A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin

Date Read: August 30th 2019

Published: August 6th 2019

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 272

 

The Blurb

A stunning debut novel, from Rhodes Scholar and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Tope Folarin about a Nigerian family living in Utah and their uncomfortable assimilation to American life.

Living in small-town Utah has always been an uneasy fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in and find his place in the world, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.

Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.

But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief from the demons that plague her; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection—to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.

Sweeping, stirring, and perspective-shifting, A Particular Kind of Black Man is a beautiful and poignant exploration of the meaning of memory, manhood, home, and identity as seen through the eyes of a first-generation Nigerian-American.

 

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

I was so excited when Simon & Schuster sent me Folarin’s debut. I’m a fan of Folarin’s Caine Prize shortlisted stories – Miracle and Genesis and I had been waiting for this debut since 2016 – when he was shortlisted for the second time for the Caine Prize.

A Particular Kind of Black Man is a coming-of-age tale that follows Tunde and his family, in Utah and later in Dallas. Throughout the novel, Tunde is trying to understand himself while enduring various changes that emotionally rock his family.

While reading this debut, I was hoping it wouldn’t be the cliché immigrant story of the first-generation American character trying to strike a balance between their American-ness and their African-ness – I’ve honestly read ENOUGH of such stories over the years. This novel did touch on those identity issues, but Folarin gave us more. I love that Folarin shed light on the importance of a mother’s love in the development of the boy child; the effect a mother’s abuse and absence have on the boy child’s psyche. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that Tunde childhood with and without his mother affected him in a plethora of ways. I always knew mothers/mother figures were important in families, but this novel somehow made me see their importance from a whole different angle, especially with Tunde’s lack of his mother’s love.

Tunde’s dad is such an important character in this book – if this debut is ever read for a literature class or discussed in a book club, soooo much can be said about him! He was a loving, strict father, who was deeply affected by the demise of his marriage(s). He was a proud Yoruba man, yet desired to assimilate into American culture (especially in his need to acquire an American accent) just so he could keep a job. Stress gets the best of him and readers see hints of depression, as he fought to stay jovial and positive for his family. Reading and relating to his character felt so real, because in real life, many immigrants don’t always achieve the ‘American dream.’ I wish Folarin gave more insight into Tunde’s dad’s life towards the end of the novel, because he just vanished when Tunde went off to college.

Folarin made this debut more exciting for me with how he played with perspective and memory throughout the novel. At one point, the novel is written in first person (Tunde’s voice) and in some chapters it’s written in the third person. With chapters that are written in first person, Tunde admits to readers that the re-telling of various events discussed in the book may be false, as he seems to suffer from double-memory. I found this both upsetting and fascinating, because Tunde himself isn’t sure of anything anymore, to the point where he thinks he possesses symptoms of his mother’s Schizophrenia. Tunde steadily tries to be a particular type of black man, and Folarin’s use of various perspectives help us witness Tunde’s performance from various aspects.

What I’ve always liked about Folarin’s writing is how lucid and artfully descriptive his stories are. This debut shows Folarin’s poetic and funny side, as various passages display bits of humor and poetic melodies. I will continue to read anything Folarin writes! Read this book if you can.

Special thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book!

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase A Particular Kind of Black Man on Amazon

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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

Date Read: July 21st 2019

Published: June 4th 2019

Publisher: House of Anansi Press

Pages: 272

 

The Blurb

Kara Davis is a girl caught in the middle – of her Canadian nationality and her desire to be a ‘true’ Jamaican, of her mother and grandmother’s rages and life lessons, of having to avoid being thought of as too ‘faas’ or too ‘quiet’ or too ‘bold’ or too ‘soft’.

Set in Little Jamaica, Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood, Kara moves from girlhood to the threshold of adulthood, from elementary school to high school graduation, in these twelve interconnected stories. We see her on a visit to Jamaica, startled by the sight of a severed pig’s head in her great aunt’s freezer; in junior high, the victim of a devastating prank by her closest friends; and as a teenager in and out of her grandmother’s house, trying to cope with the ongoing battles between her unyielding grandparents.

