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.

Purchase The January Children on Amazon

Lizard & Other Stories by Marcelle Mateki Akita

Date Read: December 27th 2016

Published: December 18th 2016

Publisher: Marcelle Mateki Akita

Pages: 63

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Follow the stories of five young characters who try to make sense of loss, sex and sexuality in Lizard & Other Stories. Marcelle Mateki Akita explores how topics such as broken family and romantic relationships, sexual violence and masturbation impact a young girl and woman’s development. The collection’s short stories and flash fiction focus on girls and women of Ghanaian and mixed heritage. Written in an imaginative and sobering style, Lizard & Other Stories will unsettle and surprise you.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

How cute is the cover art of Lizard & Other Stories? The beads are truly attractive! Lizard & Other Stories is the good debut of short stories by reader, researcher and co-founder of Afrikult. (a literary platform that discusses, explores and celebrates the diversity of African literature) – Marcelle Mateki Akita. The collection consists of five stories that focus mainly on girls and women of Ghanaian or mixed heritage. The stories in this collection are vivid, bold and told in a calm manner. Once I started reading, I was drawn into Marcelle’s comfy, calm writing style, which allowed me to get to know the characters at relatively good paces. Some issues explored in this collection are: coming of age, religion, family, sexuality, (domestic) violence, naivety and betrayal.

What makes this collection special is the ambiguous nature of all the stories. If you read this collection more than once – which I highly encourage, you will realize that there are various interpretations and extra, juicy details you probably missed during the first reading. When I got the chance to discuss Lizard & Other Stories with Marcelle during Christmas break, I realized I interpreted the stories, especially the final one, entitled Kwesi, in a completely different way than she did. It takes talent to pull that off, even if it’s never a writers’ intention to give stories various meanings. Another thing that’s great about this collection is the unpredictability of the stories. I felt really cozy while reading the first story, entitled Ama, until the story took an unexpected turn and left a sour taste in my mouth. From the way the stories commence to their finality are polar opposites, which was refreshing!

I would’ve been more satisfied with these stories if the characters were developed a little further for readers to fully understand their actions. Also, some passages in this collection seemed overly descriptive, which isn’t my preference when reading short stories and flash fiction. But I must say, the vivid descriptions certainly allow one to picture exactly what is being observed, which was appreciated.

If you want to indulge in bold, unpredictable stories written in a calm voice, definitely look into reading this collection! I eagerly look forward to Marcelle’s future projects – a novel soon, maybe? Pretty please?

Special thanks to Marcelle, for the free copy of Lizards & Other Stories, in exchange for an honest review 🙂


To get a feel of her writing, check out Marcelle’s story that was published by AFREADA last year – Cassava’s Finest

Read more of Marcelle’s work on her websiteShe posts wonderful musings of the mind and soul every Monday and 100 word stories every Wednesday.

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

Purchase Lizard & Other Stories on Amazon

Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi

sweet medicineDate Read: June 3rd 2016

Published: 2015

Publisher: Blackbird Books

Pages: 203

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Sweet Medicine is the story of Tsitsi, a young woman who seeks romantic and economic security through ‘otherworldly’ means. The story takes place in Harare at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic woes in 2008.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Sweet Medicine is a good debut! Don’t you love the book cover? It’s one of the reasons I just had to have this book. In between reading, I watched interviews and talks on YouTube that featured Panashe, where she spoke on racism in South Africa (where she was raised. She’s originally from Zimbabwe), feminism and the makings of an online magazine she founded – Vanguard Magazine, which is a womanist platform for young black women in South Africa speaking to the intersectionality of queer politics, Black Consciousness and pan-Africanism. Panashe is simply an amazing inspiration, and she’s only 25!

Set in present day Zimbabwe, Tsitsi – the main character, seems to be a victim of the economic crisis in Zimbabwe. Throughout this novel, she does all she can to achieve economic and romantic stability through ways that seriously contradict her staunch Christian upbringing. I must say – it was hard not to judge Tsitsi while reading this novel. Her forbidden relationship with Mr. Zvobgo (a rich man who’s recently divorced from his wife) was uncalled for, yet understandable, I guess? Unfortunately, just like Tsitsi in Sweet Medicine, many young women find themselves at the mercy of rich men as they try to survive in the midst of economic crises. This novel tackles several dichotomies of dilemmas Tsitsi and other ordinary women (even with university degrees) suffer thanks to the terrible economic states of their nations, like – desperation versus true love; spirituality versus worldliness; feminism versus patriarchy; tradition verses modernity; poverty versus abundance, and much more.

Sweet Medicine might be one of the few African novels I’ve read, where I can confidently say is written for Africans – Zimbabweans to be exact. Panashe unapologetically throws readers into Zimbabwean slang & Shona and into the happenings of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis – as if we are natives! Initially, Sweet Medicine was a little challenging for me to read as it took me a while to adjust to the writing style and the myriad of Shona expressions and phrases blended into the dialogue. But once I got the hang of it, I enjoyed the measured suspense of Tsitsi and Mr. Zvobgo’s undulating relationship issues, as well as the glimpses of Zimbabwean life Sweet Medicine fed me.

