The Life House on the night of E.C Osondu's reading. Photo by Olushola Aromokun. More images here.
Was at E.C Osondu's reading at The Life House last Friday. It was a mostly inner-core writers' audience, which made for a somewhat sharp edged spiritedness sometimes. Artsville columnist and all-round arts-man-about-town Toyin Akinosho came in at some point and straightaway fired a volley of questions at Osondu. Who, perhaps having had some inkling of a not-too-flattering pronouncement on Voice of America by the former in a recent Artsville, seemed prepared for just such an encounter, and gave as good as he got. It was an interesting evening (see art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu's post on the reading), one in which the book talk spilled onto The Life House lawn even after the reading event was over. Everyone seemed to have an idea what kind of story they wanted Osondu to write, but which he didn't, to their chagrin. Should he have dwelled so much on misery? Should the stories have begun in Lagos sequentially to end up in America? Why so many urban myths? ("rural myths" even got a mention, whatever those are). Discussion on the lawn even touched on how successfully or otherwise the author had related the Nigerian Disaspora experience. Me, though I could see where some of the discussants were coming from, felt they may have been too prescriptive at times. "I would be bothered if my story made you happy," declared Osondu, in response to the repeated suggestion that he focuses too much on the negative. He was an excellent advocate for himself, defending his right to write whatever catches his fancy, let those who don't like it take a hike. He didn't use quite those words... I loved that whatever he said, however simple, showed a deep grounding in the writing craft. "Boring" was someone's view of some of the anxieties over Osondu's writing. And 'boring' is what I have come to think of the never-ending debate over the term 'African Writer', a beast that rears its head regularly even at readings in Lagos these days. At one reading last year, practically everyone on the stage - even those that never voiced any issues with the term before - talked the matter to death. Only one writer said something like: The hell with it. I'm an African writer, so what? The others talked and talked, explaining their concerns to the point where we in the audience - and I suspect even they - no longer knew for sure what those particular concerns were meant to be. The annual Caine round has just ended and I see the argument has now extended to whether the 'African' should be dropped from the Caine Prize altogether (see Tolu Ogunlesi's reflections on this year's Caine). Ogunlesi agrees with the latest high profile objector to 'African Writing', 2010 Caine winner Olufemi Terry. On the contrary, I find Terry's manner of prosecuting his 'African anxiety' somewhat distasteful. Olufemi Terry, once a seemingly peripheral figure on the South African writing scene, won the Caine Prize for Stickfighting Days and made lots of people in Cape Town and Johannesburg very happy. If we didn't know before, we quickly discovered that, despite his Nigerian/Yoruba first name, the Caine winner is actually Sierra-Leonian-born, of Antillean heritage. The citizen of the world quickly rubbished the 'African Writing' tag of the prize that had just given his career a space shuttle shot in the arm. Yet he proudly went onstage to collect the prize and smiled through photographs celebrating him as the winner of The Caine Prize For African Writing. He didn't seem to notice when his story was being entered for the Caine, I suppose. Or could he not have climbed the stage to turn down the prize? Lots of people have turned down prizes on principle and we actually admire some of those folks. Not Terry, who declared, "The label 'African writer' is not a particularly helpful one ... Whether it's journalism or fiction, there is too much emphasis put on issues such as poverty or disease, and I feel the label 'African writing' exacerbates that particular tendency." This, from the author of a nihilistic story about poor glue-snifing street children? Another year goes by, it's time for another Caine and up pops Terry again, in Granta, to say, "There is, for me, no African writing, only good writing and bad writing." A fine thought, for sure, from whichever angle you want to look at it. Yet there remains that niggly thing, as Terry fills us in on the last one year. He who had sought more of a shift away from writing about Africa set on the continent in favour of the Diaspora, quickly moved to Struttgart, Germany "for personal reasons" (in case you were going to ask). It concerned him that, during his Caine-facilitated Georgetown residency, American university and secondary school students read baffling meanings into Stickfighting Days - as if secondary school students cannot be found reaching baffling conclusions about all sorts of stories, including 'Non-African' ones. It bothered him also that non-Africans assume, on the strength of the author's bio alone, that the story is set in Sierra-Leone. As if Will Self and Martin Amis agonise over whether readers in Lagos assume, no thanks to bios, that their novels are set in England. Does the Reader not bring someone of him/herself to the text? And though there hasn't been much by way of publishing activity from him since his Caine win, Terry is able to boast that he has been able to stretch the understanding of 'African writing' till the label was revealed as "meaningless." I never read Stickfighting Days all the way through until about two weeks ago, and I thought it was a masterful piece of writing, a worthy Caine winner. But I think Olufemi Terry is looking the gift horse too intently in the mouth. It's been over a decade now since Leila Aboulela won the very first Caine Prize for African Writing, for Sudan. Aboulela could have busied herself shooting from all angles at labels pinning her to 'Africa', the Arab World or even Britain, where she is based. But she doesn't. She just writes. Between her and Olufemi Terry, I know whose approach I prefer. E.C Osondu is reading on Saturday at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, starting at 3pm. Across the lagoon in Yaba's Debonair Bookstore, another set of writers - including Toni Kan, Jumoke Verissimo and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo - are reading also at 3pm (see flyer below).
