The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu is melancholic, slow, ordinary, and thus, beautiful. It was the most perfect book I could have read while trying to come off my excitement high from a fantasy narrative. When I say it is ordinary, I do not mean at all that it is boring. It captured my attention beautifully because of how mundane it is.
The main character, Sepha Stephanos, is so easily recognizable as a real human being – not a hero or villain, neither particularly victim or victor, but just an ordinary man, to whom life happens. Sephanos’s near total indifference to life is terrifying to me precisely because of how close it has often been to my own reality.
“There are those who wake each morning ready to conquer the day, and then there are those of us who wake only because we have to. We live in the shadows of every neighborhood. We own corner stores, live in run-down apartments that get too little light, and walk the same streets day after day. We spend our afternoons gazing lazily out of windows. Somnambulists, all of us. Someone else said it better: we wake to sleep and sleep to wake.” -Sepha Stephanos
Stephanos is a member of the population that may entertain aspirations and dreams occasionally, but inevitably stifles them in deference to the futility of it all. He has not so much resigned himself to his life as simply ceased to actively live it. Occasionally, he performs or neglects to perform actions that amount to self-sabotage, with the startling lack of any significant emotion. At least halfway through the book, I started thinking of him as a type of zombie and it was so unlike most characters I’ve read recently that it kept me hooked.
Not many particularly exciting things happen within this book, but when they do, the ceremony and detail with which they are described make them seem no more momentous than the types of things one might ordinarily not bother to notice. From the narrative, you might not be able to find any significant difference in grandness between the experience of watching a house burn down and the experience of riding a D.C. train. Mengestu is, in my opinion, a fantastic writer. His diction, sentence structure, and narrative style are so absorbingly beautiful to me that it doesn’t even matter that particularly exciting things seldom happen. His writing makes me content enough to simply sit with Stephanos and follow his streams of consciousness, inconsistent narrative timelines, and internal philosophizing. The interior of Stephanos’s mind is made more interesting by the lack of excitement outside it.
The mundane vibe of the book is the kind to lend an unusual intensity to ordinary moments. A kiss, a conversation, the sale of an insignificant item in a corner store. There’s an aching beauty in the recognition of things longed for and things lost; things unattainable and the mere threat of re-developing an interest in life, simply not knowing what to do with the possibility that a part of you long dead might once again come alive. The danger of finding something to finally live for. And life relentlessly being life through it all. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears never lets you miss life relentlessly being life, in favor of more “exciting” narratives. That is, I think, what I loved most about the book.
A South African writer I’m personally familiar with, Karen Jennings, is offering a 12-week writing course in English to any South African citizen over the age of 18 – no prior writing experience required.
I met Karen through Writivism’s mentorship program, and she helped me edit a story that eventually made it into the longlist. From working with her over a period of approximately three months, I can personally vouch for her as a great and immensely helpful mentor.
Here’s a statement from Karen herself:
“I am a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, we were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for me. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of my birth, a place that I love and had hoped always to be part of. This year I started to look at my life and consider how I could realistically be involved in the future of my country, in even the smallest of ways, at this distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist me. I was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, I have decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.”
The course information and other application details can be found via this link.
So, if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the info along to them. 🙂
In my opinion, re-writing our history, especially as Africans, is at least as important as documenting our present. And yes, I am indeed advocating for re-writing, as opposed to just learning or passing down already-documented history. Because history is always getting re-written anyway, so we might as well be the ones re-assuming control of the narratives—especially as Africans, and especially as women.
