In his new novel Sebastian Barry writes as if galloping with the wind in his hair. By Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times
Days Without End
Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber)
Sebastian Barry once said that “language is almost not about language, it’s possibly more about music”. And nowhere is this more evident than in this acclaimed Irish novelist’s new and ninth novel, Days Without End.
Narrated by Sligo-born Thomas McNulty, who journeys from Ireland to the New World on a “coffin ship” after the great famine of 1847 leaves him orphaned and starving at 15, it reads as if Barry has ridden those wild “unbroken horses of language” that he has so often spoken about on a surefooted, rhythmic gallop all the way from Ireland to the American Mid-West.
Days Without End is a mesmerising, melodic account of McNulty’s life as he recalls his years fighting in the Indian wars and in the American Civil War alongside the love of his life, John Cole. It is also a deeply affecting, redemptive love story and an unblinkered portrait of what Barry calls “the murderous birth of the young American nation”.
Barry is, of course, as famous for his melodic prose as he is for transforming half-buried family memories and the scraps of long forgotten lives into novels of heart-stopping beauty. Novels that chronicle a forgotten history of Ireland and have won him two Booker nominations, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, to name some.
But it is as if the 61-year-old poet, playwright and novelist has hit a soaring grace note in the writing of Days Without End, which, too, owes its genesis to a scrap of family lore. A scrap divulged to him as a child by his grandfather whose own story Barry told in The Temporary Gentleman.
“He said that his great uncle had gone off to America somewhere in the previous century and had fought in the Indian wars. I don’t think he knew anything more.”
For Barry, that was “an absolute gift. With The Temporary Gentleman I was struggling in a way with knowing too much. With a book like this you can leave yourself completely open to the voice when you’re fortunate enough to start hearing it.”
Barry says “writing is a fatal activity for a writer; seeing and hearing is the thing”. He read extensively about the history of the era for a year (he does this for all his novels), including obscure first-hand accounts of ordinary people who had been alive in the US in the middle decades of the 1800s, “to get a hold of the whistletune of the day”.
He then spent another year waiting on the voice of McNulty and the opening lines of the novel. He describes this as “literally a process of sitting stiller and stiller at my work table in the old rectory in Whitlow, so that he could enter in and prove Einstein’s theory of continuous time to be correct; that we may regard these things as past and ‘the past’, but in a way everything is happening all the time, still. I’ve been a happy person since that day, because it was as if you have received a handshake up through the decades.”
It’s no accident either, that the book is dedicated to his son Toby who three years ago came out as gay at the age of 16, and who “gave me this whole new terrain to think about. And I do feel that this book is kind of my magic spell for Toby and for all people who in their glory have had suggested to them that they’re inglorious, which I think is one of the most disgusting things in our lifetime.”
It’s a novel that, like almost all his novels, reaches into the past, yet somehow posits a way forward. “You’re writing out of the past, but it’s a kind of spell or a secular prayer to play something in a future.”
He is acutely aware too, that books have their own purpose independent of the writer. “Books have their secret undertaking and it intrigued me greatly that this book had its own arguments to make with history and politics and the present.”
Indeed, Days Without End has taken on a contemporary resonance with Donald Trump’s strident US election campaign, in which the note of “exultant hatred” toward immigrants and people of colour — which was so rife in the 1800s world of the novel — resurfaced.
“That’s why I don’t think there’s any such thing as an historical novel as such, there’s only a book that is talking into the present, which of course,” adds Barry, “is shortly to be a history itself.”
Words and images by Thato Rossouw
“A conquered people often lose the inclination to tell their stories.”
These were the words of former Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke at the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, in discussion with readers about the importance of black people telling their own stories and having spaces where they can share them with one another. “We have stories to tell, they are important, and they are liberating in nature,” he said.
Moseneke’s words came as a preamble to compliment the authors Thando Mgqolozana and Panashe Chigumadzi, and the rest of their team members, for organising a festival that not only celebrated black writers, readers, pan-African book stores, and online platforms that celebrate African literature and narratives, but also gave them a safe space to speak freely about the issues they face in their struggle to liberate themselves.
The festival, which was themed “Imagining ourselves into existence”, came as a result of Mgqolozana’s decision early last year to renounce white colonial literary festivals. In an interview with The Daily Vox in May last year, Mgqolozana told Theresa Mallinson that his decision to reject these festivals came from a discomfort with literary festivals where the audience was 80 percent white. “It’s in a white suburb in a white city. I feel that I’m there to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject,” he said.
