Saturday, 26 December 2009


CLR wishes you all a Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year and would like to thank everyone (especially the reviewers) who have made its first quarter a success.  We have great things lined up for 2010, so watch this space.

2009 has been dubbed in many quarters as "The Year of the Short Story". It is with this in mind that Critical Literature Review has decided to dedicate its final edition of the year (and indeed this decade) to a short story anthology. CLR proudly presents Tania Hershman's review of Ali Smith's short story collection "The First Person and Other Stories". Hope you enjoy reading it.

Ali Smith is one of my favourite authors. In fact, I believe she is why I began writing short stories, why I love them. And so, before I begin, I am going to take issue with the back cover of the book. The third quote, after wonderful praise from Alain de Botton and the Scotsman, is from the Daily Telegraph: "Smith has a talent for finding unexpected flashes of beauty and comedy in the everyday". The word I take issue with is "everyday" (is it one word?). Ali Smith never writes about the "everyday", whatever it is. Or, in as much as all writers who do not write fiction that takes place in other worlds, other planets, other dimensions, or stories about the truly abhorrent in society, perhaps everyone writes about the "everyday". But to me, this word demeans what Smith does so beautifully. 

Smith's stories are the epitome of the "What if...?" What if you were shopping and found a baby in your supermarket trolley? What if you were at an opera and a character from Gershwin arrived? What if a parcel addressed to someone else turns up when you are ill at home? None of these brief summaries does justice to what Smith does. She plays with the reader, twist and turn, lead you one way and then pull the rug from under you, quietly, gently. And leave you feeling winded, stunned, joyful.

This collection is called The First Person and Other Stories, where "the first person" might relate to the term in fiction which means that the story is being told by "I", and we are in the main character's head, or it may mean being the first person to.... and already Smith is teasing us. She includes four quotes at the beginning, including this from Katherine Mansfield: "True to oneself! Which self?" I take from this that Smith, who writes almost exclusively here in the first person, except for two stories, that she is hinting that all these selves are part of one self, and at the same time, we are not so easily defined, labelled, boxed in. We are not just one thing, we are many.

Smith has her own  take on "first person" point of view: not only is the story being told by "I", in many of the twelve stories "I" is talking to "you", which creates an intense intimacy, intensified by her lack of quotation marks and of names for her characters. They are particular and they are general at the same time. We are eavesdropping on that space between two people, often lovers or ex-lovers, it is as if we are standing between them and they are whispering to each other through us:

I don't know if I am up to this any more, I say.

Yawn, you say.

(You don't actually yawn, you say the word yawn. Then you look at me across the table and smile. I'm still unused to your smile, and to it being directed at me. Sometimes when you smile at me I have the urge to look over my shoulder and see who you are smiling at.)

There are those who object to the addressing of a story to "you" because the reader can feel put upon, can think "But I'm not saying yawn", etc... However, because there is an "I" talking to the "you", this doesn't happen here. We are the silent witness to their conversation.

Were I to try and outline the plots of some of these stories, this would be to fail miserably in conveying the magic of Smith's writing and so I won't. One thread I noticed running through these stories are questions of identity: if everyone treats you as the mother of the baby you just found in your supermarket trolley, do you feel like its mother? If your lover tells you her fantasy of what you would buy in a music shop, how does her view of you change your own view of yourself?

Smith also plays with the notion of "story": in one story we move from a set of characters and a scene to another, apparently unconnected set of characters elsewhere, often within the same paragraph, and we don't return, there is no neat tying up. But there is no sense of dissatisfaction, no yearning to find out what happened to that couple we met at the beginning. Smith's words weave a tale so that somehow we understand what is going on here, despite the leaps in location and time, despite the lack of traditional narrative.

Smith's first story doesn't seem to be fiction at all, but a story about short stories, which ends with a list of other writers' definitions of the short story. As with other collections I have reviewed, Smith is telling us what it means to her.

Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two stories.

Ernest Hemingway says that short stories are made by their own change and movement, and that even when a story seems static and you can't make out any movement in it at all it is probably changing and moving regardless, just unseen by you.

Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they go on releasing the real, lived moment after the real, lived moment is dead.

William Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like the flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people's lives.

I could not describe Ali Smith's stories better myself so I won't attempt it. This is another beautiful, vital short story collection from one of the greatest short story writers alive today. If you write short stories, if you love to read them, this is a book that you need on your shelf. This is the flare of that match struck in the dark.

* This book review was first published in The Short Review.

[Tania Hershman ( is founder and editor of The Short Review ( Her collection, The White Road and Other Stories (, is published by Salt Modern Fiction and was commended in the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.]

Sunday, 20 December 2009


This week, Critical Literature Review is happy to publish its first review in collaboration with StoryTime, a web magazine which showcases the works of budding and established African writers. Below, Nuvoyo Rosa Tshuma does a review of two of the stories published on StoryTime. The first story covered is Kola Tubosun's "Behind the Door" and the second is a story by Nigel Jack titled "Thinking Out Loud".

Should you desire to read fresh innovative African writers telling a plethora of fiction stories in all genres, StoryTime should be right up your alley. Until you do, enjoy the two reviews below.


