Nowhere is now in its fifth year as an online “journal of literary travel writing,” a genre defined by the magazine as “narrative with a strong sense of place, character or time.” Porter Fox, himself a travel journalist for two decades, is the founder and editor, and created the magazine because he wanted something “more engaging, authentic, and diverse.” The website is specific about not publishing “reviews of spas or shopping centers” (yet conveniently never mentions the advertisements). You won’t find the ten best bars in Cabo here, but you will find travel writing that takes you places—or rather, contemplates place.
Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the rise in popularity of books penned by African authors: “New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent.” I was not surprised, given that I’ve been absorbing the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others, for the past few months. Now, whenever I pop into my neighborhood Powell’s Books, I find more and more books written about Africa by more and more contemporary African writers. Where ever to begin? You can’t judge these books by their covers, because as one reader points out, the covers look remarkably similar. If you’re looking to take the plunge into Africa’s contemporary fiction (and I highly suggest you do), here are a selection of my current favorites:
From her first novel to her most recent, language has played a crucial role, but nowhere is it more decisive than in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written with the backdrop of a newly independent 1960s Nigeria, the Biafran War is seen through the eyes of Olanna, a Nigerian woman; Ugwu, a houseboy; and Richard, an Englishman. Two wealthy sisters, who had the privilege of an education in England, return to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths. Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, a response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions. A largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra. Ugwu, Kainene, Richard, Olanna and Odenigbo are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language—in this case, Igbo—can get you killed.
A riveting novel that should be at the top of everyone’s “to read” list.
The Thing Around Your Neck is the perfect precursor to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah. While the novel approaches issues of identity, immigration, and relationships through the eyes of one female protagonist, The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of short stories attacking similar issues with varying narrators and perspectives. It’s as though The Thing Around Your Neck, a dozen stories originally published in a dozen different magazines and journals, was the litmus test for Americanah. Each story is charged, electric. Adichie’s talent for prose is evident in the first line of each piece; take, for instance, the first line of “Imitation”: “Nkem is staring at the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel as she learns about her husband’s girlfriend.”
Just like that, when your eyes are following the main character’s, taking in the mask on the mantel, Adichie offers a swift punch to the stomach with “her husband’s girlfriend.” This is one of a handful of stories mentioning the phenomenon of husbands taking girlfriends—apparently common in Nigeria, and societally acceptable. Not one to take societal norms or constructs at face value, as evident throughout her four works of fiction (and her newly released e-book We Should All Be Feminists), Adichie attacks this issue of marital infidelity from two sides—that of the wife or girlfriend. In “Imitation,” it’s the perspective of the Nigerian housewife living in the United States while her husband resides in Lagos. The female protagonist in “Jumping Monkey Hill” reflects on her father’s former girlfriend, “Yellow Woman,” and what she herself should do when propositioned to be the girlfriend of a “Big Man;” grappling with all this whilst attending a writing workshop led by a lecherous old man. In both Americanah and The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie’s female characters are encouraged by female friends to take up with a “Big Man,” to ignore the sexual attacks from relatives and friends, to beg their cheating husbands to take them back, to try harder to keep their marriage intact. However, those scenarios never end neatly. Adichie’s feminist agenda is shrouded in intense, heartbreaking stories.
Adichie’s characters search the complexities of relationships and question their context in society, while grappling with identity as they move or transition from one society and culture to the next. These are huge issues, which Adichie conveys in deep, reflective prose, partnered with intriguing plots. The Thing Around Your Neck is a thing of beauty, evidence of an incredibly talented writer.
NoViolet Bulawayo is the latest in a string of contemporary African authors to be published on American shores, and it is hard not to compare her to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose four works of fiction straddle two continents, containing narrators navigating new countries and shifting societies). Like Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, Bulawayo’s narrator in We Need New Names takes readers from a childhood in Africa to adolescence and adulthood in the United States. But I would be remiss to lump the two works and authors together so easily, given that Bulawayo’s native Zimbabwe is four thousand miles from Adichie’s home country of Nigeria. Africa is not a country, and the experiences of all African nations are not one in the same. With this in mind, the similarities between We Need New Names and Americanah end with the aforementioned resemblance in plot.
If anything, NoViolet Bulawayo’s fiction debut is actually more similar—in terms of language—to Arundhati Roy’s fiction debut, The God of Small Things, published in 1997. Bulawayo plays with language to a lesser degree than Roy, but the childlike playfulness of Bulawayo’s narrator, Darling, comes through in the author’s prose. Most remarkable is the tightly controlled present-tense voice, starting out as a young, naïve girl’s perspective, and morphing into a young woman, removed from her family and friends in a foreign land. It’s difficult to convey change in consciousness and maturity that comes with age—let alone maintaining present tense throughout—but Bulawayo nails it. We Need New Names secures her a place among the likes of Adichie, Roy, and Lahiri, whilst setting herself thousands of miles apart.
