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!
I will fully admit that I decided to read this book because Zendaya is in the upcoming movie, and as usual, I insist on reading the book before watching the movie.
I know it’s a sci-fi classic, but even after combing through Goodreads reviews, I can’t say that I fully understand why—except maybe that the impact has something to do with the era in which it was published.
Since I’m pretty ambivalent about the entire book, I thought a list of the things I enjoyed and the things I didn’t would be more useful than an essay-like review. So, here we go:
Things I enjoyed:
The depth of Herbert’s worldbuilding.
The intricacies of Fremen religion, and religion in general, throughout the book. They feel simultaneously derivative and very well-thought out.
The amalgamation of cultures. Among those I picked up on, particularly in the names and non-English words: Arabic, Judeo-Christian, Asian.
Bene Gesserit superpowers and their partiality to women.
The idea that the man who is prophesied as a savior will or must be adept at things generally considered feminine. I would like more shattering of gender barriers, please and thanks.
The slight transcendence of the “reluctant hero” trope (which I love) into a “hero who wants to actively resist the fervor that would come about as the result of his heroism” trope, which is largely new to me in fiction. Considering the way real-life history has occurred, this seems the most logical type of hero trope that could possibly exist in science-fiction, and now that I’ve read Dune, I’m shocked that the trope isn’t overwhelmingly popular already. This is the first time in real or fictional religion that I’ve seen the central figure of that religion deeply consider in advance the violence that his worshippers could wreak around the world.
The idea of investing in a sustainable future whole-heartedly, even though you know that your generation isn’t the one that will live to see it. We love environmental/climate justice.
Things I did not enjoy:
The stiffness of the dialogue between the characters.
The way the plot progresses but hardly seems to twist. It felt like I was always told what was going to happen, so that when it happened, I felt nothing because it was impossible to be surprised. A lot of this, I think, is Princess Irulan’s fault. And, perhaps, the gifts of prescience that some of the characters possess. In any case, I wonder how the book would have read, if Irulan’s excerpts came at the ends of chapters, and not the beginnings.
The lack of readable romance between people who clearly have great love for each other. For instance, I could infer that Jessica and Duke Leto were in love, but I couldn’t feel it. Same thing with Paul and Chani.
It felt like homosexuality and obesity were weaponized through their uses as characteristic of the book’s central antagonist.
The fact that the author chose to continuously document the inner thoughts of the characters in italics, instead of leaving me to infer. It felt like spoon-feeding me as a reader, as if I wasn’t smart enough to figure certain things out on my own. Besides, just like Irulan’s excerpts did, it severely detracted from the consequently nonexistent mystery of the plot.
The way the book was written made it difficult to understand what should have been basic transitions between places, times, and events.
The entire book was just much, much longer than it probably needed to be.
So, Dune may be a classic, but I can’t say it would be anywhere close to high on my recommendation list. But that’s just how I feel.
I first started reading Watchmen several years ago, when I was still in high school and going through a superhero phase. At the time, I only finished eight of the twelve issues, but even ¾ into the collection, I was able to conclude two things:
Watchmen was the most unique set of hero stories I had ever encountered.
Alan Moore was officially one of my favorite writers.
The form interested me at least as much as the content, and that was certainly a new experience for me. I was endlessly fascinated by the final pages of each issue, where the panel format would give way to some other genre. It might be an autobiography excerpt, a newspaper clipping, exchanged correspondence—a different thing with every issue. The flexible form expanded my understanding of how writers and artists could add meaning to a narrative, sometimes in surprisingly non-narrative ways. Issue after issue, I kept remarking to myself, “I didn’t even know you were allowed to do that!”
I finally got around to completing the comic maxiseries this year, in 2020, because of the HBO Watchmen (2019) series release. (I refused, like I often do, to watch the show without having fully read the book. And my God, I’m so glad I did!)
I think the most noticeable thing about the comic characters was their brilliant, unique, psychological profiles. If there was a central question the comics asked of each character, it would go something like this: “Forget the whole ‘saving the world’ BS, what’s the real reason you decide to dress up in some glorified Halloween costumes and go around beating people up, hmm?” And for almost every character, the question produced extraordinarily fascinating answers—answers which varied surprisingly from character to character. One thing I’m sure they all have in common, however, is that every last one of these characters is stark, raving mad. And somehow, as opposed as some of them might be to each other ideologically, all of them are right, in some way, about something. That takes some incredible writing skill to achieve.
