Title: Miroirs et mirages
Author: Monia Mazigh
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Miroirs et mirages is the first novel by Tunisian Canadian Monia Mazigh, who is better known for her work as a human rights activist. Mazigh came to Canada in 1991 to study Finance in Montreal. She subsequently met and married her husband, Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, started a family, and moved to Ottawa. When her husband was wrongfully rendered to Syria in the hysteria that followed 9/11, she campaigned successfully for his return. She has written a memoir about her struggle, Hope and Despair, which has been translated into English.
Miroirs et mirages is quite a departure from her activism as the scope of the novel is relatively small; it simply follows the sometimes intersecting lives of several women living in Ottawa. But the novel is delightful in its focus on these women’s inner lives, their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the many challenges they face. There is Emma, a Tunisian, who has fled her emotionally abusive husband and now has to figure out how to rebuild her life with her young daughter in toe. There is Samia, a Palestinian, who enjoys finding new ways to spend the money of her husband, a businessman working in Dubai. There is Samia’s daughter, Lama, a university student, who is trying to figure out just where she fits in her family, her community, and Canada. There is Sally, a second-generation Pakistani Canadian university student, who has taken to wearing the niqab (face veil) much to the chagrin of her dotting parents. There is Louise, a French Canadian university student, who has converted to Islam and hopes to marry the man who introduced her to the faith. Then there is Alice, Louise’s mother, who is appalled by her daughter’s conversion and fears she may be losing the most important person in her life.
The title Miroirs et mirages illustrates the overall theme of the novel as the reader explores how the inner struggles of one character reflect those of another and how several of the characters are struggling with the illusions they have constructed in their attempts to create new identities for themselves.
I greatly enjoyed reading the novel for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it is set in Ottawa. Ottawa is probably one of the most neglected cities in Canadian Literature with few Canadian writers of renown finding it worth writing about-exceptions being Black Canadian writer Andre Alexis and classic Canadian Children’s author Brian Doyle. It was refreshing to read a Canadian novel which describes locations I know and explores the fascinating interactions across culture, language, and religion which are possible in our rather unassuming Nation’s Capital.
Mazigh is a striking new talent in Francophone Canadian fiction who writes with confidence and demonstrates a versatility in the creation and handling of her diverse characters. The reader sometimes only catches glimpses of these women’s worlds yet these glimpses are enough to create powerful impressions of these women’s histories and personalities.
I had the opportunity to attend the launch of Mazigh’s novel in Ottawa at Librairie du centre, a French-Language bookstore on 435 Donald Street . The majority of those in attendance were French Canadians who had read and greatly enjoyed the novel. They asked probing questions about the theme and “message” of the novel. Mazigh asserted that the novel has no “message”; it is not a polemic. Since that event, I have been thinking seriously about the importance of fiction that allows us to “walk in the shoes” of people we may never meet in real life. Fiction, or I should say good fiction, is not polemical, it does not provide easy answers but instead shows how there often are no easy answers and the world is more often full of shades of grey instead of stark Black and White.
At a time when there is so much debate around the presence of Muslim communities in Canada, particularly Quebec, Mazigh’s novel should definitely be welcomed because it simply allows readers to see the diversity and complexity of Muslim women’s lives and experiences. It certainly does not depict an idealized or romanticized view of Muslim women’s lives, as a great deal of the polemical writings by Canadian Muslim women seem to do as a form of resistance to Islamphobia. As Suzanne Giguere writes in her review of the novel in Le Devoir:
À l’heure où les débats autour du voile ne font pas l’unanimité — le voile est perçu par plusieurs intellectuels comme un symbole de l’oppression de la femme, un emblème politique —, Monia Mazigh refuse d’ériger des barrières et tente de créer avec son roman un espace de dialogue. À la fois analyse sociale et peinture intimiste, Miroirs et mirages évoque les questions identitaires auxquelles les femmes immigrantes de religion musulmane sont sans cesse confrontées. Leur situation a souvent été évoquée dans des ouvrages à portée sociologique qui ne prennent bien souvent qu’insuffisamment en compte les données humaines que retranscrivent ces témoignages, ce que permet l’oeuvre romanesque.
The novel points to some quite serious social problems facing Muslim communities in diaspora, some of these problems, like domestic violence, are common to Canadian society as a whole, some, like the conflicts which religious fundamentalism can cause within a family, although perhaps shared by other faith communities, are more particular to Canada’s Muslim communities. By exploring these issues through fiction, Mazigh is able to avoid the many pitfalls we see when these issues are tackled in the form of polemics, which are often defensive and reactionary. She simply presents the reader a situation to reflect on.
Mazigh’s novel isn’t just about Muslim women. My favourite character in the novel is Alice. Alice disapproval of her daughter Louise’s conversion to Islam comes from a variety of experiences and beliefs which are far more complex than simple Islamophobia. The struggles of Quebecois women of Alice’s generation are not well understood outside of Quebec or by newcomers to the province, but it is clear that Mazigh has worked to try to understand women like Alice and this comes through in her writing.
I highly recommend the novel for anyone who enjoys writing about women’s lives. It is currently only available in French but I encourage those of you who are bilingual but have never read French for pleasure to check it out as the French is quite easy to read. The movement to create a Bilingual Canada was aimed at bridging the social and cultural divides between English and French Canadians and facilitating dialogue between these “Two Solitudes“. The fact that many new Canadians like Mazigh are also writing in French should make it even clearer that using the language to explore other people’s worlds through fiction is crucial to building a more socially inclusive and integrated Canada.
Monia Mazigh’s Blog
Review in French by Le Devoir available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada International available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada available online
Title: Before the Birth of the Moon
Author: V. Y. Mudimbe
Translator: Marjolijn de Jager
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Year: 1976 (original publication), translation 1989
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Before the Birth of the Moon by Valentin Y. Mudimbe was originally written in French and published in 1976. According to the author, it is set in the mid-sixties during the tumultuous First Republic of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the relatively brief reign of President Joseph Kasavubu after the murder of his former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. During the First Republic, DRC was rife with rebel movements in various provinces. The two central characters of the novel, “The Minister” and Ya, his mistress, are wrapped up in this political turmoil.