“There are many questions and I am looking for answers. The kind of answers that slip past the facts of history books or analyses by pundits and experts. Answers that are not party politics. That are not Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), or Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) or the Movement for Democratic Change. Answers that are not Cecil John Rhodes, Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai or Emerson Mnangagwa, or any other Big Men in the history of the nation.” –Panashe Chigumadzi
I had the privilege of meeting Panashe Chigumadzi at a lecture organized by UCT’s Institute of Creative Arts. The lecture, which was essentially a reading of most, if not all of Panashe’s most recent book, was marketed with a word I had never previously seen: “biomythography.” To try to define it, I would break it down into the three words I can identify in it: biography, mythology and historiography. It was just as well that I learned this new word on the very day I bought These Bones Will Rise Again, because I would otherwise have been hard pressed to describe the type of book this is. (My Microsoft Word keeps underlining the word biomythography, so I have now looked it up. Turns out the word was coined by Audre Lorde, to describe a book she published in 1982. I love lexivist legends!)
After Panashe’s lecture, which had already had me snapping multiple times in my head, and left my brain spinning by the end, the floor was opened for questions. Although intimidated by Panashe’s brilliance, I gathered up enough courage to ask one. My question originated in a discussion I’d had the previous semester with a Kenyan friend, between two halves of a long Africana Studies class. Right before the break, I had posited to my classmates my opinion that a large percentage of what Africans consider legitimate history gets disregarded by Caucasian society/colonial institutions like academia because these histories contain elements of the magical/spiritual/mythological. Thus, critics may say: Myths are just myths, this isn’t scientific, it couldn’t possibly have happened, so we shall not look twice at it.
Why was I thinking about this during the lecture? Because a significant portion of These Bones Will Rise Again revolves around the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, that powerhouse who, whether for better or worse, has achieved some sort of Mother of the Nation status in Zimbabwe. The book’s title, in fact, is directly drawn from Nehanda’s own words: “‘Mapfupa angu achapfuka.’ My bones will rise again.” Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit is central to Zimbabwe’s history, and she has consistently returned after her first death, through the bones of different mediums—a classic example of what colonial academia calls implausible, illegitimate and in-credible. In other words, myth.
The question my Kenyan friend had asked during that one lesson break was whether my own use of the word “mythology” contributed to the delegitimization of African history’s spiritual elements. By invoking the very term “myth,” was I not already implying that these aspects of history were deliberately invented, whimsical fantasies? So, this was this very same question I posed to Panashe a few months ago. I had wrongly assumed that she was too spent and tired after speaking for more than an hour, to give an extensive answer. Thus, I was not prepared for the beauty of her response.
She said many things, but I will give you a summary: All history is myth-making. Myth-making is not exclusive to African history or to European history; neither confined to spiritual events nor military affairs. All of it is myth-making. The minute someone chooses to tell or document a story about the past—what they include or leave out, the pictures they paint of historical figures/characters, the embedded “morals” of the stories, even the person or people passing on the history—they are constructing a kind of official myth. People consistently and deliberately construct versions of stories, especially “national” narratives. It’s why we have real-life heroes and villains; and a tale about a hero whose weapon was supernatural element manipulation may turn out to be significantly less fabricated than one about a “hero” in uniform, whose weapon was an assault rifle. I suppose that might depend at least partially on the power and influence of the myth-maker.
When Panashe had finished answering my question, I sat back to reflect on it, in awe. It was more than satisfying, it was stimulating.
Early on in These Bones Will Rise Again, Panashe gives an apt example of how myth-making can work in our (Africans’) worst interests. She speaks of Wilbur Smith’s (a)historicization process in the writing of The Sunbird (which I’ve never read and don’t think I ever intend to read), saying, among many other things, that:
“Time and history were colonized so that they acquired a new racial dimension: the natives they ruled over were backward, ahistorical, primitive tribesmen who were, in effect, out of time.”
The history of Africa is already written, you see. In some cases, it’s inaccessible to some of the people for whom it would be most relevant. In other cases, the kind of history that deliberately de-contextualizes Africa is too accessible to the people whose minds are overly malleable in the hands of the colonizer, regardless of race. And this process, this myth-making process that has the potential to do so much work in the minds of the recipients/readers/consumers, is exactly why re-writing history is as important as telling it at all.