If you were to decide write a story themed on HIV/AIDS, what will you think to write about? An emotionally charged tale centred on big-headed children lying in the dusty African soil with murderous ribs trying to stab through leathery skin? That little pep-talk type story about the guiles of sex and multiple partners? Or perhaps you’re one of those religious fellows who take the evidence out of a Holy Book in a bid to lecture lost souls towards their salvation?

Would you consider penning a simple, everyday-yet-not-so-everyday tale about going for an HIV/AIDS test? This is what Kola Tubosun did with his story “Behind the Door”.

What I enjoyed most about this story was its simple, down to earth straightforwardness; the way the author took this theme of HIV/AIDS testing and made it good story writing. This story does not do what many HIV/AIDS related stories I’ve read seem to like to do (I am a culprit to this very same trend I now criticize) which is to lecture, to pep talk, to emotionally blackmail, to act as therapy (though I would say this story and its theme of testing can be a form of therapy for some). This does not mean that all these tendencies are ‘wrong’, but simply monotonous. Anyone can shed a tear the first time they read a highly charged story centred around HIV/AIDS, probably the second time too. But after roughly ten readings of similar or identical stories, emotions tend to have dried out with the reader displaying a cynicism that does neither the story nor its author any good. Hence the saying about fresh eyes looking at old angles, or better still, exploring those other dusty corners.

‘Behind the Door’ tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who, while at a hospital decides to test for HIV. It reads rather more like an experience the author himself has gone through. Little things are given so much attention and detail that you feel the author is describing what he has seen or undergone. Our protagonist is calm and seems, before the test, to be deliberately attempting to dissociate himself from his feelings. His analysis, therefore, reads as having an intellectual tone to it; a detached observer of the things happening around and within himself. His analysis is at first centred on things other than the implications of the test itself e.g. there are alternating focuses on interalia - a previous experience when the protagonist was directed to the wrong room and therefore did not go for testing; another patient who is getting pre-testing counselling; the phlebotomist who is conducting the test.

Our protagonist is very observing and calmly so. It can be argued that he is perhaps too analytical for one in his position i.e. about to test for HIV for the very first time. This does make him rather intriguing, and perhaps helps the story in the sense that through him, one gets to learn quite a bit about the hospital environment; that testing environment. A more shaky character might have given a jittery picture of the testing environment and this also has a crucial effect on the aura of the story.

The author uses a straightforward story telling style combined with a controlled voice and well handled characters who are carefully manipulated to advance the tale. Every scene works well to give that sense of compactness; the author has a clear mastery of the voice he has chosen to assume and moulds a neat story dabbed here and there with tints of intellectualism. ‘Behind the Door’ will be published in 2010 in the upcoming StoryTime ‘African Roar’ Anthology.

The English employed in this tale is almost lyrical; one can tell that the author clearly enjoys the colourful play of words which he has beautifully utilised here. The first paragraph lures your attention with velvety scenes – “Our noises would sink into the early evening breeze like the lovely voice of cheese in our little mouths”. The language is never straightforward or direct; it is used to lull, to beat like waves, to palpitate with the rhythm of a sing-song heart. Every scene is artistic e.g. “The routine was too redundant and absurd for me. Surely it couldn’t be all about waking up to a dish of hot porridge hearing cattle mooing, birds chipping, cooing and hooting, watching dew melt away from green blades of healthy grass while appreciating the scent of a youthful morning as her skirts were being gently pulled up by the sun.”

Our protagonist dances around childhood scenes, prances around memories of his rural education, ponders over religious fanaticism and delights over the beauty of a woman. He is a philosophical fellow, our protagonist - taking time to sprinkle his musings with melody.

However, I do feel that the author concentrated most of his energies on the lyrical quality of his language, and sort of gave the storyline the back seat. The effect is that the scenes leap suddenly from one to the other in a rather untidy fashion, leaving the reader to grope around for the strings that link them together. The author touches on one issue, then suddenly leaps from this to touch on another, and just as suddenly go back to the first issue. This makes the story hard to follow. I found myself asking the question: What exactly is the author trying to convey?

The title of the story of course tells us that our protagonist is ‘Thinking Out Loud’, but even this form of ‘free flow’ needs a coherent format that the reader would be able to follow. If one is to employ a colourful fashion to ones writing, it would be better to also have a fairly clear and unconvoluted story line that can draw the reader in. It becomes rather tasking to handle the interplay of beautifully woven words with an unclear story.  Many readers can often be quite whimsical and rather weak willed; if it takes too much effort, lots of people tend to give up easily. This is the fine line that a writer must walk; expressing his artistic licence yet bowing to the whims of his readers. Readers are the masters and the writer paradoxically is a sort of liberated slave, playing on artistic persuasion rather than a pacificatory bondage.

“Thinking Out Loud” is a story budding with great potential, and again, I applaud the beautiful language.

[Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Zimbabwean student currently pursuing her studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has had short stories published in young people’s anthologies in Zimbabwe, and has a short story in the upcoming BEDanthology by Modjaji Books (South Africa) as well as another short story in the upcoming in the StoryTime ‘African Roar’ Anthology. Novuyo was twenty when she attained third prize in the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2008. Her short story ‘You in Paradise won the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009 and will be published in the next issue of African Writing Online Literary Magazine. More of her musings may be found at The Pen and I.]