It's been years in the making. We kind of saw it coming, and one should grieve at the loss of a unique talent. But Winehouse didn't love herself it seemed, didn't pity herself, didn't feel any gratitude for the immense gift God in his arbitrariness, gave to her.
I'm reminded of what George Michael, himself a troubled survivor, once said in a public plea to Winehouse: "This is the best female vocalist I've heard in my entire career and one of the best writers, so all I can say is, 'Please, please understand how brilliant you are'."
It was all for nought, including the efforts of that Daddy she immortalised in 'Rehab'. The single electrified everyone when it came out, young and old, white and black. I saw black teenagers in London using their pocket money to buy the 'Back to Black' CD. They turned away, at least for a while, from formulaic American RnB and Hip-Hop and all those saccharin, manufactured UK boy and girl bands to nod along to Winehouse's You Know I'm No Good and Love Is A Losing Game - and saying, 'Wow, this is real music!'
They told one another about her, like some great new religion the light of which you must see. But those teenagers, impressionable though they were, saw the singer's life splashed in the papers daily and quickly grew embarrassed, knowing they had better not be like her. For how do you adulate a train wreck?
Rehab was her most memorable song of all, even if the lyrics proved to be too frighteningly true. Her demons required her to "always keep a bottle near". And as the singer sank into an ever darkening abyss, all who had seen in her the birth of a new Billie Holiday, learned to turn away from the horrific vision. Pity.
The behatted character in the video below is Blake Fielder-Civil, the addict with whom Amy Winehouse embarked on an all too destructive marriage, and the inspiration for much of the angst-ridden material in Back to Black.
Once more with feeling, join the over 7 million people who've viewed'Rehab' on YouTube - and let's hope Ms Winehouse finds peace, finally.
2009 Caine Prize winner E.C Osondu is in Lagos for a series of readings for his book, Voice of America, a collection of short stories published locally by Farafina. Here he is photographed earlier today by Femi Adebesin-Kuti. Artist/writer Victor Ehikhamenor and I were on hand to join in series of fun photographs with E.C and his friend, Emeka. The real business starts Friday when Osondu kicks off his book tour with a reading event at The Life House. He will have 2 more readings in Lagos and one in Port Harcourt with Koko Kalango's Rainbow Book Club. Details below.
Friday July 22: Abule Book Club, The Life House, 33 Sinari Daranijo Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. 6pm. Saturday July 23: Patabah Bookshop, Shoprite Mall, Surulere, Lagos. 3pm. Sunday July 24: Rainbow Book Club, Le Meridien, Ogeyi Place, Port Harcourt. 4pm. Saturday July 30: Terra Kulture, Tiamiyu Savage, Victoria Island, Lagos. 3pm.
