a Body, because of her inability to silence her past. Or let (the shame of) it silence her. She stayed with me because she braved her way into her own story and into her own healing.

  1. What do (or have) you enjoy (ed) most in a certain book (s)?

OF: One of the reasons I love Annie Dillard is her ability to write excellently about (almost) anything. I enjoyed reading “Living Like Weasels” and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the beautiful writing about life and nature. Although Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys was an agonising read because of the raw documentation of pain and trauma suffered by the veterans of the Afghanistan War and their relatives, I like the frankness and the fact that she gave a voice to each interviewee without letting herself get in the way. I enjoy reading Jumoke Verissimo’s poetry for her metaphors and articulation of pain, distance and the burden of memory. Gbenga Adesina’s chapbook Painter of Water is such a delight. His poems are simply honest, beautiful and lyrical. If you read them out like, it feels like music. I keep returning to their poetry. I love Clarice Lispector for how she cleverly employs internal monologue, how she presents the inner happenings and probes into the interiors of her characters in Near to the Wild Heart. I also find Somerset Maugham interesting for his well-written sentences, and insightful short stories.

BU: The stunning unabashedness of Chris Kraus in I Love Dick. Her no-holds-barred telling of the story of her infatuation and subsequent obsession… irrespective of what people will say. I think that must have taken a lot nerve.

I enjoyed the ability of Lisa Ko to give her characters situations that show how decision-making can be the antidote to certain circumstances. I also enjoyed how she was able to portray the difficulties that can come with circumstances beyond one’s powers and still highlight the power of choices and decision-making. I enjoyed the ‘Nigerianness and pidginization’ in Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. Eghosa has a way of making Nigeria beautiful with this book especially with his use of pidgins. Fine Boys tells the story of newly-admitted boys who later turned notorious in the University of Benin. Benin is popularly known for its wide-adoption of Nigerian-pidgin English, even more than the local dialect(s). In addition, I enjoyed how he was able to make his book a woman pregnant with multiple babies: its essence addresses politics, educational institutions, family and the general society. Fine Boys is water—in the way it refreshes. In A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara — a book that I consider beautiful inside-out, I enjoyed how Yanagihara told a story of a little life with several mutilations: I enjoyed the humanity of characters in this novel. I enjoyed how it made me weep. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. There are books that should be read over and over again if not because of anything else but its elegance of prose, add to that the souls revolving in it and its bluntness on silent issues. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a war story in Afghanistan steeped in the pains enforced on a world of women. I enjoyed this book because of its thoughtful way of showing that validation of any human only truly and begins from within. Commonly, most writers often sway away from some beliefs considered superstitious, choosing to face reality instead, but there are beliefs that are more powerful than reality and idealism. The African writers understand this. This is why I pick The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. I enjoyed his ability to set and connect his characters around a mad man’s prophecy. A prophecy that successfully shattered the unity of an innocent family and even resulted in bloodshed. The Fishermen also addressed failures in family settings, how families formulate legacies for their children but gradually and ultimately promote and all-round failure in implementing it. This situation is then aptly set as a riveting metaphor for Nigeria’s political system. The rest is reality.

  1. Concerning books as a medium to places: what memorable places have you been to by way of books?

OF: Of course, I was always present at the extravagant parties in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You know, just drinking and dancing away. Good ol’ days. Majority of the plot of Emmanuel Iduma’s Farad is set in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ilé-Ifè, where I was schooling when I read it. I could imagine little detail such as the colour a building is painted, and remember the moments I’ve spent in those spaces. When I finished reading the book, I visited some of the places mentioned afterward and imagined seeing the characters acting out their roles. This makes the book even more intimate for me. I’ve also visited a couple of interesting worlds created by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. One of the most intriguing though is this city where the inhabitants can always move to a new place when they are fed up of where they are. They leave at once, start another life, get new jobs, new lovers and no memories of their past lives remain. I wonder what it’s like, to just pack your bags, carry on, and forget everything.

BU: With regards to the transporting power of books, I’ve been to Benin by way of Fine Boys (Eghosa Imasuen). A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had took me to Afghanistan without any visa. I’ve been to Enugu many times with each rereading of Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThe Leavers by Lisa Ko had also took me to Florida. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, to Akure. The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut to a few places inside South Africa.

  1. What relationships do you have with certain books?

OF: I have relationships with certain books because of what binds me to them. Perhaps the characters, or the settings, or certain words, or the influence they’ve had on me. Most of the aforementioned books fall into this category for the reasons that I mentioned them. There’s also the title essay in Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life. I return to it often because it helps me to write when I’m stuck.

BU: This relationship is cordial—at least. A kind of mother-daughter relationship, if I can insist. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini was a book whose narration broke me and yet let me gather myself into freedom at the very end. For anyone who does not know what real pain can be like, I would recommend A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book made me hold my heart and scream into the void. This scream is symbolic. Faceless by Amma Darko, a novel that triggered my brain to think and discover the riddle of who the real killer was— as if it was my life that was dependent on it. The beauty of this book, I conject, is that Amma Darko formed the riddle to know whether readers are in the same line of thought with her or not because she left the suspect hanging while leaving the readers to decide—and conclude— the whodunit.

  1. What are the highlights of your reading in 2017?

OF: I re-read a couple of books this year. And I think that’s a spectacular thing, you know, returning to something you once read and discovering new things and knowing that if you pick it up again, there’ll be more. There’s always more.

BU: This is the first year I have been able to hold myself to a consistent reading habit so reading itself is the highlight. Reading this year has been self-rewarding; Autotelic. It is amazing: The degree of pleasure reading suffuses me in. Reading some sixty books yearlong, in-between the tedium of university work and ‘living’ as a task, is a personal milestone for me.

  1. In what ways is reading ‘essential’ to you?

OF: Firstly, I enjoy reading. It also gives me the privilege to empathise with other people’s experiences. And, by being situated in the other people’s worlds, I can see beyond the familiar and the immediate. Also, reading is a form of emotional and mental exchange. As much as I’m taking in something, I’m also letting go of other things, which could be freeing.

BU: Reading is like this in how I see it as essential: not done in a day, that day is incomplete. My introduction to places and cultures, to the beauties of language and to stories oft-ignored, way outside the comfort my home country and culture, partaking in experiences I could never reenact and the gift of reflecting on certain issues without having to do so from a place of being the victim.

  1. What significant books/authors are you still yet to read?

OF: I’m not proud to admit this, but I still haven’t read Wole Soyinka.

BU: Authors: Zadie Smith & Nnedi Okorafor. Books: June 12: The Struggle for Power in NigeriaThe Collected Stories of Flannery O’ConnorThe Bell Jar and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Kemi Falodun is a lover of words and fine sentences. She is a short story writer and was recently shortlisted for the The 2016 Awele Creative Trust Award chaired by Brian Chikwava for her short story titled ‘Waiting’. Also, she is an associate editor for Sarabamag. Her work explores themes on loss, memory and relationships. She lives in Nigeria.

Uche Blessing is an undergraduate mass communication student of the University of the Benin who believes she could do whatever she sets her mind on.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Adedapo Treasure

In an attempt to cover up for my mild slackness in 2016, I slid into 2017 half-reading literary works published last century; hopping from Fugard to Conrad, Shafer to Achebe, and by the time we were hitting the close of the third week in January, I hadn’t ‘read’ any. An untidy, unplanned-for, conversation with Trust F. Òbe came to my rescue and drove me back to my desk.

The game changer: I created a detailed one-text-a-week year plan intended to guide me through fifty-two literature texts (for now). I succeeded. I failed. I failed to reach half-target. But I succeeded in experimenting what it seems like to cover fifty titles (exempting academic, faith-based and work-related materials.)

If there’s anything I intend to do differently to perform better with my reading in 2018, it is to integrate this plan into my general yearly agenda. Else, one will be sacrificed for the other along the line. For example, I read nothing from October till mid-November because of a project I was handling within the period. But 2018 will be smarter. (Or I will be smarter in 2018.)

It feels good to end 2017 without compunction of being deliberate about works by Africans and about Africa. I am open to more of such in 2018; principally creative/narrative/biographical nonfiction, historical fiction and a few selected materials that explore the many nuances of diplomacy, big data, advocacy and gender relations in seamless, unconventional ways.

Notable Reads

Fela: This Bitch Of A Life by Carlos Moore

Born to the middle class, pioneering Ransome-Kuti family in Abeokuta, Nigeria, a thoroughbred Fela hijacks his life from parental restraints and reinvents it into a stroke of genius that would, for successive generations, become a reference point of sterling artistry and sociopolitical nonconformity. Fela: This Bitch of a Life employs a systematic, relatable approach to chronicle Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s life prior to, inside, even beyond, his self-proclaimed Kalakuta Republic.

The biography, which clearly presents the Afrobeat legend as a man groomed by manifold influences: from J.K Braimah to Sandra Smith; from James Brown to Gerald Pino; from Malcolm X to Ambrose Campbell; from Reverend Ransome-Kuti to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, is an amusingly fluid text, rendered through a variety of perspectives, mostly in English and Pidgin.

Difficult as it may be to overlook the typographical errors that stare back at you on several pages, Moore’s medium-shot interrogation into the lives of the rebel musical legend’s wives and their relationship with him is commendable. The text is punctuated with several images —mostly newspaper cover pages and portraits of Fela and his queens— that sets the tone for the period covered as well as puts the reader in the mood of the global happenings of the time.

Sauced with a swarm of references, Fela: This Bitch of a Life is an absorbing go-to document for readers who wish to know the man beyond his music.

Never Look An American In The Eye by Okey Ndibe

In the wake of a twist, Okey Ndibe is translated from being a dreamer to becoming a dream-owner. This memoir is a reflection of his journey from growing up in Nigeria to taking responsibility for his life in America. But maybe not the ‘Obodo-Oyibo’ dream that began to mature in his heart while he read Time, Newsweek, and a variety of Western novels as an undergraduate in Nigeria.

The book affirms Okey Ndibe’s relationship with literary icons, revealing even how a gesture from Wole Soyinka saved his Christmas and Achebe’s role in the rise (and fall) of African Commentary, the magazine he had originally been invited to the United States to edit. n With obvious mastery of language and sense of humour, the personable Okey Ndibe writes his true self into his journey to now in a number of ways, his first attempt at writing a novel being a must-mention.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

“I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.” Ritesh Joginda BatraThe Lunchbox

What makes Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun a memorable read is that, despite the novel’s brevity, its protagonist, a Nigeria-born Dr. Morayo Da Silva, stays long in any reader’s mind. The vivacious, bouncy septuagenarian is a retired professor whose daily experiences resonates with the dynamic vigour characteristic of the hill city of San Francisco she lives in.

Even when Morayo falls and becomes an in-mate at a rehabilitation center, her good-to-be-with personality does not diminish. Whether in her house or at the rehab center, Morayo carries the memories of former husband, Antonio, with her.

Readers who want a story of ageing —laced with humour and humanity— will find Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun a worthy recommendation.