Now, with this new word “biomythography” available in my lexicon, let me try to describe the book itself. For starters, it’s nonfiction: kind of like a book-length essay. I don’t usually read nonfiction books unless it’s for school or research for my own fiction, and I might have overlooked it entirely if it hadn’t been Panashe Chigumadzi’s name on the cover. Secondly, the book is described, at least in the areas it’s being formally marketed, as a “reflection”—primarily of Zimbabwe’s late-2017 “coup that was not a coup,” as Panashe has called it. (And now that I have greater contextual understanding, I agree.) This “reflection” is also said to have been done through a quest for the spirits/memories of Zimbabwean national heroine, Mbuya Nehanda, and for Panashe’s own maternal grandmother, Mbuya Lillian Chigumadzi.
I must argue, however, that These Bones Will Rise Again is not nearly as clean as that description. Saying what it was about will limit the book itself. It includes accounts of Panashe’s own life, the journeys she went on, and people she visited—strangers and family members alike—as she attempted to uncover as much as she could of first-hand information on Mbuya Nehanda and her grandmother. It also includes personal accounts of her reactions to Zimbabwe’s political events. It includes retellings of Zimbabwe’s history, brief accounts of the Chimurengas, the country’s nation-building process, and the rise and rule of its former president. The chronology is at least as confusing as the content, jumping back and forth between 21st century present, 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a messy web of words (which is not to say at all that it doesn’t make sense), but so is the human thought process, isn’t it?
On the fourth page of the book, I believe, is the explanation for both why this book was written and the reason it was written in biomythographical format:
“As a people who believe that a person is both flesh and spirit and lives on after death, we often commune with our ancestors, but it is especially in times of crisis and need that we look to them for answers about ourselves.”
In the space of about a month, two very important things happened: Panashse’s paternal grandmother Lilian Chigumadzi, née Dzumbira, was buried (and Panashe was unable to attend the event). About a month later, Zimbabwe had a “coup that was not a coup,” during which Zimbabweans were “suddenly being liberated from Mugabe’s rule by the very military that supported him for almost four decades.” That latter event shocked even me, when, in November 2017, I sat in my dorm room in California, frantically scrolling through “breaking news” sections on news sites and texting Zimbabwean schoolmates, trying to figure out what in heaven’s name was happening. I can’t imagine how much more confusing it would have been for a born-Zimbabwean, a diasporan in the sense of having been raised in an African country other than the one of her birth, who is simultaneously going through the grief of having lost her grandmother long before she was ready. If I were Panashe, I would have been looking for answers too. I just don’t know if my approach, like hers, would have been to turn to my own departed ancestor. What, after all, would one Zimbabwean woman, not explicitly affiliated to national affairs in any way, have to offer me as a response to my country-sized questions?
But Panashe answers my question herself when she says,
“I must cast my eyes from the heights of the ‘Big Men’ who have created history that does not know little people, let alone little women, except as cannon fodder.”
This is exactly why Lilian Dzumbira Chigumadzi is so essential: she is a little woman in the face of the imposing structures of Zimbabwe’s history. As such, she is indispensable. (As paradoxical as this may seem, it makes sense to me.)
A few semesters ago, I read a paper for class by Patricia Hill Collins called “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought”. While I consider(ed) it another one of those academic papers that could honestly have been four times shorter and still have adequately accomplished its task, there was at least one applause-worthy thing I was able to glean from it. This paper contained a critique about the “necessity” of researchers in academic culture having to be personally removed from the subjects of their study. Patricia Hill Collins argued that this approach just wouldn’t fly for the kind of work Black Feminism was trying to accomplish—particularly when such work was being done by Black feminists. Instead, the opposite approach was, in fact, the most sensible, even if traditionally unacceptable: to deliberately insert oneself, as a Black woman, into one’s research narrative, because our experiences and identities are as essential as the topics we are writing about. (If it can be broken down in a paragraph, why did I have to read five million pages that convey the same message? Like, bro, I can’t wait to leave school forever.) I feel like this Black Feminism principle of inserting yourself into your work is exactly what led to the mashup form of this essay-book as a biomythography. And I approve. In fact, I want to do some.
