image                                                                                                                                                                                              “You hearers, seers, imaginers, thinkers, rememberers, you prophets called to communicate truths of the living way to a people fascinated unto death, you called to link memory with forelistening, to join the uncountable seasons of our flowing to unknown tomorrows even more numerous, communicators doomed to pass on truths of our origins to a people rushing deathward, grown contemptuous in our ignorance of our source, prejudiced against our own survival, how shall your vocation’s utterance be heard?

This is life’s race, but how shall we remind a people hypnotized by death? We have been so long following the falling sun, flowing to the desert, moving to our burial.

In the living night come voices from the source. We go to find our audience, open our mouths to pass on what we have heard. But we are fallen among a fantastic tumult. The noise the hypnotized make, multiplied  by every echoing cave of our labyrinthine trap is heavier, a million times louder than the sounds we carry.

Hoarsened, we whisper our news of the way. In derisive answer the hurtling crowds shriek their praise songs to death. All around us the world is drugged white in a deathly happiness while from under the falling sun powerful engines of noise and havoc emerge to swell the cacophony. Against their crashing riot nothing whispered can be heard, nothing said. Indeed the tumult welcomes who would shot and burst the veins on his own neck. His message murdered before birth, the shouter only helps confusion.”

Two Thousand Seasons by Ayi Kwei Armah

 

Per Ankh

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image Taking the book solely at face value, Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol are verses concerned with the disintegration of the marriage of Lawino, a rural African (Acoli) woman and Ocol, her western-educated husband. However, peeling back the cover of the words even a tiny bit reveals a woman committed to her indigenous culture versus a man who thinks that her culture needs to be removed from the face of the earth. How could two such people co-exist in the same household? How could two such differing ideologies co-exist on the same planet? According to Ocol, not at all. His song is full of imagery that calls death upon the culture Lawino praises in her song.

We will smash

The taboos

One by one,

Explode the basis

Of every superstition,

We will uproot

Every sacred tree

And demolish every ancestral

shrine.

In Ocol’s song, the thing that is so striking about this book – the use of indigenous Acoli symbols to present a woman solidly rooted in her culture – gets turned on its head. Every thing African becomes associated with death, decay and other imagery meant be extremely negative. However, that is not the case with Lawino. Unlike she does not hate foreign customs. They are simply not hers.

I do not understand

The ways of foreigners

But I do not despise their

Customs.

Of course if things were as simple as that, there would be no need for Lawino to sing her song. For instance, I agree with Ocol’s installing of an electric stove in their house. . Lawino doesn’t know how to use it and is, in fact, scared of it.

I am terribly afraid

Of the electric stove,

And I do not like using it

Because you stand up

When you cook.

Who ever cooked standing up?

And the stove

Has many eyes

I do not know

Which eye to prick

So that the stove

May vomit fire

And I cannot tell

Which eye to prick

So that fire is vomited

In one and not in another plate.

Instead of patiently teaching Lawino the benefits of the stove and how to properly use it, Ocol rails against her. He considers her lack of knowledge one more African deficiency he wants to divorce himself from. His attitude is revealing especially because he later becomes a leader of his country’s independence struggle for Uhuru (freedom). As Lawino tells it, Ocol says

White men must return

To their own homes,

Because they have brought

Slave conditions in the country.

He says

White people tell lies

That they are good

At telling lies

Like men wooing women

Ocol says

They reject the famine relief

Granaries

And the forced-labour system.

After revealing this, Lawino goes on to question an Uhuru where her husband can’t even get along with his brother.

When my husband

Opens a quarrel

With his brother

I am frightened!

You would think

They have not slept

In the same womb,

You would think

They have not shared

The same breasts!

And they say

When the two were boys

Looking after the goats

They were as close to each other

As the eye and the nose,

They were like twins

And they shared everything

Even a single white ant.

Even more astute however, is her statement describing the period of “independence”.

Independence falls like a bull

Buffalo

And the hunters

Rush to it with drawn knives,

Sharp shining knives

For carving the carcass.

And if your chest

Is small, bony and weak

They push you off,

And if your knife is blunt

You get the dung on your

Elbow,

You come home empty-handed

And the dogs bark at you!