No Man’s Land by Jack Donovan

Most reviewers say No Man’s Land is a “very good supplement” to Donovan’s The Way of Men, but put more correctly, the inverse is the case. While the former is a philosophical, three-chapter treatise interrogating how “masculinity has been maligned, re-imagined and mis-represented,” the latter is a more elaborate, practical expansion.

The first two chapters read like a collective rebuttal to earlier arguments about “manning-up” by Michael Kimmel, Kay Hymowitz, Bill Benneth, Robert Brannon, among others. His clear opposition to their views is backed with a rich counter-argument savoured with intelligent buildup and a dazzling array of references.

No Man’s Land’s pithiness must never be assumed a compromise of quality. Though it can be covered within lunchtime, its contribution to the conversations around gender roles is arguably more than one could have found in any book of similarly small size.

The Way Of Men by Jack Donovan

What defines masculinity? Is it strength or honour? Courage? Mastery? With a deft distinction between being a good man and being good at being a man, The Way of Men aspires to address this and more.

“I present this book to you without ego” is the phrase with which Donovan opens the prefatory section of a radical, unapologetic, even unpopular compendium of a methodical argument that is The Way of Men. When we talk about the male gender, we often surrender to concepts that are derivatives of conversations around femininity and family. But unlike most other authors of gender-focused texts, Jack Donovan refuses to waver in his inquiry.

Laced with evident versatility in history, culture and philosophy, The Way of Men is Donovan’s proof of looking beyond trends and movements to respond to long-avoided questions of masculinity to satisfy his curiosity.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

“Running and jumping and chanting the word change in the air like it’s something you can grab and put in your mouth and sink your teeth into.”

Through the lens of a ten-year-old Darling, Bulawayo takes her readers through a seemingly-predictable journey punctuated with varied unpredictable experiences: empathy, laughter, sympathy, even anger. We Need New Names, an expansion of NoViolet Bulawayo’s Caine Prize-winning story, Hitting Budapest, is set in Paradise, a shanty town in post British-Independence Zimbabwe, and Detroit, Michigan (or DestroyedMichygen as Darling and her friends called it.)

Can a story of poverty, hunger, even incest, be well-told without compromising humour? I think, by employing the lens of a child narrator, Bulawayo attempts it with this impressive debut. And succeeds.

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race by Jesmyn Ward

This moving three-part collection is composed of a diverse spectrum of voices on race and justice unified by their mission rather than their Americanness. Every contribution in The Fire This Time offers a unique, logical approach to racial struggles (and silence) associated especially with being black in America.

Apart from earning its title from Baldwin’s This Fire Next Time, his name pops up on many pages, especially in Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s The Weight —a relentless investigation into Balwin’s personal life. This kind is what Honorée Fanonne Jeffers also does with “The Dear Pledges of Our Love”: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband. And she does it so well.

Essays like Wendy S. Walters’ Lonely in America, Jesmyn Ward’s Cracking the Code and Claudia Rankine’s The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning draw the reader in with first-person perspectives, as much as Carol Anderson’s White Rage. But The Fire This Time, easily one of my favourite texts on race, is not only a book of essays. There are brilliant poems —Clint Smith’s Queries of Unrest, for example— and Know Your Rights!, a moving photo-essay by Emily Raboteau.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth Of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

Numerous texts have evolved from a need to respond to questions and conversations around one incidence of police-aided killings (in the United States) after another. Historian Carol Anderson’s White Rage, originally ran as an Op-Ed in The Washington Post, was triggered by the police brutality that drove a volley of bullets into unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

But White Rage is not about Diallo. Neither is it about Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. It seeks explain that what is tagged “black rage” —the reaction of the black community to racial profiling— is kindled by a more fundamental, less considered, American problem she dubbed “White Rage.”

Anderson brings her historical genius to fore in White Rage, weaving it along the lines of a meticulously-built argument robbing constitutional amendments, migration, civil rights movement and a black presidency of the many complexities they are often clothed in. White Rage is a fine recommendation for readers who seek to better understand the frenetic cadence of living in today’s America as a black.

Known And Strange Things by Teju Cole

If asked about my favourite book chapters in 2017, Touching Stranger comes to mind easily, without blinking. Categorized under the Seeing Things section of the three-part collection of essays (the other two being Reading Things and Being There), this chapter is Cole’s interrogation of Richard Renaldi’s photography book of the same title.

Teju Cole’s artistic dexterity, however, is seen across all the pages in Known and Strange Things. Littered with a laudable handful of references to names, histories and places, every essay follows a uniquely charming pattern of aesthetic prose. Known and Strange Things stands a chance of drawing any reader closer to the life and art of Teju Cole than any of his other works.

Resplendent in composition, Cole’s Known and Strange Things points unequivocally to how art can best be interpreted when viewed through the spectacles of another artist.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

“The footsteps of one man cannot create a stampede.” —Igbo Proverb

The Fishermen follows the trajectory of an Akure-based family of four children, four boys-turned-fishermen —Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin. Their father, Mr. Agwu, tells them, when he hears of their fishing adventures:

“What I want you to be is a group of fishermen who will be fishers of good dreams, who will not relent until they have caught the biggest catch. I want you to be juggernauts, menacing and unstoppable fishermen.”

Their father’s relocation to Yola coincides with the period in which a popular nutter’s volatile augury hunts after them. In this thrilling debut, Obioma takes readers through a compelling journey along turns of unfortunate events that shape the lives (and deaths) of boys and irreversibly alter the destiny of a family bound by shared memories.

This is a beautiful book, a compendium of rich sentences woven with such eloquent simplicity that lures you into turning the pages in search of another charmingly-refreshing encounter that takes you in new directions.

In 2018, I eagerly look forward to reading:

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

I am a latecomer. I admit. But how Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me escaped my 2017 reading agenda is still a mystery. This is easily one of the most celebrated works of fiction by an African in 2017, claiming a space in the year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist and reopening closed pages of margin-marked social conversations. I look forward to reading this in 2018, especially considering that it is set in Ilesha, that ancient town, my place of birth and shaping.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Two reader-friends, at different points this year, asked in the middle of (probably) random conversations if I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and at each occasion, my response was greeted with obvious disappointment. I am keen on finding out why this historical fiction is a strong recommendation for me half-a-century after its publication.

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

I first heard about Sapiens during a private lunch discussion at a literary festival in 2015 but I didn’t look it up until I came across the author’s 2015 TED Talk, What Explains the Rise of Humans? weeks later. I am not sure if it was this 17-minute encounter that drew me in or one of his gripping essays I read thereafter. Harari’s genius is charming, and this is difficult to deny!

Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

“It’s not because I overestimate the AI. It’s because most people tend to overestimate human beings.”

Earlier in the year, I read an article in which Harari explains why humans won’t dominate Earth in 300 years. It was an interview he granted Vox’s Ezra Klein. This book, listed along four others in Bill Gates’ summer 2017 reading list, is said to provide a “glimpse of the dreams and nightmares that will shape the 21st century.”

As Silicon Valley continues to tilt the fulcrum of democracy towards individualism, it will be exciting to view the future of humans and humanity through Harari’s interrogation.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

This historical fiction by Moroccan Laila Lalami made my 2017 Reading List but was scheduled for October (I betrayed all October titles!) I am looking to pick it up early in 2018.

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me introduced me to Coates. And I want more of him. His angst. His artistic merit. His guts. The consistency of his arguments as I have observed in his essays and interviews.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy is Coates’ collection of essays thematically concerned with racial interactions and “traces the development of a public intellectual against the backdrop of the Obama years”.

A few of my favourite articles online:

Adedapo Treasure is a writer, filmmaker, etc.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke


Notable Reads

It’s worth (re)examining the books we read if it is worth examining or talking about our unforgettable moments. And in a good book there are many unforgettable flashes that some readers would even want to trace and etch into the book by underlining, highlighting or writing in the margin. Though I have something against the practise since forever that you won’t even find my name on any of my books. Why deface a book since you don’t totally own it, or do you? The next readers of the book may find it distracting, like I usually do. It’s like you are doing their thinking for them, pointing them in your direction, ‘This is what you should pay attention to when you get here,’ minimalizing their reading experience.

Anyway, that’s that. I am meant to share my 2017 notable reads and that’s exactly what I’d be doing. But it also calls for a little reflection.

Usually, I don’t restrict my reading to any particular genre or type so as to experience what diversity or randomness may throw my way. Although I had a special interest in some literary forms last year, I did not set out to read in a particular inclination. But it is interesting now that I am examining the books on my notable reads, I can find a commonality in some of the books. My focal interest, as I now realise, is language. What can (cannot) language do? The aesthetics of language and the linguistic stylistics of different authors. The combinatorial possibilities of alphabets and numbers as a language that can be used in poetry; if scientists can express their conviction, truth and emotion thus, can poets also aspire to the same? It seems there are endless possibilities with language which brings me to the first book on my list, Solar Bones by Mike McCormark.

exceptional, bold, an exemplary model of the evolution of English language are the words that rush to my mind when I reflect on Mike McCormark’s metafiction, Solar Bones, because the entire novel is technically written in one sentence, yes, no full stops, like this,

and, although, there are close antecedent literary stylists like the Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Clarice Lispector; Krasznahorkai is a beautiful long-sentence user and he sometimes cover a long chapter with a sentence while Lispector has also experimented with something like this in her niche-less book, Agua Viva, however it is McCormark’s inventiveness that must really be celebrated because it somehow displaces those, albeit not because they are translated into English, his is a feat that I have dubbed him the e e cummings of prose,

while on the other hand, about his grammaticality, there is an inversed interpellation to be made with the minimalist Ben Okri, who sometimes does a chapter of a novel with just one simple sentence to further appreciate McCormark’s grammatical realism,

of which speaking about the fragmented plot, which can be observed, of course, as seamless, partly poioumenon has the narrator, Marcus, a husband, father and citizen of Mayo, west coast of Ireland engrossed in a monologue and explores the idea of memories, family, life after death and the intimacy man share with machine as a phenomenon of substance;

the book is truly an extraordinary novel; Marcus is a solid character many readers will have no trouble identifying with as a father, husband and a dutiful citizen

Yes, I must now talk about Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Growney. This is a remarkable anthology of mathematical poems by renowned mathematicians, like Jakob Bournelli, teachers and students of Mathematics moved into verse; poems of literary classics, like Shakespeare, Dickinson, Hughes and Neruda, that have mathematical nuances are also collected in the anthology.

The anthology is divided into three parts: Romantic Love, where words and numbers are infused to convey emotional love, Encircling Love, where mathematical imagery are employed in service of nature and some other reflections, and Unbounded Love, the section celebrates Mathematics and mathematicians. Of course, my bias is for the third part where poems of Ed Seykota’s ‘From Borderline – A Fractal Poem’, William J. Macquorn Rankine, ‘The Mathematician in Love’, Pablo Neruda’s, ‘Ode to Numbers’, Randall Munroe’s, ‘Useless’, famous on the internet, Hanns Cibulka’s, ‘Mathematics’ stand out and tease the brain. Some of the poems I am still trying to wrap my head around their arithmetic.