The three-day festival took place at two venues: the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre, which hosted free events during the day, and the Soweto Theatre, which hosted events in the evening. These evening festivities cost R20 per person and featured over 50 poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, literary scholars, screenwriters, performing artists and children’s writers from across Africa and the diaspora. Some of the writers and artists who were present at the festival include Niq Mhlongo, Unathi Magubeni, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, Thandiswa Mazwai, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Lebogang Mashile and Chika Unigwe, among many others.
The first day of the festival began with a discussion featuring four black female Fallist writers, Dikeledi Sibanda, Mbali Matandela, Sandy Ndelu and Simamkele Dlakavu, titled “Writing and Rioting Black Womxn in the time of Fallism”. The discussion covered topics ranging from the role of the body, particularly the naked body, in challenging old narratives, to writing and rioting as acts of activism. It was then followed by a highly attended talk with Justice Moseneke entitled “Land and Liberation”, a concert by the group Zuko Collective at the Soweto Theatre, as well as speeches and performances at the opening night show.
Some of the riveting discussions at the festival were titled: “Land and Liberation”, “Women of Letters”, “Writing Today”, “Cut! Our Stories on Stage and Screen”, “Ghetto is Our First Love”, “Creating Platforms for Our Stories” and “Writing Stories Across and Within Genres”. The festival also included seven documentary screenings, poetry performances, a writing masterclass with Angela Makholwa and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, and performances every night at the Soweto Theatre by Zuko Collective.
Dr Gcina Mhlophe gave the keynote address at the festival’s opening night, which was preceded by the singing of the decolonised national anthem and a rendition of the poem “Water” by poet Koleka Putuma. Mhlophe reminded the audience that, while it is important for us to celebrate young and upcoming artists, it is also important to remember and celebrate those that came before them. She sang and told stories about people like Mariam Tladi and Nokutela Dube and spoke about their role in the development of the arts. Dube was the first wife of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube who was the first President General of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) which was later renamed the African National Congress (ANC).
The festival ended with a sold-out event at the Soweto Theatre that featured a discussion on “Native Life in 2016” between Chigumadzi and I’solezwe LesiXhosa editor Unathi Kondile, facilitated by Mashile; a performance by Zuko Collective; and a Literary Crossroads session with Unigwe, facilitated by Ndumiso Ngcobo.
* * * * *
The hashtag #AbantuBookFest was on fire for the duration of the festival and long afterwards:
Alert! The five judges for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing were announced in London recently.
The Caine Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English. Previous winners include Zambian author Namwali Serpell, Sudan’s Leila Aboulela, Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina, South African Henrietta Rose-Innes and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo. This year’s winner was South African author Lidudumalingani for his story, “Memories We Lost”.
Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley, Chair of the 2016 judging panel, said the following about Lidudumalingani’s winning story: “This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, this short story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.”
The 2017 judging panel will be chaired by award-winning author, poet and editor Nii Ayikwei Parkes. The panel will consist of the 2007 Caine Prize winner Monica Arac de Nyeko, Professor Ricardo Ortiz, author and human rights activist Ghazi Gheblawi and Dr Ranka Primorac.
Parkes said he is “ecstatic” to have been asked to chair the panel and to work with “this incredible assembly of judges”. “I have been a consumer of fiction from Africa for close to four decades, revelling in its range, its humour, its insights and dynamic linguistic palette,” he said.
Parkes added: “There is, of course, the selfish pleasure, as an editor, of getting a first look at some of the finest writing coming from the continent and its foreign branches.”
The Caine Prize for African Writing has announced the five judges for the 2017 Prize. The panel will be chaired by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, award-winning author, poet and editor. He will be joined by the 2007 Caine Prize winner, Monica Arac de Nyeko; accomplished author and Chair of the English Department at Georgetown University, Professor Ricardo Ortiz; Libyan author and human rights campaigner, Ghazi Gheblawi; and distinguished African literary scholar, Dr Ranka Primorac.
The 2017 Chair of Judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, said: “I have been a consumer of fiction from Africa for close to four decades, revelling in its range, its humour, its insights and dynamic linguistic palette. So, I am ecstatic to be asked to chair the panel for this year’s Caine Prize and look forward to working with this incredible assembly of judges. There is, of course, the selfish pleasure, as an editor, of getting a first look at some of the finest writing coming from the continent and its foreign branches.”
