Sunday 15 August 2010

Conflicts and Wars in Africa

This week, Critical Literature Review presents Ikhide Ikheloa's review of "Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa". Enjoy!

Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide. To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity… even the most brilliant photography cannot capture the landscape of genocide.
                           -    Simon Norfolk

The writers Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove are two of Africa’s finest thinker-writers. They are awesome wordsmiths, word cannon balls boom fiercely out of their fecund minds pulverizing their targets with uncanny accuracy. They write with an uncommon sensitivity to the issues that Africa faces. This they do with respect and compassion and one is taken by the honesty and industry that they bring to their craft. They have just co-edited a slim volume of essays, Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd. It is a largely academic but highly accessible treasure trove of reflections on war by an army of mostly African writers who have been affected by Africa’s myriad wars and genocides. In about 200 pages and sixteen chapters (including the introduction), the reader comes face to face with the anxieties, nightmares and dreams of sixteen diverse and eclectic artists. These are issues covering past and present wars all over Africa; Biafra, Zimbabwe, the hell delta of Nigeria, Darfur, the Congo, South Africa, etc. Kudos to Ndibe and Hove for ensuring that these writers are a judicious mix of the known and unknown. The resulting essays are refreshing and filled with uncommon candor. The references alone are invaluable. I wrote down passages in the book that spoke to me and then I walked among the words, talking to them. I was shaken to my soul’s roots. Even the cover is evocative in what it does not say. It is an image of beautiful children born into wars they did not ask for. There are all these children mugging for the camera with Africa and decay as a surreal backdrop. 

As an aside, this compilation of essays came out of a workshop attended by the just-departed poet-warrior Dennis Brutus. In the book, Ndibe and Hove recall his spirit with eerie nostalgia: “Dennis Brutus, the South African poet whose back bears the scar of an apartheid bullet, lent a measure of revolutionary gravitas and hard-earned moral capital to the workshop. When Brutus spoke or read his poems, his voice, though slightly enfeebled by age, still rang out with stunning range and power.” (p11)  

This book is several conversations burning at once. The writer Yvonne A. Owuor starts the conversations rolling in a piece she admits is a rant. It is a rant pregnant with profound gems. She questions why the West glorifies its own wars with stories of valor and views Africa’s wars as savage and barbaric, pointing out that there have been equally gory examples to draw from in the West. Again, Chinua Achebe, in his seminal volume of essays Home and Exile, reminds us of the proverb: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter." I agree. Africans must tell their own stories or risk the total annihilation of their humanity by the other. We should write about our own humanity, for war is about the sorting of individuals into bins of identity and differences and the hunting down of those anxieties that lurk behind ancestral masks. 

This book is a defiant ode to the power of the word and Hove captures it neatly: “Those years of war… gave me scars and smiles. Scars because real bullets pierced and tore apart the bodies of real women, children and men. Smiles, for, in the midst of death and pain, I saw children, women and men who proudly showed human resilience even in the face of death as they fought for the restoration of their dignity.” (p38)

The last chapter, Reflections on Inyenzi is an evocative essay bearing a conversation between the writers Karin Samuel and Andrew Brown. Brown wrote the book Inyenzi: A Story of Love and Genocide based on the Rwandan genocide. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It brings to great closure several issues engaged by the other writers in the book. In simple, almost clinical prose that flogs the reader’s conscience wide awake, the writers weave fascinating images of war and one is reminded of the starkness of images of apartheid’s war housed in South Africa’s Hector Pieterson museum. 

This is a slim book bearing weighty reflections on conventional wars in Africa. Wars still rage on in Africa, most of them wreaking havoc below the radar of our uncritical eyes. Every day alien religions wake Africa up and rape her with impunity and send her to bed sobbing inconsolably. Capitalism marches through Africa unchallenged reducing her millions of victims to needy supplicants to the God of more and more. We should reflect on why Africa is in this condition. The book does not. It is not a criticism; a book can only do so much. Africa is enduring many wars and while this book focuses on conventional wars, I propose that today’s most devastating wars are the unconventional. If we don’t focus on those we may be writing our way to irrelevance. Why is the world indifferent to the travails of Africa? 

In the book, Lauryn Arnott’s drawings are harrowing in their detail and they nicely complement the writing. But it is not enough. In the age of the Internet, the book is dying a long slow death and it is no longer a robust medium for expressing the horrors of war or the joys of triumph over adversity. I dream of creating a virtual museum dedicated to Africa’s suffering – a total convergence of all media and all voices singing with one earth-shaking voice of the horrors that we have seen and heard. And the griots Ndibe and Hove would be the leaders of that mother of all projects.  

Let’s accept some responsibility. Owuor makes this profound observation: “This war, this violence is ours. Ours is the hateful thing – a roaming stain that prowls through the society and sows seeds of chaos – that thing that appalls our within-ness. And horrifies us with the blood it wastes.” (p21) However the book is virtually silent on the crucial question: Why are things the way they are in Africa? There are many questions folded into that question. What is it with Africa and conflict? Why are we constantly forced to question and justify our humanity? What is the role of the writer in shaping events in today’s Africa? Why do some of our writers turn Goebbels on the people? What is the best medium for forcing the people to focus brightly on the fires that burn so fiercely all around Africa? Is this generation of African writers self-absorbed and narcissistic and why?  Has the African writer deserted the role of the writer as the land’s conscience, priest and town-crier? We must seek answers to the why even though it might frighten us. 

