Short Story #28. Passion (Doreen Baingana)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the queen of diamonds.

Story: Passion, by Doreen Baingana (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: This is perhaps the best story I’ve read in this collection so far.  It is told in the person of Rosa, a seventeen-year-old high school student in boarding school in Uganda, who decides to conduct a juju experiment on her (male) English literature teacher – ostensibly because she is rebelling against the anti-juju teaching that is being hammered into the students, but in reality because she is a seventeen-year-old girl/woman fascinated with sex, men, passion.  How the teacher deals with her not-very-subtle [except to her] attempt to seduce him, encouraging her, in a slightly clumsy but effective way, to channel her passion elsewhere, via literature, makes this a classic rite-of-passage or coming-of-age story.

The author captures the voice of a seventeen year old girl excellently, with just the right mixture of alleged boredom with school and disdain for her so uncool teachers (admitting, nevertheless, a certain amount of respect for them), rebelliousness, fascination with sex and sexuality, and independent thoughtfulness.  The dialogue with her classmates is as authentic as the passages which take place in Rosa’s head.

I had no idea when reading the story that it is from a collection of interlocking stories, Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, involving three sisters (Christine, Rosa, and Patti) and their experience of growing up in Uganda in the years immediately after the rule of Idi Amin.  The story certainly stands very well on its own.  But I’m now interested in reading the whole collection.

Short Story #26. Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals (Yvonne Vera)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the three of clubs.

Story: Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals, by Yvonne Vera (in The Granta Book of the African Short Story)  [Read in July; re-read and reviewed in October]

Comments: The online articles which top the list in a Google search for Yvonne Vera will tell you that she is renowned for her strong female characters – but this story features two men.  One is a carver, the other a painter, and they both sit and work outside an Africans-only hospital (in Vera’s native Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia), producing cheap items to sell to those going in and out.  The carver carves elephants and giraffes, “bringing the jungle to the city”.  A central part of the story involves a somewhat philosophical discussion about the competition between the elephant and the giraffe for the highest leaves on the trees, which the giraffe accesses by his long neck and the elephant by his strength and long tusks.  The animals which the carver makes are lifeless, and he knows it.  He has never seen in reality the animals that he carves.  The painter’s work, on the other hand, is full of life, as he adds details of a couple eating ice-cream to a picture of the Victoria Falls – though he too has never seen the Falls in reality.

So – talent and attitude are what bring vibrancy, more than experience or opportunity (or the lack of it)?  Perhaps this is one theme in this story?  This could also be behind the giraffe /elephant competition-for-highest-leaves theme, though most commentators seem to relate it only to the politics of Zimbabwe at the time.

Yvonne Vera died in 2005 at the age of 40.  Her mother subsequently wrote her biography, which would surely be an interesting read:

#14. Sardines (Nuruddin Farah)

Book: Sardines, by Nuruddin Farah

Genre: Fiction

Where I got it: Borrowed from the local library

Length: 250 pages

Briefly, it’s the second, but independent, book of a trilogy entitled “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” – though the edition which I read (Heinemann, African Writers Series, 1981) does not mention this. Perhaps the over-arching title was applied retrospectively?  The “African Dictatorship” is Somalia (under Siad Barre, though he is never named).  “Sardines brilliantly combines a social commentary on life under a dictatorship with a compassionate exploration of African feminist issues”, says the Goodreads site.

Comments: This was not an easy read.  The prose is highly metaphorical, in a somewhat self-conscious way.  Characters think and speak in paragraphs of metaphor.  One of the many literary references in the book is to Flann O’Brien’s “At-Swim-Two-Birds”, and that’s the kind of style that can be found here. Several times I nearly gave up.  It was – well, heavy. 

I admit that before coming to this book I had almost NO knowledge of Somalia.  The name of the country evoked a 1970’s famine-relief-agency poster of a starving child in a poor East African country, that’s all.  I didn’t know anything about the Siad Barre regime, or anything else about Somalia either.  I do now, but it’s more from reading about this book, trying to get some background information to help me understand what this was all about, than from Sardines itself.

