Fairytales for Lost Children- Diriye Osman

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I often dream of home. It is a place that exists only in my imagination: it is my Eden, my Janna. Sometimes I associate it with my father, my mother, my grandmother, my sister, all of whom have rejected me, all of whom I still love…Other times I regard Somalia, my birthplace, as home, as the land where my soul will eventually be laid to rest. Many times home is Kenya or London. But none of these places truly embody home for me. Home is in my hair, my lips, my arms, my thighs, my feet and hands. I am my own home.- Diriye Osman, Fairytales for Lost Children

2017 hasn’t been a great year for me writing review-wise. I’m embarrassed  to say that the last time I wrote a review on my blog was in December 2016. However, on that note, I’m happy to begin my reviewing of 2017 with a book that  encompasses so many of my interests, and also reminds me why we need diverse books, and why the representations of POC in the diaspora are going to have to be more complex.

In the short stories in Fairytales for Lost Children, Osman’ discusses the African (Somali) diaspora, sexuality, and tradition, among other themes ( at this point, if you haven’t already figured it out, it’s probably good to mention that these fairytales are not for children! There is plenty of sexual content in them). Other important themes include  love, breakup, tragedy, and family.

One of my favourite stories was the titular “Fairytales for Lost Children” which featured the kind of teacher I wish I’d had in primary school: Miss Mumbi:

 Even Story Time was political. Miss Mumbi infused each story with Kenyan flavour. She illustrated these remixes on the blackboard. ‘Rapunzel’ became ‘Rehema,’ a fly gabar imprisoned in Fort Jesus. Rehema had an Afro that grew and grew…Her Afro became so strong that it burst through the fort.

I really like reading about different diasporas, and this book gave me a lot of info about the Somali diaspora, particularly in Africa and the UK. A couple of the stories speak to living in limbo:

Every day I asked Hooyo, “When’re we heading home?”

“Soon,” she’d sigh, ‘Soon.”

The precariousness of life for groups in the diaspora was definitely very poignant, and it makes sense that the word “fairytale” is in the title, because fairytales can be an escape from the tough realities of life. One reality is not being wanted by the society one lives in:

My waalid may have reinvented themselves but to the booliis we were still refugee bastards who sucked on Nanny State’s iron teats until there was nothing left for her legitimate children.

Sexuality is definitely a huge theme, and all the protagonists in the story are gay. This allows Osman to explore their relationships with their more traditional and conservative environments.  There was one excerpt that talked about  how in Somalia being gay is likened to being possessed, mentally unstable, and there are stories were gay Somalis are disowned by their family. But the reality is there are gay Somalis, and those like Osman are working hard to share their stories and experiences:

The Prophet once said that dreams are a window into the unseen. I have been told many times by family, friends, colleagues and strangers that I, a black African Muslim lesbian, am not included in this vision; that my dreams are a reflection of my upbringing in a decadent, amoral Western society that has corrupted who I really am. But who am I, really? Am I allowed to speak for myself or must my desires form the battleground for causes I do not care about?

What I’ve found about being part of the African diaspora, and what Osman also managed to illustrate (focusing on queer characters) is how the diaspora is a tricky space to inhabit and navigate. There’s always the question of deciding how to create one’s identity when straddling two or more cultures. Definitely a great collection of short stories to give me a glimpse into how others in the diaspora live.

On a sidenote, I enjoyed looking at Osman’s artwork in his book; it’s wonderful:

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There is plenty of gorgeous photography on his website too:  http://www.diriyeosman.com/

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Letter To Jimmy- Alain Mabanckou

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“People would argue for a long time about the real reasons behind your “exile” in France. But the truth is that there is nothing more disheartening than the imprisonment of a creative person, nothing worse than the feeling that the world collapsing before you will swallow your dreams in the end.”- Alain Mabanckou, Letter to Jimmy

I feel this book is many things at once: it’s a sort of biography, a homage to a great writer, and at the same time it’s a sort of guide to the search for one’s inner self through the works of someone who has clearly influenced us. It was a beautiful recapitulation of James Baldwin’s life by someone who is clearly a great admirer and knows a lot about him. At times Mabanckou is speaking to James Baldwin, at other times he is addressing us, the reader, filling the gaps in our knowledge and giving us interesting tidbits and interspersing the book with book reviews.

