Historical fiction about briefly independent African nation Biafra
Content warning: civil war, starvation, sexual violence
When you have a to-read pile as large as mine, it can be very challenging choosing the next book and I am always looking for inspiration, in any form, to help me make that decision. I had definitely heard of this author and have had one of her books (which I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair) on my shelf for a really long time. When the author last month posted an essay on her website about virtue signalling on social media, there was some backlash about some views the author had posted previously about transwomen. I am absolutely the last person qualified to weigh into Nigerian LGBTQIA+ discourse, but seeing the author’s name made me realise that her book had been waiting its turn far too long.
“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a historical fiction novel set in 1960s Nigeria. A teenager called Ugwu moves from his small village to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a charismatic lecturer who regularly hosts friends and colleagues for academic debates in his home. Allowed to attend school again, Ugwu soaks up the atmosphere and the political rhetoric. Odenigbo’s partner, Olanna, has given up her privileged upbringing to live with him. When the Igbo nation of Biafra secedes from Nigeria, the reality of their idealism is a far cry from the life Olanna is used to. Meanwhile, Olanna’s quiet twin sister Kainene is dating Englishman and aspiring writer Richard. Learning fluent Igbo and becoming swept up in the nationalism of this new nation, Richard is forced to examine the role of white people in African nation-building and how even during an African civil war, an Englishman’s word is worth more than a Biafran.
This is a compelling and challenging novel that uses three diverse, intersecting perspectives to tell the story of the rise and fall of Biafra the nation. Through the eyes of a poor young man, a wealthy woman and a white man, Adichie examines the leadup to and fallout from the civil war and the ensuing food scarcity. Ugwu in particular was a really powerful character who undergoes a lot of character development and who as a young man with the opportunity for significant social mobility finds a lot of opportunity through this historical period. I also thought that it was really interesting to see the sacrifices, financial and social, that Olanna and Odenigbo had to make and how the more doggedly they clung to the idealism of Biafra, the worse their individual circumstances became. Adichie writes unflinchingly about starvation and it was really hard reading about children suffering. I thought it was a courageous narrative choice for Adichie to explore the issue of sexual violence during war from the side of both the victim and the perpetrator. It was also surprisingly hard going reading about roads and borders being closed and not being able to check on family during these times when borders closures are becoming more and more commonplace.
An emotionally and politically complex novel that brings microhistory to microfiction.
I was in the market for a new audiobook, and had made a shortlist of books that were both not too long and that I hadn’t read before. It was plum season, and I wanted something to listen to while I was outside picking plums. Audible had made a bit of a song and dance about the narrator of this book, and of course I had heard of it before, so I thought I would give it a go.
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and narrated by Kenneth Branagh is a novella about a young man called Charles Marlow who manages to wangle his way into a job captaining a steamboat for an ivory trading company in Africa. On his journey to the station where the steamboat is moored, Marlow finds that he is following in the footsteps of a man called Mr Kurtz whose increasing success in the ivory trade and other pursuits appears to be accompanied by a deteriorating attitude towards the local African tribes. After significant setbacks, Marlow arrives at Kurtz’ station and is confronted by the full extent of Kurtz’ actions.
I think that the most significant and important thing about this book is that it is a critique and frank depiction of the horrors of colonisation in Africa. Given that it was published over 120 years ago, I was impressed at Conrad’s acknowledgement of (at least some of) the harm caused by colonisation and the theft of resources by Europeans in Africa.
However, I have to admit, I was just not that engaged in this book and even though it was only a few hours long, I frequently found myself tuning out and missed large swathes of the book. Branagh’s narration was maybe a little too soothing or something. I think that it’s also really important to note that while Conrad was clearly ahead of his time, this book describes significant violence against African people and does include some condescending attitudes towards African people. I don’t think that I can say it better than Kittitian-Brittish novelist Caryl Phillips who wrote, following an interview with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe:
…to the African reader the price of Conrad’s eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the “dark” continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe. However lofty Conrad’s mission, he has, in keeping with times past and present, compromised African humanity in order to examine the European psyche.
An important and certainly well-studied piece of literature that serves as a reminder of how important it is to centre Africian voices.
I reviewed the first in this graphic novel series back in 2015. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I knew that there were others in the series, but for some reason I had gotten the idea that only the first had been translated into English. I was so surprised when I found a copy of this one in Canty’s graphic novel section and I bought it immediately.
“Aya of Yop City” is a bandes dessinéesby Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie picks up almost immediately where the last one left off. It’s the 1970s in the unprecedented prosperous time of the African nation of the Ivory Coast. While Aya strives to become a doctor, she is roped into helping her friends deal with their dramas. Adjoua has had a baby and the identity of the father isn’t going to be a secret for long, while Bintou has been swept of her feet by a stranger from France who perhaps isn’t quite what he seems.
These graphic novels really are an absolute joy to read. A perfect blend of soapy drama, humour and culture, this series is as entertaining as it is educational. I liked the first one, but I felt like the story consolidated even more in this one. I remember I had some reservations about the artwork in the first one, but even that too has grown on me now. One of the things I was looking forward to the most was the afterword with some little cultural tidbits about life in the Ivory Coast and I wasn’t disappointed. In addition to a glossary, instructions on how to carry your baby on your back in a pagne and how babies and new mothers are welcomed back into the community after the birth was a new recipe for me to try. I actually outsourced the cooking on this one, and my partner made for me the chicken kedjenou which he liked so much he’s asked for it to be put on our rotating menu.
A delightful series that should be on the list for any lover of graphic novels, or anyone who wants to learn more about a different culture.
This is a borrowed book from my bestie who has been telling me I should read it for absolute yonks. The way she described it to me made it sound a bit like Mad Max – a wild, lawless society. It had mosied its way to the top of my reading pile, and finally I decided to give it a crack.
“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” is a memoir by Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller of her childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. Her English heritage parents scrape a living managing tobacco farm after tobacco farm, moving frequently both by choice and by force as war and political climates in post-colonial Africa dictates. Raised amid rampant drinking, smoking, guns, violence, disease and hunger, it’s not the safest upbringing for Bobo and her sister Vanessa and the family’s feral lifestyle ultimately takes a big toll. Nevertheless, Bobo falls in love with Africa’s adventures, smells, landscape, wildlife, freedom and, finally, her people.
Fuller is an incredibly vivid writer and as someone who has never visited the African continent, this was an incredibly immersive book. She paints a stark picture of war-torn countries, abject poverty and unrepentant racism interspersed with humour and appreciation for beauty. While in the beginning her book has a white film over it, in line with the uncritical thinking of a child, as the cracks appear in her parents’ lifestyle and the white stronghold on ruling African nations, so too do they appear in what Bobo has been taught about white superiority. I think my main criticism of this book is that it did feel like she didn’t go far enough with her critique of either her family or the society she lived in. A lot of the things she wrote jarred against the eyes of someone reading in 2017, and I do appreciate that it’s a fifteen year old memoir about Africa in the 1970s, but I felt like the criticism should have been a bit more pointed.
An unparalleled and eye-opening insight into crumbling colonialism and the effects of neglect and mental illness on families, this is would be a great start for someone who wanted to learn more about Africa’s tumultuous history and the rise and decline of white settlers.
I got this book as a gift from colleagues earlier this year. All I can say is obviously my rantings about books and how much I love them hasn’t fallen on deaf ears: I knew as soon as I unwrapped this book that it was right up my alley. The cover is deceptively minimalist: the lettering of the title is just like stained glass windows and is beautifully embossed.
As I obviously don’t have any ancient manuscripts hidden away in my own home (or do I?), the photo contains a miniature of the famous Rosetta Stone – the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” is a non-fiction work by Joshua Hammer. This book is about the African nation Mali and its historical city of Timbuktu, a word that in the West has become synonymous with the middle of nowhere. However, Timbuktu has a rich yet hidden history of scholarship. A man called Adbel Kader Haidara spent thirty years of his life travelling and convincing his countrymen to entrust manuscripts that had been saved and passed on through family for centuries to him for preservation and restoration in libraries in Timbuktu. However, when Timbuktu becomes occupied and subjected to Sharia law by Islam extremists, the librarians of Timbuktu fear that historical records of Timbuktu’s tolerant Islam and secular society will become Al Qaeda’s next target.
This book took me a while to get through for one reason and one reason only: I am extremely ignorant when it comes to Africa and African history. There is a point in the book where an African American man, Henry Louis Gates, travels to Timbuktu for a documentary and meets Haidara and sees the manuscripts. Gates is astonished that African people were writing books over 500 years ago, and tells Haidara that when he was in school, he was taught that Africans were illiterate and had no written language. It’s this kind of cultural myth that was used to support the idea that African people were subhuman and therefore justify colonial practices of slavery. I spent a lot of time while reading this book sticking my bookmark back in and researching things further. I was absolutely fascinated with the history of scholarship in Timbuktu and the beautiful manuscripts that Haidara discovered.
I loved the parts about Haidara applying for funding from international organisations. However although the first third of the book is about the manuscripts and setting the scene, the majority of the book is about the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu, the personal histories of the key players in the occupation and the brutalities Al Qaeda inflicted on the city’s people. All of this information is critically important, especially because I would imagine that most people (like myself) actually know nothing about these atrocities that have been happening in Western Africa. Nevertheless, I think I really would have liked more of a focus on the manuscripts and the librarians who saved them. Hammer has a clear, factual way of writing and is particularly good at giving you a real sense of the people he is writing about. However, what I really wanted to learn more about was the people of Timbuktu, their culture, their customs. Hammer talks a lot about their music (banned under Sharia law during the occupation), but I wanted to know more about their art and food and the lifestyle that was threatened by the extremists. Hammer talks about “Moorish-style” architecture, but I wanted to know more about what Moorish means and what Timbuktu is really like.
This is a really important book that sheds light on what could have been a cultural disaster. African people have for centuries been fighting the erasure of their history, and this book tells a story of protecting that heritage against the odds. This book is a great read for someone interested in learning about a country that is not often talked about, the damage that extremism can inflict and the ingenuity of ordinary people that prevails in the face of adversity.
I love graphic novels, and this one caught my eye in Canty’s a couple of months ago. I’d never heard of any African graphic novels, and, always interested in reading diversely, I was intrigued.
“Aya”, written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, was translated from its original French and is set in the Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. This African nation was undergoing a period of exceptional prosperity following independence in stark contrast to many of the other countries in the region. “Aya” is about the eponymous protagonist and her friends living in “Yop City” as the economic boom draws to an end. Aya is a level-headed and ambitious teenager who is often called on to help her more foolhardy friends who get themselves into all kinds of mischief when it comes to boys.
This book was probably one of my better finds this year. It was such a fabulous, humorous and heartfelt snapshot into a time and a culture that I otherwise wouldn’t have known anything about. “Aya” is filled with cultural insights and explanations and all of the colourful cast of characters burst off the page around the more reserved and sensible Aya herself. My absolute favourite part of the book is the gorgeous touch of adding pages at the end sharing instructions on how to engage with pieces of Ivory Coast culture including wearing a pagne, sashaying while you walk and traditional recipes.
I adore trying new recipes, so I decided to have a go at the Peanut Sauce recipe – a sort of beef stew with peanut butter and tomatoes. The critics gave it rave reviews, including “not too bad” and “pretty edible”, but I thought it was pretty good!
I think the only thing that perhaps lets this down is that the art is sometimes a little underwhelming. It’s almost too cartoony for my taste, I think, and maybe doesn’t quite capture the spirit and nuance that the author clearly inlaid in the story.
“Aya” is really something you don’t see every day. I learned so much reading this book and engaging with the recipes at the back, and I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye out for the other installments in the series.