Writings of the general word's body

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Arts Talk: Ndidi Dike & Bisi Silva

Ndidi Dike in conversation with Bisi Silva

Bisi Silva: I remember briefly discussing a few years ago the issues that you were working on outside of your wall sculpture pieces. You mentioned that for nearly a decade you had been collecting objects associated with slavery. What is the background to this interest?
Ndidi Dike: As an artist I constantly troll different environments for new ideas and media that can be used to develop my work. Sometimes these ideas can percolate in my subconscious for years, until an opportunity arises to actualise them. Around 1999 I started collecting different types of manilla and related objects, then I moved on to making my own version of branded stamps reminiscent of those used to brand slaves as property or chattel. I also noticed there existed little or no discourse or documentation on Nigerian Slave ports despite its centrality to the slave trade.
I visited Badagry in 2002 to see the slave route through which large numbers of our people were taken to the Americas to work daily, for long hours on plantations under subhuman conditions. During that visit, I knew I was
standing face to face with history. Yet, much as I wanted to go back sooner, it only happened in 2007 at which point I knew I wanted to capture in a dramatic visual form, this cataclysmic episode in human history. No-one can visit Badagry without being moved by this ignoble part of our history or by the consquences of man’s inhumanity.

BS: There are few artists in Nigeria I know of who have taken slavery as a subject matter so directly in their work as you have done in Waka-Into-Bondage. Can you talk about the genesis of this project.
ND: The project comes out of my life’s experiences of which 3 are the most relevant. The visits to Badagry in 2002 and 2007 were the catalyst for Waka-into- Bondage. Secondly, tertiary education at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was important in developing my African consciousness. Founded at the twilight of colonial rule by Nigeria’s first president, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe in 1960, he was resolute in his quest for the black person to occupy a pride of place in the global community after a long history of oppression. As a student at Nsukka I was introduced to the works of great writers such Prof Chinua Achebe and taught by influential artists and art historians such as Professors Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu.
Lastly, my formative years were spent in the United Kingdom. This inevitably made me more conscious, more aware of my African heritage at an earlier age
. I became interested in African history and culture and there were many things my contemporaries who grew up in Nigeria took for granted which I could not.
BS: The Waka-Into-Bondage project is a move from the traditional sculpture and paintings for which you are well known. This sculptural installation is one of your first forays into a more conceptual way of working. How does this new direction expand on your work?
ND: I have been working for a while in relief and two-dimensional format. As one constantly explores new ideas, different aesthetic representations are formed. I felt this project would be better articulated in a different format than I normally used and a more conceptual format was the most appropriate. It allows for experimentation in a way that the two dimension could not. For example in my recent sculptures such as Dwellings, Doors and Windows (2008)I appropriate harbour pallets, break them down and reconfigure them in a way that evokes traces of the voyage. The blood represents what was shed before, during and after transatlantic trade but also what continues to be shed today. The photographic montage include images I took at Badagry, documentary images and other found images symbolising a continuum of slavery past and the rise in contemporary forms of bondage and exploitation.
BS: I remain shocked that Nigeria and Lagos where some of the largest numbers of slaves were taken from its shores neglected to commemorate 200 years of the abolition of slave trading in 2007. It neither featured in the State or the country at large’s cultural, historical or educational calendar. Why do you think there was this monumental omission?
ND: You are right to observe that the anniversary did not feature in any cultural or educational calendar. I guess it comes down to our notorious collective amnesia. But one thing is certain: if Chief Moshood Abiola, the famous Nigerian businessman, philanthropist, pan Africanist and politician who began the campaign for the payment of reparations to African nations for three centuries of slavery, colonialism and imperialism had been alive, I am certain that it would have been marked in a noticeably manner in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Chief Abiola deployed stupendous financial, media, literary and intellectual resources towards this campaign.
BS: Whilst the slave trade was legally abolished 200 yrs –– slavery in its contemporary form seems to be on the rise. We see in the media everyday stories about human trafficking of women and children, forced child labour, sex slavery among others. Is this an aspect reflected in your research and your work?
ND: As I stated earlier, slave trading may have been abolished by the British parliament 200 years ago, but it is still in practice in certain countries. There are so many countries where the condition of the Black people leaves much to be desired. These new forms of slavery are not yet captured in the current works. I hope to reflect them soon in another set of works.
BS: It seems our amnesia is almost total not only in Nigeria but in most countries in Africa. How can we begin to build our present or our future without a critical evaluation of the past?
ND: I often wondered whether much has changed in Africa in 200 years. I am referring to the worldview of African rulers. Our rulers played a vital part in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. They supplied the white slave merchants even after the abolition of slave trading. So many wars were fought for so long in the desperate attempt to procure slaves. All this was to satisfy the greed and vanity of many African rulers who were in turn rewarded with mirrors, gunpowder, alcohol.
It is ironic that we continue to bemoan the slave trade because among other factors, an enormous amount of African resources in the form of human capital was transferred abroad and was used to develop overseas countries to the detriment of our own societies. However this trend continues. African resources continue to be used to develop other countries but the African continent. In Nigeria since the return of democratic rule, state governors seem to be competing among themselves over the purchase of properties in pla
ces like London, Paris, Cape Town and Potomac Park.

