Written by award-winning African novelist Mariama Ba and translated from the original French, So Long a Letter has been recognized as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. The brief narrative, written as an extended letter, is a sequence of reminiscences—some wistful, some bitter—recounted by recently widowed Senegalese schoolteacher Ramatoulaye Fall. Addressed to a lifelong friend, Aissatou, it is a record of Ramatoulaye’s emotional struggle for survival after her husband betrayed their marriage by taking a second wife. This semi-autobiographical account is a perceptive testimony to the plight of educated and articulate Muslim women. Angered by the traditions that allow polygyny, they inhabit a social milieu dominated by attitudes and values that deny them status equal to men. Ramatoulaye hopes for a world where the best of old customs and new freedom can be combined.
Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.
Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Everybody and their grandma has read So Long A Letter. The first time I read this classic, it was assigned reading for an Anthropology class I took when I was a junior in college, back in 2011. I recently re-read this classic 10 years later and I still give the book the same rating this time around, because of the poignant writing.
Senegalese patriarchy, Islam, the male ego, mid-life crisis, greed, loneliness, mother-daughter relationships, feminism, sisterhood, courage vs cowardice, poverty, modernity vs tradition, colonialism, death, misogyny and family customs, all take center stage in So Long a Letter.
I looooved how Ramatoulaye’s mother judged her daughter’s suitors by their teeth! According to Ramatoulaye’s mother, the wide gap between Modou’s [who she ended up marrying] upper incisors was a sign of ‘the primacy of sensuality in the individual’; Closely set teeth (of Daouda, one of Ramatoulaye’s suitors) won her mother’s confidence. As a Dentist, these peculiarities in teeth alignment being equivalent to promiscuity and character of potential suitors was hilarious and fascinating to me!
After re-reading this classic, I’ve been over-thinking the friendship Ramatoulaye and Aissatou shared. They were best friends/basically sisters. They shared the same plight, but each dealt with the fragmenting of their family units differently – Ramatoulaye stayed and endured, while Aissatou moved towards complete independence and advanced in her career. I really wish Bâ gave Aissatou more of a voice in the novel – besides her brilliant, fierce break-up letter to Mawdo, her ex-husband. I wanted to know if Aissatou was okay with Ramatoulaye recounting her (Aissatou’s) difficult situation with her ex-husband, Mawdo – I personally hate when friends rehash my plight when they complain about their own; I wanted to know if Aissatou was actually not bothered with Ramatoulaye still having a relationship with Mawdo – Aissatou’s ex-husband, as he was still Ramatoulaye’s family doctor and he was still a part of her family’s life; I wanted to know if Aissatou felt frustrated and/or disappointed at Ramatoulaye’s decision to stay with Modou, who turned out to be scum of the Earth once he stepped out of his marriage. I can’t help but wonder all these things because I often feel frustrated and disappointed when a friend complains to me about a man who treats her badly and she chooses to endure nonsense. While I know Ramatoulaye wrote the long letter to Aissatou while in isolation when she was mourning her late husband, I just wish Aissatou’s voice was heard with regards to everything Ramatoulaye divulged in the letter.
The only issue I had with this classic was Ramatoulaye’s slight misogynistic views on women’s sexuality and pleasure. I wasn’t super surprised with her conservative views, especially given this character’s overall way of life and the setting/timing of the story, but I couldn’t help but feel that those sentiments were Bâ’s as well. Some of the conservative views on women’s sexuality had me wondering why So Long A Letter has been hailed a beacon in African feminist text… However, I now understand that the conservative stances Ramatoulaye wrestled with really portrayed how women during that time were grappling with the challenges modernity brought – and this is especially evident in contrasting Ramatoulaye and Daba’s (her eldest daughter) realities, with respect to marriage and gender roles.
There’s so much more that can be said about So Long A Letter! This classic is best enjoyed if you’re reading it for a class or book club, as there is so much that can be dissected and discussed. I had the privilege of re-reading it for a virtual book club discussion with The Harare Book Club, last month.
★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!
Long time, no blog! I was extremely busy back in September and October. I was taking my final Dental exams during those months, but I’m finally free now.
