Book Review : Tropical Fish

The African short story is an established art form, as is the African storyteller. It is a comfortable format, requiring less commitment from both the writer and reader, but still delivering an engaging experience. In the case of Tropical Fish, an anthology from Ugandan author Doreen Baingana, eight stories are woven together into a satisfying whole. The premise: three sisters – Patti, Rosa and Christine Mugisha – come of age casually and normally in Entebbe, in a post-Idi Amin Uganda. He does not make a personal appearance (unlike the cleverly named President Munino) but his shadow looms long – Indians forcibly expatriated, roads unrepaired, universities descendent.

Tropical Fish

Against this background different moments are lifted from time to map the departure from childhood worlds invented for the fun of it to worlds invented for survival – the worlds in which adults take refuge. This larger scope is neatly encapsulated in the very first story, “Green Stones”, using Christine’s voice. The most introspective sister, Christine can be considered the main character, and in her memories we find the moments when sunlit motes turn from floating molten gold to signs that someone somewhere didn’t dust well enough.

The short story structure does leave a few moments of discontinuity – Christine’s later travels, for example, are of uncertain motive. Rosa and Patti are only a year apart and apparently attend the same high school, but seem bafflingly oblivious to each other. Certainly a sister’s presence in the same school would have had an effect on Patti’s suffering and Rosa’s experiments – whether helpful or not. Formative events also have no cumulative effect – once an episode is closed it is closed, with very little reference to it later.

Considered on their own, the short stories are all of good quality, varied enough in tone that different readers are bound to have different favourites. Special mention must be made of “A Thank You Note”, Rosa’s declaration of life and war. In this story as well as “Passion”, her voice is deliberate and bold in its determination to experience life through sensuality. “Thank You Note” in particular is wonderfully written, evocative and cynical and eminently self-aware. Talk about a refusal to go quietly into the night! It is defiant life screaming refusal at the abyss, Edith Piaf singing about regretting nothing, nothing at all. A life measured and accepted as hers, chosen deliberately and whose consequences are accepted with dignity. Against considerable odds, Rosa chooses her way and is satisfied.

This attitude is a key illustration of how calmly sex is handled in these stories – as something to be explored, tamed and ultimately owned through consent, experimentation and reproductive health. The tone is never preachy, and so natural curiosity and exploration co-exist comfortably with a  “lifelong training to catch a suitable mate.” It is treated with as much consideration as religion, something which takes much deeper hold with Patti than her sisters. Patti is not mocked or made out to be a fanatic, except perhaps by her less enlightened classmates. Ms. Bangaina, it seems, is commendably capable of allowing for multiple ways of being.

Indeed this multiplicity, a prime component of the immigrant’s arsenal, is something Christine struggles to gain when she leaves Uganda. Questions of identity and home arise in the final tales, where the romantic turns prosaic.  Christine dabbles in white men and goes abroad, and after a long sojourn as a foreigner, truly becomes one on her return. She is caught in the classic trap for those who try to carry home within them – the realization that this is the only place the home they visualise exists. Beyond this, then, what is one todo? Accept reality or change it?

When it comes to her questions of identity there seems to be the same self-consciousness present in much of African literature: an avoidance of the Western gaze so deliberate it sketches out a negative space that still identifies it. Here we are, Africans reading and writing about Africa, not anybody else.  The search for representation that we all feel consciously or not – is this what creates characters who search for missing connections in the novels they read? It grows into the self-conscious irony seen in the mild derision Christine feels for  Zac, who has convinced himself he is black American,  or in the crowd of bayaye  who yell insults at a white man in a language comprehended only by his black, female companion.

The inclusions of local language and games and food in the books we read are regularly recognised and remarked upon. And so for a book that chronicles the early experiences of young women – a description that would fit many of the books I loved when I was younger – I wonder what my reaction would have been to these inclusions if I read it then. Would I have so obviously appreciated them? Would they still be felt as a homecoming? Before I ever listened to Chimamanda and others wryly comment that Blyton gave no explanations for lacrosse or snow, before I ever met Achebe through curriculum-mandated set books – would I have just enjoyed the stories, free of the burden of analysis? And yet –  would that same self have picked this book off the shelf at all, or ignored it in favour of other options simply because it was written by an African and so probably not my thing?

In any event, meta analysis aside, I’m glad I read Tropical Fish, and would recommend it to anyone looking  for a good, quick read that is equal parts thoughtful and entertaining.

(Nairobi-based readers may buy a copy of Tropical Fish online  from Magunga.com)

Book Review : Born On A Tuesday

“There is no moral. I just felt like telling you a story.”

Before narratives became a Buzzfeed-era buzzword, they were made of music and prose and poetry: vehicles of information as old as humanity itself. The world as we know it has amply provided certain types of narrative that as consumers we then modify with our own nuances. But the world is becoming both bigger and smaller and modification of a larger [mostly Western] narrative with a local flavour is no longer enough. We need to know about the other cultures that exist, islands like our own in a sea of Made-In-China-For-America pop culture. For this reason there are increasing calls for stories from the marginalized for the marginalized.

born-on-a-tuesdayBorn On A Tuesday by Nigerian author Elnathan John is one such story. Through its narrator Dantala we sit in on seven years in the life of a Hausa boy as he deals with challenges both ordinary and extraordinary. Dantala’s growing pains and joys take place in a radicalizing state in Northern Nigeria – a place arguably less fictionalized and explored in mainstream Nigerian literature than say Lagos or Enugu.