“…a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.” The New Yorker
That blurb on the inside of Open City summed up the book for me. As I read Teju Cole’s novel I felt like I were following a thread, which, once pulled, shifted the fabric and continued to run throughout the textile until it arrived at another thread and followed that. This is no small feat. The New Yorker is right that it takes a sure hand to ensure this close first-person narrative feels deliberate, rather than flighty or unfocused. Cole’s novel feels so close, so intimate, that it reads like a diary–but one that is much more fully-formed in its ideas. A lesser writer would be a bore to read, but Cole’s seemingly tangential prose is a joy. I found myself flying through the pages, pulled along through the main character’s thoughts as though they were my own.
(If you’ve already devoured Open City, try reading Cole’s most recent publication, Every Day is for the Thief.)
Okey Ndibe joins the ranks of fellow contemporary Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a novel that chronicles the hardship of moving to America, where expectations of newfound social and economic opportunities are dashed. While Adichie’s Americanah follows the arc of her character’s life, ending with a triumphant return to Nigeria, Ndibe’s novel portrays Ike in financial ruin that pushes him to drastic, illegal measures he hopes will result in economic success. Ndibe’s portrayal of Ike’s life is gritty and realistic, even though the plot is far-fetched. Foreign Gods Inc. takes a long look at the status of American society through the eyes of an outsider, desperate to be on the in, and the sacrifices he’ll make to get there.
Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel is refreshingly complex, chronicling the lives of Kambili and Jaja, sister and brother in Nigeria who grow up with an air of privilege. Their father is a wealthy and respected businessman who donates to churches, and schools, while providing his children with a life of luxury. Kambili and Jaja attend the best schools, adhere to rigorous schedules, and focus wholly on their studies, with no time for chores like cooking or cleaning. They are, by all accounts, sheltered. Through Kambili’s arrestingly aware account of the world around her and those that inhabit it, we see how others view her (shyness mistaken for snobbery), her father (as a gracious, deeply religious man), and their life (endless access to soft drinks–a luxury to most–and things like televisions and stereos that lie unused in their sprawling, gated house). Adichie relies on the first-person accounts of Kambili to portray both the political and domestic situations in Nigeria–how government crackdowns on dissidents affect the community, how a deeply religious man seen by others as generous justifies brutally beating his family. Even through the perspective of a fifteen year-old girl, who some might see as simplistic or immature, Adichie conveys deeply complex issues of family, politics, wealth and privilege. A riveting, heartbreaking book about love, family, and religion.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article and pages it links to contains information about sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.
This afternoon, I got lost in an internet rabbit hole. Someone “followed” me on WordPress, so I clicked on their name to see what they wrote. I was horrified to read the “About” section of John Castle’s blog, eroticdysfunction.com. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: what did I expect with a name like that? The tricky thing about WordPress is that it tells you who follows you, but not the name of their blog. My horror was increased tenfold when I realized the “About” section was adapted from the “Foreward” of John Castle’s book, Erotic Dysfunction: People’s Most Embarrassing and Absurd Sex Confessions. And I just about threw my laptop out the window when I read Castle’s review of Diary by Chuck Palahniuk, which opens with hate speech pretending not to be hate speech: “I was kind of sad when I found out that Chuck Palahniuk was gay. I don’t know why. I don’t hate gay people. It’s just that…why the fuck are you gay? You could be my hero. But I could never tell my future kids that my hero was gay.”
I waffle between ignoring people whose viewpoints promote misogyny and hate, and confronting oppression. Half of me hears my mother’s voice saying, “don’t give them the attention, they don’t deserve it.” The other half thinks he deserves a scathing critique—from both a feminist and a writer’s viewpoint—and he deserves to be called out as a misogynist.
I thoughtfully reviewed Castle’s book, submitted it to Amazon, and promptly received an email saying that my review was deemed too inappropriate for the internet. Probably because I quoted some of the book, such as this gem of a sentence: “Reken and I decided on that night that if we picked up a girl, we would violate her by fucking her simultaneously.”
If Castle can post this on WordPress, promote it on Twitter, and sell it on Amazon, I can use the word “fucking” in context in a review.
