Posts Tagged ‘African literature’

Critic: Pic Cred: Cleverboxer.com

Critic: Pic Cred: Cleverboxer.com

During my time away from this page a couple of weeks back, I had been thinking: What Is the Worth of A Critic? This thought may have first come to me when I was asked to be a part of the reading team for this year’s Golden Baobab Prize for African Children’s Literature, somewhere in June.

In arts, a critic is everything. The best chisel of a piece of art work in progress is a critic. The writer’s best chisel is his reader. The poet’s best chisel is his audience. The playwright’s best chisel is his auditorium.

Every story is a critique of some social construct. The first critic of any piece of work is the writer himself. For a writer to write anything you enjoy reading, he must have critiqued the possible questions you will have on his choice of words, his storyline, his characters, his narrative voice, his grammar. Every moment while he writes, he is trying to outwit you; trying to tell you the same story in ways you have never heard; trying to keep you from getting bored, even trying to keep you awake. Critiquing your responses!

When I read any piece of writing, my mind goes into critic mode: probably the reason I am typically slower at reading than most. I unconsciously pick out words, pick apart sentences, perform reconstructive surgery on battered expressions in my head, all while I read; perhaps because, I want to write better than I read. I want to be the best writer I can be.

I started work on a book. It won’t be out soon but I hope it won’t wait forever. As I write, there is a little sprite that constantly comes back at me, pointing a finger at that sentence I wrote, asking why I used an extra word, made the sentence sound so cliché, made the paragraph run so long, kept the wording so terse and uninspiring. Isn’t there a better way to put that phrase? Do I really need that entire sentence? This word here is going to turn readers off. I criticize myself.

For eternity, I have been critiquing other people’s poems, even long before I started to put it out here on this blog. The reason why I do it for poetry is that it can hardly go wrong. Poetry is correct even when it is wrong. Poetry transcends some measure of judgment.

These past weeks have been filled with reading some exciting stories as part of the reading team of the Golden Baobab Prize and I have realized that a critic can be wrong too. Sometimes, going back and forth, reading a story over again and benchmarking a story against one’s own view and imagination of the world makes the story more open to you. You owe it to every writer whose work you read, to be as thorough, liberal and accepting of change and difference as a fair critic can be. If your view is narrow, your critique will be narrow. If you have seen enough of the world by traveling or by diverse reading, you will appreciate better those quaint twists in a story set in another part of the world. An art critic is not typically a judge; he is more of a supporter in the stands, maybe even the coach, urging on his players (the story, the writer) to a winning end. It may not have crossed many minds but the critic critiques because he is cheering you on to a win.

At this point of reading, there is one conclusion I can draw about the next generation of stories on African kids’ library shelves; they will be bold, they will be fearless and they will tell the story of today’s African. I know this because I have felt the roller coaster of emotions that writers have told their stories with. All of those stories, some affected by true (and oft times, harsh) African political, economic and cultural inflections, are the real reason why Golden Baobab’s grand vision will succeed. The African has been given another stage to tell his unheard story to the world.

One of these stories will go on to win. When it does and you hear anyone mention that it has achieved ‘critical acclaim’, just remember the critic. It all started with a writer who second-guessed the story he wanted to tell, who listened to his characters lie to him in the first and the second and the third drafts, and who, regardless of the odds, outwitted the judges, answered their unspoken questions and critiqued his way to triumph. In this game, only the best critic wins.

Calling all African poets desirous of publishing a first book! This is an announcement you may not spare me for keeping away from you. Read:

The African Poetry Series has been made possible through seed funding from philanthropists, Laura and Robert F. X. Sillerman, whose generous contributions have facilitated the establishment of the African Poetry Book Fund.  Mr. and Mrs. Sillerman have also welcomed the use of their name for the First Book Prize for African Poets.

Prizes

The winner receives USD $1000 and publication through with the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal.

Eligibility

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets will only accept “first book” submissions from African writers who have not published a book-length poetry collection. This includes self-published books if they were sold online, in stores, or at readings. Writers who have edited and published an anthology or a similar collection of other writers’ work remain eligible.