The Internet, that new world that holds the promise of liberation from hell on earth, is right now busily retrieving Africa’s brightest and best minds from Africa and dumping them in Europe and America.  Virtually all of Africa’s best thinkers are writing about Africa from the outside looking in. Thanks to technology, sadly, this exodus includes those writers who physically live in Africa 

Hope Eghagha in his essay evokes the spirit of the poet-seer Christopher Okigbo using lines from Okigbo’s Hurrah for Thunder:

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon
The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;
And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,
A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters –
An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone

This poem was written four decades ago; one could argue that it seems prophetic today only because the situation in Nigeria is heading South fast and the future is certainly frightening. But then the question is why this constancy of turmoil. Okigbo would not know; he was murdered by Nigerian troops on Biafran soil in a war he did not ask for. This book is one more compelling proof that the sacrifices of Okigbo and other African thinkers hunted down and slaughtered for owning words have not been in vain. I salute Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove.

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

Sunday 27 June 2010

The Literary World Quakes With African Roar[s]!!!!!!

This week, Critical Literature Review Presents Joseph Omotayo’s review of African Roar. African Roar is an anthology of short stories featuring 11 stories by 11 African writers. It is edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor W. Hartmann. Enjoy!

It is true that the meekness of a dock is greatly feared because it does not connote weakness; no one knows when it is brewing a plan to take revenge. But also, when a lion roars to declare its alertness in the forest, tell-tale trees bow at the rushing wind that comes with its roar. The roar of a lion is not only to restate its commanding nature, it is to send shocking waves to any being that might have lost its track that it is very close to the territory of the ONE who controls all.

When partnered writers across Africa roar with a common pen that is filled with ink from the cauldron of struggle and nature, it is to herald the dawn that will put an end to the era when Diaspora writers sew strings of fictitious words together based on what they have heard from an uncle, relative or a friend; making it clear to them that the story of a man is more true and intact, without being refined with hearsay, when it is told by him. The book, “African Roar” is a literary collaboration of 11 writers from different countries of the continent, who speak with the common synergy to tell the past, present and continuing-present of African stories.

Some things are rather left unbroken, but when they break, just like the shattered shells of an egg, piecing them together might spell more gloom than necessary. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s ‘Big Pieces, Little Pieces’ adopts the voice of a suggestible minor to paint the irresponsible and domineering nature of the male chauvinism of our patriarchal society in the most demeaning manner. The story is a written-capture of Mama (Grace), who is always suppressed from making her feelings known to her husband, Baba, due to the latter’s tantrum. She is bowed, cowed and tortured by her husband, who will never stop at anything to dish lashes to her. Baba, Grace’s husband, is made to throw the most destructive and anger-consuming of his tantrums when the carelessness and recklessness of Jabu’s sister, one of their children, turns Baba’s beer mug into an ‘artistic’ debris of ‘Big pieces, Little pieces’. The second person narrative style is used in the characterization of this story. This technique absorbs the reader throughout the story without distancing the story from the reader; making the reader a ready participant and witness to the story being told, rather than being a removed observer.

Even when Kola Tubosun is relaying an over-told story of HIV/AIDS that should not have whetted any special reading appetite in ‘Behind the Door’, his mastery of creating suspense as a writing-skill pays off greatly in gluing the reader’s attention to it. In ‘Behind the Door’, one’s mind is moored to what the climax will be for the character, whose courage in the journey through a HIV/AIDS test can be best described as a ‘suicidal step’ to ascertaining wholeness. The character’s heart string almost snaps when a few minutes of waiting for his test result becomes an eternity. Tubosun’s way of narrating the story without muddling it up with unnecessary flash-backs eliminates the banality that is normally associated with such a story .

In ‘Yesterday’s Dog’, Masimba Musodza connects the brutality in the colonial era with the fierce ‘democratic’ oppression that exists in the post-colonial dispensation of Zimbabwe. When an oppressed subject assumes the position of a commander, then, there are a lot to be feared. With the brutality that is meted to Stanley Chipatiso when he is maliciously reported by Mhunga to the authorities as a magandanga (national guerilla) because Stanley refuses to marry his daughter, it is vivid that the white colonialists wreaked great havoc before leaving Africa. In this story, after the independence of Zimbabwe, the game becomes the hunter when Stanley wields great power as a secret interrogator. He comes to the position of avenging the bites that yesterday’s dog (the colonial masters) leaves on him. Through the bestial activities that are carried out in the Central intelligence Organization, the place where Stanley Chipatiso works, the reader learns that the independence of Zimbabwe  is still submerged in self-imposed colonization and quasi-slavery by the indigenous government.

Over the decades, it has been proved that religion commands more clout than any legal institution. The battle is set for the taking down of the Jericho wall of the Nestbury Tree that won’t allow the faithful to get to their Promise land in Ayodele Morocco Clarke’s ‘The Nestbury Tree’.  The Nestbury Tree in the narrator’s mother’s house is the cause for the tug of war between the Shepherd who wants to take down the tree that he perceives to be a coven for witches because all matter of night birds take shelter in it at night, and the woman (the narrator’s mother) whose relic of love and power of her late husband is the Nestbury Tree. The narrator’s mother is resolute on stopping the elders and the shepherd of the church in destroying the only piece of life that reminds her of her loved one, the narrator’s father. The clout to resist the shepherd’s misguided moves is borne out of the fact that the facility that serves as the church is her husband’s property. The rift in this story is settled  in an earth-quaking manner. The story autobiographically sketches the mixed-raced background of Morocco-Clarke as words like Kingston in Jamaica, ‘Ekaale’ a Yoruba word and Lagos in Nigeria are used. The way the writer experiments with the Yoruba proverb shows that she has lost touch with proper use of the language. The proverb that would have read as ‘Afefe ti fe, a si ti ri furo adie’ (the wind has blown and we can now see the fowl’s bottom) now reads as ‘Afefe ti fe, furo adie ti wanita’. The story almost becomes languid towards the end when the well sustained suspense is too stretched, even after the end has been known.