The term “erotic” comes from the Greek root of eros—desire. “Dysfunction” is defined by a “deviation from the norms of social behavior in a way regarded as bad.” This book is disappointingly short on desire, and long on dysfunction. John Castle set out to collect stories of sexual mishaps and wound up with a hundred, choosing to go for quantity over quality (the excerpts could use a proper editor, and Castle’s excuse that “voice is more important than any technicalities” smacks with laziness). As he writes in the book’s “Foreward,” these are “supposed to entertain you but it might also teach you something about life.”
What this book taught me: John Castle is a misogynist. This book is a waste of $2.99, not to mention my time. And I never ever want to run into John Castle, especially in a bar.
Why, in a culture so inundated with stories of sex (I recall reading embarrassing stories in the pages of women’s magazines when I was a teen), does John Castle feel compelled to share more cringe-worthy tales? “Because people’s audacity and honesty sparked something in me.”
The “audacity” doesn’t come across in the stories, many taken so out of context they leave the reader saying, “so what?” As in, you got caught having sex…so what? The “honesty” is questionable; there isn’t enough detail or stakes in each short to give the reader an incentive to suspend disbelief long enough to be entertained.
For those readers who might say, “oh, you just don’t get it.” Rest assured, I get it: we all have embarrassing sexual encounters, so let’s share them, because sex can be humorous and heartwarming and weird and I’ll ultimately finish this book feeling more connected and less alone! Sex!
But there’s nothing particularly funny about the stories, least of all the author’s own. The “audacity and honesty” sparked something nasty in John Castle, who recounts his most embarrassing sexual encounter in the “Foreward.” At twenty, he went to a bar with a friend, the intention being to get drunk and “violate” a random woman “by fucking her simultaneously.” It’s part of a “revenge” for his friend’s most embarrassing story, when he was violated and “’raped’” (Castle’s quotation marks, not mine) by women.
First, Castle belittles his (supposed) friend’s sexual experience of being forced into sex (the very definition of rape, if you want to get technical) with his usage of quotation marks. (If he set out to directly quote what the friend says, it doesn’t read as such. Better example: Reken said, “I was raped. I felt violated, and I wanted revenge.”) Then, he’s brutally honest about the intention to fuck the daylights out of this unsuspecting, intoxicated woman. He seduces her into going to a hotel room with him. She’s obviously uncomfortable with his friend’s presence. But wait, none of this—the misogyny, the abuse—is the embarrassing part. What’s “embarrassing” is the sudden onslaught of “whisky dick” that results from Castle having too much to drink. The thoughtlessness of the book is prevalent in what Castle doesn’t say here: that his “whisky dick” could have been attributed to feelings of guilt, remorse, or a sudden change of heart as he realizes he’s fallen for his woman. But that would be too heartwarming, too close to desire, and further away from dysfunction.
The end of Castle’s “Foreward” elaborates on the structure of the book, namely the “breaks” between stories, comprised of skulls and quotes like Kurt Cobain’s “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” Irrelevant, if not utterly confounding—especially given that the quotation comes on the heels of a story about people having sex so loudly that everyone at the party downstairs comes looking to see what all the racket is about. Castle explains that these skulls are a reminder that we all die, and the quotes are something to ponder. Mostly, I’m left pondering their relevance to the work as a whole. There’s certainly nothing erotic about the stories, the “breaks,” or the relationship between the two. The stories are completely lacking in emotional intelligence, empathy, intimacy, and feelings other than physical sensations and embarrassment. Since the breaks don’t speak to the stories themselves, I’m left with the notion that they are supposed to add to the overarching theme of dysfunction.
Lastly, Castle leaves the reader with some deep wisdom to consider: reading is an escape, “but eventually we need to face the music. Make our own stories. And live to tell about it.” It’s unclear if the author is advising readers to put themselves in compromising situations. A less discerning reader might take Castle’s advice and follow in his footsteps, seeking a night of debauchery with heavy doses of misogyny and chauvinism. A discerning reader would take one whiff of Castle in a bar and call the police.
UPDATE: After censoring the above review and re-submitting it on Amazon, it was accepted posted. Read it here.
On another happier note, this review was picked up and shared by sherights; read it on their website.
This is part of a series of Instagram essays, or instaessays; writing exercises where the images are informed or subverted by accompanying long-form captions. Follow me to see more @decleyreandco
I could see him from my desk in the corner, small fingers and a nose pressed against the glass, searching for signs of life. The boy from the apartment beside ours had recently taken a liking to creeping in the porch doorway we left ajar, for fresh air. Each time he did it, he became more adventurous, until his head was in the apartment. I threw a pen at the door, it thwacked the glass, and he jumped. Moments later, I caught his shaggy blonde hair bobbing in the doorway yet again.