Barely a hundred years after the infamous Berlin Conference in 1884 which saw the African continent cut up like a piece of cake, in the 21st century. With China, India and the West insatiable thirst for the continent’s abundant energy resources, it looks like the world is set for another scramble for Africa. Once again African rulers are too enthusiastic to exchange the wellbeing of their people for petrodollars. I fear that few lasting change will occur without cognisance of the past.

  • Ndidi Dike was in conversation with Bisi Silva at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, on Saturday 23rd February, 2008.


  • Words & Exhibition images courtesy of the artist.


Waka-into-Bondage is on display @ The Centre for Contemporary Art, 9 McEwen Street, Sabo, Lagos - until 9th March.

  • Photo of Ndidi Dike & Bisi Silva © Amaize Ojeikere.

Waka-into-Bondage: The Last ¾ Mile

Waka-into-Bondage:The Last ¾ Mile
a solo exhibition by Ndidi Dike
@ The Centre for Contemporary Art
9 McEwen Street, Sabo
Yaba, Lagos
2nd February – 9th March 2008
"In Waka-into-Bondage, the evolution of Dike’s work takes on a more conceptual framework liberated from spatial constraints both physical and mental to actualise ideas researched over a considerable period such as the effect of slavery on the local population, in this case the coastal town of Badagry. Using ‘loaded’ symbols, she presents two large carved wooden boats, one covered and filled with sugar, the other filled with blood red liquid. In coalescing the evocative potential of her materials attraction turns to repulsion as Dike attempts to trigger traces and memories of our forebearers as they walked the last ¾ mile from Gbereful Island past the point of no return towards the shores of the Atlantic Ocean." - Press Release.
Exploring the history and legacy of slavery, Waka-into-Bondage:The Last ¾ Mile is the second part of Democrazy, the inaugural curatorial project of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.
Ndidi Dike is a visual artist working in sculpture and mixed media painting. Her new work is a sculptural installation, signalling a turning point in her artistic practice. She is well known for her wood sculpted totem poles (traditionally the preserve of male sculptors in Nigeria) and her wall hanging wood reliefs. Dike's solo and group exhibitions include: Women to Women, Weaving Cultures, Shaping History (2000) University Art Gallery, Indiana State University; and Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa (1995) Whitechapel Gallery, London. She is a member of the Guild of Fine Arts, Nigeria (GFAN) and the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). Her work is represented in public and private collections in Nigeria and Abroad.
Waka-into-Bondage was curated by Bisi Silva. See photos from the exhibition's opening event on the ArtsSpeak Africa Blog.

Monday, February 18, 2008

New Read

Salman Rushdie is in fine form in this enthralling short story published in the New Yorker, The Shelter of the World.

Akbar, whose name means great, but whose same name must accentuate the 'greatness' twice over, such that he is known as 'Akbar the Great'. Whose wives pleasure themselves in ways unspeakable in the tale, when he loves only an imaginary wife he dreamed into being - and who naturally loves him back. Akbar has been made by the accident of history a Mongol when he fact he feels Hindustani. On his way back from wars he stops to dispatch a handsome feudal ruler who speaks of Freedom, but who will learn the hard way that "it is futile to argue with Death." Akbar is a poet with a barbarian's history.

As with all great Rushdie characters, Akbar is teeming with plurality, and seeks to wrestle himself from the royal "we" - with all the plurality it encompasses - for some progress. Progress relates to the singular "I" he strives for, especially to enchant his beloved, the imaginary one who waits for him in Sikri, his "victory city." Best to just lose yourself in this one.


At dawn the haunting sandstone palaces of the new “victory city” of Akbar the Great looked as if they were made of red smoke. Most cities start giving the impression of being eternal almost as soon as they are born, but Sikri would always look like a mirage. As the sun rose to its zenith, the great bludgeon of the day’s heat pounded the flagstones, deafening human ears to all sounds, making the air quiver like a frightened blackbuck, and weakening the border between sanity and delirium, between what was fanciful and what was real.

Even the Emperor succumbed to fantasy. Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, Rajput and Turkish sultanas playing catch-me-if-you-can. One of these royal personages did not really exist. She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the Emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real. He gave her a name, Jodha, and no man dared gainsay him. Within the privacy of the women’s quarters, within the silken corridors of her palace, Jodha’s influence and power grew. The great musician Tansen wrote songs for her, and Master Abdus Samad the Persian portrayed her himself, painted her from the memory of a dream without ever looking upon her face, and when the Emperor saw his work he clapped his hands at the beauty shining up from the page. “You have captured her, to the life,” he cried, and Abdus Samad relaxed and stopped feeling as if his head were too loosely attached to his neck; and, after this visionary work by the master of the Emperor’s atelier had been exhibited, the whole court knew Jodha to be real, and the greatest courtiers, the Navratna, or Nine Jewels, all acknowledged not only her existence but also her beauty, her wisdom, the grace of her movements, and the softness of her voice. Akbar and Jodhabai! Ah, ah! It was the love story of the age.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pearshaped Blogosphere

