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.]

Sunday 8 November 2009


Critical Literature Review proudly presents Sylva Ifedigbo, who discusses the début novel of the young Nigerian author Onyeka Nwelue. Enjoy!!!

I recently read the book "The Abyssinian Boy" (TAB) by Onyeka Nwelue. It was a special experience. First, I read an autographed copy of the book…fresh, well bound, beautiful copy, which makes me want to begin by giving some kudos to Dada Book (the publisher) for such a wonderful outing (which is not often seen from publishers here in Nigeria).

The second reason why reading TAB was a special experience is the same reason why I read the 256 paged book for almost two weeks; The story was free flowing, well crafted and filled with hyperboles which all combine to make it an entrapping work of fiction. When I like a book, I don’t rush through it; I take each page at a time…I go back to re-read some pages; I read a page and imagine the scene. That’s why it took me nearly two weeks.

The Abyssinian Boy is about a South Indian essayist and his East Nigerian Christian wife Eunice Onwubiko and the hallucination their nine year-old child faces. The book lays bare the many paradoxes of culture clash with thought provoking and often amusing ironies.

At the center of the tapestry is David the Nine year old son of Rajaswamy Rajagopalan who dies on the way back to Nigeria after a visit by the Indian based family to Nigeria. David’s death which is a consequence of some age old breech of tradition (it self a product of the early church versus native tradition friction in Nigerian villages) that happened many years before David was conceived coincided with the decision of the Nigerian Government by a law of the senate to Send all Indians away from the country.

For me, the first chapter of the book was the clincher. It flows, reveals and keeps the reader turning the pages. It introduces the reader to a typical Indian setting; Indian Names, Indian households, Indian dressing, names of Indian towns and Indian streets. The reader finds himself in New Delhi or inside one of the many popular Bollywood movies. Nwelue (who wrote the first draft of the book in India) shows a keen mastery of India. The conversations and expressions are unmistakably Indian. It is refreshing to read so young a Nigerian writer leaving the comfort zone of writing about Nigeria - the corruption and the fuel queues - and attempting a cross-continental novel. I will say without the fear of contradiction that this was a good first attempt.

I however found to my disappointment that the language of the book is overtly ‘childish’. Perhaps this might be attributed to the age of the writer who was born in 1988 or on the other hand, it may simply be his style of writing. There are some unnecessary details with a lot of “telling” as opposed to “showing”. Some issues simply appear unbelievable. For example, I can’t still come to terms with David’s overwhelming intelligence as can be gleamed from his expressions when he was only nine.

Still on David, the writer shows us in the earlier parts of the book that he had problems with his written English. It is shocking how his letters, as seen in pages 196-198, were so flawless. It leaves a question mark. How come?

One interesting character, “Dada Felicia”, was shown to have mother tongue interference in her spoken English. But the writer slightly over did it in trying to drive this point home. More so, there was no consistency in the presentation of the character’s speech problems. For example, on page 211, there was an outburst from Dada Felicia. Here, pronunciations were okay (including words like “responsible” which should have been a good example of mispronounced words due to language interference). However, on the very next page, we see a miraculous reappearance of the imperfect diction with words like sule (sure) and youl (your). This is either an oversight on the part of the writer and his editors or simply a typographic error.

I have no problems with the introduction of sex, seduction, lesbianism or homosexuality in African literature. If anything, I promote it. But in TAB, I am of the opinion that the writer slightly over did it. It goes without saying that there are gays/lesbians in our society (Nigeria). However, but their activities are not yet as rampant as has been portrayed in TAB and they are not yet as confident or vocal as the characters in TAB were in expressing their sexual orientation. Well, I guess we can condone this, as after all the work is FICTION! Fiction writers don’t owe anyone the duty of presenting issues as it is in reality. Fiction is fiction and that is its essential quality.

That said and taking nothing away from this beautiful piece of creativity, I wish to state that for a debut novel, TAB has made a loud statement and the writer has earned himself a battalion of fans waiting to eat up the next meal he serves. I am one such fan and I think you should pick a copy too.