Sunday, 13 December 2009


Critical Literature Review presents its first review of a poetry anthology. Here you get to see Chika Onyenezi covering Michael Frissore's poetry anthology "Poetry is Dead" which was published by Coatlism Press. Enjoy!

Michael Frissore from his biography grew up in Massachusetts, and now lives in Tuscon, Arizona with his wife.

After a competition by Coastline Press in 2008, Michael Frissore emerged as the winner with his humorous poetry collection titled “Poetry is Dead”.

Poetry is Dead” is a collection of works published on different literary e-zines like Clockwise Cat, Red Fez, Right Hand Pointing, Black Listed Magazine, The, My Favorite Bullet,, and The Scruffy Dog Review. Some of the poems in this collection were originally written to fit into this title.

I am intrigued by the title of the book “Poetry is Dead” because the pertinent question becomes ‘Is poetry really dead?’ The answer to this question is where the journey begins for this poet. The title gnaws like a dog; a challenge to the modern literary society. Well, if we take the literary meaning of the title “Poetry is Dead”, then this art died and is waiting to be buried. It can also be interpreted as portraying a decline in the quality of poetry. Another way to look at it would be to concede that the poems written by the old masters (Shakespeare et. al.) are much more alive than modern day poetry.

Whilst the mastery of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Burns etc. are not in doubt, the relevance of contemporary poets is not to be undermined. Poetry is not dead in the real sense of it. Poetry is as alive today as it ever was.  Though not as popular a medium fiction or non-fiction, more men are dedicating their time to this medium in these present times. As is often the case with many arts, one often has to dig through the debris of some atrocious collections of poems to find a real gem. Frissore is adept at using irony to maximum effect in his poems. His poems are humorous, fun and lively. These poems remind me of the changing nature of ‘history’ and never of ‘art’. Our modern day poetry has evolved into something that fits this century. “Poetry is Dead” shows the maturity of our age; the age of spoken words, word slam and texting; the age of rap and reality television.

The content of this collection is filled with mixed feeling; humour, anger and love. Humour adds light to dark rooms. Yes humour does, and this author portrays it in his poem titled “Untitliest”:

Thou art some
equestrian bird
with boots and feathers
feeding worms to
little Biafran children
and leaping across
Snake River Canyon

Takest off thy britches
and heave them into traffic
like a discus thrower.

Discard thy blouse and bra
like Hulk Hogan
Madison Square Garden.

Even more, I will not leave out the words of love for his wife Amy, he said:

Her beauty is powerful,
like a cross between
Barry Bond and General Tso.

And she is sweeter than sugar.

Michael Frissore adds beauty to poetry when one views the extreme emotions filled in his verses. His poetry is as relevant as today as those of the old masters and boldly touches the intricate part of humanity.

If you have not read this collection of poems, then you should. The literary world needs people like Frissore at this point in time. If poetry is indeed dead, he is helping with its resurrection. Just in the deep night with his shovel, he performs the rituals and exhumes the rotten body of Poetry and with every poetic device known to him, he breathes life into it. “Poetry is Dead” deserves a place in history, and Frissore an accolade that befits a poet. Poetry lives! Viva la Poems!

Chika Onyenezi is a Writer and Editor. He blogs at]

Sunday, 6 December 2009


On 02 December 2009, Zimbabwean writer and lawyer Petina Gappah was adjudged the winner of the 2009 Guardian First Book Award for her début book “An Elegy for Easterly”. She was only the second writer to have won the award for a short story anthology in its 10 year history. An Elegy for Easterly” was also shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O'Connor Award and CLR is happy to present Nuvoyo Rosa Tshuma's review of this début effort by Ms. Gappah.

It is not every day in our ocean of writers that an African  counterpart gets picked up by one of the bigger vessels. Not only did Petina Gappah make headline news with her two book deal with the famous Faber and Faber, joining the very fertile house that published Ernest Hemingway and other bigwigs, she has also just made history by winning the much coveted Guardian First Book Award. Not only that; she is only the second Zimbabwean after Dambudzo Marechera to win this award. No easy feat that, and much deserved. Certainly the thirteen stories in this compilation, filled with a cynical humour (which in some instances can be interpreted as a humorous cynicism) were demanding for attention of such a scope.

With her début book “An Elegy for Easterly”, Petina Gappah does not waver on the page, penning down scribblings that are bold, straightforward and fearlessly ‘Zimbabwean’. These stories, all using something or other about the Zimbabwean situation as a back drop, comprise of very tangible and interesting characters.

‘At the Sound of the Last Post’ assumes the first person voice and ferries us through the burial of a ‘gallant hero’, viewed through the eyes of his wife. Everything in this tale seems to have assumed a cynical quality, from her husband’s once gallant political ideals, to his infidelity, to family squabbles; from the ageing President, to his corrupted Inner Circle, to the tired oration which takes yet another opportunity to lambast “the puppets in the so-called opposition who are controlled from Downing Street”. There is a particularly distinct piece of history mentioned in this piece of fiction, the brief allusion to ‘The Willowgate Car Scandal’, a scandal which was unearthed in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s and involved the procurement of vehicles for the ‘Government’ by Ministers who then sold them for their own profit.

