As the Crow Flies by Véronique Tadjo

veroniqueDate Read: October 27th 2016

Published: 2001

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)

Pages: 106

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

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:

XLVI

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.

(pg. 62)

 

I especially loved this one below:

LIV

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.’

(pg. 72) 

 

LXIX

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…

(pg. 87)

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!

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The Housemaid by Amma Darko

the housemaidDate Read: May 7th 2015

Published: 1998

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writer’s Series)

Pages: 107

 

The Blurb

A dead baby and bloodstained clothes are discovered near a small village. Everyone is ready to comment on the likely story behind the abandoned infant. The men have one opinion, the women another. As the story rapidly unfolds it becomes clear that seven different women played their part in the drama. All of them are caught in a web of superstition, ignorance, greed and corruption.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I bought The Housemaid back in 2008, but finally gave this book a chance and finished reading it in May of this year. This is such a messy, messy story- but in a good way! This novel tells a story of how a poor family in a Ghanaian village decides to jilt a rich businesswoman in the city, by using their daughter – who becomes a housemaid, to attempt to steal this rich woman’s wealth. As usual, Amma Darko tackles a lot of social issues in this novel and this is why I respect her as a writer. Darko explores issues of socio-economic differences between the rich and the poor, city life versus village life, feminism, spinsterhood, gender roles, religious beliefs and superstition. I liked how the story was consummated at the end, even though this novel consists of a series of crazy events.

But I was a little disappointed with Amma Darko’s writing style in this novel. The writing was choppy and too colloquial for my liking. It was quite annoying to spot basic grammatical errors and the misusage of words like ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ in some chapters. Nonetheless, the social issues addressed in this book made me appreciate the story. Amma Darko’s novel Beyond the Horizon is still a gem and a more meticulously written book than The HousemaidThe Housemaid is more of a 2.5 stars rating for me.

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

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Beyond the Horizon by Amma Darko

beyond-the-horizonDate Read: March 31st 2015

Published: 1995

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)

Pages: 140

The Blurb

Gazing at her naked body in the mirror, Mara reflects on her transformation from naïve Ghanaian village girl into a prostitute in a German brothel.

Mara has been deceived by her husband, Akobi, into coming to Europe to find a ‘Paradise’ but as the truth about Akobi and her new life unfolds she realizes she is trapped. The expectations of her family in Africa force her to remain, living a lie.

Beyond the Horizon is a gripping and provocative story of the plight of African women in Europe, and the false hopes of those they leave behind.

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

Oh what a tragic novel this is! I don’t think Amma Darko gets the shine she rightfully deserves for this book or for her writing in general. Her novel – The Housemaid has been sitting on my bookshelf for years now. I’ll surely read it soon, as I hear its pretty amazing. With that said, Beyond the Horizon is a heart-wrenching masterpiece and a testament to some of the unfair effects of our patriarchal societies.

This is a story of a Ghanaian village girl – Mara, who enters into an arranged marriage with a man – Akobi, from the city who works at the Ministries. When Mara finally moves to the city to live in Akobi’s one bedroom shabby shelter, he constantly abuses her. Mara, who is meek, evergreen to city-life and quite stupid (that’s my opinion, sorry) cooks, cleans their home and even sells various items at the market to support Akobi while tolerating his beatings, sadistic sexual demands and sleeping on a mat on the concrete floor while Akobi enjoys his dried-grass mattress. In my eyes, Mara was Akobi’s slave.

With the help of a ‘connection’ man, Akobi travels to Europe with the intention of working to raise money to advance his social standings in the city. Akobi traveling to Europe brings honor to his village and Mara’s family as he is seen as a man of great prestige. Months after Akobi leaves for Europe, Mara attempts to modernize herself, in the attempt to make Akobi fall in love with her. To Mara’s surprise Akobi later arranges for her to join him in Europe and Mara is more than delighted since she never dreamed that stepping foot in Europe would ever be her fate. Once Mara arrives in Europe (Germany, to be exact) with the aid of the ‘connection’ man, readers witness the manipulative ordeals Mara endures in a foreign land that leave her stranded.

I’m glad I read this book even though Mara frustrated me deeply throughout the story. Mara had no sense of her worth and sadly, her fate was determined by her chosen husband – Akobi, who did not love her. Akobi was a terribly wicked, self-absorbed man who used Mara for everything that she was. I waited so long for Mara to retaliate, to come to her senses and run away, to stop fantasizing about her husband finally loving and appreciating her; but rather, she consistently endured Akobi’s verbal and physical abuse till almost the end of the novel.

Amma Darko skillfully weaves-in a lot of themes throughout this story that make this novel relevant to present day life. Some of these themes are: patriarchy, racism, colorism, domestic violence, pornography, sex exploitation, drug abuse, prostitution, the myths of living abroad (‘Europe is heaven’), immigration, feminism, womanhood, sisterhood (between Mara and Mama Kiosk in the city; between Mara, Vivian and Kaye in Germany), village life versus city life, modernity etc.