Akin Omotoso's 2008 documentary film, Soyinka, Child of the Forest, once shown on DSTV as part of the Great Africans Series, is showing at The Life House, Lagos, this Thursday. I'm actually in this film... Details of Thursday's screening, below. EVENT- Screening of The Great African Series - Wole Soyinka DATE - 21 July 2011 Thursday TIME- 7.30pm VENUE - The Life House, 33 Sinari Daranijo Street, off Ligali Ayorinde Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. A film is shown at The Life House every Thursday evening as part of their Reel Life programme, often in collaboration with the Alliance Francaise.
The story is set in Nokanyana, a village "named after a small river that no one had yet been able to discover," where a legendary lothario, McPhineas Lata has just died, leaving married couples in a tizzy, as hapless husbands plot to win back the attention of unfaithful wives. Kubuitsile had written the piece for ‘The Bed Book of Short Stories', an anthology published in 2010 by Modjaji Books... The writer was not sure of the story's chances when it was entered for the Caine. "I told [the publisher], this story has no chance. It's a bit of an oddball," she recalls. "Humour can sometimes be undermined - they think literary fiction has to be serious."
Wame Molefhe: writing to the sun Molefhe's new book is titled ‘Go Tell The Sun'because, "The sun is always present in Botswana." But there is a deeper resonance. "The society in which I live has set standards that come from culture and tradition," such that many issues cannot be discussed openly. "If you have issues and you can't tell anyone, tell it to the sun." The stories in the collection deal with one single female character, Sethunya. One of the stories, ‘Sethunya Is Our Bride'was published in the Africa Portfolio of the US journal, Agni, late last year.
"Sethunya means ‘Flower' in Setswana," her creator explains. "What I've always wanted to do is take this Flower and plant it in different soils and see if it flowers or dies. That's what I've done in this collection." In one situation, Sethunya is married; will it work? In another, she is placed with another woman; can she love a woman?
I promised to post my 2005 article on the Souleymane Cisse film retrospective, and how British Consulate officials rained on the Malian director's parade and denied him a visa to attend a screening of his modern classic, Yeelen, at the Barbican in London. This below was originally published in The Guardian, Lagos, on November 27, 2005...
Souleymane Cisse Film Season… in Retrospect By Molara Wood
A film retrospective on Souleymane Cisse at the Barbican Centre, London, was much anticipated, coming as it did on the heels of Ousmane Sembene’s appearance in the city earlier this year. Although not nearly on the same scale as the Sembene programme at the National Film Theatre, the short season of five films by Cisse was nevertheless significant. It was to include a stage appearance by the director, following the special screening of his international hit film, Yeelen (The Light).
Born in Bamako, Mali, in 1940, Cisse studied in Moscow under the Soviet director Mark Donskoi, and on return to his country, worked as a documentary filmmaker for the Ministry of Information before embarking on his own cinematic career. The director’s first short film, Five Days in a Life, was made in 1972; his first feature length movie, Den Muso (The Young Girl), followed in 1975.
Den Muso - about a young mute woman who is raped and becomes pregnant, with disastrous consequences for her family - formed part of the Barbican season of Cisse’s work. Also on the programme were: Baara (Work, 1978), about the condition of workers in the city; Finye (The Wind, 1982), about a love affair between an army commander‘s daughter and the grandson of a tribal chief; and Waati (1995), a rarely-seen work about racial politics in South Africa. The season was to kick off with Yeelen, then the director would take the stage to discuss his work.
Africa at the Pictures, an organisation that seeks to promote and enhance the distribution and exhibition of African films in Europe - organised the event. The Barbican described Cisse as someone who “crafted a body of films that combine visual elegance with Marxist ideology and allegorical storytelling. Drawing on traditional indigenous lifestyles and Malian folklore, Cisse attempts to explore the conflicts in Mali society, particularly the conflicts that emerge between the desire for change and the need to preserve tradition.”
The first sign that all might not be well, came on the Thursday on which Cisse was due to be making his Barbican appearance. The venue’s website confused matters, indicating that the event would take place on the following day - Friday. Those who turned up on Friday, were in for a disappointment. Indeed, Yeelen would be shown, but the director himself would not now appear - an assistant at the ticket desk informed. He revealed that this was because Souleymane Cisse had not been granted a visa to travel to Britain. One wondered whether the assistant had gone beyond his brief, and went into the cinema hall hoping the report would turn out to be a piece of misinformation.
