May 30, 2014

The Spider King's Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo | Book Review

Abike Johnson is the daughter of Olumide Johnson, a very wealthy businessman. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. The roadside hawker she comes across on her way back from school one day is striking enough to cause her to break one of her personal rules. She attempts to connect with him romantically despite the glaring disparity in economic status. As the tale progresses a lot of things begin to unravel.

The Spider King's Daughter is absorbing and I am pleased with Chibundu's narrative style. There was a small part of the tale I did not like, regardless, this is a good novel. Just in case it crossed your mind, this is not a children's book. It's dark, it's edgy, and Chibundu wraps up her tale in a manner you probably were not expecting. At just 21 years of age Chibundu Onuzo has done really well with this debut and I await her future offerings.

[Image via Faber.co.uk]

May 26, 2014

Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen | Book Review

In the novel Fine Boys, Ewaen and his friend Wilhelm get accepted into the University of Benin to study medicine. The university campus is a different environment that offers them freedom and independence. Their circle of friends grows and constantly morphs as friends are made and lost, and romantic entanglements don't lead to happily ever after's. They have to study hard, stay focused and avoid the bad boys - the campus confraternities that seek to initiate them. Joining a confraternity in a Nigerian university is a really bad move. Everyone knows that even before they get accepted to pursue their degree. Confraternities are a fast moving, destructive crowd that's much more trouble than it's worth. Being admirable young men, there are a few confraternities interested in initiating them. Will Ewaen and his friends join a confraternity or reject the offers and focus on their education? All of this is set in a Nigeria undergoing turmoil.

Fine Boys wasn't engaging from the beginning and it continued in that pattern till the end. Its characters loose their virginities, party, drink and discuss personal matters and national issues. The discussions on national issues are the same ones you'll find at any gathering of Nigerians. Topics ranging from the corruption in Nigeria, to the irresponsibility of Nigerian leaders who plunder rather than lead, to comparisons of Nigeria with other more progressive third world countries. I have to say, for medical students the characters seem to have too much time on their hands. All the medical students I've known in my life always seemed too busy to have the luxury of an active social life. Yes, their university goes on strike a couple of times thereby freeing up their schedule. Regardless of that they still had too much free time. Initially I thought all of this was leading somewhere, taking the reader to something more intriguing. You know, the calm mundane life right before the tempest. It did not. Fine Boys is not particularly insightful into the life of a Nigerian university student or the mystery that is university confraternities, and it doesn't need to be. Eventually, I arrived at the end of Fine Boys but even that doesn't reward me for my time spent reading this novel.

[Image via Farafinabooks]

May 23, 2014

11 Questions for Jude Dibia | Author Interview

The Nigerian author Jude Dibia needs little introduction. He has penned three absorbing novels - Walking with Shadows, Unbridled, and Blackbird - and with each book he has shown remarkable prowess in tackling human complexity. He won the 2007 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Prose and was a finalist in the 2007 Nigeria Prize for Literature. Here he is in an exclusive interview with Incessant Scribble. Enjoy!

1. It has been almost 10 years since your debut novel Walking with Shadows dared to confront the taboo subject of homosexuality. You got a lot of people talking. What were the initial responses you received when you sent out the finished manuscript to publishing houses? Did you have any fears while working and promoting this book? What were your expectations for Walking with Shadows?
JD: Time does fly! It almost seems like yesterday that Walking with Shadows was released. The responses I got were mixed, but mostly positive in the sense that people were genuinely interested in the subject matter and wanted to have a proper dialogue on what it really meant to be gay and Nigerian. Only a year before the book was released Bisi Alimi, who now happens to be a good friend of mine, came out publicly as gay on a national television talk show and the backlash was devastating for him. I was not privy to watching that show but I heard about Bisi when my book was released and I saw some parallels in what he went through and what I wrote about. Surprisingly, I received a lot of feedback from women. Many said that unlike Ada, the protagonist's wife, they would have stayed with Adrian. However, getting the book published was challenging. No single publishing house in Nigeria was ready to take on the book. I got some encouraging words from a particular publisher but was told categorically that the subject matter was too controversial in spite of the fact that I did not portray any form of sexual engagement in the story. 