I gave Beyond the Horizon 4 stars because Amma Darko does a great job at pulling readers’ emotions with the rawness in her style of writing! She exposes readers to the horrible realities of the helpless victims of male sex exploitation with such expertise – you would think she was a surviving victim herself. But to be honest, I don’t think this book is for everyone. This is not the type of book you read for pleasure, or to relax and fill a void only enjoyable fictitious literary works satisfy you with. Beyond the Horizon is a depressing novel and wasn’t a fun read for me especially in the beginning as descriptions of domestic abuse were quite harsh. Towards the middle of the storyline, descriptions of (consensual and non-consensual) sexual encounters between Mara and Akobi and other characters in the book made me uncomfortable and slightly upset – for example:

“He was lying on the mattress, face up, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling when I entered. Cool, composed and authoritative, he indicated with a pat of his hand on the space beside him that I should lie down beside him. I did so, more out of apprehension of starting another fight than anything else. Wordlessly, he stripped off my clothes, stripped off his trousers, turned my back to him and entered me. Then he ordered me off the mattress to go and lay on my mat because he wanted to sleep alone.” pg.22

Please note: Men are generally painted as horrendous beings in this novel. I’m assuming Amma Darko wrote Beyond the Horizon as a feminist narrative because readers surely get a deep understanding of the power men hold in society, as they manipulate, deceive and use aggression in oppressing the rights of women – in this story and sometimes in reality.

Some provocative quotes from Beyond the Horizon:

“I mean, Akobi beat me a lot at home, yes, but somehow I identified beatings like this with home. That African men also beat their wives in Europe somehow didn’t fit into my glorious picture of European life.” pg. 73

“At first I didn’t understand, because here, we hear always that African people are hard workers and love work because God made them specially for the hard work of the world…” pg. 99 (this was how a white woman in Germany viewed Africans. My heart skipped a beat reading this).

“Why couldn’t I take control of my own life, since after all, I was virtually husbandless and, what did my husband care about a woman’s virtue? If I was sleeping with men and charging them for it, it was me giving myself to them. The body being used and misused belonged to me.” pg. 118 (it took Mara several years of beatings and coercions to finally realize she was in control of her own life. *sigh*).

As depressing as Beyond the Horizon is, it is definitely a relevant story that I believe everyone should read – even if reluctantly.

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

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Can We Talk and Other Stories by Shimmer Chinodya

shimmerDate Read: November 22nd 2014

Published: 2001 (originally published by Baobab Books in 1998)

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)

Pages: 154

The Blurb

Opening with the puzzled and innocent view of a boy looking in on the adult world from outside, this collection follows the transition from childhood to adult life. Youthful desires for prosperity, love and a purpose in life are undermined by experiences of humiliation, compromise and a failure to communicate, in a process that reflects a wider disillusionment and decline in post-independence Zimbabwe. In the final story, cynicism turns to anger as the narrator, facing the breakdown of his marriage, challenges his audience to confront the inaction that leads to disappointment and the deep-seated loneliness and alienated at the root of our estrangements.

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

This is a refreshing collection of 11 short stories and I’m glad I randomly spotted this at the bookstore! People, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are not the only legendary African Literature male novelists. Shimmer Chinodya is surely one of them- in my opinion! He is a wonderful poetic storyteller.

Can We Talk And Other Stories is a collection of stories that take readers through the transitions of boyhood to manhood. Various issues associated with coming-of-age such as confusion, fear, loneliness, depression, insecurity, alcoholism amongst others are tackled in these 11 short stories. It’s best to read these stories from the beginning to the end, as the stories are in chronological order with respect to the age of the main characters.

The novel starts off with a story of a precocious five year old boy, followed by tales of school life- in Zimbabwe and abroad, followed by stories of adult relationships and ends with a story of a forty-something year old man, lamenting his failed marriage called “Can We Talk”. “Can We Talk” was actually nominated for The Caine Prize for African Writing in year 2000- the year Leila Aboulela won the prize for her story “Museum”.

I enjoyed all the stories, mostly because they were different from the myriad of West African novels I usually read. I loved reading about Zimbabwe and admired Chinodya’s use of Shona (the principle language of Zimbabwe) in the text. The glossary at the back of the novel helped me translate some of the words used in the text, but even without the glossary I was able to understand the ideas conveyed in the stories. Chinoya’s use of alliteration, metaphors, repetition and other literature techniques were perfect in illustrating issues of love, confusion, guilt and loneliness. There is also a lot of humor in these stories- its not all depressing!

My favorite stories were:

“Brothers and Sisters” – A tale of a young man who suddenly becomes a staunch Christian and tries to convert everyone he interacts with to Christianity. He finally finds the love of this life, but when she finally reveals to him her true self, things take an interesting…exaggerated turn.

“Snow” – This is not a story per se…I wouldn’t call it a poem either. Its more like a collection of words. “Snow” more or less is a collection of words expressing different ideas and feelings about living in the West- from accents, to weather, food, international students, immigration etc. To get a gist of the text, here are two excerpts from pg. 59 & pg. 61:

‘White flesh white flesh. Blue eyes. Green eyes. Black eyes. Brown. Blonde hair. Brunette. Red. Black. Multivitamin smiles. Braced teeth. Sun-tan.

Food.

Foodfood foodfood foodfood.

French fried, fritters, frankfurters, fish, fillet, farina, falafels, figs, fennel, flax, Fanta, fruitbread.

Fat.

Fat fat fat.

Fudge-face, milk-nose, coke-lips, burger-bums, popcorn-belly, choc-cheeks, gum-teeth, cream-tongue, pizza-palate, Budweiser-chin, candy-kiss…’ (pg. 59)

 

‘Snow. Cold, loneliness. No legs, no laughter. Layers of loneliness packing into cakes of ice. The hard ice of longing. Cold and hard as pornography. Magazines splattered with blood-red flesh. Peep shows. Live.

Can the earth be so dead, so cruel? So white? Were shorts possible?

Oh, for a black face, for laughter, for warmth.’ (pg. 61)

I love this story because I’m currently obsessed with narratives on African life in the West/immigrant experiences. I especially love how “Snow” ends, because winter can truly get lonely and make any African miss home immensely! I simply understood and bonded with the collection of words and had fun reading it. Shimmer Chinodya is a wordsmith!

My only issue with this collection is that most of the stories were written from a male’s perspective. It would have been nice to have more than just one story (“Play Your Cards”) with a female voice.

But I will definitely be on the lookout for more Shimmer Chinodya books to purchase. I think I’d like to read his book- Chairman of Fools next.

My heart was glad after reading this novel. 🙂

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

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Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing edited by Yvonne Vera

yvonne veraDate Read: March 7th 2014

Published: 1999

Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series)

Pages: 186

The Blurb

African women are seldom given the space to express their concerns, their ideas and their reflections about the societies in which they live.

 In situations where a good woman is expected to remain silent, literature can provide an important medium for the expression of deeply felt and sometimes shocking views. In this anthology the award-winning author Yvonne Vera brings together the stories of many talented writers from different parts of Africa. They act as witnesses to the dramas of private and public life. Their stories challenge contemporary attitudes and behavior, leaving no room for complacency.

Contributors include Ama Ata Aidoo, Veronique Tadjo, Farida Karodia, Lindsey Collen and Sindiwe Magona.

Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

This is a powerful collection of fifteen stories by African women writers from various countries such as: Zimbabwe, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, Nigeria, Mozambique, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Namibia and Zambia. It was cool to read stories from countries that are not very active in the African literature scene- like Mauritius, Mali and Sudan.

These stories tackle the positives and negatives of being an African woman in their own unique ways. Some themes in the stories are: coming-of-age, motherhood, women empowerment, polygamy, abortion, death, political instability, faith and many more!

My favorite stories were:

‘The Museum’ by Leila Aboulela (Sudan) – This is the story that won the first Caine Prize in 2000! It’s a tale of the challenges a Sudanese girl- Shadia, faces as she is studying Mathematics in university in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that she has a fiancé back home in Sudan, she starts to fall for fellow Scottish classmate- Bryan, who seems to be the brightest in the class. As Shadia and Bryan spend more time together, Aboulela teaches readers about the importance of religion (Islam). After Shadia and Bryan take a trip to a museum and Shadia is disappointed at how wrongly the West portrays Africa, I learned that Africa will always be where the heart is, for Africans living abroad.

‘The Power of a Plate of Rice’ by Ifeoma Okoye (Nigeria) – A hilarious tale of a single mother, who is a schoolteacher, struggling to keep her family alive. The principal of her school refuses to pay her salary while her children are sick and starving. This schoolteacher ends up doing something unpredictable which shocks her principal. This was a fun and easy read.

‘Stress’ by Lília Momplé (Mozambique) – A mistress of a rich married man sits in her luxurious apartment and spends her days staring out of her window, desperately desiring and fantasizing about her neighbor across the street. Meanwhile, this neighbor barely notices this mistress across the street as he struggles living as a deeply stressed schoolteacher. I enjoyed the unpredictability of the story’s ending!

‘The Barrel of a Pen’ by Gugu Ndlovu (Zimbabwe) – This was a heart-wrenching tale of two girls who spend their afternoon in a hotel. An unqualified nurse visits the girls in the hotel and executes an abortion on one of them. The gory descriptions of this story had me cringing. But I loved how the friendship between the two girls was strong enough to save a life.

This collection was published in 1999, but the stories, themes and the lessons learned are still relevant to readers today, in 2014. I recommend this!

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

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