If you get the chance to read Sweet Medicine, just immerse yourself into the atmosphere of 2008 Zimbabwe for about 200 pages. Cringe at the silly interactions and exchanges between Tsitsi and her super bold sister-friend, Chiedza. Appreciate Tsitsi’s relationship and her tortuous quandary of wanting to live a comfortable life (and provide for her family) with the man of her dreams versus wanting to honor God and her mother. And when you’re done, go back and admire the ultra-chic book cover which I believe, embodies Tsitsi’s persona. Sweet Medicine made for a decent summer read! I recommend this – especially to readers who’ve been longing to read a contemporary African novel, written for us – Africans.

P.S: I have an extra, brand new copy of Sweet Medicine which I will be giving away- amongst other goodies during my hosting the second and last give-away of the year. Stay tuned! 🙂

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

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Purchase Sweet Medicine on Amazon

And the 2016 Caine Prize winner is…

Yes, it’s that time of year again! In about two weeks, the 2016 Caine Prize winner will be announced!

For those who are not familiar, the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was first awarded in 2000 is an award “open to writers from anywhere in Africa for work published in English. Its focus is on the short story, reflecting the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition” (source).

Some notable winners of the Caine Prize include (click on links to my reviews):

  • Leila Aboulela, from Sudan (2000) – author of novels Minaret, The Translator, Lyrics Alley among other works. 
  • Binyavanga Wainaina, from Kenya (2002) – founding editor of Kwani?, author of memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place and the essay How To Write About Africa found in various literary magazines.
  • Yvonne A. Owuor, from Kenya (2003) – author of the novel, Dust.
  • E.C Osondu, from Nigeria (2009) – author of the novel, Voice of America: stories.
  • NoViolet Bulawayo, from Zimbabwe (2011) – author of the novel, We Need New Names

Previously shortlisted authors include: Mia Couto from Mozambique (2001), Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria (2002), Laila Lalami from Morocco (2006), Chinelo Okparanta from Nigeria (2013), Tendai Huchu from Zimbabwe (2014), Elnathan John from Nigeria (2013 & 2015), among others!

The Caine Prize and its shortlisted stories play a huge role in the authors I read from the continent. Many Caine Prize winners and shortlisted writers have found great success and I’ve reviewed a good number of these writers’ works here on African Book Addict!


This year, the Caine Prize shortlist comprises of five talented young writers with unique short stories (top left to bottom right):

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(Images via caineprize.com ; collage created by African Book Addict!)

Tope Folarin (Nigeria) – Read his short story: Genesis

Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe) – Read his short story: At Your Requiem

Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) – Read his short story: The Lifebloom Gift

Lidudumalingani (South Africa) – Read his short story: Memories We Lost 

Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) – Read her short story: What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky

 

I was surprised to see Tope Folarin shortlisted AGAIN, since he won the Caine Prize back in 2013 for his moving story – Miracle. Why does the Caine Prize always shortlist past shortlistees and winners? Every year, many writers submit stories in hopes of being shortlisted – they couldn’t give someone else a chance to compete to win?

Anyways, Folarin’s Genesis reminded me of his Africa39 story, New MomGenesis is a semi-autobiographical story on Folarin’s family – more specifically on his mother’s mental illness and how it affected him as a child. Genesis made me uncomfortable. I felt stressed reading the story as Folarin freely shares with the world his mother’s plight. The story is an easy read and quite engrossing which I expected, since Folarin’s strength is in his ability to write moving stories – as seen in Miracle. I appreciate Folarin shedding light on mental illness and depression – topics we Africans usually shy away from. But for some reason, I’m not okay with his mother’s illness and antics are being shared with the world (MY opinion!). If he wins the Caine Prize again, I anticipate some uproar from readers and critics.

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s story, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky was an engaging story. This is a story about Nneoma who is a Mathematician that can detect grief and sadness from fellow Nigerians and has the power to heal them. She seems to be searching to find the next genius mathematician to train with healing powers as well. The ending had me a bit confused… But this was an enjoyable read. I’m not a big fan of science fiction but I loved the afrofuturism vibes I got from this story!

Abdul Adan’s story The Lifebloom Gift is my favorite! This story is sooo bizarre. The Lifebloom Gift is a story about a TSA officer who has an encounter with Ted Lifebloom – a 30 year old man who seems to thrive off touching moles on other peoples’ bodies. Once Ted Lifebloom touches another person’s mole, the person he’s touching is transported into a land of “green pastures where they hear the song of birds and sneezes of horses, smell the fur of dogs, feel a twitch in one of their nipples which, in turn, transforms into a brown lactating nipple…” or in short, the person understands the meaning of love (whaaat?!). The TSA officer later conducts a case study on Ted Lifebloom and goes on an adventure to find other Lifebloomers, by accessing moles on the backs of potential Lifebloomers. The story starts off a bit confusing, as it’s hard to picture what Abdul Adan is describing. But as the story unfolds, it all starts to make sense even though its still very strange. It’s actually hard to explain this story. But it was hilarious to read and oh so weird! If you don’t read any of these stories at all, at least read The Lifebloom Gift! It’s truly an original and creative story. I hope Abdul Adan wins the 2016 Caine Prize!

Which story is your favorite? Who do you think will win the Caine Prize this year?

The winner will be announced on the 4th of July at the Weston Library, Oxford, England. Good luck to all the shortlisted candidates!

You can also check out my commentary on the Caine Prize from 2014 – here & 2015 – here :).