I started this book blog a couple of months before I started Dental school, back in 2014. By God’s grace, I’m finally done and I’m proud to announce that I’m finally a Dentist and no longer a dental student. My childhood dream has been fulfilled and I’m grateful that this book blog, the camaraderie it garnered and my reading habits over the years have helped to sustain me throughout the 6 years of Dental school.
I’m using this time to take it easy for now, while still trying to complete my 2020 reading goal of reading 10 books. Hopefully I can finish up before this hectic year ends.
Below is my mini book review of Zikora: A Short Storyby Chimamanda Adichie and some awesome articles I’ve loved since my absence. Enjoy!
Date Read: November 3rd 2020
Published: October 27th 2020
Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
The emotional storms weathered by a mother and daughter yield a profound new understanding in a moving short story by the bestselling, award-winning author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists.
When Zikora, a DC lawyer from Nigeria, tells her equally high-powered lover that she’s pregnant, he abandons her. But it’s Zikora’s demanding, self-possessed mother, in town for the birth, who makes Zikora feel like a lonely little girl all over again. Stunned by the speed with which her ideal life fell apart, she turns to reflecting on her mother’s painful past and struggle for dignity. Preparing for motherhood, Zikora begins to see more clearly what her own mother wants for her, for her new baby, and for herself.
Review –★★★★ (4 stars)
I’m glad Chimamanda is back to writing fiction because I was getting tired of her non-fiction pamphlets – Dear Ijeawele and We Should All Be Feminists. Zikora is a short story that’s essentially about womanhood – our loves, our bodies, our minds, our longings, our hurts, our strengths and our weaknesses. Themes such as fraught mother-daughter relationships, ageism, love, motherhood and more are explored in this short story.
I must say – Zikora and Kwame relationship’s demise (this is not a spoiler) had me feeling soooo depressed while reading. How can Kwame disgrace we Ghanaians like this? In true Chimamanda fashion, she adeptly develops the characters through the incorporation of past and present anecdotes, which simultaneously propel this emotional story forward.
In my opinion, Chimamanda isn’t the best short story writer. I wasn’t crazy about her short story collection- The Thing Around Her Neckbecause the conclusions of the short stories ended way too rudely and abruptly. But she definitely excels as a full-fledged novelist and I hope this Zikora is part of a forthcoming NOVEL! *fingers crossed*
“We can recognize both Adichie’s talent as a writer and the cultural impact of her work, but her continued unwillingness to unlearn transphobia sullies her legacy and credentials when discussing gender politics. It’s disappointing—but it’s also an opportunity to continue investing in other Nigerian authors asking important questions of the culture and seeking to challenge some of Nigeria’s cultural norms while uplifting stories often relegated to the shadows”
This list is packed with a lot of references to J.K. Rowling and Chimamanda’s dismissal of Trans lives in the recent past. Take the time to read them all, if you can. It’s quite disappointing and I find myself wondering if I should still indulge in Chimamanda’s work… Trans women are WOMEN. Period.
“Ms. Morrison’s work had the courage to confront the U.S.’s historical amnesia of systemic violence and marginalization of Black folks in a nuanced and inevitably intersectional way by finding the balance between portraying intergenerational trauma and radical healing among Black American women in historically White American literary traditions”
Whew! I left the best piece for last. I’m not new to Jackson’s work as I read, enjoyed and reviewed Naomi Jackson’s debut – The Star Side of Bird Hill, about 4 years ago. This piece is deeply heart-wrenching and it was beautifully written! Jackson held nothing back in this piece and I respect her a lot for this, even though it heightened my anxiety with regards to childbirth, significantly.
Any fans of Frances Mensah Williams’ work in the house? I’ve been slowly working my way through some compelling Black Brit reads and Williams’ work has been on my radar for a hot minute! Frances Mensah Williams is a Ghanaian-British author of many books. If you remember, back in 2017 she was one of the 80+ Ghanaian writers highlighted in the 3-part series I did on Ghanaian writers and their books. Her latest novel – Imperfect Arrangements, was published back in March and from the synopsis, this novel looks juicy and satisfying!
In the sun-soaked capital of Ghana best friends Theresa, Maku and Lyla struggle with the arrangements that define their relationships.
Ambitious, single-minded Theresa has gambled everything to move with her loving husband Tyler from London to cosmopolitan Accra. But when shocking developments threaten their plans, they also expose the hidden cracks in her fairytale marriage.