The deadline for submissions to the 2017 Caine Prize is 31 January, 2017. Publishers are encouraged to submit qualifying stories in good time. Submissions are welcome year round and late submissions will be entered into the competition for the following year.
The judging panel will meet in May to determine which entries will make the shortlist. An announcement confirming the shortlist will be made in mid-May.
For the first time in the 18-year history of the Caine Prize, the award will be announced on Monday, 3 July, at Senate House, London, in collaboration with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which is celebrating its centenary.
“Memories We Lost” by South African author Lidudumalingani won the 2016 Prize and is included in the Caine Prize 2016 anthology, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things, published by New Internationalist in the UK and supplied as a print-ready PDF to several African co-publishers.
Commenting on “Memories We Lost”, Chair of the 2016 judging panel, Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said: “This is a troubling piece, depicting the great love between two young siblings in a beautifully drawn Eastern Cape. Multi-layered, and gracefully narrated, this short story leaves the reader full of sympathy and wonder at the plight of its protagonists.”
- The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016 by Caine Prize
Find this book with BOOK Finder!
By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
Fiona Melrose (Little Brown, R295)
It is rare for a debut novel to land with such assurance, with such a distinctive voice and sapient wisdom. South African author Fiona Melrose, pictured, wrote the book while living on a farm in Suffolk. She’d thrown in her job as an emerging markets analyst in London, finding the environment “too aggressive, too hyper-masculine”, and had retreated to her brother’s farm where she lived on her own for some time.
“It was incredibly lonely and isolating. The locals were suspicious of me and the physical work involved was astonishing. I was reading books on stock fencing for beginners and then banging poles into the frozen earth with blistered hands. It was unbelievably difficult physically and emotionally. There was nothing else to do except write a book about it, really.”
Midwinter is the result, the story of a father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter. They are Suffolk farmers, simple and plain-living whose moroseness hides a simmering rage. Ten years before, their beloved wife and mother, Cecelia, had died in an ill-advised sojourn in Zambia. Neither has come to terms with it, and when Vale is involved in a shocking accident at the beginning of the story, the dam of their anguish rips. Over the course of a bitter winter they clash, but because Melrose writes from their first person viewpoint we feel immense sympathy for them, for their interior wretchedness. Vale seems taciturn, for example, yet he repeatedly tells us “I had nothing I knew how to say.”
“They’re confronted with all kinds of trauma that they hadn’t addressed at the time,” Melrose says. “It suddenly comes into very sharp focus and they try to navigate a way through without completely falling apart.”
Midwinter is as much an examination of masculinity as it is of blame and grief. Melrose presents us with different versions in various characters: some are mute and violent, or gentle and steady, there are heroic soldiers and sage old men and any number of drink-fuelled young bucks. “I met a few of these boys in Suffolk and I thought they seemed so fundamentally unparented, not held in any kind of way. There was no safety net for that kind of chaotic energy.”
There are female characters, too, of course, but for Melrose it is nature itself, the land and animals that provide what she feels is “the feminine aspect, to balance the hyper-masculine energy of the characters”. Of particular importance is a wild fox, which Landyn believes is the familiar of Cecelia, watching over them.
Melrose’s writing is distinguished by striking descriptions: a cold gust “like a witch’s slap”; the air in a funeral service “as black as leprosy”; Landyn carries his regret “like those old harnessed ploughs, taking every last muscle and gritted tooth to get the blades through the clay’.
What distinguishes it too is the rich vernacular of the characters. Landyn calls himself “a duzzy old whoop”, Vale maunders around, lurking “in a constant mubble-tubble”. Cecelia’s hands had the “farn-tickle of the sun’.
Melrose has an acute ear for dialogue, something she attributes to her severe dyslexia and dyscalculia. “I think your brain makes routes around. Strangely enough I have perfect pitch musically, and what I do is write what I hear. The grammar’s probably incorrect and I spell phonetically, so a lot of it is quite intuitive. I rely a lot on rhythm and how a character breathes. So for Landyn I wrote in long breaths, but Vale is constantly on the edge of some kind of outburst so I wrote him in a staccato, short-breathed way.”
Eventually — and only just — will father and son reach some equilibrium.
Teeming with nature, pulsating with rue, Midwinter is evisceratingly emotional. Its sorrow will scrape you to the bone, but ultimately it warms you to the bone, too. It is an astounding debut.
Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood
Listen to Fiona Melrose’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast.
Published in the Sunday Times
Sam Wilson (Penguin Random House)
Sam Wilson’s debut novel Zodiac deserves to be a smash hit: set in an alternate universe in San Celeste, a generic US city, the book features a society governed by an absolute belief in astrology, where an individual’s future is predetermined by the date of his birth.
Like most cops in San Celeste detective Jerome Burton is Taurus, and when he starts investigating a series of particularly nasty murders he looks for the killer among the Aries underclass who are responsible for most of the city’s brutal crimes.
Wilson (a dodgy Aries himself) is not a believer. “I read a study that found that your zodiac sign really does match your personality, but only if you already believe in astrology and know what it says you should be, otherwise it’s no better than chance.”
With the help of profiler Lindi Childs (a Leo), Burton discovers – certainly in his own case – that the sign system is flawed, but reason cannot beat belief.
“I made a world in which it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. If enough people believe, then it becomes an unavoidable part of life,” says Wilson.
The victims are born under various signs and are killed in different ways – a chief of police (Taurus) is disembowelled then buried in the ground (the Taurus element), the host of a popular TV show (Leo) is shot and burnt (Leo is one of the fire signs).
Wilson says “beliefs and society shape who we are”, but says he had fun turning Burton into someone who firsts doubts the status quo and then has personal reasons for rejecting it.
The “signism” in Zodiac can be seen as a form of racism or anti-Semitism. However, Wilson says he had no overt political agenda.
“I thought that the zodiac world would be interesting and fun to write, and I came up with a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else.”
In this world a school called the True Signs Academy teaches problem children to embrace their true element; people live in designated areas according to their star sign; and a police “ram squad” (get it?) is tasked with dealing with the notoriously criminal group born in Aries.
Wilson makes it clear that signism is a bad thing. But despite the parallels a reader might be tempted to draw between the zodiac world and other oppressive regimes, the Cape Town author does not consider himself a political writer.
In fact, his influences are readable, accessible and popular.
“I was inspired by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz for their high-concept thrillers, although I can’t compare my work to theirs,” he says.
“And I loved … some of the great writing on TV shows like Black Mirror and The Wire.”
Wilson is researching another thriller set in the same universe, but with a different situation and characters.
However, his message to those who loved Zodiac is that Burton and Childs may get a cameo. Fingers crossed! — Aubrey Paton
Published in the Sunday Times
Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins
Christa Kuljian (Jacana)
When I studied the history of science at university in the ’80s, I learned that science is often shaped by the context of the time. So when I began research for Darwin’s Hunch, I was curious to find out how the changing times had shaped the search for human origins. For over a century, scientists rejected Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa, but today it is widely accepted.
One of the fascinating things I found was that anthropologist Raymond Dart has a lot in his papers that he did not share with the world. Many of his scientific practices were shaped by colonial thinking. Dart collected human skeletons in an effort to understand what he called “race typology”, which he believed held clues to evolution.
Paging through his documents, I learned the disturbing story of how one of those skeletons came into his collection, a story that remained hidden in the archives for 75 years, and which showed how scientific methods at the time treated human beings as specimens.
Phillip Tobias was Dart’s successor as the head of the department of anatomy at Wits Medical School so it was interesting to learn more about his relationship with Dart. I delved into some of Tobias’s papers as well, and it was surprising to see how his thinking on race and human evolution shifted from his youth in the 1940s through to his death in 2012. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was one of Tobias’s colleagues, Hertha de Villiers, who helped to shift scientific thinking away from Dart’s race typology. It was fascinating to learn about this accomplished scientist and her work.
Another of Dart’s theories was that humans are naturally violent. He based this idea on the fact that ancient human ancestors were carnivores and he believed that they used certain bones as weapons to kill their prey. This idea was so popular in the 1960s that it spread to millions of people via Robert Ardrey’s book African Genesis and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dart’s research inspired another young scientist, Bob Brain, based at the Transvaal Museum. Brain concluded that human ancestors did not choose certain bones as weapons, but that those bones remained in the fossil record because they could not be easily chewed.
By the late ’80s and ’90s, genetics had begun to play a big role in understanding human origins. Research with mitochondrial DNA led to the finding that all living humans had shared a common ancestor in Africa as recently as 200,000 years ago. While the changing science is engrossing, it is often the scientists themselves, and the times in which they live, that are most revealing.