‘In the Heart of the Golden Triangle’ is presented from the second person view point and affords us a glimpse of the wealthy, routine and insecure lives of the unemployed wives of the rich in a small surburb called the Golden Triangle.

‘An Elegy for Easterly’, the story from which the book takes its title, was originally published in Jungfrau: Stories from the Caine Prize 2006. Told from the third person omniscient voice, it ferries us into the squatter community of Easterly Farm, teasing the reader with memories of a more stable Zimbabwe where children knew not bearers’ cheques with more zeros than the fingers of one hand, but were able to identify with the coins so beautifully illustrated in their school text books. This tale, allowing us a peak into the daily toils of the small scale informal traders of Zimbabwe, those great connoisseurs of that slippery art of haggling who fearlessly negotiate stringent passport and visa terms by jumping borders into neighbouring countries, is mainly centred around ‘Martha Mupengo’, a mad woman who goes around asking for twenty cents and lifting her dress.

Another tale running with a stronger vein of ‘madness’ is ‘The Annexe Shuffle’, which is told from the third person point of view but with the elimination of the omniscient voice. This is the story of the ‘mad’ Emily, a law student who pays a brief sojourn to the mental wing of the Parirenyatwa Hospital. Our protagonist, due to the sophisticated voice assumed by the author here, suffers from a madness which takes on a different texture from that afflicting Martha Mupengo. It is a more psychotic madness; as you read you feel more like an observer of this mental wing who is able to get into Emily’s head and see what she sees, giving this story an interesting psychoanalytical angle.

‘My Cousin-Sister Rambanai’ is a hilarious account of the crafty and lovable Rambanai, who has come home for her father’s funeral but due to fraudulent papers and money constraints, is not able to return immediately to America. She suffers from what is famously known and the ‘Njiva Syndrome’ back home in Bulawayo - the tendency by family and friends who visit home from neighbouring South Africa (and in Rambanai’s case America) to either overspend or arrive with empty pockets, and hence find themselves forever ‘going back tomorrow’.  We are taken on trips all over Harare by Rambanai via our protagonist, who is presented to us in first person. Dear Rambanai ‘oohs’ at this and ‘aahs’ at that, lamenting on how things have changed since she was last home. This lovable character seems to suffer from two conflicting emotions, that rather hapless air of superiority that seems to affect ‘Diasporans’ upon their visits home, and their irresistible yearning for all things home. She talks about how ‘the public transport is very different in the States’ and how ‘there you can be anything you want, anything at all’, yet she is eager to take public transport everywhere, to go shopping in the Mbare township market and to drink Shake-Shake, a traditional brew which the protagonist associates with ‘gardeners, miners and other labourers who could not always afford beer’.

‘Something Nice From London’, although also with that Diaspora vein, is more concerned with the funeral proceedings and family squabbles surrounding the delayed arrival of  the dead body of a relative who has died while in London. Brewing with frothy veins of family jealousy and squabbles, all perpetrated by that powerful Diasporan currency, it beautifully illustrates the theatrical quality of mourning which is a part of the Shona Culture- relatives throwing themselves this way and that, shouting ‘uhhu uhhu’, ready to be buried with the deceased (We also see this in the funerals in ‘At the Sound of the Last Post’ and ‘My Cousin-Sister Rambanai’, where relatives make a show of jumping into the graves after the coffins).

‘Aunt Juliana’s Indian’ tells the tale of Aunt Juliana and her employer, Mr Vaswani, whom she refers to as ‘MuIndia wangu (My Indian). This tale is set during the Independence era, and, through Aunt Juliana, highlights the contrasts and opportunities awarded blacks before and after Independence, and that rather critical affection that they had for their employers, which appeared to be reciprocatory. Aunt Juliana constantly complains about her pay and the rather abusive manner with which her boss treats her, and harbours dreams of being a ‘top flight secretary’. This opportunity materialises after independence. There is much allusion to the Indian society, snippets channelled by those blacks who did work for the Indians; how ‘Indians did not wipe their bottoms with tissues; they washed them with water with their left hand….. they all owned shops’.

The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom” is the shortest story in this compilation. Here the author uses a dissociated voice to weave a scene centred around the theme of HIV/AIDs. This is a story about a rather superficial society that prefers to assume a complacent ignorance of this disease. The guests privately wonder if the bride, Rosie, can see what they see, “that her newly made husband’s sickness screams out its presence from every pore”, while they make a show of cheering and clapping. This was my least favourite story in the compilation, as it came across with a rather monotonous rhythm throughout.

Our Man from Geneva Wins a Million Euros’ tells the tragic tale of a gullible fellow who, not being well versed on the guiles of the internet, falls prey to those bogus spam mails many of us have at one time or another encountered in our email in-boxes, flashing a too-good-to-be-true message that we have won unbelievable sums of money in a lottery we never took part in. It’s an interesting take on just how the promise of money can stifle all form of rationality.