No matter how heavy and weighty truth might seem, it will always float when it is thrown into the ocean of lies. Kwetu M. Ananse answers true to his name as the spider (Kwetu) when he spins a cob of webs around his prey in ‘Truth Float’ written by Nana Awere Damoah. He never allows the over-matured coconut (Ama Adoma) to fall on its own accord, as he desperately and deceitfully wins the love of Ama Adoma, the fiancée of Akoto, his bosom friend. Isn’t it true that when you leave your meat in custody of a cat; it as well as giving the meat as meal to the cat? Akoto is naïve to have entrusted his fiancéeto Kwetu when he travels tothe United Kingdom to slave away after their (Ama Adoma, Akoto and Kwetu’s) graduation from the University College of Amenfi, in a bid to seek greener pastures and come back to marry Adoma with the ‘peanuts’ he is able to gather. Akoto stays a year longer than the two years he had promised. He returns home with the hope of conjugal bliss with Adoma, but he’s shocked to see Adoma turns Kwetu’s wife. The knowledge of the law he garners in the UK becomes his potent weapon against Kwetu. Nana Awere Damoah skillfully shows how interesting the act of African story telling could be when it is not with gratuitous use of hifalutin phrases. The story is never labored as the reader’s interest sticks with the story to the end. The piece is a compendium of African proverbs and turn-of-words.

After 10 years of education and survival in America, Ranga returns with a wife (Nomathamsanga) that cost him a $5000 dowry in the story ‘A Return to the Moonlight’. Ranga is disappointed when returned to a house in a serious state of disrepair despite the copious amounts of money he has remitted back home to have it prepared. Ranga’s home-coming is a mix of sorrow and celebration; the gap which education has put between Ranga and his family further widened. Mai, Ranga’s sister, can’t understand the sudden change civilization has brought on her brother. Ranga’s distaste for the deplorable state of the house his family sleeps in and the rottenness of his country, Zimbabwe, becomes known when he tells his mother that he and Nomathamsanga can’t sleep in the plastic-roofed uncompleted building because they need to charge their phones, his laptop and his ‘eye’ pod (iPod).

The ‘Cost of Courage’ can be so demanding when its ultimate price may claim one’s life. Beaven Tapureta narrates the retrogressive effect caused by the dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and the inglorious touch the unsettled Power-Sharing between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangaria has on the economic situation of the country and its citizenry. The struggle for life in a desolate and economically stripped Zimbabwe is precisely and succinctly shown through the dream Kenny has in the beginning of the story. The uneven and negative stratification of classes in hunger and inflation riddled Zimbabwe is also made clear through the reverie of Brother, Kenny’s friend. ‘Cost of Courage’ projects the unsightly condition of a ghetto life in Zimbabwe in a more horrible manner when the story reads -

The ghetto was nothing but a community of empty clothes, littered dust streets, slapdash houses overstuffed with misery, and toilets which get more visit from cholera victims…. From somewhere, one or two houses away, I heard screams likely to have been from a girl muffled under the heavy weight of a father-businessman-politician-church-leader-AIDS-sucking-fucker!”
The price to pay that weighs more than one’s shield and sword in a battlefield is sometimes to sprint for escape when one still breathes.

What readily comes to the reader’s mind in Chuma Nwokolo Jr.’s ‘Quaterback & Co.’ is the inhumane treatment of staff by highly corporate organizations, who strive to remain the best in the cutthroat competition of executive profiteering. In the story, a quarter part of George Franz’s brain is imaginarily sucked out by an insect, and he is declared redundant and later shorn off his job.

Ivor W. Hartmann’s ‘Lost Love’ is a man’s recollection of his past in a muddled present. The story is the day-dreaming infatuation of two lovers. The transition from the past to the present shows great creativity at work. It is closer to reality yet far from it as the man at the centre of the story hovers between ‘here’ and ‘beyond’.

The ambiguity of ‘A Cicada in the Shimmer’ makes it impossible to form a one-sided inference from the story. Through the view of a child in the story, Jemusi, the writer is able to uphold one’s conscience as the most efficient police of a person’s actions. The trill and the ear-piercing tone of the cicada and the mosquito that frequently disturbs Jemusi is more of the ambush of his conscience and mind than it is real. The allusion of murambatsvina (which means Operation Drive Out Trash or Operation Drive Rubbish) in the story, makes one recall the divisive Zimbabwean government campaign in 2005. The campaign which is adopted by Mugabe, is a crack down on illegal housing and commercial activities, as a way of reducing the risk of an infectious epidemic. The hacking of a suppressed groan which later turns to the shrieking of a battered man under the clamp of a woman heard by maDube, Jemusi’s mother, explicitly explains how freedom can be attained in the most inconceivable manner.