A rich and unforgettable portrait of growing up between worlds, Frying Plantain shows how, in one charged moment, friendship and love can turn to enmity and hate, well-meaning protection can become control, and teasing play can turn to something much darker. In her brilliantly incisive debut, Zalika Reid-Benta artfully depicts the tensions between mothers and daughters, second-generation Canadians and first-generation cultural expectations, and Black identity and predominately white society.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

The title of this collection is so cool! Everyone loves fried plantain, so the title is truly inviting (Fun fact – fried plantain is called kelewele in Ghana (when diced & spiced), dodo in Nigeria, alloco in Cote d’Ivoire). Frying Plantain is a coming-of-age collection of interconnected short stories that follow Canadian-Jamaican girl, Kara Davis. Initially, I thought with each successive story, I’d be engrossed into Kara’s journey as she went through childhood into adolescence. But now, a part of me feels a little disappointed by this collection. While reading, I felt like I was drowning because I found the characters relentlessly toxic, hence making my reading experience a bit sour.

The collection commences with a story called ‘Pig Head.’ In ‘Pig Head’, we’re introduced to Kara who is on holiday in Jamaica with her family. While on holiday, Kara is sent to get something from the freezer and is terrified by the sight of a huge severed pig head stored there. Kara goes back to her 4th grade classmates in Canada and tells fibs about the pig head. She brags about how she helped kill the pig and gives her classmates gory details of the killing, which eventually land her into trouble with her school’s principal and her mother. Kara fabricates the story in an effort to seem unique and to claim her Jamaican roots even though her neighborhood friends call her ‘stush’ (posh/boujee).

Throughout this collection, Kara tries to fit in by either lying, falling prey to peer pressure or staying quiet to keep the peace. As a child, she spends a lot of time with (toxic) neighborhood friends, who are also of Caribbean heritage. Among her group of friends, some are even straight from the Islands and they impose their Caribbean authenticity by constantly reminding others within the group – including Kara, of how un-Jamaican/Caribbean they are –

Miss Canada gwine fi bust out the patois? Yuh need to stop Ja-fakin’ it, Kara – pg. 32

 

I enjoyed the short stories that explored Kara’s relationships with boys and wanted more! I found the descriptions of her first kiss so cringey yet hilarious, as Reid-Benta aptly portrays the awkwardness –

I told him he could kiss me, and then he inched forward and meshed his lips with mine… My own lips were still puckered when he started to open his mouth. He pressed the tip of his tongue against my teeth until I unclenched and allowed him access. I couldn’t figure him out… I hunched my shoulders instead, trying to show eagerness, and twirled my tongue around his, but he got excited and shoved his tongue so far down my throat I gagged. I pulled away – pg. 116

But Kara’s mother’s sharp gaze always marred my joy of witnessing Kara find love (or have fun, in general). Kara is raised by a single mother – Eloise, who seems pretty miserable. Initially I didn’t feel any love between mother and daughter, but later I realized Eloise’s brash, over-controlling manner was driven by fear. Eloise raises Kara on her own but with the help of her own parents, who come with their own set of issues. *sigh* Eloise’s relationship with her parents (Kara’s grandparents) is tragic – there is a lot of emotional abuse, verbal abuse, manipulation and gaslighting between Eloise and her parents, but also between Kara and her grandparents. Eloise’s parents also have a dysfunctional marriage – but I don’t even have the energy to get into their marriage. Kara’s family dynamics in this book are just A LOT.

Since Kara is raised in an over-controlled, stern environment, her personality is unassuming and quite unclear. She comes off as meek, subdued and repressed; but she can defend herself or react to unfair treatment when pushed to her limit, which is often.

According to other readers on Goodreads, this collection is very Canadian. I wasn’t sensitive to the Canadian-ness of this collection, as I wouldn’t even know where to catch the nuances. I’ve only visited Canada three times (Toronto when I was about 5 years old, Montréal as a sophomore in college and Windsor when I was a senior in college), so I didn’t have the eye for spotting the Canadian vibes from the collection. I did like the mention of poutine though, when Kara and her friends trekked through a snow storm just to eat some.

