My Thoughts: Kintu

Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi


If I had to summarize this book in a single word, I’d choose “epic”. Both the literal and connotative senses of the word are appropriate. I read this 430-page book in a single weekend, which, frankly, shocked even me. I had expected to have to dedicate a whole month to such an intimidatingly large book, but it proved me so wrong that when I started, I could not stop. Let’s not talk about how much I procrastinated with other responsibilities during those few days. No regrets, though, because Kintu is now one of my favorite books.

The book’s events spanned chronologically from the 1700s all the way to 2004, telling a long tale of individual characters’ interconnected life stories. The root of nearly everything is a common patriarch named – in case you couldn’t guess – Kintu.

The beginning portion of the story, which concerned tis patriarch, was impressively immersive. I couldn’t help but marvel at how easily I could feel the existences of Ganda (and Tutsi) characters from the 18th century. It would surely have taken a powerful combination of imagination and writing skill on Makumbi’s part, to make these characters feel so real.

The most complex character for me, I think, was Kintu himself, and his internal conflicts were at least as interesting as his actions. For instance, his bullish insistence on having Nnakato as a wife, and not Babirye. Nnakato and Babirye were twins; Babirye was older, and it just seemed absurd to everyone other than Kintu that he should want to marry a younger twin when the older was still unmarried. Kintu’s aversion to Babirye was so strong that I kept wondering at which point she was going to suddenly reveal herself to be a witch or demon or something. Honestly, at some point, I was just like, Chale, just marry the girl and continue with your life, eh? But Kintu’s bullheadedness was something else entirely.

Also, I liked that Kintu had a critical mind, through which I believe the book sufficiently explored the nature of the ages-old conflicts between what an individual wants and what that individual’s culture says s/he must have instead. Even in the 1700s, Kintu was aware of cultural ironies – for instance, how can a cultural system believe that twins were initially one in the womb and quarreled so much that they had to be separate from each other, and at the same time keep insisting that twin women stay together even through marriage? In Kintu’s opinion, if two beings have wanted to be separate since before they were even born, why are you insisting, now that they are grown women, that they still must not be separated? And I was like, well, he’s got a point there…

And then there was his sexual exhaustion, which I found wonderfully intriguing because I can’t remember ever having read a character with a problem like this before. Because Kintu was a Ppookino, he had women being offered to him as wives very often, so that his first wife, Nnakato, even had to draw up a roster that determined how Kintu split his time among them. But Kintu was an inherently monogamous man – his heart and love belonged only to Nnakato – living in a society that imposed polygamy over him, and it annoyed and exhausted him to have so many women to be obliged to sleep with. It was a curse and a trap unfortunately attached to his privilege, and it made me once again think deeply about the often tense relationships between individual interests and collective culture.

I also generally enjoyed being let into a vivid re-imagining of the operations of the Buganda kingdom and its politics, through fiction. Fiction is my favorite gateway into history (and most disciplines of knowledge, actually), and I feel like Makumbi has officially taught me more things in more memorable ways about a pre-colonial African society than any textbook ever could. This pleases me immensely.

Anyway, despite all of the super cool sub-themes in this epic novel, I’d say the main, over-arching one is juju. (Obviously not spoken of in terms of that specific word, it’s the closest I can get to what I mean.) Juju is how the thing upon which the rest of the story is based happened, because it resulted in a multi-generational curse upon Kintu’s bloodline by a Tutsi man. The nature of the curse was that it kept manifesting in different but eerily similar ways among the various descendants of the patriarch, until pretty much the end of the book.

I think all the lineage/descendant business was masterfully carried out. The way names were intentionally or unintentionally passed down, consistently mirrored those of the 18th-century characters from the novel’s first section, and it made the journey so wild. It was surprising, even, how anxious I got, any time a character with a name I recognized was introduced. My heart would start pounding in preemptive despair, wondering how the Kintu curse was about to strike this time. The way the curse worked was simultaneously patterned and unpredictable. The suspense was crazy.

Given that the book had so many characters, I was highly impressed by the fact that each main one still felt tangible and complete to me. A story that spans over hundreds of years is, I think, very difficult to achieve this with, but Makumbi did it so well. (Chale, so now what excuse does Homegoing have? Maybe it should have been at least 200 pages longer than it was.) Each character felt different and knowable, and their histories and explanations for why they were the way they were, made sense to me as a reader.

Lastly, one thing about Kintu that I appreciated was how “too African” the subject matter was. In this way, it reminded me of the feeling I had after reading Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ brilliant Tail of the Blue Bird. Kintu was uncompromising in how rooted it was in the locality of situations, people, stories, politics and family. It didn’t have to force any “international” issues or characters into the tale to make it more palpable to any literary market. Even the nationalist/identity distinctions it made were more African-originated than Berlin-influenced, and when it was Berlin-influenced, the narrative was self-aware of the fact.