Ayesha Harruna Attah deftly melds themes of social inequality, identity-loss, resignation to fate, and sexual ecstasy in one precise briefly written story in ‘Tamale Blues’. The deep crack of social inequality between the stricken poor and the rich is seen when Nana, the AIS city girl, who has never stepped out of Accra, visits her paternal grandma in Tamale, the northern part of Ghana for the first time. There is no more apt way of explaining her encounter than this:
“Two set of steps led to two doors, both green at the bottom. Nana hung her  towel and sponge on the nails… and headed for the other room. A heavy stench hit her as she entered, accompanied with low intermittent buzzing. In the middle was a concrete ledge with a hole. There were brown stains around the hole. Nana couldn’t believe such a place existed. She dashed out, trying not to throw up…she wondered what she had done for her parents to punish her”
There is no gainsaying the fact that African Roar’ is a huge success in pooling together various writers across the continent, whose writings conscientiously reflect the true African story. The book, African Roar, which is indeed a debut in a series of an annual anthology from StoryTime, has opened a vista of 'windowless' opportunities for African writers to tell their own stories irrespective of their status and social profile, since the stories will always be drawn online from submissions made to ezine StoryTime. What should be worked on by the editors of African Roar in subsequent publishing should be on how the book will be available for wider readership aside from the internet. This will avail readers who do not have internet access (like those in advanced countries) to lay hands on it. There is indeed an African connection in the themes of the stories that are featured. For all those who have only read a true African story from a writer once at a time, this book gives you the commixture of stories written by variously skilled Africans. Just go get yours now!
(The writers of the book are; Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: Big pieces, Little pieces, Kola Tubosun: Behind the Door, Masimba Musodza: Yesterday’s Dog, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke: The Nestbury Tree, Beaven Tapureta: Cost of Courage, Ivor W. Hartmann: Lost Love, Christopher Mlalazi: A Cicada in the Shimmer, Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.: Quarterback & Co., Emmanuel Siguake: A Return to the Moonlight, Nana Awere Damoah: Truth Floats and Ayesha Harruna Attah: Tamale Blues.)

African Roar is available to buy at, Barnes & Noble, and

[Joseph Omotayo is an analytical reviewer of the written works of art. He has reviewed some African contemporary works, out of which are Adunni Abimbola's Under The Brown Rusted Roofs, Buchi Emecheata's Second Class Citizen and Igoni Barret's From Caves Of Rotten Teeth.
Some of his writings have been published on his blog {} and in the ‘The Punch’ one of his country's national newspaper. Omotayo currently stays in Osun State, Nigeria; from where he views the world and lives his dreams. He is the Head of Department for short-story in ATE OGBON LITERARY CLUB, Osogbo. A club that promotes creative and performing art

Sunday 6 June 2010

Meandering On Black Sisters’ Street

This week, Critical Literature Review present's Ikhide Ikheloa's review of Chika Unigwe's On Black Sisters' Street. We hope you enjoy reading it.

Chika Unigwe’s book, On Black Sisters’ Street chronicles the sad odyssey of an army of young women prostitutes drawn from various parts of Nigeria (and the Sudan!) who invade Europe desperate to do for themselves and their clans what waves of prostitute African governments have neglected to do for them. The ladies, Efe, Ama, Sisi, and Joyce are the main characters in a set of stories that collectively narrate epic struggles in the face of fear and despair. In this well-researched book, Sisi leads this pack of warrior-sisters on the streets of Europe determined to force down the doors of poverty and hopelessness that forced them away from home. They go out daily in search of lonely men - and wealth, the new measure of respect back home in Nigeria.

There is plenty to like in the book. It is rich with environment, populated by colorful, pleasant details that do not overwhelm the senses. It is a book that will take you a few days to read – the prose is languid, seemingly in no hurry to get to a climax. I like the way Unigwe introduces side issues into conversations and they stick with you – issues like sexism and the treatment of women as chattel in Africa. It is a neat trick, how she tucks weighty issues into throw-away sentences.

Every character in this book is driven by a deep hunger. Perhaps the monotony of yearning is the story of a Nigeria gradually turning soulless from material lust. In the process, we have learnt to hate ourselves. Energy seems reserved for mimicking the otherness that resides in the West. Unigwe’s book showcases Nigeria as a nation of people deeply invested in acquiring the trappings of an otherness that emanates from the West.
God must be exhausted and Nigerians are to blame. The book captures the ceaseless supplications for more and more and the pious request for God to annihilate our enemies that stand in the way of our more and more. God must regret the day the devil tricked her into creating the Nigerian; we are such a needy group. We see the new Christianity as the new plague sweeping across a nation of uncritical thinkers.

The absurdities of life in Nigeria are expertly captured. Lagos is filth and dust at dusk advertising the meanness of neglect: The chapter named Ama was the best. It hearkens to the beauty of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, of what happens when language is not in the way of the story. Here, Unigwe writes with confidence and her literary muscle barrels her voice into a full-throated roar. The expert way she weaves local Igbo and onomatopoeic idioms into the English is sexy, kpom kwem.

The book offers plenty to frustrate the reader. The prose is uneven overall; as a result the book sometimes has the consistency of pulp fiction. The use of Pidgin English in this book added nothing to the book. Unigwe’s knowledge of Pidgin English seemed tentative or perhaps watered down to make it more palatable to a broader market. Pidgin English has an image problem. In the hands of Nigerian writers it undergoes an extreme makeover and acquires an inferiority complex.

The book’s chapters are not numbered; they are repeatedly named after each “sister” or the streetZwartezusterstraat. There are about thirteen chapters named Sisi. Confusing. The chapters see-saw between multiple consciousnesses; the reader is force-fed the future up front and in the next chapter, the past walks up to the day. The reader learns of the future death of one of the characters – on the first few pages of the book.

The book is not quite convincing in its analysis of how the girls chose prostitution. It is not for lack of trying. Indeed, Unigwe is guilty of an over-analysis of the characters’ motives. She obviously interviewed a lot of prostitutes. One wonders if they held back from this sister who went to too much school.

The plight of Nigerian girls in Europe is the most visible symbol of the wanton rape of generations of youths by badly behaving Nigerian rulers. Unigwe appears however to have no stomach for conflict. Europe harbors a huge contingent of ladies from Edo State in Nigeria. There seems to have been a deliberate attempt to avoid this reality.  The chapter named Alek (Joyce) is my least favorite. It reads like an exhausted affirmative action afterthought. The character was developed as coming from Sudan, escaping the war, ending up in Nigeria and then Europe after her soldier-lover got bored with her. Darfur does not belong in this book. The chapter sits like a patronizing ode to the notion that prostitution is universal.