Some friends say Let us blog,
we’ll call it Kenyablog.
They blog and blog and blog.
A member posts
This blog is tedious,
I’m gonna form a blog,
a blog called Lakeyblog
where Lakey types can blog.
The rump of Kenyablog
rename themselves TheHighlandblog
and blog about the soil,
quite unaware that other Forestbloggers
formed another blog in which
the self-same soil is blogged about.
Now keen to keep the secrecy of blog,
the lively Lakeybloggers
shift to write in bubbles
while TheHighlandbloggers
only write in cones,
a sort of hieroglyphic oath,
each to his own, each to his
non-discursive moans
until the bubbles burst with anger
and the cones erupt with hate
and all are blogging-blogging-blogging,
typing keyboards with our pangas
blogging Highlandbloggers suck
and blogging Lakeybloggers blow
and blogging Forestblogger mothers are all hoes,
now blogging rumour blogging anger
blogging gossip blogging rancour.
Local fissures rip the WorldWideWeb
as bloggers blog their cyberfoes to death.

Stephen Derwent Partington
Kenya, February 2008

  • Used with permission

Poesía de Medellin

How is this for a love of poetry? Football capacity crows in the open air at the Festival Internacional Poesía de Medellin, Columbia.

House on London Corner

Here is the passage into the inner courtyard of a house on London Corner, Serekunda, The Gambia. We had gone into the workshop/showroom of Salam Batik, owned by Shiekh Tijan Secka, a famous batik designer who operates from an outside annex of this house. After we had each acquired one or more custom-designed pieces of batik, we were leaving. But this passageway beckoned to me.

I led the way into the inner courtyard, and as I advanced inwards, the first things I was were these feet resting on one of the many pillars of the house. The owner of the feet, a young lady, was reclining on the bonnet of an idle taxi in the shade. She became aware of the presence of visitors and readjusted herself, taking her feet off the pillar. "Please, as you were," I encouraged, indicating that my camera had recognised a picture moment. She laughed and obliged, though understandably, her pose this time was nowhere as natural as before.

One would have loved to get lost in the grace of this building. The more one saw of it the more fascination it held, the more it promised. We went no further than the courtyard. Here, Desiree chats with the some of the occupants. I particularly like the observing young girl's neck, whitened by mentholated powder, to combat heat rash.

A place of light and shadow, alcoves and elegant metal grilles and balustrades. Cars parked not in front or behind, but right in its middle. Washing hanging on shaded balconies, a carpet dries out and a pot balances in there too. The youngsters did not think (unlike Nigeria) that my camera would steal their souls for later use in malignant fetishes.
  • House on London Corner, Serekunda, The Gambia - photographed by MW; 18 July 2007.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize Shortlists

Congratulations to Sade Adeniran (above) who is shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region) for her first novel, Imagine This. Remarkable, considering that Adeniran self-published herself as a last ditch effort to get her book out there.
Congratulations too to Dayo Forster who's also shortlisted for Reading the Ceiling. Forster joins Adeniran and 4 others on the shortlist in the Best First Book category. Zakes Mda (South Africa; for 'Cion') and Karen King-Aribisala (Nigeria; for 'The Hangman's Mistake') are shortlisted in the Best Book category.

Full shortlists available online. Regional winners will be announced on 13th March, and Overall winners on 18th May.

  • Image - Sade Adeniran photographed by MW @ The Harlesden Library, London; 4 October 2007.

Zadie Smith "hypocritical", book people say

Last week Zadie Smith said...
“Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature. They are really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies and even frozen food companies.”
That was in her note explaining that, of the 850 entries to the Willesden Herald short story competition, none was good enough for the £5000 prize. Turns out the writers weren't the only ones scratching their heads.
The Sunday Times broke down Smith's comments thus
Although she does not name names, the prizes to which she is referring are clear from the types of company she mentions. The beer company must be Whitbread, which until 2006 ran the successful Whitbread book awards. Smith won its first novel prize in 2000 for White Teeth, which was then made into a Channel 4 drama series.
The phone company must be Orange. In 2006 Smith won its prize for fiction with On Beauty. It is a women-only award. The coffee company must be Costa, a division of Whitbread that sponsors a series of book awards. The overall Costa prize (there are also five category prizes) was won last month by A L Kennedy for her novel Day.
The frozen food company must be Iceland, which sponsored the Booker prize before Man, the hedge fund firm, took over.

And publishing figures have a thing or two to say about Smith's comments.
Ion Trewin, organiser of the Booker Prize: "Her remarks are absolutely ridiculous. Why has she been happy to accept money from these prizes and sponsors, whom she now attacks? And I’d also like to know if her publisher is going to put her forward in future for literary awards.”
Joanna Trollope: “Actually these prizes rescue some books which could simply end up on publishers’ slush piles. So Zadie Smith, whom I think is a good writer, is very wrong. Also, in an increasingly philistine country the more that art and commerce can and do come together, the better.”


  • The Telegraph said publishing figures have branded the author of White Teeth "hypocritical".

Ondjaki's 'The Whistler'

"The Whistler is a spellbinding, irreverent and hilarious masterpiece from Angola. The Whistler, is a triumph of joy over adversity in a country ravaged by sorrow.It offers a vision of hope and humanity to a people suffering the painful after-effects of the civil war that traumatised the author’s homeland."

Angolan writer Ondjaki launches his first novel, The Whistler, in London on 19 February. Translated from the original Portuguese by Richard Bartlett, The Whistler is Ondjaki's first novel. David Brookshaw of the University of Bristol's Portuguese department will discuss the writer and the work at the launch.

