January 24, 2009

Swallow by Sefi Atta | Book Review

Swallow is set in Lagos, Nigeria and Sefi Atta does a commendable job of describing the city and the way of life of its residents, who come down from all parts of the country, in search of a better life. The protagonist, Tolani and her friend and roommate Rose, are on a bus ride to work when we meet them. Like many of the city’s residents, Tolani and Rose are dissatisfied with work, their romantic interests and life in the city. Rose is an untidy, loud and willful young woman from a dysfunctional family. Tolani is long-suffering and reserved. When Rose is fired for insubordination, she refuses to search for another job and decides to make a trip to an European country as a drug mule. Tolani is against the idea from the minute she hears it, but changes her mind much later when she feels she can no longer stand sexual harassment from her boss, malicious gossip by spiteful colleagues and when her boyfriend gambles her life savings on a shaky business deal. It’s interesting to follow Tolani’s journey throughout the book.

A little into the novel however and a lot of things begin to sound cliché. Atta’s characters sometimes sound like she’s using them to teach the reader about the customs, traditions, patterns and life styles of everyday people. There are a lot of tribal stereotypes and superstitious beliefs that Nigerians will find very familiar. It’s as though Atta is trying to mirror the Nigerian society. One moment it seems like you’re reading about everyday Nigerian people and the way they react to certain things, the next moment Swallow seems to be bursting with hackneyed terms and situations. There’s the clever business man whose limit is the sky if only he can lay his hand on a financial loan; the lowly masses irritated by the widespread corruption they see everyday and don't speak out for fear of being manhandled. Swallow is engaging but until I read Everything Good Will Come, Atta's first, I can't draw any comparisons.

People reading Atta’s work for the first time might have to flip through a couple of pages to discover Atta’s gift, evident in Tolani’s humourous narration of events and Atta’s unpredictability and descriptive power. From the book title you’d think swallowing drugs or being a drug mule is the main plot, but it’s just an episode in the book, another on Tolani’s list of troubles. Swallow’s unpredicatable plot line and unpredictable ending doesn’t make Swallow stirring or confusing, it makes it somewhat unsatisfying.
READ Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta - My Thoughts

[Image via CafeAfricana]

January 21, 2009

10 Questions for Onyeka Nwelue | Author Interview

Onyeka Nwelue's debut novel The Abyssinian Boy, published by Dada Books will be in bookstores soon. The Book Launch will hold at The National Library, Yaba on the 24th of January, 2009 by 12 noon. The book launch is open to the general public, so try to be there.

Onyeka has been so busy with preparations, I could only interview him via email. Enjoy!

1) Tell us how you felt when you held a copy of your book
ON: I felt like no one existed, except me and the book. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hold anyone I saw and say, ‘Na me write this. You don read am. You fit write am?’ (Laughs)

2) Who would you say are your literary influences?
ON: I have a lot of influences. Wole Soyinka was my earlier influence. At the moment, I look to Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Ian McEwan. Mr. McEwan makes British writing seem unBritish; anyone can connect with his humour. Roy and Rushdie just shaped Indian writing in English. And they are fantastic!

3) Tell us about The Abyssinian Boy.
ON: The Abyssinian Boy is my own tale about people navigating between cultures; it’s my take on the things I like, the way I want the world to look like, because in my opinion, I believe that a writer’s work is his own imagination of the world and how he would want it to look like. It’s a simple story about a child who gets haunted by a ghost, how he gets inflicted with a brain illness and the struggle of alienation.

4) You’re twenty-one. I know a lot of your peers who live solely for parties, girls, booze and getting a college degree. What helped you focus on this project some people might consider intimidating, emotion sapping, time consuming and “boring”?
ON: (Laughs) I also ‘live’ for parties, girls, booze and a college degree. But the thing is that I don’t let those things distract me from my ‘profession’. This is what I want to do for eternity- writing full-time. And yes, writing a novel could be ‘boring’ for some writers as they have said, but for one single moment, I never felt bored writing my novel, delving into the world of the dwarves, watching David frown and smile, seeing Swathi make her jams everyday and Vimala ‘sashaying’. I wouldn’t agree with the claim that writing a novel is intimidating, emotion sapping and time consuming; I think you can say that when you are forced to write. No one can do that to me. I’m always true to myself and follow my heartbeat.

5) Writers all over the country often ask how to get published, what’s your answer to that question now?
ON: My answer is that they should persevere and be patient. I know this is an old clichéd saying, but I think that’s that.

6) What do you think about self-publishing, knowing its ill effects and given that it helped Helon Habila get his book noticed?
ON: Self-publishing is very good, if you can’t persevere or can’t be patient. But in a way it degrades the writer in the eyes of the reader, like the reader is being forced to read your sister? While the standard method of publishing is you waiting for that publishing house to take years to respond to you and if you are fortunate you’d be accepted. In self-publishing, the writer takes up the whole task of designing layout, formatting the book, printing, marketing and doing all what not, which is not easy. I do praise the writers who tread that path.