Numbers can add to the depth of emotion where words fail. They can deepen imagery. They can be musical. They can help us grasp certain realities and render them in a simple way. (I think that is why mathematicians find it easy to express profound things with them in theorems.) The anthology is many shades of that. It becomes witty and laconic at times that open up many things. Some beautiful, some funny. The numerical poems and other poems with mathematical diction, symbols and metaphors by various poets refreshes my mind about how to employ these in my ongoing experimentation with mathematical poetry. This book is a treasure to me and I will definitely keep going back to it.

Peter Akinlabi’s debut full length poetry collection, Iconography, is a work of linguistic ingeniousness that edges the boundary on the invocative power of words and what language may help us grasp. The book overwhelmed me that I worked it in cuspate exuberance, impressing some lines and stanzas in my mind.

When the poet declares:

‘I am standing at the thresholds of imagination
weighing the cost of entrance

The things I bear are small and motley;
the things I seek are faint and dark’ pg. 10


‘What I seek is a language
that may not fail translation

What I seek is a language
that may not fail in translation’ pg. 8

his interrogative poise and commitment to linguistic possibilities is at once obvious, which I identify with. His steering and his deft command of language, especially how he melds Yoruba and English, becomes sensational. In the hands of Akinlabi, language becomes a spell. He becomes a poet-paleontologist, a poetographer making modern myths and communal paeans.

But the book is not only about the beauty and intricacies of language, some other themes are neatly tucked into the work such as the themes xenophobia and loss.

Roots in the Sky. I cut my teeth last year with this book and couldn’t help it but subject myself, for more than a week, to self-shaming. I felt I had cheated myself immensely having just read this superb fiction of Akin Adesokan published since 2004. But I relented comforting myself with the afterword of the novel, its extraordinary life from manuscript stage. When I later recognised the spine of the book on a bookshelf in my university library, I had that sense of accomplishment that set me free finally from my self-shaming. This experience afforded me a nexus with an essay by Washington Irving, ‘The Mutability of Literature’. Some books are utterly underrated, but it’s all right. A book has its own life and it’s not always predictable.

The novel is a complex, multi-layered plot narrated from different POVs but mainly by Filatei. His is an unfamiliar story of a boy, from nowhere, he has no home because he was abandoned in a settlement on the outskirt of Lagos, caught in the tumultuousness of everyday Lagos. He becomes an urchin and as he finds his way in the city, the pervasive realism of Lagos subdues him. It’s Kilanko, an opinionated optimist and political activist, one of the staunch adherents of a fabled patriot, Laifa Adigun, who will eventually take him to Miracle City, a sort of camp for idealists against the corrupt military regime of the day.

It is also to be noted the title of the novel has a metaphorical connexion with the background of Filatei and others like him whose roots are up in the sky, the gist of the plot. The style of the prose is reminiscent of Okri, Marquez and Soyinka, all in one, yet at once original that can only be labelled as Adesokan’s, a kind of storytelling panache that is offhanded. You may find an excerpt of the novel here. And I guess the author is working on a sequel because of his short story in Saraba’s Money Issue.

Chuma Nwokolo is one of my all-time favourite writers who has been consistent over two decades producing brilliant books; he has to his credit several comic novels and short stories. He is a pixilated satirist who has this clever ability to render the absurdity of Nigerianism effectively; and doing that he is sometimes a farceur. His sarcastic, black humour entertains me. And comparatively, it is easy to find a parallel between him and the Chinese writer, Mo Yan. They both usually set their stories in a particular community and satirises the idiocy of institutions, humans and society. And if you don’t want to go that far, you may easily cross reference his style with Peter Enahoro and J K Randle too.

How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories vol. II is Chuma Nwokolo’s second and final instalment of 100 short stories in commemoration of Nigeria’s centenary celebration. Having read the first volume some years back, I had no choice but kept asking him for the second volume when it didn’t come out as scheduled. And the second volume did not disappoint neither.

The collection which comprises of 50 short stories, and even flash fiction, is a satirical vignette of Nigeria, what it means to be a Nigerian at home and in diaspora, the idiosyncrasies and incongruities of being a citizen of the most populous black nation in the world. And that Nigerian is an all-encompassing, the characters are drawn from all society strata; the lives of politicians, policemen, pastors, even armed robbers and kidnappers form the backdrop of some of the stories and offer an inlet into the minds of such people. I am sure any reader will recognise at least a type of Nigerian in the collection.

The collection is down-to-earth original. Chuma knows how to do something very well: indigenise the English language to evolve a variety of English that can only be described as Nigerian English. But unfortunately that is not one of the recognised Englishes yet. In fact, in the introduction to the book, the author laments just that. In a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria, where the only language that unifies peoples is not recognised, there are bound to be discord.

Chuma now has another novel out, The Extinction of Menai. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

The debut novel by Jacqui L’Ange, The Seed Thief, is a sublime, entrancing novel about migration, Afro-Brazilian spiritualism, Yoruba pantheons, climate change, amongst others. The author is not merely a storyteller; she is an enchanter. She lulls, her prose serenades with the idyllic world she creates. Even in the hustle and bustle of airport, where the protagonist tells the story, the tranquillity and empathy of the soul of the protagonist, Maddy, is heart-warming.

Maddy is a botanist. She is given an objective by a pharmaceutical company in South Africa she works for: to travel to Brazil and find an elusive seed that could supposedly cure cancer. But the trip to Brazil is also a trip down a memory lane for her. She will have to come to terms with her demons: she will have to come to terms with her father whom she has been estranged from and the travel will also afford her the opportunity to take the troubles about her relationship on a work and eventually find spiritual signification of her soul on the journey.

Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti is a travel account of the writer in the ancient city of Marrakesh, Morocco. It is a travelogue that delivers in all fronts. What I particularly look out for in travel books are inherent in it. It is thoughtfully and ethically narrated. The people he writes about, even the women veiled in purdah, are colourfully drawn. A reader is led by the hand, so to speak, into the crevices of Marrakesh: the alleyways filled with beggars seeking out exotic tourist and sex workers calling for affection to be bought from the window of their apartment. The market where camels are sold, the realness and empathy he has for the camels is moving. The storytellers in the market who pull a riveted crowd. And when he visited a Jewish fortress, Mellah, in the city, the account at once becomes a documentation with political relevance. His visit also to Sheherazade, a French bar, calls to mind the well-to-dos, mostly foreigners, who frequents the place for sex tourism. Nothing escapes Canetti’s scrupulous observation. Voices of Marrakesh is a carefully observed lives of the people of Marrakesh. Anybody interested in the art of travel writing may pick it up.

In a year I read close to 20 plays, it is now right to introduce few plays starting with The Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore. This play is originally written in Bengali and translated into English in 1912 by W B Yeats. The play has been described by critics as Tagore’s magnum opus. I read it while I was on a journey and the reason why this act of motion was significant to my reading experience was the contrast of my journey and the claustrophobic feel of the protagonist, Amal.

Amal is an adopted child of his uncle, Madhav, who is diagnosed of disease and thus bedridden, or rather, confined indoors by the physician. But how long can he stay indoors when he sits by the window all day long and brought news of elsewhere by wanderer, watchman, dairyman. He couldn’t help it but fantasise about life elsewhere, imagining himself, amongst many others, as a postman going from house to house delivering letters. He would even rather choose a life of travelling than sitting all day long studying to be become a learned man which is point of interest to me. What experience a journey may offer, a book, not matter how lofty it is, may not be able to offer. Amal is like the id of travellers; he exemplifies the untraveled distances a traveller pine for, even in his dreams.

I later learnt that this play was written shortly after Tagore lost his family to a disease which gave me another insight into understanding and appreciating the play.

The Fate of a Cockroach by Tawfik al-Hakim. This absurdist drama must be a challenge for any director and producer anywhere in the world because of its theatrics. As a play for stage, it has not been performed as much as the quality of the play deserves, but as a play for reading, which Al Hakim originally intended, it is remarkable. Remarkable. Like he said, it is a ‘theatre of ideas’, a theatre of the mind.

The play satirises the tussle for dominance between the sexes and in a family; it subtly engages the class struggle of the Egyptian society. This struggle is marked in the contention of plot between Queen Cockroach and King Cockroach, and Samia and Adil.

The first scene opens in the ‘Cockroach kingdom’, a bathroom, with cockroach characters, Queen and King, argues about who is superior to each other. It’s especially laughable when King attach the claim of his superiority to his whiskers. And when his wife equally claims to possess those, he submits his is longer. This comic argument can be interpreted as a caricature of the contemporary patriarchal sentiments especially favoured in the Egyptian society. And its mockery of social inequality and struggle is hinted in the subsequent dialogue between the two cockroaches, and other self-styled cockroaches like them, when they discuss how to foil or protect themselves against their common enemy, ants.

In the following scene but in the same apartment that is the kingdom of cockroaches, there is a symbolic representation here, the human characters, Samia and Adil, have their own argument about who uses the bathroom first, the supposed kingdom of the cockroaches – this is why Al Hakim unifies the plot. While there is a contention about the ruling class, the Egyptian society is squabbling about equality between the sexes. But the playwright’s attempt is not to trivialise any of the struggles but merely unifies both. Here, he also explores the madness of everything that is nothing when a doctor, you may say a psychologist, is sent from his place of work when Adil called in sick. How this conflict about nothing is resolved many a reader should find out.

When it comes to talking about dramatic adaptation in modern African drama, there is a name that naturally comes to mind. It is Femi Osofisan. He has written over 50 plays, most of those are adaptations of the Greek classics. Recently, he was awarded the most prestigious prize for drama, the Thalia prize, where his intertextuality of the Greek classics into a Yoruba context was noted and celebrated by the institution that awards the prize.

His play on my notable reads is Richard Lander and the Travelling Polygamist, an adaptation of the diaries of the British explorer, Hugh Clapperton, last journey into Africa. The dramatic qualities employed enliven the account of the explorer. The work is important to me and literary forms; you rarely find a travel account in the dramatic genre. You may find an excerpt of the play on Fortunate Traveller.

And finally, here comes Sahel, Irene Lopez de Castro’s book of painting based on his travels and encounters in the Sahel region of the Sahara where she’s intermittently lived for years. As a matter of fact, she identifies with the place as a kind of her spiritual home.

This exhibition catalogue is something similar to a travelogue and it is overwhelming. It is a collection that imitates the colours of the Sahara which sometimes is golden, sometimes sombre, and the people, the Songhay and Tuaregs of Mali, that call the desert region home. She evokes and celebrates the beauty of their ordinariness; their rusticity if I may use the word. She is able to bring about a familiarity with the viewer in some of her personality portraits and still life.

The collection is a book of encounters indeed. Snippets of her work can be found on her website. My interview with her is also forthcoming.