Kintu. Is. Lit.



My Thoughts: Tail of the Blue Bird

Author: Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

Overview of my thoughts: I think this book was downright brilliant.

Synopsis: Some minister’s girlfriend comes to a village called Sonokrom, where she’s freaked out by some inexplicable remains of what appears to have once been a living creature. (There’s a blue bird feather in the same room.) An egotistical maniac of a police Inspector recruits a Ga forensic pathologist who calls himself “Kayo” to investigate and solve the case. The rest of the story is about what Kayo did and discovered.

The plot is beautifully strange.


Tail of the Blue Bird is the first/only novel of its kind I have ever read. If there are several detective/crime/mystery novels on the Ghanaian literature market, it would seem my eyes have been circumstantially closed – because I’ve not been intentionally avoiding them. But this novel isn’t unique simply because of its genre in cultural context: it’s the way the mystery genre is executed that I think makes it so distinctively Ghanaian. (I say Ghanaian for the smallest unit of specificity I am willing to narrow down to, but I could have said West African, African, or even Black). Two defining features I think make it a success in this regard are (folk)lore and magic. Those were the things that excited me the most.

“It was my grandfather, Opoku, the one whose hands were never empty, who told me that the tale the English man calls history is mostly lies written in fine dye.” – Opanyin Poku

There is no good reason why there shouldn’t be magic and absurdity in a Ghanaian mystery novel. In fact, I see every reason why there should be. Speaking as someone who, in 2016, entered a committed relationship with African history both as a personal and academic interest, I can honestly say there’s a good amount of our history that is mildly to heavily magical. I consider it a large contributing factor to why wypipo have treated accounts of African histories – especially oral ones – as illegitimate. In a European paradigm, there is history, and there is folklore/mythology, and they are kept in two different places. In a (West) African paradigm, history and folklore/mythology can be and are often legitimately considered the same thing. I’m not sure any Ghanaian who has done JSS Social Studies would need convincing of this, when we’ve been taught in our schools about golden stools dropping from the sky and about entire ethnic groups emerging from underground or being led to their claimed lands by elephants. Et cetera. Tail of the Blue Bird is exactly the kind of mystical Ghanaian (hi)story that excites me, in novel form! (Can you see me transforming into the heart-eyes emoji right now?)

Let’s talk about the story’s style. It’s one thing to have a brilliant idea (the plot). It’s another to have the genius to determine the right style for it, and even multiple styles, if that’s appropriate – as it is in this case.

I think Ghana in its modern state (the book is set in 2004, and I’m a teenager who considers every year I have memory of as “modern”) exists in a kind of duality. I admit it’s probably more spectral than binary. One end of the duality includes metropolitan cities – the Accras, Temas, Kumasis etc. – and the other end includes what we casually refer to as “the villages,” the places we continue to connect to our ancestral traditions, and the places where “the witches in [my] village” try and fail to accomplish our downfalls.

Tail of the Blue Bird was a reflection of that duality, both in setting and in style. On the metropolitan side, we had the modern Accra settings, with the scientific labs and offices, the places police have influence, the kind of setting in which an England-educated forensic scientist can almost comfortably exist, and the novel’s plot being interpreted as a mostly logical and systematic attempt to solve a real-world crime case. But we are frequently removed from the metropolis and transported into the other side of the duality, where we’re in the Sonokrom village, reading first-person narration from Opanyin Poku, a septuagenarian hunter-storyteller who has spent his whole life in said village, thinks in parables, and speaks truth through Anansesɛm, revealing the very same plot through a lens that processes a world where magic and curses aren’t merely fun, made-up fables. Reading this novel was like having a superpower of double-vision: reading the exact same story through two wildly different filters. Crazy.

Perhaps the most interesting character to me was Opankyin Poku. I thought his slightly verbose tendencies were very appropriate. He would sometimes drop proverbs and deep memories in the middle of his narrations that I thought were rather irrelevant to the plot itself, but extremely relevant to our understanding of his character. He was authentic in that I know people like him in real life, who really do be droppin’ proverbs left-right-center at the slightest opportunity. Opanyin Poku’s narration made the reading experience so much richer and more enjoyable for me, for its denseness, its unabashedly Ghanaian rhetoric, and its musicality. It’s the kind of musical narration that you get when you translate Twi (which is what Opanyin Poku actually thought and spoke in) to English but leave the semantics as untouched as possible.

“It is no mystery that when something leaves your hand grief can take its place; it is the same way that rain takes the place of clouds. What we cannot understand is how heavy the rain can be.” – Opanyin Poku


But perhaps the one thing I think this novel did exceptionally well was to marry the Ghanaian oral storytelling art with the art of the genre novel. The truth only comes out in folkloric story form, and it is only spoken. The spoken truth is never written anywhere but in the mind of the ones it is spoken to. Tail of the Blue Bird is a testament to what I think is fact: that African history and (folk)lore are intricately tied and are probably not going to get divorced for a while yet, if ever.


