It’s Fiction Friday! Dip into an excerpt from Foreign Gods, Inc., the latest novel by Okey Ndibe, who will be in Cape Town for the Open Book Festival next week.
The novel tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver, who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery.
Ndibe earned some heavyweight praise for the book, with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o saying it “reads like the narrative of a taxi-driving Faust in modern Nigeria and America … it teems with characters and situations that make you laugh in order not to cry”.
Wole Soyinka said it was “quite a while since I sensed creative promise on this level”.
Ndibe was born in Nigeria, in 1960, and moved to the United States in 1988 when Chinua Achebe invited him to become the founding editor of African Commentary. He has MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and lives in Connecticut.
Read an excerpt from the first chapter of Foreign Gods, Inc.:
Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,” parked his Lincoln Continental cab at a garage that charged twelve dollars per hour. Before shutting off the engine, he looked at the car’s electronic clock. Nine forty-seven a.m.; it meant the gallery would have been open for a little less than an hour. Perfect, Ike thought, for he wished to be done transacting his business before the place started buzzing.
He walked a block and a half to 19 Vance Street. Had a small animal been wedged in his throat, his heart could not have pounded more violently.
The eave over the door bore a sign etched in black over a bluish background: foreign gods, incorporated. It was written in tiny, stylized lettering, as if intended to create a tactful anonymity. Few would stumble upon a store like this; it would be found, it seemed, only by habitués and devotees.
Across the street was a bar. Ike contemplated a quick drink or two to calm his nerves. How odd to flack for a war god while jittery. Yet, to go in smelling of alcohol might also be a costly mistake.
The gallery door clicked, and a tanned woman walked out. A squat carved statue was clutched close to her breast, held in a suckling posture. At the curb, a gleaming black BMW pulled up. She opened the rear door and leaned in, arched backside revealing the outline of her underwear. Her black high-heeled shoes were riveted with nodes of diamond. She strapped the deity in place with the seat belt and then straightened. The car’s front door was opened from inside. She lowered herself in, and the car sped off.
Ike pulled at the gallery door—surprisingly light. A wide, sprawling space unfurled itself: gray marble floors, turquoise walls, and glass-paneled showcases. A multitude of soft, recessed lights accentuated the gallery’s dim, spectral atmosphere. In the middle of the room, slightly to the left of the door, a spiral staircase with two grille-work banisters rose to an upper floor. Ike knew from the New York magazine piece that people went upstairs only by invitation. And that those invitations went only to a small circle of long-term collectors or their designated dealers.
There was an otherworldly chill in the air. There was also a smell about the place, unsettling and hard to name. Ike froze at the edge of the run of stairs that led down to the floor of the gallery. From the elevation, he commanded a view. The space was busy but not cluttered. Clusters of short, squat showcases were interspersed with long and deep ones. Here and there, some customers peered into the glass cases or pored over catalogs.
In a matter of two, three weeks, his people’s ancient deity, Ngene, would be here, too. And it would enjoy pride of place, not on this floor, with the all-comers and nondescripts, but upstairs, in the section called Heaven. Ngene was a majestic god with a rich legend and history. How many other gods could boast of dooming Walter Stanton, that famed English missionary whose name, in the syllable-stretching mouths of the people of Utonki, became Su-tan-tee-ny?
The thought gave him a gutsy boost. He trotted down the steps to the floor of the gallery. Walking unhurriedly, he cast deliberate glances about him, so that an observer might mistake him for a veteran player in the rare sport where gods and sacred curios were bought and sold. He paused near the spiral staircase. A sign warned please do not ascend unless escorted. He walked on to a chest-high showcase. A hefty wooden head stared at him from atop a rectangular stump. The face was pitched forward, like a tortoise’s head poking out of a shell. On closer inspection, Ike saw that the carved head was deformed by a chipped, flattened nose and large, bulgy eyes. Inside the case, four fluorescent puck lights washed the statue with crisscross patterns of luminescence and shadows. A fork-tongued serpent coiled itself round the statue’s neck.