Housmans Bookshop
5 Caledonian Road
London N1 9DX
Time & Date
6pm - Tuesday 19 February
The event is FREE

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Winona Rasheed and that 'Africa-country' gaffe

From Bruce Cook of Author-Me.Com on the Winona Rasheed post

Hello everyone,

I just learned about this blog, and I want to speak in Winona's behalf.

As publisher of author-me.com, I am the one who should claim primary responsibility for failing to notice the error cited - referring to Africa as a country. I agree that this is quite serious, although I imagine that similar errors occur with many who have not had the opportunity to visit a distant country.

As soon as I can, I will re-issue the books with corrections to the foreword. Regretfully, with a book, the issues already sold will contain the error.

Please permit me to speak in Winona's behalf here, for I read your blog as an unfair personal bashing of her, with complete failure to recognize her work. She has worked for author-me.com for over 4 years and has freely (no compensation) devoted at least 20 hours a week to helping African writers and managing an international crew of editors. I believe that judging her person by this one error is unfair.

I do not mean to minimize the importance of the error, for ignorance of Africa and its situation is so prevalent in the USA that it distresses anyone who cares. When I listen to the news, I can count on hearing about Africa only when the most grievous events happen. And, as a result, our idiom is full of erroneous references to Africa. However, there is no excuse for author-me to perpetuate these errors, and we can only apologize for our mistake.

If you will, please give Winona the credit she deserves for working so hard in behalf of African writers, who deserve to have much greater opportunities in the literary world.

Thank you for your consideration.

Bruce Cook,

Wordsbody Responds
Thank you for this, Mr. Cook.
However, your comment that my blog post was "an unfair personal bashing" of Winona Rasheed, is a view I cannot share.
I do not know Winona Rasheed. I did not attack her in any capacity as regards her personal life or character. I attacked her in her capacity as editor of the 'Africa' anthologies published by Author-Me.Com.
You ask that we give Ms Rasheed "the credit she deserves for working so hard on behalf of African writers". You add also, that your Africa editor has devoted 20 hours a week to this task for 4 years with no compensation. Worthy indeed. But you may be surprised how many out there work for the same goals with no compensation or recognition, African and non-African. Winona Rasheed is not alone therefore. None of this means that we overlook that which should not be overlooked.
I welcome your statement, which sets out an acceptable way forward on this matter.
Winona Rasheed, in her own words
This message is being sent in regards to your blog on African writings and literature. This is my first experience with your blog, and it has been bought to my attention that I made an error in a work done by me representing the fiction of African writers.
My name is Winona Rasheed, and I am asking that you please except my sincere apology in referring to Africa as a country instead of the continent that it is. This anthology of African writers will be revised so that it refers to Africa as a continent.
It was not my intentions to offend anyone with my mention of Africa. Author Africa 2007 and 2008, are a reflection of the works by some of our talented writers that we have on our website, www.author-me.com, authors who are inspiring and of whom we are very proud.
Regardless of the error, country versus continent, it does not take away from our writers, or any human being who has literary talent. That's what we are promoting in these two anthologies, not the question of Africa being as a country or a continent.
Does this error take away from me as the managing editor who compiled this collection of short stories? I believe it does not because the anthologies are not about me, it is the writers that they are showcasing. These books aren't about Winona Rasheed. These books even with the error in Africa's description, are about the heart of Africa and its people. It is about the talented artist who are making a name for themselves; and yes, I am proud to be able to help them accomplish this goal.
It is true, I made a mistake, but let the fact be known that no one is perfect...no one except God, and I do not claim to be better than he. For these anthologies, the best intentions were given, and I shall continue to give my best in compiling anthologies for African writers in the future; not because I have to, but because I want to, because it is a pleasure to work with such talent.
It is also true that in the minds of most people, Africa has been looked upon as a land of great promise, although it is also a land of suffering and war, famine and disease. However, we know that there is more to Africa then these atrocities. In compiling the anthologies, Author-me and Winona Rasheed are showing another side of Africa that most people do not get a chance to see, and that side is talent growing out of adversity, talent growing out of struggle. Would anyone say that Africa is a nation without conflict and turmoil? Is everything paradise and peaches and cream?
Africa has some beautiful and talented people and it shows on Author-me, and it shows within the pages of the anthologies, regardless of the mistake that is in the "foreward" message. The heart of the book is its content, and that to me is more important because that is where and when Africa speaks and can be seen. I do not make Africa shine, it is the writers who do that. I have not shortchanged them. However, your comments and bashing do not put the anthologies in a good light. Are you hurting me? No! You are hurting those whose works are being shown in the anthologies, because you aren't letting readers get past the first page with your negative response to the "foreward." I know this message is important in a book; however, it is the pages that follow which bring the greatest importance, and you and your readers have failed to mention that important factor. Remember, it is not the "foreward" that makes up an anthology, it is the artist and their content that make a book a treasure and the 2007 and 2008 Author Africa anthologies are without a doubt........a treasure.
Again, please except my sincere apology for my mistake in the description of Africa.
Winona Rasheed
Blogger's Note
I never sought an apology, nor do I consider it my place to receive one. Still, one recognises the spirit of Ms Rasheed's communication. I note that Africa is down as a 'nation' here again, but we won't dwell on that.
Wishing Ms Rasheed the best in all her endeavours.