In raising questions that center around the concept of post-colonial independence and how such an entity impacts on the consciousness of Africans who have been educated outside of africa as well as rural Africans who have never left the continent, the Song of Lawino & the Song of Ocol ranks up there with Ama Ata Aidoo’s Sister Killjoy. Both Sissie and Lawino were asking the same questions. The current state of the continent provides the answer.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres – as I frequently approach history through literature. So it was with excitement that I opened Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. I knew next to nothing about the backdrop to the novel, the Biafra war. I definitely didn’t know that it was Igbo-based. However, understanding my lack of knowledge, I took what Ama Ata Aidoo wrote in Our Sister Killjoy to be true; that Nigeria "not only has all the characteristics which nearly every African country has but also possesses these characteristics in bolder outline".

I have to admit I was a bit thrown for a loop when the Biafran characters would talk about Nigeria and Nigerians as The Other. Then I remembered a discussion I had with someone about Watch for Me on the Mountain by Forrest Carter. In that book, a fictional rendering of Geronimo’s life, Mexicans were consistently referred to in the negative. I didn’t get that either until I was made to understand that Mexico, as a country, was imposed on Indigenous people from without. Once I understood that, the negative perception of Mexico made a whole lot of sense. It was the same with Nigerian and Nigerians. I have to admit, though, to a little discomfort in understanding (and potentially agreeing with) the Biafran struggle for Independence from Nigeria. After all, one of the giants of African Independence, Kwame Nkrumah, believed strongly in a United States of Africa. Half of a Yellow sun raised questions such as should such a structure be based on the 1885 carving up of Africa?

Originally, I had planned to write an intricate review. However, I must admit, that reading the book soon became a chore. It wasn’t due to book being well over 500 pages. Even though the story was very interesting, the writing itself was unable to hold my interest for a sustained amount of time. Considering all the publicity Adichie has received, I expected a literary masterpiece.Now, don’t get me wrong. It is definitely worth reading; especially for folks like me who look at literature as more than just a good story. It just dragged at several points during the read.

And a Happy New Year!

December 31, 2010

Well. Another year’s over and another one’s about to begin (or so they say). I’ve laid out my goals and objectives for 2011. This is not the place for the discussion of them but it is a place for discussion of my literary goals – or more precisely what will be on my reading list for 2011; considering my developing interest in reviewing books. So here it is – my haphazard, in no particular order reading list for 2011:

Omeros by Derek Walcott
The Odyssey by Homer
Ulysses in Black by Patrice Rankine

The three books listed above are a kind of trifecta of research into epics and the way in which epics can be utilized by writers in a more modern configuration.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler – I read it years ago. Reread it again very recently. And will be reading it again since I’m going to be reviewing it.

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent – Almost a year ago, I wrote an initial review of this book where I basically panned it. However, I said I would go back and actually finish it. That’s why it’s on this list.

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James – I’ve had this book in my possession for almost two decades now but have yet to finish it – even though history is one of my major loves. I vow to finish it this year!

The Autobiography of Leroi Jones by Amiri Baraka – I got this book a few years ago and it’s been transported from the bedroom to the bathroom to the front room until finally taking up residence on an upper book shelf. It’s time to take it down, dust it off and finish it.

So much of what I read seems to be by well-established writers so I’m happy about the following three books:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I’ve been seeing her name everywhere and then someone on facebook posted the video of her talking about the dangers of a single story. Couple that with knowing next to nothing about Biafra and the book becomes a logical choice for someone who, sometimes, approaches history through literature first.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith – I had won this after answering a difficult quiz question over at Color Online. I started it and the humor of it reminded me of John Irving whose books I’ve found hysterical in the past.

Graceland by Chris Abani – This book has been sitting quietly on my shelf for quite a few years now. So it’s long overdue.

Aké by Wole Soyinka – I had started reading this shortly after I bought it earlier this year but notions of the Wild Christian sent me off into the deep end of laughter and I haven’t returned yet.

2011 looks to be quite a reading year.

Today, I came across a site called NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). I was immediately inspired by the suggestion for today’s blog post: How Do You Feel About the Name given to you at birth?