The plot was a surprisingly slow burn. Perhaps Watchmen is not as action-packed as your average costumed hero tale. Where bombshells do appear, though, they are ruthless. The writers don’t give a damn about your shock and are not interested in easing you into comprehension. Things happen, then they’re done, and you’re left alone to deal with the consequences, as a reader, just like the characters are. The dominant thought in my head when I reached the end of the maxiseries was, “WTF did I just read?!” It’s worth mentioning that the heavily political climate of the overarching story was invaluable. It helped me understand the significance and motivations of several key characters. Much of world politics doesn’t make sense to me, so it was a surprise that I appreciated its role in Watchmen. But I admit, in the context of this story, all the costumed heroes would have seemed frivolous in the absence of such high stakes.
Part 2: The Comic-Based Series
Note: There are NO spoilers in this section.
I don’t know that it’s possible to talk about HBO’s Watchmen without shouting. Personally, I have never seen brilliance like this before, but I hope to God that one day, I’ll see brilliance like this again. Maybe even help make brilliance like this before I die.
In this world, there are people who like reading. There are people who like watching TV. And there are people who love story. Once upon a time, I might have fallen mostly into the first group, but over the years, I’ve become primarily a member of the third. So, for me, the fact that I cannot talk about HBO’s Watchmen series in isolation from DC’s Watchmen comics is a huge part of the brilliance. This is how you do story!
HBO’s Watchmen isn’t an adaptation of the comic books; it’s a continuation. A sequel, if you will. I suspect I’d have been confused as hell if I’d gone into the show with no idea of the original story. The series does what it can to fill you in, but I still believe that to fully appreciate the genius, reading Issues 1 through 12 of the comics first is your best bet.
The continuity might have been the most impressive part, for me. It seeped through every aspect: motifs, typography, themes, characters, timeline, even plots and individual scenes. People familiar with the comics might immediately recognize the motif of the Comedian’s bloody, smiley-face badge. I was almost irrationally excited to see that motif replicated in the HBO series with the bloody police badge. Additionally, it was a small but beautiful aesthetic detail to have all the subtitles for non-English dialogue in the series appear in the yellow sans-serif font that graces the cover of the graphic novel collection.
The choice of artform does lead to significant differences, though. The graphic novel was more preoccupied with character psychology than character development, but the series did so much better with the latter, not only with the newer characters like Looking Glass and Sister Night, but also with older ones like Laurie and Jon.
I may inevitably sound like a snob here, but in terms of plot twists and revelations, I honestly believe that there are things that will absolutely not hit you quite as strongly as they should if you aren’t already familiar with the graphic novel. I can’t articulate which scenes those are for the sake of spoilers, but if you’re thinking of watching Watchmen, I strongly recommend you go and find the comics to read first. That’s all I’ve been trying to say for the last 400 words.
Part 3: My Unfiltered Thoughts on the Whole Thing
Note: THERE ARE SPOILERS in this section!
One recurring thought when I finished the comic maxiseries was that Adrian Veidt and Thanos would have gotten along splendidly. I think both villains had very good points! It’s something I think about nearly all the questionable characters in Watchmen: Everyone is mad, but also, everyone is right. Rorschach was deranged, but I could see his point of view. Ozymandias was a murderous megalomaniac, but he also made hella sense. Dr. Manhattan didn’t have the emotional spectrum of an actual human being, but he said so many brutally true things! (Of course, to my surprise, in the HBO series, he does develop the emotional spectrum of an actual human being.)
Lady Trieu though? I’m sorry, but I can’t find a way to redeem her madness with logic. I mean, at least Ozymandias was trying to avoid an impending, worldwide disaster. And he was more interested in neutralizing a dangerous, nearly apathetic god, rather than becoming one. Regardless of how Trieu tried to justify herself, it just felt like she was a megalomaniac for megalomania’s sake. I mean, if you want to kill Dr. Manhattan to prevent evil racists from stealing his power, I may not approve, but I can at least understand your thought pattern. But going the extra mile of taking that power for yourself just sounds like overkill to me.
Speaking of Dr. Manhattan, though, I found his evolution pretty stunning. For most of the comics, I thought of him as a cold, unfeeling god who was utterly bored by humanity. It came as a genuine surprise to me when he decided to help save the world because of the “thermodynamic miracle” of Laurie’s father, of all things. What I never expected was for Jon Osterman to fall so deep in love that he would masquerade as a human, even become a human, so he could make the woman he loved happy. That was the most anti-Manhattan thing I could possibly think of, and that was what made the bombshell of Calvin so profound. I promise you, when I heard the “rumor” of Dr. Manhattan masquerading on earth, I thought it might be Topher. Topher seemed too emotionally advanced for his age, too cold and logical, and he was able to do at least one physics-defying thing in the series. Topher, not Calvin, was the most Manhattan-like human in the series, before the big revelation. In any case, I didn’t think it was possible to do with Dr. Manhattan what the TV series successfully did with him, and for that, I was blown away.