Published in the Sunday Times
Lee Child (Bantam Press)
Lee Child is chatty, generous with his time, this genius author who created Jack Reacher, possibly the most enigmatic series character in contemporary thriller fiction.
For the uninitiated, Jack Reacher is ex-military police; six foot five inches tall, with rugged good looks. He’s now a drifter hitchhiking across the US, inadvertently becoming embroiled in nailbiting life-and-death action.
Men, in fictional and real worlds, respect his innate cunning and the physical agility with which he keeps the bad guys cowering. Women are intrigued by his reserve and fall for his seductive allure, but he remains a loner.
“His most obvious emotional issue,” Child explains, “is the duality between enjoying and needing his solitude but at the same time experiencing heartache and alienation.”
What secret, then, lies in Reacher’s past?
“You can infer he’s been unlucky in love. He’s condemned to a life of loneliness.” But not even Child fully knows Reacher. “I’m not one of those writers who works out a mock biography. I don’t know where Jack went to school. I don’t care what his favourite colour is. I treat him as I would treat a real person. You never know everything about somebody. Even with good friends it may take many, many years before you unravel all the incidents of their past.
“Perversely, a lot of readers would be very pleased if Reacher settled down. Readers worry about him. They’d be gratified if he found happiness but of course it would bring an end to the series.”
What was the catalyst in creating Reacher?
“His experience parallels my own. In the mid-’90s I was fired from my job in television at a time the industry was reorganising. I tried to give the same back story to Reacher. Because of circumstances out of his control he was turned out into the civilian world, and dislocated from what he was used to.
“On the overt level I’m obviously separate from him, but there’s an awful lot of autobiography in a main character, so in a sense Reacher is a little of me, and he does what I would do if I could get away with it. I resist the temptation to make him too good.
“In my new book he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s got to deliver for the organisation and faces a situation that’s extremely serious.”
If Child recognises himself in Reacher, equally then, he recognises a little of himself in all the bad guys he’s ever dreamed up. “Although,” he’s quick to add, “I prefer writing about Reacher doing the right thing rather than the bad guys doing the bad thing.”
Certainly a cast of ruthless criminals appear in Child’s hard-hitting thriller, Night School. Stolen nuclear warheads, sold on the black market to unscrupulous Saudis, are a threat to millions.
“I wanted to explore the pre-millennium years. The Cold War was over – this is only 20 years ago. The threat of nuclear war was replaced by a new threat. A sense of fluidity, improvisation, and panic became fertile. I’ve revisited the roots of what we’re dealing with now, the terrorism factor.”
I ask about biographer Andy Martin’s description of Child as “an evil mastermind bastard”. He laughs. “I took that as meaning I supply really good gut-wrenching plot twists. I was pleased. There’s nothing better in a book than when you’re following it along eagerly and then you say, ‘Wow, this is something else!’”
No Lee Child interview is complete without referring to the casting of Tom Cruise in the movie series – an actor about 10 inches shorter than the character. Child is forthright: “No actors look like Reacher, none at all. Here’s a guy,” he says of Cruise, “who gets the inside of Reacher on screen. I’m thrilled and delighted that people would be so concerned about who’d play Reacher. I see it as a badge of honour.”
Ex-Major Reacher, highly decorated himself, will remain forever the wanderer, so unencumbered that he has no suitcase (although he clearly has baggage), buys clothes on a need-to-change basis, and carries only his toothbrush and credit card in his pocket.
