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.

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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

and

‘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 sueddie.wordpress.com 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.

Essays
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.

Nonfiction

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

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

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

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

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

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

Underground by Haruki Murakami

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

For Friends & Colleagues by Mark Dvoretsky

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

Poetry

After 4:30 by David Maillu

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

Novels

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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

Short Story Collections

Shadows by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

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

Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto

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

Disappointing Reads

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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

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

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

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

Everyday is for The Thief by Teju Cole

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

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


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


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