Not Worth The Hype

Under this column last year, I said something I quickly wish to take back because it’s ironically moronic. I made a lame point about judging a book based on a reader’s predilection for learning. I now realise this statement is faulty and although unintended, also subscribes to a sort of populist sentiment. What it subtly means, which is rather funny to me now, is that there are no bad books just because it’s acceptable to some readers, that there is no critical standard for analysing a book; that an average reader that does not really know right from left may even be on a panel that determines the merits of a book for an award. How stupid. I take it all back.

While it is not everything taken into the body that will be used by the body, according to Schopenhauer, bad books, he encourages should be read once in a while even if one does not accidentally come across it. But not should be laboured upon. There are few bad books I read last year but my memory does not even permit remembrance now. I think I am a bit fortunate here.

Looking Forward To Read

Now that I’ve got a new Kindle, it’s made reading more interesting and books more accessible on the go that I have included another feat in my 2018 bucket list: to read 40 books by August. Some of those books that will make the numbers include Emmanuel Iduma’s travel book, A Stranger’s Pose, that will be released this year and his counterpart, Dami Ajayi’s newly-published second collection of poetry by Ouida Books, The Body of a Woman is a Country.

Similarly, I will be concluding the books I had started few months ago, James Wood’s Fun Stuff and Other Essays and The Irresponsible Self. They’ve been a wonderful companion for honing my critical craft. His critical foray on Naipaul in the two books is a gem that have demystified the absurdities and complexities of Naipaul, as a son, writer and husband.

I am also halfway through Arthur Schopenhauer’s Collected Essays. I have been eyeing an anthology of fiction by contemporary Chinese writers, Chairman Mao Would not be Amused: Fiction from Today’s China edited the renowned translator, Howard Goldblatt alongside Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala, A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Yoruba in Diaspora: An African Church in London by Hermione Harris and Norman Lewis’ Omnibus.

For poetry, I’d be making Tomas Tranströmer’s, Selected Poems and, AdonisSelected Poems my talisman for the year. Another book of poetry that I have prioritised to read is Derek Walcott’s collection of poetry and painting, Tiepolo’s Hound. It’s one of the most read books of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library last year.

As I am a fan of play reading, I’d be reading the plays of Henrik Ibsen and definitely more work of Tawfik al-Hakim I can find in English. Sefi Atta’s newly published collection of plays is also on top of my reading list this year. I am also quietly anticipating the NLNG prize for drama this year.

But before I put a period to this essay, let me seize this opportunity to announce my protest against the apathy aimed at the dramatic genre in contemporary African literature that I will not be submitting my work to any literary journal or magazine that does not accept submissions in the dramatic genre, except if it is a niche journal or magazine.

Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tope is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. Also, he is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. He is presently experimenting with poetic forms, including mathematical poetry, but does not know when his debut poetry collection will be ready. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Su’eddie Vershima Agema

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 AchebeWole 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!

Honorary Mentions

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

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 and is on Twitter and Instagram.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Richard Ali

Emphasizing my Year in Books

“Some books hand me the license to question everything, even the life inside me and the lives of others too. Others leave layers of question that slowly evaporates as more pages make a revelation. Some books are just empty, and they need to be read as such. I have seen the truth in fiction and the fiction of truth. But the belief that fiction is the truth in the lie triumphs.”

Basit Jamiu, Confessions of a Book Lover.

2017 was a year of reading fine books, though not a lot of them. I doubt I managed more than 20 titles in the course of the year. So, I guess I will have to postpone my pipe dream of beating my Year 2008 record of reading just a little over a hundred books. That was in the glorious year between the end of my undergraduate programmme at Zaria and the start of NYSC, a year of travel when books were a passport to unusual destinations. In that year, I read a good chunk of my mentor and University of Jos Professor, Kanchana Ugbabe’s, library. I credit that year as an important part of my literary education, the discovery of Ondaatje particularly, for his precious, precious prose, Coetzee, of whom I’ve read everything except Waiting for the Barbarians, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others. I remember Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl from that period, as well as Abidemi Sanusi’s two novels published by then hot new house Cassava Republic.

The most striking book I read in 2017 was Danda, by Nkem Nwankwo. In secondary school, we used an English textbook called Intensive English and one of the excerpts used in it was from Danda. It was a funny one in which the eponymous character gets into a brand new car belonging to a kinsman and shames the latter into driving him around Aniocha on account of their kinship ties. Danda was written in the period of serious African writing, indeed just eight years after Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Yet, it has as its main character a jester and coward, what the Igbo call an alalogholi. No Okonkwo, however tragic, here. If Danda is a hero, he is a peculiar and a fetching one. The conflict dealt with deftly is one between traditional ways and modernity, as seen in the life of Danda and his irascible father whom he has to, but of course, disappoint. There is nostalgia in the way Nkem Nwankwo evokes the village life. We feel a certain pity in the insistencies and the cultural meanings emphasized by these characters that are coming undone at the seams. Danda is the heart of the Delta Igbo community and I see him even now, garlanded by bells yelling “Kliklikli!!!” with his flute in his hand, the king of bonhomie—“Daughters of beauty!” shouted Danda. “All the men love you. If there is a man who doesn’t love you let him put his head in a fire and see how he likes it. That song again, hoa!”

The opposite end of my reading from Danda would be the character behind the name Joseph Anton—I mean the novelist Salman Rushdie. My friend, South African novelist Zukiswa Wanner, was kind enough to send me a hardback of Joseph Anton in October after I’d confessed to wanting to read it. Salman Rushdie is famous, or infamous, for the 1989 Iranian fatwa following the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Growing up in the 90’s, I met a Rushdie who was a celebrity like any other in that heady decade, finding him in the society pages of TIME Magazine and mentions in Newsweek, along with his then wife, the model Nadira. Later on, I held a range of opinions about this writer who had written an unimpressive book (Midnight’s Children being far superior, IMHO) and gotten into a great deal of trouble for it, these opinions tempered by my training as a lawyer as well as a distaste for poststructuralism in general. With these caveats, one is in the tricky position of being certain Rushdie was well within his rights to write whatever he liked and understanding why the people he offended would be, well, offended, even to the point of wanting to kill him. This extremity from a person, me, who has no religious beliefs whatsoever. I wanted to know what was going on in his mind in the period, hence the desire to read his memoirs. The memoir does not disappoint, and is often very unflattering. What comes across is a portrait of a certain generation of British thinkers for whom the field of experimentation was infinite and self-censorship did not resemble anything we have today. And I could see immediately how my judging him from a mind already impacted by 9/11 and a slew of fundamentalisms, Muslim and Christian, through from the late 90’s would see to an unfair understanding of him. Huge chunks of this book are uninteresting, but I read it all. I was fascinated by the activism around him, seeking to save his life and how eventually he emerged from hiding, giving the world a new narrative of writer-as-survivor. In his attitudes to Islam, and to his wives, we also see why the problems he’s had were inevitably from his nature.

And then there is the question of literary beauty. I think that there is such a thing about a beautiful novel, one that is able to transport you to a hazy, shimmering, colourful place where all symmetry is perfect and the threads of make-belief are unknown. This is why I understand Basit’s quote up there so implicitly. There is a correlation between this thing I have called beauty and what I believe to be value, the value of a book. In 2017, I read two books of true beauty.

Fiston Mujila’s Tram 83, a dizzy delight set in the Congo, follows the imprecise relationship between the friends Lucien and Requiem, is set around a train station in the underworld of a dictatorship. Fiston does something. Something that is an inexplicable something to this world of diamond hustlers and philosophers prostituting ideas while subversive prostitutes hold the tides of the world firm between their thighs. This underworld is true in every city in Africa, a space we glimpse where the rules behave differently and where each person we meet is truly themselves. At night, in Fiston’s book, each person is the sum of the power they can exert beyond the exertions of others equally seeking space and influence. Threading it all is the refrain, Do you have the time? Each word of this sentence is an explication condensed, as if there is a four-letter maximum rule in place. Do. You. Have. The. Time? The main plot line is the one of Lucien, a writer, wanting to get his texts published and in this story line, some of the most trenchant criticism of African literature is made. Read: “The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse depressive, childless, homeless and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature!” Ahem, and an amen to that.

Genius undoubtedly underlies this book that came as a gift which changed my life for the two weeks it took me to read it, I mean Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One of the things with being a sub-Saharan reader of books (and once upon a time a novelist too) is the difficulty in finding books that one wants to read. I was just leaving university when this book was published, back in 2007, and I followed all the reviews. But it was not until a decade later that my friend, Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu, sent me a copy. One of the trickiest things is to get a character right and Diaz nails the eponymous character, Oscar de Leon, kpom kpam kpam perfect. This is the story of the de Leons and the Dominican Republic in the years of the Trujillo dictatorship. Oscar is an overweight, nerdy, virgin American sci-fi addict whose mother fled the Dominican Republic when the eye of the Trujillo state lands on her. His fate is sealed when he returns to the Dominican Republic and falls in love. Threading the novel is the idea of fuku which I must call the inexplicable. Call it the magical if you want.

Perhaps the most anticipated book in 2017 was The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy? I picked it up for 20 euros at the Universita Ca’ Foscari bookstore in Venice. I read it. I remember reading it. But it is not a great book. There are two primary story arcs, the first is about a hijra, a transvestite named Anjum and an interesting cast of characters living in a graveyard in Delhi. This story, inevitably, intersects with the story of Kashmir through the star crossed love of Tilotamma and Musa. Ms. Roy’s story of the insurgency in Kashmir and the brutality of the Indian defense forces is a powerfully observed one, but I could not help wondering why there was the need to marry it with Anjum’s. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness wears its politics boldly, and the prose is nice. But, all put together, it seems like something not quite well put together. I have a theory that the most important books are the ones you read twice at least. I have considered giving away all books that do not meet this criteria. That I have not done so indicates a failing on my part, a compulsion to acquire and stack books in shelves regardless of theories. But I think, should I ever deal, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a book I can give away.

One of the last books I read was J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, which I bought at the Lagos International Poetry Festival late in the year. It’s a post-apocalyptic story of a man and a precocious young boy who is not his son for whom nonetheless he feels a fatherly duty. A part of this duty is finding a mother for this child, this cross between an orphan and a bastard. A brilliantly executed story, such as anything Coetzee has ever done, and he brings a brutal eye to the myths and stories on which Christianity, as a way of ordering society, relies. But more than that, it is a story about men. I have been fascinated by men recently, in the sense that though I am wary of and out-of-hand reject all plurals, they nonetheless exist—men. Masculine, not-female. In the relationship between Simon and the boy, Coetzee is able to put out there the tetchy nature of the relationship between older men and younger men, an implicit understanding and yet a visceral irritation perhaps arising from that understanding. This is what I took from the book, and I think it’s a powerful, important thing.

The world of books is one I enter gladly, but I have come to realize that the time I spend in books is time that must be compensated in the “real” world. And that as the “real” world makes ever so determined demands on my time, I must choose the fictions and nonfictions I read with more discernment. I am afraid that the year 2008 and its near 150 books is gone forever, but there will always be the castles in my mind that fine writing unlocks and lets me enter. I hope that in 2018, I will sort out my books into those to be read twice and those not to be. The year is already promising. I look forward to new offerings from Novuyo TshumaTroy Onyango and perhaps Okwiri Oduor’s long anticipated debut, also Tj Benson’s novel on the Nigerian scene. Even more, I hope that, in this new year, I shall find and read more books that should be read twice.

Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer and poet. Author of a 2013 novel, City of Memories (Parrésia Books), his first collection of poems, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, will be published by Konya Shamsrumi in 2018. He tweets @richardalijos.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Tolu Daniel

My Notable Reads of 2017

Speaking with a friend some time ago about the disappointments which characterized both our year, we couldn’t find many, not because there were none but perhaps because of how we dealt with each of these moments respectively. He would go on to tell me about how although he encountered the same kinds of disappointments he had been encountering all his life, his response this year was not as damning as of the years past. He told me how he received bad news and kept on walking as if he had just been sprinkled with tiny speckles of dirt when in truth, he had been sandwiched in wet concrete. I could relate strongly with him, his narrative and mine are twined in that kind of direction. As at the end of 2016, my life was towing a particular direction, everything was looking hopeful till the misses began. And although I tried really hard to insulate my reading habits from it, I couldn’t do it successfully.

The year in reading boded differences for me in many dimensions. I would pick a book and browse through the abundance of the internet to read reviews and comments about them just to be sure the book would be worthy of the time I wanted to expend on it. I wanted only to read from a place of learning and not leisure. And this is perhaps because as a writer, I have graduated from my fascination with narrative voices and patterns to someplace else. Now I don’t care much for remarkable narratives or remarkable writing styles. What does it mostly for me is the freshness of sentences, the creation and infusion of new metaphors and the attention to details that sometimes may not be relevant to a reader who just wants to get over a book. I also find writers who are able to combine all these kinds of simple things into their narratives and still have their narrative voice retain its innocence, incredibly fascinating. So as you might imagine, this new direction ensured I embraced the horrible habit of beginning some books and abandoning them halfway. As a writer, I have found that the kinds of stories I prefer telling are stories that are woven with time. Some people refer to this, as a form of consciousness and to an extent I agree with them. I like to believe that the foremost job of a writer is to serve as a witness. So most of the books you will find in my list this year will be books where the authors served me what I wanted the way I wanted it.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (published by Alfred A. Knopf)

This was one of the most surprising debuts of 2017 and if there was a Nigerian writer who ran the literary marathon this year and won it, it would be Adebayo. This book was arguably one of the most remarkable narratives I came across this year. Most of the reviews paid service to its remark-ability. There are many things to like and many things to frown at in this book but the general opinion which this book elicited especially given the amount of ovation it got shortly after its shortlist for the Bailey’s Women Prize was that of acceptance. The narrative was about how a young married couple dealt with issues of infertility in their new marriage.

One of the highlights of this book was how the writer served us the Yoruba variance of the English language complete with all the accentuations and didn’t at any point alienate the readers with these nuances. Another was how each chapter embodied a plot each and synchronized into the general idea which the writer was trying to portray. Like an anonymous reviewer on twitter tweeted of the book, the writing isn’t the best out there but the manner with which the narrative was presented allowed readers to actively participate as if the book was a love letter of sorts between reader and writer.

Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi (published by Kwani?)

In the years after my interest in African Literature became a thing, I happened upon several arguments and debates about how Africa should be represented by writers within and outside the continent. In those debates, there was always this burden of responsibility endowed upon the African writer and I have often found these burdens problematic. Problematic in the sense of how prescriptive these ideas were and how these prescriptions usually have ways through which they restrict arts for the sakes of art. Kintu by Jenifer Nsabuga Makumbi seemed to me like a sort of response to all these debates. Kintu for me is the quintessential African historical fiction narrative of our generation which was filled with all the anecdotes to keep the raging tongues of the debaters busy for a while. One of the most remarkable things about this book has to be the extent of effort that must have gone into ridding the narrative of any Eurocentric vibe despite how steeped the narrative was in history and time. Kintu is the re-imagination of Uganda’s history through the tracing of the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan. The narrative begins with the history of the curse and the journeys and timelines the curse went through to find fulfillment. Easily my best read this year because of the many depths that the narrative covered.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole (published by Faber)

This collection of essays was one of my first reads of the year and somehow it influenced how my writing journey went as the year progressed as I took more interest in producing essays too. In the years since my first encounter with Cole’s writing, I have come to discover of his prose a certain kind of uniqueness that alludes to an individual who walks around brooding. In his debut novel, Open City, Cole’s protagonist was heavily similar in manner and thoughts to the protagonist in his second novel Every Day Is For The Thief. Some critics have said of this characteristic of his protagonists to borrow from the writer’s reality to be a sort of an expression in narcissism but I beg to object since I am of the opinion that a writer situating themselves in the middle of their prose affords the reader some form of legitimacy to the claims of the writer. So in this, I believe the writer is affirming his place as a witness. But after witnessing Cole himself in conversations about his books in 2013 and 2016 respectively at the Ake Festival held in Abeokuta, Nigeria I have come to some decisions about him. This writer is one who doesn’t give many fucks about convention and this is what makes him exciting to read. In this collection, Cole ranges over his very diverse and disparate interests in his very familiar and laser sharp prose. In some of the essays, he wrote of his journeys in finding self, dealing with identity, situating himself in roads once travelled by his favorite writers and juxtaposing their realities with his own in the moment. In this collection, you would see him talk about Sebald, Berger and Baldwin and his other influences.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (published by Riverhead Books)

When as a young writer, I would get quizzed about the kinds of narratives I wanted to produce, my reply was usually in the manner of gut wrenching and emotional pieces but as the years progressed in my writing, I found writing these kinds of narratives difficult perhaps because I was never in touch with my emotions as I would have liked to. Reading The Kite Runner was definitely one of the highlights of my year not just because it served as an introduction of sorts for me to the works of Hosseini but because it afforded me the opportunity of seeing a narrative that was primarily about betrayal and redemption go all the way into including everything else into it. The narrative painted a world so far away in manner so clear and so familiar; I could almost swear that the reality was mine also. The narrative follows the coming of age of Amir, the son of a wealthy Kabul Merchant and his relationship with his servant and companion Hassan.

Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward (published by Penguin Books)

This poetry collection came to me in fragments at first, one short poem after the other before the whole collection found its way into my hands. It drove me into developing a kinship with the writer despite not knowing much about her. In reading Bone, I discovered how limitless and powerful poetry can be. I also found out how stories could be embedded inside poetry. In Bone, I found myself, a full blooded straight black male, living in a world of privilege except where the color of his skin is concerned. I read of my trials and experiences in a kindred spirit and I felt at home in the accessibility of the writing. One of the many criticisms of this collection, is its lack of a kind of originality, a depth that some other forms of poetry usually possess, but my counter argument is that how else do you measure depth or originality if not by examining critically and accepting the brilliance in the documentation of the experiences of a black woman who has written in such a way that even black men feel included.

Other Notable Reads In the Year

In my essay last year, I restricted my list to simply fiction and books generally either they came in eBooks, hard or paperbacks but this year I have included poetry chapbooks, essays and short stories.

Poetry Chapbooks

How To Cook A Ghost by Logan February (published by Glass Poetry Journal)

One of the miracles of this year for me was discovering this young poet and digesting his works. In this chapbook, he explores a variety of themes, with the themes of love, loss, queerness and identity being dominant. The poems are subtle and powerful altogether and they would leave you with a yearning that can only be matched by reading and engaging more with the writer’s works.

Burnt Men by Romeo Oriogun (published by Praxis Magazine Online)

In the years since I began reading narrative poetry, I think Oriogun’s poetry has spoken to me the most because of the extent of its honesty and defiance. In an era of superficial activism and hypocrisy, Oriogun’s voice challenges the norm and addresses topics which may otherwise have been classified taboos and renders them in the most beautiful lines. In this collection, his sentences are laced with such colorful and powerful metaphors.

Short Stories

Disappointing Reads

Like I said earlier, there were books that I anticipated last year that just didn’t cut it for me, not because they were not essentially good reads for some readers but because for me, my interest has shifted from what it used to be.

The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan (published by Cassava Republic)

Carnivorous City was that book for me that could have been much more than was advertised. Not to say there was anything wrong with the manner with which Lagos was portrayed in the book but to a major extent, I felt the narrative majored on describing Lagos more than telling the stories of its characters and this was where I just couldn’t move on. On the overall, I applaud the author for the effort.

When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola (published by Cassava Republic)

I gave this particular book two reads because I wanted to be sure there wasn’t something I was missing and at the end of the exercise I have come to the conclusion that perhaps there was and maybe there is nothing I can do about it. But I liked the story line which was why I was able to endure reading it twice, I even like the way the characters sort of ran into each other and the way language was central to the narrative but there was so much more going on that I couldn’t keep up with. Like how it felt like the authorial voice kept mingling with the flow of the narrative, it was a serious cause for confusion.

2018 promises a lot of interesting titles and while I have stocked up on some of them, I still expect to get some more. My bookshelf currently boasts of new titles from Madeliene ThienColson WhiteheadNnedi OkoraforArundathi RoyJose Eduardo Agulusa and George Saunders and I look forward to adding up titles like Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness by TJ Benson and The Lives of Great Men by Frankie Edozien to the fray.

Tolu Daniel is a writer and photographer.

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

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.


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.


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.


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.

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Trust F. Òbe

Season of Dysphoria: My Reading in 2017

I was haplessly drawn toward the above title, a la Season of Anomy — due to a trio of books: Hanya Yanagihara’s profound and repeatedly unsettling A Little Life, Anakana Schofield’s Martin John and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s immensely compunctive The Fact of a Body. These books extended my capacity of understanding the complexity of people — the other things it can also mean to be human; to be complex and complicated and conflicted all at once. There is another trio of books that pushed the extent of what I had seen the novel form accommodate: Chris Kraus’s I love Dick, by blurring the lines between multiple genres, Anna Kavan’s Ice by dismantling the idea of what a narrative should be like and Solar Bones —cheating death— by being a book-long sentence, something that takes a lot more discipline than ambition for any writer to embark on, let alone successfully achieve—in a time when writing a few-paragraphs-long sentence is still being fussed over.

This year was mostly devoid of poetry reading, the sadness I encountered in fiction left me bankrupted of the élan I needed to engage serious poetry respectfullythe way I prefer to.

Notable Reads

A Little Life  Hanya Yanagihara

A book so continuously overwhelming in its examination of the effects of victimization and post-traumatic convalescence; societal reintegration, the struggle for a sense of self, healing and relapsing—and friendships. We experience all these through the holocaust that is the life of Jude St. Francis, the novel’s central character.

A centripetal tour-de-force of emotional heft, this novel was very tough to read, the characters are difficult to be in company of. It demanded an emotional fee I was only able to pay because The Fact of a Body had already put me on an emotional financial aid. Still, do not go (gentle) into this book if your happiness must not be tainted, because it definitely will and after it has, there will be no backrub or closure or the type of ending you would rather see. The novel also assaults and totally upends heteronormativity as a default way of (co)existence, and examines uncommon family stereotypes in lucid simple-seeming, descriptive, reader-luring prose that, well… tears you up by the end.