Feisty Maku is desperate for professional recognition – and her dream white wedding. But how long can she wait for her laid-back partner Nortey to stop dreaming up pointless projects from the comfort of his local bar and stand up to his family?
Churchgoing Lyla married Kwesi in haste, and six years later she is desperate for a child. But while she battles a vicious mother-in-law, and her growing attraction to the mysterious Reuben, her husband has bitten off more than he can chew with his latest mistress.
Facing lies, betrayal, and shattered illusions, each couple must confront the truth of who they have become and the arrangements they have enabled. Against the backdrop of a shifting culture, each woman must decide what – and who – she is willing to sacrifice for the perfect marriage.
I had the honor of chatting with Williams about her novels, the first book she read by a Ghanaian writer, Black writers who influence her work and more. Enjoy!
I recently purchased From Pasta to Pigfoot, and I know there is a sequel called From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings. I’m eager to read your latest novel, Imperfect Arrangements, which was published back in March of this year. How long have you been a writer and what other books have you written?
FMW:I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember; from the early scribbles of my teen years to writing careers books and then, eventually, writing novels.
I’m so pleased you bought From Pasta to Pigfoot! It’s my first novel and very special to me. I wrote the initial draft years ago when I was living and working in Ghana. I wanted to explore the contemporary diaspora experience with the character of Faye Bonsu, a Black British Londoner and pasta fanatic, who’s torn between the culture she’s grown up with and the Ghanaian culture she’s supposed to connect with. Her story mirrors so many of the challenges young Britons of African descent face, and I wanted to depict how navigating between two cultures can be painful, illuminating and occasionally hilarious. In the novel, Faye gets the chance to visit Ghana and discovers that understanding your history can give you the confidence to choose your future.
There is indeed a sequel – From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings. This picks up Faye’s story three years after the end of the original book. Hoping to escape from her suddenly complicated life and revive her wilting romance, Faye returns to sunny Ghana for what she hopes will be the time of her life. But life doesn’t always offer second chances and when disaster strikes, she is forced to confront the biggest question of her life and to make a choice that comes with consequences she will have to live with forever. I really enjoyed writing this book because Faye’s experiences are so relatable: the boyfriend who never seems ready to commit, the merciless boss who makes you struggle for promotion, the mother-in-law that drives everyone crazy, the bridezilla you love but want to kill – and the struggles we face when we’re trying to have it all!
I read an excerpt of Imperfect Arrangements, in the form of a short story, on AFREADA. In the excerpt, Theresa is at the hospital and she’s shocked to find out that she’s pregnant. By the end of the story, I really wanted to indulge in the lives of the three best friends – Theresa, Maku and Lyla. Why was it important for you to write this story that focuses on three best friends who struggle with the arrangements that define their relationships?
FMW: I first had the idea for Imperfect Arrangements when I was living in Ghana and found myself fascinated by the many arrangements that passed as marriage. As is the case in every part of the world, a perfect relationship really doesn’t exist, and when you layer cultural expectations onto the strains of any relationship, the pressure it brings will reveal the truth.
In Imperfect Arrangements, I chose to write about best friends Theresa, Maku and Lyla because I wanted to celebrate the importance of sister-friends and depict an honest account of the complexity of relationships, both romantic and between best friends. I wanted to explore the joy and pain of relationships, particularly with the added pressures of cultural expectations and norms, and to tell the story from the perspectives of both the women and the men in their lives. Unusually, we also see the story unfold from the viewpoints of the three men in the relationships.
Did you learn anything about yourself while writing Imperfect Arrangements? What about your previous novels – especially From Pasta to Pigfoot and From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings?
FMW:That is an interesting question! I think I learned a lot as a writer while working on Imperfect Arrangements. The story takes place over one year and is structured in layers – every three months – with the action unfolding through the eyes of each person in the three couples. It was quite a challenge to keep the story moving at pace while ensuring that the characters grew into rounded and realistic people. The three women are very different to each other and, much as they love one another, they also experience the frustration and irritation that we all feel with our besties – loving them, but still keeping it honest and real!
I think this is a story that no-one can read without examining their own relationships and friendships. Although the three couples face different challenges, their situations reflect what so many people grapple with: lies, betrayal, adultery, interfering families, stagnant careers, and more.
