Short story – Nigeria

The folded leaf by Segun Afolabi

This is the first story in my new book Lusaka Punk and other stories; The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015.

As I was reading it, I was thinking that I don’t get short stories really. And then I finished it and wow – that’s some story.

I think I need to go reread it.

The story is about a busload of Christians travelling to see a healing pastor. But really, I thought, it is about seeing. Who sees what? How blind are the sighted, and how well the blind see what really is. And without doing a spoiler, is what we actually see even really what is there, and what we don’t see, not there?

It is also about accepting yourself and others for what they are rather than chasing some solution that probably doesn’t even exist. The fact that these people needing healing are traveling in a bus over rutted roads, while the pastor has aeroplanes and other trappings of wealth is not only probably actually exactly now it is in real life, but also a commentary on the exploitative nature of evangelical healing religious people.

I am going to have to think about this story and reread it, possible a few times, to get everything Afolabi packed into it.

So much in just under 22 printed pages – well done Mr Afolabi, you may have changed my mind about short stories

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Iceland: Tainted Blood

(also published as Jar City)

Arnaldur Indridson

Tainted blood

 

This is a murder mystery written by an Iclandic author, and set in Iceland. I have read a lot of crime stories, usually American or European, and I found the basic premise of how crimes are investigated quite different in this book. Iceland is a small country with a small population, and this knowledge people have to almost everyone else (by far fewer than six degrees of separation) played an important role in this mystery.

In one part of the book they talk about the fact that in the previous year an alarming number of women had gone missing – 13 of them in total. This kind of small community fact reminded me of the foreignness (to me) of the author’s experience of life – the very point I am doing this project.

 

A man is found dead in his flat and through the investigation of his murder, all sorts of family stuff emerges, both of the dead man and the investigating officer. Put a little medical intrigue into the mix and a much younger partner to the gruff older investigator, and the story pretty much pulls the reader along.

 

I found the writing very sparse though – kind of like I think Iceland might be. But that may be a question of the translator rather than the author.

 

An interesting murder mystery but it didn’t make me rush off and buy the rest of Indridson’s books.

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Japan: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales

Yoko Ogawa (author) and Stephen Snyder (translator)

 Revenge

I really enjoyed the stories in this book. The eleven stories are all connected to some degree. In some cases the characters are shared and the connection is clear and obvious. In others, the connection may be as slight as characters walking past each other, or living near each other. But by the end of the book, a full circle has been achieved and the interconnectivity of everyone made vivid and relevant.

This of course makes it easy to look at the book as a reflection of society and how we are all connected, not to mention the fact that we all see only our little piece of life with no idea at all of the larger picture. All of which is true I guess.

The stories include a murdered husband, a deformed dancer, fingers in a tin in the veggie patch and a missing plastic surgeon. Each story is fabulously dark and the way they all hang together is clever and wicked.

But for me the most amazing part of reading this book was the way I read it. I kept having to remind myself that the characters, as created by the author, are all Japanese. Not the western characters of my mind.

The first story takes place in a bakery. Of course I immediately had a French bakery in my mind, with curved glass displays and everything. (In my defence, display shelves are described thus in the story.) Just as I was meandering down a cobble-stoned avenue outside the bakery, the reference to the characters which described the pastries being blurred and illegible dragged me back to Japan with a thump.

After this had happened two or three times I started watching myself and noticing when I wandered off into Europe or Africa, and noticing when I was pulled back. No character is ever described in term of hair colour or eye colour; occasionally someone is described as tall and often described as white and/or with very shiny hair in a very complimentary way. This is not how the characters of Western writings are made familiar to the reader and the difference was very interesting to notice.

This book really satisfies the original reason why I started this project in the first place. And the stories are really worth the time spent reading them too.

The whole collection is well worth reading. I am really glad I have two more of Ogawa’s books waiting to be read. But I shall delay that pleasure until I have forgotten to remember the setting is Japan again and can be re-reminded. Again 🙂

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the process: facets

The silver lining to my Winton disappointment is my rather duh moment when I realised that most countries will need more than one book.

There is no way I can read a Winton and tick Australia. His blond, blue-eyed sun kissed version of Australia in not the only version that exists of that country. Australia, like most countries, if not all, have many facets, many angles, many disparate experiences; each valid and unique.

Rabbit proof fence and other books of Aboriginal origin have to be included for all countries where applicable for this project to mean anything. I would be livid if someone read Spud and then considered South Africa ‘done’ so I can’t do the same to other countries. 
I think i just expanded this project exponentially. Yay and oh dear in equal measure

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Australia: The Riders

The Riders

Tim Winton

the-riders

 

This book is about a man whose wife mysterious but of her own volition, vanishes.  After travelling around Europe for years, Jennifer (the wife) convinces Scully (the husband) to stay in Ireland, buy a house and set up home for them while she goes back to Australia with their daughter, and unborn child, to sell their life there and return to join him.