I thoroughly enjoyed Zalika Reid-Benta’s writing style. She has a beautiful way with words such that I vividly saw Kara’s quiet awkwardness; I could hear Eloise shouting at Kara to stop crying; I could feel Kara’s desire to fit in with her fellow Caribbean friends. Zalika Reid-Benta’s writing is the reason I finished this collection. She has a gift with words, and I surely admire that!

I think I would have enjoyed this collection more if I was new to African Diaspora literature. But I’ve read countless stories like this, so it didn’t really stand out to me as super unique. I just find it very interesting how Caribbean women writers always seem to touch on strained mother-daughter relationships in their work. I haven’t read a ton of work by Caribbean women writers, but so far Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Naomi Jackson, Alexia Arthurs ALL touch on this strained relationship in their stories. Why is this type of relationship so prevalent in their work? Anyway, even though I wasn’t blown away by this collection, I look forward to reading more of Reid-Benta’s work! She’s a pretty damn good writer.

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for sending me a review copy of the book!

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase Frying Plantain on Amazon

You Too Will Know Me by Ama Asantewa Diaka (Poetra Asantewa)

Date Read: July 16th 2019

Published: June 11th 2019

Publisher: Akashic Books

Pages: 30

The Blurb

“Here is a poet whose practiced weaving of talk and song is a testament to her devotion to language and her clarity of vision. Those of us who have encountered Diaka with excitement invite you to listen with us as she offers us a new song, one which will surely not be her last” – Tjawandwa Dema

 

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

You Too Will Know Me is a chapbook that reads like a series of confessions, in an effort to better love and accept oneself. Through the sincere truths and feelings revealed, Diaka shows that ‘any day is a good day for redemption’, that there is joy in the morning and we can all start over again. Most of the poems speak to the challenges of adulthood, abandonment of lovers, unrequited love, (un)forgiveness, feminine strength + beauty and more.

Diaka’s writing style is bold – bold enough to have the words ‘God’ and ‘blowjob’ in the same stanza! Bold enough to capture the essence of what it’s like to be deeply disappointed in your home country for not loving its citizens enough (from my favorite poem – And I’ve Mastered The Art of Receiving Hand-Outs Because I Come From This Place).

••

Favorite quotes from various poems in the chapbook:

‘how do I distract myself from myself in order to free myself?’ – Before The Gag, page 12

 

‘What’s the English word for someone who still has hope in lovers who cause too much anxiety?
Tell me so I can spit it out.’ – Spit, page 13

 

‘Damn everybody!
Do they not know
that the sun borrows light from your fingertips?
Do they not know
that you give color to the rose?
Do they not know
that your breath is studied by the highest of connoisseurs
to make the best perfumes?
There’s something about you
that makes looking away impossible’ – Suicide Sarah, page 15

 

‘I am hungry for a love my country cannot afford…
I want a love
that doesn’t require me to be ridiculously multifaceted
in order to have a fraction of an equation at being equipped for survival;
a love that doesn’t wait for another suitor to sing the praises of my genius
before recognizing my worth,
or worse, only after I’m dead.
I am hungry for a love my country cannot afford,
the way white lusts for a backdrop to outshine.

And I’ve Mastered The Art of Receiving Hand-Outs Because I Come From This Place, page 18

 

‘I have been fretting over things that God shakes his head at
toying with faith as if it were a disappearing act.
One minute I’m full of it,
the next, I don’t exactly know the shape of it.
I fret over now and tomorrow,
giving myself and God a headache.
Spoon feed myself faith,
and come up hungry again…’ – Let It Be, page 22

••

Bloom is an unapologetically Ghanaian poem, that reads like a vivid short film. In the poem, the narrator takes readers to Accra, Ghana- Labadi, to be precise. The narrator describes the ordinary Ghanaians she sees on the road, simply living. The laugh and smiles of a porridge seller – Ms. Atta, keeps her customers coming for more, despite the deep pain and hurt she feels within.

‘These people teach me,
that if you are from Accra and you are placed anywhere in
the world,
there’s no way you won’t know how to bloom’ – Bloom, page 24

 

This collection is meant to be read more than once. Multiple readings will reveal different truths – about the poet and even you, the reader! Diaka’s work allows readers to meditate and examine their feelings towards their present lives. You Too Will Know Me is honest, visceral and necessary. Also, it’s Ghanaian AF!