Writing From Pasta to Pigfoot was an interesting journey for me; seeing Ghana through the eyes of Faye and depicting her struggles to connect both aspects of her cultural identity. Having myself mostly grown up outside Africa, although Faye and I are very different personalities, I could empathise with her feelings and her dilemma about where to call home.
Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labelled as ‘African writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer? Who do you write for and do you think your novels can be categorized under one genre?
FMW: This is something I get asked a lot. There’s so much debate what constitutes ‘African’ writing and who gets to be called what or has the authority to tell which stories. Because of my heritage and some of the settings in my books, I’m often asked whether I consider myself to be an African writer, a diaspora writer or (sometimes with a slight tinge of disappointment) just a romance writer.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m just writing stories, but the publishing world likes to pigeonhole books for marketing purposes. Broadly, my books fall into the category of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ and for some people that’s enough. There are also those who describe it as ‘chick lit’, which doesn’t offend me, although I know many men who enjoy them, so I’m not sure that properly reflects the content.
For me, what really matters is that readers see my characters as more than simply their ethnicity. By setting Imperfect Arrangements in Ghana, one of my hopes is that it takes the conversation beyond the issue of race, as all the main characters are African. I also hope my books show that irrespective of our backgrounds, we all share the same desires for love of self, love of others, being seen and belonging. So, to answer your question, I’m an African woman and a writer, but I guess I’ve now reached the point where I leave the labelling to those who find it useful, while I focus on writing stories people can enjoy.
What have you been reading and loving lately? Who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work?
FMW: I enjoy many different types of books – a legacy from being a book addict as a child and reading anything which sounded halfway interesting that I could get my hands on in the local library. I love character driven stories with lots of dialogue: courtroom dramas, rom-coms, thrillers, murder mysteries, biographies, historical dramas – you name it.
My favourite Black writers include Dorothy Koomson, whose books I love, and Terri McMillan, whose books I read voraciously. If I’m honest, I’m probably not as widely read when it comes to African writers, but I’ve really admired the work of fellow Ghanaians, Yaa Gyasi and Ayesha Harruna Attah.
Ayesha Harruna Attah
In 2017, you were featured in my3-part series #GHat60 project, where I highlighted and celebrated over 80 writers of Ghanaian descent (which later became the#ReadGhanaianbook challenge, in 2019). Do you remember the first book you read by a Ghanaian writer? If so, what book was it and how was the experience?
FMW: I guess that would be probably be The Chocolate Run by Dorothy Koomson. I was attracted to the novel because her name was clearly Ghanaian, and I was desperate to discover Black writers who also wrote commercial, contemporary, women-driven novels. When I read The Chocolate Run, I was blown away by the realisation that there was indeed a market for books about serious issues written in a fun way, and featuring Black female protagonists who were firmly at the centre of the story, instead of at the margins.
Finally, why would you like us to read your latest novel – Imperfect Arrangements? What would you like reader to take away from the story?
FMW: I would love you to read Imperfect Arrangements firstly because – if I say so myself – it’s a great story! I love the characters and I want to take the reader on a roller coaster journey as they get to know the women and their partners. I want you to laugh, cry, grow very frustrated, and cheer! I want every reader to feel exactly what drives and motivates each of the six main protagonists, and to understand what makes them who they are and why the behave as they do.
I want the story of Imperfect Arrangements to provoke a conversation about the themes that arise in the novel: relationships in contemporary Ghana/Africa; myths and expectations confronted by the realities of marriage; friendship and sisterly love between women; the impact of culture on marriage and attitudes towards adultery and infertility in contemporary Ghana/Africa; the power of family versus the individual; the diaspora returnee experience; and the Black male perspective on relationships.
I also want readers to realise that love – whether it is love of self or love between friends or lovers – is the greatest gift of all.
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!
Once again, the month of March is here! Ghana gained independence in March (TODAY, March 6th 1957), so I like to dedicate this month to celebrating Ghanaian writers and their work. In the African literature scene, Ghanaian writers and their books are seriously underrated. As a reader of Ghanaian heritage, I enjoy discovering new Ghanaian writers and learning about our pioneer writers. If we don’t celebrate our own, who will?
Last year on African Book Addict! we celebrated 75 Ghanaian writers and their books in a 3-part series. This year (more like this month), I’ll be in conversation with some of the writers highlighted in last year’s series!