Embers Sándor Márai (tr. Carol Brown Janeway)

Sandor Márai’s 1942 novel—published in English in 2001—of which John Banville remarked “…conveys a sense of authentic passion, authentic pain” is a masterpiece of elegiac prose not even the finest practitioners writing fiction today —Pascal Mercier or Kazuo Ishiguro can replicate to the same degree of quality.

I was instantly possessed by a wistful hunger to read it in its native Hungarian—more like in the exact way a recreational drug-using Breaking Bad fan could reasonably desire a small bag of the blue-white crystal meth that is the signature of Walter White/Heisenberg (who is perhaps the greatest fictional chemist)— where it was titled A gyertyák csonkig égnek (Candles burn until the end) since the English copy I read was translated from German which was translated from the original Hungarian. I could not stop wondering if what was lost in translation had become significant after the material had passed through two languages and of course, if the Hungarian language was a better language for the material itself and was not simply fortunate to be the language Márai wrote in.

Márai explores the themes of friendship and loyalty/betrayal through a nonlinear narration with an almost-palimpsestic pacing—the kind acuteness we can imagine of an omniscient philosopher, evoking in the reader an emotional compulsion and producing a work of aesthetic beauty that is among the richest within the last century in prose fiction.

Martin John Anakana Schofield

The central character, Martin John struggles with an internal (or mental, to be clinical) compulsion to do things that are outside the realm of propriety, sexually with himself—because of, around or in front of—and (to) strangers. In Public. This book argues that a perpetrator could be, in distinct cases, no less a victim to the act as their victims are to them. So this is no second-rate Lolita. The reader is granted a harrowing passage to the mind of Martin John, and this world could be better for it. The book does not boil you down emotionally, compared to The Fact of a Body or A Little Life, it is both an easy and an easier read. One’s life becomes a struggle perhaps when its ultimate goal becomes avoiding, preventing or refusing to do, redo or keep redoing something—a war against relapsing, something regular people go through as well, but quite certainly in much lesser degree and personal cost, this is why I am drawn into Martin John, why I stand by himand would with him, were he real.

Once Upon a time, there lived a Canadian writer who went by the name of Anakana Scofield.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir — Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

A reexamination of two actual events—an acutely sensitive and decade-long true-crime case that fully awakens a somnambulic history of personal abuse in the author—that took ten years to complete. Marzano-Lesnevich’s writing echoes the works of David Simon, Dennis LeHane, Kazuo Ishiguro and Norman Mailer.

When dealing with very sensitive issues —murder, abuse, prosecutorial injustices and even mental health, a piece of writing could be excused for being charged with indignation; a few slips of outrage, a few hyperbolic, judgemental pronouncements (how do you say something—anything in favour of a rapist?). Extremely sensitive, overwhelmingly emotional, so delicate in its nuanced treatment of irredeemable acts that I had to take weeks between chapters. Marzano-Lesnevich examines the meaning and cost of forgiveness and acceptance, the permanence of trauma, the extent of internal turmoil (or what I would call protective impunity) that is the consequence of an irreversible misdeed and effects of slack parentage on self-esteem and social integration.

A Memoir/Legal Thriller/True-Crime Investigation/Social Commentary at once, The Fact of a Body is the highlight of my reading year, because of its nuanced examination of core, oft-ignored symptoms of mental health issues and the brutal, irremediable consequences they could have, given the right (or wrong) chain of events. I have never been as moved by anything similar I have come across—HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Netflix’s Making a Murderer or even Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America.

Longthroat Memoirs Yemisi Aribisala

The rest of the title of this book is Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds.

Aribisala proceeds with a humility that is rarely found in writers. Of intellect.

This book is a cultural treatise with bits of social commentary, pieces of memoiristic recollections and, quite impressively, possibly the best prose you will read on Nigerian food in a long time.

That was expected a paragraph of hype and praise mounted like a compost heap on a book and its writer in whom I am well-pleased.

Yet, this book (and Aribisala) succeeds on almost any level one gauges it against. The rarity of works of its kind makes it an instant classic and a guaranteed all-time influence and reference­ book, the prose exposes the writer’s enviable bilingual mastery of languages, the writing style ensures the reader is not left feeling stupid compared to the writer—as some renowned intellectual writers ensure, perhaps as taxation for throwing knowledge the reader’s way. She challenges traditional norms respectfully, not cantankerously—as is predictable for a writer who knows they are progressive and right— and pulverizes generations-old, backwards, hypocritical societal impositions and on top of these, provides historical, traditional and cultural contexts for dismantling self-serving and ultimately legacy-desecrating neocolonial trends.

The Yoruba have a saying; Ọgbọ́n inú yàtọ̀ s’ọgbọ́n orí.

Allow me to offer two reimaginings of this axiom in the English language. Discernment is no match for knowledge. Or quite simply, Discernment renders knowledge a superficiality. Aribisala writes primarily with Ọgbọ́n inú —her Ogbon o being a subservient footnote—and since one cannot give what they do not have—intellectually, she makes your favourite (cross-)cultural critic or social commentary writer(s) look bad at their job, while never standing in the way of your own perception.

I had to gift copies to the most important women in my life.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned Wells Tower

Geoff Dyer, describing how some excellent writers work themselves over and over to achieve great prose comparing them to pugilists1suggests that the great prose a reader finally clamors over with the maniacal glee of a stan is indeed the final version of consecutive drafts that have been beaten and beaten and beaten—and is now “…so worked over that it is slurred to perfection’’. Just in the way a pugilist—say Ali, would take a monumental amount of nonconsecutive beatings, get worn out but also wear the opponent down by enduring those beatings and—through his clever footwork and his classic rope-a-dope—in addition to the long-suffering, finally gets to descend on the opponent with a self-assured staccato of victorious blows.

This collection declares Wells Tower as an undisputable (note: not even undisputed) modern master of the short story—it is rather for Tower what Cathedral was for Carver. He has an innate, effortless ability to describe anything better than all but a few, and in his own self-conscious style. His powers of observation and dry wit are acute to the point where it would be understandable if the reader were to take them for granted, a consequence of which would be a higher bar for what one would consider great prose henceforth. And while his prose is accessible, the consistency of his brilliance can be dizzying. To the reader, some of the stories feel like a sugar rush, some like a mutiny; as if a setup. The titular last story is a further testament to the accomplishment this collection is, not in a saving-the-best-for-last sort of sense, but saving the biggest surprise for last.

I Love Dick Chris Kraus

An example of what experimental writing can be brought to accomplish; in terms of both ambition and sustained brilliance, there is a duality to the impression this book hurled onto me. The narrative turns and wriggles free of being bound to any single category while the content itself was light years ahead of anything else I have come across. Disturbing, exclamatory, brash as well as well-written and deeply annoying, this is that frustrating book I hated to like. Not hated to like as in I hated it and them came around to like it but in the sense of hating that I found something to like about it. Half-repulsed but still half-spellbound. I hate Chris, so maybe I love Dick too.

The Redbreast Jo Nesbø

I condescend crime thrillers in general because I read David Simon and Don Winslow. If I ride a horse to someone else’s home to woo their mom, no one is allowed to ride a goat to our home to woo mine. That aside.

When an occurrence seemingly entombed in the past first rustles up, and then confronts the present with unrelenting intent—in the manner which decades-old sexual allegations are now resurfacing to confront their then-upcoming-but-now-famous perpetrators­—an attempt must be made to enforce Newton’s Third Law must over the alternative; Murphy’s.

The Redbreast is a possible literary crime thriller whose glory lies more in its plotting than its characterization. Even when it succumbs to the trappings of its genre, it successfully succumbs by never being boring and offering up twists at coldly calculated turns. Harry Hole (pronounced hooleh) comes as accessible and dogged as Harry Bosch, Jimmy McNulty or Jack Bauer, even if not as complex as any of them and while his villain may also be a less intriguing version of say, Rollo Tomassi, he is definitely as resourceful and smart but the hero of the novel is Nesbo himself his scrupulous detailing, his finessed, nonlinear pacing and ultimately, the interesting Norwegian setting that lends a gruff backdrop to the story.

Ice ­— Anna Kavan

The narrative is unlike anything else (I’ve come across or heard of). It makes Nolan’s Memento seem like­—for lack of a better cliché—child’s play. Besides the nonlinearity of time and events, the plot is not driven by any internal logic (perhaps survival is a latent logic in itself) alternate timelines disrupt and overlap each other without as much as a single Deus ex machina. This kind of authorial liberty which sidesteps both expectation and logic can only be named for Kavan, as in Kavanesque—yes, for once, Illogical, bizarre plots are not always Kafkaesque. Dare I say more?


I read some writers of short fiction for the first time this year, three of which are quite remarkable to my mind: Joshua Cohen, Jesse Ball and Claire Vaye Watkins. I restrain myself from saying good things of Joshua Cohen’s prose, since the more I think of it, the more I feel certain only great things must be said about his writing. His prose had a distinctive style and energy the kind of which I last encountered reading the poetry of Abubakar Umar Sidi on Saraba.

Jesse Ball’s “A Wooden Taste is the word for Dam a Wooden Taste is the word for Dam a Wooden Taste is the word for” surpassed anything I was expecting in a story from someone not named Kafka or (Angela) Carter. I often think of (Jesse) Ball and (Carmen Maria) Machado as the heirs of Kafka and Carter. The story was such a sad delight.

I utterly enjoyed devouring Claire Vaye Watkins’ I love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness. It managed to give me the greatest satisfaction without being the best or most relatable story I read during the year. I am fascinated by the characters —in a wèrè dùn-ùn wò, kò şeé bí lọ́mọ́ sort of sense— very pleased to be a voyeur of their lives and inner thoughts but dreadful of being in similar circumstances. I am certain I would find their company repulsive in real life. Is that what they call Schadenfreude? Maybe—no! Almost.

Honorable Mentions

  • A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt by Toyin Falola
  • The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • The Return (Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between) by Hisham Matar
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  • The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswani
  • This conversation between Emmanuel Iduma and Adebiyi Olusolape in Enkare Review

Books I’m looking forward to in 2018


  1. See the essay “Pounding Print” from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer1

Trust F. Òbe, when not lazing around within his own thoughts or sleeping, spends more time onscreen than elsewhere. He lives on the internet at an email address. He likes Johnny Depp and Emeli Sandé.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Nurain Oladeji

My reading regret for 2017 is that I read little poetry. Nonetheless, it was without doubt a satisfying reading year, during which I did not indulge in any sort of adventurousness that would have led me to read any book I did not already have an inclination of its quality. From the enlightening to the ambitious to the arrogantly brilliant; authors like Francine Prose, Sándor Márai, Naomi Alderman, Zoe Heller, Wells Tower, Agate Nesaule, Zadie Smith, and Elizabeth Strout have tampered with my sensibilities during the year, ruffled me up, and left me, many times, splendidly discomforted.