7) Name two books you’ve read a second time.
ON: Unfortunately, I’ve read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy over 50 times. (Laughs) And recently, I’ve been addicted to Amit Chaudhuri’s A strange and Sublime Address. I have read it more than five times.

8) What do you think about Music, Life, Love and Books?
ON: I think of Music as Life. Music inspired most parts of my novel and while I was tapping away on my laptop, I listened to all tracks in Timaya’s first album. They helped me keep track of where I wanted to get with this book. And then, there’s this particular Hindi song, ‘Agar Tum Mil Jao’, that made me feel that Life is not only Love, but Music.

9) What do you think of writers in Blogville? Any words for them?
ON: I think of them as writers who don’t follow rules, which is good. Words for them? Well, I can only say: keep writing and perfecting your art!

10) What’s NEXT?
ON: Let me present it to public first, then I will know what’s next, if anyone would be buying me a car. (laughs). And then, I will polish my handwriting for autographs and learn how to talk politely to girls. And then, write that ‘idyllic’ Nsukka story I always wanted to write.

January 13, 2009

Are There Any Decent Bookstores Situated In Your Area?

Usually I have one or two novels I want to purchase or at least borrow. This year, I decided to form the good habit of putting the book titles in writing, so last week I put them down on a sheet of paper and today I went to the market to get them. I went to an area called Park here in Port Harcourt, there is a market there and there a lots of shops that sell books. Today I discovered that in the Park market, bookshops sell mostly academic books. Text books for biology, physics, text books for courses studied in the University etcetera. Do they stock up on those because the market for novels is not profitable? Or like they say "the market is not 'moving' "? I believe that most of the shop attendants I met today were illiterate to an extent. I think they know the books by sight, not because they can read the lettering on them. I asked one girl where they keep novels written by Nigerians and she pointed to one book by Dan (i don't remember his last name), a foreigner. I checked as many places as I could, but it was the same thing everywhere. "We don't have" , "We no get am", "Check another place", "Check for front". I know someone will say that I don’t know where to go for books.

I finally went to GRA to check on one book shop I used to know. I had to trek a really long distance because okada ( common term used to refer to a motorbike used for commercial transportation) has been banned in Port Harcourt. The book shop is called CHAPTERS and it is not far from the Starcomms office. They had like seven titles (if there weren't seven, the novels I saw by Nigerian authors were not more than ten) – lots of Burma Boy by Bimi Bandele, Eugenia Abu’s In the blink of an Eye, A Life Elsewhere by Segun Afolabi, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie, one other book I can only remember one word of the title, three or four others and then Swallow by Sefi Atta. Swallow was on my list but I want to read her book Everything Good Will Come before Swallow for no tangible reason. I was disappointed. When I went to that same bookstore early in 2008, CHAPTERS had a lot of titles, their store was full. Now i'm almost certain the store holds less books. I think some shelves are even gone. I bought my copy of Swallow for N1,400. That’s expensive O! I went to a bookstore on the ground floor of the Hotel Presidential building. There were a good number of titles by unknowns, there. I saw Ben Okri's The Famished Road, and another book of his and also Flora Nwapa's Efuru. The three were pirated and very expensive.

When I’m in school I buy from the Nsukka market, their stock is not vast and most of it is pirated but it’s a little less disappointing than what I saw today. Someone might add that that market is for students so it’s better stocked…okay O.... When I was in Lagos early this month, I went to the Shoprite complex near Lekki phase one. They used to have a really, really good book store when I went there early last year. That store is, sorry, was the best bookstore I have ever entered. There were books everywhere, it was all arranged into sections. Books authored by Nigerians were stocked in large quantities. That is where I bought my copy of The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi. The price was reasonable too. I spent as much as my student pocket money let me, without my returning to Nsukka to starve. When I went there early this year, I discovered they had left the building. Their space was boarded up. I went to Silverbird Galleria, and the bookstore there was boarded up too. I thought about going to Lantana(It is on 13 Oko Awo close in Victoria Island), but it was some distance away from where I was staying and the last time I was there they were selling mostly Christian and motivational books, which is good, but not what I wanted at the time. Why aren’t there good bookstores around me, eh? (I suspect it's the same all over the country). Everytime I want a book I have to ask those ‘outside’ to buy for me. Is it that people here don't read a lot (cough) or opening a good bookstore requires enormous capital? Do YOU know any good bookstore around you or even far from you? Good in the sense that it is well stocked and our local authors are well represented? If you do, send me an email via webrashh@gmail.com or leave a comment on this post. Leave the name and address of the bookstore and I’ll post everything I get from my readers on the first of February.

I wish I had the resources and the time, I would have loved to do something like “Top Twenty Bookshops in the West or East or Lagos or Port Harcourt or wherever, but I can’t now. I won't kill the dream shar. You can help everyone who reads this post by giving the name and address of the bookstore that meets your needs. I don’t want you to send me the address of just any shop that has BOOKSHOP written over it o! I want you to send me the address of one you have BEEN to and you know deserves the title 'BOOKSHOP'!

(Only bookstores with addresses in Nigeria will be posted. I keep mentioning 'Nigerian Authors' in this piece because I was on a search for novels written by them. I'm not biased or something...)