My Thoughts: Behold the Dreamers

I didn’t particularly want to read this book. I wouldn’t have gone looking for it myself, but my auntie gave it to me for free, and rarely will I refuse a free book. Before she’d given it to me, though, she’d warned me that it wasn’t as good as Americanah. I became apprehensive at that comment because I believe I (and the world in general) have no need of another Americanah – and it’s not because I think Americanah wasn’t good (quite the contrary), but because I think it was enough. In addition to that, I had read Siyanda Mohitsuwa’s article on OkayAfrica called “I’m Done With African Immigrant Literature” and agreed with the sentiment of it. So, honestly, I expected to hate Behold the Dreamers, or at least find it tiring. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t. I kept waiting for the moment when I would think, “Yeah bro, I’m done with this,” and it never came. In fact, I was quite engrossed.


I suppose at the end of the day, as long as a story is well-written and feels genuine – as in, not pretentious – I’m going to be able to deal with what appears to be my lack of exposure to modern novels by African writers set geographically in Africa. I choose to apply this disposition towards my own present and future writings as well.

Especially lately, I’ve been exposed to several stories of ex-France colony Africans idolizing France. This story was the first I’d ever read about the main characters being from an ex-French colony and finding themselves in America. But also, I’ve never read a Cameroonian writer’s work before this one.

I think what this book did best for me was how much it highlighted – whether intentionally or otherwise – the irony and mental discord between the idolization of America (by Africans) and the simultaneous radical clinging to (what Africans assume to be) traditional African values. It’s kind of like an America is the best place in the world with the most successful people in the world, but we must all refrain from becoming Americanized because these people don’t have values thought.

Jende came to America to work. He brought his wife, Neni and their son, Liomi, with him. Jende was a dreamer – both politically and ideologically. He had an irrational reverence for the United States of America, where both he and his wife believed that everything was possible, for them to gain the best possible lives for themselves and their son. Jende became a chauffeur for a fascinatingly dysfunctional rich white family even while he was, unbeknownst to his employers, in a limbo state, surviving on a temporary work permit as he appealed for asylum with the assistance of a wasteman of a Nigerian immigrant lawyer and one of the wackest fabricated asylum stories ever to play into the tribal, primitive African stereotype surely destined to fail. His wife was trying to study to become a pharmacist, but her dreams, too, were frequently shot down. Their son, Liomi, remained in trouble as long as his parents were unstable – but Americanized as he’d already begun to grow up, they tried to keep him as oblivious as possible to their troubles.

In some conversation with Jende’s employer, Mr. Edwards, Jende said,

“I believe anything is possible for anyone who is American. Truly do, sir.”

It was an incredible statement, I thought, for someone who was forced to fit and feed his family in a very small living space in a ghetto, and one must have been willfully blind not to notice the poverty in New York, or even recognize that he was a chauffeur himself (was this what he had always had the ambition to become? A white man’s driver?). But he had very high hopes – or shall I say expectations, or both – for his son, Liomi:

“And my son will grow up to be somebody, whatever he wants to be.”

The unspoken irony there, of course, is that as it is with many African parents, “whatever (s)he wants to be” = “whatever I deem is an acceptable profession for my child.”

Jende even continued,

“And, in fact, sir, I hope that one day my son will grow up to be a great man like you.”

This great man of an employer he was talking to was a rich man so busy he didn’t have time to live life, with a depressed, suicidal wife, an older son who wanted to go off into self-exile (and I admit I would too, if I’d grown up like him), and a little son who just wasn’t too happy a kid. But Jende wasn’t thinking about any of that. He wanted his son to be a rich, busy, important guy with a secretary in New York City, who could afford a chauffeur, or something of the sort, n’est-ce pas? That’s how being a Dreamer works; you dream on behalf of your kids too.

I remember how both ridiculous and hilarious Neni and Jende thought it was when Liomi said he wanted to grow up and be a driver like his father. LOL. Also, I believe it was one of the peaks of the mental discord when Neni delivered the classic African parent lecture to Liomi as a result of a situation blown way out of proportion:

“Open your ears and listen to me, because I will say this once and then I’ll never say it again. You do not go to school to make friends. You go to sit quietly in class and open your ears like gongo leaf and listen to your teacher. Are you hearing me?”

All Liomi had done was laugh at jokes his classmate told. I was so amused.