First up is Ayesha Harruna Attah – author of Harmattan Rain, Saturday’s Shadows and forthcoming The Hundred Wells of Salaga, which will be published by Cassava Republic Press in May! Enjoy this fun book chat where Ayesha talks about the inspirations for her forthcoming novel, the first book she read by a Ghanaian writer & the future of Ghanaian literature, the Black writers who influence her work and why we should indulge in The Hundred Wells of Salaga.
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 to cleave 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.
The Hundred Wells of Salaga is your 3rd forthcoming novel, congratulations on this achievement! When did you first get ideas on the story and how long did it take you to write the novel?
AHA: Thank you! About ten years ago, I found out that my great-great grandmother was enslaved. I wanted to know more. Who was she? Where had she come from? What were her desires before her dreams were snatched away? To unearth more, I made a trip to Salaga, in northern Ghana, where there was an infamous slave market. But I kept hitting walls – either people didn’t want to talk or they didn’t know enough. So in 2012, I decided to research how people ended up in Salaga and to also put my imagination to work. I officially started writing in 2014.
Did you learn anything about yourself while writing The Hundred Wells of Salaga?
AHA: I learned just how much I didn’t know about African history. For instance, it was a big surprise to me that in the 19th century in the Sokoto Caliphate, there were women teachers, jajis, who taught other women and they used poetry as a way of disseminating values.
While reading Harmattan Rain, I saw bits of my life reflected in Sugri’s character and in Saturday’s Shadows, Kojo’s character mirrored a lot of my life as well! How much of your personal life seeps into your stories?
AHA: I don’t consciously set out to put my lived experiences into my writing, but it would be almost impossible to divorce myself from my characters. Even if I were writing the vilest character on earth, it would be with my flavor and through my eyes. Of course, there are certain moments in life that are too good to keep to oneself and, those, I very intentionally put into my stories. For instance, the anecdote in Saturday’s Shadows, where a man cuts himself with a blade to prove he’s invincible—that was a real life scene I witnessed.
Do you remember the first book you read by a Ghanaian writer? If so, what book was it and how was the experience? After working on the #GHat60 project last year, I was amazed at the great number of Ghanaian writers doing amazing work. How do you feel about the future of Ghanaian literature?
AHA: I think it was The Anthill in the Sea, an illustrated poetry book by Atukwei Okai. I don’t even remember how old I was. Maybe seven. I loved it.
On the future of Ghanaian literature, there is so much potential and possibility brimming, which I find really exciting. I think the work the Writers Project of Ghana is doing is commendable and writers such as Ruby Goka, Nana Awere Damoah, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Boakyewaa Glover give me hope for our generation of writers. What we desperately need are publishing houses with serious distribution networks.
What have you been reading and loving lately? And who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work?
AHA: After almost a year and a half of new mummy duties, I have started reading again. Since January, I have read Akwaeke Emezi, JJ Bola, Ayobami Adebayo, all debut novelists and I have loved all their books.
I devour work by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Lucille Clifton, and of course, Ayi Kwei Armah, who gave me the push I needed to write my first novel.
Finally, why would you like readers to indulge in your forthcoming, The Hundred Wells of Salaga? What would you like us to take away from the story?
AHA: The involvement of Africans in the slave trade is a part of history that I feel hasn’t been confronted or dealt with enough. There were entire villages built in rocks to prevent slave raiders from attacking. It was a traumatic moment we suffered on the continent, and if trauma isn’t healed it manifests itself in disease, passiveness, self-harm… The list is endless. My impression is that most African countries do not want to deal with this past. Just recently, the world learned of slave auctions in Libya. I was ashamed and appalled that Ghanaians and Nigerians were involved, once again as middlemen. I hope that this book will wake us up to the role that we played in the slave trade, and begin us on the path of forgiveness and healing.
Hey everyone! At the end of my review of salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, I listed a bunch of contemporary poets and expressed my keen interest in reading their work in the near future. Poets – Upile Chisala and Ijeoma Umebinyuo were on that list and I finally purchased their collections (for my birthday last year) and enjoyed them at the beginning of this year. Below are mini reviews of their respective poetry collections.