I had a lot of questions about this work, above all, whether the characters and the relationships supposed to be authentic?  I didn’t find them so, but maybe they’re not supposed to be.  (Is the girl, Ubax, supposed to be a real eight-year-old, or just a literary device?  Because sometimes she seems more like a five-year-old, and at others she is portrayed with the understanding of a teenager.  Does a young woman who suspects that she is pregnant as a result of a one-night-stand really not cry, or worry, or panic, but simply wax politically philosophical?  Why does swimming training seem to play so tiny a role in the life of a national swimming champion?)  To appreciate the book, or to evaluate it fairly, I would need to read it again.  And I can’t honestly see myself doing that any time soon.

Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge; I Love Library Books challenge.

Short Story #6: Dancing to the Jazz Goblin and His Rhythm (Brian Chikwava)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the two of diamonds.

Story: Dancing to the Jazz Goblin and His Rhythm, by Brian Chikwava (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: A young man moves from Bulawayo to Harare, at his mother’s insistence.  “She had said, ‘I’m not disowning you, my child,  but it brings bad luck for a woman to keep on looking after a child who has grown a beard.’ ”  So he moves.  At first he comes under the influence of a jazz musician who sponges off him, but after a relatively short time the protagonist gets away from the Jazz Goblin and moves into a new flat on his own.  The move happens on the day on which Zimbabwean Independence is celebrated, 18 April.

And that’s it.  Am I missing something here?  Okay, so there’s the “independence” theme.  And – what?  Is the young man somehow supposed to represent the country?  At the end of this story I’m saying “So what?” and wondering if I need some kind of Interpreter’s Guide to this book.  Helon Habila’s Introduction doesn’t help any with this particular story.

Short story #5: Ships in High Transit (Banyavanga Wainaina)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the five of diamonds.

Story:  Ships in High Transit, by Banyavanga Wainaina (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: To understand better where Wainaina is coming from in this story, it may help to read first his article in the Winter 2005 issue of Granta, “How to Write about Africa” (available here).  This is a funny/sarcastic look at the stereotyping of and generalizing about “Africa” that occurs in contemporary writing.  Okay.  I’m Irish, I get the resentment at stereotyping.

Ships in High Transit is about reality and image; the image of “Africa” that the Kenyans in the story are deliberately concocting for European and American tourists, the image of themselves that they portray to each other, the image that they have of the tourists… Where is reality?  What is true, and what is crap?   A good discussion of the story can be found here (a blog post from 2006).   See also the discussion about “the Real Africa” and Wainaina here, including the comments.  I note that not everyone is impressed by his living in the USA and buying into the system there – a little like what the Irish would call “taking the King’s shilling”.

Personally, I think if any group of countries today suffers from being radically and wrongfully stereotyped, it’s “Eastern Europe”.

Short Story #3: An Ex-mas Feast (Uwem Akpan)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the four of diamonds.

Story: An Ex-mas Feast, by Uwem Akpan (from The Granta Book of the African Short Story)

Comments: This is a story about a fairly common situation: the eldest daughter and the eldest son move out of the family home to live elsewhere.  Except that in this case the daughter is 12, and she moves out to work full-time at prostitution (up to now she’s just been part-time), while the eldest son is 8, and he runs away because he believes that his wanting to go to school, his need to have the money to pay the school fees, is the root cause of his sister’s leaving home and thus the break-up of the family.  The family lives on the street in Nairobi, Kenya.

The author of the story, Uwem Akpan, says that when he moved from his native Nigeria to study in Nairobi, he was “taken by the phenomenon of street kids” there, and that this story is based on a real incident.  (Link to interview).  It is one of the stories in Akpan’s collection “Say You’re One of Them”.

The best comments that I’ve read on the story are here: , and I’m not going to try to improve on them.  I’ll just add that this story brought me into a world I’d rather not really know about (a 12-year-old girl counsels her 10-year-old sister on how she will need to use condoms as a sex-worker?  a mother routinely gets her children to sniff glue so that they will be less conscious of their hunger pangs?), yet without making me feel emotionally manipulated.

I’d be very interested to know more about the author’s view of religion (Akpan is a Jesuit priest) – here, for example, he tells us that the mother prays in thanksgiving to God that her daughter the prostitute has been given business by rich white men…

Much food for thought in this story.