Neni was a complex character with a lot of interesting surface thoughts that didn’t get very critical. Nevertheless, I thought the very fact that her thoughts didn’t get very critical was authentic. After all, she was still fresh off the boat of illusion, partly counter-cultural, but not quite “there” yet, although some circumstances of life might push her more strongly in that direction. In her questioning and assessment of inter-cultural (i.e. African and/vs. American) situations, she was either very shrewd, very archaically biased, or both. For example, on the topic of Jende’s Cameroonian cousin dating a white woman who seemed to expect that relationship to progress into marriage, Neni thought:

“He would marry his kind because a man like him needed a woman who understood his heart, shared his values and interests, knew how to give him the things he needed, accepted that his children must be raised in the same manner in which his parents had raised him, and only a woman from his homeland could do that.”

And then, there were her very intriguing sentiments about the behavior of black people among white people:

“Nothing shamed her more than black people embarrassing themselves in front of white people by behaving the way white people expect them to behave. That was the one reason why she had such a hard time understanding African-Americans – they embarrassed themselves in front of white people left and right and didn’t seem to care.”

I shall offer no judgment on this excerpt except to say that I think I laughed when I read it.

My favorite character, I think, might have been Vince, the son of Jende’s employers. It’s especially funny to me because I know that people like Vince in real life irritate me to my wit’s end. Any American boy who thinks the solution to his life is to run away to India to practice any kind of religion just because it’s not an American-adopted one is questionable to me. Maybe I liked him for his rebellious, anti-capitalist streak. He seemed very intelligent and very clueless about life at the same time…kind of like me. In many respects, he was smarter than both his parents and the Jongas (Jende’s family). I particularly liked it when he said,

“That’s exactly the problem! People don’t want to open their eyes and see the Truth because the illusion suits them. As long as they’re feed whatever lies they want to hear they’re happy, because the Truth means nothing to them.”

Now, praise for Mbue in general: I think it’s phenomenal, how this woman just got up and wrote a book. It’s not like she’d been formally trained, or had been writing for several years. I watched an interview of hers, and she said after reading some interesting books, she legit just had a story to write and wrote it. I would say “#goals” but it’s both too late and too early for that, and everyone’s path in life is different, you barb?

But I was rather astounded by the implicit complexity of being able to embody so many different, even contrasting characters in one book. It’s quite an achievement, to be able to write a Vince against a Jende or a Mrs. Edwards against a Neni, have them interacting with each other, and yet preserve the integrity of each character through subtle perspective changes within omniscient narration. Now that’s #goals.

Also, I really liked the ending. Especially how it was happy, sad and satisfactory at the same time. I want to know what happens after the book ends, how life goes on when dreamers finally wake up. Because, you know, the dream is and always has been a scam. =)


My Thoughts: Lagoon

Author: Nnedi Okorafor.


I recently decided that Nnedi Okorafor is currently my favorite fiction author. Last year, right after I read Who Fears Death, I think I declared it my new favorite novel, and for sure, Onyesonwu (the main character of Who Fears Death) is my favorite fictional character at the moment, so it’s like Nnedi is just winning in my whole life right now. I’m trying to read all the books of hers I can get hold of, and since I’d heard so much about Lagoon already, I requested it from the closest public library. It was lit. So here, let me talk about several things I really liked about the book.

First of all, I loved that the main character was a middle-aged, married Nigerian woman with kids. This was unusual for me, not only for a novel, but for a science fiction one. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Adaora (that’s her name) felt real and credible to me because of this. She was also a university professor (although her field, marine biology, isn’t one I’d consider quite ordinary for a Nigerian professor) which I know Nnedi Okorafor also is, and this made me happy, for goodness knows what reason. Also, she had a marine lab in her basement with computers and an aquarium and I don’t even know how you can get more badass than that.

The gradual revelation of the characters’ complexity was fascinating! I love background stories and things about people that are not always what they seem. On the surface, all the characters are rather unremarkable. It took the idea of random civilians to a whole new level because of how the characters’ careers were so diverse that it almost didn’t make sense what on earth they were doing together. Adaora, the protagonist, was a marine biology professor. Her companions, “Anthony Dey Craze” and Agu were a rapper and a soldier respectively. There’s an interesting way in which the extraordinary is composed of the unlikely placement of perfectly ordinary things. A story about a marine biologist, a Ghanaian rapper or a soldier would be a fairly normal one. But when all three are suddenly and randomly placed in the same context with a common interest, they begin to bring out the peculiarities in each other’s stories, while adding complexity to their collective story… and only when they were together did they begin to confess their supernatural fits.

They all had strange superpowers, and I loved it! All of their powers were quite logically related to their professions and that kind of blew my mind. I feel like that’s the best kind of superhero; the kind whose powers are not necessarily separate from their everyday lives, but which are rather part of their mundane realities.