 

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

You Too Will Know Me is part of a series published by Akashic Books in collaboration
with the African Poetry Book Fund:
New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Sita) (African Poetry)

Purchase it on Amazon

How To Love A Jamaican: Stories by Alexia Arthurs

Date Read: March 5th 2019

Published: 2018

Publisher: Picador

Pages: 256

The Blurb

Tenderness and cruelty, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and regret—Alexia Arthurs navigates these tensions to extraordinary effect in her debut collection about Jamaican immigrants and their families back home. Sweeping from close-knit island communities to the streets of New York City and midwestern university towns, these eleven stories form a portrait of a nation, a people, and a way of life.

In “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” an NYU student befriends a fellow Jamaican whose privileged West Coast upbringing has blinded her to the hard realities of race. In “Mash Up Love,” a twin’s chance sighting of his estranged brother—the prodigal son of the family—stirs up unresolved feelings of resentment. In “Bad Behavior,” a couple leave their wild teenage daughter with her grandmother in Jamaica, hoping the old ways will straighten her out. In “Mermaid River,” a Jamaican teenage boy is reunited with his mother in New York after eight years apart. In “The Ghost of Jia Yi,” a recently murdered student haunts a despairing Jamaican athlete recruited to an Iowa college. And in “Shirley from a Small Place,” a world-famous pop star retreats to her mother’s big new house in Jamaica, which still holds the power to restore something vital.

Alexia Arthurs emerges in this vibrant, lyrical, intimate collection as one of fiction’s most dynamic and essential authors.

 

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

My 4 stars rating for How To Love A Jamaican doesn’t mean I loved all the stories. In fact, out of the 11 short stories, I absolutely loved just 4 of them. But I give this collection 4 out of 5 stars because I LOVED how this collection made me feel. I carried this book everywhere with me for the two weeks it took me to finish it. I was always eager to pick it up again and didn’t mind re-reading some stories just to be in the world of the characters again. It took me a while to finish this collection mostly because of school (this is ALWAYS my excuse, have you noticed?), but also because I wanted to take my time and imbibe myself into the stories! It took me forever to get my hands on this book, so I just wanted to savor every word. Special thanks to my friend Kobby from @bookworm_man on Bookstagram who initially lent me his copy, then later allowed me to keep it 🙂

While some stories fell flat for me – especially ‘Bad Behavior’, ‘Mash Up Love’, ‘Shirley From a Small Place’ (I wasn’t fond of how Shirley’s story resembled Rihanna Fenty’s career trajectory), I mostly enjoyed how accessible Arthurs’s writing was – especially the patois. At the beginning of the book, she makes it clear that this collection is ‘For Jamaicans’ and she is true to her words. Reading stories about Jamaicans, mostly IN Jamaica or Jamaicans who were born and bred in Jamaica without migrating out of the Island, was definitely refreshing and inspiring.

••

My favorite stories were:

Island – This story is excellent. Island is about three girlfriends who travel to a Caribbean island for a wedding. One of the girls in this group is a lesbian and her friends subtly malign her throughout the trip. The tension within the friend group was palpable and maddening. It had me thinking about friendship – why we call certain people our friends and how our choice of friends reflects who we are, or who we aren’t.

On Shelf – This story was pretty ordinary from beginning to end. But Arthurs’s ability to just tell a normal story about an academically successful 40 year old Jamaican woman in the US, settling with a man below her standards in order to move forward with life and bear a child felt very real.

Light-skinned girls and Kelly Rowlands – I love that the collection commences with this story! It kept me wanting more and I eagerly anticipated reading the rest of the stories, thanks to this one. This story follows two young women in college – NYU, who become friends unexpectedly. Cecelia is dark-skinned; upper class; only dates white men; of Jamaican heritage but was born and bred in California. Brittney on the other hand is from a low/middle-class family; prefers dating black men; was born in Jamaica but moved to Brooklyn when she was six years old. I loved the sisterhood these friends shared, but I also despised the tension between them, especially when they had disagreements. I felt Brittney constantly tried to undermine Cecelia’s Jamaicanness/Blackness, because she was more or less an ‘oreo’ and had never been to Jamaica before. The ending of this story just reminded me of gnawing issues I have with folks born and raised in their native lands versus pure Diasporans.