Elnathan John has been quoted as saying Northern Nigeria has no demand for nuance, which may explain the almost bare style with which he handles language and plot. Descriptions are perfunctory, deaths are banal, and violence is so casual that you can be halfway through a paragraph before realizing the people in it are under attack. It makes it hard to deeply engage with the events and characters, most of whom are sketched in broad strokes. Despite this a layered complexity is still present, especially in the depiction of the religious and political landscape.

As a reader with a Christian background in an increasingly Islamophobic world, it seems unusual to encounter a novel where the milieu is entirely Muslim, and positively so. There is a pervasive sense of community, especially in the calls to prayer and rhythms of life wherein resides the comfort and security that remains one of the chief attractions of organised religion. Questions of fate and the existence of evil, difficulties of interpretation and the resultant frictions are tackled in conversations  between characters as well as Dantala’s own inner voice. Thus, beliefs and tenets are explored that would otherwise be mere stereotype, or banners around which the non-Islamic world is called to rally in fear.

The mosque is a natural refuge for Dantala, one to which he often returns and finds succour.  His life is rooted in it, and while religion seems to hamper for him the excitements of his peers, he is perfectly happy to think himself above pursuits such as football and pranks. However, it also complicates his relationship with sex, which is very tainted in this book – the only sex that is described as worth a happy giggle is in an illicit affair, which is a shame. It is commendably inclusive, though, with sodomy being treated no more or less haram. Dantala is just as anguished by and afraid of homoerotic wet dreams as he is of his first sexual encounter with another person – a hand job from an unnamed female prostitute.

Perhaps it is these difficulties that lead him to treat women with none of the compassion we come to expect from him, and it is frustrating to read. It is hard to decide whether this is a reflection on the narrator, the society he lives in, or the author. Female characters in the book play one of two roles:  either mother/provider, or whore. Interestingly,  Aisha, the main love interest, manages to be both. While still in her dimpled, big-breasted maidenly bloom, she reminds Dantala of his Umma, but once she is married sports a gold Mecca tooth, as last seen in – surprise, surprise – the prostitute’s mouth.  Women suffer in the sidelines of this book, which in itself is not unusual as everyone does. However, they are denied any means of survival apart from being long-suffering and enduring. In a book already short on levity there is painfully little female laughter.

To describe this as a coming of age story is inaccurate, as everything Dantala will become by book’s end he already is when we first meet him under the kuka tree. He is unhappy with the world as it exists but his fatalistic acceptance of it allows him to move through time and space with resilience. It is this resilience and instinct for survival that make sure there is a story to tell at all. His escapes from peril mean there is always a new episode in a rather circular repetitive life, and against considerable odds the book manages to end on a note of continuity – life goes on, if and as Allah wills it.

3-5starsg

 

Overall this scores a ⅗, and would probably score higher if it passed the Bechdel.
(Nairobi-based readers may buy a copy of Born On A Tuesday online  from Magunga.com)

Fantasy And Africans

Will this be a problem has been silent for about a month now but, and here’s the good news, it was an interesting kind of silence. You see, it wasn’t the silence you’d get if we were neglecting you, our dear readers. It was not even the silence you’d get if we were tired of you or awkwardly avoiding you with nothing to say. It was the busy, wary silence of someone who’s planning you a surprise birthday party.

Ok, maybe it’s not a birthday but there is a surprise.

I’m happy to say that we finally (and very sneakily) started working on one of this site’s pillars a few months ago. It was always the plan that WTBAP would be concerned with art and literature and now, we actually have something to show for that besides intentions. I present our first short story and poetry anthology.

jpec edition

You probably have questions. Such as…

1. What the hell is THAT thing?

That is the mascot. Her name is Jane.

Thing is, it’s a strange anthology and, in some ways, very dark. I wanted the cover to reflect a bit of that. I guess we could have eased you into it but why the hell would we do that? Right from the start, we’re pushing you into deep end.

2. Why are the eyes following me? Those eyes! Ahhhh!

Because it wants your soul. Duh!

3. How can I get this anthology?

The anthology will be available exclusively in electronic form. It will also be free.

At the bottom of this post there will be links to get it in the main ebook formats and, if you wish, you can also read it here on the site.

4. Kenyan Fantasy?

Yes.

We’re big fans of fantasy here at WTBAP. Over the years I’ve talked about the rather inexplicable lack of African fantasy books. The content is really just begging to be written and I know African fantasy readers aren’t rare by any measure. But, somehow, there just isn’t much of it and when there is people tie themselves in knots to not call it fantasy. Magical realism pops up a lot and I’ve even seen Ben Okri’s work called (I’m not even kidding) African Traditional Religion Realism. It’s kind of the overlooked child of African literature.

So, the minute we got a chance to make some fantasy we hopped right onto that train (though one could argue that we may have accidentally boarded onto the horror express. Oops). We made the theme for our first issue Fantasy and we got down to work. I think we’ve come up with something special.

5. Will you be doing this again?

Most definitely. We’ve learnt a lot from making this first one and I think it’s going to make the second one even better. So many lessons, so many ideas and this is just the start. But that is a struggle for another day.

6. Another day? So this won’t have a regular schedule.

No. I can’t promise that it will. We’ll do it when we have time but I can’t say that there will be regular intervals between the releases. Well, I can, but it wouldn’t be true.

And now….the book.

READ ONLINE AND DOWNLOAD HERE