In the comics, the first time I found myself really liking Dr. Manhattan was during the scene with Laurie on Mars, particularly the conversation about Laurie sleeping with Dreiberg. I laughed my head off at Laurie’s frustration with Jon for being shocked at something he already theoretically knew he would be told. It was my favorite scene in the entire graphic novel. I was delighted to find that the mood of that scene was replicated with Angela, in the scene where Jon finds out about her parents’ death. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed the consistent parallels between the Laurie-Jon relationship of the comics and the Angela-Jon relationship of the TV series.
Another thing I enjoyed immensely was the brilliance of the Adrian Veidt subplot. I would commend all those who figured out immediately that the Lord of the Manor was Veidt, because I was lost for a hot minute. There was a meta-quality to the Manor scenes, in that everyone on Europa had a role to play in the theater of Veidt’s captivity. The irony, of course, is that Veidt himself was the director of this theater of captivity, to help him cope with the reality of his captivity. And even more of a head-f*ck was the fact that within this theater of captivity, he actually had his servants enact plays in a theatre setting!
As fundamental as Veidt was to the graphic novel’s plot, he didn’t appear much until near the end of it. The series thus gave me a much deeper insight into Veidt’s character than the comics were able to. Like I said, the series was much better at character development than the graphic novels were. Old characters were sincerely refreshed.
Take Agent Blake, for example. It took my brain ages to accept that she and Laurie Juspeczyk were the same person. Her character had evolved, and hardened, even more than Jon’s character had evolved. A mystery I haven’t quite managed to solve is how, if the identity of her father traumatized her so much, she grew up to completely adopt his last name. Blake/The Comedian was never married to Laurie’s mother. Throughout his life, he never claimed Laurie as his own. So what’s Laurie’s logic in adopting his legacy, even nominally? The best I can come up with, considering Agent Blake’s new fatalistic cynicism, is that she has resolved to intentionally embrace personal trauma and tragedy, because what’s the point of rejecting something that continuously follows you all the time, anyway?
While we’re speaking of character development, I’d like to say that Angela Abar’s character development was sexier than any other character’s development in Watchmen… except maybe for Will Reeves. These guys’ backstories take the cake. So much more fascinating and formative than Ozymandias’ backstory, or Jon Osterman’s, and even Rorschach’s. I mean look at how that sweet little girl turned into this savage! And see how that furious Black policeman became this laid-back old man who acts like he’s just in the world to have a good time, to the bafflement of everybody around him.
Now, Hooded Justice certainly played with my emotions. From the first time I saw his costume in the Watchmen comics, with that rope around his neck, I thought, “A symbol of lynching? This guy has to be Black.” But then the little glimpses I got of his eyes consistently suggested that he was a white man, so I forced myself to accept that I was wrong about his race. And then Watchmen the TV series happened, and I SCREAMED. Man, this is how you do story! And let’s talk motifs and legacy. Isn’t it fascinating that Sister Night’s costume involves a black spray-on eye mask, the complete inverse of HJ’s eye makeup, designed to make him look Caucasian!
On the topic of legacy. I love the play of the Smartest Woman in the World being a direct descendant of the Smartest Man in the World. It just goes to show, chale. No matter how smart you are, if you’re a fool, your foolishness will still show you pepper. In any case, I really love what they did with Nostalgia. Veidt came up with a fragrance, and Trieu turned it into a drug. Talk about family business, huh?
I’ve had an overdose of slavery writing lately, by virtue of having been enrolled last semester in an English class literally called “The Slave Narrative and the Novel.” So, goodness knows why, at the dawn of the decade, I thought it would be a good idea to go read yet another slavery novel.
For quite a while from the beginning, The Water Dancer was going, content-wise, the way I expected it to, and so I had thoughts of abandoning it until I felt capable of engaging with a slavery book again. The thing that changed my mind halfway through, which got me to commit to finishing, was this one narrative spin: superpowers.