“The Minister”, is ambitious and wishes to earn favour with the President, who is never directly named. He is married with children but this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself with a few mistresses. One of these mistresses, Ya, he believes he is in love with but we learn that she actually finds him irritating although she appreciates his money. Ya hails from a rural area in a province where her ethnic group is now rebelling against the national government. At the beginning of the novel, Ya has no interest in this as she has come to Kinshasa to enjoy herself. Although she originally left her village in order to avoid a marriage arranged by her father and pursue college studies, she soon left school to enjoy the dazzling city life of bars and nightclubs and found a way to live off men in exchange for sexual favours. In most English descriptions of the novel Ya is described as a prostitute but I do not think this description is correct. She is more a woman who is “kept” but she feels free to pick and choose who gets to keep her. This is why she initially decides to dump “The Minister” early in the novel because she finds him irritating. “The Minister” is heartbroken. Ya isn’t. Her real lover is her female friend who “The Minister” early on perceives as his main rival. One day, men from Ya’s village break into the apartment she shares with her friend and attack her. They bring her news that her father, who was a village chief and rebel leader, has been murdered by the national government. They demand that she get back with “The Minister” and share any intelligence she can get from him with the rebels. Now, the carefree and careless Ya, finds herself in the precarious position of spy.
Ya easily returns to the welcoming arms of “The Minister” who in the interim has seen himself elevated in the government ranks and has become an initiate in a secret society which claims to be following the ancient rites of his ancestors. This involves making a human sacrifice. “The Minister” offers Ya’s friend/lover as his sacrifice, as he sees her as the main obstacle standing in the way of him truly winning Ya’s heart. He is right because in the wake of her friend’s disappearance Ya eventually succumbs to “The Minister”‘s kindness and finds herself falling in love with him, all the while sharing the political intelligence he shares with her in confidence with the rebel leaders. Ya is set up in a posh apartment in the Ngombe commune of Kinshasa, which was originally designed by Europeans for Europeans. “The Minister” lavishes her with gifts while ignoring the financial needs of his own household. This eventually leads to tragedy when his son ends up contracting an infection from his circumcision, which “The Minister’s” wife had wanted to have performed in a hospital, but she is told by “The Minister” that that is too expensive. “The Minister” refuses to see his responsiblity for his son’s death and instead blames his wife, accusing her of witchcraft. But he soon returns to the highlife of the city with Ya, taking her to parties and introducing her to various national and international dignitaries. But it is only a matter of time before Ya’s betrayal will catch up with them both.
Mudimbe’s novel is a fascinating read. Its narrative style changes from chapter to chapter , switching from the third person, to the second person (unusual in a novel) addressing Ya, to Ya’s and “The Minister’s” first person perspective. Both Ya and “The Minister” are two characters who seem to have no real loyalties either to family, religion or ethno-cultural traditions. Ya attended Roman Catholic school and still holds the churches’ officials in reverence but this does not stop her from leading a life of debauchery. She betrays “The Minister” more out of physical fear due to the constant violence of the rebel leaders than out of loyalty to her ethnicity or father. “The Minister” seems more attracted to the wealth and prestige that his government office can give him than to any real concern for his nation. It’s not even clear if he actually believes in the power of this secret society he joins and even though he loves his son, he doesn’t offer the funds to ensure that he is circumcised in a safe and clean environment nor does he follow the traditional mourning practices of his culture. Ya and “The Minister” believe they love each other but Ya betrays the “The Minister” by spying on him and he betrays her by murdering her friend and then lying about it. As with his other novels, Mudimbe explores political realities through the lives of individuals. It appears that at the heart of many of the political problems of the First Republic of DRC, he is showing is the real problem of insincerity. It is hard to know what people really stand for or really believe in. Even one the of rebel leaders who comes to harass information out of Ya, expresses contempt for the ethnic loyalties of his fellow rebels. He’s a communist and that is where his loyalty lies, although he is working with the rebels who are organizing along ethnic lines. Such cross purposes can only end in disaster and chaos.
I highly recommend reading Before the Birth of the Moon and other works by Mudimbe, both out of an interest in fine writing and the DRC.
About the Author:
Valentin Y. Mudimbe was born in 1941 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the Norman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University. The following biography comes from his Faculty Page at Duke University:
Newman Ivey White Professor of Literature at Duke University, V.Y. Mudimbe received his Doctorat en Philosophie et Lettres from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1970. In 1997, he became Doctor Honoris Causa at Université Paris VII Diderot, and in 2006, became Doctor Honoris Causa at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Before coming to Duke, he taught at the Universities of Louvain, Paris-Nanterre, Zaire, Stanford, and at Haverford College. Among his publications are three collections of poetry, four novels, as well as books in applied linguistics, philosophy, and social sciences. His most recent publications include: L’Odeur du père (1982), The Invention of Africa (1988), Parables and Fables (1991), The Idea of Africa (1994), and Tales of Faith (1997). He is the editor of The Surreptitious Speech (1992), Nations, Identities, Cultures (1997), Diaspora and Immigration (1999), and editor of a forthcoming encyclopedia on African religions and philosophy. He is also former General Secretary of SAPINA (the Society for African Philosophy in North America) and co-editor with Robert Bates and Jean O’Barr of Africa and the Disciplines (1993).
V.Y. Mudimbe is a Membre Honoraire Correspondant de l’Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre Mer (Belgium); a Member of the Société américaine de philosophie de langue française; as well as of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, and the World Institute for Advanced Phenomenological Research and Learning. He has also served as Chairman of the Board of African Philosophy, and since 2000, as the Chairman of the International African Institute (SOAS, University of London). His interests are in phenomenology and structuralism, with a focus on the practice of everyday language. He regularly teaches on French existentialism, theories of difference, phenomenology, ancient Greek geography, and African themes.