All the books I’d set out to read this year had some measure of prior recommendation by colleagues. While it is near-impossible to say with authority that one book is better than another, the books listed here are those that were, in no particular order, most rewarding to me in their humanness, perspective, and, of course, excellence of writing.

Notable Reads

Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Words and the World by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel, a loyalist to words and reading, brings us, in this enthralling anthology, a wide breadth of his journey through age and distance. It is a careful selection of essays that reflect on notable life experiences and his devotion to the compelling power of words and being a reader. He wrote in his foreword, “I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines. And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”

In the first essay, A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood, Manguel reflects on his experience as a young reader of eight or nine, gifted a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. He writes in such delicate manner, with scholarly brilliant that manages to be rid of pretentions. He ends this essay with a thought: “In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.

It is in this manner of charming prose that he leads the reader through the rest of the anthology, dropping precise and timely anecdotes from the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. In the section Memoranda, he wrote passionately of people he admired: Che Guevara, a Latin American political hero; of reading and meeting the writer Julio Cortázar; and, in Borges in Love, of his time with an almost-blind Jorge Luis Borges.

Broken into 10 sections, the anthology is a testament to Manguel’s humanness, deep sense of attentiveness to the melding details of things, intelligence, and his unwavering devotion to words and how they make and unmake the world.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Only a handful of writers have produced first books that can stand alongside, or even topple, masterpieces of some other top writers who have had long and successful careers, and what Hannah Kent achieves in this remarkable book is monumental. Burial Rites is so readable one would not have considered it to be a historical fiction if the obvious connections to the actual events had not been made.

Agnes Magnusdottir, in nineteenth century Iceland, has been convicted and sentenced to death for her involvement in the killing of two men, one of them her employer who was a famous healer. Much of the book is set at the residence of a District Officer and his family, with whom she had been required to wait out her sentence until she would be executed, and her recounting and recalling of how her life had led her to this point. The story of her conviction brings to mind the manner of conviction of Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger; her undoing being her perceived superior intelligence, which swayed the judgement against her despite a lack of definitive evidence. She is too smart to not have been the biggest influence on the crime. A fiercely humane story, Burial Rites stands to alter our manner with people condemned by society.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.” But that was not all. Minutes later, the ocean would grow into a tsunami. She would survive, or, more accurately, live.

Spending the 2004 Christmas holiday at a national park by the water with her husband, her two sons, and both her parents, Sonali Deraniyagala got the most undesirable Christmas present. The ocean rushed in and claimed them all, including her friend Orlantha, who had only come to ask if they were ready to leave, but Sonali was spared. And Wave is the heartbreaking story of her coming to terms with her grief. What is perhaps most devastating about such magnitude of grief is that she had what could be considered a perfect family, filled with boundless love and achievements. Sonali and her husband were academics who lived in London with their two sons. Most holidays were spent with her family in Sri Lanka.

Wave is Sonali not trying to forget her tragedy, accepting that the people she had loved most would never return. It is an agonising reality. Everything around her reminds her of a particular event or something else of her husband or sons or parents. She lets the loss run its course and managed to transform it into recovery, into relearning how to live again. How does one go about living after this? How does one accept the reduction of loved ones into ghosts and mere memories?

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar

What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” After the death and overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and his regime, Hisham Matar returns to Libya in 2012 for the first time since his family began their exile from their home country in 1979. He was returning into time. Jaballa Matar – Hisham’s father – had been abducted in 1990 when Hisham was nineteen. Jaballa had been a major opposition to the Qaddafi dictatorship. The Matars had settled in exile in Cairo, and it was from here that Jaballa was abducted. The role of the Egyptian government in the abduction is well documented here.

Hisham, living in London, had over many years initiated various campaigns and met with powerful people in a bid to make Qaddafi free his father. Then a dark secret unveils: the massacre of 1,270 prisoners in June 1996 at the infamous Abu Salim prison, the last known location of his father – and some of Hisham’s uncles and cousins – and around the time after which his father’s location became inconclusive.

When your father has been made to disappear, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle.” He follows every clue he could find, navigating through the rumours of his father’s location, hopeful his father was still alive. His mother, during those early period after the abduction, recorded football matches – hundreds of them – that her husband would watch when he returns.

Hisham’s mother, a solid figure who complemented his father’s presence, had been instrumental in settling them into their exile in Cairo. “And I suppose that is what we want from our mother,” he wrote, “to maintain the world and, even if it is a lie, to proceed as though the world could be maintained.”

Was I not doing all I could? Doesn’t a son have a right to know what happened to his father?” He had become obsessed with knowing when his father, who he suspects had been killed, died; if he was killed in the 1996 prison massacre.

In a lyrical prose that distinguishes this memoir, Hisham Matar brings us to meet his extended family that includes uncles and cousins who had been imprisoned by the dictatorship. He took detours to provide brief Libyan histories and to tell compelling stories of people like his cousin Izzo and Izzo’s friend Marwan, who both died in the rebellion that eventually overthrew the dictatorship.

But it turns out when you are looking for your father, you are also looking for other things.” It is unlikely he will ever find certain other things. “Not knowing when my father ceased to exist has further complicated the boundary between life and death.” but he has come to accept that as his own private misfortune.

One of the best books published in 2016, The Return is a delicate book that, as Colm Tóibín wrote, is “likely to become a classic.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

I once read a veteran editor (whose name I now fail to remember) claim Beloved is the best novel written in his lifetime. It is futile to argue. The story starts this way: “124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom.” And in precise, elegant, and enchanting prose, Morrison introduced us to 124, a house that is as much a character in itself, its inhabitants, the history of the house, and the history of its inhabitants. A notable achievement of Beloved is its patience. The story gives nothing away before its due time.

Beloved, a stranger who seemingly just steps out of the air, and who slips herself into the lives of the inhabitants of 124, comes to embody Sethe’s history and her scandalous attempt to save herself and her children: two sons and a baby daughter, from a white slaver she had escaped from to live with her mother-in-law.

Characters and ideas are delicately contrasted. There is a black grandmother called Baby Suggs, whose son worked to buy her out of slavery and who ends up inheriting a white person’s house. Amy Denver of Boston, a white woman, helps a runaway slave woman deliver a baby under extremely uncomfortable circumstances. Mr Garner, an unusually ‘kind’ slave-owner whose residence is called Sweet Home, and ‘The Schoolteacher’ who took over control of the house after Mr Garner’s life winds down. It is these contrasts between people which humanises the novel, distances it from just being another story of slavery.

This is by far the most outrageous and remarkable love story I have ever read. A proud overachiever of a novel, excellent in every regard; so perfect it has what I consider in some novels to be the right length. The quality of writing is so outstanding only a true master of the art could have achieved it. Morrison might just have produced the most representative template of a great novel.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Wells Tower belongs to a generation of writers whose works I’ve enjoyed and found myself seeking, so it was part regret, part relief that I was only meeting his work now.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is not a collection of stories as bleak as the title might imply. If anything, though dark sometimes, it is unfailingly hilarious. The stories have a wide range of protagonists and plots that show Tower’s diverse breadth of imagination. He does not hold back, drawing images of the ridiculousness of regular contemporary life, describing them with great attention and lucidity. Towers write clear, beautiful, and outrageously funny sentences. In Wild America, “a baby pigeon stolen from its nest, mauled and draped on Jacey’s pillow” by her cat “looks like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.

The characters are, like regular people, seeking fulfilment against bizarre odd. But they are humans, in all their compassion and suppressed vulnerability. They are misunderstood, angry, curious, and, essentially, they love, but sometimes don’t know they do.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I set out on a few books on reading and this is perhaps the most rewarding. Francine Prose started the first chapter, Close Reading, with the question: Can Creative Writing be taught? She answered it with her own experience on becoming a writer. “The answer I give to people who ask about teaching creative writing: A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you. But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write. Like most—maybe all—writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.”

She advocates that the reader pays close attention to the parts that make a book which she took apart to stand as successive chapter titles: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details, Gesture, etc.

What she did is mostly to advocate that would-be writers, to learn from the masters of the art, do the most important job of reading, and to read closely, to read with a higher sensibility.

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa (trans. by John King)

Vargas Llosa might have as well shown us ghosts which overrun the earth, for since I read this intelligent book, I’ve been confronted everywhere by what he calls The Civilization of the Spectacle.

He begins with a brief history of (high) culture and its role in societal structures through centuries, and continues to weave through its democratization and its inevitable decline. Culture, which was only accessible to the higher societal class (the elite) became accessible to all, “This commendable philosophy has had the undesired effect of trivializing and cheapening cultural life, justifying superficial form and content in works on the grounds of fulfilling a civic duty to reach the greatest number.

It is not surprising therefore,” he continues, “that the most representative literature of our times is ‘light,’ easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be – as its primary and almost exclusive objective – entertaining.”

This decline, he bemoans, has also diluted intellectuality and integrity in politics. Consequently, in the prevailing culture, popularity is based more on publicity. He expressed scepticism at the chances of this circumstance would improve positively. Because things cannot stay unchanged in our present world, “something else will replace it, perhaps better, perhaps worse, in the society of the future.”

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

I first read Lesley Arimah when her Light won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for African Region, and I’d since anticipated the publication of her book. Arimah’s competence in this collection shines through her vibrant, unpredictable prose.

This collection of short stories resonates with unforgettable female characters. Set mostly in Nigeria and the USA, the stories is a celebration of women and their resourcefulness. They are so real one forgets at times the futuristic settings in some of the stories, as the underlining humanness of people exceeds the boundaries of time. The stories range from the realistic to realism, all with a delicious darkness that is bare and unpretentious. Even in a post-apocalyptic or any other reality, we are still just people doing what people have always done: survive.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

In a world where females suddenly develop the power of electrocution, how does this affect societal structures? What are the potential consequences of such sudden shift in power? These are among the ideas interrogated in The Power. The book follows the lives of four major characters through the changes the world has been stunned with. Roxy Monke, the daughter of a mobster is one of the strongest, but she has her Power stolen, ripped out of her, by her father who implants it into her brother. She escapes later, powerless, and later meets Tunde, a Nigerian journalist (who I admire greatly in all his characteristic Nigerian resourcefulness), who has also lost his own kind of power – all his life’s work which he’d intended to sum up into a book about his travelling around the world, chronicling notable event on the Power – and in the end, they both remain; two people who used to possess great powers.

Power doesn’t care who uses it.” Maybe, as humans, we’re not by default equipped for power, for indiscriminate superiority; and such uncontrollable imbalance will always breed a catastrophe. As the novel winds down, Roxy, trying to escape from a camp under attack, witnesses from her hideout a man being raped and eventually killed. “They do it because they can.” The victim was completely paralysed with helplessness and fear, as everyone would be before indiscreet performance of genuine power.

Books I look forward to read in 2018

Nurain Oladeji lives in Ibadan, Nigeria. He likes to read books and is fascinated by the secret lives of plants.