I invited him in. He sat on the settee that’s too small for us; it engulfed him. I asked if he wanted water, and he nodded. I asked if he wanted to read. He looked at the sandy carpet and said, “I don’t read very well.” “Here,” I handed him an issue of AFAR, “this is a travel magazine with nice pictures.”
I went back to work. “You sit on a bouncy ball at your desk?” He asked. “It’s more fun,” I said. “You don’t work?” “I’m working now. I work from home.” “My dad rides his bike to work.” “Is he there now?” The kid nodded. I let him play with the other exercise ball, but I drew the line at standing on the bed.
“You have paintbrushes,” he said. “Do you like to paint?” I asked. He nodded. “Do you have any paints?” “Yeah, but at my other house. I have two houses.” “That’s what I had when I wad a kid. Two houses. Mom’s house and Dad’s house.” “Really?” “Yes.” We looked at each other. “Does your Mom live far?” “She lives near my cousins, and my Dad lives next door to you.”
I set him up on the porch with the pocket-sized box of watercolors, despite his protesting that he preferred to paint inside, using the settee as his easel. He picked out a thick round brush, dipped it in the glass of drinking water I had given him.
He said he liked water and tea. “Me too. What kind of tea?” He shrugged. “Black tea?” “I don’t know.” And after a few moments, “can I try some tea?” And, “is it a black color when you drink it?”
I returned with a small clear mug so he could see the tea steeping, turning the hot water sepia and then brown. “Do you ever mix the colors?” He asked. He’d pushed the brush indiscriminately into each neatly arranged cube of color, a habit I can’t stand. The yellows now held a film of green. I showed him how to mix them in the tiny palette lid, and went back inside to work.
“I don’t like the tea. Can I please have milk and sugar?” Before I could oblige, his brother came out to say “we’re going to Lovejoy.” He said it half a dozen times, but the kid kept painting.
When they finally left, I scraped the top layer of mismatched colors from the paint cubes, changed the water, and arranged it beside the porch door, as if he’d never left.
I read a lot—because I enjoy it, because I’m a writer, because I can. I’m the type of person who has to buy books, because I mark them up with pens and pencils and dog-ear the pages. Books, in my opinion, are sexy. I’m humbled by the amount of time, attention and care that went into writing and creating a book, which then rests solely in my hands; a product of one individual’s mind manifested in physical form, relying on my reading it for its very existence. Books can change you. Books are intimate experiences. (And no, I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.)
Apparently, book lovers are the best people to fall in love with. Well, depending on who you ask. I don’t feel the need to expound on the links below (listed by date), but simply share the most salacious snippets. Does reading make us smarter, nicer, or lovelier? Maybe. Maybe not.
We praise literature in self-evident terms: it is better to read than not to read, for reading civilizes us, makes us less cruel, and brings the imaginations of others into ours and vice versa. We persist in this belief regardless of what we know to the contrary: that the Nazis’ affection for high culture did not prevent their crimes.
“A Reader’s War” by Teju Cole
New Yorker, February 11, 2013
Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.
“Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” by Gregory Currie
New York Times Opinionator Blog & The Stone, June 1, 2013
The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.
“Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul
TIME, June 3, 2013
Readers, like voicemail leavers and card writers, are now a dying breed, their numbers decreasing with every GIF list and online tabloid.
The worst part about this looming extinction is that readers are proven to be nicer and smarter than the average human, and maybe the only people worth falling in love with on this shallow hell on earth.
“Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With” by Lauren Martin
Elite Daily, July 9, 2014
Last night I dreamt I was at a writing residency, catching up with a colleague. He asked me how my work was going, and I replied that nothing I wrote was any good, but that I kept writing because I knew it would be someday.
Only as I type this do I realize how strange and peculiar it is to choose a career in something you think you suck at. Why do people, creative types especially, sell themselves short?
The tone of the dream was very matter of fact, devoid of drama, no fishing for compliments: I’m not where I’d like to be in my creative practice; I don’t feel like my work is “there” yet; it doesn’t match up to the high caliber of the work I love to read and want to write. This could be seen as a relief, since it would be daunting to think that my best is behind me. (However, this “my best work is behind me” mentality is another damanging misconception about art and artists, which Elizabeth Gilbert touches on in a TED talk from 2009.)
I can’t deny it; this dream was an honest-to-goodness representation of how I felt, plainly and simply stated. Yet I awoke knowing that my writing isn’t actually bad. It just isn’t where I’d like it to be, which is at the level of the authors I read and love—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cheryl Strayed, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, and (currently reading and enjoying) Bruno Schulz.