Review of the novel in The New York Times by R. McNight available online
The Afersata An Ethiopian Novel by Sahle Sellassie was published by Heinemann African Writers’ Series in 1969. It is unfortunately currently out of print. It is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father. It is quite a short novel (90 pages).
The novel begins with the hut of villager Namaga burning down due to arson. In order to discover who is the culprit, Namaga demands an Afersata. An Afersata (an Amharic word) is a traditional form of court proceeding aimed at getting at the truth of a matter. Every male member of a village is required to participate, no matter what their social status, and is asked if he is the culprit, if he knows who the culprit is, or if he has any knowledge related to the crime. He must swear an oath on the lives of his offspring, the most valued possession of a peasant farmer. But the novel is really a reflection on the current state of tenant farming in Southern Ethiopia among the Gurage people, an ethnic minority to which the author of the novel, Sellassie, belongs. Originally written in English, the novel spends a lot of time explaining cultural customs and seems aimed at both an international audience and city dwellers from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, who do not know very much about the situation of rural farming communities in general, and of ethnic minority farming communities in particular.
The cover of the book, illustrated by Portuguese artist Pedro Guedes, son of artist Pancho Guedes, portrays the opening scenes from the novel as villagers try to save Namaga’s hut and his possessions from the fire. On the page opposite the first page of the novel, there is an illustration by renowned Ethiopian artist Ale Felege-Salam, which portrays The Afersata, with the elders and villagers gathered around a large tree.
Selected passages from the novel:
In the following passage, Sellassie describes how the local tax collector or Cheka Shum often was paid writing documents for illiterate villagers-by liquor.
In the villages like those of Wudma there are no bars. But some of the village women brew local beer, mead and arake in their spare time. The stronger the liquor they brew the more they are appreciated. If no liquor is available in the villages then the official would have his mule saddles and would ride to the town where the sub-district court is located and have his fill there. Or he would simply ask a young man from the village to go and get it for him from the town. It is rare, however, that the officials spend money from their own pockets to buy liquor. They get it free of charge from those who have some pending cases to be settled. Page 9
Much of the novel is social criticism of both traditional Ethiopian social institutions and current government policies of the ruling ethnic group (the Amhara). The following passage is a criticism of the institution of dedje tenat:
The age-old institution known as dedje tenat or asking for favour, an institution that has benumbed the creative spirit of the people, has always been common not only in higher circles but also in the lower echelons. The institution of dedje tenat calls for loyalty on the part of the favour-seeker and benevolence on the part of the giver. So as a result a person’s sense of achievement and reward, as well as his initiative and his creative spirit are crushed. Page 11
Sellassie criticizes the social structure of traditional village life. Through my reading in African Literature, I’ve found it interesting that in many traditional African communities, craftsmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, are actually seen as be amongst the lowest of the low. This is also true in the Gurage village portrayed in this novel as depicted in the following passage:
Despite the inconveniences created by the Afersata, members of the submerged class considered it a privilege to attend the meeting. As far as they were concerned it was a new step towards the recognition of their civil status. Formerly they were outcasts who lived on the fringe of village society because of the trade they practised. As wood-workers, leather-workers and metal-workers they were despised and pushed aside from all social and civil activities.
If the Ethiopian peasants could not improve their material life over the centuries it was probably because they could not enjoy fully the fruits of their labour; and if material progress stagnated it was probably because the creators of material civilization were despised. The man who carved wood, the man who tanned leather and the blacksmith who forged iron into utensils was an inferior creature by the fallacious logic of the ignorant. Page 15-16
Melesse a civil servant living in Addis Ababa and the uncle of Beshir, the suspected arsonist, is asked by his friend and fellow civil servant Tekle to visit the Gurage village. Tekle, an Amhara, has been interested in visiting a Gurage village ever since he studied them as a student of social science in Addis Ababa. Melesse is reluctant because he is worried that seeing a Gurage village will make him sad and nostalgic. As I said at the beginning of this review, I feel that Sellassie was writing this novel to be read by people like Tekle, people who have lived mainly in the city or amongst the dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopia. As is demonstrated in this passage, these people do not know very much about the Gurage and do not think highly of them:
Tekle: I used to think that the Gurage were simply porters in Addis, shoe-shiners and pedlars. Now I see a people with a distinct culture and a respectable way of life.
Melesse: You are not the only person who has a wrong image of my folks. Half of the town dwellers have the same ideas as you had before. And besides you still don’t know much about my folks. You have so far seen only the insignificant symbols of their culture.
Before the unification and centralization of Ethiopia in the nineteenth century the Gurage lived in a stateless society. Laws were made directly by the people themselves as in the old Greek city states. The chiefs and the elders certainly played the most important role in this matter, but the assembly under the tree was open to anyone who wished to be present and give his opinion about any matter concerning society as a whole. There was no established army to defend that stateless society, but society as a whole was responsible for any crime committed by an individual. Thus, if a person murdered another, either he would be exiled from his motherland or his tribe would contribute money for him to pay the blood price. This type of collective responsiblity is still practiced elsewhere in Ethiopia. The institution of Afersata, for instance, is based on the philosophy of collective responsiblity. Pages 50-51
The position of women is also reflected on in the novel, however at no time are any of the women in the novel named, they are only referred to based on their relationship with a man, for example, Namaga’s wife, Beshir’s wife, Melesse’s mother. Women are not required to attend The Afersata, something which actually makes no sense considering that women are just as capable as men of committing crimes.
About Sahle Sellassie
According to his biography on the back of this novel:
Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam was born in 1936. He has studied at the University College in Addis Ababa, l’Universite d’Aix-Marseille and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed short stories and articles in English and Amharic to publications in Ethiopia. Shinega’s Village, a novel written in Chaha, has been published in English by the University of California Press, and Wotat Yifredew, a novel in Amharic, appeared in Addis Ababa. His historical novel Warrior King about the Emperor Teodoros will appear in 1974.
After completing his M.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Sellassie returned to Ethiopia in 1964 where he worked for the British Embassy as a translator. His major work in Amharic is Bassha Qitaw (1986), about the war with Italy (1935–41). In 1983, he has translated A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and in 1987.