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

Readers on Reading in 2017 — Kufre Usanga

My earliest memory of reading is irrevocably linked with receiving a thirst-inducing knock on the head from a very upset female cousin. I had picked up her not-properly kept love letter and was reading it aloud while walking towards the kitchen from our shared room in the family compound. Eyes glued to the words on the white sheet, sounding off each word and enjoying my success, I could not sense the audience my little adventure gathered and definitely did not see the knock that landed on my head until the deed was done. The knock dropped me to the ground and there I sat, wailing and holding on to the piece of paper until she dragged it out of my hand. “One day you will pick paper from the ground to read and turn blind” she scolded. And how almost right she was, well, or so I like to think, seeing as I cannot read these days without my glasses. Who knows, that knock may have helped to solidify reading as a part of me that nothing could deter.

Reading influenced my choice of studying Literature in the university and it has overtaken my social life. I now have fictive-besties and aunties I do not care to recount here. Reading offers the opportunity to travel without a visa, explore diverse cultures and broaden the purview. My best kind of reading are those done for fun, but sometimes, I study course materials and become enamoured. This has been my experience in 2017 as I was in and out of school within the year. Hence, my reading came in two bits – fun reading half way through the year and theoretical readings during the other half. But I suppose this in itself is an interesting mix. A valuable lesson I learned in 2017 is that theoretical works can be enjoyed too, so I found myself returning to certain books, chapters, and essays while ruminating on their postulations. I like to think the year took specific turns that hindered my reading of novels but compensated with new authors and new writings I fell in love with.

Nonetheless, I did finally read a great fun novel – Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I enjoyed the author’s use of guilt and the search for redemption to move the plot to a befitting climax. I could not find time for Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad but I have decided it will be my first read of 2018! Let’s dig in to a few favourites of mine from 2017.

Notable Reads

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay With Me is my favourite read of 2017 because of the relatable prose and the dual narrative voice the author skillfully carries. Adebayo’s skillful storytelling and her portraiture of contemporary Nigerian marriage and the protagonist’s maneuver of deceit and betrayal moved me to tears. The author interrogates the prevalent African instinct to blame the female whenever a couple struggles to procreate —which is grounded in patriarchy— and repositions the narrative by presenting Akin, not Yejide as the cause. I also treasure the nuanced message on sickle cell anemia and relished the Nigerian flavours, rhythms, intrigues and the incorporation of oral tales, proverbs and stories to situate and propel the tale. What more, the author spices them up to fit the narrator’s peculiarities. And girl can she write!!! A most beautiful first novel and I await her next! #FanGirl. I just want to add that Michiko Kakutani reviewed this novel before retiring.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

An overwhelming sadness and anger —sadness over Dana’s inability to terminate being tossed back into an era of predominant slavery, anger over the brutal savagery against black bodies in that era— stayed with me when I read this book. But I found strength in the interracial couple’s decision to work through the changes and difficulties forced on them after witnessing slavery. I enjoyed the time travel and shuffle between the dynamics of slavery and post-emancipation America as Dana attempts to influence her ancestry. I was fortunate to have read Demonic Grounds before this because it deepened my understanding of such geographic manipulation away from mere science fiction. Dana’s ability to move through walls and times presents a remapping of geographic and spatial boundaries while presenting Eurocentric normative geographies are permeable and alterable.

The Peculiars by Jen Thorpe

This warm novel exposes the disdain contemporary society and those in positions of power have towards the homeless and the afflicted. With its realistic characters navigating life in Cape Town and conquering self and fears, Thorpe presents mental illness with soft touch and love. The Centre for Improved Living becomes a lifeline and succor to Nazma (and others) as she faces her fear of driving which has crippled her dream of becoming a pastry chef. The diverse characters with different struggles inspire the readers as they confront phobias and navigate life in a small town. This is a novel about humanity and humaneness devoid of shame or scorn. The strength of this novel lies in the author’s ability to tell weighty/heavy issues in a lighthearted manner. Such warmth and happiness flooded me when Hamza’s mother conquered her fear of flying even as I recognized my own OCD and the prison my fears enclose me in. I saw myself in Sam and Ruby as I struggle daily but with hope in the knowledge that it will get better. Thorpe is holding a mirror to some of us and asking us to rise above our weaknesses.

Undercurrent by Rita Wong

There are diverse things to love about Rita Wong’s Undercurrent besides the powerful, evocative and inspiring water/eco-poetics in it. The author presents an ode to water; the oceans, streams, seas, and all water bodies, tasking her readers with careful consumption and use of nature. Her love for nature shines through with each carefully crafted poem and earth preservation mantra. Wong’s reverence for indigenous cultures and their earth-centered approach of living as interconnected relations with the nonhuman beings is laudable. The author shows that this ecological consciousness can preserve our world which is tethering on the edge of a looming apocalypse. I also enjoyed the little surprises the book offers; opening to meet randomly spaced drawings – the little girl watching the water/snail, the flowers, the tree, the snail, the ocean depth and even the photograph. For me, these details evoked different thoughts and moments that are crystallized to make the poetry collection natural. There is intensity to the sacredness of water that Wong entrances in this collection, brilliantly.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Citizen opens with the mundane everyday racist comments and profiling and progresses to the shocking (black murders) that is also becoming an everyday reality. Citizen builds up from microaggressions to macroaggressions and opens a black reader as myself to the gruesome fact that blackness is, can and will be felt more intensely when plastered against a white background. I found myself wondering who this book was written for and I questioned if those overt and covert racist acts/comments Rankine presents are that obvious to white readers. The plot presents the trauma that black skin imposes due to the history of chattel slavery and through the persistent use of “you”, the stories personalizes and implicates the readers.

This Wound is a World by Billy Ray Belcourt

This deep and disquieting work of utter genius and candor brought tears to my eyes but also ignites hope for a more accommodating world. The collection mirrors humanity in its foible, strength, prejudice and weaknesses. I found myself returning to particular words and lines. Billy Belcourt is a deep old soul with the uncanny ability to do mesmerizing things with words. We need more poets to arrest and open our vista to thoughts and terrains our perspective fears to tread. The author is dauntless and the poems are unapologetic and fierce. This dark collection soars because it unveils an iridescent shinning light of pure human strength and self acceptance amidst all uncertainties. The poems present the personal as communal and I enjoy every offering. So much that I took a picture of a poem that moved me to tears and sent to a Nigerian poet who exclaimed “Powerful and beautiful”.

Scenes of Seduction by Saidiya Hartman

Hartman’s work traces black acts of resistance (infinitesimal, trivial or covert acts to those considered major and highly subversive or overt) from slavery era to the present and underlines the continuation of slavery in contemporary American society even after their first black president. It provokes thoughts on Blackness and Being in the diaspora in an age where blackness is painfully unbearable and marked for certain death. Scenes widened my comprehension of the ruse that the Janus faced 13th amendment offered by making blacks free but enslaved, citizens but subjected and ranked as second class citizens. Sadly, the gifted freedom of emancipation cannot revoke the history of fungibility that secured slave status based on skin colour.

The Seed Thief by Jacqui L’Ange

Dear reader, please find this mythopoetic novel and read it. You will love it if you love poetry and beautiful words that evoke deep meanings. This novel is special, and follows Maddy’s quest for a rare seed that was transposed from Africa to Brazil. It traces the protagonist’s self growth as she secures family, friendship, romance and seeds. I’ve read this more than once and I assure you it is the gift that keeps giving. A modern story about love, it encompasses the love of man and the love of nature while placing premium on the demands of such relationship. I love the non-linearity of the plot which complements the complex narrator and protagonist. The author’s keen eye for details and the narrative style and form will render you spellbound. I like to think I grew and discovered me while reading this beautiful tale. The vibrant colours of Brazil and its rhythm are brought to life in this work and you will be transplanted, for real. L’Ange takes us from the exportation of the Yoruba pantheon, culture and spices to the diverse factions of black diaspora in Brazil. Read it.

Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer

In this travelogue memoir, Heuer follows the Caribou porcupine herd (in their thousands) through the wilderness on foot to their calving ground at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to witness the birth of hundreds of Caribou. Constantly on the move, starved and sleep deprived, navigating intemperate weather and wild terrains, the journey is strenuous and fraught with danger for both human and Caribou (bears and wolves attacks). It is impossible not to be captivated by their attempt to be Caribou, as they neglect human routine and inanities to traverse the wild with the animals, and witness their trails and strengths. I was filled with admiration for the humans when they conceded that the Caribou are sentient beings, and unconquerable in their strength and focus. Unexplainably, the Caribou knew where to be, when to take a rest, when to sprint with force over some distance and when to relax and feed. The sheer number of the Caribou during this migration is amazing and mind boggling especially when one bears in mind that the Caribou are keeping a tradition that has been happening for thousands of years. I found myself accepting that coming from diverse regions and going in different batches, the caribou does have a way of communicating with each other. After reading this one of a kind memoir, I realized how important (now more than ever) it is to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to sustain animal diversity irrespective of oil corporations attempt to drill and destroy this calving ground.

Demonic Grounds: Black women and the Cartography of Struggle by Katherine McKittrick

Katherine McKittrick presents the remapping of spatial boundaries by black diasporic women and their countering of white hegemonic and naturalized geographies through acts of resistance in places they least thought of – the garret – and in the arts, like drama, and soundscape. Drawing upon lived examples from archives and autobiographies (Angelique and Harriet) and building on theoretical foundations by Sylvia Wynter, Toni Morrison, Glissant, Lefebre and Neil Smith, McKittrick theorizes that geographies are permeable, hence, can be remapped to accommodate new non-white realities.

In The Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

Sharpe theorizes “the wake” as a consciousness that Blacks need to live in, to overcome the crippling hold of white subjection and racism. The author unpacks that slave laws transformed into lynch laws that mutated into Jim Crow and other systemic spatialization that continues to translate blackness into bondage. Sharpe elucidates that the past (slavery) is never a past but dwells in the present and lives with the black body and maps it as a site of perpetual mourning. The wake consciousness is a tool for respatializing and remapping the pervasive antiblack weather of America. I return to this gripping book often and glean gems.

Books I’m looking forward to in 2018

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

After reading White Teeth, Swing Time and some of her essays for The New Yorker, I am looking forward to reading Smith’s collection of essays especially in this era of the afterlives of slavery and the burden of blackness.

The Flame by Leonard Cohen

The possibility of reading a collection of previously unpublished poems, personal notes and lyrics of Leonard Cohen is one of the reasons I know 2018 will be a great year. Nothing brings greater joy than the news that this collection was assembled before his passing and I will have another piece of his thoughts to hold dear. I love him. Rest in Peace Always. This book will open a different side of this legend to his fans.

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

Having read Known and Strange Things, I know Cole loves Photography and writing about it. This is why I am eager to read this latest offering from the author of Open City. This will be an exciting one, I am positive. Cole’s observance and detail-specific art is something I look forward to in 2018.

Kufre Usanga is a graduate student whose focus is on Orature and Environmental Literature.

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