The recurrent themes in this collection include: good ole’ problematic Jamaican pigmentocracy (aka- colorism), mother-daughter relationships (I find many Caribbean women writers love writing on this theme! So far Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid and Naomi Jackson all touch on this theme and always suggest a fraught relationship between mothers and daughters in their writing), mermaids, being haunted by ghosts, love & relationships. I especially LOVED when queer characters and issues surrounding members of the LGBTQ spectrum were introduced into stories – they were the most compelling.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase How To Love A Jamaican on Amazon

Period Pain by Kopano Matlwa

Date Read: January 20th 2018

Published: 2017

Publisher: Jacana Media

Pages: 188

The Blurb

Period Pain captures the heartache and confusion of so many South Africans who feel defeated by the litany of headline horrors; xenophobia, corrective rape, corruption and crime and for many the death sentence that is the public health nightmare. Where are we going, what have we become? Period Pain helps us navigate our South Africa. We meet Masechaba, and through her story we are able to reflect, to question and to rediscover our humanity.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Dr. Kopano Matlwa is a writer and doctor I truly admire! I remember purchasing her debut – Coconut, back in 2011. But I never got around to finishing the book that year, thanks to never-ending college papers. I hope to rectify this soon and possibly finish reading Matlwa’s debut this year!

Period Pain follows Masechaba (aka – Chaba), a young house officer/1st year doctor fighting through tough working conditions in a South African hospital. Not only is Chaba struggling to work in under-resourced hospital conditions, but she’s also dealing with her own health issues – severe menorrhagia, depression, PTSD; while trying to aid in the fight against xenophobia in the nation. I’m yet to read a novel set in South Africa where violence isn’t one of the main characters of the novel. *sigh*

While Period Pain is raw and agonizing, it’s not all depressing. I had many good laughs while reading this short novel! Chaba is humorous and her (only) friend we encounter in the novel – Nyasha from Zimbabwe, is such a bitch – but a ‘woke’ one, I suppose! The exploration of Chaba and Nyasha’s friendship felt very real. Nyasha was such an abrasive, ruthless person, while Chaba was the complete opposite and almost depended on Nyasha’s approval to feel good about herself. The trajectory of their friendship was quite sad and left me almost hating Nyasha, despite the fact that everyone hated her as a foreigner in South Africa.

Besides Matlwa’s exploration of female friendship in this novel, I especially related to the many helpless incidents (and the medical jargon) Chaba faced on the wards, as I’m a dental student. I’m truly starting to love novels that intersect with my medical/dental education. Such stories make me feel less alone in the struggles of the training.

Kopano Matlwa’s ability to blend heavy issues such as: suicide, sexual assault, xenophobia, depression, violence, Christian hypocrisy etc. with humor made me love this novel! The book is written in the form of a diary/journal, where Chaba talks to God about anything and everything. Her conversations with God felt like the conversations very close friends have with one another – light, needy, lonely, confused, desperate. I like that the book is laced with Bible verses and showed how Chaba meditated on the verses, but practiced the opposite of what the scriptures instructed. It sort of mirrored the lifestyle of many Christians of today.

Matlwa’s writing style was deeply compelling and made me wonder how much of HER life is part of Chaba’s story. Matlwa’s ability to make you feel Chaba’s pain, confusion and victories were visceral. I would have rated Period Pain 5 stars, but the ending fell a little flat. It felt predictable and was tied up a little too neatly for me, hence my overall rating of 4.5 stars.

Side note – Upon finishing the novel, I now see why British publishers (Sceptre) decided to name this book Evening Primrose. But I don’t understand why they thought a change in the title (from ‘Period Pain’) would sell the book better. Period Pain as a title is loud & severe, and simply embodies the essence of this novel. I’m glad I purchased this South African edition (published by Jacana Media). Supporting African publishers is necessary + I like the book cover too!

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase Period Pain on Amazon

 

Mini Reviews | Houseboy & Tropical Fish

Hey everyone!