On Black Sisters’ Street is a good story fiercely resisting flight because it is airborne on timid wings. This is a shame because Unigwe has the muscle to communicate proprietary feelings using Standard English. My humble advice is that Unigwe should relax and take maximum advantage of her mastery of loose limber prose and let the words fly recklessly with her imagination. That would be quite a book.

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

Monday 3 May 2010

A Taste of Italy With Anna Del Conte

This week, Critical Literature Review presents a review of the Random House published food memoir of Anna Del Conte. We hope that this whets your appetite for more. Enjoy! 

I must admit, for a foodie like myself, I still find a little enjoyment out of eating tinned, hoop spaghetti that I have warmed in the microwave. Call it harkening back to my childhood. Anna Del Conte, the world renowned food writer and author of the autobiography Risotto with Nettles would be ashamed of me. However, I can appreciate even more the merits that a fine bowl of handmade pasta with a rich tomato sauce can have. And, thanks to Del Conte, I am allowed to choose between my tinned shame and Italian magnificence. Because of Del Conte’s Italian food writing which emerged in the 70’s in Britain, Italian food—real Italian food, found its place in restaurants and home dinner tables alike. Gone were the days of canned, spongy ravioli. Del Conte’s first publication Portrait of Pasta (1976) opened up the doors, or indeed the kitchens, of the British public and made olive oil a household item.

I had read snippets of Del Conte’s books, on recommendations of other food writers. Her recipes were generally easy to follow and she would reveal an interesting history of her dishes that further intrigued me to cook them. I knew that she was extremely influential in Italian cooking, and indeed helped make Italian food in Britain as we know it today. But her memoir Risotto with Nettles, reveals what I did not know; the sheer strength, resolve, and stunning life of a woman who grew up in Milan during World War II, travelled to England as a young woman in a time when the suitable thing was to marry and settle down, and who experienced love, loss, and being torn between two worlds—all of which informed her recipes and her writing.

Anna Del Conte was born in Milan in 1925 to a prosperous family in an idyllic, pre-war time. It was here that she began her love affair with her native food, and developed the interest she would need to be such an immensely talented food writer. Each chapter has at least one (and sometimes two or three) recipes which seem to define a period or anecdote that has particularly influenced Del Conte’s life. You won’t find any of the clichéd Italian recipes here. With examples such as Spaghetti with Marmite, Elephants Turd, Boiled Meats Piedmontese Style, or an excellent recipe for Risotto with Lemon (one which I tried myself), Del Conte always has you captivated.

The instructions in the recipes themselves are sometimes a bit vague and she does not get specific enough for my precise cooking mind to handle. What temperature exactly should I put this on? Does it go in the oven? She doesn’t specify! However, do not let that deter you. If you want precise, buy a Jamie Oliver cookbook. But if you love learning about food, dream about sultry Italian holidays and are interested in the social history behind the dishes then this is the book for you. Even if you don’t, you will after reading this book.
What I found riveting about Del Conte’s memoir was the almost nonchalant way she writes about extraordinary events and circumstances. From getting shot at from overhead war planes, being chased and imprisoned by Nazi soldiers, losing all her worldly possessions and fleeing her home, repeated flagrant affairs outside of her marriage, and the death of her beloved husband after a marriage of more than fifty years, Del Conte writes it all with an understated elegance, absent of any sensationalized ‘tell all’ memoir.

As Del Conte grows older she travels to England as an Au Pair and finally meets the love of her life. It is in Britain where she decides to start a family and settle down, and so forever embark on the divided life on an expatriate. This also begins to cultivate her desire to bring true Italian food to the British gastronomy. She also so succinctly describes the life of an ex-pat that I think I fell completely in love with her when I read this section, “being neither English nor any longer Italian, always missing something when I am here or something else when I am there. Even now that I am old, I have the dilemma of where I should be buried: here in the lovely churchyard of this picturesque village in Dorset, where I now live, or in my family tomb in the grand Monumentale cemetery in Milan. Even dead I will not settle.” Being an ex-pat myself, I have never read something which so captured the feeling of the fractured existence of choosing to live in a place which is not your own.

Del Conte ends the memoir with a touching and moving dedication—and gives an honest portrayal of what it is like to lose one’s partner—there will not be dry eyes after reading this chapter.

Risotto with Nettles surprised me. It is a book I will go back to, and bring up over dinner conversations. You will love her character, her anecdotes, charm, and most of all her dedicated discussion of Italian food.

[Emily Varga is an English Literature graduate who has worked in book publishing in North America. She has previously reviewed works in her university newspaper literary and arts supplements. She currently lives in Scotland where she works in the public sector. Emily is an active member of her city book club and still enjoys writing the occasional book review.]

Monday 26 April 2010

Tyranny in Big Pieces, Little Pieces

This week CLR presents Ayodele Morocco-Clarke's review of Big Pieces, Little Pieces, the StoryTime short story by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. Enjoy!

Big Pieces, Little Pieces is a short story by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. In this story, the writer explores the burning issue of domestic abuse. The story is told in the second person narrative style which has the resultant effect of transporting the reader right into the middle of the sequence of unfolding events.

Big Pieces, Little Pieces opens by showing the reader the autocratic nature of the patriarchal figure in the household, rapidly unfurling into a catalogue of abuse of horrific magnitude. Whilst reading, one wonders why the wife does not take the children and run, run, run. Surely anything would be better than subjecting oneself and one’s offspring to erratic, irrational behaviour and regular physical abuse.