When he goes to the airport to fetch them, only his previously chatty but now pretty much mute daughter is there alone.

And so begins a two week crazy trip through Europe searching for her.

I really did not like this book at all. Maybe I have never been so crazy in love that I would do what Scully did. Maybe the anger I felt at him for getting so drunk two nights in a row that he lost track of his 6 year old in Amsterdam was out of proportion. Maybe also the fact that the reader knew no more than Scully jarred with me. Possibly as a reader I am used to some omnipotence.

Whatever the reasons I did not relate to him at all, I didn’t like him or even care about him at all, and I did not respect him at all. I know you do not need to like characters but you do have to connect with them, even if the connection is not a comfortable one.

What I do know is that I am looking desperately for a me-reason I hated this Booker short-listed story so much rather than a Winton-reason.

And what the fuck were the ghost riders all about anyway?

I have read other reviews to try to work out what I missed and why I didn’t connect to this book at all and it seems it is all about the darkness of marriage and stuff. Or something.

I don’t know

And sadly I don’t care

 

I am off to reread Breathe and to read An Open Swimmer so I can love Winton again.

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currently reading: Tim Winton – The Riders

Reading yet another real book. Tim Winton The Riders. Have read and loved Winton before. This one is not set in Australia so it’ll be interesting to see how his Austalianness is evident. He has already said something is as obvious as a dunny in a dessert so I am feeling confident this apparent mystery will also make me smile.

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DRC: The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods

Jamala Safari

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods

This book tells the story of Risto, an unwilling child soldier from the DRC. He is kidnapped and forced into a life of brutality and unbelievable cruelty, is lucky enough to be left for dead and so is rescued and is free, and then leaves the DRC to travel overland to Mozambique. Risto’s stoy is not that of an actual child soldier (this book is fiction), but he is any one of thousands of child soldiers across Africa.

The details and events in this book were harrowing at times; I found myself reading with my shoulders pulled away from the book and my eyes scrunched up as you would view a scary movie. It is not that the descriptions are vivid or graphic, but the casualness with which truly awful events are described is in many ways even worse.

I am still disturbed at the idea of cutting someone’s arm off. Who does that? And how? Shudder.

I am also haunted by the fact that the child soldiers are called Kidogo – the Swahili word for small. That even those in charge of these youngsters acknowledge right from the onset that they are small, little, young, kids for goodness sake, makes what they do and what they have become even sadder.

Risto suffers from terrible PTSD once he has escaped the militia. Across Africa, kids like Risto are part of a lost generation. They have seen and done things no one should see or do, least of all youngsters. Boys murder and maim, and girls are raped, beaten and owned. And all with very little possibilities of a peaceful resolution. It is so very sad.

The last few chapters of the book feel more like a fairy tale than a reasonable story of the 21st century. From a purely literary point of view, they probably let the book down. But in some ways the ending proves the point of the sadness of the whole story, the monumental loss experienced by these kids and the countries of and continent of Africa as a whole.

The fairy tale ending of the 17 year old Risto, and I assume to some degree the author, is so much smaller than the fairy tale endings comfortable safe teenagers have in the luxury of their educated, warm, well fed lives. When a young teenager is ripped from his family and forced, at the threat of his own death, to kill other youngsters, childhood friends and even family members, just being safe and warm in a sleeping place with a roof must seem the ultimate happy ending. The very little that was offered as the ultimate, and largely unbelievable, happy ending of the book was heart wrenching in its very littleness. People deserve the right to believe in the possibility of more.

This skinny book is a quick but not easy read. It is worth reading and will linger long after you put it down.

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Ethiopia: Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone

Abraham Verghese

Cutting for stone

It has taken me a while to write the review for this book. I needed to allow it to settle and to process it before I could even attempt to write anything. And now I fear I have waiting too long.

The story is told by Marion Stone, one of a set of twins born in Ethiopia of an Indian nun and an English surgeon living and working at Missing hospital.  The book starts with life before the twins were born and tells something of their parents’ lives before they were just that, their parents. I think this gives the boys’ stories such a wonderful foundation and also very neatly shows how everyone exists only for a short period of time and we are all preceded and followed by others.

The boys are orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance and they are raised by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors at the hospital. The middle section of the book tells of the boys’ coming of age in an Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. The boys are born joined by what seems to be a blood vessel on the head, and although separated, are always deeply connected; they talk and think of themselves as ShivaMarion.

This connection and the breaking of it defines the boys and the men they become. Marion is betrayed by his brother and Genet, the woman/girl he loves, and then again by the woman, and he is unable to forgive either of them. And yet he is unable to stop loving either of them either.