In an effort to reduce the growing backlog of book reviews I owe this platform, below are mini reviews of two excellent books I read a couple of years ago.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Date Read: September 22nd 2017

Published: 1991

Publisher: Heinemann

Pages: 122

The Blurb

This book is written in the form of a diary kept by Toundi, an innocent Cameroonian houseboy who is fascinated and awed by the white world, the world of his masters.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

*sigh* Oyono’s Houseboy is such a painful, humorous, tragic tale.


Toundi – the main character (the houseboy), is naïve of the realities of his world in the French colony of Cameroon. While he’s is a good natured boy with a pure heart, the French exploitation of native Cameroonians cause the demise of Toundi (this isn’t a spoiler, trust me!).

This book really highlighted how fearful French colonialists were of native Cameroonians and Black Africans, in general. They were so fearful, insecure, ignorant and mentally fragile that they constantly exerted their supposed superiority over natives with hateful, brutal abuse. Toundi’s innocence gave this novel so much humor. The ways he misunderstood the lifestyle of white people was hilarious and sad at the same time. The ways the natives spoke about the French gave me some good laughs as well.

No, it can’t be true, I told myself, I couldn’t have seen properly. A great chief like the Commandant uncircumcised… I was relieved by this discovery. It killed something inside me… I knew I should never be frightened of this Commandant again. (pg. 28)

This was actually the 1st African novel I’ve ever read (I was initially in love with African-American fiction before I ever started reading books by African writers… well, besides Anansi stories). My Mom encouraged (or forced?) me to read Houseboy back when I was about thirteen years old. Back then, I didn’t enjoy this book at all and found it difficult to understand the myriad of proverbial phrases this story is blessed with. Today, I finally appreciate this novel as a superb, underrated classic within the African Writer’s Series.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase Houseboy on Amazon

 


Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana

Date Read: September 16th 2016

Published: 2008

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press

Pages: 158

 

The Blurb

In her fiction debut, Doreen Baingana follows a Ugandan girl as she navigates the uncertain terrain of adolescence. Set mostly in pastoral Entebbe with stops in the cities Kampala and Los Angeles, Tropical Fish depicts the reality of life for Christine Mugisha and her family after Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Three of the eight chapters are told from the point of view of Christine’s two older sisters, Patti, a born-again Christian who finds herself starving at her boarding school, and Rosa, a free spirit who tries to “magically” seduce one of her teachers. But the star of Tropical Fish is Christine, whom we accompany from her first wobbly steps in high heels, to her encounters with the first-world conveniences and alienation of America, to her return home to Uganda.

As the Mugishas cope with Uganda’s collapsing infrastructure, they also contend with the universal themes of family cohesion, sex and relationships, disease, betrayal, and spirituality. Anyone dipping into Baingana’s incandescent, widely acclaimed novel will enjoy their immersion in the world of this talented newcomer.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

After reading Doreen Baingana’s short story entitled ‘Tropical Fish’ in African Love Stories: An Anthology at the beginning of 2016, I knew I had to find her book.

I loved how nuanced this collection of interlocking stories were. Readers get a good feel of life in Entebbe, Uganda during Idi Amin’s ruling. I enjoyed the three sisters: Patti, Rosa and Christine Mugisha. I had wanted more insight into Patti’s life; she had a gentle, holier-than-thou demeanor that I wished was explored more. Rosa’s chapters were quite hilarious and poetic. I admired Baingana’s uncommon perspective on HIV/AIDS and sex through Rosa’s promiscuous lifestyle. Christine’s life (the youngest sister) is more closely followed in this book – from her days as a little girl playing in her parents’ bedroom to when she is twenty-nine years old and a recent ‘returnee’ from the States.

Baingana’s attention to the littlest things/feelings/observations we overlook in our daily lives made me love this collection. The writing was not overly descriptive; the commentary was witty, clever and overall, the exploration of life in Entebbe and the US was just heartfelt. I’m very fond of Baingana’s writing and it’s no wonder she was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Africa region and has garnered other literary awards for her writing. I hope she writes a new novel very soon.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe on Amazon

She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Date Read: September 10th 2018

Published: September 2018

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Pages: 312

The Blurb

Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond. Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.” In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Prior to reading She Would Be King, I was a newbie when it came Liberian literature – I still am! I only knew about Nobel Peace Prize winner and writer – Leymah Gbowee, and her feature in the amazing documentary film – Pray the Devil Back to Hell (which I watched and deeply enjoyed for a Women’s Studies class in college). This debut had me wanting to know more about Liberia and the work of Liberian writers, such as – Helene Cooper, Hawa Jande Golakai, Vamba Sherif, Leymah Gbowee, Bilphena Yahwon (Gold Womyn) and others. While reading, I actually found a YouTube video where Liberian writer- Vamba Sherif, talks about Liberian literature in an interview. Enjoy!