I find it fascinating that Sellassie wrote a novel, Shinega’s Village: Scenes from Ethiopian Life, in Chaha, a dialect of Gurage. It was translated into English by Wolf Leslau, a Polish Jewish Professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, who received the Haile Selassie Prize for Ethiopian Studies from Haile Selassie himself . Obviously, Sellassie was trying to write something almost exclusively for his own people, as many people in Ethiopia would not have been able to read Chaha. It is clear to me that Sellassie sees one of the goals of his literary output as highlighting the experience of his people, both for themselves by writing in their own language, although as is highlighted in the novel The Afersata, many are not literate; for an international audience; but most importantly for Ethiopians from the dominant ethnic groups. I was recently asked by two Ethiopian students of Ethiopian Literature written in English what I felt the main theme of Ethiopian Literature written in English is. Frankly, I have no idea as I haven’t read all Ethiopian Literature written in English, however, I do feel that for Sellassie, writing in English meant reaching an international audience but also reaching an educated Ethiopian audience through a language that, in the Ethiopian context, put everyone on a level playing field-English. This may seem ironic for Western readers but as Ethiopia was never colonized by Britain (although there were definitely some British imperialist excursions, the most dramatic one actually precipitated the suicide of Emperor Teodoros II) English has less negative associations with it than Amharic might to someone from an Ethiopian ethnic minority like the Gurage. As many Ethiopian ethnic minorities have to learn Amharic as a second language because it is the language of the dominant ethnic group, the government, and the Church, Amharic speakers have to learn English as a second language. Therefore, as English is no one’s mother tongue, to read in it is to read on a level playing field. I would love to hear others’ reflections on this.
The Afersata-an Ethiopian novel-valid and resonant by A. Gagiano (book review available online)
Black Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill has won international acclaim with his novel The Book of Negroes but my review is of his first novel, Some Great Thing, first published in 1992 and reissued in 2009 by Harper Collins Canada.
I chose to read Some Great Thing while travelling by bus to Winnipeg, where the novel is set. This was my first trip to Manitoba and I had a 33 hour bus ride to survive. I easily lost myself in Some Great Thing, with its array of contrasting characters, its insights on Canadian local media, and the cultural context of Canada in the early 1980s.
The central character of the novel is 25 year old Mahatma Grafton, a light-skinned Black Canadian who has reluctantly taken a job as a journalist with The Winnipeg Herald after taking a Double Major in History and French at Laval University and a Masters in Economics at the University of Toronto. Hill describes Mahatma as:
…an intellectual bum. No. He was worse than a bum. He was an M.A. graduate over his head in student loans. He had no particular job skills and no goals in life. What thinking citizen would place his life, or his liberty, or even his bank savings in the hands of an economics major? What Mahatma had discovered about journalism was this: it was the only pseudo-profession left in the world that still hired bums.
Mahatma has also had to move back in with his father, Ben Grafton, a widower and a former Railroad Porter, who he hasn’t kept in touch with during his studies. It was his father who decided to name his son Mahatma, feeling that it was necessary that his son have the name of a great man.It is been who urges his son to do “Some Great Thing”, which is what African American pioneers who came to the Canadian West were urged to do. Ben Grafton’s past as a Railroad Porter is a tribute to the Black presence in early 20th Canadian History, unlike the US, Canada has a relatively small Black population of recent origin. Black Railroad Porters, often originally from the US, worked and sometimes settled in Canadian cities like Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. In the novel, we get to learn about Ben Grafton’s and his fellow Railroad Porters experiences of racism. The relationship between Ben and Mahatma as they rediscover each other is subtly developped throughout the novel. The novel opens with Ben and Mahatma’s first meeting. Hill writes:
His son was born in 1957 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, before men had to start watching their wives give birth. Asked about it years later, Ben Grafton replied, “What’s a man to do in a place like that, except grow all bug-eyed and wobbly and make a shining fool of himself?”
On that windless January night, Ben Grafton didn’t enter the delivery room. He didn’t consider it. He waited until Louise was “finished,” poked his head in the door and shouted “atta way Lulu!” Wearing a blue woolen cap that stopped short of his huge brown ears, he followed two nurses who took the infant to the nursery. Ben Grafton was not invited. Nor was he self-conscious. He was a forty-three-year-old railroad porter who had coped with all sorts of nonsense in the past and had long stopped wondering what people thought of his being this or that. They turned to tell him he couldn’t stay in the nursery. He said he wanted to look at his little man.
The novel traces his journey from a cynical, apathetic, reluctant journalist to a passionate writer who wants to stand for something. Many of the issues Mahatma becomes passionate about are related to Winnipeg and Canada’s history in the early 80s. For example, Winnipeg has a significant French-Canadian population who consider themselves marginalized. French-English disputes become fodder for The Winnipeg Herald and Mahatma, who unlike many of his colleagues, is bilingual, befriends with French Language Rights activists and their community’s plight. Mahatma also covers the many triumphs and tragedies of Jack Corbett, a disabled welfare recipent who becomes a public figure through is protests against having his welfare payments cut. Mahatma also encounters a Cameroonian journalist, Yoyo, who makes a hero out of Jack Corbett in Cameroon. In an interview, Hill says that Yoyo is his favourite character in the novel:
But my favourite character in Some Great Thing is Yoyo, for his complete astonishment at the silly, inexplicable ways that we live in rich, developed nations. I like the way his being a foreign visitor to Manitoba offers the reader a fresh lens through which to see Canada and its foibles.
I particularly was fascinated with Betts, the editor of The Winnipeg Herald, and his obsession with the city’s mayor, Novak, who he believes is a communist and therefore will not be allowed to pass through the United States. This novel is set during the Cold War and the paranoia around alleged communist affliations reminds me of what we are living through now with the “War on Terror” and the media’s obsession with “Islamists and Muslim Radicalization”. This makes the novel particularly timely.