‘The Maid from Lalapanzi’ is a hilarious take on SisiBlandina told through the eyes of her employer’s child. SisiBlandina enamours the children with the superstition which many of us hear from our grandmothers, and eventually runs off in the hope of getting married to MukomaGeorge who works at the post office. We learn that our young protagonist’s mother has been through them all, the likes of ‘SisiLoveness, who was dimpled and glowed’ and was fired because ‘she cared too much about her appearance and not enough about the floors of the house’, ‘SisiDudazi’ who was caught doing some heavy dancing instead of working, ‘whistling like she was herding cows’ also lost her job and ‘SisiNomathemba’ who quit because she could not make the children obey her. It coaxes memories of those hilarious encounters with childhood maids.

In ‘The Negotiated Settlement’ we meet Thulani and Vheneka, a couple in a marriage which is being eaten away by infidelity and boredom. When Thulani, who is Ndebele, asks for a divorce, Vheneka, who is Shona, gives him an answer which is pregnant with so much thought and meaning - she shows him the scar she bears as a result of their son Nkosana through a Caesarean section and says ‘First you undo me this scar, then we can talk about divorce’.

‘Midnight at the Hotel California’ is another one of Petina Gappah’s very light and funny tales. Here we get to meet an unnamed protagonist who is as crafty as they come, determined to deal with the Zimbabwean hardships blow for blow. In this tale we get a glimpse of ‘dealing’ as it was done in Zimbabwe during the time when everything that could not be found in the shops was sure to be found decorating the pavements on the street, purchasable at exorbitant prices. As our protagonist advises us, “It’s against the law, of course, this black market thing, but they may as well arrest every living person between the Limpopo and the Zambezi and have done with it. This is the new Zimbabwe, where everyone is a criminal”. Our protagonist also makes jabs at the middle class who have been the hardest hit by the Zimbabwean disaster-train, “those poor sods who have found that their cherished degrees are useless in this new economy”. It is during one of his follow ups on a false lead that we learn of our protagonist’s memorable “experience” at The Hotel California, during the time “when Zimbabwe was still Zimbabwe”. Now for this “experience”, one needs to get hold of the book, to divulge it would be to kill great suspense, it’s that hilarious and that memorable.

I have left the best for last. My bias lies towards this story, which had me laughing the first time I read it, and which I have continued to enjoy thoroughly during subsequent readings. ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ tells the story of Mdhara Vitalis Mukaro, who is forced into early retirement due to foreign currency shortages and is given three pairs of boots as his pension for thirty years service to the company. The story takes place in “Mupandawana, full name Gutu-Mupandawana Growth Point”. It is during the ‘Mupandawana Dancing Competition’ that Mdhara Vitalis gets to show off his agility on the dance floor. Now, we all know that in Zimbabwe, a Growth Point is the ‘city’ of the villages, the ‘happening place’, where the cattle boys and young girls slink off to and get down to some energetic music with a calabash in hand. Music is a vital aspect of culture. It is through song and dance that many a tale is told.

In ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ song, dance and the short story come together to form a magnetic coalition of mesmerizing story telling. Here, Petina Gappah’s pen flirts with the page. Here, the pen does marvellous things. It executes some complicated dance moves on paper to come up with a scene that leaps out of the page. The author is reeling off the names of some great and popular Zimbabwean singers, and already you can hear the strums of those lively guitars for which Shona music is so popular. As the author goes on to tell of the energetic dancing that went on, you can just picture those ‘Growth Pointers’ doing some heavy getting down. As you read, you are tempted to click your fingers and whistle and shout ‘Tshova George!’ (Tshova George is a term used to rally the dance- a sign of enjoyment). Another memorable line is “The security guard’s Borrowdale became a Mbaresdale”. Borrowdale is a very posh suburb in Harare, Capital City of Zimbabwe. There is also the ‘Borrowdale Dance’ which was invented by Zimbabwean singer Alick Macheso. Mbare is a township in Harare.  So upon the entrance of Mdhara Vitalis, the security guard’s dance was relegated from posh Borrowdale to township ‘Mbaresdale’- Zimbabweans would understand this upon first reading (hence the stark Zimbabwean flavour). ‘The Mupandawana Dancing Champion’ comes to a humorous and original end as Mdhara Vitalis dances himself to death.

Another hilarious and great twist is that the title ‘Mupandawana Dancing Competition’ has the acronyms of the name of the opposition party in Zimbabwe, Movement for Democratic Change- MDC. This point, another ingenious construction by the author, is illustrated in a passage where the Governor summons the Member of Parliament for the District to point out this anomaly: “What business does a ruling party MP have in promoting the opposition, the puppets, those led by tea boys, the detractors who do not understand that the land is the economy and the economy is the land and that the country will never be a colony again, those who seek to reverse the consolidation of the gains of our struggle.”

This passage is reminiscent of the many tired speeches laced with obsessive paranoia that one hears from the Ruling Party in Zimbabwe, usually broadcast on the sole National Television Station, Ztv, informally known as Zanu tv  (Zanu PF is the ruling party in Zimbabwe). This tale is an absolute original.