An “African writer” is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, who is a national or resident of an African country, or whose parents are African.

Only poetry written in English is eligible. Translated poetry is accepted but a percentage of the prize will be awarded to the translator.

No past or present paid employees of the University of Nebraska Press or Amalion Press, or current faculty, students, or employees at the University of Nebraska, are eligible for the prizes.

When to Send

Manuscripts are accepted annually between September 15 and December 1st.

Manuscript

Poetry manuscripts should be at least 50 pages long.

The author’s name should not appear on the manuscript. All entries will be read anonymously. Please include a cover page listing only the title of the manuscript (not the author’s name, address, telephone number, or email address). An acknowledgements page listing the publication history of individual poems may be included, if desired. No application forms are necessary. You may submit more than one manuscript.

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets accepts electronic submissions ONLY. Click here to submit via Submittable.

Entry Fee

Free

Notification

The winner is announced early January on the African Poetry Book Fund website. Results will be emailed shortly thereafter.

2013 Winner

The winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for 2013 is Clifton Gachagua for his manuscript Madman at Kilifi. He will receive a USD $1,000 prize and publication by the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal. (Details)

Please send any questions to psbookprize@unl.edu

All the best to you all who take part.

Achebe44Three days ago was World Poetry Day. Two days ago, Chinua Achebe passed away. Today, I weep.

The only novel of his I have read is the world-acclaimed ‘Things Fall Apart’ but it was so impressive, I read it twice.  I also have read reviews of his last publication, ‘There was a Country’, which comes across as probably his most criticised work.

Achebe is popular as the Father of African literature in English language. When his death was announced, so many lovers of literature spent the day quoting witty and proverbial texts from any of his books that they had read. I simply tweeted ‘Chinua Achebe’.

On Wikipedia, you find this text that says: “Things Fall Apart went on to become one of the most important books in African literature. Selling over 8 million copies around the world, it was translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time.”

‘There was a Country’ seems to be a book that defends Biafra’s role in the 1960s Biafran war which the region fought against the rest of Nigeria, in search of secession.  The cruelty with which the war was won, where the nation starved the Biafra region of food and supplies, causing the death of about a million people, makes the war one to forget. Achebe was a Biafran and after that war, he withdrew from public service, constantly criticising successive Nigerian governments till his death. He turned down state awards in both 2005 and 2011, in a statement of defiance of governments that did little to care for the people. His whole life was a protest and it showed remarkably in his work, Things Fall Apart. Reviews of his other works suggest that in all of them, he was staunch in his protest, earlier of colonialism and later of corruption and graft in his native Nigeria. During the Biafran war, he wrote more poetry because that was more convenient and that was what he could squeeze his emotion and life into at the time.

Chinua is gone. Did we not know he would? We did. Because that is the end destined for us all. And even as we mourn his passing, we reflect on the life he lived among us and the contribution he made to African literature in English.  There is no voice louder than his on the work he chose for his life to do.  At 82, he had played his part.

Achebe was close to Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo (very good friends with Achebe’s son) with whom he stood in the Biafran war. You can read this reviewed poem of Okigbo’s here on this blog. Okigbo died as an early casualty of the Biafran war himself in 1967. Chinua wrote for Okigbo this poem I will like to leave us all with. Let Paradise keep you, Chinua.

WAKE FOR OKIGBO

For whom are we searching?
For whom are we searching?
For Okigbo we are searching!

Nzomalizo!
Has he gone for firewood, let him return.
Has he gone to fetch water, let him return.
Has he gone to the marketplace, let him return.
For Okigbo we are searching!
Nzomalizo!
For whom are we searching?
For whom are we searching?
For Okigbo we are searching!
Nzomalizo!

Has he gone for firewood, may Ugboko not take him.
Has he gone to the stream, may Iyi not swallow him!
Has he gone to the market, then keep from him you
Tumult of the marketplace!
Has he gone to battle,
Please Ogbonuke step aside for him!
For Okigbo we are searching!
Nzomalizo!