On the topic of Black Feminism, biomythography becomes even more important when we consider how history typically treats women and the positions to which it relegates them in important narratives:
“As we have done with Mbuya Nehanda, the Mother of our Nation, the lone heroine of our Chimurengas, our political history is one that makes wombs of women, empties us of all human complexity, impregnates us with all that is good or wrong in our society so that women are either Mothers of the Nation, birthing all that is good, or Evil Stepmothers, birthing all that is bad in our society.”
This seems like a lot of responsibility, and at once, I realize I’d rather be one of the little women as well, because at least it might give me the freedom to be written as fully human in history. I am neither pure heroine nor pure villain.
As much as These Bones Will Rise Again is significantly memoir, it’s also quite evidently a history textbook (in a loose definition of the word), and I’m actually very grateful for that. Not once have I ever read such a narrative by an African woman that tells me so much about a single African country from a personal lens, and which has successfully stimulated me and maintained my interest without my having been forced to read it. I hate classrooms with a passion, but if we’re going to keep using them on the African continent for the time being, we should probably distribute this book to African students everywhere, Zimbabwean and otherwise. Because, really, how many writers can successfully make non-fiction academic history not boring? My education would have meant a hell of a lot more to me if I had read a book like this before college. I imagine it would mean a lot to many young people who get the chance to read it.
I can’t emphasize enough how important I think this book is. I lost count of the number of times when, as I was reading, this thought occurred to me: This book has to explode, madly. It is way too important not to explode. But will it? I’ve come to believe that book popularity has at least as much to do with the funding and marketing behind the publishers as the actual quality of the work, so I don’t know. I do feel like by composing this post, I’m doing my little part in pushing this book to a potential audience. (I’m grateful to even have an audience!)
One thing I particularly admire about Panashe Chigumadzi is the boldness in her honesty. Whatever else this book is about, it’s also about Zimbabwean politics. Politics is dangerous everywhere, but I assume it’s much more so when the country in question had a genocide it dealt insufficiently with. Furthermore, a country whose historical characters are not only still alive, but still holding freaking positions in government. I don’t know if this book is being sold in Zimbabwe, but if it is, I’d consider it a miracle. (State censorship is hella real, you feel me?) I don’t know if Panashe ever plans to relocate to Zimbabwe, but if she ever successfully does, I’d consider it a miracle.
I will admit that as a Ghanaian girl who only learned last year that Zimbabwe even used to be called Rhodesia, and clearly had no knowledge of Zimbabwe’s history before very recently, this book had me thoroughly confused at times. Who are these people, where are these places, what are these words, what are you talking about, sis? But the more exposed you are to certain things, the better you begin to digest them. As I’m completing this write-up, I’ve only just finished reading Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone, which actually complements These Bones Will Rise Again very nicely, but in fiction form. At the time of Zimbabwe’s non-coup, I’d never heard of Emerson Mnangagwa in my life. Now, after following Zimbabwe’s political events nearly consistently and reading a lot more, I’m far less ignorant.
Still, assimilating the information contained in Panashe’s book is going to take several, several more reads. One could never have been enough. So, you know, it’s great that I own it now and can keep going back to it. (I should have asked Panashe to sign it when I met her. SMH. I really slack.)
Interesting things happen when Ghanaian fathers find themselves together in one room. It is common knowledge how extremely unfashionable it is to brag about yourself to others. Bragging about your children, however, is a completely different matter.
I met Akosua Atuah between July and August of 2016; our fathers had met a couple of weeks prior and it just so happened that one had a daughter who, come December, would release a spoken word EP (me) and the other had a daughter who, come December, would release a poetry anthology (Akosua). And clearly, these men thought, for the sake of networking, two emerging college-age poetesses, by force or fire, had to meet. I won’t lie, the enthusiasm with which my father kept sending me screenshots of Akosua’s Tumblr, consistently asking me if I’d called her yet, since he first gave me her number, kind of scared me. Eventually I did text her though, and we had brunch together, and then sat in East Legon traffic while jamming to Kanye West before she dropped me home.