I read this book when I was at home, in Zimbabwe, and passed it on to a couple of people to read. The first comments were ‘What an unusual cover’, ‘What an unusual title’, ‘Oh, there is a Zimbabwean writer called Petina Gappah?’ The ordinary man on the street is not aware of the current stories being told re Zimbabwe. He will readily smile when you mention Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera or Tsitsi Dangarembga, but he will falter when you mention any of the fresh Zimbabwean writers. You cannot really blame him. In a country brought to its knees and where not much is done to publicize literature to its people; where the book shops are half empty and where most of its population would consider purchasing a novel a luxury, one can hardly be surprised. The Bulawayo Public Library boasts of a wide collection of Western fiction and only a cabinet of African literature; very little, if any of it current. Which is a shame, as stories such as those in ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ need to filter to the man on the street, who although does not  purchase books, does visit the local library. In this light, it is to be much appreciated and applauded that the author has taken it upon herself to ensure the availability of the book in the country, via distribution by Weaver Press publishers, and by making free copies available to libraries. My little sample of readers liked the tales told in this compilation; they felt that the stories speak about them and they appreciated that. They enjoyed the humour within their tragedies. One comment that stuck was ‘These are untold stories’. This, I believe, is what ultimately makes this book precious.

In writing fiction, the author has given a nice, touching and much valued account of the things Zimbabweans have to contend with; their ingenious methods of dealing with impossible situations and the character with which they have done so. The fearless fusing of the political with the rest of the themes makes for effective and real story lines, since Zimbabwe, as with many developing countries, is a highly political society. These stories are more than just about struggles and glimpses of the elite, they are also about lives and certain aspects of the Shona culture and the squabbles that go on; the things that human beings get up to.

This is indeed a precious compilation that has left me greatly looking forward to Gappah’s upcoming debut novel ‘The Book of Memory’.

[Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Zimbabwean student currently pursuing her studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has had short stories published in young people’s anthologies in Zimbabwe, and has a short story in the upcoming BED anthology by Modjaji Books (South Africa) as well as another short story in the upcoming in the Story Time ‘African Roar’ Anthology. Novuyo was twenty when she attained third prize in the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2008. Her short story ‘You in Paradise won the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009 and will be published in the next issue of African Writing Online Literary Magazine. More of her musings may be found at]

Monday, 23 November 2009


Ever since Uwem Akpan burst on the literary scene with the publication of two of his short stories in The New Yorker (in June 2005 and June 2006) and the subsequent rumours of a seven figure publishing deal, there had been people who awaited his début effort with bated breath. Uwem Akpan’s book “Say You’re One of Them” was released in June 2008 to mainly critical acclaim by literati (not least of them David Grylls in The Sunday Times of 22 June 2008 and Alastair Niven in The Independent on Sunday of 11 July 2008). However, this acclaim did not translate to a huge commercial success until Ms. Oprah Winfrey selected the book for her book club in September 2009 (some fifteen months after it had been initially released). This singular act saw the sales of the book skyrocket, exposing it to a large number of people who had probably previously walked past it in bookshops without deigning to give it a second glance.

CRITICAL LITERATURE REVIEW presents Osondu Awaraka’s review of the much talked about début effort of Uwem Akpan.
"Say You're One of Them" is one of those books you will want to endorse from the top of the Eiffel Tower just to get people to read it. It is a collection of five mesmerising stories (or what is actually two novellas and three short stories) that has lifted Akpan from obscurity to worldwide prominence, many thanks to Oprah's keen eye for exceptional books. Akpan's début is nothing short of impressive.

In An Exmas Feast, the first story in the collection, Jigana’s twelve year old sister Maisha provides for their family of eight materially, cancels the family debt and saves towards Jigana's schooling with the money she makes prostituting on the streets of Kenya. Life on the street is tough. Too often they have to sniff glue to stifle hunger and use their infant sibling to beg for alms. When Maisha elopes, Jigana changes his mind about schooling and chooses the only other option available.

Fattening for Gabon is a story about two siblings, Yewa and Kotchikpa who have both been taken away from their village by a crooked uncle with promises of a better life. Slowly his sinister designs for them unravel. He changes their names and feeds them twisted lies to disguise his depraved intentions. Things spiral out of control and bring the story to a shocking climax. This is one of the most compelling story of the lot. The last scene is haunting; Kotchikpa's last sentence is unforgettable. You will pause to catch your breath before moving on.

What Language Is That? is the shortest story in the collection. Two little girls in Ethiopia are forced by their parents to end their friendship because of “faith differences”. The tension in the town forces one of the girl’s family to move but not before she learns a new language peculiar to her friend and herself.

In Luxurious Hearses, Jubril, a Nigerian Muslim teenager is fleeing the religious crisis in his northern homeland and heading south hoping to find solace in the hometown of his estranged father. The bus he boards is crowded with displaced and embittered southerners mourning their losses and heading home to uncertainty. The grisly massacre showing on the on-board television does nothing but fuel their rage towards northerners. As they chatter, weep, fight, curse and stare in shock at the violence on-screen, Jubril, the lone northerner in the middle of blood thirsty southerners, struggles to remain composed and unobtrusive because his life depends on it.