Monday, February 11, 2008

On Obamamania

Disrespecting Maya Angelou

This must be the most riveting presidential race ever, and one in which I am not eligible to vote. Yet I can’t take my eyes off it. I stayed up through the night (UK time) for the Iowa results. Hillary Clinton was so demoralised on learning she had lost to Barack Obama, she looked, and sounded, deflated. She rambled on and on, to the extent that the Sky News commentator hit a sympathetic note when he explained with something like: “Senator Clinton is tired”. I sat up through the night again when a rejuvenated Clinton took New Hampshire.

The night of the Iowa primaries, I finally saw what they’ve been saying about Barack Obama. God, the rhetoric. Not many could compete with that. Obama gave one of the best speeches I’ve heard in years that night. And Lord knows I’m a sucker for words beautifully strung together and delivered with the rhythm to awaken the tone deaf. One can see why people are getting carried upon this wave of “hope”. The other day I watched with a couple of young people the YouTube video of Obama Girl; and we spent the rest of the day involuntarily bursting into song: “I got a crush on Obama”. By the end of the day, one of those young people, who had adamantly wanted Hillary Clinton to win, had a change of mind, and said: “Now I want Obama to win.”

How’s that for an election winner? A silly though catchy video by a pretty girl, and minds are changed. This is the presidential candidate as a rock star. It’s cool to be on Obama’s train. He’s packing stadiums, and more than ever, the young want to vote, and vote Obama. And what of the celebrities? The list is as long as a California freeway: Toni Morrison (who calls Obama the man for this time); Kerry Washington; Stevie Wonder; Robert De Niro (the great actor whose preference in wives and girlfriends, is black).... and on and on and on.

Today I saw another video, a ‘We are the world’ type one by Will.i.am featuring an endless cast of cool celebrities including Scarlett Johannson, John Legend, Common... and on and on and on. All saying “Yes We Can” vote Obama.

What will have worried Clinton the most, are the cruise missile endorsements that Obama has garnered to himself. Oprah Winfrey may single handedly produce the next President, with her campaigning for Barack. “I’m not voting for Barack because he’s black; I’m voting for Barack because he’s brilliant!” the goddess of the talk show said to a roaring crowd. With Iowa in the bag (“Aint no black people in Iowa,” Michelle Obama reportedly said, taking on the fact that the Iowa voters were overwhelmingly white – to the annoyance of the admittedly small numbers of blacks in the state), the dream endorsement came – from the Kennedys. Caroline (the sole survivor of Camelot) described Obama as “A man like my father”, thereby invoking the spirit of JFK. Joining her onstage was the family patriarch, Edward aka Ted, the last of the Kennedy brothers. Watching the old warhorse fired up as he spoke was quite something. Madame Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “mesmerised”, even Republicans “swooned”. And who could blame them? Ted Kennedy spoke in such a way that, if he were running, it would have been enough to win. Ted’s son, Patrick, completed the triple whammy of golden endorsements on the day, ahead of voting in Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts. Ouch! The Clinton campaign must have been reeling. Then Obama compounded it by snubbing Hillary in Congress.

Then there was California, the world’s fifth largest economy and the biggest election prize of them all. California is headed by the Republican Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wife Maria Shriver, is JFK's niece. Jackie Kennedy Onassis never cared for Schwarzenegger’s right wing views, and for years I’ve wondered how a daughter of the Kennedys could betray every value of her background to be by his side. I wonder no more, for Barack Obama’s candidacy finally settled the matter and allowed Maria Shriver to show that, where it matters, she is a true Kennedy. In a stunning stance that pitted her directly against her husband (who endorsed Republican front-runner McCain) – Shriver came out for Obama. California’s first lady was rehabilitated in my eyes, though I didn’t agree with her choice of candidate. One UK newspaper played on the famous line from the Terminator movies with the headline: I’ll be backing someone else.

Caroline, Oprah and Maria (let’s not forget the glamorous Michelle Obama) romped away at a euphoric rally in California. The goal: Stop Hillary. As we now know, it didn’t happen. In Massachusetts and California, Hillary Clinton pulled off stunning victories. A Clinton aide was able to say on camera about Kennedy’s backyard Massachusetts, “We took on Ted Kennedy; we beat Ted Kennedy.” The lesson? Endorsements can only go so far.

In the end, the Kennedy with the right instincts turned out to be RFK’s son, Robert Jr (whose mother Ethel endorsed Obama). Robert Kennedy Jr is not nearly as well known as Caroline or Ted, but seeing his adverts for the Clinton campaign - his weathered presence, his trembling voice, his earnest eyes – one got a sense of his integrity. Robert Kennedy Jr could not be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, but the other Kennedys almost certainly did.

Ted Kennedy may have been given a slap in the face by Massachusetts and California, but he is not giving up easily, and was busy campaigning for Obama last weekend, when the Illinois senator swept through 4 states, putting Hillary Clinton in serious trouble.