There was always the fear that the book would not sell or that I could be ruined as a writer for writing a book that did not condemn homosexuality but rather showed tolerance and non-judgment of homosexuality. Yes, and then there was the talk that quickly spread about my own sexuality. But the truth was that I could not allow fears dictate how I write or what I choose to write about. One of the roles of a writer is to be as objective as humanly possible as well as being truthful and honest to the stories we write. Writers can't afford to censor themselves. In that light, my number one expectation was that it would reach as many people as possible, especially people who felt their stories were not being told or not told with any semblance of truth. 

2. Could you share some positive and some negative feedback you've received over time from readers of Walking with Shadows? 
JD: I remember one email I received from a reader in Benin City; he was grateful that he found my book to read and felt that finally someone understood he was. He told me that after he read the book he was brave enough to give the book to his parents and told them to read it if they really wanted to understand who he was. There were other such appreciative feedbacks as well as some bad feedback as well. A few people have preached to me about "repenting" and accepting Jesus and stop promoting homosexuality! Some have wished me worse things including the hope that I am arrested by the government for the views expressed in the book. I have come to realize that a number of people who express such negative and harmful comments have not read my book but simply depend on hearsay and what they believe is a "gay book". 

3. With your second novel Unbridled you switch your focus to another topic people aren't eager to discuss. Abuse. There's physical and sexual abuse. There is incest. This time your protagonist Ngozi is female. How were you able to narrate as a female character and what steps did you take to do it authentically?
JD: The first draft of Unbridled was written from the third person point-of-view and when I was done, I realized that the book did not carry the weight I intended and seemed so detached. So, when I started work on subsequent drafts I decided to experiment with writing from the first person perspective. Many people are not aware that I started a blog and started posting chapters of Unbridled as  a woman's personal account of her journey from being a victim to becoming independent and visible. The blog received a lot of visitors and comments and, there was one particular visitor who contributed a lot to how I arrived at Ngozi's voice. I found myself reading narratives from female writers and studying how they use words to describe feelings etc. I had to practically rewrite Unbridled from scratch and forget all my experiences as a man and reimagine everything as if I were a female. I also had a great substantive editor who worked on my finished manuscript. 

4. In Blackbird, Omoniyi deals with a lot as he struggles to make ends meet. What was you inspiration for Blackbird and what do you hope to achieve with this book?
JD: With Blackbird, my main interest was how the government was discharging with the sale of some assets, especially Federal Housing Estates such as 1004, Eric Moore Towers and other structures. My research drew me to the Maroko incident of the early 90s and how in a move by government to gentrify the neighborhood thousands were displaced and till today a lot of these families have not been compensated or adequately resettled into new homes. The existing dichotomies present in Nigeria was hard to ignore and the image of one poor family with an out of work father and a very sick child against that of a wealthy family of a mixed race couple who seemed to have everything was an image that haunted me for a long time. As a writer, I write knowing that different people will draw different conclusions to a story. So, for some, it is a story of contrasts and for some it is a story that draws attention to the abuse of power. 

5. You also touch on homosexuality in Blackbird. In handling this topic two times in three novels, don't you worry about being typecast?
JD: There was a graphic scene, a recollection actually of one of the main characters, Omoniyi, where he was taught how to fight and defend himself by another character, Scorpion, who he admired. People have said it was homoerotic in nature especially the way I described Omoniyi's fascination with Scorpions toned physique and how it elicited a hard-on by Omoniyi. I like to think of it as playing with words and showing how words can paint different pictures. Was my description homoerotic in nature, I can't say the final outcome did not seem so, however, it was not my intention. If one reads closely, you will see that I was making a direct connection to the character succumbing to power. I don't worry too much about "typecasting" in that way, as very few established Nigerian writers bother to write about sexual diversity in any form. 