The thing that most surprised me after I met Akosua Atuah, and followed/liked her on every social media platform I could find her on, was how I’d never heard of her before. Not only because she was in what most people would call “my circles,” but because everything I read of hers showed that she was an absolutely fantastic writer. It was more than obvious that she paid careful attention to her words and her craft, and was clearly particular about her aesthetic. Looking at her Tumblr was a humbling experience; the layout and photography on her Instagram was incredibly impressive. She was a poet who paid attention to her poetry in its entirety, not just the lyrics. I had a lot to learn from her. While in the car with her that one time, she told me she needed a new writing journal, and whereas most people might have found her exclusive pickiness about what kind of journal she wanted, it was only more confirmation for me for what I’d already seen of her personality: she could not be pleased with “just anything” (when it comes to journals, notebooks and pens, I’m the same way). I showed her where I got my favorite ones and we passed through – Acrilex, by the way – before she took me home. I say these things about her personality first because it made her book make so much more sense to me.
To begin with Outburst: The Things We Don’t Say, the anthology she eventually released in December, speaking entirely superficially, the book is beautiful. In fact, it is gorgeous. Everyone to whom I have shown it can barely help but comment on this fact first. The whole thing reeks of deliberate design, and anybody who picks it up can appreciate this before even reading a single poem. I daresay this book has the most stunning presentation I have ever seen of any book by a Ghanaian – and it has one of the most stunning presentations I have ever seen, period. (And yes, I do take into account that I have a bias towards both minimalism and black-and-white.) The purposeful design extends beyond the cover. As you turn the pages, you will notice the deliberate, careful structure of the poetry, noticing the spaces between words, the patterns of the lengths of the lines, the necessity of varying the alignment of the text and the conscious placement of photographs specifically shot for the anthology. (Speaking of those pictures, they evoke a slight twinge of jealousy, because at least from afar, it seems like the models and photographers are composed of a support system dedicated to helping Akosua succeed.)
On the content itself: Only about three or four poems into the book, I was already smiling like an idiot, the voice in my head screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes, this is what I’ve always wanted to read!” It’s probably why I took so long to actually finish it. I had to keep pausing to recover, both from my excitement and from its profundity.
First, on how it’s written: Akosua Atuah is not pretentious. Pretentious poetry suffocates me – even, and especially, when I write it myself – but the poems in this book were saying exactly what they were saying, not saying them in a way that was intended to deliberately impress or confuse. You must know what I mean, for there are so many people out here trying to sound deep and consequently showing very little evidence of authenticity or comprehendability. (I feel evil for saying this, but it is what it is.) But I think the key to Akosua’s very real style is in her Author’s Preface at the beginning of the book:
“I thought it had to be dramatic with sound effects and imagery, but then I noticed that sometimes, the best advice is in the things we don’t say.”
She was not here to flash and blind her readers. She was here to tell the truth according to her experience, and on behalf of several others, because “it is important for them to know that somewhere, somehow, someone else has the same feeling.” I admit there were a few poems I was, nevertheless, unable to understand, but I know it was not because they were badly written; in fact, it’s a good thing when poetry invites you back for a rereading, either because what they said resonated so well that you must visit again and again, or because you need several opportunities to fully appreciate the meaning within the words. I think for me, each poem was one or the other.
On the content itself: There was a lot. So much, I wonder how she managed to fit it all in a single book. But most of it was about grief, struggle and sadness. There is a reason for this: most of the content of this book was at least loosely triggered by the passing away of Akosua Atuah’s mother, at the age of thirteen. A girl barely a teenager, losing her parent and left to navigate life, womanhood and her own response to the death of an instrumental loved one is sure to produce some sort of chaos within her, and confusion as to how to manifest it. It is highly unlikely that she would find the most appropriate way immediately, in the midst of the processing, and the consequence, I suppose, is that it will all build up, like a disaster waiting to happen, and then BOOM – an Outburst. For the most part, that is what this book is. I can’t think – after all the pain and acting out – of a better or healthier way to explode.