They bring home a dance, who is to dance it for us?
They bring home a war, who will fight it for us?
The one we call repeatedly,
there’s something he alone can do
It is Okigbo we are calling!
Nzomalizo!
Witness the dance, how it arrives
The war, how it has broken out
But the caller of the dance is nowhere to be found
The brave one in battle is nowhere in sight!
Do you not see now that whom we call again
And again, there is something he alone can do?
It is Okigbo we are calling!
Nzomalizo!

The dance ends abruptly
The spirit dancers fold their dance and depart in midday
Rain soaks the stalwart, soaks the two-sided drum!
The flute is broken that elevates the spirit
The music pot shattered that accompanies the leg in
its measure
Brave one of my blood!
Brave one of Igbo land!
Brave one in the middle of so much blood!
Owner of riches in the dwelling place of spirit
Okigbo is the one I am calling!
Nzomalizo!

In memory of the poet Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967)
Translated from the Igbo by Ifeanyi Menkit. Ref: Poetry Foundation Ghana.

POET’S PROFILE – LEOPOLD SEDAR SENGHOR

Senghor

Senghor

The greatest of the Francophone African poets you will ever read is Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was born in Senegal, in 1906, and schooled both in Dakar and in Paris, France. He was the first West African to graduate from the Sorbonne (a part of the University of Paris, founded in 1253 that contains the faculties of science and literature) and teach in a French university. He is acclaimed as the father of Negritude (from Negro), a philosophy that affirms the black identity and touts the black man’s values as something to celebrate and be proud of. His poetry shows it in abundance.

Senghor was a statesman. He fought with the French in the Second World War and became a prisoner of war in then Nazi Germany. He became the Deputy for Senegal in the French Constituent Assembly, President of the Council of the Republic and Counselling Minister at the office of the President of the French Community. In 1960, he became the President of the Federal Republic of Mali and later in the same year, the President of an Independent Republic of Senegal. He was president until 1980.

His poetry revealed the contrast between the French way of life being foisted on French African colonies under a purported Policy of Assimilation and the original unblemished values of the African. In this light, he was either always too busy praising Negritude or denouncing the French ideal. This poem comes from his publication, Chants d’Ombre (Songs from the Shadow). I hope I got my French right there.

I WILL PRONOUNCE YOUR NAME

I will pronounce your name, Naett, I will declaim you, Naett!
Naett, your name is mild like cinnamon, it is the fragrance in which the lemon grove sleeps
Naett, your name is the sugared clarity of blooming coffee trees
And it resembles the savannah, that blossoms forth under the masculine ardour of the midday sun
Name of dew, fresher than shadows of tamarind,
Fresher even than the short dusk, when the heat of the day is silenced,
Naett, that is the dry tornado, the hard clap of lightning
Naett, coin of gold, shining coal, you my night, my sun!…
I am you hero, and now I have become your sorcerer, in order to pronounce your names.
Princess of Elissa, banished from Futa on the fateful day.

REVIEW

Very few lyric poems are filled with so much self-indulgence. Senghor is deliriously and starry-eyed, singing the praise of a lady he names as Naett. It is important to read Senghor’s poetry with Negritude themes as many commentators have likened Naett to Africa, to whom he writes this letter from France. To declaim someone (line 1) is to mention their name theatrically, poetically. Well, this is a poem. So in mentioning her name, Senghor says “Naett” dreamily as one who is totally consumed. Undisplaced, his love for Africa was as strong.

From lines 2-8, Senghor likens the name Naett to a host of natural breath-takers. Mind that he is not even praising the lady herself yet but only her name. In line 2, her name is like cinnamon, an aromatic spice and fragrance. He is a lover of the savannah, the African plains, and to him, her name is like it (line 4) when the African midday sun causes it to blossom. Her name is compared to dew (line 5), that early morning remnant of night mist and also to the short dusk (line 6), very welcome respite from the heat of day. Her name evokes power, as of a dry tornado (line 7) and inspires him to confess his love for blackness, something that Western literature is mute on. He calls her shining coal, my night (line 8): strange references for beauty. Does night entice? But it is black and he likes it. Does coal shine? No, but Senghor’s coal is of another beauty. His sun! Africa and Blackness! Negritude!