(this is African Book Addict!’s 100th post by the way!)
soft magic. by Upile Chisala
Date Read: January 7th 2017
Published: September 2015
Publisher:CreateSpace Independent Publishing
soft magic. is the debut collection of prose and poetry by Malawian writer, Upile Chisala. This book explores the self, joy, blackness, gender, matters of the heart, the experience of Diaspora, spirituality and most of all, how we survive. soft magic. is a shared healing journey.
Review – ★★ (2 stars)
soft magic. is a decent collection, Upile (who is a young storyteller and ‘artivist’ from Malawi) has done well. I liked that soft magic. was healing and self-helpish, but this collection is more of a 2.5 stars rating, for me. It’s hard to rate and review a poetry collection you aren’t really fond of, because poetry is so personal to the poet and his/her journey – who am I to have an opinion on anyone’s journey?
This collection could have benefitted from more editing- the typos were quite annoying to spot. I hate to compare (especially since Upile recently went on a rant on Twitter about how discouraging it can be when people compare African writers to Chimamanda Adichie) but in my opinion, some of the poems felt like a knock-off from ‘salt.’ Also, I felt Upile overused the word ‘darling’ in this collection. I rolled by eyes so hard at every poem (which is about 80% of them) where ‘darling’ appeared; there are so many other words of endearment that could have been used in this collection. On a lighter note, I do appreciate how pro-black this collection is. The poems that expressed Upile’s unapologetic pride for her heritage and blackness were the most powerful.
My favorite poems:
being this ebony. having this name. carrying this language in my mouth. there were times when I only wanted to blend in to sit unnoticed, un-special, but blending in is fading out
here we are, black and in love with ourselves and they spite us for it
Even though this short poetry collection is very pro-black, I wouldn’t highly recommend it. I just didn’t find the poems compelling or wholesome. Like I stated before – it is difficult to rate and review a poetry collection, because poetry is very personal to the poet and his/her journey. But you never know – give this collection a try, we all have different tastes! Upile recently published a new collection called Nectar, which I hope is a bit more polished than soft magic. I might purchase Nectar in the near future but until then, I will continue to enjoy Upile’s thoughtful commentary on Twitter and her lovely photos on Instagram.
The artistry of Questions for Ada defies words, embodying the pain, the passion, and the power of love rising from the depths of our souls. Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s poetry is a flower that will blossom in the spirit of every reader as she shares her heart with raw candor. From lyrical lushness to smoky sensuality to raw truths, this tome of transforming verse is the book every woman wants to write but can’t until the broken mirrors of their lives have healed. In this gifted author’s own words—“I am too full of life to be half-loved.” A bold celebration of womanhood.
Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)
THIS collection right here is pure gold. Questions for Ada by Nigerian poet – Ijeoma Umebinyuo, is full of strength, vulnerability and pride. Every word in these poems is heavy with meaning and purpose. These poems show you that all your emotions are valid and must be felt. Many poetry collections published nowadays feel lazy and words just seem to be thrown onto the pages. But Questions for Ada is a collection that was carefully crafted with love and full awareness of self. I’ve dog-eared sooo many of the pages in this book because the poems truly resonated with me. I found myself reflecting after reading a couple of poems at a time. I love when a piece of writing makes you reflect on your life and society and allows you to think about them critically. Ijeoma did the damn thing with this poetry collection!
My favorite poems:
Your mother was your first mirror. tell me, didn’t she carry herself well enough to make you feel like a God? (pg. 16)
Your feminism wears a wrapper, cooks for her husband changed her surname (pg 33)
you are not alive to please the aesthetic of colonized eye (pg. 117)
You asked your father how you should say your name. He said if they cannot say your name then they must try, but you will not soften it, you will not break the magic apart, you will not be ashamed of it. (pg. 160)
Questions for Ada –
Ada, are you in love? Yes.
Is being in a relationship hard work? Yes
Do you write love poems for your lover?
Does you lover believe in you?
Yes, but sometimes I fear my lover does not
comprehend her light.
What do you do on those days?
I bathe her, I play some Jazz,
I fed her, I weep for her.
Describe her in a sentence.
Her eyes carry strength,
her words scratch, she speaks love.
Ada, are you in love? Yes.
Is being in a relationship hard work? Yes.
Who is your lover? Myself.