Of course, I liked the onomastics. I love names. I think onomastics are my favorite literary device, if this thing can even be considered a literary device. I liked the emphasis on names in this story, the way Nnedi brought them to the forefront such that they were impossible to ignore:

“They all went. Adaora, Anthony, Ayodele and Agu… Adaora knew the soldier’s name now. His name meant “leopard” in Igbo. Her name meant “daughter of the people” in Igbo and she told them so.”

It was telling, how Adaora deliberated quite a while before settling on what to call her new alien guest: Ayodele. Have you ever heard of an alien with a Yoruba name? Nah, didn’t think so! LOL

The narration caught my attention. It was mostly omniscient, though it had a POV focus depending on which character was most relevant in which section. But it was the prologues to book sections and “interludes” that really intrigued me. At the very beginning, before Chapter 1, we had insights into the thoughts of a swordfish. Somewhere in the middle, the thoughts of a tarantula. And my favorite, near and at the end, there were first person sections from a character called Udide, who is the “master weaver,” the spinner of everyone’s stories, who lives underground beneath Lagos. Oh, and she’s the cousin of Ananse, hehee. Shout-out to spider families!

I felt like throughout the book, I could see Nnedi’s love for the animal kingdom shining through, and this made me smile. Something magical happens to stories when they radiate the author’s own loves. (By the way, the reason I know so much about Nnedi’s love for animals, particularly bugs – and her distaste for spiders, SMH – is because I follow her on Twitter. She has fantastic thoughts and things to share, so I recommend you do that too, even if you never read any of her books.)

I also really liked how easily I could imagine this book as an action/superhero movie! I don’t like comparison very much, but in my head, Lagoon’s movie is like a Lagos-based Avengers. (LOL, wait, the Avengers have been to Lagos! What if… Nevermind.)

Then. of course, there was the novelty. The aliens in Lagoon were the most unique kinds of aliens I’d ever read. Usually, I’m thinking of those cliché visions of small, bug-eyed creatures who can fly and whatever. But marine aliens? Creatures from space deciding to come through the water? That was different. They were shapeshifters too, capable of looking exactly like humans if they wanted, and that kind of reminded me of those aliens from the only episode of Star Trek I have ever watched, “The Man Trap.” If you know what I’m talking about, you know.

Lagoon gave me points to ponder about the reception of extraterrestrials here on Earth, and specifically in an African city/country. I noticed something fascinating among the characters: many of them chose to interpret the aliens’ arrival in a way that aligned with a worldview they already had. A lot of it translated into the religious. Two prime examples. The first is this pastor, Father Oke, who nearly immediately started to use the aliens to grow his brand, marketing their arrival as some agenda of God to bring even aliens to the Gospel. Another was of a fairly ambitious prostitute who already had internalized guilt about her method of income generation. And, in the course of the story, “she would become one of the loudest prophets of doom in Lagos.” There was a lot of relevant comedic religiosity in the book, only fitting for a story based in Lagos.

And lastly, I just want to say that in my personal opinion, “Anthony Dey Craze,” the rapper, the only Ghanaian character, the one with a superpower that manifested itself through his voice, which he called the “rhythm,” was the coolest character in the book, and one of the coolest characters I have ever read in my whole life. And I’m not just saying that because I’m Ghanaian, I promise.

I highly recommend Lagoon!


It’s Made in Ghana, and It’s Lit!

Hello there!


My friends have published a book! A real, actual, physical book, can you believe it? I’m so proud of Rodney Assan and Fui Can-TamakloeMade in Ghana is an anthology of short stories of Ghana, by Ghanaians, for Ghanaians – and whomever else.

Oh… and did I mention I wrote a foreword for it? (I don’t care what you think, I’m a published author now, because I have two paragraphs in someone else’s book ayyyyy!)

I’m just here to tell you to get the book! If you’re in Accra, it’s physically available at Vidya Bookstore, Osu. It’s also available online for purchase at I assume you can also contact the boys individually to get a copy if you want to.


So yeah, man. Get it, consume it, read it, drink it, love it, buy one for your bestie, your mother, your girlfriend, your grandpa, your schoolteacher, your pastor and anyone else you can think of, let’s goooo!


My Thoughts: Reckless

Author: Cornelia Funke


Sometimes, I get very inconsequential thoughts like, “Ah, I’m too old to be reading this stuff.” I know how to rationalize it, of course: I read children’s fantasy because I hope to one day become an author of children’s fantasy. This, while true, is only a corollary of the truer reason I read this stuff, or why I even want to write this stuff: because I enjoy it.

Cornelia Funke is one of my favorite writers, and I think I can safely conclude now that magic/fantasy is my favorite genre. (Of both books and movies. And if you can consider Jon Bellion’s music magical, then music too.) I’ve read Inkheart (twice), Inkspell, Inkdeath, Dragon Rider and The Thief Lord, and not a single book of hers has disappointed me yet. Reckless is no exception.