There was an electronic key code for the showcase’s twin-winged door, and several perforations in the glass, small and circular, as if designed to let in and let out just enough air to keep the glum, rigid statue from suffocating. A strip tag glued to the glass cage identified the deity as C1760. Ike picked up a glossy catalog and thumbed to the C section. Each page was columned, with sections marked “inventory code,” “name,” “brief history,” and “price.” He ran his finger down the line until he saw the tag number. Then he drew his finger across to the price column: $29,655.
He flipped the pages to the catalog’s last section, marked “Heavenly Inventory.” The lowest price in the section was $171,455; the highest $1.13 million. He studied the image of one of the deities in that section. Carved from soot-black wood, it had two fused figures, one female, and the other male. The figures backed each other. The female was big breasted and boasted a swollen belly. The male figure held a hoe in one hand, a gun in the other, its grotesque phallus extending all the way to its feet. They shared the same androgynous head, turned neither left nor right but forward. A pair of deep-set eyes seemed to return Ike’s stare. It was listed for $325,630. Ike read the short italicized description: A god of the crossroads, originally from Papua New Guinea.
“Wait until they see Ngene,” he said under his breath, a flush of excitement washing over him. Surely, a legendary god of war would command a higher price than a two-faced crossroads idler.
Author image courtesy of Soho Press
Now in its sixth year, National Book Week will be celebrated across the country next week, from 7 to 13 September.
The Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, launched National Book Week and the National Book Week Tour Bus ahead of its one week tour at Emoyeni Conference Centre in Parktown.
“The importance of reading in order to achieve success in life is foundational for the individual and essential for nation building and social cohesion,” Mabudafhasi said. “The Department of Arts and Culture’s Mzansi Golden Economy strategy recognises the power of the sector to contribute to job creation, poverty reduction, skills development and above all, economic growth.”
The #BuyABook Campaign
According to the Department of Arts and Culture, only 14 percent of South Africans read books, while half the country’s homes do not contain a single leisure book.
South African Book Development Council CEO Elitha van der Sandt says: “We are very excited about this one. We have partnered with Exclusive Books and Bargain Books so that from 7 to 20 September, selected books will be sold for R20. Please buy a book, not for yourself but for someone who doesn’t own one!”
The public is also encouraged to purchase the books for R20 and donate them by placing them in the NBW book bins in the stores for donation to charity.
The #GoingPlaces Campaign
The #GoingPlaces campaign involves the Department travelling throughout the country distributing book during National Book Week.
Director General of the Department of Basic Education Matanzima Mweli says: “We need civil society to support what schools are doing. We have to go beyond to get the nation reading. That’s why every year, the department delivers 1 000 libraries to schools because it realises that the future does not belong to us; it is borrowed from our children.”
National Book Week ambassadors include Lupi Ngcayisa, Stoan Seate, Refiloe Mpakanyane, Jena Dover, Pearl Thusi and Aaron Moloisi. They will be accompanied by the NBW mascot, Funda Bala.
The National Book Week Bus Tour will make stops in Gauteng, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Satellite programmes will also take place in the Free State and Western Cape.
All events will promote the key message of encouraging reading as a fun activity, with a strong focus on indigenous languages and local authors as well as library awareness and access.
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The Daveyton Book Club is only four months old but is already making great strides in uplifting the community of Ekurhuleni.
Kwandile Sikhosana, the 23-year-old founder of the NGO, which was recently featured on Mzanzi Insider on SABC 1, believes in free education for all and, together with his deputy chairperson Sarah Madingwana, strives to bring both formal and informal education to the community of Daveyton and surrounds.
Their strategy is two-fold. First, the Daveyton Book Club hosts learnerships, internships, workshops and training programmes. Their current workshop started on Monday, 31 August, and focuses on information technology, finance, negotiation skills, project management and public relations. At the end of the course, which was made possible through partnership with Kezla Investments, participants will walk away with a SETA accredited certificate.
“We knock on doors and then they knock on other doors,” Sikhosana says. Currently the NGO consists of Sikhosana, Madingwana and two more people, Tshepo Thato Tau and poet Noluthando Mambolo.