In the last two lines, her name has transformed him into a sorcerer (line 9). For her only. And this is important because the African sorcerer deals in invocation, incantation and chanting. He mentions the names and sings in praise of his divine spirit. And to him, nothing can help him “to pronounce your names” better than being a sorcerer. Note that, he has never said she had names until now. And now, as a sorcerer, he proceeds to call her Princess of Elissa, banished from Futa on the fateful day (line 10). Futa was a West African kingdom that had its capital as Futa Djallon and blossomed around present-day Guinea. She was banished from there. African royalty, if indeed she was a princess, were banished for serious crimes, for example, falling in love with a commoner when a prince is the allowed. Could Senghor’s love have cost the girl a kingdom? We will never know. If Naett is Africa, how would this sentence translate? I am lost, really.

POET’S PROFILE

Osadebe

Osadebe

Dennis Osadebe was born in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria in 1911 to parents of mixed cultural backgrounds. For a long time, his education and work were in Nigeria before he left to study law in England in the 1940s. He has been in politics, journalism and practiced as a jurist. For a time, he was Premier of the Mid-West Region of the Federation of Nigeria upon its creation. He was also one of the founders of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons in 1944.
Like many poets, Osadebe wrote first for journals and newspapers such as the West African Pilot. His first anthology, Africa Sings was published while he was studying in England. As an African born in the colonial era, his poetry resonates with others rising across the continent at that time, talking about Africanness and the desire to carve an identity for a continent fighting to put herself on a more-deserved pedestal.

WHO BUYS MY THOUGHTS
Who buys my thoughts
Buys not a cup of honey
That sweetens every taste;
He buys the throb,
5 Of Young Africa’s soul,
The soul of teeming millions,
Hungry, naked, sick,
Yearning, pleading, waiting.

Who buys my thoughts
10 Buys not false pretence
Of oracles and tin gods;
He buys the thoughts
Projected by the mass
Of restless youths who are born
15 Into deep and clashing cultures,
Sorting, questioning, watching.

Who buys my thoughts
Buys the spirit of the age,
The unquenching fire that smoulders
20 And smoulders
In every living heart
That’s true and noble or suffering;
It burns all o’er the earth,
Destroying, chastening, cleansing.

REVIEW
This poem is Osadebe’s statement of Africa’s soul at a time that he can confidently call Africa young: a continent waking to the realities of her need for independence. He compares his thoughts to the throb/ Of Young Africa’s soul (lines 4-5) and in his opening lines, he tells us that they are not a cup of honey/That sweetens every taste (lines 2-3). Osadebe feels the revolutionary wind that is blowing across the continent and which he embodies in the soul of this poem, representing The soul of teeming millions (line 6) with his thoughts. He writes on despair but looks to hope in the contrast of the lines that end the first stanza: Hungry, naked, sick (line 7) are desperate but in the next line, Yearning, pleading, waiting are more hopeful.
Osadebe says that his thoughts are not the thoughts of any one man who bestrides Africa, the country, like a Colossus, a tin god to be worshipped. But he breathes the fire of restless youths who, are tired of their present and are sorting, questioning, watching (line 16). In pre-colonial times, this was a common theme that helped to shape the thinking of a continent on the brink of revolution. What Osadebe does best is to use a prophetic, rhythmic repetition to show the desperation of Africa for change. His continued repetition of the line, Who buys my thoughts, is more of a warning than a statement of harmony.

The final stanza ignites the volcano that is hid in his heart and is now brewing inside the African revolutionary heart. He claims his thoughts as unquenching fire that burns in every heart that is alive. Every heart that is suffering and is honest! Osadebe now calls his thoughts a fire that burns all over the earth. Here reflects the mission of his life which was lived on two continents and goes beyond the call for freedom in his country Africa. Here sounds a call for freedom for people suffering everywhere. A call that Osadebe, and of course Africa, is not ready to beg for, but to claim in an inferno.

The beauty of every last line of the stanzas is the fact that it ends with a word that evokes a brighter future for which Africa is waiting (line 8), watching (line 16) and with her fire, is cleansing, (line 24).