Sunday, June 06, 2010

Seeking directions, Pakistan writing and the Kingdom of Ife

The sun is out again today, a perfect summer day, but given the flirty (blistering hot one minute, shiveringly cold the next) weather that has been our lot since April, there’s no telling how long this reprieve will last….

I’m walking down the street admiring the neat lawns, the profusion of brightly coloured flowers cascading down the sides of the freshly painted black railings that line the park, hay-fever medicated to the hilt, when I notice her. She is standing, looking lost, at one corner of the street, from time to time consulting a piece of paper in her hand, and looking up, tentatively, at passersby. As I approach her, she walks, or perhaps, glides to me, draped in black from head to toe and asks, in English tinged with the winds of the Horn of Africa “Do you know where the big mosque is?”

I sense that she has waited to ask me because she is wary of the response from most of those who have come before me. Unfortunately I am unable to help, only being in the area for a meeting, I do not know it well. And so, having looked around for any street signs to a mosque, I shake my head and move away, leaving her to continue her sifting, trying to find a friendly face to ask….

The LibCon (Is there a clue in the Con bit?) coalition moves into its third week in office, all the drama of the immediate post-election period having subsided. It was an interesting time and I often wondered while the uncertainty and negotiations lasted, if this was what it felt like to live in historic times. On the tube, on the buses, on the streets, life continued in its mundane cycles,even if it was unclear who would be running the country….

Back home in Nigeria, it seems a rash of pugilism has broken out this week- from a so-called “royal father” beating up and burning his wife, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives nearly coming to blows with a fellow legislator. The same speaker, who not too long ago was paraded as a perfect English gentleman. As for the hopefully seen to be deposed Deji of Akure, his shamelessness knows no bounds- perhaps an argument for the dissolution of the traditional rulership institutions in Nigeria, whose role in contemporary Nigerian society is less and less clear to me, the more I examine the issue...

I've just finished a rash of books on Pakistan, not quite planned that way, but it has been good to more or less, totally immerse myself in a society that I don't really know much about. I started with Fatima Bhutto's (grand-daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and niece of Benazir) Songs of Blood and Sword, which I found slow to get into, and not perhaps, the most lyrical or accomplished writing- but she tells a very powerful story of her family, the tragedies and intrigues that make the Borgias look tame by comparison, and succeeds in painting a very different picture of the liberal,progressive Benazir than I had been familiar with...

Then I moved on to Mohsin Hamid's first novel, Moth Smoke, again set in 21st century Pakistan. Although I'd read and enjoyed his Booker winning The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I hadn't had the opportunity to read this earlier offering and it's well worth seeking out. It's a fascinating story of two friends from different backgrounds and how their friendship unwinds. The writing technique and the plot is not as assured as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but the beauty of the words, the deep thinking behind the writing and the unexpected twists make for a great read reminiscent in places of The White Tiger

My final Pakistan book is Ali Sethi's The Wish Maker, which uses Pakistan from the mid eighties to the present as a backdrop for a sprawling, beautifully executed saga of the lives of two cousins coming of age in contemporary Pakistan. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if in a few places, it seemed to drag, but Sethi is certainly a writer to watch, and I'm definitely a fan...

And on the subject of writers to watch, the New Yorker released its list of 20 writers under 40 to look out for this week. With a decidedly American viewpoint, nevertheless,our own Chimamanda makes the cut. Going through the list, there were many writers on there, of whom I'd never heard. A quick googling of those on the list led me to conclude that I'd probably be more interested in reading the women on the list-judging from my experience reading Gary Shytengart, Wells Tower and Jonathan Safran Foer- but perhaps I'll be persuaded....

The excellent British Museum exhibition Kingdom of Ife closes this week with a number of events. If you haven't been to see it, the loss is yours, but you can still get the catalogue...

It seems there's been a rash of literary events in Nigeria these past few weeks from Book Jam with Sade Adeniran, Chuma Nwokolo, Chimamanda Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina to the Nigerian Breweries/Farafina creative workshop and reading led by Adichie to Lola Shoneyin's Infusion in Abuja and now Fidelity bank is sponsoring another creative writing workshop led by Helon Habila in July. You can apply here Ten, fifteen years ago, who would have thought the Nigerian literary scene would be abuzz the way it is now. Tolu Ogunlesi does a very good summary of the last few years here

And if you're interested in Nigerian writing and looking for new books, then try these:

Lola Shoneyin's The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives
Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road
Kachi Ozumba's The Shadow of a Smile
Adaobi Nwaubani's I Do Not Come to You By Chance
Sade Adeniran's Imagine This
Chika Unigwe's On Black Sisters Street

And if you're in London in July, don't miss the London Literature Festival especially the Caine Prize Reading on the 4th of July