[Sylva Ifedigbo is a writer and commentator. He contributes to NEXT and maintains a blog at]

Thursday 5 November 2009


Critical Literature Review gladly presents another review of Caine prize winning author Brian Chikwava's début novel HARARE NORTH. This short review is by fellow Zimbabwean author Christopher Mlalazi whose story collection 'Dancing With Life: Tales From the Township'  was recently given a Honourable Mention award in the 2009 NOMA Awards.

Harare North comes with a warning. Do not read it in a crowded bus or in a queue, because the other people will be wondering, judging from the laughter that will be erupting from you, whether you are going nuts, or pretending to be sophisticated but over doing it.

Harare North, the title of the book, refers to London, and also inferring to the fact that London has been accorded the status of being regarded as the capital of Zimbabwe in the Diasporian northern hemisphere for Zimbabweans seeking exile in the wake of the much publicised political unrests in their home country.

An incisive and open political satire of the Mugabe government, and written in the first person narrative, the book tells the story of an unnamed protagonist arriving in ‘Harare North’ to seek work to try to raise money to pay a debt he owes back in his home country, and to also hold an umbuyiso ceremony for his late mother ‘to bring back her spirit which is still wandering in the wilderness because family squabbles prevented the ceremony from being held.’ 

In his escapades in Harare North, the protagonist is constantly claiming that he does not have a civilian mind, but a military one, for he is a former Green Bomber (the Zimbabwean government youth militia). The military mind that is referred to is employed in making decisions in Harare North that range from blackmail and deceit, to the exhibition of clear callousness. He blackmails his cousin’s wife whom he finds in an uncompromising position with a lover, he deceives his best friend Shingi (who is providing for him after he leaves his cousin because of a frosty reception there from the cousin’s wife) into thinking that he can seduce a female housemate, whilst his real intention is to make the housemate dislike his friend to the extent of  leaving their squat – the protagonist wants the housemate to leave because he feels she is a burden on their resources.

The protagonist also has a speech impediment, and the narrative is almost in baby talk: ‘me I tell them I have been harass by them boys in dark glasses because I am youth member of the opposition party.’ ‘He have forget that me I can give one powerful look.’

Taking into account his speech impediment and the claims he makes of ruthless past crimes whilst still in his ‘jackals’ unit with the Green Bombers, what is revealed in the book is a character that raises goose bumps – a psychopath who believes that civilians have no other voice but need only to be pushed into a ‘yes or no’ situation so as to make things clear on which side they stand before retribution can be meted out on them, which is what he had been trained whilst in the militia.

What is also amazing about this book is the consistency in the narrative voice considering the language employed to write it, and Chikwava maintains it throughout the whole story, proving once again after his prestigious 2004 Caine Prize Award that he is a master story teller.

[Christopher Mlalazi is the co-winner of the 2008 Novib PEN Freedom of Expression Award at the Hague and he has recently published his first novel 'Many Rivers' with LION PRESS UK. His short story collection 'Dancing With Life: Tales From the Township' which was published by Ama Books Publishers was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2009 NOMA Awards].

Sunday 1 November 2009


This week, Critical Literature Review is happy to have its first guest contribution in the form of a book review by the renowned journalist and critic Ikhide R. Ikheloa, who discusses "Harare North", the début novel of Brian Chikwava who is the 2004 Caine Prize for African Writing winner. Hope you enjoy reading it.

There is this thing called the Caine Prize for African Literature, whatever that means. People compete for it and someone invariably wins. There is a lot of noise making and jollification for a deserved win and the poor winner is expected to write a book. The poor fellow always obliges and dutifully produces a thoroughly wretched book. It hardly ever fails. There have been notable exceptions but one would argue that the writer wrote a good book despite winning the Caine Prize. One such wretched book is Harare North, written by the brilliant, perhaps gifted Brian Chikwava. He is destined to write a good book - once he finds his voice. It is just that right now, his toes are flirting with crickets while Africa is carrying elephants on her head. There are few books that have frustrated me more than Harare North. It is like staring in anger at a rich pot of soup ruined by an impish but talented cook.