The second part of their strategy is to host a book reading every last Saturday of the month. On this day the youth of Ekurhuleni (and everyone else who enjoys words) gather at the Elethu Cheshire Home for the Disabled where authors come and speak about their books. This leads to an open dialogue session about the issues and themes in the books, such as unemployment, drug abuse and other social ills, and how the community can work together to improve their lives. The members of the Daveyton Book Club also review books by local authors and promote their books at the club sessions every last Saturday of the month.
Sikhosana says any authors, poets or performers who have developmental issues at the heart of their work are welcome to address the gathering. His dream is for the Daveyton Book Club to become an institution, to run their own workshops, their own apprenticeships and mentorships.
Madingwana, who is also the founder of The Design Parliament, says the aim of the club is to offer educational programmes with accredited institutions, and to form a memorandum of understanding with companies to offer employment after the training workshops. At the same time the NGO wants authors, poets, mentors and leaders to form part of the organisation to help create an environment that enables learning and to cultivate a love of reading.
Sikhosana says the biggest challenge so far has been financing. They raise funds by collecting and selling books for R5 each in an effort to make reading and learning accessible. “When we have sessions we must ensure that people are fed,” he says, adding that they also need money for transport and branding. So far they have done really well on social media, and they are saving money to start a website.
To get in touch with the Daveyton Book Club:
- Phone them at 084 763 1092
The New York Public Library has shared the podcast of a witty and insightful conversation between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith that happened late last year.
The two authors discuss a wide variety of topics, from writing, to Mills and Boone; race and blackness; the differences between America, the UK and Nigeria; as well as Beyoncé, fashion, sexuality and feminism.
Adichie begins with a reading from Americanah, but not before expressing her admiration for Smith, both as a writer and as a “hot babe”.
“I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from White Teeth,” she says, “and I’ve also really admired that she’s this brilliant woman who’s also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes.”
Smith says when she first read Adichie she was struck by the “psychological acuity” of her work, and she says anyone who has ever written will know how “unbelievably difficult that is to achieve”.
“I think everyone who reads you is amazed by how real these people seem,” Smith says. “It goes quite beyond a lot of the fiction you read these days.”
Adichie mentions the aphorism that “prose should be as clear as a window pane”, but says the truth is more mysterious than that.
“What I love about fiction writing is that there’s that moment when something magic happens,” she says. “You have moments when nothing’s happening, it’s not going well. Then there’s the moment when you just become transported, and you really forget how much time has past. When I’m sitting writing, that’s what I’m hoping will happen.
“But when I’m editing, clarity is important to me. It’s easy to confuse something that’s badly written as somehow deep. The sentences I admire are the sentences that are lucid.”
Smith says she feels Adichie’s characters move with extraordinary freedom: “They feel utterly genuine to me, as if these people have risen out of the ground, they exist, and you are just following them around.”
Adichie says she likes to think of Americanah as her “fuck you book”, adding that the moniker is addressed, in part, to another, more deferential, version of herself.
“With Half of a Yellow Sun I was very dutiful. I think for so long I’ve been a dutiful daughter of literature,” Adichie says. “I followed the rules. With Americanah I thought, ‘I’m going to write the book I want to write’.”
Women in fiction
Smith asks Adichie about her female characters, which she feels are of a type quite unusual in American fiction: “The women in your fiction are somehow always themselves. They’re always confident.”
Adichie agrees, saying: “I hear from people, ‘Your female characters are so strong, how do you do that?’
“For me, I’m writing about women who are familiar. Not to say that all the women I know are strong and have their shit together, they’re not. But to say that the idea of a woman being strong and simply being strong not to prove anything, or not to be unusual, is normal to me.”
On Mills & Boon and owning your sexuality
Smith turns the conversation to relationships, saying that the relationships in Adichie’s books are “not a light matter”, comparing her treatment of romantic and sexual relationships to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Adichie asks Smith if she read Mills and Boon growing up, but Smith says her mother banned the books from the house.
“When I was growing up, every girl read Mills and Boon,” Adichie says, “and I think I read maybe 200.”
“But in those books girls wait, no? Your girls don’t wait,” Smith says, to the delight of Adichie, and the audience.
Adichie replies that her books are in the grand tradition of Mills and Boon but are also anti-Mills and Boon.