To me, the title of the book illustrates a closeness between the writer and James Baldwin, and it’s no surprise the admiration and reverence Mabanckou feels to Baldwin because I, and so many others, feel it too. An enigmatic individual, insightful, brave enough to take his life into his own hands, eloquent enough to dissect and present the race problem in an accessible and very incisive way.One of the chapters is entitled “black. bastard. gay and a writer”, I believe the first three words basically sum up the complexity of his identity, especially in the era in which he lived, and yet he managed to become one of the best writers of the 20th Century despite so many obstacles.

I also like that Mabanckou talks about how Baldwin’s words are needed, even now (or maybe especially now); he means so much to marginalized folk and also people searching for their own identities, and so many of his words are timeless and are still very relevant to this day. He has a lot to teach all of us:

“At a young age, we end up accepting what is said about us, especially when it comes from adults. It remains this way until something comes along to contradict those early notions, to make things right, even if only superficially.”

Since I recently reread Baldwin’s own essay on sentimentalism, I thought it was interesting that Mabanckou seems to have the same, or similar, ideas about African literature. It surprised me to see that parallel but Mabanckou makes a pretty good argument, I’d say:

“A variety of African literature known as “child soldier” literature– or as “Rwandan genocide” literature, when it was created more in protest than in an effort to truly understand the tragedies– convinced me definitively that we were not yet free of the vortex of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that the sentimentality and moralizing current that runs through some of these works does harm to African literature.”

All through this read I was thinking about how our  favourite author influences us and plays the role of guide in our journey. Regardless of the gender, ethnicity, era, country of origin, etc, writers can reach out to so many people, just like Baldwin clearly reached out to Mabanckou.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood- Fatima Mernissi

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“When you happen to be trapped powerless behind walls, stuck in a dead-end harem, you dream of escape. And magic flourishes when you spell out that dream and make the frontiers vanish. Dreams can change your life, and eventually the world. Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you translate those images in words. And words cost nothing!”- Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

I just recently came across Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi and was sorry to learn that she passed away late last year. I’m so grateful to her for this text, for  hearing her story. Someone once told me we are always born into the right place at the right time and Mernissi definitely was. Born in Morocco in 1940  during the transition between tradition and modernity, she was a witness to the war and colonialism by the French. As a sociologist, most importantly a feminist, she is able to present her story in a coming of age story situated in history. I believe she was meant to write this story and she writes it well and so beautifully, even inserting funny yet profound childhood observations:

“We knew that the French were greedy and had come a long way to conquer our land, even though Allah had already given them a beautiful one, with bustling cities, thick forests, luscious green fields, and cows much bigger than ours that gave four times as much milk. But somehow the French needed to get home.”

The concept of freedom, especially when it deals with women,  is interesting to me because it means different things to different people. Is freedom about physical barriers? Do we have to construct our own freedom and how do we do so? Do we see freedom in the other?  And even more interesting is to  learn about feminists from non-Western countries and how other women practice feminism in cultures that might not even have that word in their vocabulary. I was quite struck by how feminism was done within the harem walls,  in what people would say is a very unlikely place to practice feminism.

The harem was defined as the place where a man kept his family and sheltered them. It was both the place and the members. We are introduced to proxemics and boundaries within the harem, and we also learn more about the harem of  Mernissi’s grandmother, Yasmina, in the countryside. The harem is a boundary for women and the boundary symbolizes something to overcome somehow in search of freedom. Some boundaries are invisible, others are concrete (or metallic) like the harem’s walls (or gate).

One of the ways feminism was practiced was through storytelling, often intergenerationally. In particular, Scheherezade seemed to be a very important literary figure in this world:

“However, words would save the person who knew how to string them artfully together. That is what happened to Scheherezade, the author of the thousand and one tales. The King was about to chop off her head, but she was able to stop him at the last minute, just by using words. I was eager to find out how she had done it.”

It was timely that I  read this book  just before reading Steinem’s “My Life on the Road.” In a sense, their lives are opposites, one grew up on the road, one behind a wall. Mernissi talked about the importance for women to not be restricted in their movements and I think Steinem would agree:

“I knew that if you moved around, your mind worked faster, because you were constantly seeing new things that you had to respond to.”

All in all, this account reiterates how powerful words are, how women do have that power to transform their own lives.

“You are going to transform this world, aren’t you? You are going to create a planet without walls and without frontiers where the gatekeepers have off every day of the year.”

A special thank you to Julie Feng at https://mintandink.wordpress.com/ for introducing me to this amazing writer!