I’ve read quite a bit of Coates’ nonfiction. I know, though, that he is also a comic book writer, particularly of one of Marvel’s Black Panther series. I still haven’t read any, like the disgrace that I am. Either way, just by knowing Coates’ reputation for writing superheroes, I sat up a lot straighter when I saw the hint of superpowers in The Water Dancer. This man knows the genre well, I thought. He’s about to give me a superhero slavery novel and I have never in my life read a superhero slavery novel. Turns out, however, that in this regard, the joke was on me. The Water Dancer turned out to be more of a coming-of-age story by way of magical realism, than a superhero story. So, there, I suffered from a bit of unmet expectation. It’s hard to say whether my expectations were even valid or not, seeing that I don’t actually know how Coates deals with superpowers in his other texts. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and am glad I finished it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an amazingly poetic writer, which made the prose a genuine pleasure to read. Now, this feature worked spectacularly in the narration and inner thoughts of the main character, Hiram. There was also something quite fascinating going on in the combination of racial and class-based language into categories unique to the world of The Water Dancer. Slaves were generally referred to as “the Tasked” and slavery itself as “the Task”; slaveholders and powerful whites were generally referred to as “the Quality.” I’m sure Coates would be able to give some brilliant explanations for his decision to use such language, which can scarcely escape the notice of any reader who may be desensitized to the more commonly used words/categories.
Where the language seemed to fall into awkward confusion was in the direct speech. The way slaves talk in The Water Dancer is very different from how slaves have talked in any other text I have read. It felt weird. Not necessarily a good, creative weird like with Toni Morrison’s characters, but weird like, “You can’t possibly expect me to believe they said this like that.” I don’t know what the difference is that made the words come off so, but I can’t deny that I felt uncomfortable with it sometimes. One critical reviewer said that all the characters sounded the same, and I can definitely see how that opinion came about.
There were many other things I loved, though. One of them was the recurrent messages of freedom and individuality, both in the institutional sense—regarding the Task/slavery—and in the personal sense of being allegiant to oneself. Two of my favorite quotes came from the characters Corinne and Hawkins.
“But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see—one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose.” –Corinne
“But I think this is the lesson in it all. We forget sometimes—it is freedom we are serving, it is the Task that we are against. And freedom mean the right of a man to do as he please, not as we suppose. And if you have not been as we supposed, you have been as you were supposed to be.” –Hawkins
Another thing I found wonderful was the lexivist themes woven so integrally into the story. The novel presented the power of story, storytelling and memory as mediums for the supernatural, and the power of good, crafty writing as a liberating, dangerous tool utilized by the defiant Underground.
Besides these, I thought Hiram was a sufficiently complex character. His internal struggles, thoughts and moments of cognitive dissonance came across as extremely realistic. The dangerously potent attachment to his owner’s family, property and town, for one. Then there was his immaturity and then maturity, callousness and compassion, desire for proximate power, fear of freedom, complicated relationships with women.
Speaking of women, possibly my favorite thing about The Water Dancer was how the women in the novel refused to be owned. Especially Sophia and Moses/Harriet. I thought the Harriet character was very congruent with how she was portrayed in the recently released movie Harriet (which did the superhero slavery thing excellently, I might add!). As for Sophia, the hurt she harbored regarding men was so profound, I felt it in the depths of my soul. She seemed to me to represent how, after you have been traumatized by a man, being any man’s woman, even in love, is sometimes too terrible to contemplate. Her fear, which even Hiram picked up, was so powerful and relevant.
“What I did understand was that she was terribly afraid of something—something in me, and the thought that I would, in any way, exist to her in the way of Nathaniel, that she would fear me as she feared him, scared and shamed me all at once.” –Hiram
And I am glad Hiram was ashamed.
My greatest discomforts with The Water Dancer come from, interestingly enough, how the novel reads as being extraordinarily nice to white people. Something in me is already weary of the whole biracial-slave-owned-by-his-white-master/father protagonist thing. On top of that, Hiram’s love for his father—whom he consistently referred to as, and wholeheartedly and delightedly claimed as hisfather—was a bit sickening to me. Furthermore, the white characters, particularly Hiram’s father and Corinne, only got called out a couple of times each, and none harshly enough that I really felt anything. The white characters felt kind of like heroes. I don’t know what that means for a slavery novel. I do know what that means in terms of being palatable to the mainstream publishing industry, though, so I don’t know what to think about that. The one time I was struck in a positive way by Hiram calling someone out was in this case:
All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. –Hiram
I thought this a necessary and refreshing perspective to bring to the consideration of white abolitionists and Underground agents. But Coates definitely has the creative license to do what he wants, and I don’t know half of the crap that goes on in the publishing world before a book comes out, so I choose, this time, to refrain from any explicit judgment. Life is hard and weird.
Despite the many someway things, I did think The Water Dancer was a good novel and enjoyable read. And I really like when Black people have superpowers.