If I could quote all the poems in this collection, I would – but I have to respect the writer’s copyright terms! Please purchase the book to enjoy the rest! A couple of weeks ago, AFREADA featured Questions for Ada in their weekly #AFREADS recommendations on Instagram and used my short review from Goodreads as the caption for the post. I was elated to see that Ijeoma appreciated my words (which don’t even do this collection’s excellence justice).
Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo is beautiful work. I like to believe her target audience is women of color/ black women in Africa and the Diaspora; the poems speak on blackness, womanhood, relationships, brokenness, Africa, Diaspora, heritage, loving thyself and others. But I wholeheartedly recommend this collection for everyone to experience these poems, even if you aren’t a woman or a person of color – you would still appreciate Ijeoma’s artistry and even learn something about yourself. We’re only in the month of May and I’ve already re-read the whole collection for a second time; I plan on re-visiting and mulling over certain poems throughout the year.
If you don’t plan on reading any poetry this year, please endeavor to add Questions for Ada to your 2017 reads! And if you’re not really a fan of poetry, be assured that this collection will make you understand the beauty of poetry, as a pure literary form.
★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!
The January Childrendepicts displacement and longing while also questioning accepted truths about geography, history, nationhood, and home. The poems mythologize family histories until they break open, using them to explore aspects of Sudan’s history of colonial occupation, dictatorship, and diaspora. Several of the poems speak to the late Egyptian singer Abdelhalim Hafez, who addressed many of his songs to the asmarani—an Arabic term of endearment for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person. Elhillo explores Arabness and Africanness and the tensions generated by a hyphenated identity in those two worlds.
No longer content to accept manmade borders, Elhillo navigates a new and reimagined world. Maintaining a sense of wonder in multiple landscapes and mindscapes of perpetually shifting values, she leads the reader through a postcolonial narrative that is equally terrifying and tender, melancholy and defiant.
Review – ★★★ (3 stars)
Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-American poet based in the U.S and I believe The January Children gives readers some insight into what it’s like to be Sudanese and an American. In this collection, the narrator is constantly grappling with her complex identities and it’s evident in poems like,
‘republic of the sudan ministry of interior passport & immigration general directorate alien from sudanese origin passcard‘ (yes, this is the title of the poem):
at the khartoum office a veiled woman made the card in microsoft paint told me my arabic was [not bad for a foreigner you can barely hear the accent] i board the plane with grandma’s voice crackling through the phone [come home again soon] my blue passport made me American place of birth maryland usa
& in the months since my last visit syrup settle back to coat my r’s i am ambiguous browngirl
i feel american
& in new york [but your english is so good you can barely hear the accent]
mama still speaks to me in arabic but we eat with fork & knife we play adbelhalim but mostly motown to remind mama of those swaying eighties nights in the garden before it turned to dust before the old country crumbles & mama came here to give me the blue passport & last time i was home a soldier stopped the car asked where i was from laughed when i said here
The narrator has conflicting ideas of home, belonging, family, immigration, perceptions of beauty and so much more. All of these issues are juxtaposed with the narrator’s obsession with Egyptian musician – Abdelhalim Hafez, and his provoking lyrics. For most of this collection, the narrator obsesses over Hafez’s skin color, his perceptions of beauty and his singing voice. I found it weird how the narrator was fascinated with this famous Arabic musician who has been dead since 1977; but she finds meaning in her fascination with Hafez and confides in him on the things that keep her up at night – like not feeling Sudanese enough and/or feeling lost.
The January Children is a very unique poetry collection. Most of the poems lack punctuations, so it takes a while to read each poem to decipher full sentences and the meanings of them. Every word (especially the few Arab words and their translations) in this collection gave the poems profound meaning – which was interesting, yet a bit overwhelming as it takes a while to understand what some of the poems are actually about. Hints of magical realism in some poems provided sprinkles surprise and added to the slightly daunting nature of the collection (for me).
What I appreciated most about this collection was that I got some insight into African-Arab life and how African-Arabs perceive other Africans and Arabs. When I read Minaret by Sudanese writer- Leila Aboulela, I yearned (but to no avail) for commentary on the realities of being African-Arab. I’m glad this collection shed some light into this complex, very unique identity through the tensions the narrator faces. Even though The January Children is complicated and not the easiest poetry collection to read, Elhillo shows immense talent of capturing emotion in a somewhat abstract way. I think I prefer seeing and listening to Safia Elhillo performing her poems. From all the YouTube videos I’ve watched of her performing at various events, it’s absolutely breathtaking and inspiring to see and hear Elhillo speak her words, with mighty conviction.