Also, a book was mentioned that I might read: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist by Huda Sharaoui

Decolonising the Mind- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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“Education, far from giving people the confidence in their ability and capacities to overcome obstacles or to become masters of the laws governing external nature as human beings, tends to make them feel their inadequacies, their weaknesses and their incapacities in the face of reality; and their inability to do anything about the conditions governing their lives.”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind

I’ve never seen colonialism described as succinctly as in the following passage:

“The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

I read this book with my experiences in Africa, conversations with my relatives and friends, and my education at the back of my mind. Trying to make sense of history and my place in it made this book invaluable to me, and helped clarify and reiterate a lot of things. The more I  read books on Africa, be they about art, language, history, or politics, the more I’m amazed how the continent is seen, in many people’s minds, as a homogeneous  country. This passive thinking really masks the  complexity of issues in the continent. Even without colonialism Africa would have been quite intricate but  colonialism has truly caused mayhem in the entire continent. And in many ways, language is one of the biggest weapons the colonialists used to do so.

I like wa Thiong’o a lot. Not only is he a great writer, but it’s also clear he is a very passionate person with a lot of  love for his country, his continent and his language, and a great advocate for the traditional arts. He is very blunt and I admire that a lot. Nobody is safe from his criticism,  even a few of my personal favourites such as Achebe, Soyinka, Cesaire. In a sense he thinks they were brainwashed for putting the language of the colonizers on a pedestal. I think it’s an interesting argument to be had but it’s hard for me to pick a side because I’m admittedly colonized myself and English-dominant, although it’s not my first language. I found it useful to read wa Thiong’o’s perspective regardless.

And wa Thiongo’s perspective is important. He grew up during colonialism after all, so he, unlike me, had the opportunity to study in his native language and unfortunately had to endure being forced to assimilate into the English language.He details how the British tried to suppress local languages in Kenya, how they arrested those who tried to encourage cultural proliferation, and controlled the gathering of people in places.  He sees the differences in himself and his society before and after English language education was forced on him, and his explanations and insights are very precise and often personal.

wa Thiong’o is very thorough in how he discusses the role of language as a carrier and transmitter of culture, and what happens when that language is taken away from people. This is such a common story, not just in Africa but even here in Canada, and I think we’re beginning to understand just how damaging it is to suppress and devalue language. In what planet does it make sense that a Kenyan student in colonial Kenya would be punished for speaking Gikuyu or Swahili instead of English? Personally I remember how I was often treated better than my cousins just because I could speak English and they couldn’t; I learned early on how language can be elitist:

“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages– that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya– were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment.”

Another great thing about wa Thing’o is how he respects the peasantry (his choice of word). The other day I was reading about the Third Estate in France during the 19th Century revolution and this reminded me of how in Africa the peasantry are the majority, and that’s where the culture comes from. Who makes the oral stories, who upholds the culture? It’s nice to see the peasantry being accredited with maintaining culture and tradition:

“These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa on the whole.”

I was struck  by the violence caused by colonialism. Colonialism was celebrated, and that’s the world I grew up in: gratitude to the colonialists for “rescuing” us. But what we know now is that it was very very violent and the wounds are still there. If, like wa Thiong’o said, in 1984 the president of the West German Federal Council visited Togo in order to celebrate the centennial of Germany establishing Togo as a German colony,”to commemorate not the resistance to colonisation but the glory of colonisation,” then clearly we haven’t learned much and dialogue still needs to be had.

The constant unlearning, the decolonizing, that needs to be done because we were lied to, is something that I thought of throughout this book. And it’s only now that I’m realizing in more detail just how horrific colonialism was, just how much we’ve lost. What I aim to do myself, how I aim to decolonize my own mind, is by reading more of my history. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve been influenced by other cultures so I wonder how far I can be decolonized. This got me thinking about globalization and how that has affected us, I would be interested to hear Thiong’o’s thoughts on this. This is definitely a must-read for everyone, there is so much we don’t know or realize about the impact of the actions of those who came before us, and this is a great start.

Woman at Point Zero- Nawal El Saadawi

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“A new world was opening up in front of my eyes, a world which for me had not existed before. Maybe it had always been there, always existed, but I had never seen it, never realized it had been there all the time. How was it that I had been blind to its existence all these years?”

I was told by a friend (thank you, Amina!) that the German title for this book is translated as “I Spit on You,” and it makes a lot of sense after you read the book, because that will probably be your reaction to most of the characters. This is my second El Saadawi book and I wish I’d written a review for the first book of hers that I read, The Innocence of the Devil, because I thought both books were excellent, similar in their approach and very powerful in how they portrayed patriarchy, sexism, hypocrisy, and misogyny.