6. Your books are currently being published outside of Nigeria. Let's talk about the money. A lot of people don't think writing can put food on the table. Are you able to live comfortably off your royalties? Do you have a career aside from writing?
JD: I do have a professional career, yes. But one can make tons of money from writing. There's this belief or idea that writing does not pay, but well it depends on the writer. Writing books may not be as lucrative as one may imagine, but there are other forms of writing that actually pays. Nigeria is a growing market and if you do some research you will find out that the media i.e. TV, radio, and cable are in dire need of fresh content. Writers provide the content and are getting paid for it. I make a modest turnover from my books. 

7. If someone came up to you and said they were done with their manuscript and they want to get it published, what would you say the next step is?
JD: Hmmm. I will say that they should first get a seasoned and professional editor to work with. Most publishing houses don't have the patience for sloppy submissions. The writer should also be confident in his/her work; have an idea of his/her target audience and have an understanding of the market forces that influence publishers in his/her environment as well as the foreign market (this is not necessary, but helps with expectations et al). 

8. Let's get you to play the game of "Borrow, Buy, Bury".  Looking back at all the books you've read, choose one book you'd rather borrow; one book you'd shell out your money for; and one book you think was a considerable waste of time.
JD: This is not a very nice game. Most of the books I have read, I bought them. And I don't believe it is right to belittle the effort of any writer, regardless! So, let me refrain from this sport. 

9. Name two novels you've read twice.
JD: Toni Morrison's Paradise and James Baldwin's Another Country. 

10. What do you think about: Life. Love. Music
JD: We all have just one life to live and so must do so knowing that we are responsible for the decisions we make. People will have many opportunities to love and be loved and I believe there are different kinds of love among consenting adults that must be respected. Music is like food to the soul. 

11. What's NEXT for you? Are you working on anything currently?
JD: Yes, I am working on several writing projects at the moment and really cannot discuss them until they are ready for public consumption. 

[Image via Facebook]

May 15, 2014

My Exodus from the Den of Lions

The week I went to get my things out of the University of Nigeria was the same week the school hosted the NUGA Games. It wasn't coincidental that I was there at that time. I had planned to pick up my things the same week the games were slated to begin. With one last week to spend in the University of Nigeria before leaving for the United States, I decided to have FUN. We might not define "fun" in the same way, but I had fun. I cheered hard for the school team and other high achieving contestants, made new friends, chatted with old friends and said my good-byes in subtle ways. I had a few things I wanted to do before leaving Nigeria and I'm glad to say I did most of them. One of the things on my mental list was to climb the hills of Nsukka.

Enugu, the name of the state the university is situated in, means "on top of the hill". I thought it'd be absurd for me to leave there without ever actually climbing a hill to the very top. On the night the games closed, there was a bonfire party in front of the Akintola hostel. I've been a student there for nearly three years and I've never been to one. All I've known, if I can be honest with you is that students burn motor tires and dance to loud music. That's true but leaving it at that is a little colourless. It's a wild kinda party, people dancing, drinking, shouting and letting off steam the fun way(That's still probably colourless but you can attend one and describe it better).

Back to the hill "mission". On Sunday morning, March 8th, before 8 am, I decided to climb the hill closest to the vet department. I picked my sleeveless hoodie from my temporary room in Zik's flats and boarded a bike to Odim gate. I walked through the gate briskly because the air was really cold that morning. I turned at the junction before the Engineering department and walked far down on the dirt road. I walked past many villagers struggling for water at the pump that morning and continued to the base of the hill, hood on my head, hands in my hood pocket.

It took me about 3 minutes to climb and it caused my breathing to become faster. I was tempted to sneak a peek at the view as I climbed but I resisted and waited till I got to the top and then I turned taking it all in instantly. It was wonderful guys. It really was. The University of Nigeria lay at my feet. I was alone on top of the hill. There's a circular concrete structure on top of the hill. I went to it and saw the scrawls of hundreds of students who had come up there before me. I picked up one of the mud-red stones abundant on the hill top and searched for a clear patch to scribble my name. There was none. I found two parts of a broken cement block, placed them one upon the other and chose a high spot on the part of the wall that faced the forests. I wrote:

"Osondu Awaraka was here 7:57am 08-03-09"

I stood back to admire it then went forward and retraced the words so that it would stand out more. When I was satisfied, I scattered the blocks. My scribble was the brightest red that day compared to all the others. The rain and sun had weathered the others and I knew my scribble would inevitably be dulled by weather conditions on the hill. The next thing I did was to pee facing outwards. Not facing the school O! I faced the dark green forest that had a heavy mist hanging above it. It was all dense green with tiny footpaths here and there. Relieved, I went to the front of the hill that faced the school and sat down, admiring the layout of the school. I noticed that in some areas, the grass was greener. I sat there watching those large black birds with white breasts that we see all over campus, play above and in front of me towards the steep part of the hill. Everywhere was calm and peaceful. I wonder if that's the same hill Kambili, the protagonist in Purple Hibiscus climbed. I wonder if Chimamanda ever climbed that "Vet Hill". After a while the cold was getting to me and so I savoured one last look and began my descent, singing one of my personal anthems as loud as I could and enjoying the sound of my voice as I walked down the hill without a backward glance.

It was a significant gesture to me. I've left behind the University I longed for since I began considering college. The University my parents went to (it's where they met). The same one my elder sister attended for a while before leaving for the U.S.A. The same one some older members of my extended family graduated from. The University I was so happy to get into that I wrote a fictional piece Into the Den Of Lions and posted it to my blog. I'm leaving behind the familiar to go into the dark and start everything all over again. I have to forget about being Editor-in-chief of the Drumline, a newspaper for the University of Nigeria I was working on with a group of students. I've left behind friends who have left large prints on my personality, friends I "flowed" with from the very beginning, wonderful people in every way. Life continues. Change, they say, is the only thing that is constant. I'll be in touch with everyone. I'll begin college as soon as is possible. Who knows where life will take me?

Originally written and posted to my Facebook account on March 29th, 2009
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I visited Chimamanda Adichie & Chinua Achebe's old house on the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus! Read my post HERE!

[Image via NG Scholars]

NUGA 2009 - I Went, I Saw, Here's My Report

The 22nd edition of the National Universities Games Association has come and gone. Now we can all return to the drudgery of school (heavy sigh). For those of you still wondering how things went for the duration of the games, here’s a summary of every noteworthy thing that happened while I was there. You can get the distorted version from busybodies when you return.

NUGA was supposed to begin on the 23rd of February but the opening ceremony was deferred to the 28th (big surprise). I got there on the 3rd of March and did not miss much. Everyone I queried for the purpose of this write-up agreed that the opening ceremony was marvelous. I can’t grade it because I wasn’t there but there were fireworks, "impressive ones" they all said, there was a stunt guy on a bike, and there were children performing acrobatics in the center of the half-completed stadium, bla, bla, bla.

I went to the hostels first to see how much Franco had changed. Remember we were told to vacate them so they could be renovated? You are expecting to see painted hostels, abi? You expect to see all those sports facilities that were under construction then completed to 'Olympic standards', abi? You're expecting to see painted school buildings, rusted/missing corridor railings in the hostels replaced and the numerous other changes you fantasized about as you sat at home and put on holiday weight. I love to be the one to break it to you - THINGS HAVEN'T CHANGED THAT MUCH! Ziks flats is still the old disgusting ruin it was. Presidential, Akintola, Akpabio are painted green white green and renovated, yes, but that’s only because Akintola and Akpabio were used to house “Team UNN”.

