Accra Noir was a really enjoyable anthology. I have no regrets about it being my first official introduction into the noir genre. Heaven knows my dark soul enjoys a few grim and occasionally grisly tales here and there.
I had the privilege of receiving a copy of this book directly from Nigeria-based Cassava Republic publishers, and of attending the launch event for this book at The Library of Africa and the African Diaspora (LOATAD), where I met a few of the awesome contributing authors, Ernest (whom I would probably pay to read me to sleep), Gbontwi (whom I know personally and who contributed the only speculative story to the anthology, ayy, represent!), and Eibhlin (a truly delightful Irish-born lady who reads well enough to make me forget I’m in the real world). I even got their signatures!
[Another contributor, Ambassador Anna Bosman, was there too, but I didn’t get to snag her autograph. 😞]
I’m afraid that maybe I read too much, because for most books I’ve read recently, I’ve found it too easy to predict the ends of stories. Probably because of that bias, my favorite stories in this anthology were the ones whose endings I didn’t quite expect – in particular, “Chop Money,” by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (an *excellent* story to start the collection with!) and “Kweku’s House” by Ayesha Harruna Attah. My absolute favorite, though, was “Intentional Consequences,” by Anne Sackey. I don’t know if the ending was entirely unexpected, but this story aroused the most emotions within me just because of the deep flaws and feelings of the characters themselves. They felt so alive and so real, and the plot was just a tad bit Nollywood/Ghallywood, which made it even more entertaining for me.
I haven’t read any other books in the Akashic Noir series (yet, hehee), so I don’t know if this is unique to Accra Noir or not – but I realized that most stories tended to take up a lot of time just being explanatory. I suppose the purpose was to introduce readers to the character and history of the individual Accra communities featured in the stories, but sometimes, these explanations felt distracting. It was like taking me out of the story and into a textbook, and then back into the story. But God knows that writing is hard, and trying to integrate any sort of exposition into a story naturally can be quite a hellish endeavor even for veterans in the writing game.
Altogether, reading this book was a pleasure. The stories were diverse in form and content, and generally easy to read. I highly recommend it!
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.
I first came across this book when looking for another one in the library, and behold: they were right next to each other! (The book I had been looking for was Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Deathwhich was brilliant, by the way). And as you may or may not know, purple is my favorite color, and the hard cover (not the jacket, which was not present at the time) of Under the Udala Trees was purple, so naturally, I had to pick it up. I Googled it then and there and decided that it must make my reading list immediately.
In summary, it was underwhelming, and just…okay. For one thing, it was very easy to get through. Not because it was particularly engaging but more because it was simple and predictable, both in terms of language and storyline. I know that what I am about to say will sound like an insult, though I do not think I mean it that way: the book sounded like it was being written by a very proficient twelve-year-old. The language was easily understood but not sophisticated. At first, I let it be, because at the beginning of the story, its main character, Ijeoma, is 8 years old – even though the recounting of her life as more like a flashback from the point of view of an uncertain age in adulthood. But I allowed it. The issue was that as I journeyed with Ijeoma into adulthood, there was absolutely no change or maturation in her tone, and that left me uncomfortable. I admit, however, that this may not be a problem with the book but rather a problem of preference. E no be by force to use (my perception of) sophisticated tone. Some people write like Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Others write like Chinelo Okparanta. Maybe Akotowaa just likes books that sound like Zafon.
At the back of the book was a note about the then-president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan’s law that made engagement and aid in homosexual activities a punishable crime. That, and the fact that I do not know of any other LGBT+ African fiction book shows me the importance of a book like this breaking into the sphere and simply existing. (But also, I’m ignorant, so feel free to comment titles of African LGBT+ books for me!) Yet I still can’t help but feel that it didn’t make the impact I think a book like it should have made. And I’m not just talking about the literary media exploding over it or whatever. I’m talking about the story itself. It felt shallow and lacking.