I do not possess the name I was given at birth. We parted ways, legally, over a decade ago. Since assuming my true name my life has changed in fundamental ways. I have gotten married and divorced. I had a child and he’ll be entering first grade in September. I have written and published three books. I have published the work of three other authors. However, the change that underlines and informs all other changes is that I am more myself.

My mother let my father name me and he named me according to naming practices which also decided his name. I was the first daughter of my mother so my name was ordained. Apparently, it wasn’t significant that my dad had two older daughters; one of whom happened to be the first daughter of her mother. Therefore she and I shared the same name. With the hindsight of 20/20, it seemed as if I was designed to fit into a construct; one which didn’t fit. As a result, I was Toby with his foot cut off, not Kunta who had a penchant for running from slavery.

When I learned about freedom, I wanted to be free and freedom meant a new name. Frederick Douglass, not Frederick Bailey. Harriet Tubman, not Araminta Ross. Assata Shakur, not JoAnne Cheismard. In other words, I wanted the freedom that comes with self-naming. However, ironies of ironies, in obtaining that freedom, I became more bound to my family, more my mother’s daughter, more decidedly African than I had been under my birth name. To quote a Bessie Head character, “I [was] just an African”.

Reading is Evolutionary

March 18, 2010

Two years ago a blogger for Circle of Seven Productions posted a blog/rant on my space in favor of reading and literacy. As part of it, she issued a challenge: “I challenge anyone reading this blog to write one blog…just one…encouraging people to read. Encourage them to encourage others to read. READ ANYTHING!”

As I find myself getting almost orgasmically excited by my latest read (The Book of Night Women by Marlon James), my mind traveled to my response to the challenge.

 

Reading is Evolutionary

It was the diary of a young girl living in an era I could never go back because time moves forward.

Just like time, my eyes moved forward through each page growing more and more enamored of the first book that touched me in my black girlness. It was beyond affirming.

That book, The Color Purple by Alice Walker set me on the path to being a writer because it enabled me to see how our life stories can contribute to literature.

It also helped me to redefine the definition of fiction. I have heard a lot of people (black men in particular) say that they don’t read fiction because they’re tired of “lies” or some statement to that effect. I believe however that those statements miss the point of black “fiction”.

It is (or should be) indisputable that prior to the mid to late 20th century our voices were censored. What better way for a people to get in where they fit in that to position their works under the banner of fiction. Is Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man total fiction? Or does it resonate with the experience of black men, regardless of their generation? Toni Morrison’s Beloved was based on the life of Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner’s story isn’t fiction. Is Sethe’s? My favorite James Baldwin novel is If Beale Street Could Talk. I recognized the main character, Tish, in the faces, lives and pride of my sisters. Black fiction is not automatically fictional.

Read.

Even though I am an advocate and a believer in well-written, reality-based “fiction”, that is not the only thing I read. As someone who intimately understands the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, I also read history. In high school, a teacher slipped me the Autobiography of Malcolm X on the sly. It was a thick paperback that I had to rubber band together in order not to lose any of the pages. Reading that book led me on the path to researching the Black Revolution of the Sixties. My research deepened my awareness of black resistance. At no point were we passive.

Regardless of the danger, we struggled to learn to read when it was dangerous to the point of death. Frederick Douglass described in his autobiography of the poor white boy who showed him how to read. The Free African School movement is an indication of our desire to reclaim what was stolen from us and learn.

Read.

Reading is Evolutionary.

Contraband Marriage

March 17, 2010

We make it work by inches.

Our hands extended above our heads

pushing at the concrete

understanding that

even if it’s turned into a wall

that wall will one day crack and then break

under the pressure of our hands

and we will breathe free

Contraband Marriage book cover

In prison, a place where emotions based on affection are just about non-existent, love becomes the rarest of commodities; and as such is both highly prized and legislated.

By falling in love with a man who was incarcerated, I was participating in an activity considered contrary to the status quo on a variety of levels. Black people aren’t supposed to love one another. Black women aren’t supposed to love Black men. And no one is supposed to love the prisoners. But it happens and such love becomes contraband; something to be smuggled in and experienced on the sly.