Let me start with what drew me to the book in the first place:

  1. Cornelia Funke’s name was on it.
  2. It was at a used book sale section of my city library, for one dollar. Why wouldn’t I buy a Cornelia Funke book for one dollar? (Lowkey, these small-small literary expenses are the things most likely to make me broke in life. Issa weakness.)
  3. The title: Reckless. It’s inviting, it’s exciting, and it’s a freaking cool word. I bought the book without reading the blurb. Quite a reckless move, wouldn’t you say? (That wasn’t funny? Well, okay then.)

As anyone who knows me should expect, I really liked this book. I absolutely adore the idea of remixing fairytales, and this world that Funke has built (it’s called the Mirrorworld, and Reckless is only the first book in the Mirrorworld series) is a world of remixed, mish-mashed but seldom explicitly referenced classic fairytales. I love this perhaps for many of the same reasons I liked Sarah Ockler’s The Summer of Chasing Mermaids and the ABC series Once Upon A Time. But there is something Funke adds to the idea of remixing fairytales that makes it even sexier: her own heritage.

Cornelia Funke really does a good job of owning the world she has made, particularly because she is German. Many Western fairytales, as you may know, came from a collection of stories compiled by two German writers, the Brothers Grimm, and are usually referred to as Grimm fairy tales. These writers are not exactly authors; as the story goes, they travelled through Europe, collecting old stories and folktales from different areas, and simply wrote them down. We will, perhaps, never know how much of their own creativity they applied in the written compilation of their stories. But my point here is that these are tales from Europe collected by Germans/Europeans, and are now being creatively utilized, remixed by a German, who can probably lay more legitimate claim to them than Adam Horowitz or Edward Kitsis (the creators of ABC’s Once Upon A Time).

Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld sees no need to translate culture into “American” before it begins to be creatively remixed. Thus, it feels more organic to me. And this feeds into my next comment on how organically she wrote it.

When I began reading it, the book was actually hard to get into; I really didn’t have a bloody clue what was happening. There was no soft process of leading a reader slowly into the magical, easing them comfortably into an unfamiliar world. (It did with Inkheart, which is probably one of the reasons this caught me off guard.) The Mirrorworld saw no need to explain itself; it merely was, as though it had always been, and it was I that had simply never heard of it. When I as a reader stepped in, it was like walking around entirely new territory without a tour guide. Such experiences are so uncomfortable that, although you may find the new world around you fascinating, you can’t help but feel, for the first few moments, that you want to go home, simply because you do not enjoy being lost. That’s how I felt; I temporarily wanted to stop reading because I felt I couldn’t “get into it” fast enough. Which is silly, really, because that transportational (yo, apparently, this is not a word) factor is one of the reasons I like fantasy so much in the first place.

When I eventually did get into it, after being patiently impatient with myself and the book, I found that I really enjoyed it, particularly the main character, Jacob Reckless, with whom I now like to think I have a very healthy platonic relationship. (One-sided, of course, since he is unfortunately fictional.) I didn’t fall recklessly in love with him (pun intended) like I did with Theodore Finch or Artemis Fowl. Instead, it grew on me gradually that this guy is actually a very cool badass. Like, we could be besties if he existed.

With this book, Cornelia Funke did two things that I really appreciate when storytellers, especially those of fantasy, do:

  1. Subtle gender-bending

When it comes to mystic things and fantasy, there are some things that are, unfortunately, classically gendered. I suppose I blame Disney for most, though certainly not all of it. For example, fairies, unicorns, mermaids, are usually thought of as classically feminine things. The usage of them as a marketing tool frequently tends to turn male potential consumers off from whatever is being marketed. Yet, some of my favorite mystic/magic storytellers have handled this problem so well. Eoin Colfer make boys like reading about fairies; in fact, he did it so well that he turned a lot of girls off from the Artemis Fowl series; J. K. Rowling used unicorns in Harry Potter that had nothing cutesy or rainbow-like about them.

It is so interesting to me what Funke did with unicorns and mermaids here. The unicorns were vicious, lethal creatures, not magic wish-granters, but more like deadly security guards. Heck, they aren’t even white. I distinctly remember Jacob Reckless passing an annoyed thought within the narration about how unicorns are so often “whitewashed.” In the Mirrorworld, they are designed to look very much like regular brownish horses, ponies and arses, but just like, with a horn. It’s lit.

The mermaids, referred to as Lorelei, are basically river-based, soulless murderers. Men are their prey. In that way, they remind me very much of the sirens of Greek mythology, whom I met for the first time in the Percy Jackson series. I actually became terrified of the Lorelei too, when after one character killed one, the other Lorelei ate their dead companion. Cannibals too. Ew. I prefer Mami Wata saf.

  1. Very good use of the concept of villains.

In most cases, I am of the opinion that useless villains ruin stories, and that fantastic villains make amazing stories.

If I had, at the times when I was a very young child, understood what the heck was going on in the Batman movies that I watched, I would have considered The Joker a truly phenomenal villain. As it is, the first time I recall becoming conscious of fantastic villains was watching Once Upon A Time several years ago. Aside Rumpelstiltskin being excellently crafted and written (for the most part, or up to a point), I liked how his and Regina’s (the Evil Queen) stories unfolded. It is the first time I remember stories really giving the audience insight into the personhood of villains, so much so that one may generate empathy for them. A fantastic villain, I suspect, is empathized with, or admired, perhaps as much as their villainy is acknowledged.

Reckless’ narration style allows a reader to see into the thoughts of the “bad guys” and I like that there are multiple “bad guys,” although, understandably, we don’t read as much of them as we do of Jacob. Aside that, I like how powerful and unstoppable the villains seem to me. It would, of course, be far less impressive for a hero to triumph over a bunch of trifling idiots. The villains need, in many cases, to seem like they are entirely capable of destroying the heroes – and sometimes, they must succeed.

That being said, I really like how Reckless seemed to end with a near-perfect cross between the tragic tendencies of the actual Grimm fairytale stories, and the hopeful kind of ending that Disney is known for. It makes me excited to seek out the sequel. 😊


My Thoughts: Nervous Conditions

Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga

I can describe this book in one word: legendary.

This is probably just my youth and lack of exposure talking, but I can hardly believe this book was published in the 1980s. It feels way ahead of its time – not in the subject matter itself, because feminism in general is probably as old as the first woman on the planet – but because of how explicitly issues are tackled. I’m talking about the language, the writing, the thoughts and speeches of the characters. This feels like a book that would put its author in serious trouble with her society. And I’m so glad it exists, and very much in awe of Tsitsi Dangarembga, legend herself.

It’s 2017 and I’m now reading Nervous Conditions. It’s even embarrassing. But small by small, I’m coming out from under my metaphorical rocks and trying to keep up with the present at the same time.

Because of the book’s title, Nervous Conditions, I had thought this book was going to be about mental illness. At the end of the day, it turns out it was, but not exactly the way I expected. I’d say the major theme was actually patriarchy. (Is it inappropriate to joke about patriarchy itself being an illness? Yes? Okay, sorry.)


All the female characters seemed to be asking through their actions in the novel, “What does it mean, that I am a woman?” of themselves, while all the male characters seemed to be asking, “What does it mean, that you are a woman?” of all the female characters. The female characters all seemed to be answering their question in different ways, while the male characters seemed to answer it the same way the historically predictable, patriarchal way. What was particularly interesting to me was how Dangarembga managed to achieve that, even though every single character – including the male ones – had a somewhat distinct personality.

The point of that feat, whether it was intentional or not, I believe, is best summarized in this quote from the narration of the main character, Tambu:

“The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. […] But what I didn’t like was the way all conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

The characters were so subtly yet impressively complex. As for Jeremiah, the main character Tambu’s father, he just seemed like a spineless money-chaser, albeit with admirable skill for getting whatever he wanted most times. He never seemed bothered by any kind of guilt or cognitive dissonance, which was scary to me because how do you deal with a human being that appears incorrigibly comfortable with being wrong and never feeling wrong?

More interesting to me, however, was Mainini, mother of Tambu and wife of Jeremiah. At surface level, she seemed ordinary, traditional, unquestioningly submissive to her husband. But she had a spine, and that spine showed up frequently whenever it was time to support Tambu. She didn’t use her spine “disrespectfully,” though; she used it with what seemed like experienced tact, getting her daughter what she’d always wanted through the psychological manipulation of her husband, through words, to make him think it was his idea all along, or making him believe that his ego would reap some benefit from whatever she was making him agree to. It was truly phenomenal.

My favorite character was Lucia, Mainini’s sister and Tambu’s aunt. She was that older, yet still single, sexually liberated badass who knew how to persevere until she got what she came for. With respect to her radicalness, I think it was as extreme as it could have gotten, given the traditional context she grew up in. She’d been through a lot of nonsense from society, from being old, husbandless and childless. She’s been called both a witch, suspected of cursing her own sister, and a “loose” woman because TBH, she got the sex she wanted when she wanted it. And while I admired this about her, I felt sorry for her at the same time – because she had nobody sensible to have sex with, since, in my humble opinion, all the male characters were idiots. (Except, perhaps, Chido, but I didn’t see too much of him.) Sadting. =(

The main character, Tambu, terrified me with her inconsistency. There was something very alarming about her hatred for her brother, Nhamo – or maybe not hatred, but icy distaste, or disregard, or indifference, or something of the sort. I mean, the book literally begins with how she didn’t particularly feel any negative emotions when her brother died. I was just like, “Whoa, okay sis, is everything okay with you though?” (Apparently, it wasn’t. I found out, from an interview of Dangarembga at the back of the book that Tambu was mentally unstable as she was narrating, and that made a lot of things make a lot of sense.) Tambu was so confusing (but realistically so, because humans are truly complex, often contradictory creatures) from her emotions and actions. When she lived in her home village with her nuclear family, she seemed so acutely aware of all the ways the world around her was using her femaleness against her. Then, when she moved to the mission for her foreign education, she seemed so eager and comfortable to bend to societally acceptable roles for womanhood. She seemed to “get” so many things about life and society, and then the rest was rather lost on her.

