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

Review: Empty Streets by Michal Ajvaz

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Michal Ajvaz’s Empty Streets is less a novel than it is a 500 page torrent of ideas, a wild outpouring of pure imagination.  This is a love letter to the strange and unexpected; part-detective story, part-excavation of a city’s long buried dream life.  Like the mysterious symbol that lies in the center of its multiple branching narratives, it seems to spill in all different directions at once.  This is an aggressively bizarre work of fiction, one that seems unconcerned with traditional modes of storytelling.  It runs the gamut in terms of narrative form and style, sending the reader spinning from one story to the next.

It’s a wild, often unwieldy book, and all the better for it.  I can think of few dreamscapes in which I’d rather spend my time.

The novel begins with what is effectively a frame narrative.  Our narrator is a nameless author struggling his way through an ungovernable case of writer’s block.  One day, in an attempt to avoid the writing that torments him so, he goes for a long walk that takes him through a local rubbish dump.  He accidentally steps on a wooden object half-buried beneath the mess, some kind of carving in the shape of a double trident.  Immediately the object stirs something in our narrator. He is beset with questions he can’t answer.  What’s this strange artifact?  Could it be a tool?  Some kind of abstract artwork?  Where did this double trident come from, and what, if anything, does it mean? Read More

Art: Roni Horn, Discovering the Identity in Multiplicity and Dichotomy

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Courtesy of

I love the idea that no matter how obvious something could be, or transparent, there is still room for doubt. It is really interesting that transparency is not as transparent as you think.

These words of Roni Horn rang in my ears like a discovery of a hidden cabala.  Within the walls of this contemporary art museum in Tilburg, the Netherlands, I experienced a journey of identity, ambiguity, and singularity through recurrent colours, words and photographs.

There is a harmony between Horn and her minimalist art.  Born in 1955, New York, where she still lives and works, she combines photography, sculpture and language.  She creates a vivid glance to her life whereby I also get a glimpse of mine.  Her questioning about the concept of identity leads me to explore along with her my own identity.  Her androgynous look, with sharp blue eyes is in perfect accordance with this exploration.  “When you see your reflection in water, do you recognize the water in you?” (2010) she asks in ‘one of the destinations of your journey’ through shapes, colours and words.

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Courtesy of

The journey begins in a long, time-warping corridor, with a 70 meters long wall on one side, on which her famous work of photographic series A.K.A (2008-2009) takes place; while small rooms resembling minimalistic caves accompany on the other side.  This highly successful installation creates a sense of a wormhole, where step by step, Roni Horn’s “selfless” self-portraits of various ages are paired on the wall, and they guide me while I go in and out the small rooms.  All the artworks are in a concordance, part of a whole, like chapters of a certain story.  In these rooms, the installation consciously helps to create the unity with all of her artworks.

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Art Review: Outside[,] the Frames

In the Chaillot neighborhood of Paris on Saturday mornings, there’s usually an outdoor “marché” along Avenue President Wilson between the avenues d’Iéna and Marceau.  It’s a quintessentially French affair filled with wines, cheeses, meats, poultries, fish, fruits and vegetables, as well as a sumptuous variety of prepared foods.  The smells are intoxicating and the event is always lively and full of good cheer.  My husband and I knew it was not likely to be open the morning after the terrorist attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, but we went anyway just hoping to be around others and not be so isolated within the confines of our apartment, in [fear] [sadness] [resignation] [(all of the above)].

2015-11-16 14.37.06As we suspected, the marché didn’t take place, but still feeling the need to be out, we headed down President Wilson.  We came to the Palais de Tokio, alongside which there’s a staircase that leads down to some streets adjacent to the Seine.  Having just recently moved to this neighborhood, we hadn’t noticed this area before and went to explore.  Directly at the bottom of the staircase is Rue de la Manutention which after a short block ends in Port Debily on the Seine.  There is a small bridge there called the Pasarelle Debily that crosses the river and leaves you in front of the Museé de Quai Branly.  The Quai Branly is a promenade along the south bank of the Seine, very close to the Eiffel Tower, where we discovered an outdoor installation of photography called We Are Family. Read More