Another Obama backer, the actor George Clooney had the good sense to know that going on the campaign trail for Obama had the potential to hurt his preferred candidate. One could add to that the potential that endorsers could end up hurting themselves even, as Ted Kennedy (and Obama’s other Massachusetts endorser, John Kerry) found out. Oprah would be the last person to admit it, but she may have been hurt too. She has come under a stinging attack from a certain Reverend Manning (a black church leader) for her endorsement of Obama.

Points to ponder for another touted Obama would-be endorser, Al Gore, who is reportedly wrestling with himself on the quiet: Do I go public or not? Nothing for a Nobel Peace Prize winner to gain from partisan endorsement, much to lose if he does.

Back to Oprah Winfrey, who comes on the political trail for the first time ever, endorsing and campaigning for Barack – and it’s not because he’s black. What cannot be doubted is the impact her words have had. I’ve spoken to white individuals who told me they support Obama because “Oprah likes him.” Many swoon as they repeat her “brilliant” statement. It is pretty much settled. No questioning entertained.

The great race – ‘race’ being the operative word here – is really the great unadmitted factor of this presidential – there’s that word again – race. Journalists have been asking black voters especially: did you vote for Obama because he’s black? A tempting question but ultimately a stupid one. How many people who vote along race lines are going to admit to the fact? Overwhelmingly, and unsurprisingly, nearly 100% of black voters say: NO. As Oprah would say too. She voted because he’s “brilliant”. Care to be more specific, Ms Winfrey?

I have more respect for the stated views of Spike Lee who supports Obama and heralds a sea-change in the African-American vote because of “unfinished business”. Kudos even to the unnamed black woman who in a no-bullshit interview told Bill Maher, “Honestly, I’m voting for the black guy, ‘cause he’s black.” Respect too, to Whoopi Goldberg who voted on an issue close to her heart: the ending of tax breaks for companies who ship jobs overseas. Whoopi was going to vote for Obama because he made the pledge on the campaign trail. “Well, come to find out,” she explains, Hillary Clinton said it first, way back in May 2007. Whoopi Goldberg voted for Hillary Clinton. The clip of Whoopi explaining her change of mind was one of YouTube’s hits of last week.

No one as far as I’m aware has abused Whoopi for her reasoned choice, for not voting along racial lines. Probably because Whoopi would abuse them back and tell them where to stick it.

Others have not fared so well. On Bossip, a black-oriented gossip website where words like “ho” are regularly thrown around, and where the Senegalese Hip-Hop star Akon has been mocked for being ‘too dark-skinned’ (imagine the self-hatred, on a ‘black’ site) – one post about him in a night club asked how the ladies could see him in the dark... and where news like Heath Ledger’s death are broken with the insensitive header: 'In White Folks’ News'... black public figures who support Hillary Clinton are ridiculed and insulted daily, as “hos” or “sellouts”.

Jesse Jackson pointed out that John Edwards (now out of the presidential race) who set up his campaign HQ in Katrina-hit New Orleans was the only candidate to address issues of poverty; that all candidates had ignored “the plight of African-Americans” (Some 2.2m US citizens are in jail; one million of them are African-American). Jackson noted that no candidate joined thousands of African-Americans to march for the Jena 6. Bossip said Jackson was part of an out of date, out of touch civil rights era. They are 'subservient Massa worshippers'. In short, rights don’t matter, just vote Obama. The Illinois senator, who never speaks directly to black issues, judged the mood right.

Andrew Young is similarly dismissed as a “ho”, part of an “over the hill” gang, for being on Hillary’s side. They are “Clinton clit riders”; they are “old-time chittlin’ civil rights negroes.” As is BET founder Robert Johnson who is also a “sellout” – as is Magic Johnson. For the rapper 50 Cent, “ho” will do (though, given the times he’s sung about “hos”, one can hardly feel sorry for him). Hillary Clinton supporters, all.

In the underground media of Black America, you’re worse than scum if you don’t vote along racial lines. Every black person must fall behind the great black hope (never mind that Obama is in strict terms half white, which – let’s face it – accounts in part for his massive crossover appeal at the polling booth; not for no reason did the Obama campaign release photos of him with his Caucasian mother Ann Dunham ahead of Super Tuesday).

The message according to Bossip, which boasts 4 million unique hits daily. Now let’s compare with Perez Hilton, the most successful gossip website on the net. Its patron saint is that most vacuous of empty heads, Paris Hilton. Perez gets 10 million and more hits on days when Britney freaks out; he uses irreverent doodles on images to ‘out’ whoever’s in the closet sexually, whoever’s a cokehead, poo-poos Jessica Alba for being a self-hating Latina... But Perez Hilton can be surprisingly level-headed when it matters. Perez Hilton endorsed Mrs Clinton but that’s not what’s important here; what is important is how he did it, the respectful-of-all-views sobriety of it.

Quoting Perez Hilton
“Not that our opinion matters (any more than yours). Nor do we expect that we will influence your vote in any way, but… Today is Super Tuesday and we feel it is our duty to publicly endorse Hillary Clinton... Hillary wasn't our fist choice. We were initially swayed by the promise of change and the inspiring messages of Barack Obama. But that's not enough! After careful consideration and much research, we have come to the informed decision that Hillary is the right candidate for us. We feel more confident with Hillary's abilities to lead and her proven track record of experience. But, more so than that, HER plans for universal healthcare, education reform and emphasis on equality for all are more aligned with what we want in the next President. Whether you agree with us or not, please go out and vote today.”