She Would Be King is a beautiful mélange of historical fiction, magical realism and coming-of-age. Moore skillfully develops the three main characters of this novel: Gbessa – a Vai girl who is cursed and exiled to the forest; June Dey – the child of the strongest rebel on the Emerson plantation in Virginia; Norman Aragon – the child of Nani who was a gifted Jamaican Maroon and a British anthropologist/colonizer (such a terrible man!) . These three characters are guided by the wind and use their gifts – which are considered curses to ordinary people, to save present-day Liberia from its many hidden troubles. I always knew Liberia was the land where some freed slaves and freeborn African Americans made a living, but I had no idea freed slaves from the Caribbean also settled in present-day Liberia, making the nation a flavorful melting pot of indigenous and Diaspora folk.

The first three chapters of this debut explore these three main characters. I loved delving into the characters’ storylines and witnessing their evolution through the years. While African-American June Dey and Jamaican Norman play key roles in the establishment of Liberia through their gifts, Gbessa is the shero of this novel (this is not a spoiler, relax!) . Gbessa, who is described as a dark-skinned woman with wild red long hair, grows immensely in this story, to the point where her layered identities begin to haunt her. I’m itching to discuss Gbessa’s evolution, but unfortunately it would require divulging spoilers – and that wouldn’t be right!

[Images via Wayétu Moore’s Instagram for her US book tour dates; illustrations by Art Therapy Houston, PLLC]

Wayétu Moore’s writing felt light and magical in this debut. While reading, my heart raced as I could feel Gbessa’s loneliness and isolation, June Dey’s anger and power, Norman’s intelligence and bravery. The many issues in this story come together beautifully as Moore explores the legacies of slavery and colonialism as well as love, friendship, womanhood and independence. The sisterhood between Gbessa and Maisy – the wonderful woman who plays an immense role in Gbessa’s ‘civilization’ was so heartfelt!

I enjoyed the brotherhood between June Dey and Norman, but I wished their relationship was explored more. These men spent most of their time fighting invaders so there wasn’t enough dialogue between them. Also, it took me a while to finish this book thanks to school work, but also because I got bored of June Dey and Norman’s chapters, which were heavy with magical realism and lots of action. It wasn’t easy keeping up with the wordiness of their fighting scenes which required me to imagine all of their complex, superhero stunts. I really just desired some more depth to June Dey and Norman’s relationship and their connection to the settlement of Monrovia.

What I loved most about this novel was reading about the tensions between members of the indigenous tribes and former enslaved African Americans/ free-borns from the United States. I always knew these two groups had difficulty in seeing eye-to-eye, even in present day Liberia, but I didn’t realize how deep that tension was.

“But… some of them don’t think all of us the same. Some of them think… some of then think they smarter and better fit to lead than those who were already here” pg. 173.

The phrase ‘All My Skinfolk ain’t Kinfolk’ gnawed at me as I read how the African American settlers blatantly disregarded indigenous Liberians. It was eye-opening (and disappointing) to witness how settlers from the US treated indigenous folk similar to the ways slave masters treated them back in the US. Imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy emigrated with the African American settlers to Monrovia, where they imposed their power and discriminated against the natives. Indigenous folk had little say in the governing of their land, as the mayors and key thinkers of Monrovia were predominently the African American settlers. I had to do quite a bit of outside reading on Liberian history and the role of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in Monrovia’s complete independence. It was so intriguing to read on the motives of this society and I think I now understand why the election of Liberia’s current president- George Weah, was such a big deal.