Every single character felt flat and annoying at many points (if not for the whole book), including the main one. There was nothing about anyone that drew me in, made me love, want to be like, or even hate them. I was barely reacting to any characters at all, and when I did, with mild boredom. They were all predictable and not particularly interesting. The romance itself felt flat, which I suppose was my biggest issue. I couldn’t understand why Ijeoma fell in love with Amina or Ndidi. The former seemed very naive and unattractive to me – lacking in personality. The latter was only slightly better for being quietly daring, yet still not intriguing enough for me to fall in love with. And it wasn’t because of their genders that I couldn’t get into them; in any case, if I am reading a first-person narrative from a lesbian, I should be in a very good position to sympathize with her and love who and what she loves, shouldn’t I? Maybe I need a bisexual or homosexual girl to tell me if she could see the appeal in Amina or Ndidi because I just can’t do it myself. But well, the book’s existence alone is important for the culture, I guess.
As predictable and shallow as I think the characters were, I will still admit that the experiences of Ijeoma are almost realistically like what I would expect a young lesbian girl to have gone through, in terms of the attitudes of other people…for the most part. Again, where I think there is lack is in its mildness. I genuinely think there are deep, deep horror stories that a novel like this could have reflected. When the undercover-hideout-not-church burned, it should have been so painful that I cried. Ijeoma’s mother was surprisingly lenient, though disturbingly hard-headed. She didn’t resort to corporal correction or even to placing her daughter in the hands of someone else (priest? Witch doctor?) that she thought would correct her. But also, maybe I have a stereotyped imagination of a typical African parent’s reaction to a homosexual child. And I’m not trying to tell anyone how they should write their story, too. I think if I had wanted to write a book like this, I might have gone to interview a homosexual person just to have something to model my book authentically after. I don’t know how Chinelo came up with her own storyline, though. I’ll go and look for sources.
One particularly bothersome thing was problematic theology. There was absolutely no character that looked at theology from a perspective that wasn’t particularly suited for their own purposes. Every single character had problematic interpretations. Ijeoma’s mother had her sickening interpretations of sexuality related scripture that sent her as far as approval of rape; Ijeoma seemed to be trying to interpret scripture in a way that undermined the sovereignty of God; Chibundu was just lazy about all of it. But well, I’m not one of those people who believes the highest purpose of novel-writing is explicit moral education of the public so… Nevertheless, I wonder if any reader of this book who is only vaguely familiar with theological perspectives – as I suppose many of us are – would have gained anything new after reading this.
Let me just say though, that I enjoyed the inclusion of short folktales and songs as the story went on. Though I could not always see their legitimate relevance, I like stories within stories. It was just a bit reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in that way. Now that I’ve said that, to sum up all that I have said so far, this novel actually felt more like a large fable than a novel. It had that kind of texture of a plain and simple tale designed to just teach its audience something. As if it, in some way, lacked a certain complexity that I associate with novels. But yeah – I think it was an okay read.
Question: Why is Zadie so freaking beautiful? It’s not even fair. And her whole aesthetic just makes me happy. So does her voice – which is way deeper than I had expected it to be.
Okay. Anyway. The book. But before that, we need to talk about how much fun Salman Rushdie was having in his review (i.e. too much). Take a look at the hard-copy cover of White Teeth, and you’ll notice Salman Rushdie’s commendation ends with “It has bite.” A book called White Teeth has bite! *facepalm* LOL
There is actually so much to say about this book, which can’t possibly be covered by me – at least not now. I’ll have to schedule a rereading sometime in the future because this book is dense. Heavily saturated with so many things. I don’t even want to imagine how long it took to write it.