Any chance of such on Bossip? Sadly, no. With the role super-delegates may end up playing if the race remains tied, the site has published images, names and telephone numbers of black super-delegate supporters of Hillary who may end up, in Bossip’s words, costing Barack Obama the White House. These “negroes” are “plantation-minded officials” who are voting for Clinton for their own gain (is it not possible then to countenance that Obama endorsers may be seeking after their own gains and interests too? Or in the case of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry & Co, people with scores to settle with the Clintons?). Readers are urged to bombard the super-delegates’ phone lines and let them know they will be voted out of power if they don’t support Obama now.

Intimidation is one word for it. Witch-hunt is another.

Toni Morrison once labelled Bill Clinton "America’s first Black President”. Michelle Obama predicted last year that “Black America will wake up” from their love of the Clintons. Faced with a real black candidate, they have. Toni Morrison endorsed Obama in words which quite frankly cannot be faulted. Neither can one fault the words of Maya Angelou who went the other way and endorsed Hillary as “My Girl” in radio adverts.

But Bossip does not allow that black super-delegates, public figures or voters – any black for that matter, should have their own minds. The site faulted Maya Angelou in a post titled, “Ho Sit Down”.

Kerry Washington (a new break-through African-American actress who’s already a dab hand at unabashed straight and gay sex scenes) – often derided by Bossip as part of the “something new” club (for dating white men) is suddenly the site’s darling for her support of Obama. As is Usher, and Ne-Yo (whose metrosexuality is a cause of consternation for sites like Bossip). But Maya Angelou, a woman beyond legend, a potent symbol of the African-American experience, is insulted in the basest language. The sacrilege made the often apathetical and flagrantly unserious readers wake up, and there was an outcry (on the comment boards at least). But Bossip is going strong. After Barack Obama’s recent victories, the site gleefully announced that he’s “making it rain on these hoes.”

This is the underside of Obamamania.

As California and Massachusetts show, you can invoke the Kennedy magic to no avail. That said, the Kennedy thing has caught on, and Obama is now frequently compared to JFK, rightly or wrongly. Someone has suggested that this is a movement he’s leading, rather than a political campaign. And as in the nature of movements, he seems unstoppable.

But it ain’t over till it's over, and I’m sticking with Hillary who could "have stayed home and baked cookies" but didn’t. In the words of one pundit, she’s “an absolutely solid candidate who aint gonna go crazy on ya.” Some hate her "pant suits" (that's 'trouser suit' if like me you're not American); Anna Wintour criticised her for not wanting to be seen as too feminine; while others hate her for just that - being too feminine - and staying with Bill through thick and thin. Can she ever get it right? If she got it right, would they care? Probably the most maligned woman of these times. Some even say she’s the devil. I say: better the devil you know. I’ve known Hillary long enough,frankly, to know. This blogger is not for turning.

Which doesn’t much matter, since I am not a voter in the amazing elections that have already thrown up the phrases: Bi-Candidate & Suicide-Voters. On to Amber Lee Ettinger, Obama Girl herself, who in fact did not vote! Says something about Obamamania, if you ask me (although it could be argued that Obama Girl with her video did get thousands more to vote for the man to whom she sang: “Baby, you’re the best candidate”).

I return to Oprah, who apparently has been told (presumably by white women) that she’s being a traitor to her gender by siding with Obama (the women thereby making gender a greater determinant than race; who knew?). She said:
"Every part of me believes in the empowerment of women. But the truth is I'm a free woman. Being free means you get to think for yourself and you get to decide for yourself what to do."

Uncomfortable as I am with the role of the great O in this campaign, I actually welcomed her statement above.
Because the converse is also true. I am free as a black person to support Hillary Clinton if I want.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Unhelpful Lessing

The 2007 Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, probably now thinks herself a prophet. A prophet of doom. Lessing spoke to journalists in Stockholm about God-knows-what and also shared views on the US Presidential race. It is what she said about Barack Obama that hit the news wires though, as she must have intended. The Illinois senator, fresh from caucus sweepstakes in yesterday's primaries, will be killed, if he were to become president.
I am not in the cult of Obama (I'm for Hillary), but find Lessing's comments most baffling. If this was all she had to say on the matter, why say it? Troubling even, that her comments do not seem an expression of concern for Obama's safety but rather, a direct statement of what would happen. The rights or wrongs of such an eventuality did not seem worth dwelling upon, it seemed. Never mind that Lessing's views directly contradict voting results, which show more and more white people (men especially) voting for Obama; let's not forget he won South Carolina, in the 'deep south'.
Literary greats have been talking (and taking sides) on the great race between Hillary & Obama (and this blog will come to that), but here is one instance in which an esteemed wordsmith ought to have kept her words firmly to herself.
To say Obama would be killed if he were to win the US presidency is the same as if the Nobel committee had refrained from giving Lessing the prize because:
This frail 88-year-old woman on her last legs would surely keel over and die of shock if we were to give her the Nobel.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Willesden Herald Competition Stunner

If you are one of the 800 entrants for the 2008 Willesden Herald Short Story Competition, well, better luck next year. The £5000 prize judged by Zadie Smith will not be awarded this year because organisers and Ms Smith, er, judged - that none of the stories was good enough.