Follow Joanne Hichens on Twitter @JoanneHichens
Published in the Sunday Times
Minds of Winter
Ed O’Loughlin (Quercus)
A novel as wide and daring in its execution as its subject – centuries of mystery, horror and human courage in polar exploration. It opens in a tiny town on the edge of the Arctic Circle in present day Canada. Two lost souls, Fay and Nelson, searching separately for some evidence of their lost relatives, find each other by accident. Fumbling towards some sort of meaning, both in their searches and in their growing intimacy, they lead the reader into a grand adventure that stretches across time and the vast, white, howling geography of the North. This rollicking, beautifully written tale ranges from the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 – with its promise of British heroism mingled with hints of cannibalism – to the expeditions of Roald Amundsen both to the South Pole and the Northwest Passage, with a fascinating dose of Nazi U-boats and Cold War spying. The stories fade out, like so many lives lost in blinding snowdrifts, leaving the mysteries to echo hauntingly in readers’ minds, hoping always for a little more. – Hamilton Wende @HamiltonWende
Tannie Maria & The Satanic Mechanic
Sally Andrew (Umuzi)
Rippling with humour and affection, salted with violence and dark themes, leavened by “moan-out-loud” food: Sally Andrew’s second book in the Tannie Maria series hits the spot for her devotees. When a San activist is murdered at the KKNK Festival in Oudtshoorn – poisoned by a sosatie – Tannie Maria is once again catapulted into an investigation. But there’s a lot more going on here: in an effort to resolve her problems of intimacy with her suitor, the beeswaxed-mustachioed Henk, she joins a PTSD counselling group run by Ricus, the satanic mechanic of the title, who fixes people as well as cars. A comforting, cosy whodunnit set in the magical Klein Karoo, and imbued with gentle wisdom and a longing for small communities. And cheesecake. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood
The Last Time We Spoke
Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby Ltd)
Sussman’s gritty novel was catalysed by a real-life home invasion on a New Zealand family farm. Both the stunned and bereaved mother who was celebrating a special anniversary, and the young gang member whose hopeless, squalid circumstances have now led him to prison, must navigate their respective changed realities, and find new ways to rebuild shattered lives. As counterpoint, an ancestral voice, personified as “Beyond”, details the richness of precolonial Maori society and laments the marginalisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. “Time stacks each generation upon the one that has gone before, just like layers of rock.” Sussman unerringly focuses on the nexus of race and poverty, and the distance between the landed and the landless, echoing the postcolonial power dynamics of both her adopted home, and those of her native South Africa. A reminder that we cannot escape history, even as the choices we make today shape tomorrow’s history. – Ayesha Kajee @ayeshakajee
First published in The Witness
Picking up this book, I couldn’t prevent a visceral doubt about the value of an outsider’s view – Kasja Norman is a Swedish journalist. It’s a knee-jerk response: we live here, we know our country best. Any visitor, however much they think they have explored the situation, remains an outsider, unable to get under the skin of their subject. However, the outsider’s view is often the most compelling. It is salutary, as Robert Burns reminded us, to see ourselves as others see us.
In her author’s note, Norman makes a statement that is worth quoting: “I believe that all people are more or less blind to their own culture. Certainly, it has taken a decade away from my native Sweden for me to slowly begin to notice the peculiarities of my own culture.”
And so she begins her exploration of white Afrikaner society and its attitudes, ranging from the battle of Blood River in 1838 to life in the town of Orania with its attempt to create an Afrikaner island, surrounded by a sea of contemporary South Africa. The chapters alternate between historical events that shaped the Afrikaner mindset, and Norman’s interactions with Afrikaners in Orania and elsewhere over the past few years.
Those outside its bubble are inclined to see Orania as a kind of dreary joke, head deep in the sand. Somehow Norman manages to get herself accepted, particularly among the misfits who have washed up there. Some are damaged, sad people who have found a level of protection and acceptance, and whose stories are unexpectedly moving. It is more often in communities outside Orania where Norman uncovers really horrific attitudes.
You think: but I don’t know anyone like that. And then you are pulled up short by the recent news story of the two men who forced a farm worker into a coffin and threatened to set him alight. When Norman’s book ends with the expensively built Reconciliation Bridge at Blood River, ostensibly linking the two sides who fought the ancient battle, but which is still locked and barred because the representatives of the Ncome and Blood River heritage sites cannot agree on how it should be managed, you realise that mutual accommodation and tolerance are a very long way away – and receding. This is a deeply sobering book.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: The man, his dreams and prize
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who emerged from Nigeria’s generation of “intellectual terrorists”, recently won the Nigeria Prize for Literature. The award ceremony in Abuja was nothing short of grand – Michael Jimoh was there
Soon after the Swedish Academy delighted Nigerians with news that Wole Soyinka had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 1986, a national tragedy followed to dampen whatever excitement there was to savour of that historic feat. Dele Giwa, a stylish journalist and one of the founding editors of Newswatch, was letter-bombed. His demise, Soyinka later mourned, turned “the euphoria of the Nobel Prize into ashes in our mouths”.
When Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, winner of the 2016 edition of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, met and spoke with the press on Friday, November 25 in a clinically-clean, modest meeting room at the Protea Hotel, Maryland, Lagos, he briefly experienced the same emotional low as his senior colleague 30 years ago. His father, the one person he would have wished to be around to share this one unique moment with him, had died eight months before. In recounting it, Ibrahim’s voice became understandably low, his mien more pensive; a few journalistic heads drooped on shoulders, an expression of collective grief shown to individuals in moments of distress.
But four days later, on Tuesday, November 29, this time in Abuja, at the NAF Conference Centre in Kado, part of the Federal Capital Territory, there was no such emotion. Instead, there was celebration, celebration and recognition of an achiever. It was a mood of unpunctuated happiness from the moment MC Richmond Osuji took up the microphone to start off the public presentation of the award to Ibrahim mid-morning. The location was ideal, a quiet and easily accessible part of Abuja, with ample parking and uniformed security on guard from start to finish. The decorated tables with real white roses could have made anyone conclude that a wedding reception was about to begin.
Indeed, there was a union – not of man and woman, but of business and literature. And the result of that joint effort was evident before all by way of large posters in the lobby and in the hall: A medium shot of Ibrahim welcomed guests, his winning novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, published by Lagos-based Parresia Publishers, beside him with the sponsor’s logo, a stylised NLNG, in smaller letters at the top.
Season of Crimson Blossoms is Ibrahim’s first novel and won the gas company’s $100,000 prize easily, trouncing 171 other entries by Nigerian authors home and abroad. In its tradition, NLNG had come all the way from Port Harcourt to honour the laureate publicly at a venue of his own choosing.
Though he was schooled and once lived in Jos, Ibrahim has resided and worked in Abuja these past years, where he is Arts Editor of Daily Trust. Fortyish with a contemplative look reminding one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s brooding visage in one of his rare sober moments, Ibrahim has said that nothing took him to writing, “I grew into it. The only thing that came naturally to me, almost as natural as breathing, was writing.”
From that first love, the Mass Communication graduate from the University of Jos has never looked back. A collection of short stories and a novel later, Ibrahim has, in the words of an acquaintance, “consistently developed himself”.
At various times an electrician and a football wannabe, he never deviated from his avowed métier. If anything, he has lived the dream of writing, thus bringing to reality what the incomparable Frenchman of American history, Henry David Thoreau, once said of dreams. “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined,” Thoreau mused centuries ago, “he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
The gathering of literati, diplomats, company execs, politicians and common folk in Abuja that Tuesday morning confirmed Ibrahim’s “success unexpected in common hours”.
The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 10pm, but the capacious hall was packed to the rafters in no time, and late arrivals had only standing space. After a mandatory frisk by security at the entrance, guests arrived in pairs and in groups or alone, filled the chairs, most of the women in hijab setting off their well-defined faces, the men in babban riga with caps caved in on one side. Female children with beaded hair and lale-designed hands complemented the northern ambience of the event.
“This is the first time a writer from northern Nigeria is winning the prize,” a longtime resident of Abuja, and president of Association of Nigerian Authors, Denja Abdullahi told me. To Abdullahi, therefore, Ibrahim’s prize is “an affirmation of so many writers in the north who have been writing without the opportunity of promotion.”
Abdullahi’s veiled comment alludes to the fact that writers in the north get far less traction than their southern counterparts whose proximity to Lagos, culture capital of Nigeria, gives them more exposure and publicity. However, the presentation more than made up for whatever publicity mileage Ibrahim may have been denied in the press. It was the most attended and most high profile literary event in recent memory in the Federal Capital Territory.
The MD of NLNG, Tony Attah, led a retinue of senior staff, including Dr Kudo Eresia-Eke, the GM External Relations. Dr Bola Afolabi, Group General Manager of the gas company, represented the GMD of NNPC, Dr Maikanti Baru. The British High Commissioner, Peter Arkwright, sat all through the event, just as two diplomats from the US and Spain did. Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed filled in for the Federal Government, calling Ibrahim “my friend” several times even though he may only have heard of him days before. It helped no more when, in his well-delivered acceptance speech, the laureate swiped at the Federal Government, declaring that “no civilisation or people achieve anything without imagination. The dire state of the Nigerian nation is a testament to this fact. We are not only conditioned to abhor imagination and creativity but to stifle it.”
Ibrahim’s creative spirit was momentarily stifled some time in Jos where, after a sectarian clash in 2008, his house was razed – along with all his books. Despite that, his dedication to writing only got stronger. “He is particular about his craft,” Mallam Denja Abdullahi recalls of the author.