Harare North is a meandering journey undertaken by an unnamed main character fleeing imaginary trouble back home in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (you get the story already, sorry!). He heads for London (aka Harare North) and proceeds to lead a wretched meaningless existence. Saddled with a not-so-bright friend named Shingi he immerses himself in the under belly of the immigrant community in London building tricks to stay above water. It is not a pretty book but this is not just because of the wretched lives these people live in the grimy underbelly of grimy London. This is an unfortunate book for reasons that are the fault of Chikwava and publishers eager to publish and sell reams of Africa’s dignity to a willing and gullible Western audience. What is it with African writers and stereotyping? In the 21st century many of them are still scheming their way into the pockets of gullible Westerners who truly believe that Africans are exotic lovable dolts to be watched like animals in a zoo. I am not amused.

On one level, Harare North is a brilliant book, written by a brilliant, sensitive author with the potential of shining a compassionate light into the lives of immigrants of color living desperate, furtive lives in the shadows of London. And sometimes it works. Chikwava lays bare the tricks that immigrants turn to somehow survive in London. But then, what’s with the contrived English? Harare North is engaging and heart-warming, but the contrived English gets in the way, each time. It is like finding your favorite meal infested with tiny obnoxious stones. The book offers evidence of formerly elegant prose poetry ruined by reckless experimentation with contrived English. There is no linguistic structure to it because the language simply doesn’t exist. Profound thoughts become distressed babble under the weight of dysfunction. Not convincing, the contrived result. Chikwava has dissipated vigorous energy to write nonsense. It is funny but it is nonsense.

This is too bad because there is all this brilliance peeking furtively out of the contrived fortress of a pretend-language. There is something phony about contrived language, because it is, well, phony. I didn’t like it when Uzodinma Iweala used it in Beasts of No Nation, and I certainly am dismayed that it ruined a brilliant opportunity in Harare North. Read this beauty of a sentence, reconstruct it in real prose and tell me why I shouldn’t mourn the loss of a dream novel: “Harare township is full of them stories about the misfortunes that people meet; they carry bags full of things and heads that is full of wonders of new life, hustle some passage to Harare North, turn up without notice at some relative’s door, only to have they dreams thrown back into they faces.” (P. 5)

Chikwava taps brilliantly into the lode of indignities and humiliation that Africans endure inside Western embassies and then promptly loses it in the fog of contrived language: “…the British High Commission don’t just give visa to any native who think he can flag down jet plane jump on it and fly to Harare North, especially when they notice that people get them visitors’ visa and then on landing in London they do this style of claim asylum. So people is no getting that old consulate treatment: the person behind the counter window give you the severe look and ask you to bring more of this and that and throw back your papers, and before you even gather them together he have call up the next person.” (P. 6) What is the purpose of this exercise?

Through the fog of artificial language, a picture emerges, of Chikwava deconstructing the method of African immigrants’ shame, and self-loathing. He explores social class stratification and tensions between the newly arrived (“native” Africans) and the veteran exiles (“lapsed” Africans) albeit in derogatory, stereotypical terms. The resulting self-loathing is emotionally violent as African immigrants recoil from anything that reminds them of their roots. The main character just coming in from Zimbabwe complains of rejection thus. “I have bring Paul and Sekai small bag of groundnuts from Zimbabwe; groundnuts that my aunt bring from she rural home. Sekai give the small bag one look and bin it right in front of me. She say I should never have been allow to bring them nuts into the country because maybe they carry disease. Then she go out and buy us some McDonald’s supper.” P (7) It is refreshing, the candor, he even touches upon gay life in Africa’s prisons, a subject that African writers have been loath to touch or explore even in the 21st century. Chikwava documents in exquisite detail the African immigrant’s willful determination to erase his or her African identity. The character Sekai, the “lapsed” African is always embarrassed by anything African. “I go out and sit at the doorstep and start to use screwdriver to pick off the mud that have cake under my boots from walking around outside. But Sekai follow me and ask me to look down on our street and tell she if I see anyone sitting on they doorstep? Me I don’t get the score what this is all about until she tell me that this is not township; I should stop embarrass them and start behaving like I am in England.” (P.14)

