My Thoughts: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

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.

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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.

-Akotowaa

 

Okay, so Ghana, Imma need a “The Justice” series, like, ASAP

What the title said.

The Justice is a novel by Ghanaian author, Boakyewaa Glover. It’s marketed as a “political thriller” as indicated on the cover, but I’d probably call it a political romantic suspense-drama. But that’s a lot, so let’s just go with what the cover says, LOL.

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For me, it was one of those books that looked intimidatingly large at first, made me think it might be boring and difficult to trudge through, but ended up being an exhilarating read that made me feel like I was effortlessly drinking up the words. It was a wild ride. I remember excitedly ranting to my best friend about it nearly from beginning to end.

Most events occur around the attempts of a man called Joseph Annan (also known as “The Justice”) to rise to the position of presidency in Ghana. The Justice, however, isn’t quite the main character. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to narrow “main character” down to a single person. I feel like s/he changes throughout the different sections of the book.

When I first started reading it, I thought it would make a great Ghanaian movie. It worked perfectly. The premise—a man trying to become president while his daughter does scandalous things, his wife is ill and unstable, and the opposition is being, well, oppositional—was such a good one, and Glover set the stage up excellently. Besides, the way we like politics in our Ghana dier, I could already see this movie’s publicity taking off if handled well.

But then as I continued reading, the number of plot twists grew wildly, the twists themselves were increasingly mind-blowing, and the stakes kept rising relentlessly. It reached a point where immediately starting another chapter after I’d finished one began to feel exactly like binge-watching a suspenseful Netflix show, just skipping credits and moving on to the next episode. The end of each chapter had me so impatient to find out what would happen in the next one, and I could so clearly see this becoming an excellent TV show!

I’ve thought about a The Justice TV show almost every day since I finished the book. The novel itself is so underrated and underpublicized! I wouldn’t have known it existed if it hadn’t been lent to me by a friend (shout-out to TrueCoaster!), yet it’s easily one of the littest Ghanaian books I have ever read.

I have only two particularly critical things to say about it: firstly, that final plot twist just seemed a bit over the top. Everything else could fly—but that final one just had me going, “Wei dier, wo boa.” The other thing is about the characters’ speech. Every character spoke in standard English, no matter their background, the social context, their names, whatever. This is probably not something I’d have complained about if I’d read this book a few years ago, before I started being really conscious about such things. I, too, have written many things where the words coming out of characters’ mouths could just as easily have come out of the mouths of generic wyt characters. Basically, the characters’ speech didn’t have enough character. No pidgin, Twinglish, Ewe, etc., so that’s one thing I’ll advocate for the screenwriter of The Justice TV show (yes, I’m speaking about it like I already know it’s going to happen) to take into account when adapting the novel.

I have so much hope in this series, faith in its potential to be a smash hit and revival of Ghanaian television. No series has made sense to me since Home Sweet Home, to be very honest. And, if done right, I can’t see why The Justice won’t work. If we adapt this novel, we shouldn’t have much to worry about, with regards to the story being wack, because it’s already not. If someone has the resources to make something as visually stunning as An African City, I don’t see why The Justice can’t be just as good quality-wise. Maybe acting and accents could be problematic, but again, I’ll say, if the scripts are written correctly, dialogues should sound so natural and colloquially Ghanaian that it would make it at least extremely difficult, if not impossible, for actors to deliver them unnaturally. Also, if Ghanaians are consistently hooked on suspenseful dramas, from Game of Thrones to Stranger Things to How to Get Away with Murder etc., I honestly can’t see why The Justice should fail to appeal to the same audience. What I’m saying is: This series go beeeee!

I beg, a human being who has loads of money should get in contact with Boakyewaa Glover as soon as possible, find a sensible screenwriter and set this process in motion, please and thank you. (I really beg.)

Just in case you’re thinking of volunteering me as screenwriter, let me just make it clear that I don’t have the faintest clue how to screen-write. (Okay, that’s not entirely true. But the very faintest is the best I’ve got. Which is not to say that if you offer me tons of money, I’ll refuse to learn, don’t get it twisted.)

Also, read the book, because, you know, it’s lit!

Akotz the Spider Kid

 

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.

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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

Beautiful.

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.

-Akotowaa

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.

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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. =)

-Akotowaa