Another sign that perhaps all was not well, was an unusual sign just at the entrance to the auditorium. Unusual, because one does not normally encounter such at a prestigious venue like the Barbican. The sign apologised in advance for the ‘poor print quality’ of the film we were about to see. Inside, a sizeable audience awaited the entrance of Souleymane Cisse, only for another man to saunter onto the stage, looking like he would have preferred to be elsewhere. It was Keith Shiri, the director of Africa at the Pictures. An apologetic Shiri informed that Cisse would not give the Screen Talk as expected, due “to a lot of complications with getting people from Africa, especially from Mali.” The ticketing assistant had been right afterall: a Cannes Award winning filmmaker, one of Africa’s best, had been refused a visa to enter Britain - in the year of Africa 05.
A clearly disappointed Shiri said: “We wanted him to be here. This (Yeelen) is one of my favourite films and Cisse is one of my favourite film-directors, one whose work I always refer to.” He explained further, that African filmmakers always carry their own films when they travel, and Cisse was to have done the same. His inability to travel scuppered the whole arrangement. Africa at the Pictures therefore had to get a less-than-perfect print of the film as a last resort, from distributors Artificial Eye, and Cisse consented for this to be shown instead, hence the poor quality of the film we were about to see. Shiri hopes he will succeed in bringing the director over to the UK next year.
"Knowledge is built and consolidated by one generation, it is destroyed by another, and recreated by a new generation," Cisse once said, on the role of indigenous film and culture. And in Yeelen, a young warrior, Nianankoro, must face his destiny by destroying a corrupt older elite represented by the secret Komo cult. A leading figure of that cult is Nianankoro‘s own father and his greatest enemy, Soma. Often described as “an oedipal story mixed with magic,” Yeelen is an adaptation of an ancient oral legend from Mali.
Cisse takes his audience to the powerful Mali Empire of the 13th century, where Nianankoro and his aged, wizened mother have been on the run for ten years from his father, an evil sorcerer who does not want his son as an equal, and so seeks to destroy him. With the aid of a magic post (used in ancient Mali to find lost things), Soma goes up and down the land in search of the son he wants to kill. Two bumbling servants carry - or are driven to distraction - by the wilful post, to great comic effect. Nianankoro too, is sent to seek the help of his blind uncle, Soma’s twin brother. Along the way, the young warrior learns to use his magic powers for good, discovers himself, and acquires a wife in traumatic circumstances.
All the while, he readies for the confrontation with the father, which may end in the “luminous death” of one or both of them. “I think one can die without ceasing to exist,” goes a line in the film; and Souleymane Cisse, in depicting the death of one culture, makes way for the birth of a new one.
Nianankoro is played by Issiaka Kane, an actor whose stark physical grace carries the film - through scenes of war, magic, hallucinations and full-frontal nudity. But the real star of the film is the West African landscape, as the warrior journeys through arid lands of the ancient Bambara and Fulani peoples. Not even the ‘poor print quality’ could detract from the landscape, which, thanks to the excellent cinematography, astonishes the viewer with its parched beauty.
Yeelen is regarded by some as Africa’s greatest film. Pity the British Consulate in Africa was not impressed enough to grant its maker a visa. At the end of the Barbican screening, the audience gave the absent director a respectful applause. By this simple gesture, cinema goers gave their own verdict - both on the director and his work, and those who would not allow him into Britain. Keith Shiri (right) photographed with actress Kate Henshaw-Nuttal at the Africa Movie Academy Awards Nominations Night in Nairobi on February 25, 2011 - Photo by MW.
Writer Adewale Maja-Pearce is concerned. His wife, the artist Juliet Ezenwa, has been denied a visa to travel to the UK for an exhibition that would have opened in Portsmouth on July 29. Maja-Pearce, a dual Nigerian/UK citizen, has written an open letter to the British High Commissioner to protest the decision. See below.