Extract from Zadie Smith's statement
For I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it. To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of North London. Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires. To be even clearer: if these things turn up and are brilliantly written, they will not be ignored. But we also welcome all those whose literary sympathies lie with Rimbaud or Capote, with Irving Rosenthal or Proust, with Svevo or Trocchi, with Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot, with Coetzee or Patricia Highsmith, with street punks or Elizabethans, with Southern Gothic or with Nordic Crime, with Brutalists or Realists, with the Lyrical or the Encyclopedic, in the ivory tower, or amongst the trash that catches in the gutter. We welcome everybody. We have only one principle here: MAKE IT GOOD. So, let’s try again, yes?

And no doubt many will "try again", for the chance to be judged 'good enough' by Zadie Smith. For now, they're just stunned at the news, a real anti-climax to the competition whose winner would have collected the prize this month, as well as a real boost to their writing careers. There is speculation about the existence of a shortlist, but not even that has been made public thus far. Dissapointed writers have been leaving comments on the Willesden Herald blog. An update has also been posted on the site.

Update: Wednesday 6th February 2008
With the furore that greeted the decision not to award a prize to any of the entries (we now know there were 850 short stories from all over the world) and the non-publication of the shortlist, the organisers have now released their last word on the matter. They decided, after all, to publish the 'shortlist' of 10 writers, and to share the cash prize £500 apiece between them. But first,they had to go and check that the shortlisters were cool with this, given the negative reactions to yesterday's announcement. Meanwhile, some speculated as to whether those shortlisted would wish to be forever known as writers whose stories were so "mediocre" that no top prize could be considered. We now know the answer: the 'shortlisted' writers did not want the 'honour'; in the main, they said NO to both publication and £500 cash.
From the Willesden Herald update
In response to the negative comments left about the decision not to award the prize, Zadie Smith decided that the money should be split, to help counter the suggestions that the short-listed writers were somehow ‘mediocre’. There was no intention at all of suggesting such a thing and any close reading of Zadie’s statement will show this to be false. Being the best out of 850 entries is no small feat.
It is worth mentioning that there are two standards here that we can look to:
• to be the best of a batch; and
• to be worthy of first place in a competition which celebrates outright excellence.
The latter is a much higher aspiration than the former; however, the former is something to be proud of.
When the decision was made to split the prize money, the short-listed writers were contacted again and most of them said that they did not want their names or stories to appear and did not want any prize money. They told us to fuck off. Which is fair enough.
In conclusion, many writers agree that if the organisers did not consider any of the stories worthy of the not inconsiderable cash prize, they had every right not to award it. Some, however, have issues with the handling of the result's announcement.
Update: Thursday 7th February
More on the fallout from the Willesden Herald's own 'Super Tuesday' - and the writer Kay Sexton has revealed herself as one of the "infamous 10" who were "not good enough" for Zadie Smith.
"My story and I still think we’re 'good enough'" - she insists.
"I'm old and egotistical enough to have confidence in my own opinion, rather than Zadie's."
Hear hear.
Yet another update - Thursday 7th PM
The unawarded prize money will be donated to charity. And there's talk of the competition being wound up. Should that happen, this year's fiasco would have been the death knell...

Monday, February 04, 2008


My comment minutes ago to a blog post on Renegade Eye, "Kenya: What is to be done?"

Kenya did not seem the kind of place where anything remotely akin to this could happen. I say this as someone who's been there before, and who encountered, in the main, very mild-mannered people. I was horrified by the turn of events therefore, and can barely pluck up the courage to look at the increasingly portentous news reports. It's getting harder and harder to sanitise the blood from these newsflashes. On the one hand, you don't want to see the blood; on the other, you dare not allow yourself to be deluded as to the extent of the atrocities, so you want to see for yourself, just how bad it is.

When Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in before the vote results had actually been announced, I could only shake my head. I despaired, looking at the man. He is past his best; he has nothing left to offer anyone, let alone a country; he is saddled with an embarrassment of a wife who slaps officials all over the place. Yet he wants to hold on to power. This is the tragedy of my Africa; leaders that just won’t go.

This is not democracy. This is what the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti called: Democrazy.
But what is happening in Kenya now is beyond anything connected to a disputed election. It’s no longer about a recount, but the counting of the piling bodies. Hard to make sense of it, but what is clear is that these are old grievances, old rivalries, breaking out like phantoms from hell. A flawed election has merely given vent to it.

I saw a news bulletin the other day where a young man whose panga was caked in what he called the “pure blood” of many people, boasted about killing a former classmate of his. You wonder: what makes someone who never killed before suddenly become a butcher of men, women and children? What madness? I don’t know. But it seems to me that there is a madness lurking under the civilised veneer of every society. Given the right – or shall we say wrong – circumstances, it will come to the fore. And when it does, Lord knows what is to be done.

A fellow writer pointed out to me today how Kenyans who are not even on the ground back home, who are in the Diaspora – are tearing one another apart in the blogosphere with the most hateful language imaginable. I went to some of these sites to read some of the comments for myself. Frightening. Something has been unleashed, which will be difficult to curtail even after the bloodbath is over. Long live Kenya.