NOTE: Reading the Forward of this collection by Kwame Dawes is imperative if you want to totally understand and appreciate this collection.
Thanks to Netgalley via University of Nebraska Press for this e-ARC. The January Children will be published and in stores in 3 days! March 1st 2017 🙂
★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.
An illicit love affair that turns sour is the starting point in this lyrical and moving exploration of the human heart.
Véronique Tadjo weaves together a rich tapestry of voices to tell stories of parting and return, suffering, healing and desire.
Like a bird in flight, the reader travels across a borderless landscape composed of tales of everyday existence, news reports, allegories and ancestral myths, becoming aware in the course of the journey of the interconnection of individual lives. A new consciousness of the links between self and other, today’s society and that of future generations is revealed as the key to creating a more just world and more understanding and fulfilling relationships, for ‘love is a story that we never stop telling’.
Translated from French by Wangūi wa Goro.
Review– ★★★★ (4 stars)
As the Crow Flies was originally written in French by Véronique Tadjo who was born in Paris and raised in Côte d’Ivoire – a Francophone, West African country. Kenyan academic, writer and translator – Wangūi wa Goro, who contributed to African Love Stories: an anthology and also translated Ngūgi wa Thiong’o’s novel – Matigari, (which I loved!) translated this work of art as well. I’m grateful to Wangūi wa Goro, because without her superb skills of interpreting and transforming this work into English, some of us would really be missing out on some awesome texts!
But I have to admit – this novella is not for everyone. On the first page, as if to caution the reader, Tadjo writes: “Indeed, I too would have loved to write one of those serene stories with a beginning and an end. But as you know only too well, it is never like that.”With that, I knew As the Crow Flies would be different.
Some readers may have issues with the format of this book, which is full of fragmentation and changing points of view between several voices. It’s made up of several (interconnected) poems, prose and observations. I read this novella as if I was on the back of a bird in the air (a crow, if you may), watching various people and situations in their various settings – in Abidjan (the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire) and anonymous Western countries. I believe writers would absolutely love the unique, heartfelt, lyrical anecdotes Tadjo spills onto the pages. It’s actually difficult to review this book since it sporadically touches on many different issues, like: desire, homesickness, (unrequited) love, immigration, poverty, privilege, and so much more. But almost anything and everything that can be humanly felt and observed, are portrayed in this book.
Some of my favorite anecdotes / poems/ observations:
I need to feel the heat and sweat running down my back, feel warm nights humming with insects, the dust and the mud. At home, life sprouts everywhere. You have nowhere to hide. You can never forget that there is still much to be done.
I especially loved this one below:
I think of my country, far away, and my eyes open beyond space.
In this vast city, words travel fast. I am bombarded with ideas. I see myself in that large conference room listening keenly to writers from Africa – Angola, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria… One of the speakers proclaims:
‘It is our duty to understand our place in the history of humanity. An African literature cannot exist until the day we liberate ourselves from the arrogant criticism of the West.’
I remember. A day like no other. The air was mild. I had not eaten breakfast; just had a cup of coffee and my belly was empty.
I remember. His scent filled my nostrils. His sweat made my mouth salty. I lapped up his force and energy, and discovered how famished my desire was…
As the Crow Flies is a super short novella – it’s about 106 pages. I would advise readers to devour it in one sitting in order to experience, observe and feel everything this book has to offer at once. Thanks to school work, it took me over a month to complete it. But I’m glad I pushed through and finished it despite the discombobulated format which was initially confusing but truly wonderful by the time I finished reading.
With the increasing popularity of contemporary African novels, I feel like lovers of African literature are forgetting about the books of the African Writers Series, which were published since 1962 by Heinemann. Books in this series have been translated into English from French, Zulu, Swahili, Gikuyu, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Luganda, Arabic, Sesotho. Yes, some of the books in this series may be printed in (silly) small fonts; yes, some books in this series may have unappealing book covers. But books of the African Writers Series are timeless and will always be true African classics, just like As the Crow Flies.
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase As the Crow Flies by Véronique Tadjo on Amazon