Life in Zimbabwe and within the Zimbabwean immigrant community is the theatre of the absurd and Chikwava captures it in harrowing and comic detail. It is a tragicomedy and one never knows whether to laugh or to cry at this dark, intense, brilliant canvas: “Mother, she die of overdose. They carry she to hospital in wheelbarrow and she don’t come back. Then they take she body from the township and bury she in rural house under heap of red earth and rock. Now the spirit is still wandering in the wilderness because family squabbles end up preventing umbuyiso and this has not been done for years now.” (P.16)

There is more where that came from: “Shingi sleeps in the lounge; he share the room with Farayi. Two mattresses is on rotting floorboards, blankets all over, small heaps of things telling one story of big journey that is caused by them dreams that start far away in them townships. I can sniff sniff them natives’ lives squatting under the low damp ceiling like thieves that have just been catch.” (P. 30)

If I seem to obsess mostly about the language, it is because I was distracted, distracted to drink, especially by sentences that Chikwava almost forgot to engineer into nonsense. “And then me I hear that people in the village where Mother is buried will be moved somewhere because government want to take over the area since emeralds have now been discovered there.” (p 17) The language gets in the way in a subversive manner and it as a result the book is torpedoed by an inane contrivance. Wise profound sayings, parables and proverbs become trite under the weight of linguistic engineering. And haunting prose is defaced by bad marketing decisions. But I must say, he is good, Chikwava, he can describe despair with a few deft strokes of the pen. “She take me to the kitchen and the air smell of bad cooking and the sink have one heap of dirty dishes and all. It’s like they lie there for donkey years. The ceiling on one corner is growing mushrooms and things.” (P. 30)

Interestingly enough, as I read the book, I kept thinking of Ike Oguine’s The Squatter’s Tale, plotting how to rescue Chikwava’s tale from prose abuse. There is pretty prose in there, trapped in needless experimentation: “The glass slip off my hand and come crashing on the edge of the sink bowl; it break and fill the kitchen with the kind of fright that fill the room when you have break your mother’s bestest teapot.” (P. 31) Nice. Almost. Sometimes however it dissolves into malarial gibberish and you wonder: What is the purpose of this prattle: “You always know more than you believe in over what you know because what you know can be so big that sometimes it is useless weapon, you cannot wield it proper and, when you try, it can get your head out of gear and stop you focusing.” (P. 43)

The book provides ample proof of autobiographical musings. It was probably not Chikwava’s intention to ridicule his heritage in which case it is a weakness of the narrative that he could be accused of creating racist stereotypes and spinning bigoted tales. A sensitive soul reading the book would balk at all these literary Sambos in black face and recoil from a Stepin Fetchit story that appears to have little redeeming value. I concede and celebrate Chikwava’s right of self expression but for me, the question is this: If this was written by a white person, would I be offended? The answer is a resounding yes. There are all these traces of bigotry and prejudice some aimed at gays and lesbians. We see the immigrant of color as a shiftless aimless buffoon. This is just one aspect of the immigrant life. Who tells the others? In addition, the story appears to be ridiculing, and making caricatures out of African traditional customs and values. The book succumbs to too much cynicism like too much stew on white rice. The result is aimless and purposeless, a story that goes nowhere. But then some would argue that Chikwava’s Zimbabwe is not going anywhere fast. Regardless, this is not the Zimbabwe of Petina Gappah’s elegant stories (Elegy for Easterly), or even of Dambudzo Marechera’s brilliant angst-ridden anthems. Should you read this book? Yes, read it, it is fun despite itself. 

[Ikhide R. Ikheloa is an arts critic, writer and journalist. He can be reached at]