The story moves from Addis to New York and back again, from love to hatred and anger and back to love again; from togetherness to separation and back to togetherness.

There is a folktale told in the book which really resonated with me in relation to the events of the characters’ lives. In the story, a man tries to get rid of his dodgy old slippers. He tries to get rid of them in many ways and each time something awful happens to him. He cannot get rid of the slippers until he acknowledges they are his. For me this is a large part of what this book was about. Marion cannot get rid of his anger and hatred until he truly owns it; until he realises he is allowed to feel these things and that he is not responsible for holding the relationships with those who hurt him together.

When he started to see his father as a human being and not just the bastard deserter his anger for the man dissipates and a relationship is possible.

The resolution of his anger with his brother and Genet is more complicated and life changing for all three of them.

In addition to a gripping and interesting story, this book had some really harrowing scenes.  With the setting being a rural hospital in Africa and almost all the main characters being doctors of some sort, this was inevitable.  I wasn’t that grossed out by them but people I recommended the book to did tell me they cringed at some of the scenes. Verghese is a medical doctor so the medical scenes, of which there are many, are pretty graphic. But Ethiopia at that time was pretty graphic, and the lives of the characters in the book were too. So for me the graphic nature of the writing did not jar or disturb; it felt right. The content and the style of telling matched perfectly.

This is a wonderful story; raw, real and riveting. Well worth reading.

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Nigera: Say you’re one of them

Say you’re one of them

Uwem Akpan

say-youre-one-of-them

Uwem Akpan is a Nigerian Jesuit priest, and an author shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing, and longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. And this book was a New York Times bestseller.

Not a combination that happens often I wouldn’t think.

This book is actually a series of five stories, unrelated except for their theme: Children of Africa. The title comes from some advice a father gives his daughter in Rwanda. If anyone comes, say you are one of them. when the daughter asks who, the father says anyone. Merge, blend, do and say what is required to stay alive. Not the advice one expects a child to have to get really.

Of the five, I found four to be incredible stories. One I didn’t much like but maybe because I don’t know the context well enough.

In the other four, quite simple tales are told of children living in the harsh reality of Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Simple but harrowing and distressing and saddening. These children are facing things adults should never face and the images of the little bodies running and begging and weeping will stay with me for ages. From the uncle trying to sell his nice and nephew into slavery, to the Rwandan girl seeing the horror of the genocide up close, each story tells of an experience much too common in Africa.

Other comments written about this book that I have read talk about how uplifting it is, about how it shows the resilience of children. I didn’t see that really. I felt so sad that we as a continent and we as a species create situations in which children are sold as slaves, watch their parents murder and be murdered, and face persecution for things they had no say in whatsoever.

What Akpan does amazingly well, especially for a man who, I assume as a Catholic priest, has no children, is capture the voice of each of the children in his stories. Children do have a non-melodramatic way of talking about the most horrendous things, and when used as a story-telling technique, this works to keep the stories from being mawkish.

He also uses lots of local dialect and speech patterns. I have read other reviewers talking about how this detracts as it makes it hard to understand every word.

I think this is the point. You do not need to understand every single part of the whole to know what it all means, be the whole a sentence or the lives of these children. Don’t read the stories thinking you will come out with a complete picture of anything. What each story is, is a snippet from the lives of millions and millions of children of Africa.

If you want to know more, go and find out.

Very glad to have read this – and although it counts as my Nigerian book, it really is an everywhere-in-Africa book. I think all Africans should read it. And all people not African too. The essence of the stories is certainly not restricted to Africa.

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Ireland: The Misremembered Man

 

 

The Misremembered Man

Christina McKenna

misremembered man

A short while into this book I did roll my eyes and wonder if everyone in Ireland had a terrible childhood filled with Catholic-fuelled abuse.  And then I began to care about the characters and got really caught up in their simple rural Irish lives.

Jamie, one of the two main characters is a lonely and sad man with very few social skills. The cause of this becomes apparent throughout the book and the sense of hopeless he feels is very believable and real.

Lydia, the other main character, is a woman trapped in a life with her mother, beholden forever. The dusty despair which permeates her life is also very real and as the reader you can almost feel the cloying demands of her mother.

Despite the apparently doom and gloom foundation, this book is actually a wonderful celebration of the inner human light that exists and can survive, regardless of the shit life throws at you.

 

Towards the end of the book I was reading as fast as I could to see what would happen. Sitting on the edge of my seat I hurtled towards the resolution. Because the book is about the grittiness of life as well as the possible joy to be found, whether the end was going to be happy or not was not clear, until it was revealed.

 

As a postscript the books informs that the type of orphanage described in the book continued to exist in Ireland until as late as 1996. This horrifies me.

A very readable book despite, or because of, being very real, gritty and harsh.

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