Many aspects of the novel are obviously autobiographical, as Hill says:
I could never have written Some Great Thing without having worked as a reporter in Winnipeg. The characters and their flight paths are of my invention; it is truly a work of fiction. But working in a newsroom and pursuing stories daily for two years in Winnipeg offered experiences—sad and hilarious, personal and professional—that made it possible for me to imagine the novel. After I had been away from the world of journalism for a year or two, I had enough emotional distance to look back and begin to concoct Some Great Thing.
Mahatma was urged by his father to do “some great thing” in life, and my own father certainly did the same. I stepped into the world of newspapers feeling somewhat cynical, as does Mahatma. And we both moved from that initial cynicism into a place of personal engagement with journalism. The novel does reflect my voice and its construction reveals the way my mind operates, so in the deepest sense it is autobiographical.
Hill faced obstacles in getting his first novel published because it was set in Winnipeg, but, as he states, there was no where else this story could take place:
The first time I sent the novel in draft form to a prospective agent, I was turned down and encouraged to consider setting the story in a more interesting place than Winnipeg. The argument went that if I set it in Toronto or New York, it would no longer be seen as a regional novel. To me, this was hokum. It suggested that a novel is “regional” if it is set in Winnipeg, but of global, universal reach if it is set in a big metropolis. But Winnipeg is pretty well the only city in Canada where this novel could unfold. The novel gives Winnipeg a communist mayor in the 1980s. What Canadian city, other than Winnipeg, could have had a communist mayor at that time? And the particular French-English conflict that provides the socio-political backdrop for Mahatma Grafton’s growth on the job could only have taken place in Manitoba. I do not like to think of Some Great Thing as a regional novel. I prefer to think of it as a novel set in a specific time and place— Winnipeg, in the 1980s, during a crisis over the constitutional rights of French Canadians in English Canada—that will, if it works successfully as fiction, appeal to a wide swath of readers. I love novels that are anchored in specific times and situations. This doesn’t make them regional. It makes them real.
Lawrence Hill’s Website
Lawrence Hill Discusses Some Great Thing (interview available online)
Browse Inside Some Great Thing on the Harper Collins Canada Website
Zahrah, the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Graphia Books, 2005
“A fantastical travelogue into the unknown of a young girl’s fears, and the magical world that surrounds her town. Written in the spirit of Clive Barker’s Abarat, with a contemporary African sensibility. Okorafor-Mbachu’s imagination is delightful.” Nalo Hopkinson
If Jamaican Canadian Fantasy writher Nalo Hopkinson recommends something, I’m going to read it. I wasn’t disappointed by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s novel Zahrah, The Windseeker, although it did leave me wanting more. The novel is ideal for young adults. It is the winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa (Although published in the United States in 2005, it was only published in Nigeria in 2008). There are elements of it that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Zahrah, The Windseeker is a simple tale, which I think would translate well into a graphic novel or animated film. The story begins with Zahrah, who is in early adolescence, and lives in the Ooni Kingdom on the planet Ginen. Reflecting on her birth, she explains:
When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.
“She’s…dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.
“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile. She took me in her arms and gently touched one of the thick clumps of hair growing from my little head. I had dadalocks, and woven inside each one of those clumps was a skinny, light green vine. Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that! To be born with vines growing in your hair! But that’s the nature of dada people, like myself. (p. vii)
Zahrah, The Windseeker is a fascinating book, particularly as an example of African fantasy and science fiction. Okorafor-Mbachu, a Nigerian American, incorporates several aspects of traditional Southern Nigerian culture into the book. For example, Zahrah’s mother is a market woman, a very common occupation for women in Southern Nigeria. The central city of the Ooni Kingdom is Ile-Ife, which is also one of the most important cities in Southern Nigeria, often seen as the city of origin for several ethno-cultural communities in Nigeria. Zahrah regularly reads about a superhero named Chukwu; Chukwu means infinite power and is the name given to the supreme deity by Igbos.
Another wonderful aspect of the novel is how the people of Ooni Kingdom incorporate technology with nature. Computer Operating Systems are grown, so are buildings of all kinds, including sky scrappers. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the Ooni Kingdom itself. This is why I think that Zahrah, The Windseeker, would work best as a graphic novel or animated film or, at least, an illustrated text.
Our planet Ginen, is a world of vegetation; there isn’t one part of it that’s not touched by plants, trees, vines, grasses, or bushes. At least this is what explorers who claim to have traveled all the way around the world say. Cutting down trees or attempting to clear plots of land is a waste energy. Within days, things will creep back in. But the people of Ooni don’t bother to fight nature. Instead, they try to team up with it. This is one of the old ways that the people of Ooni have not forgotten.
However, there are times when people avoid nature at all costs. My small town of Kirki is right on the border of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, a vast untamed wilderness that covers thousands of miles. No one ever thinks of venturing there. It’s full of the most savage madness. As the old saying goes. “You go into the forbidden jungle and even your ghost won’t come out.”
In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.” It kind of made me like the forbidden jungle. (p. xii)
We follow Zahrah as she enters puberty and discovers that she has the power to fly. But there is no one to ask about her ability as she doesn’t know other people who have dadalocks. At the instigation of her best friend Dari, the only person she’s told her secret to, she ventures into the forbidden Dark Market were she meets Nsibi, a fellow dada whose parents come from far away lands. She assures her that there is nothing wrong with her ability and that she should practice it more.
Dari once again encourages Zahrah to break the rules and travel into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle where she can practice flying without fear of being observed. But when Dari is poisoned by one of the many strange creatures in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, Zahrah must abandon all her fears and travel alone deep into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to find a cure. There she encounters many bizarre, deadly, and helpful creatures that have never been encountered by residents of the Ooni Kingdom before.
I just wished that we would have had a chance to learn more about why people in the Ooni Kingdom had lost so much knowledge of their past. Also, just where is the Planet Ginen and what is its relationship to Earth? In the novel, Earth is actually a legendary place, something that Dari, in his studies of mysterious and forbidden things, is curious to learn more about. I would have felt better as a reader if when finishing this novel, I was assured that this was the beginning of a series and some of these mysteries would be solved over the course of a few books. But, Zahrah, The Windseeker appears to be a stand alone novel, however the Planet Ginen and the Ooni Kingdom do appear in other works by Okorafor-Mbachu so if you want answers, I guess you have to look there.