I love Firdaus, our protagonist, and I think she’s a character who’ll stay with me for a very long time. At the beginning of the novella we find her on death row for killing a man and as she recounts her story to a female psychiatrist who is sent to visit her. We learn more about her. And it’s shocking. It wouldn’t surprise me if many women are able to see themselves in Firdaus, despite the fact that we might not be Egyptian, Muslim etc, like she was. Parts of her story are surely the stories of many women.

The tone of the book starts off so innocently and simply; the change in describing brutal incidents caught me by surprise. From every single man Firdaus encounters she experiences abuse or exploitation of sorts. Firdaus changes because of her experiences and we see how strong she becomes, despite encountering such awful things.

Despite the tragic story, Firdaus has moments of agency and emancipation. This woman who nobody wants, who’s abused time and again, who isn’t helped when she should be, comes up with her own definition of truth based on what she sees and experiences, not what she has been indoctrinated with.  El Saadawi exposes the hypocrisy in religious and patriarchal societies with men using tradition for their own purposes:

“I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. Thus, the truth about them was revealed only after their deaths, and as a result I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy.”

She compares and contrasts marriage and prostitution, and she is often very blunt about what she perceives to be the position of women in society:

“All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.”

But there is the hope when women like Firdaus realize the truth but also the power they actually have:

“How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?”

And ultimately though the telling of Firdaus’ story, I found myself changed as well, and more understanding of Firdaus’ journey and evolution.

 “A man does not know a woman’s value, Firdaus. She is the one who determines her value.

 

Book Launch- Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation

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I attend quite a few talks and discussions and I’d never really thought about sharing my thoughts on them. After tweeting about my most recent event attendance, a few of the people I follow on Twitter suggested I put the information on my blog so that they could have easy access to my tweets on the subject, and I thought that would be a great idea.

On October 7, 2015 Simon Fraser University hosted Yves Engler’s book launch for “Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation.” The mention of Patrice Lumumba in the synopsis completely sold me and I’m glad I attended. I’ve noticed that I’ve always lived in countries whose history and culture has been dwarfed by their more powerful and better-known neighbours; the history of these countries is often not really well-known. This is definitely the case with Canada, a country that is rarely thought of as an offender.  This talk brought to the fore Canada’s involvement in Africa, both in historic and modern terms, and it was quite horrific for someone like me: an African who lives in Canada.

Here is a link to the Storify I made from my Tweets, and also screenshots of the tweets are below:

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And a link to @dtseghay’s great, personal book review: Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation

The Light of the World- Elizabeth Alexander 

“I’m grateful for the tug of the day that gets us out of bed and propels us into our lives and responsibilities; memory can be a weight on that. And yet, in it floods, brought willfully, or brought on by a glimpse, a glance, a scent, a sound.”

This was a sensitive and very touching look into Elizabeth Alexander’s life, losing her beloved husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, very suddenly at a relatively young age. Recently I read Roland Barthes’ beautiful “Mourning Diary” about the death of his mother; “The Light of the World” seemed to be a more in-depth look at the mourning process in our age, taking into account additional things like culture, diversity, and migration. “Mourning Diary” was written by a philosopher/linguist, this memoir by an artist about an artist. It shows by the vibrancy in the words despite the loss, and the sense of loss experienced.

This book had so much love in it. Love between family, friends, parents and children, but most of all the love Elizabeth had with Ficre. This was such a wonderful testament to their life together, short but so full and abundant. I think it was a testament to them as parents that they recognized their different histories and went about selecting and harmonizing aspects of their cultures to share with their children and those around them:

“That was the interesting idea of us: East and West Africa married, descendants of slaves who survived, descendants of free people of colour, descendants of freedom fighters never enslaved, the strongest of all to be conjoined in our children.”

This book seemed to be almost an amalgamation of the things I’ve thought about in the past few months. Dealing with recent loss in my own family, meditating on this loss, thinking about diasporic experiences,  memories,  grief…

When someone dies, the art, poetry, music, and plays that they loved are left behind and how we see them change. I think about death in this new age, the age of text messaging, digital photography. What do we leave behind and in what forms/mediums?

I think about the importance of food and drink as cultural and also as comfort.

I think about my own cultural and migratory history  and how my body carries all that within it.

This book was a very moving testament to an obviously very special and beloved man. Despite the tragic loss of Ficre, I see this as a very hopeful book. I’d recommend it to anyone.

“What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone.