Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

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Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly.

― Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

My first touch with Africa was through Hemingway’s infamous book Green Hills of Africa. Although it is an account of a hunting safari on the Serengeti Plains and a chronicle of adventure, it revealed to me the beauty of this strange land – a continent full of contrast and opportunity. As inspiring as this book was, however, it missed one vital element – humans. After all, as Albert Camus once said in one of his essays: “What’s a city but the people?” Read More


Review: Incognegro – A Graphic Mystery

It was the summer of 1919. Just after the First World War, white supremacists, fueled by generations of hatred, began targeting returning African American GIs for violence. Meanwhile, more African Americans flooded into northern cities looking for job opportunities and an escape from the oppression of the American South. They, too, were met with violence in cities such as Chicago and New York. It was the Red summer, when blood flowed from battered skulls and from the trees like blossoms of the “Strange Fruit” of the old jazz standard. From the shadows emerges a hero, the Incognegro.

This graphic novel deals with the fictional story of Zane Pinchback, an African American man whose light skin tone allows him to pass as a white man. This trait, presented almost as a superpower in Incognegro, has helped him slip into the shadows and report on lynchings in the South. Suddenly, the work – always dangerous – becomes personal as his brother has been placed in jail for the murder of a white woman, and the sentence will be carried out by the angry lynch mob that sits outside the jailhouse day and night. Read More

Review: The Best Small Fictions 2016

This anthology is diverse in its styles and sensualities as each of these short fictions is breathtaking when small moments have larger meanings, and larger questions emerge from the words on the page. One thing this collection does very well is to represent the range of writing that can be entertained in this short form, such as experimental mash ups that can feature an entire narrative arc or character change in the fraction of space of a short story or novel. I find it difficult to choose a favorite story because each one is to be considered a mini-masterwork, poised not only to entertain, but also to potentially serve to instruct the apprentice in the art of creating excellent flash fiction.

Brevity is a trademark of the Best Small Fictions 2016, and there may be no better example than Toh Enjoe’s “A Thousand and One Tongues” at only 67 words. It is an excellent statement on the process of storytelling and the often compulsive nature of the craft itself. It would be a mistake to assume this is simply a collection of lyricism since the stories together make a great emotional rollercoaster. One of the most critical moments in any short story is the first sentence. In flash fiction, this is paramount. There is a feeling that the reader must not only be grabbed, but also held tightly throughout the experience. Read More

Review: A Life Elsewhere by Segun Afolabi

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures;

at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

– Salman Rushdie

I feel, or at least in my experience, that African literature is not held in the same regard as Western literature. I remember one day talking to a friend and her making the comment that the writing in African novels seemed ‘barbaric’. I realized that to the West, Africa has been made to seem like a dark, shrouded continent, often only communicated from that same removed Western perspective.

Literature tends to be, and is often used, as a political, cultural and historical tool. As such, African literature is powerful in the matter of identity and ownership of one’s own culture and history. The problem in postcolonial states is when they fail to have an identity and to know themselves, which often leads to disastrous situations. So, yes, I think it is valuable to read African literature, especially as an African person. And as a non-African. I have also noticed that there is a tendency to anthropologize African fiction. Whenever I ask friends what they think about it, they usually expect that African fiction exists for one thing only: to comment on the social condition of Africa. Unfortunately, publishers, reviewers, and authors often promise this. It would seem that African literature is invisible except when it is reflected on a mirror of social ills and political concerns. 

Nevertheless, African fiction deserves readers who see its value as a literary object versus readers who are drawn to it because of some imagined anthropological value. We have to stop telling the single story about African stories.

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Paz on Poetry

I am swept away whenever I read essays or poetry by Octavio Paz. In the current collection of essays, Alternating Current, that I am still savouring and forcing myself to not rush through, Paz offers insight on poetry with his succinct writing:

The meaning does not reside outside the poem but within it, not in what the words say, but in what they say to each other.

With clarity and ample examples of interrelationships between poets and poetic schools, Paz demonstrates both his experience of the canon and his interpretation of poetic techniques:

The difficulty of modern poetry does not stem from its complexity—Rimbaud is far simpler than Góngora or Donne—but rather from the fact that, like mysticism or love, it demands total surrender (and an equally total vigilance).

Then to bring it together, he comments on form and meaning:

The real ideas of a poem are not those that occur to the poet before he writes his poem, but rather those that appear in his work afterward, whether by design or by accident. Content stems from form, and not vice versa…. The meaning of a poem does not lie in what the poet wanted to say, but in what the poem actually says.

And all this in just the first 4 pages of the collection of essays. Reading these essays is having the privilege to be in the mind ofPaz as he links his thoughts on various aspects of language, art, poetry and technique.

Samir Rawas Sarayji

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I am always humbled to come across a book that speaks its own narrative, yet delves deeply into themes that are relevant to broader cultural conversations. I am forever excited about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman, a creative non-fiction novel from 1997 that continues to be a part of conversation about multiculturalism, particularly in the medical community.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is an exploration of issues of assimilation and cultural divide in the tenuous balance of the refugee immigrant experience in the United States, in a particularly nationalist and conservative time. But rather than being structured around broader macro-sociological elements, the heart of the story is Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl who develops a severe epileptic disorder, Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, as an infant. Her life is fraught with the frustrations of both her refugee Hmong family and her white American doctors, as both parties fight for the health of this little girl. Here we see, as the subtitle calls it, “a collision of two cultures”—American and Hmong. While her doctors prescribe medication to help her symptoms, her family turns to their cultural roots to help the child, and the tension between these two lifestyles places Lia’s life in jeopardy. What I found to be most intriguing about Fadiman’s work is how she uses a multitude of voices, not just the Lee family and Lia’s doctors; cultural and medical experts, foster parents, small town Americans, Hmong refugees of the Vietnam conflict, and their American-born children all tell their own stories. Fadiman pays particular attention to details of their daily existence, such as Doctor Dan Murphy’s beard, and humanizes them in the process. With this, Fadiman encourages what she calls “Cultural Humility”, which she defines as: “‘Cultural Humility’ acknowledges [individuals] bring the baggage of their own cultures … and that these may not necessarily be superior” (295). Read More

Review: The Chalk Circle by Tara L. Masih, Ed.

13561800This polished collection of prize-winning essays is a result of a call the editor Tara L. Masih placed in 2007 for intercultural essays dealing with subjects of culture, race and sense of place.  Masih is a dedicated writer and editor whose work (herself a Native Indian American raised in New York) is deeply concerned with intercultural relations.  The Chalk Circle collection reflects many complex issues of this seemingly shrinking world and its many cultures.  Through arranging the particular essays into comprehensible chapters – each dealing with a different issue, Masih shows keen insight in intercultural relations and what it means to be “the other”.

The mere fact that the authors are people of different backgrounds inevitably supports the mosaic design of the collection, but is by far not the only element of diversity.  Topics vary from sense of place, self-identity, war and race, to encountering “the other”, being “the other” and spirituality, all while being neatly arranged into seven easily manageable topical “bites”.  This collection is an extensive what-if game that authors play with both the reader and themselves: what if things had been different?  What if circumstances changed?  What if roles were reversed?  What if identity is more complex than we think? Read More

Review: Karate Chop by Dorothe Nors

41otnj0t5kl-_sx326_bo1204203200_The short stories in Dorothe Nors’ collection Karate Chop speak to the depths we lock away inside ourselves.  Together they form a brief but profound exploration of our interior lives under modernity; a sweeping survey of our own unspoken inner landscapes.

As I read this book I could not help but imagine a stone well.  I felt something a little cold, and endlessly deep.  I pictured someone boring a hole through solid bedrock.  I thought of water rushing where no one could see it.

Dorothe Nors writes beautiful prose.  Maybe that is where we should start. Her text feels cultivated, honed.  Pruned to perfection.  Nors is a writer that knows how to craft a sentence.  No part of it seems out of place.  Every word adds to the overall effect of its respective narrative, and the fact that the arc of these narratives feel largely unstructured, almost improvised—Nors actually drafted the entire collection over the course of two weeks—makes their obvious precision on a sentence-by-sentence level all the more impressive.  There is abundance here, but no mess. Read More