Review of Zahrah, The Windseeker on Strange Horizons
Excerpt from Zahrah, The Windseeker available online
Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Website
Profile of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu by Publishers’ Weekly
The novel What the Future Holds by Sarah Mkhonza was originally published in 1989 by Macmillian Education Publishers as part of their Pacesetters Series. All the novels in this series deal with contemporary issues and problems in a way that is particularly designed to interest African young adults.
Writer Sarah Mkhonza was born in 1957 in Swaziland. She was a lecturer in English at the University of Swaziland until she was forced into exile in the United States (See: The Woyingi Blogger’s African Writer Profile: Sarah Mkhonza).
What the Future Holds follows the life of Lobenguni “Kiki” Mkhatshwa, a young Swazi woman of Nguni descent who, at the beginning of the novel, has brought her baby into town to confront the child’s father, Menzi Dlamini (Dlamini is a common Swazi clan name), at his place of work, in order to ensure that he pays child support.
We then flash back to 1961, before Kiki was born, and meet her mother, LaMsibi, and father, Gezani, who struggle to make a life for themselves as farmers in a small village in the Maphakane valley. Gezani is determined to ensure that his child has a better life than he has so he decides to have her educated. Gezani is a traditional Nguni who does not approve of Christianity and the foreign missionaries who bring it. However, he does appreciate the need for Swazi children to be able to read and write, and only missionary schools provide this education. Despite having convinced his father to disown her twenty years earlier when she converted to Christianity, Gezani seeks out his sister, Saraphina, a teacher at a missionary school, and asks that she takes in Kiki and sends her to school. Gezani then decides to leave his homestead and go back to working in the mines of Johannesburg in order to pay for Kiki’s education.
Kiki’s grows up deprived of the love and attention of her parents. Her aunt is cold and abusive as are the teachers at school. Kiki’s need for love and attention makes her an easy target for Menzi’s advances.
The novel reminded me of other novels and memoirs from Southern Africa I have read that depict the struggle of women who, due to the lack of work in their own regions, have to survive while the men in their families travel far away for work. These novels usually also depict the contraints that traditional African culture places on women, particularly widows who are often left destitute as they have few inheritance rights and are sometimes themselves “inherited” by their husbands’ brothers. Kiki’s mother, LaMsibi, who according to custom should be taken as a wife by one of her husbands’ brothers when Gezani is reported to have died in a mining accident, is rejected because she is a Christian (Gezani’s family is very traditional).
What I found really interesting was the writer’s depiction of Gezani’s visits to a sangoma. Sangomas are traditional Southern African spiritual leaders who are believed to have the power to interpret the will of an individual’s ancestors. Many Southern Africans, and many people who still follow their indigeneous spiritual traditions, believe that their ancestors are still involved in their lives and can influence their forturne, for better or for worse.
I was happy to be able to get a hold of this novel as there is very little literature available in North America from Swaziland. I look forward to reading other works by Sarah Mkhonza, who has written other novels, short stories, and poems.
Excerpts from the novel:
On the plight of African Women (pp 6-7)
Kiki arrived at the river, fetched the water and was soon on her way home. She walked, the sunset behind her, a silhouette of an upright young woman with a clay pot on her head-the typical image of an African woman. For the first time the weight of the clay pot pressing down on her became a conscious reality, a force that she had to sustain against the laws of gravity. Just then it struck her vividly that African women are heavily loaded. On their heads they carry the heavy burdens of firewood and clay pots; in their hands they carry bags; on their backs they carry babies; and their front carries the load of man in procreation. Their hearts are heavily loaded with burdens of sorrow. All this is because their worth is measured in terms of the number of burdens they can carry. Even beasts have an easier task.
Gezani’s reflections on Christianity and education (p. 31)
He felt like an unwanted symbol of the old world in this land of the educated and holy. Although he resented the new religion, he had to accept that the education it had brought was a necessity. He had seen black people in Johannesburg working in offices doing jobs he could never dream of doing. Even in the government offices in Mbabane, only educated Swazis worked with the white people and he had seen black nurses in the hospitals. Yes, he had to admit that education was a force with which every Swazi had to reckon if they were to achieve in life; without it, they were losers. This is what their chief had said, and so had the King.
Gezani consults a South African sangoma to find the cause of his misfortunes (pp 82-83)
The sangoma’s interpretation was that his ancestors would defend Gezani in all hardships which lay ahead. He pointed to a bone and said, ‘I can see anger in the bone, an ancestor’s sharp spear is pointing towards the bone of death.’
Gezani racked his mind trying to think who it could be. Suddenly he remembered, ‘Msingetse! Oh, yes! It was Msingetse! He was tall and could get as angry as a lion. But why is he angry?’ he asked, his forehead puckering as he looked at the sangoma for an answer.
‘Let us find out,’ he replied, picking up the bones and then throwing them down in the same manner as before. ‘You see, not only your great, great grandfather is angry, even your neighbour is very angry.’…..
‘But what can I do to avert his anger?’ Gezani asked, desperate for a solution.
‘There is very little I can help you with. If you can find someone to pray for you it would help. The best thing of course would be to go to his grave and talk to him after slaughtering a beast to appease him. Propitiation always helps in such cases.’
Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl
Translated by B. W. Andrzejewski
Published by Zed Press, 1982
Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl is considered the first literary publication in the Somali language, which had no official orthography until 1972. The novel, whose Somali title is Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl, was published by the Somali Ministry of Culture and Higher Education in 1974. The translation into English is by Russian linguist B.W. Andrzejewski and was commissioned by UNESCO. Unfortunately, the English translation of the novel is currently out of print.