I have the good fortune – as many would see it - of being a citizen of both Nigeria and the UK. For the last twenty years or so I have chosen to live in Nigeria, although I travel to the UK from time to time for professional as well as personal reasons. Almost ten years ago I married my wife, Juliet Ezenwa, the artist and a Nigerian citizen. Shortly after our marriage she applied for, and received, a six-month visa to travel to the UK but was unable to use it for reasons which she explained in her three subsequent visa applications, the most recent being just last month. On each of these occasions she was denied a visa, apparently because it was thought that she might abscond and thereby become a burden on the state, and this despite the fact that we have our home here and have no desire to go and live in the UK, at least for the foreseeable future.
On those three previous occasions she had been invited by family, including my mother, a British citizen who lives in the UK and had undertaken to host her for the duration of her stay. However, on this last occasion she was also invited by the King’s Theatre in Portsmouth, which invited her to hold an exhibition of her paintings from 29 July to 11 August 2011, the details of which are with you, including a letter from the director. I am now at a loss as to what to do.
Neither the Germans nor the Italians shared your view about her likely intentions when they granted her visas to travel to their countries, both times in connection with her art, and yet she cannot travel to her husband’s country for a similar activity. I know perfectly well that foreigners married to British citizens do not automatically qualify for British citizenship, and I know how difficult it can be for British citizens to have their wives join them in their own country, but it seems an abrogation of a fundamental human right that the wife of a British citizen is barred from travelling to her husband’s country for a specific period of time in pursuit of her legitimate business. I feel insulted on my own account and also on hers.
Many others have written over the years about the cavalier treatment meted out to Nigerians by the British High Commission and I know exactly what they mean. The pity, of course, is that successive Nigerian governments have never stood up for their own citizens, which is why other countries treat them with the contempt they do. Indeed, I witnessed it myself some time ago when I ran into a problem in neighbouring, Togo, with only my Nigerian passport to hand but that is a matter for Nigerians to solve.
As regards my wife, by all means continue denying her what seems to me her legitimate right but I can at least voice my sense of outrage that she – and, by extension, myself also - should be treated in this despicable manner.
A week, it turns out, is a long time not just in politics but in the media, as the 168-year-old News of the World (I hesitate to do a link) closed up shop with its last edition today after a lifetime of lurid headlines. I remember some case years back when someone accused NotW or its sister daily, The Sun, of trading on the very "fabric of people's lives". Now it appears the NotW at least, also traded on the very fabric of their deaths, for what can only be described as graveyard scoops.
During my England years, there were crimes that the whole country suffered together, to a lesser or greater extent. A child goes missing and TV bulletins and newspapers are full of the alarming news. Tearful parents plead for the child's return in emotionally charged press conferences. Everyone can identify with the mother especially and the whole country prays for the return of the missing child; and the longer it takes, the more hope thins for the child's safe return.
I lived through many such national human tragedies in Britain: Sarah Payne, Jamie Bulger. I waited with everyone when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, angels in Manchester United T-shirts, went missing. Flying into Tampa, Florida 10 days or so into the crisis, I was heartbroken to learn from a US news network that their bodies had been found back home.
So it was with murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler, whose carefree face in news bulletins showing her at the ironing table I still remember. And it was the revelation that the News of the World hacked into her mobile phone for her voicemail messages while she was still officially missing, that proved to be the last straw. All in the name of scoops. The paper deleted her messages so the inbox would not fill up, giving relatives false hopes she might be still be alive, not to mention the clear hindrance to police investigations. NotW similarly meddled with the phones of the July 7 London bombings and their families.
As more of the original players die out - Susanne Wenger a.k.a Adunni Olorisa (d. 12 January 2009), Ulli Beier (d. 3 April 2011) and Twins Seven-Seven(d. 16 June 2011) - the curtain closes gradually on the famed Osogbo Art School. But a curtain also rises, because their works live on.