The front of the Eni Njoku and the Alvan hostels was bustling with sellers. I’m not exaggerating. Northerners were selling perfumes and large ram heads with large, intricately patterned horns. There were people selling DVD’s, sport wears, shoes, clothes, wrist watches, rings etcetera. Later that night, a lot of the people slept in front of Eni Njoku on mats made from woven sacks. Clearly they came from far away. The buses from the various participating schools were parked haphazardly in between Alvan and Njoku. In front of the Alvan hostel, there were large canopies with colourful plastic chairs. Instead of letting the foreign students go far for food, these ingenious people brought the food to their doorstep literally. They brought deep freezers, tables and one even brought a television. Students would come out of the hostel and sit down in groups under the canopies, eating, laughing and chattering. You remember those bukas by the side of Mbanefo? Students were not found there. The front of that old cafeteria by Mbanefo was painted brilliant white to lure in unsuspecting JJC students but no one was deceived. The silly people did not even try to scrub the dirty windows and dark brown floor. The strategic stationing of the canopy food sellers came at a price. Rumours were rife that the University authorities collected 25,000 naira per canopy for the duration of the games. In order to cover cost price and make profit, our enterprising caterers served food at prices from one hundred and fifty upwards. It wasn't cheap, tasteless, bukka meals, they were quite good. Meals that were of Coke Villa standard. God knows the price tag Coke Villa people put on their meals in order to cash in on the influx of students.

All the reading desks in the male hostel rooms were pushed out to the corridors to give the room users more space to maneuver. Alvan is the only Franco hostel that our school authorities bothered to paint, even though it was just the corridor walls. The painters contracted to do the job were so dimwitted, they painted atop the room numbers making it doubly difficult to locate rooms. One good thing was that those motherly female cleaners were sent to mop their rooms as often as possible. Guys you know how when you go to get mattresses from the hostel porter you get flat compressed stuff that’s so black with dirt you wouldn't even use it to wipe your shoe? Well, the school bought thousands of brand new Vitafoam mattresses and pillows and gave them out to every student quartered in our hostels!

I had to find out how neat Franco was first-hand and what better way to do that than by using the facilities. I bathed in bathroom on the 324 -345 wing of the Alvan hostel. Guys, you know how our bathrooms usually are – dirty, smelly and dark, which is why most of us don’t bathe at night (sorry). It was different for these guys. They had showers running almost 24/7 and the bathrooms were well lit. The stench of urine and shit was gone even at night when that area is usually in its worst possible state. The bathroom was actually so clean that even you an old timer would CONSIDER picking your bathing soap if it fell on the floor! I know! It sounds unbelievable but it's true! Each school was given one side of the hall series, for instance IMSU took 324-345 and another school resided in the opposite series 301-324.

There was a free HIV testing service by some people from GHAINS (Global HIV&AIDS Initiative something something….) They even handed out free condoms to all who requested. You know how promiscuous young people can be now... The street lights (the ones that use electricity, not those dead "solar powered" ones) were functioning fine and the entire school was well lit. In all the time I’ve lived in that school - which is nearly three years, I’ve never seen every where as well lit as it was during this period. NEPA seemed to be giving light 24/7.

Now to the memorable sports events. Here’s how it happened. A lot of sports went on simultaneously. The result was that people hopped from one event to another. SWIMMING was one sports event that pulled crowds as large as those who gather for football matches. Was it an ordinary fascination with the sport or just a love for seeing semi-nude/scantily clad humans race each other underwater? Either way, I was with them cheering, whistling and clapping. I watched swimming for most of Wednesday the 11th. The competitors from Uniport are terrific swimmers! They were moving through the water with superb grace and agility. UNN kept coming second, second, second….in the underwater races (deep sigh).

Some competitions were as gripping and revealing as the garbs (tights) of the participants. Take for instance, the track events. It was da bomb! I’m not saying that because our school was winning - our contestants were running as if the FREE-3 times-a-day Chitis food provided by the school for the entire duration of the event, did not digest well. It was "da bomb" because watching people sprinting gives you an incredible adrenaline rush. Everyone in the stands where I sat (mostly UNN guys & babes) were screaming advice and cheering for contestants from other schools and laughing at our own contestants openly. We however strongly defended our school when students from other schools (a.k.a haters) verbally attacked our own Obinna Metu, a superbly gifted sprinter (Yes, he’s the same one that went to the Olympics). The haters were like he shouldn’t be competing because he’s way above this level of competition and all that kind of stuff…that one na their business sha, you know as jealousy dey do people. The boy won us gold medals and we cheered every time we saw him.