The story is even more heartbreaking as it is told from the point of view of one of the children who has lived with and through this constant abuse. The story reveals that though the father rules the roost with an iron fist, the abused wife attracts no support or sympathy from her sister-in-law despite her seeing clear evidence of the abuse. She actually lays the blame of all the violence on the victim trying to exonerate her brother, justifying his actions on the ground that “he was the head of the family and knew what was best for everyone.” To add salt to the wound, she then goes on to accuse the wife of bringing forth the wrath of her brother and refuses to intervene despite heartfelt pleas to do so. In her words –

“I have never seen such a woman, honestly! Is it my fault that you do not know how to appease your husband, that you anger him all the time? I will say it again, lo yiwo umendo.”

And so, the abuse continues unabated, culminating in a series of events which though do not shock, but nevertheless saddens the reader while following the story as it hurtles rapidly to its end.

The downside I found in the story was where it appeared the writer confused a bit of narration with what should really have been dialogue and sometimes what really is dialogue is not properly denoted as such (But that may just be me being pedantic as the writer might have chosen to adopt in parts the Nadine Gordimer-esque style used in “The Pickup”, although this would be inconsistent with other parts of the dialogue employed). These minute niggling points however do not take away from the beauty of a well narrated story.

With this story, one can see that Tshuma is an emerging writer with immense promise. Big Pieces, Little Pieces is one of the StoryTime stories which were selected for publication in the short story anthology “African Roar” out in late April 2010. Watch out for African Roar and Tshuma. Both should surely be worth reading.

[Ayodele Morocco-Clarke is a Nigerian lawyer and writer of mixed heritage who has a passion for literature. She is the editor of Critical Literature Review and her written works have appeared in Author Africa 2009, Hackwriters (a University of Portsmouth magazine), Sphere Literary Magazine, Storytime, Author-Me and on The Clarity of Night blog. She also has work forthcoming in Mimi Magazine, The Anthology of Immigrant Writing(2010) and African Roar [2010 short story anthology, co-published by Lion Press and StoryTime]. Ayodele hopes to publish an anthology of short fiction soon and is currently working on her first novel.]

Sunday 18 April 2010


This week, CLR is happy to present another review of one of Random House's books. Too Much Happiness is the latest anthology of short stories by Alice Munro and it is reviewed here by award winning writer Sarah Hilary. Enjoy!

My first experience of reading Alice Munro was her story, Wild Swans, a story with a taut, irresistible rhythm that made the shocking event at its heart feel entirely natural. This, to me, is the marvel of Munro’s writing. She knows a good story must contain a grain of surprise, an occurrence we do not expect but which nevertheless feels part of the living pulse of the story. At her best, she puts her considerable skill into structuring the story around the surprise, drawing us towards it in ways we cannot always anticipate but which, ultimately, satisfy our curiosity and our appetite as readers.

There are stories in this latest collection that show Munro at her skillful best.

Child’s Play is one, a masterfully plotted tale of childhood terror and guilt in which our sympathies are divided, sub-divided and then put through the equivalent of a moral meat-grinder in a way that perfectly reflects the confused emotions of the heroines, and victims, at its heart. The character of Verna is vividly described, put at arm’s length from us and then brought nearer until we start to experience some of the heroine’s irrational terror. We know it is irrational; we guess Verna has more to fear from the heroine than she from Verna, but we’re compelled to feel the heroine’s emotions. The story’s ambiguous moral, and its suspended ending, is the better for that.

She was skinny, indeed so narrowly built and with such a small head that she made me think of a snake. Fine black hair lay flat on this head, and fell over her forehead. The skin of her face seemed dull to me as the flap of our old canvas tent, and her cheeks puffed out the way the flap of that tent puffed in a wind. Her eyes were always squinting.

The collection begins with a frightening story, Dimensions, about a woman’s gradual and painful recovery from appalling loss. Munro doesn’t deal in the commonplace, least of all when it comes to emotional responses from her characters and readers. In Dimensions, Doree’s response to the shocking loss of her children is not what we might expect, or it is not only that. There is no familiar ground for the reader to tread here; instead we are confronted by an alien scrubland of grief and survival, hope and despair. It may not be familiar, but it feels real. Honest. Discomfiting. No easy place for us to rest, or pass judgement of our own. I thought this was a terrific story.

I felt less strongly about Fiction (as an aside: I’m often disappointed by Munro’s story titles, which rarely do justice to the content). A truncated novel rather than a short story, to my taste Fiction was out-of-whack almost from the outset. Adultery separates a woman from her husband. It seems painful, the point of the story. But then we pick up years later and everyone in the novel is remarried for the third or fourth time; adultery is the norm. A witness to the original adultery has written a novel about it, but she fails to recognise the heroine of her own story when they are brought face to face after years apart. The story fell flat at the first fast-forward to the future, and didn’t pick up pace again. As another aside: I don’t care for stories about writers, and was turned off by the long passages recited from the author’s novel which read as a plot conceit, putting me at arm’s length from the heart of the story and keeping me there.

Wenlock Edge (great title, but not Munro’s own) confused me, I admit it. It contains the creepiest encounter I’ve read in any story in a long time, somewhat echoing the shock at the heart of Wild Swans, but I didn’t understand the ending, an exchange of addresses that implied a betrayal or a reconciliation but of whom or what I was left unsure.

Relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, childhood friends, are explored in Face, Some Women, and Deep-Holes. The latter left me cold, petering out after a promising start into an awkward standoff between mother and son (again, this story relied on the device of fast-forwarding, losing me along the way). Face was suitably shocking, and sad, very sad. Some Women flirted with the idea of domestic prostitution, uneasy adult bartering as witnessed by a child. Both stories are effective variations on Munro’s theme of the depths and shallows of human isolation.

Free Radicals reverted to the terrifying territory of Dimensions and Child’s Play. An middle-aged woman, newly widowed and dying of cancer, confronts a killer in her home. The action is centred with unflagging focus on this confrontation. Munro catches us in the moment and doesn’t let go. The structure is drum-taut, told in real time. No fast-forwarding, no chance for our attention to waver. And then the treat of a second shock, skillfully hidden in the unfolding top-story, written almost as an aside but with the power to stun us a second time.

