Review: Pencil Letter by Irina Ratushinskaya

You must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate. Not because your tormentors have not earned it. But if you allow hatred to take root, it would flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul. You will no longer be yourself, your identity will be destroyed, all that will remain will be a hysterical, maddened and bedevilled husk of the human being that once was.

Ratushinskaya, from Grey Is the Colour of Hope

In March 1983, on her 29th birthday, Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a hard-labour camp for crimes against the Soviet regime. What was so terrible a crime that the authoritarian government of Konstantin Chernenko thought to sentence a former schoolteacher and physics graduate to a seven-year maximum sentence in harrowing and torturous conditions? The crime was poetry.

Born in Odessa, she wrote poetry while working as a schoolteacher before graduating with a Masters of Physics in 1976 (deciding to pursue a technical profession due to the oppression of the humanities by the then-communist regime), and she continued to write poetry after receiving her degree. Even though her early work centred on the theological, romantic, and philosophical, it was still enough to warrant the inquisition of the Soviet power structure. Read More

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Review: A Jihad for Love by Mohamed El Bachiri

Part autobiography, part ideology, part diary, A Jihad For Love is emotionally charged. The collection is an eloquent plea to those who judge Islam or twist its nature to the purpose of committing devastating criminal acts, and also to those who practice it in its many forms—to not take its teachings literally, but to apply its tenets in the context of the modern world. It implores followers to follow a path where the teachings of Islam do not conflict with the world we all have to inhabit.

It was on a Tuesday morning, the 22nd of March 2016, when commuters at Maalbeek metro station in Brussels awaited the Arts-Loi/Kunst-Wet connection. The platform bustled with commuters undertaking their daily pilgrimages to work; parents carried children, men and women read the papers, and buskers played music as the crowds mingled. At 9:10 am, they began to board the three carriages whose doors had just opened. At 9:11 am, some of them would be dead. As the train readied to depart, an explosive device planted in the middle carriage of the three detonated, rending apart its fragile metal surroundings, and within a second, sixteen lives were extinguished. Read More

Review: The Best Small Fictions 2017

What do you read if you don’t have the time to read a book like War & Peace? Luckily, much like the modern world, where immediacy and quick fixes are all the rage, literary greatness can be found in writings of a much more digestible length. Flash fiction stories still wield a philosophical heft and still leave the reader mulling on greater questions, but are restricted to far more compact length limits. Hard-hitting and captivating, they are usually no longer than a few pages and combine the storytelling of the great works with the ability to be read in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee (or even just the time to take a sip!). So, if the burden of reading Atlas Shrugged isn’t for you, then The Best Small Fictions 2017 may be the answer.

Back for its third year, this anthology of the best international flash fiction of 2017 is a heavyweight collection of emotion-laden injections of pure fiction heroin. The wholly volunteer team at TBSF have drawn together some of the most compelling flash fiction, and they have shown once again why this is not a genre to be scoffed at. With fifty-five stories, the volume is enthralling. Even as a lover of long detail-abundant stories, I found myself unable to put the collection down, forcing myself to stop reading only so that I could digest the content and ruminate on what the stories left unsaid, before once again entering the rabbit hole of content squeezed between the covers. Read More

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

Courtesy of Biafraforum.com

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