The Susanne Wenger Archives will open today in Krems, Austria. In attendance at the Susanne Wenger Foundation event will be Hugh and Robin Campbell of the Adunni Olorisha Trust. The Campbells are shown in the image below, photographed at the Demas Nwoko Celebration at the Grillo Pavilion in Ikorodu on April 23, 2011.
I've linked Wenger's name above to an obituary I wrote on her on the night of her passing. It was published the following morning, on January 13, 2009, the first to appear in the press anywhere in the world.
My recent post about Ben Okri's appearance on CNN's African Voices got me thinking back with fondness to my one encounter with the Booker Prize winner. A very special encounter at that - a filmed interview at the Random House building on Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, on November 28, 2007.
There's an hour-long film of the interview, commissioned by Farafina to coincide with their publication of Okri's 'Starbook' and I have a 7000-word transcript of the same. One of the great surprises of the interview was Okri's insistence that The Famished Road is not Magical Realism, since the magical elements are what Azaro the spirit child sees in the 'I' of the narrative, and not part of the poetic world of the story, as would obtain in, say, One Hundred Years of Solitute. As I understood his argument, the idea of a spirit child is an authentic Nigeria belief - "We believe this," Okri told me - rather than something the author plucks from the air. In other words, the Abiku is 'real'.
We had an "alchemy" during the interview, to borrow one of Okri's favourite words - we got along. He asked which part of Yorubaland I was from and I told him 'the Ilesa axis - Ijesaland' and he told me he'd been in those parts before. It was a fun and inspiring afternoon. Many months later, a couple of weeks before my relocation to Lagos from London, I got a call from him; and when I told him of my intended return to Nigeria, he was encouraging, warm and generous in his praise of my humble talents. Coming from the author of one of the seminal works of my reading life, 'The Famished Road', it was, shall we say, enchanting. "Enchantment" is another of Ben Okri's frequently used words, and I asked him about it during the interview. When you asked him some questions he would smile and say: "You're going to get a riff!" and that was what you got - worlds invoked by words that flowed like the strains of a rhythm guitar.
I had some treasured pictures I took with him at Random House. But a move across continents, one desktop and two laptops and myriad flash drives later (some with corrupted folders), the pictures are gone in the wind, cant be found. I shall keep looking... but there's this mugshot of me that sometimes accompanies my published work, taken with my camera by Okri himself (see the pic at the bottom of my story 'Smoking Bamboo' here).
I recount all this now because the memory alone sure makes me wish I were in London for tomorrow's African Writers Evening discussion between Okri and Sarah Ladipo Manyika. It should be quite something, as the two writers discuss the role of the Bar in literature. There's Madam Koto's bar in 'The Famished Road', of course; and if I remember correctly, there are bar scenes in the Jos section of Manyika's debut novel, 'In Dependence'.
I have some pictures of Manyika reading in Lagos in 2009; will add them to this post tomorrow if I can locate them. Until then, here are excerpts from my 2010 interview with Manyika, followed by my review of her book...
'Africa needs good writers' ‘In Dependence' is published in the UK by Legend Press and in a West African edition by Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press. A blurb on the book notes, in a complimentary tone, that "even the sex is well mannered." Why has Ladipo Manyika not gone with roaring sex scenes, as is de rigueur in contemporary novels by Nigerian female writers? "Just wait till my next book!" she jokes, then adds, "I personally find some of the most enticing... a lot can be left to the reader's imagination." The allure of many a romantic scene, she suggests, "is not about the roaring sex but the anticipation of what is to come."
Love in the swing of time “One could begin with the dust, the heat and the purple bougainvillea” - so reads the languorous first sentence of Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel, ‘In Dependence’. It sets the pace for the evocative narrative journey that the reader embarks upon in this self assured first novel. The first chapter is over very quickly, but not before introducing many of the side characters in the Nigerian leg of the continent-hopping story of Tayo and Vanessa, the lovers in Manyika’s tale.
I am a writer and arts journalist now based in Lagos. This is a blog on arts and culture. The focus is on Nigeria's art scene, especially her 'Word's Body' - the writers. As and when, we'll also touch on wider African writing, as well as international literature. In short, a saturation of the arts.