‘Pretty plate,’ he said, holding it up as if to see his face in it. Just as she turned her attention to the eggs she heard it smash on the floor.

‘Oh mercy me,’  he said in a new voice, a squeaky and definitely nasty voice. ‘Look what I’ve gone and done now.’

‘That’s all right,’ she said, knowing now that nothing was.

The story I liked least – in fact I struggled to finish it – was the story from which the collection took its title. Too Much Happiness, as Munro explains in a footnote, is inspired by the real life of Sophie Kovalevsky, a novelist and mathematician from the nineteenth century whose life story, full of surprises, clearly captured Munro’s heart and her imagination. The problem, for me, is that the discipline of telling a true story stifled Munro’s real imagination, preventing her from following her own rhythm and introducing her own surprises. It didn’t engage or satisfy me because I was too aware that I was missing out on Munro’s gift for telling stories of her own invention.

Wood is exactly such a story. Seemingly simple, deeply complex, with a heart that beats right off the page. A man made lonely by his wife’s breakdown drifts further and further into his isolated life as a woodcutter. His love of trees is palpable, as is his newfound happiness and the guilt he experiences as a result. His withdrawal from his wife and the rest of the world nearly costs him his life, yet when he is saved and sees his wife restored (a thing he has longed for) he acknowledges a sense of loss:

Because he knows he isn’t feeling quite the way he thought he would if her vitality came back to her. And the noise he makes could be to cover that lack, or excuse it…

Some loss fogging up this gain. Some loss he’d be ashamed to admit to, if he had the energy.

This character’s voice is pitch-perfect, his inner monologue a Munro-patented confusion of conflicting emotions that draw their credibility and their power from exactly that confusion. Nothing is black and white here; Munro paints in shades of grey, with skill and tenderness and unflinching compassion. Long may she continue to do so.

[Sarah Hilary ( is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. Sarah won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Historical Crime Prize in 2008. Most recently, her work was Highly Commended by Aesthetica and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A column about her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and later in the Bristol Review of Books.]

Sunday 4 April 2010

A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted

Critical literature Review begins the second quarter of the year with Ikhide Ikheloa's Review of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's début novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance which won the Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book Prize for the African Region and is in the running for the overall Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book Prize. Enjoy!

Exile is a fitting metaphor for alienation. It is akin to the biblical purgatory. Nothing is quite 
right; one feels neither here nor there, trapped in a dispensation that is not quite alien, not quite home. And all your senses rebel to the death against the changes that you need to embrace in order to enjoy, well, purgatory. I guess it makes sense, this disconcerting feeling of constantly being out-of-sorts, like a gentle but persistent hangover. It wouldn’t be purgatory otherwise. It is the assault or the rebellion of your senses that hurts the most.

Nothing tastes, smells, looks the same and everywhere you go you hear voices of impish vendors selling fake reminders of home because there is money in selling the weary traveler a mirage. And it is not for lack of trying; exiles go through a million hoops to replicate the bread of their childhood.

There is a multibillion dollar industry out here in America devoted to soothing our collective angst. If you no longer know how to tie your gele head-tie, there are shops that will do the honors for you – for a modest fee of course. There are “African markets” that sell stale desiccated and preserved replicas of what one misses the most about home. It is not the same, but it is better than nothing.

Every now and then, the exile gets a reprieve from the purgatory of dislocation – in the form of an authentic treat – straight from home. Visiting relatives and friends from Nigeria know now not to knock on my door without the requisite offerings - Open Sesame to my hearth and my heart – bottles of groundnuts, fresh ground ogbono, egusi, snails the size of an elephant’s ears, etc. And if they really want to open the iroko doors to my rugged heart, they come bearing books written by Nigerians inNigeria and published in Nigeria.

Prolonged exile burdens the memory to the point of vital literary loss and no amount of poetic license can stem this loss. Most books aboutNigeria written by Nigerians abroad tend to suffer the indignity of loss. This deficit is from prolonged absence by the writer’s muse from the scene of the crime (Nigeria). I look to Nigerian writers actually stationed in Nigeria to sate my hunger for a real literary taste of home. And writers like Kaine Agary and Ike Oguine have delivered big on that expectation.

I am glad to say that despite (perhaps because of) the challenges of living in Nigeria (some of these challenges appear fictitious judging from the ruddy cheeks of my Nigerian-based relatives on Facebook!) these writers have been up to the task. In this respect, I ask you to run, don’t walk, just run to the nearest wherever-people-buy-books-these-days and grab you a copy of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s peppy book I Do Not Come to You By Chance. 

I have racked my brains, thought about it, and come to the possibly audacious conclusion that this writer may have just written one of the most comprehensive documentation in prose-song of the ravages of the locust of materialism on our people’s way of life. Using the scourge of 419 as evidence number one, Nwaubani’s Nigeria gently explodes into a sea of caricatures and spills out onto the pages of our consciousness. I am literally in awe of the audacity of this writer’s muse.

How do I describe this little book that could? O yes, imagine, O gentle reader, imagine a frying pan, rich with all sorts of orisi risi, sizzling, all these delicacies jumping about for joy waiting to clamber into your waiting mouth. The book is funny in unexpected places: “He brought out an it-was-white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped the sweat from his brows.” (p 59) And it is caustic in all the right places: “Although his position on the family tree could not be described in anything less than seven sentences, Odinkemmelu was introduced to us as our cousin.” (p 24).