Finally, in "My Parents Bedroom", Monique’s mother gives her instructions and disappears into the night. She is nine years old and alone with her younger brother. Outside, the conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups rages on; smoke billows from plundered houses; vultures poke the newly mutilated bodies of her neighbours that are stretched out on the bloody streets. It is only a matter of time before they get to her house; before she confronts evil that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Akpan dutifully gives his voice to the torn, forgotten, blighted children on the African continent who are at the heart of these stories. This book with its brilliant insight and impressive storytelling is Akpan’s ticket into the ranks of respectable third generation African authors. “Say You're One of Them" is one of the best débuts of 2008 and it is unlikely that readers will be unmoved by the lives and events portrayed therein.

[Osondu Awaraka was born in Lagos, Nigeria in the late 1980’s. He has been very passionate about books since he was a little kid and began writing much later. He has channelled his energies into his literary blog site, Incessant Scribble, where he posts short stories, book reviews and interviews with authors.]

Sunday, 15 November 2009


This week, Critical Literature Review presents Beaven Tapureta and his review* of the 2009 NOMA "Honourable" Mentioned short fiction anthology 'Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township' which was written by Zimbabwean author Christopher Mlalazi.

Reading Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township is like walking on a suspended tightrope, arms of the mind spread apart so as not to lose equilibrium, looking down on Mlalazi’s characters as they struggle to survive in today’s Zimbabwe. You certainly don’t want to fall into their lives, but you are transported right into the township.

As you finish the first story, Broken Wings, you can’t help tears forming in your eyes. Nozitha the teenage caregiver suffers right in front of you. She collects the family ration of food aid, takes care of her mother and grandmother, both AIDS victims. Her grandfather Siziba is also too weak to help himself. Abisha, a food aid worker, as if he cares, asks, “Where is God then? Tell me, you who believe, when people as young as this girl have to suffer like this.” And yet, as the saying goes, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing - he rapes Nozitha, after tempting her with a bottle of cooking oil that she would already have received had Sibiya, the village’s party supremo, not demanded from Nozitha her grandfather’s ruling party membership card, which she did not have with her. As a girl child exposed to the vagaries of politicized food aid and hypocrisy, Nozitha embodies, frighteningly, the suffering of Zimbabwe’s women.  AIDS has come to devour all, directly or indirectly, and now left are only too many Nozithas, just too many ‘mothers of enemies’, orphans of the endless war.

Election Day satirically exposes a leader who seems rash. Instead of accepting advice from his personal advisor about what was happening outside, His Excellency says to him, “Now, let me give you some free advice, my personal advisor. Your assessment of the povo is very wrong, just like judging the sweetness of an orange by its skin or that of a woman by the shape of her hips.” But, come election day, the household of His Excellency is in panic. Knowing that her husband’s fate will also be her own, Modi thinks of sneaking to “the coffee plantation in South America or the castle in Belgium.” But in a twist of the plot, the ‘impossible’ happens.

The Border Jumper illustrates vividly what happens when there is strife and people are disillusioned, made to believe that nothing good will ever come from their own land. Zenzo and Vusa very well represent the shattered dreams of young people crossing to South Africa through illegal means, despite the crocodiles in the Limpopo, the patrolling police and the too demanding ‘guides’, hoping to find new hope on the other side of the border. Mbedzi, who guides the illegal migrants, knows why he must play his part. He prays to the departed spirits to “also grant them a safe haven from the poverty they are fleeing.”

One of the unforgettable episodes in recent Zimbabwe history, Operation Murambatsvina, or Operation Clean Up, is featured in The Bulldozers Are Coming. As always, it is the women who carry the brunt of the suffering and pain. Left alone at home, her husband far away, the woman in the story is confronted with a moment of indecision. The bulldozers will not be lenient, she has to act fast. Even the old woman next door has already started to pull the roof down on her own to try to save her few possessions. Here, the author shows a world ruined, a place of misery.

The title story, Dancing with Life, pictures the life of Mxolisi, representative of the many disillusioned, unemployed ex-university students in Zimbabwe. At 21, Mxolisi chain smokes marijuana, and plays hide and seek with the police. He knows that it is the economic meltdown that has put him in this jam, forcing him to dance with life.

Mlalazi’s writing is particularly outstanding when he uses humour to tackle serious themes, such as in the stories Eeish!, When The Fish Caught Him, A Heart in My Hole and Fragments. In Eeish!, Ndla suffers through living with his father’s drunkenness and through his memory of witnessing his mother’s infidelity. He befriends a white soldier in the Zimbabwean army, Craig, who moves into the township. Craig encourages him to join the army or the National Youth Service. Ndla is unimpressed “And throw stones at the white farmers while the children of shefs get premature potbellies at Fort Hare University?”

The story titled The Matchstick Man is allegorical and complex, with the Matchstick Man fighting for his freedom from the ‘granite bull’, ‘lions in diamond-studded leather collars’, ‘cockroaches carrying AK47 rifles’ and ‘obese gun-toting rats’. Matchstick Man is a rebel. When the fire engine is sent to put out Matchstick Man’s fire, he responds, “Where is the fire? For I do not see it.” And he is told, “It’s in your crazy head!”