But I am not these people and they are not me. They have at least a decade on me. Collectively, decades and decades. It’s unrealistic and disheartening to think I should be a decade ahead of where I am right now. Not savoring the stepping stones on the path doesn’t serve me, or anyone else. Accepting and appreciating where we’re at does, but that’s easier said than done.
My generation, this modern-day society, is so accustomed to instant gratification—posting a blog, status update, or photo and watching the likes and hearts crawl in, each one mildly, momentarily, and superficially satisfying—that we make no time for 10,000 hours. No time for rewrites. We want accolades and gold medals and we want them now. And it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and under-accomplished when we’re constantly bombarded with perfectly curated lives that leave out the dirty, messy, and gritty, the bang-your-head-against-the-wall writing sessions.
This morning, as I journaled about the dream, musing on external gratification and awards, I felt my writing get super preachy. I went from writing morning pages for myself, to thinking it could be a good a blog post, to wanting to pitch it as an article for publication that would make me filthy rich and fabulously famous. It was practically involuntary; a slow, quiet alteration from my original intention of writing for writing’s sake, toward writing for the sake of others. I wrote, “see, that’s exactly it. There I go again: striving, struggling, seeking instant and external gratification.”
In the dream, my colleague reacted to what I said with an unsurprised shrug and a slow nod of the head, which I took to mean: we all have those days.
It’s been one year since I started an MFA in Creative Writing, and it’s taken nearly that long for me to heed the advice of countless writers and creatives: write. Every day. It sounds so simple, yet there are a million and one distractions happening all around me at any given moment, if I choose to see them: dirty dishes piled so high that the bottom of the sink ceases to exist, the lure of a sunny day, the stack of fresh emails demanding to be read, not to mention the intangible allure of Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.
Instead, I choose to focus on a sentence that crops up, and the words and phrases that follow. It takes effort to face a blank page, to constantly bring your attention back to where you are. I don’t take this practice lightly, but I know if it’s taken too seriously it doesn’t get started, let alone finished. And it may never be finished, but it needs to get done.
Yesterday I looked up from the book I was reading to take stock of the quiet apartment surrounding me—white walls, a desk, three potted plants on the windowsill, two shelves of books. I scribbled “I am but a guest here” in the margins, just because it came to me. It felt like a good sentence.
Writing is exploration. I don’t fully understand what comes to me as it comes. Only in writing and rewriting do I begin to comprehend what words, phrases, and sentences mean. Only in writing do I begin to make sense of my self and the world that surrounds me.
“I am but a guest here.” But what does that even mean? Where’s here? This apartment? This city? This country? This planet? This universe? Am I touching on issues of personal transience, impermanence, or universal mortality? Are these mutually exclusive or essentially the same? Or am I just writing nonsense?
The joy is in the seeking. It doesn’t have to make sense. Nothing has to make sense. I don’t ever have to solve a sentence in order to feel good, to be comforted or entertained. I just have to write.
Once a week, I open up a blank document. I’m going to write a blog. I’m not sure where to begin, but a cup of tea might help. I walk to the kitchen. I fill a pot with water from the sink. I place it on the stove. I turn the knob. After a few moments of clicking and snapping, the coils turn red. Waiting for the water to boil, I clip my toenails. I sweep the clippings up with a broom. I continue, sweeping under tables and desks. I pull dust bunnies from forgotten corners. I push this clump, this collection of clippings, dust, and dirt, into the corner of the kitchen. I make a mental note: buy a dustpan.
By now, the water has boiled for far too long. The tea is too hot to drink. I can’t write a blog unless I have a drinkable cup of tea. I set the cup on the windowsill. The breeze blows a waterfall of steam overboard. Waiting, I check my email. I scroll through social media pages. I fall asleep with eyes still on the screen. I am suddenly seated at some stranger’s wedding. The happy couple is all smiles. I’ve never met them. Wait, how did I get here?
An hour has passed. The tea is cold. The page is still blank.
Fellow book lovers,
I’m currently at the AWP14 conference in Seattle (which is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs for those of you who aren’t familiar with it; I admit I had never heard of AWP up until a month ago). It is overwhelming to the point of tears. A striking contrast to the solitary days of writing and reading. And truly remarkable. Rows and rows and rows of books; of literary journals and magazines; of writers, editors, and publishers literally rubbing shoulders as they squeeze by another booth.
If you’re here, you know what I’m talking about (and you should come visit me at the NHIA MFA booth B17). If you’re not here, get here. Or put it on your calendar for 2015.