Using enthusiastic and lively prose, Nwaubani offers a chilling documentation of greed and rampant materialism replicated from city to city, village to village and generation to generation. This is a cancer that is eating at the nation called Nigeria. This sounds crazy, but I would love to see this book in a high quality movie. It definitely reads like an exquisite movie expertly set to print. Nwaubani writes with the confidence of one with an insider’s knowledge if 419 activities. The book actually takes its title from the beginning of a “419” letter to an unsuspecting wealthy foreigner or “mugu.”:

“Dear Friend, I do not come to you by chance. Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign business man or company I was given your contact by the Nigerian chamber of Commerce and Industry, I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.” (p 178)

So now, you know what the book is all about. The main character Kingsley loses his idealism and joins his uncle Boniface aka Cash Daddy in a lucrative crime syndicate that shakes down gullible foreigners (mostly white) from the safety of the cyber-cafes that litter Nigeria’s urban centers. The story of “419” is now familiar to the point of it being a cliché. The foreigner is lured into paying various “fees” for the (empty) promise of reaping huge sums of money allegedly stashed somewhere in a bank vault. This scam has so affected Nigeria’s international reputation, the country has a penal code numbered “419” that attempts to deal with the issue.

Overwhelming and dismaying to the senses is Nwaubani’s faithful chronicle of the changing of the same seasons of anomie (apologies Soyinka). The prose grabs you like Nigeria and never lets go. Listen to the book’s opening sentence: “My taste buds had been hearing the smell of my mother’s cooking and my stomach had started talking.” Nice. Repeat that to yourself and watch Nigeria parade itself before your eyes. You don’t learn that from an MFA program. As I read this book, the laughter came in liquid fistfuls of sobs. This writer almost turned me into an immobile lunatic, sitting in my living room grinning like a domesticated idiot.

I exaggerate slightly; I did not move from my living room until I finished reading this book. I sat grinning, my heart and soul yelling for more. I would not part with this precious book; the shower came to me and gave me a bath. The book was that good.  Ah, the poetry in the conversations was authentically Nigerian and that takes confidence and skill. Man, I love Nwaubani’s writing. She breaks down complex truths into simple edible morsels of well, joy. What a treat. If you are looking for an unpretentious little story that will engage you, this one will do the trick.

Nwaubani is a truly unique and authentic voice. There is so much wisdom in her voice; it is young and fresh, bearing tart, plump and delightful attitudes, pregnant with truths untold and re-told. In this book one learns quickly that poverty comes in many forms. Nwaubani’sNigeria has become really poor in ways that famous Nigerian writers have not been able to convey in several dense books about the subject.

The reader comes face to face with the ravages of materialism in the pretense of the new evangelical religion, willing faux wealth on the dispossessed (for a modest tithe of course).  The book tracks the flight of purposeful existence and provides the reader a concise, succinct, deep commentary on so many social issues – the extended family system, corruption, the scourge of materialism, etc.

Nwaubani’s Nigeria reeks of rampant anti-intellectualism. Hear Kingsley’s uncle Cash Daddy berating him for wearing his idealism and intellect on his tattered sleeves: “Is honesty an achievement? Personality is one thing, achievement is another thing. So what has your father achieved? How much money is he leaving for you when he dies? Or is it his textbooks that you’ll collect and pass on to your own children?” (p 153)

Priceless was the Onitsha-Market-Literature style love letter (p 72). Original and scrumptious turns of phrases open your mouth wide in wonder and awe. This is unapologetic prose – you either get it or you don’t – there is no appendix or index explaining what eba means. It takes confidence to have that attitude. “At age seven, when it was confirmed that her right hand could reach across her head and touch her left ear, Augustina moved back to her father’s house and started attending primary school. Being long and skinny had worked to her advantage.”

I love Nwaubani; she wields her words expertly, sometimes like an accurate missile or sometimes like a soothing balm. “Odinkemmelu took his body odor away to the kitchen and returned with a teaspoon of salt.” (p 17). Sweet. Her prose even gives voice to inanimate objects: My tender triceps started grumbling (p 19)

And if I could, I would sing a lusty oriki to the prodigious industry of the editors; the book is edited just right and it retains the author’s signature voice. It takes great skill to edit a book of this sort and still keep it chock full of crisp rollicking prose. “My father was a walking encyclopedia, and he flipped his pages with the zeal and precision of a magician.” (p 22) The furtiveness of the sentence before your eyes holds your attention captive as it hands you over to the next sentence. Brilliant. The writing reminds me so much of Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale; maybe also, Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel.

There are all these delightful characters with colorful names like World Bank, Protocol Officer and Wizard. The book expertly showcases the caricature as real life and out of the pages of this book; Nigeria simply spills out into the streets of my part of America. For Nwaubani uses every bit of a conversation and simply drops it in the book. Nwaubani’s descriptive powers are fueled by a dark delicious imagination:

 “Cash Daddy’s cheeks were puffy, his neck was chunky, his five limbs were thick and long.” (p 213) Five limbs! Lawd have mercy! And her Pidgin English is impeccable: “Make una come see o, Graveyard don begin dey use perfume” (p 29).

One nice fringe benefit: I learnt a new fable about why the tortoise’s shell is cracked in several places. I won’t tell you; you will have to read the book yourself!

As a first novel, the book does show its flaws gently, ever so gently. The book is fairly autobiographical in parts. For the most part Nwaubani pulled off the tough trick of disengaging from the characters. However, the reader keeps seeing the writer in the main character Kingsley (Interesting enough, Kingsley is also named Opara - first son, and Adaobi, Nwaubani’s name means first daughter). The research that went into writing this book must have been considerable and it shows in the quality of the book.

Finally, I offer the criticism that the book does come off as a morality tale that begins too neatly and ends too tidily, Life is a lot messier than that. But who cares? It was pure fun looking at Nigeria’s myriad issues through this mirror of a thousand delights.

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