Dancing With Life engages the mind, ruffles it, and captures, by using humour, lively exposition and the language of today’s Zimbabwe, township life booming with crime, prostitution, joy, misery, and naked political falsehoods.

* This review was first published in "The Zimbabwean".

[Beaven Tapureta is a poet, creative writer and arts journalist. He features in the poetry anthology State of the Nation [2009, Conversation Press, UK] and forthcoming short story anthology African Roar [2009, co-published by Lion Press and StoryTime]. He was 2008 NAMA Awards [Zimbabwe] nominee in the print media category.]

Thursday, 12 November 2009

We Haven't Finished With the Abyssinian Boy and the Boy Who Wrote It

The fascination continues with Onyeka Nwelue's début book, The Abyssinian Boy, as the co-publisher of Saraba e-zine, Damilola Ajayi gives Critical Literature Review his views on the young Nigerian's novel

According to E.L Doctorow, a reputable American author, there is no longer any such thing like fiction or non-fiction; there’s only a narrative. This , holds true in The Abyssinian Boy, the début effort of Onyeka Nwelue, one of the youngest Nigerian novelists .

It is startlingly remarkable that Mr Nwelue penned this manuscript before he turned twenty, a time when his peers are beleaguered by the consequences of hormonal fluctuations and are decisively bothered with trendy ways of combating them and asserting themselves as a generation with a difference.

Even more remarkable is the fact that at such a nascent stage, Mr Nwelue could dip his imaginations in the dyes of reality so much so that what he achieves is refreshingly familiar. The streets he describes, the people that populate his fictional world and even the emotional concerns of his characters are so real that his characters could be next door neighbours. His fiction is indeed a potent and genuine remake of reality which can neither be centrifuged nor decanted by analysis.

A part of this novel unfurls in India. In fact it is in India we meet our characters in their “usual state”, before the essence of the story creeps in.  This part of the novel is an amazing love song of India. The author takes readers on a virtual tour of the aesthetics of the world’s second most populous nation, romanticizing even its dregs in crisp prose. Easily, this part of the novel evokes colourful scenes similar to the kind in Bollywood movies. It is not surprising that the author actually wrote a decent helping of his manuscript in India and his narrative must have been roused by familiar sensations.

The major characters are the members of an “international” family comprising of a South Indian essayist, his East Nigerian wife and their half-caste nine-year old son, David. The most toward action in the novel’s plot is a visit to the wife’s home country Nigeria, by the family and their encounters thereafter. Through Mr Nwelue’s ornate and sometimes faltering narrative, we plumb the detail of their lives. We see their imperfections, their mistakes, misgivings, misadventures and even the weird relatives with whom they co-exist albeit idyllically.

We delve into their pasts often to relive their experiences, sometimes immaterial to the denouement, but all the same experiences thrust on us by the author’s prerogative. We traipse through refreshing anecdotes and comic vignettes that are perhaps posers of the author’s overseas experience.

The voice through which this story is told is controlled. And convincing. One sees Mr Nwelue toeing the lines of great predecessors like Amos Tutuola in his attempt to birth a language for his works. Even though one is not particularly convinced that he achieves this in The Abyssinian Boy, one can be sure he has set a template which would become a centrepiece attraction  in his subsequent fictional endeavours.

The syntax of this work gives it the nuanced feel of a work in translation and the liberty with which the author deals his expressions might herald a new trend in sentence constructions. However the hyphenated depiction of expressions that are supposedly descriptions in this novel— you-are-very-stupid-and-hopeless-eye, so-what eyes—though heaping some humour on the reader’s plate , are puerile nonetheless. Encountering invented adverbs like “Neverthemore” is shocking but hints to readers the poetic license the author has compelled to his prose.

More than anything, the thematic concerns enjoy a multiplicity that does not correlate with the length of the novel. Often, it seemed like the author attempted to artistically flare his connoisseurship and grant opinions on pertinent issues which have garnered cultural concerns and had become denominators cutting across humanity. However, these issues are tackled fleetingly with the result that the reader is often left with opinionated rather than holistic insights.

Colourful characters also abound in this novel. Easily, the narrative becomes a marketplace where all sorts of characters are introduced, perhaps in an attempt to achieve a sub-plot which doesn’t entirely work into the “big” narrative. These characters, with peculiar idiosyncrasies and sometimes phonation, interact with themselves and grapple an array of human issues such as religion, sexuality, cuisines, amongst other cultural concerns.

Also, there are the mystic overtones that lend the magical realism tag this novel sometimes bears from previous reviews. The recruitment of Nfanfa, an imaginary albino dwarf that fuels David’s hallucination is reminiscent of similar illusionary characters in Helen Oyeyemi’sThe Icarus Girl”, another first novel by another remarkable young Nigerian that dwells on homecoming and the troubles thereafter.

Mr Nwelue, no doubt, has penned a moving tale that underscores the issues of racial integration and culture clash. He has shown his promise and his flair as one of the important emerging contenders of the Great Nigerian Novel and readers can still expect the masterpiece tucked up his sleeves.

[Damilola Ajayi co-publishes the quarterly literary e-zine, Saraba. A penultimate medical student, his works have appeared both in print and online. He is presently working an anthology of short fiction.]