“It took me a little while to realise that I really don’t like the Mills and Boon format, where the man decides,” Adichie says. “The destiny of the relationship is in the hands of the man, and it’s okay if they meet, they don’t like each other, and he grabs her at some point and she melts. You know that idea that a woman can’t own her sexuality, can’t own her choices? So my work is the anti-Mills and Boon in many ways. The women in my world don’t have to wait because they’re women.”
Smith says: “Maybe it’s that difference that Alice Walker pointed out so many years ago between ‘feminine’ and ‘womanist’: the idea of not being something that’s just passive, waiting to be taken, but something that acts in the world.”
On fashion and women’s magazines
After a fascinating discussion of race, tempered by the fact that both Smith and Adichie are non-Americans living in America, the conversation turned to fashion and whether black women should be more represented in women’s magazines, or whether they are boxed in by those aesthetics.
“I have a probably unpopular opinion,” Smith says, “but I grew up with a mother with no interest in any of that — makeup, magazines, anything — and I was really happy. So my feeling is, to be honest, I don’t really want to be in those magazines. I don’t really like those magazines. And I know it’s a matter of representation and it’s meant to be equality, but do you want to be equal with something that makes so many people miserable?
“I quite like the fact that we had our own aesthetic and we had our own way of being and it had nothing to do with weighing five pounds … I don’t care about those magazines. I know it’s important to be represented, but personally, if you’re asking me honestly, I don’t like that stuff and I don’t want to be a part of it anyway.”
Adichie disagrees, saying she believes “it really does matter”, and that despite appearances the argument has nothing to do with men.
“It’s one think to have our own verified, wonderful little bubbles and to be happy in them,” she says, “but there’s a wider world out there. And so you’re raising a daughter; you’re not going to be able to keep her away from those things, it’s not going to happen. My mother was the exact opposite of yours, she was very interested in all of those things.
“It’s not even about the male gaze. Men don’t get female fashion. I don’t even think about men when I make my choices, because they’re irrelevant. I love men but they just don’t get it. It’s about me. And I don’t want to live in a world where I have to apologise for liking what I like.”
Smith says the black women that are featured in those kinds of magazines are not familiar anyway: “They don’t look like black women that I know. They’re under a different aesthetic.”
Adichie assents that the images are “unattainable”, but argues that they don’t have to be, adding: “Even for me that’s progress. It’s still better to have black faces that weigh five pounds than not to have any faces that are black.”
Listen to the podcast:
Image courtesy of The Times
Masande Ntshanga chatted to Africa in Words recently about “The Space”, his short story that won the Pen International/New Voices Award, what it was like to be shortlisted for the Caine Prize, and his future plans.
Ntshanga’s debut novel The Reactive was released in October last year, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and has earned two international publishing deals.
When asked what position he see himself in as an African writer, Ntshanga says he finds the label “South African writer” more useful.
Read the interview:
This story also won the Pen International/New Voices Award a few years ago. Based on that experience, and your recent experience of the Caine Prize, do you share some of the anxieties that characterise debate about literary prizes for African fiction?
I don’t. I identify as a South African writer, and for the International New Voices Award the story was nominated under PEN South Africa, which made the experience quite different in orientation from the Caine Prize, which works under the umbrella of African Writing. My fellow nominees, then, were from Canada and Mexico, all of us selected from a global pool, and each with stories that were rooted in our respective communities. In the time preceding that, my work had only gained exposure in South Africa, and as such, had only been read as South African fiction. Even though both terms are abstractions, for a writer pre-occupied with place at the moment, I find the South African label more fitting for my work – in the same way, to return to James Joyce, I prefer to think of him as an Irish author as opposed to a European one. I say this because most of the debates that I’ve encountered are hinged on unpacking the meaning of African Writing in the West’s cultural imagination. That said, I don’t share in on many of the anxieties because I don’t often share a context with this view of African Writing – having lived in South Africa all my life – and as such, am more likely to leave it to the West to take it as a prompt to reflect on whether or not it’s still an accurate and efficient system of categorization. I can only say that it’s probably a prompt worth having.