The foil that allowed me as a reader to see all the things that were lost on Tambu was her cousin, Nyasha, whom I would also describe as a main character, even though she was not a narrator. Nyasha was the most afflicted by “nervous conditions” out of all the characters in the book. It was very subtly depicted in the beginning, a mere confusion about gender roles thanks to culture shock: Though Nyasha too had been born in Rhodesia, unquestionably being raised as a traditional Shona, her parents got the chance to move to England for several years with her and her brother, Chido. They returned when Nyasha was about preteen and there were things Nyasha just couldn’t let go of. After all her exposure to “progressive” thought, all her reading, education and whatnot, her problem became that she was unable now to assimilate into her expected roles back in Rhodesia. She wasn’t stubborn without reason, wasn’t a rebel without a cause; she was simply very matter-of-fact, yet seemed to want to believe the best of everyone, even her father, one of the most egoistic, patriarchal characters I’ve ever read in my life – and for that reason, uncomfortably and unfortunately too familiar in reality.

Particularly the relationship between Nyasha and her father, known respectfully as Babamukuru, was what strained Nyasha mentally, causing so much dissonance that she just about inevitably lost it. This quote from her really struck me:

“I guess he’s right, right to dislike me. It’s not his fault, it’s me. But I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. He makes me so angry. I can’t just shut up when he puts on his God act. I’m just not made that way. Why not? Why can’t I just take it like everybody else does? I ought to take it, but really, I can’t.” -Nyasha

What a burden it must be, to have no one else around you thinking the way you do. It makes so much sense that one would start to wonder if she herself is in the wrong. If everyone around you is mad and you’re the only one who seems to recognize their madness, it’s like you’re the mad one.

A character who was unexpectedly interesting: Maiguru, Nyasha’s mother and Tambu’s aunt. On the surface, she seemed hardly different from Tambu’s mother: submissive and skilled in the art of male manipulation. But this woman lowkey got levels, bro. By far the most educated woman in the novel, Maiguru too had been exposed to whatever culture it was in England that got Nyasha as feminist as she was. The difference, I think, was that Maiguru’s age and upbringing had made it far easier to assimilate back into quietness and what was generally acceptable of a Rhodesian wife, upon her return. Only occasionally did the usually suppressed part of her come to light, through a few unexpected rants to Tambu, and a shockingly independent action she took with regards to her family – if only temporarily. It was the temporariness of it all that was problematic for me, and I did not blame Maiguru for it, but blamed her society.

This is what made me realize that it will never be enough for only individuals to develop sense, awareness and independence of the values and rights of women (or really, any social issue) when the stagnant states of their societies simply won’t allow them to do jack with it. In such societies, women are likely to either end up like Maiguru – takes a few independent actions, recognizes their futility, then melts harmlessly back into the patriarchal mould, or like Nyasha (or even Tambu) – straight-up deranged.

Maiguru said something I liked at some point, so I wrote it down:

“I don’t know what people mean by a loose woman – sometimes she is someone who walks the streets, sometimes she is an educated woman, sometimes she is a successful man’s daughter or she is simply beautiful.” – Maiguru.

LOL, true. The world will call any woman whatever it wants to call her without legitimate reason. Whatever meanings these words have had have expanded so much that it seems they no longer mean anything in particular.

Also from the interview at the back of my copy, which I think is a very legitimate reason why racism wasn’t a major theme in Nervous Conditions, why it is such a tricky theme to tackle when writing anything at all, was this quote:

“I think this is the catch with racism – looked at objectively, it sounds too absurd to be true.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga

And, unfitting anywhere else in this post, a quote by Tambu that I just like because of personal relatability:

“Exclusion held dreadful horrors for me at that time because it suggested superfluity. Exclusion whispered that existence was not necessary, making me no more than an unfortunate by-product of some inexorable natural process.”

I feel like this book is one that should have been able to set societies on fire. I’m a bit disappointed that it doesn’t seem like any fires broke out, though. But this may just be my lack of knowledge of the contexts and history of this book’s reception. Either way, I still think Nervous Conditions is legendary. I liked it a lot.