There’s so much to say about this book! While I’d like some clarity on the use of language (pidgin) in the novel and Gbessa’s (unrealistic) infatuation with her childhood friend – Safua, this debut is pretty solid. I’d love to know what Liberians and Liberian-Americans think of this novel, as they would probably better understand the nuances of the story. I can confidently say I will read anything by Wayétu Moore, and that this debut is a lovely ode to the country of Liberia and Liberian womanhood, through Gbessa’s complex characterization.

[Today is pub day! Special thanks to Graywolf Press and Wayétu Moore for an Advanced Review Copy of this debut]

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase She Would Be King on Amazon

The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

Date Read: June 23rd 2018

Published: May 2018

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press

Pages: 234

The Blurb

Aminah lives an idyllic life until she is brutally separated from her home and forced on a journey that turns her from a daydreamer into a resilient woman. Wurche, the willful daughter of a chief, is desperate to play an important role in her father’s court. These two women’s lives converge as infighting among Wurche’s people threatens the region, during the height of the slave trade at the end of the 19th century.

Set in pre-colonial Ghana, The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a story of courage, forgiveness, love and freedom. Through the experiences of Aminah and Wurche, it offers a remarkable view of slavery and how the scramble for Africa affected the lives of everyday people.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I would rate The Hundred Wells of Salaga 4.5 stars in a heartbeat, but I’m rounding up my rating to 5 stars. Ayesha Harruna Attah has grown soooo much as a writer and this third novel is proof of her wonderful growth. The Hundred Wells of Salaga is very well researched and I’m ashamed at how little I knew about the internal slavery within the continent during the 1800’s. It’s amazing how we Ghanaians know very little about our country – I had no idea what or where Salaga was. While I was reading, I fervently looked for more information on Salaga and slavery of Northern Ghana and came across this video on YouTube – SALAGA: An Ancient Slave Trade Center. It’s an excellent 19 minute, short documentary on the ancient slave trade center. Enjoy!

I just love that this historical novel opens up conversation around – internal, trans-Saharan & trans-Atlantic slave trade, amongst readers. This novel opens up the wounds of our past and shows how complicit we were the in our greed for power through the fragmenting of families. The Hundred Wells of Salaga forced me to examine how many families in Africa (and Asia) currently practice modern forms of ‘slavery’ through the use of ‘house helps’ or ‘house girls’ and the effects of this modern practice.

All of Ayesha’s novels have been great reads for me because she creates well-rounded characters. Typically, the chapters of her books are dedicated to the characters, so the storyline is propelled through the lens of the different characters of her books; I was excited to see this technique used in The Hundred Wells of Salaga.

Aminah and Wurche’s characters were great contrasts – while Aminah’s character was calm, kind and obedient; Wurche was confident, pleasantly arrogant and ambitious – my type of gal, to be honest! Ayesha gets readers acquainted with Aminah and her family to the point where it feels like Aminah’s family is our own. Reading Aminah’s chapters felt a bit grime and I had this feeling of doom and fear as the story progressed. Ayesha manages to personalize slavery through Aminah’s character, and readers feel the hurt and vulnerability it caused ordinary folk.

Wurche’s chapters were the vehicle that drove the feminist narrative in this novel. Readers see first-hand how women (more so Wurche) were used to push the agendas of domination, through arranged marriages and other acts of coercion; and the various acts of rebellion the brave women took. Readers start to understand the legacies of slavery in Ghana through Aminah and Wurche, and get acquainted with other characters like – a German, who ideally would be seen as the big, bad colonizer, an Ashanti slave owner (Wofa Sarpong) and many other personalities who challenge our values. Islam plays an interesting role in this novel – I loved the dichotomy of how it was used to teach values, but also regulated the lives of women, which affect Wurche’s headstrong nature.

Ayesha did an excellent job with The Hundred Wells of Salaga! I truly hope this book is sold in Salaga or bookshops, museums and historical sites in Northern Ghana. It’s a necessary resource.


The Hundred Wells of Salaga has been acquired by Other Press (USA) and will be published February of next year (image on the right – how beautiful is the book cover?! It was illustrated by the talented Loveis Wise). The book also has translation rights in Dutch (bottom left image), French, German, Italian and Turkish!

 

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase The Hundred Wells of Salaga on Amazon

 

Check out my book reviews of Ayesha H. Attah’s other novels: