The January Children by Safia Elhillo

!important;margin:0!important;" />Date Read: December 14th 2016

Published: March 1st 2017

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Pages: 80

 

 

 

The Blurb

The January Children depicts 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.

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African Love Stories: An Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo + GIVEAWAY!

aidooDate Read: January 23rd 2016

Published: 2006

Publisher: Ayebia Publishing

Pages: 249

 

The Blurb

African love stories? Is that not some kind of anomaly? This radical collection of short stories, most published in this edition for the first time, aims to debunk the myth about African women as impoverished helpless victims. With origins that span the continent, it combines budding writers with award-winning authors; the result is a melting pot of narratives from intriguing and informed perspectives.

These twenty odd tales deal with challenging themes and represent some of the most complex of love stories. Many are at once heart breaking yet heart warming and even courageous. In Badoe’s hilarious ‘The Rival’, we encounter a 14 -year-old girl who is determined to capture her uncle’s heart. His wife, she decided would just have to go. Mr. Mensah the uncle is all of sixty years old.

Crafted by a stellar cast of authors that includes El Saadawi, Ogundipe, Magona, Tadjo, Krog, Aboulela, Adichie, Oyeyemi, wa Goro, Atta, Manyika and Baingana, there is hardly any aspect of women’s love life untouched. From labour pains to burials, teenagers to octogenarians, and not to mention race-fraught and same-sex relationships, the human heart is all out there: beleaguered and bleeding, or bold, and occasionally triumphant.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I think I have a soft spot for anthologies. Anthologies help me discover new writers. African Love Stories: An Anthology is the second African women’s anthology I’ve enjoyed. In 2014, I reviewed Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing edited by Yvonne Vera (1999) and was thrilled by the diverse stories and cast of African women writers. I even took interest in the writers who were unfamiliar to me at the time, like Leila Aboulela and Lília Momplé.

I know what you were thinking when you saw the title, ‘African Love Stories’ – no, this is not a collection of sappy, romantic, unrealistic, happily-ever-after tales. African Love Stories: An Anthology is a collection of 21 contemporary short stories laden with breathtaking originality. The stories speak on: the issues inter-racial couples face, a woman’s wrath when she discovers her lover is married, the lengths a village boy goes to rescue his wife-to-be, domestic violence, a child born out-of-wedlock who is scorned at her father’s funeral, same-sex relationships, sisterhood, a mother’s love, sacrifice and so much more. There are layered complexities in all 21 stories and the writers skillfully consummate each short tale such that readers ponder and cherish them, even days after enjoying the stories.

The women writers and the stories of this anthology span across the African continent – from Egypt to South Africa. Well-known authors such as: Nawal El Saadawi, Veronique Tadjo, Chimamanda N. Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Sindiwe Magona, Sefi Atta, Monica Arac de Nyeko, Helen Oyeyemi amongst others, are featured in the anthology. But I expected more diversity with respect to the countries represented in this collection. I didn’t expect a lot of the stories (11 of them) to be written by Nigerian women – this is not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong! I just wish there was a better mix of countries represented, as was in Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing edited by Yvonne Vera (1999). (I’m not comparing… but I’m comparing haha)

Anyways, I enjoyed all the stories from this collection (well, except two) and my faves were:

“Something Old, Something New” by Leila Aboulela (Sudan) – This is a story that chronicles the events that occur prior to a wedding between a young, muslim, dark-skinned Sudanese woman of the diaspora and a white, muslim man from Edinburgh. During their trip to Khartoum for the ceremony, several events occur that threaten their impending wedding. I really admire the calm manner of Aboulela’s storytelling, especially in this tale.

“The Rival” by Yaba Badoe (Ghana) – The Rival has got to be the most absurd story I’ve ever read! In this story, a wife tries her best to keep her marriage from falling apart by the twisted, affectionate love of her husband’s niece. Since when did nieces start falling for their uncles and dreaming of being the ‘madam’ of the house? How awkward! Yaba Badoe created a masterpiece with this strange story.

“Tropical Fish” by Doreen Baingana (Uganda) – University student – Christine, finds herself sleeping with a British expat who exports fish to the UK. The story takes us through the inner thoughts of Christine as she tries to find herself – because she truly seems lost. I was disgusted and at times mad at Christine for tolerating the intolerable in this story. I loved how Doreen Baingana kept me on the edge of my seat while reading this! (I have Doreen Baingana’s novel Tropical Fish which this story is an excerpt from, and I’m excited to read it soon!)

“Needles of the Heart” by Promise Ogochukwu (Nigeria) – I enjoyed the easy, simple nature in the writing of this story. A woman marries a man who she discovers is a chronic abuser. She constantly finds herself making excuses for her husband, even while she suffers on hospital beds from his fury. The ending of the story had me wondering if the author actually condones domestic violence… This story is pretty scary, but holds a great message if you read in-between the lines.

The editor, Ama Ata Aidoo urges readers to enjoy this collection slowly:

Dear reader, it is highly recommended that you take these stories one at a time, so that you meet these African women properly and individually, and listen to them and their hearts: whether Sudanese, Kenyan, Ghanaian, Nigerian or Zimbabwean… (pg. xiv)

and I totally concur with her. I read these stories slowly and savored them. Why rush through such a rich anthology? That’s no fun!

Even though this anthology was published in 2006 – about 10 years ago, I believe the content is ever so relevant to this day. I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to everyone. These contemporary stories may be set in countries in Africa, but the theme of love is universal to all!

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

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GIVEAWAY ALERT!

February is the month of love, and I’d like to give away one brand new copy of this lovely anthology! Enter the giveaway below to stand a chance at winning African Love Stories: An Anthology. The winner will be announced a day after Valentine’s Day – so you have about 10 days to try your luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Giveaway TERMS & CONDITIONS:

  • Giveaway starts Feb 4th 2016 at 12am GMT & ends Feb 15th 2016 at 12am GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)
  • This is an international giveaway – it is open to everyone, worldwide.
  • You must be 18 years and older to participate in this giveaway.
  • The winner will be selected by Random.org, through Rafflecopter and will be notified by email.
  • The winner will have 48 hours to respond to the email before a new winner is selected.
  • If you are the lucky winner of the book, Darkowaa will be shipping your prize to you directly.
  • Once the winner is notified via email, providing shipping details will go to Darkowaa only and will only be used for the purpose of shipping the prize to the winner.
  • The item offered in this giveaway is free of charge, no purchase is necessary.
  • If there are any questions and concerns about this giveaway, please email: africanbookaddict@gmail.com

Good luck, everyone!

Update: This giveaway has ended. Thanks to those who participated! Congrats to the winner! 

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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Minaret by Leila Aboulela

minaretDate Read: July 21st 2014

Published: 2005

Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Pages: 288

The Blurb

With her Muslim hijab and down-turned gaze, Najwa is invisible to most eyes, especially to the rich Arab families whose houses she cleans in London. Twenty years earlier, Najwa, then an aristocratic Westernized Sudanese, could have never imagined this new life. She was a student at the University of Khartoum but her focus in life was on fashionable clothes, pop music, and parties. When a political coup forces Najwa’s family into exile in London, she soon finds herself orphaned and completely alone. For the first time in her life, Najwa turns to the solace and companionship among the women at the mosque, and when she adopts the hijab, she begins to see the world anew. Then Najwa meets Tamer, the intense, lonely younger brother of her employer and they find a common bond in her newfound faith and slowly, silently, begin to fall in love. Written with directness, simplicity and force, Minaret is a stunning and insightful novel about one woman’s journey toward spiritual peace.

 Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

I loved Leila Aboulela’s short story ‘Museum‘ which won the first Caine Prize in 2000. I read ‘Museum‘ from the anthology, Opening Spaces – Contemporary African Women’s Writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it, mainly because Aboulela is Sudanese and writes about Khartoum. We rarely read or hear about Sudan in the African literature scene, so Leila Aboulela’s writing excites me!

I preferred reading the beginning of Minaret: Najwa was born into an upper-class Muslim family where her father worked with the president of Sudan, and her mother came from a rich family. Najwa and her twin brother who are very secular compared to other Muslim youth went to the best private schools of Khartoum and the best university in the nation. The family had several luxurious cars, superfluous food,  partied with their rich friends regularly and enjoyed vacations in several countries, including London where they owned a townhouse. Life was great for Najwa’s family.

Since all was well for Najwa and her family, she was very oblivious to the fact that Sudan was a very poor nation with majority of the citizens under the poverty line and with a government- which her father was associated with, that was very corrupt. Things turned upside down for Najwa and her family when Sudan faced a coup d’etat, hence her family- excluding her father, were forced to escape to their townhouse in London. The storyline cuts through 10-15 years later and after a series of unfortunate events, Najwa who was once a rich, secular university student becomes a lonely, poor housemaid. As a housemaid, Najwa finally starts to take Islam seriously by wearing a hijab and going to the Mosque to pray daily.

The storyline towards the middle of Minaret gets a bit annoying. Najwa (now a housemaid), who is now about 40 years old falling in love with Tamer – her employer’s son, was a bit strange to me. Why is this 40 year old in love with a 19 year old university student? I found Tamer to be very judgmental as he felt he was a better Muslim than everyone. Towards the middle of the story, I realized Najwa was a little too naiive for my liking. Her fate was very sad as she was orphaned quite early due to political instability in Sudan, but I didn’t find Najwa to be a strong Muslim woman I could learn from. Surely, she had her strengths- she had a calm spirit, she was meek, she was very kind and regarded others’ feelings. Throughout the novel, she was trying to grow spiritually and was trying to become a better Muslim, but by the end of the novel I didn’t really see the depth of her growth. The conclusion of the novel seemed incomplete as well since Najwa’s character seemed stagnant. It was as though she was content being a housemaid and did not aspire to do anything better with her life or even go back to Sudan. I was quite disappointed that Najwa did not want more for herself.

Leila Aboulela is a great writer. I loved the calmness and simplicity of her writing in this novel. This book made me appreciate the Muslim culture and the importance of women wearing hijabs and tobes. I just wish the love story between Tamer (the 19 year old) and Najwa was more realistic and didn’t take up 3/5ths of the storyline. But I still look forward to reading more of Aboulela’s books!

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

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