The author of the novel, Faarax Cawl, was born in Laskory in the Sanag Region of Somalia in 1937. In 1958, the British withdrew a scholarship awarded to him for study in the UK because he had taken part in a play, written by an Arab author, which they regarded as seditious. According to B. W. Andrzejewski’s introduction to the novel, Cawl joined the Somali Police Force in 1964 and in 1979 was seconded to the National Transport Agency ad became its General Manager. In 1978 he wrote a second novel entitled The Shackles of Colonialism. In 1991, he, along with several members of his family, were killed during the Somali Civil War.
The British would have found Ignorance is the Enemy of Love even more seditious as it follows the ill-fated love story of Calimaax, a dervish with the Muslim Brotherhood of Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (1856-1921), often referred to by the British as the Mad Mullah, who fights against the British colonizers of Somalia. While traveling from Aden back to Somalia, Calimaax’s ship ends up sinking and he saves a young Somali girl named Cawrala, herself returning from Aden where she has been studying the Koran.
Cawrala falls in love with Calimaax although she has already been promised to a rich and elderly man by her father. The character of Cawrala is a classic example of the strength and spiritedness of Somali women. She is a poet who does not wait for signs of Calimaax’s affection but instead writes a poem to him herself declaring her love. Unfortunately, Calimaax can neither read nor write. Not knowing that Cawrala’s note is a love poem, he asks his brother-in-law to read it, thus insulting his wife’s relatives unintentionally. This incident inspires Calimaax to learn how to read and write. As he says:
It is now clear to me that not being able to read and write is a matter of great ignorance, in which stupidity and disgrace are combined. I’ve seen today that ignorance is like a moonless night, like the darkness which screens off from you the world and the light of day-there’s no doubt that whatever a man’s inborn abilities may be, whatever his manly qualities, if he is ignorant his true manhood is flawed and incomplete, as I witnessed in this incident today, when I brought trouble and disgrace on myself and made a fool of myself in front of my wife’s relatives (p. 35-36)
It is Calimaax’s ignorance of reading that is “the enemy of love” referred to in the title.
Cawrala’s poem causes Calimaax to fall in love with her but before he can return to her he is injured in battle and left for dead. Cawrala is forced to marry against her will and dies of grief. Calimaax sums up their tragic love story as follows:
You sent to me at Taleex a precious letter of love-you know this well-and there was nothing in its sweet art and wisdom nor in its mode of expression that could have been ignored or rejected. It created in me a love, ardour and affection that I had not felt for you before. But it was my ill fortune, Cawrala, that because of my ignorance I could not read your letter, and instead I handed it to my new neighbours, who did not want us two to come together. The discovery of my secret led to my being hurried away to a remote part of the eastern region, so that I would be kept far away from Xiis, where you lived. There in the east I played my part in a noteworthy way in the Dervish offensive against the British, but before I could reach the coast and seize some of their ships I was wounded and left for dead. For a long time I could not deliver myself from that empty, deserted place, where for sustenance I had only the berries and leaves which grow on the Cal mountains. I had beasts of prey for company-all of them-and one night the accursed leopard attacked me, tearing a wound in my flesh, when I already had a broken thigh and was holding on to life only by God’s mercy. Nevertheless, in spite of all I had to go through, God rescued me from all the troubles that had come upon me. What I am trying to tell you is that my delay in coming to you was caused by all this-that this is why I did not get to you in time before you were taken to the wedding against your will. O Cawrala, how bitter I feel, how deeply sorrowful I am, how stricken with impotent anger from which I get no respite, that you had to die because of your love for me! (p. 82)
This story is considered to be true and contains poems that Somali oral tradition considered to have been originally composed by Calimaax and Cawrala. Faarax Cawl’s weaving of Somali poetry into the novel form connects this modern, “Western” literary form with the deep-rooted oral traditions of the Somali people.
Faarax Cawl also uses this novel to promote the reformist aims of the Somali Government at the time, particularly in their promotion of literacy and women’s rights. Calimaax suffers great embarrassment because he can’t read and write despite his skill as a fighter. Cawrala is a gifted poet and free spirit whose love and life is ruined by the greed of her family who wish to marry her off for profit to a man who is believed to have beaten her sister, causing her death.
Excerpt from the novel:
About Richard Burton’s attempt to deceive the Somalis
Now among the passengers was a learned cleric, Sheikh Araye Ceelaabe, who was born in Seylac and still lived there; he had been on a short visit to Aden. He it was who had exposed the man who, some time between 1854 and 1860, had been sent by the British government on a reconnoitering mission to explore the Somali territories. This man’s true name was Richard Burton, but he told the Somali people that he was Sheikh Cabdalla, and disguised himself so that they would not know that he was a swindler whose intentions towards the Somali people and their land were robbery and oppression. This British infidel was in truth well acquainted with the Muslim faith and the Arabic language, and sometimes led the prayers in the mosques of the town of Seylac. It seems that most of the time he wore a long robe such as clerics wear, and he never moved very far from the places frequented by learned clerics and students, so that no one else could find him out or even notice him. But one day it happened that Sheikh Araye came upon this Briton when he had gone to relieve himself on open ground, and the Sheikh, hiding behind a tree, saw clearly that the man who was thought to be a sheikh had not been circumcised and that on his body there was the visible mark of being an infidel. Sheikh Araye proclaimed the news loudly and informed the whole town that the apparent sheikh who was staying among them was a hypocrite and then this disguised Briton was driven from Seylac. He went to Harar, whish is also in Somali territory and inhabited by Muslims but was eventually driven from there as well. (p. 15-16)
Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan by Said Samatar (History)
Remembering B. W. Andrzejewski: Poland’s Somali Genius by Said Samatar (Article available online)
Culture-Bound Tropes in Somali Poetry by B. W. Andrzejewski (Academic essay available online)
Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Flamingo 1989
Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria’s most well-known writers. She managed to raise her five children on her own, go to university, eventually achieving a Ph.D from the University of London, and write over 20 novels, plays, and short stories. She was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 2005.
Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Ibos who had left the Ibo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Ibo) located in what is now called Delta State. She moved to London, England to join her husband in 1962. Second-Class Citizen (1974), her first published novel, is semi-autobiographical, based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him.