The president of the writers’ body insists he is not surprised Ibrahim won the most prestigious literary award in Africa. Equally not taken unawares is the laureate’s younger sibling, Abdulkadri Adam Ibrahim.
Anyone could easily mistake him for the writer, the same visage and height, and even build. Abdulkadri has followed his sibling’s writing career closely, right from the beginning. “I wouldn’t say this is a surprise because he has been winning other competitions before. I had my fingers crossed that he was going to win and when it came, I wasn’t surprised.”
The winning entry itself, Season of Crimson Blues, published by Parresia Books under the competent headship of Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi and Richard Ali, is a riveting love tango between a notorious, dope-dealing, hard-eyed criminal, Hassan “Reza” Babale, and a middle-aged widow, Hajiya Binta Zubairu. Though these two dominate the story, others come alive with the realism of Flaubertian characters. Mallam Haruna, a comical figure dying of suffocating jealousy, is one.
He it was, burdened by unrequited love, who hastened to Munkaila, son of Binta, with gossip about his mother’s fornication with a loathed neighbourhood crook. From then on, nothing could avert the tragedy that wound around Binta’s family like a soiled turban.
Ibrahim has a mastery of language and he deploys it expertly. In one scene, the author describes Reza and Binta, spent after making love: “the lovers lay on the bed watching the ceiling fan turning, slicing the air like an indolent scythe”. In another passage, we read of “memories eddying in little swirls around” Binta’s mind.
Season of Crimson Blossoms comes across as one of those ancient oriental tales by moonlight, complete with djinns, fragrances, incense and perfumes, sometimes used to cover up the “objectionable stench of fornication clinging” to the long-suffering widow.
It is not for nothing that the panel of judges wowed with deserved praise for Ibrahim’s novel. By a unanimous decision, they plumped for Ibrahim’s gripping tale of romance and tragedy.
“The novel moves from its evocative and passionate first sentence,” the Professor Dan Izebvaye-led panel of adjudicators commented, “through a web of anxious moments to a tragic and painful conclusion with hardly a moment of respite”.
Ibrahim comes from a generation of writers who senior journalist and writer Uzor Maxim Uzoatu classifies as “intellectual terrorists”. All of them are graduates of the University of Jos or have association with the city of Jos – the Helon Habilas, Obi Nwakanmas, Tony Kans, Dave Njokus, Richard Alis and others. So formidable is their intellectual prowess, it is said, that a UJ grad is almost always likely to win in a literary competition in Nigeria. At one time in a national poetry competition in the same year, Habila and Kan came first and third respectively.
Now teaching at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, Habila was the first Nigerian to win the Caine Prize for African Fiction, after Aboulela, a Sudanese writer and the first African to be so honoured. Ibrahim himself has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize. He has won the BBC African Performance Prize as well as the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. And now, the Nigeria Prize for Literature.
Tony Attah put it aptly for both the winner and the sponsoring company in his speech as the number one man in the NLNG gas company. “With respect to the prize, wherever possible, it has been the tradition to celebrate the winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature in the author’s homestead. By so doing, we believe that we bring the celebration to the people who contributed to making this author, to those who helped shape the experiences and personality of the winner, and to the place where his creativity was fueled. In addition to that, how best could we give today’s celebration its peculiar flavour other than to have it with family and friends of both the winner and Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas.”
The highlight of the presentation came much later, when Kudo Eresia-Eke asked to recognise the mother of the author. As she stood up, wearing a brown hijab, Ibrahim strolled dramatically from the stage for a long embrace with his mother. The ovation was loudest at this time. His wife also got an ovation, the woman who stood by the author all the way through.
For every seated guest, young and old, man and woman, literate or not, there was a copy of Ibrahim’s novel gifted by the gas company as a gift, some with Ibrahim’s autograph. Giving out copies of winning entries is a long-standing tradition of NLNG. At a similar reception two years ago in Lagos, Tade Ipadeola’s poem, The Sahara Testaments, was passed out freely to guests.
The reason, according to Eresia-Eke, is for educational purposes. “For anyone serious about building people, whether ordinary individuals or communities or nations, the most important gift is education because it is what makes the individual, he becomes master of his own destiny … education is extremely important to us because a people denied education is a people denied all rights.”
Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist living in Lagos. He has worked with some of the major newspapers in Nigeria but now freelances.
* * * * *