Contraband Marriage covers those oppressive times and travels along the hemline of loving after incarceration, digging deep into its affects on that love, my walk into motherhood and how simple the decision to disentangle became when a child was involved. In multi-color, it paints the pains of the personal being political, the bumpy terrain of healing and the beautiful difficulty that can be forgiveness. It is a love story written in lyric and free form, set in reality with a different ever after.

ISBN:  978-0-9789355-5-9

For previews and ordering info, please visit my storefront.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed
I came across this epic piece of orature while looking for the epic about Sundjata. Askia Mohammed is one of those giants of African history routinely referred as worthy of emulation and/or respect. However, upon concluding the read, I had the opinion that he was very hawk-like in his promotion of Islam. There is repeated mention of “Every village that follows his orders, that accepts his wishes, he conquers them, he moves on. Every village that refuses his demand, he conquers it, he burns it, he moves on. Until the day-Mamar [Askia] did that until, until, until, until the day he arrived at the Red Sea.” (298-302) I interpret the consecutive “untils” to signify that it was a repeated event that happened over time. Considering how long it took for caravans to traverse the distance from West Africa to Mecca, undoubtedly it happened not only over an extended period of time but also over an extended expanse of land. The devastation left in the wake of such excursions in arson leads me to question the respect paid to this historical figure.

The above statement notwithstanding, I did find the epic interesting in the view it provided of West Africa. It provided me with a basis for doing further research into the era and times and for that and the new perspective, it is appreciated.

For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria:

I’ve started reading this already but have been interrupted by other reading interludes: A Thousand Splendid Suns; Something Torn and New; I, Alex Cross; The Epic of Askia Mohammed; Our Sister Killjoy.  I’ll be discussing some of them in later posts as they do fit the meme.

After reading the above paragraph, I realized someone reading this might think that my detours on the reading path are the result of a disinterest in Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK). Nothing further could be the truth.

The other day after a reading bout with Something Torn and New  by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I had the thought that he just might transplant Malcolm X as my ideological father. However, I quickly realized it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. As a writer, Ngugi helps me to be centered and connected to what is ultimately most righteous about writing. As an African, Malcolm helped me to be proud. Both help me to be a better human being. But there’s no denying they are both men. As historian Edna Gay said in her introduction to Wives of the Leopard (another book on my list),

“Dahomey seemed a place where women prior to the colonial period had enjoyed extraordinary liberties and powers – an ideal subject for a young woman, like so many others at the time, looking for patterns of female autonomy different from the experience of the West”.

I didn’t realize how hungry I was for “patterns of female automony different from…the West” until I started reading about FRK.  All the contradictions black women, in general and conscious black women, in particular, face were experienced by Funmilayo. She responded to these pressures and contradictions by drawing closer to Africa (and African culture) rather than divorcing herself.

I believe that part of her ability to do so was fostered by her parents’ belief in educating girl children. In fact they believed in it so much, they sent her to England to continue her education…even though she was deeply in love with her future husband. While in England, she chose to drop her Christian first name of Frances and be known only by the African Funmilayo. This, at age 19 in 1919. Also at some point in her activist life, she also chose to forgo wearing european clothing.  All this while still remaining a Christian. How was she able to manage what seems to be incompatible identities? What was it about her husband that made him supportive of her goals? Basically what lessons can we glean from her life and doings that would enable us to be healthier and whole instead of fractured and ill.

As I stated at the beginning I haven’t finished the book yet. Therefore I don’t feel qualified to post this like it’s an actual review. These are simply my first impressions. When I finish it, you know I’ll have more Mad Reader thoughts.

“Africans, in the diaspora and on the continent, were soon to be recipients of this linguistic logic of conquest, with two results: linguicide in the case of the diaspora and linguistic famine, or linguifam, on the continent. Linguicide is the linguistic equivalent of genocide. Genocide involves conscious acts of physical massacre; linguicide, conscious acts of language liquidation. Linguicide, writes Skutnabb-Kanga, ‘implies that there are agents involved in causing the death of languages.’ ”

Dismembering Practices: Planting European Memory in Africa

Something Torn and New

Ngũgĩ  wa Thiong’o