White Teeth. What is it about? My shallow answer would be “nothing in particular”. My deeper answer would be “multiculture” (the red line in MS Word has told me that this isn’t a word, but I like it and insist it should be so I shall leave it as it is). And really, that’s what I see it as. Nearly every character seems to be a sort of metonymy for their own country, culture or brand of human being, if I may use this self-coined phrase. There are so many different kinds of people in this story, so different that it’s nearly unsettling that they have anything in common at all, even if it’s a physical factor as small as white teeth – whether natural or artificial. (You’ll understand if you read it.)
You all know about my love affair with metaphors, right? Extended metaphors in particular. Well this book had quite a number of them, but the centralized one was definitely, and perhaps predictably about teeth. The elaboration on dental things is so explicit at times and seems rather displaced, making one wonder why on earth the narrator thinks it’s significant enough to be lingered on for so long in a part of the story where it has nothing to do with anything. At times, it’s so implicit that you just might miss it, if the title hadn’t previously been keeping you on your guard for such things.
Given that white teeth was a characteristic that was kind of elevated, it was interesting when, to put it broadly, things to do with teeth were portrayed as second-rate when a character decided that another character was not smart enough to be a research scientist and so should settle for dentistry. Incidentally this “not smart enough” character happened to be a Jamaican-English mix just like the author herself, who has also, in a way taken up a profession (writing) that aimed at giving (fictional) people “white teeth“. But that’s just by the way.
Zadie Smith’s writing is kind of fantastic. I loved the way she merged the possible with the improbable, creating a definite incredibility factor with mad hilarity. On several occasions, I actually laughed out loud. Among other things to showcase this hilarity was a part near the very beginning where a guy was trying to commit suicide on a halal butcher’s property; the butcher’s son very blatantly reporting to his father that the guy said sorry, he’s too busy offing himself to get off the property, and the butcher’s alarmed and outraged reaction, not because he cared about this guy’s life, but because he did not, apparently, have a license for suicide on his property. Mad. (Is my sense of humour weird? Because I described this scene to people and they didn’t crack a smile.)
Zadie’s satirical tone and sarcasm in narration, as well as the satirical characters and their sarcastic tones lend much amusement to the whole story and make it much easier to touch on topics like war, colonialism and racism. She’s talking about serious issues and intentionally (or unintentionally, IDK) ridiculing them disproportionately.
Also, I feel the need to mention that this was the first novel I have ever read that gives the most accurate description ever of the agony of Afro-hair relaxation.
If you asked me to pick a favourite character, I’d be at a loss. White Teeth reminds me of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings in that just about every bloody character pisses me the hell off, in some way or the other. Either because they are incurably daft or have some irreparable hamartia. But perhaps the funniest character to me was Joyce Chalfen, in terms of her relationship with her son, Oscar. It was a staunch obliviousness that she had, not only in her relationship with him but with everyone else. Joyce could say something like “Oscar loves you.” Oscar would yell, “I hate him!” and Joyce would say triumphantly, “See? He adores you!” And this happened so many times and cracked me up each one.
A few miscellaneous things:
The ironic presentation of certain characters’ determination to be rooted in their traditional, “root” cultures”, while embracing foreign religions and/or insisting on remaining an immigrant in a foreign country, as opposed to returning to their “root” countries themselves.
The exaggerated power of words, concerning a couple of pro-Islam extremist leaflets that were able to transform a seriously promiscuous ladies-man into an abhorrer of all the girls – including his own multiple-at-once ones – who dressed like “whores”.
The convergence between characters, thoughts and events. Often things that had nothing to do with each other seemed to be running on parallel themes and tracks. Also, things that seemed to certainly have nothing to do with each other would suddenly converge with everyone and everything, getting “involved” (a joke you’ll get if you read the book) with everything and everyone else.
The quest for identity, seeming to belong everywhere and nowhere at once, of a couple of characters, which I could seriously relate with.
Long story short, I’d recommend this book, though I’ve seen rather many wishy-washy and negative reviews about it. I like White Teeth.
Now, to end with a mad cheesy, punny, sort of genius line from the last sentence in the book, I think: “the wicked like, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect.”