The NUGA organizers brought three Nigerians who had excelled in sports internationally. Mary Onyali, Mrs. Ogunkoya and a sports man whose name I can't remember. The last two characters were forgettable anyway. Mary Onyali was the most visible sports celeb in the stadium. She was in charge of coordinating the field and track events and she had to walk around a lot, but she didn't let that prevent her from looking so damn good. She’s fashionable and physically fit. No, no, no…not in that repulsive muscular way female athletes are (yuck), fit in a feminine way. So that while Ogunkoya and the other man had many pockets of flab on their sides, their fronts, and other unmentionable body areas, Onyali was fit, full in all the right places, eye-catching, stylishly sophisticated and so chic! A few people told me Chioma Ajunwa, another of Nigeria’s internationally recognized sportswomen, attended the event a few times. The day of the closing ceremony was Onyali’s birthday and the school band serenaded her.

A lot of dignitaries attended the closing ceremony (it was shown live on NTA) and they were very proud people. Their convoys rode onto the race tracks and dropped them in front of the VIP stand, in full glare of everyone. The only one who did not follow that shameless pattern was Chris Ngige, the politician and former Anambra state governor. The crowd cheered and gave him a standing ovation as he walked towards the stands, instead of the angry muttering from the crowd others got for their pompous behaviour.

IMSU won the football match final. The match was played on Franco pitch because the grass on the field in the stadium hadn't grown (it was planted very late). They came into the stadium cheering and we did not give a damn. The dignitaries kept speaking and UNN students eyed them. Then they decided to forcefully grab the attention we robbed them. They ran from the left side of the stadium to the right, waving, chanting, yelling and playing with a ball. They came in front of the VIP stand and they were shooed away by officials. Then they went to a corner and one of their guys took the ball and did tricks we have never seen..... WOW!! Can you guess what happened next? NTA turned away from the dignitaries and focused on them, people ran down from stands onto the field in the middle of the stadium in large numbers and gathered around them. Even the policemen were watching the boy do his tricks. It was rebellious and rude, but it worked! This went on for a long time until the dignitaries got angry and they sent a man to stop them. The crowd which had been whistling, clapping and cheering for this lone performer from the IMSU team, started booing angrily at the security official that ran forward to stop the team. The IMSU teams stopped entertaining everyone, but they had been SEEN, they were recognized. It’s a risk a lot of people would not have dared to take, but the IMSU team had wasn't lacking balls. For a few dazzling minutes, they had the eyeball of everyone in the stadium, dignitaries included, and all those tuned in at home.

For the closing ceremony children came in huge numbers and did a different version of the acrobatics they performed at the opening ceremony. The children did well and we applauded not because we were blown off our seats but because of the effort we knew the children must have put into the synchronized performance. After they left, some old men and two very young girls from an obsolete eastern band came on to entertain but were nearly shooed off the field after several minutes for their boring performance. The band did our school anthem and it was quite good. That and their performance of “We Are The World” are the only memorable numbers they performed. "We Are The World" was memorable not because they performed wonderfully but because of the power of the song itself. Everything else that day was uninspiring. My conclusion? The closing ceremony was nothing like the opening one. Later that night, there was a bonfire in front of the Akintola & Akpabio hostels and a beauty contest tagged "Miss NUGA". Predictably, a University of Nigeria student won even though everyone agrees she wasn't "all that".

UNN tried but we could have done much, much, much, much better.We were second many times to schools like UNIBEN, UNIPORT, UNIMAID, IMSU, MICHAEL OKPARA, and many times we did not even make it into the Top 3 lists. UNIPORT won the competition with 21 gold medals. UNN had 20 gold medals .

NUGA was entertaining even in unconventional ways. No matter what you’re telling yourself right now, the truth is you missed a lot. The next one is in 2010 to be hosted by UNIBEN.

Originally written and posted to my Facebook account on March 10th, 2009. It's a follow-up to my previous blog post Is UNN Ready For NUGA 2008? 
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I visited Chimamanda Adichie & Chinua Achebe's old house on the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus! Read my post HERE!

[Image via Information Nigeria]