Adah, the character based on Buchi, is smart and determined to study despite the fact that there is not much means or will to have her educated particularly after her father dies. Adah eventually marries Francis and together they move to London, England in the early sixties. Life is hard. Not only is there racism which makes it difficult to find accommodations, but Francis himself becomes Adah’s greatest obstacle.
Adah is the primary breadwinner for the young and growing family with her job as a librarian. Francis becomes physically abusive towards Adah and cheats on her. Although Francis is definitely portrayed to be an obnoxious bully it is clear that Adah doesn’t entirely hate him. She understands why he’s ended up this way: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over-demanding society he found himself in. (p. 110)” This is sadly probably true for many immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with failure and the setbacks and challenges of life. But why do men often need to feel power over someone in order to feel better about themselves? Where does this need come from?
Adah is a survivor and this novel is the story of her survival. It is also a fascinating portrait of Black immigrant life in sixties London. Despite what could be quite depressing subject matter, Second Class Citizen is actually an easy read and more often than not quite funny. I have actually reread Second Class Citizen several times and I never stop finding great character portraits and home truths.
Interesting Passages from the novel:
Adah is a Christian but her husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. But he wasn’t always a Jehovah’s Witness. While at the maternity ward Adah meets a women who waited 17 years to have her first child. Adah wonders what Francis would have done if it had taken 17 years for her to give him a son:
Suppose she had had to wait seventeen years for all that? She would have either died of psychological pressures or another wife would have been bought for Francis. He would have declared himself a Moslem, for he was once a Moslem when he was younger. Francis was like the Vicar of Bray. He changed his religion to suit his whims. When he realized that equipping Adah with birth-control gear would release her from the bondage of child-bearing, Francis went Catholic. When he started failing his examinations and was feeling very inferior to his fellow Nigerians, he became a Jehovah’s Witness. (p. 122)
Adah befriends Janet, a young Cockney girl who is the wife of a Muslim Nigerian, Mr. Babalola. He is hardly an endearing character. In the following passage, one of the sources of the conflict between Southerners (predominantly Christian) and Northerners (predominantly Muslim) is outlined, of course with a Southern Ibo bias.
Mr. Babalola had come to England, just like Francis and Adah, to study. But, unlike Adah and Francis, he had been single, and had a Northern Nigerian Scholarship. This meant that he had more money to spend, because the Northerners, unlike the over-educated Southerners, would do anything to encourage the men to really get educated so that they could come home and obtain the jobs in the North which were then going to the Southerners. Mr. Babalola was, therefore, a very rich student.
Rumour had it that he had a glossy flat and was always entertaining. This was no surprise to anyone who knew the Northerners. They liked to spend their money, to really enjoy what they had, and to them what they had was theirs only today, not tomorrow or the day after. Allah would take care of the future. That was certainly Babalola’s philosophy of life. (p. 52-53)
Janet, who gets pregnant at sixteen by a West Indian, gets kicked out by her parents because she refuses to give up her baby. Babalola ends up taking her in and using her as a party favour for his friends. As Emecheta writes: “…Janet was being offered to any black man who wanted to know how a white woman looked undressed. Most of Adah’s neighbours had had their sexual adventures with Janet.”
However, this all changes when a broke Babalola (His Northern Nigerian Scholarship is inexplicably revoked) realizes that Janet can receive enough social assistance for herself and her baby to pay his rent. Babalola decides to keep Janet all to himself and she bears him a child. Babalola, like Francis, seems content to depend on women financially, while still treating these women like servants.
Adah reflects on being the child of Ibos from Ibuza living in Lagos:
Well, Adah thought she was eight at the time when her mother and all the other society women were busying themselves to welcome the very first lawyer to their town Ibuza. Whenever Adah was told that Ibuza was her own, she found it difficult to understand. Her parents, she was told, came from Ibuza, and so did many of her aunts and uncles. Ibuza, she was told, was a beautiful town. She had been taught at an early age that the people of Ibuza were friendly, that the food there was fresh, the spring water was pure and the air was clean. The virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard being born in a God=forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune. Her parents said that Lagos was a bad place, bad for bringing up children because here they picked up the Yoruba-Ngbati accent.(p 7-8)
Adah reflects on her social isolation in England and how this relates to domestic abuse:
In England, she couldn’t go to her neighbour and babble out troubles as she would have done in Lagos, she had learned not to talk about her unhappiness to those with whom she worked, for this was a society where nobody was interested in the problems of others. If you could not bear your problems any more, you could always do away with yourself. That was allowed, too. Attempted suicide was not regarded as a sin. It was a way of attracting attention to one’s unfortunate situation. And whose attention do you attract? The attention of paid listeners. Listeners who make you feel that you are an object to be studied, diagnosed, charted and tabulated. Listeners who refer to you as ‘a case’. You don’t have the old woman next door who, on hearing an argument going on between a wife and husband, would come in to slap the husband, telling him off and all that, knowing that her words would be respected because she was old and experienced. (p. 72-73)
Adah reflects on the role of religion in her life in England:
There was no time to go to church and pray. Not in England. It took her years to erase the image of the Nigerian church which usually had a festive air. In England, especially in London, ‘church’ was a big grey building with stained-glass windows, high ornamental ceilings, very cold, full of rows and rows of empty chairs, with the voice of the vicar droning from the distant pulpit, crying like the voice of John the Baptist lost in the wilderness. In London, churches were cheerless.
She could not go to any of them because it made her cry to see such beautiful places of worship empty when, in Nigeria, you could hardly get a seat if you came late. You had to stand outside and follow the service through a microphone. But you were happy through it all, you were encouraged to bellow out the songs-that bellowing took away some of your sorrows. Because most of the hymns seem to be written by psychologists. One was always sure of singing or hearing something that would come near to the problem you had in mind before coming to church. In England you were robbed of such comfort.
London, having thus killed Adah’s congregational God, created instead a personal God who loomed large and really alive. She did not have to go to church to see this One. (p. 164-165)