I admire the boldness with which the first few poems set the tone. From “The Balm”, a quote that proves Akosua is a lexivist whether she knows it or not:
“My poems and its prose are for the ones that hold power in the flick of their wrists,
yet are too afraid to use it. The ones that have thunder in the midst of their
voices so much so that life stops for a second to grasp that solid piece of history.”
And right after that, there’s “Writer’s Task,” which is just so many things that I honestly feel that it deserves its own blog post. That’s the one that tells you all the things you shouldn’t expect the book to exclusively be about.
“…They will ask you,
and again, “why not write about the war or the fact that your land is facing many economic problems?”
And a couple of stanzas later:
“You tell them that you don’t need to write about those,
not because they aren’t of importance
but because that is all we hear.”
STANDING OVATION! I could have stopped reading the book there, and that would have been it. That poem did two of the bravest things a Ghanaian poet can do:
Decide not to write about what “everyone else” is writing about, the way they are writing about it, the way they expect it to be written.
Write what one genuinely feels one must write, how one feels one must write it, in order to be true to oneself.
Again, several things I can learn from Akosua Atuah, but I’m young and I have time.
Speaking of being true to oneself, you can see aspects of Akosua’s identity oozing through the pages, boldly, in defiance of whomever will refuse to accept her as she is. I am talking about how she talks about being an African woman, an African woman in America as seen by Africans back home, being African in general, being a woman in general, being a Christian – and goodness knows how dreadfully unpopular any of these things can be at any given time.
It is a book full of poems that allow themselves to be desolate with no happy endings sometimes – which is perfectly fine. It is a book full of affirmations that do not give desolation any chance to rear its head sometimes – which is perfectly fine. It is also a book full of poems that carve spaces for both at once, sometimes, which is great.
One impressive thing is how Akosua not only explores womanhood in her poems – several poets do that – but I notice and am extremely impressed by her poems that touch on manhood as well. “Man Made” is one of those poems (side note: it brought to mind a Sophia Thakur TED talk called “My boyfriend isn’t allowed to cry unfortunately”), and it asks the necessary questions of humanity and gender, this thing called “toxic masculinity”:
“So I asked them, “what is it about society shoving strength
down a man’s throat? Does crying or grieving or simply
feeling emotion make him less of a man?”
Or what about “A Stranger’s Words to Fathers.” which is just the surface exploration of the rift between father and daughter that I can unfortunately relate so well to? Or “Father’s love” which highlights the comfort of a caring father when one is in the pits of despair? But I have to say that my favorite is “Love him” because, my goodness, that poem is several levels of beautiful:
“Love a man that carries Christ in his
back pocket and always pulls
him out when you’re lost.”
I was only about halfway through with the book, when, one day, when depression rendered me completely unproductive and incapable of leaving my room, I just finished all the rest of the book in one sitting. It left me very pleasantly exhausted. It carried me through the sadness; poetry can do that for you. During and since reading, one of the quotes that sustains me is:
“Remind your melancholy that it will always be that muse that allows you to draw a blossoming flower through dark times.”
To say the least about how I feel about this book, I am impressed. And although I barely know Akosua, I am so, so proud of her and this milestone she has achieved for herself and, whether or not she knows it, all of us aspiring young writers. Look at what she achieved before she even graduated from college.
Support the art, the industry, support Akosua Atuah. Purchase her book. It is not something you will regret. The book needs to be read.
Update: Following from the number of people who have asked me where it is available in Ghana, I know now that it is for sale at LifeForms Gh, which is on the same street as MetroTV. I also know that Akosua is working on getting more stores in Ghana involved. When she does, I will update this post again.