Writings of the general word's body

Monday, February 12, 2007

Books of Last Year 3

Books of 2006 as selected by Nigerian writers - part three, as published in The Independent, Lagos, on Sunday 4th February.

Compiled by Molara Wood...

Akin Adesokan - author of Roots in the Sky
Without question, the best book I read during the passing year was Ayi Kwei Armah's memoirs, The Eloquence of the Scribes (Popenguine: Per Ankh, 2006). In fact, it's not an exaggeration to say that it is one of my most memorable and fulfilling reading experiences ever. Armah has spent the past thirty years developing a sense of the substance and style of African literary culture, and the book is a product of that research. Although the self-effacing author talks about himself a little, the bulk of the book focuses on the historical continuum of the scribal tradition on the continent, from the current state of what we call African literature, through the feudal period of the griots to ancient Egypt. This might sound somewhat arcane, but the beauty of the book, sustained by Armah's fine writing, lies in how the socio-economic dislocation on the continent provides the impetus for the research, and that gaze on the here-and-now never falters for a moment. It's an extremely enjoyable book by a writer of great sensitivity.

Gary Younge has collected his journalism of the past four years into a rich and quick-witted book, Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States (The New Press, New York; 2006). I've long been familiar with his work in The Guardian (London), so it was good to discover that when he moved to the US in the early 2000s, he set up shop with The Nation. The pieces in the new book are collected from his column in that magazine and elsewhere and they are written with an abrasive perceptiveness that's now rare in political journalism in the US. He's also well-read, and unlike Christopher Hitchens, who moved likewise from the UK to the US and has moved on to the right, Younge doesn't wear the erudition on his sleeves. The sociological tendencies in his writing - the statistics, the percentiles - aren't much to my taste, but those are often relieved by the broad allusions to music, art, literature, and a passion for what goes under the radar. And he's readable!

Diana Evans
- author of
Two books I enjoyed this year are: Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss - a biography of James Joyce's daughter Lucia, a gifted dancer, plagued by her father's work and her confusing upbringing, and eventually institutionalised as a young woman for the rest of her life. One of the most thoroughly researched, sensitive, graceful and exacting biographies I've ever read. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski - a short and spooky novel about a sick woman who falls asleep on a chaise longue and wakes up in a cruel set of circumstances in Victorian England. I loved its quirkiness, the sense of space and precision you can only get with short novels, and its firm hold on character. In places it made my skin crawl.

Wole Oguntokun
- playwright
You Must Set Forth At Dawn by Wole Soyinka (Bookcraft): Soyinka's book is a chronicle of happenings, some long forgotten in this country, but nonetheless highly relevant. Described as the memoirs of a great writer's journey through life, it also serves as a nation's memoirs. It reminds us of those who fought that the country might stand and forces us to face up to how far we have fallen now. I had long seen the importance of documenting the affairs of a nation through different eras, and the events and people that helped the country to its feet or forced it to its knees as the case might be. Soyinka's book takes us through some of the roughest patches Nigeria ever went through and makes us realize Mandela is not the only African hero. I believe it will come to be regarded as one of the best books ever written by him. For me it is one of the best I have ever read.

Nigeria-The Birth of Africa's Greatest Country Volumes I & II- From the pages of DRUM: The Spectrum book collated from the pages of Drum Magazine contains pictures and stories prior and subsequent to the independence of Nigeria. Events which have become the stuff of legend are backed up by photos and eye-witness accounts. A compulsory acquisition for all Nigerian homes, one is able to slip back in time and re-live great moments in Nigerian history. I sat with my mother who is 33 years older than I am, and two different generations were able to discuss and share the pleasures of the greatness this country once had.

Ike Okonta
- co-author of Where Vultures Feast
The Eloquence of the Scribes by Ayi Kwei Armah; Saturday by Ian McEwan; Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o; and The Next Gulf - London , Washington and Oil Conflict in Nigeria by Andrew Rowell et all. These books are timely and bracingly urgent in these day of the so-called War on Terror. They affirm the role of the writer as witness to truth; they speak to the enduring power of beauty and truth in a season when we fear these verities are about to disappear in our world. But above all, they affirm the resilience of the human spirit in times of adversity and war-mongering.

Femi Osofisan - playwright
Among the books that have made an impression on me, are Wole Soyinka's You Must Set Forth At Dawn, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. Soyinka of course impresses by the quality of his writing, which I believe gets better and better every year, mellowing like his favourite drink. Some passages are really delicious to read. I am impressed by the kind of life he's led, (under the tutelage of Ogun), and by the array of world leaders and writers that he's interacted with in his restless life. We must always remember of course that these are his own accounts, necessarily selective, and subjective. Sometimes I can't help wishing that he had not written it himself, but that it was someone else writing it about him. But particularly fascinating, to me, are those moments when events tally with his intimations of supernatural presences... such as the night he escapes from Nigeria, and quite fortuitously an ancestral masquerade is out to welcome him across the border, just like in Isara; or the night in Israel, when spiritual forces tell him in advance of Abacha's death and of the coming restoration. The rhythm of Kongi's prose at such moments cannot but entrance you.

As for Adichie, I am impressed by her imaginative scope, the way she has been able to marshal these details into a coherent, sometimes moving narrative. Her prose is also, as usual, superb. And her theme: it is daring, to reawaken these traumatic events that many would want, if not forgotten, but at least forgiven. And this is where I have questions. In my view, such evocations can be justified by only one purpose, and that is to bring healing and reconciliation. But I'm afraid, this book is not likely to do any of such, only reopen and perhaps deepen the hurt of those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been victims. Perhaps she is satisfied with that? There is so much pain in this account, and little about the uncelebrated but heroic people, on both sides, who fought to bring reconciliation, redress wounds, lessen the acrimony. Adichie is of course too clever to be completely partisan, but the strength of her prose, of her descriptive moments, is sufficiently telling. I am also frankly amazed by her total confidence in dealing with sex. I read somewhere where she said she was worried what her father would say about it. Yes, I too would want to know his opinion. I am also ambiguous about these privileged middle-class heroes who can afford servants amidst the terrible suffering of the common people all around them, but I suppose their story is part of the history, and someone has to tell it. But all in all, I found it a delightful book to read; Adichie's talent and maturity are startling; and it is superfluous of me to say, once again, that we have captured a major talent here.

Chika Unigwe - author of
The Phoenix
Edward P. Jones' The Known World was published about two years ago, but I read it this year and I was bowled over. The language is brilliant and the subject matter (it deals with the slave trade in America, at a time when even blacks owned their own slaves) - interesting. I am re-reading it at the moment and I am as thrilled with it as the first time. Tahir Shah's Beyond the Devil's Teeth is an amazing travel narrative. It is creative non-fiction at its best. It is a very honest account of Shah's travels through India, Brazil, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. He recounts his experiences with humour and an eye for detail. He creates a very visible world with words and engages all his readers' senses. I am recommending this to everyone who loves good writing.

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