Review: Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday

John Born on a TuesdaySet in the world of violent conflict arising from divisive attempts by sectarian splinter groups to define and put into practice a fundamentalist form of Islam, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (Grove Press) can feel all too familiar at times. It echoes the news of kidnapped schoolgirls and the profiles of young men who leave their homes to join in jihad. The political events it refers to – the rigged elections, the coups, the police state – hearken back to recent years when Africa’s terrorist groups were a focal point of the major media outlets, before they ceded their place to the devastating conflict in Syria. Yet this is not a piece of journalism, despite the author’s most famous role in Nigeria being that of scathing political satirist (most prominently with a column in the Daily Trust. In this novel, told through the eyes of a child (then teenager, then young man) who attends Quaranic school in the Northern region of Nigeria, John portrays the rising of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sokoto state, and frighteningly shows how religious idealism and sectarianism lead to violence.

While I have not seen a ton of press about it in the past months leading up to its publication, I do think that it will prove to be an important work. The few reviews I have seen compare it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and, indeed, it deserves this distinction perhaps more so than most books compared to the canonical text). Yet I found the characterization of Dantala and the tension and confusion of the rising conflict between forms of Islam much more similar in tone and content to Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé (2000) or Allah Is Not Obliged (2007). While Kourouma’s novel explores the plight of child soldiers in West Africa in stark detail, John’s novel very convincingly deals with the rise of religious sectarianism leading to violence. The effective use of multilingualism and of oral/written forms of communication is a particularly striking similarity between the two, as is the voice of a fearless but woeful young man who is swept along in a conflict over which he has no control. A notable difference, of course, is that Kourouma’s Birahima is forced to join the fighting, whereas John’s Dantala tries to stay away from it.

It is jarring to read violence that is so normalized in the eyes of a child. After he has left school, Dantala takes up with a local group of boys who smoke the ever-present “wee-wee” and work as thugs and promoters for the “Small Party” during election time. They also enforce a kind of street justice among their small community of Bayan Layi. When a boy in their community attempts to steal a jug of groundnut oil, he is severely punished by the group. Dantala recalls: “I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch.” It sounds like the observation of a psychopathic killer. Yet it is rather a raw personal detail in the life of a child whose only example is violence.

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Isidore Okpewho’s Myth in Africa (1983)

Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…

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Myth in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

London: Cambridge, 1983

Preface:

Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)

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Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

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the local is not the national; the national is not the local

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I’ve been reading quite a smart book lately that engages a question running through African literary theory, which could essentially be summed up as “How useful is the nation as the principle structuring concept of the African imaginary?” The nation was the most important structuring concept during the period of independence from colonial powers and the ensuing processes of decolonization. However, there is an argument to be made that geographical demarcations and their political structures do not fully encompass the vastly complex experience of identity formation in the postcolonial world. The counter argument to this cites the overwhelmingly powerful processes of globalization and the influx of Western culture upon Africa – this, of course, would come along with obvious neocolonial elements – and espouses the importance of the nation as a local phenomenon.

In The Pull of Postcolonial Nationhood by Ayo A. Coly (2010) the complex notions of nationhood are specifically explored in the work of female writers who either have lived or are currently living in European countries. Essentially the question becomes: what is the nation when you’re not living in it? There are many things to discuss, and most importantly, Coly addresses the extremely important and extremely overlooked question of how your status in the nation changes depending upon your gender.

While her theory is sound and her ideas are  interesting, I want to take issue with one small point, which is a subtle conflation of “local” and “national” – specifically as it pertains to Fatou Diome.

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keita, the canon, and what the hell does “interdisciplinary” mean anyway?

[Disclaimer: this post  is not “finished” in any sense. I wanted to publish it, because I think that it deals with some of the underlying threads we should consider as the battle between the legitimacy of the humanities and the bottom lines of the administration continues to wage throughout the country. But I really, really, really have to get back to studying for my quals, so I’ve got to stop editing. PLEASE, if you think something is unsaid or said badly, I invite your comments. Also, I realize that it’s a little narration heavy – you can skip that and go to the end if you want. No big deal.]

Last week, I did about fifteen minutes of the film Keita * with my students. This was prompted by a short introduction to a West African folktale in their textbook, which claimed that the griot in West Africa is a bard specializing in moral tales about animals for children. While I applaud the inclusion of such culture lessons from the francophone world, and while this description of the griot is not totally wrong, I could not let them leave my classroom thinking that the griot is some kind of Aesop Uncle Remus who lives on African Sesame Street and plays a large ukelele. **

Kouyaté’s film focuses on the education of Mabo Keita, raised in the French colonial school system, whose family’s griot is charged with the task of instructing the young boy in the history of Mandé people(s). Which is pretty significant for this particular family, since its ancestral line links directly back to the founding the Malian Empire.*** The action revolves around this epic tale, but the more subtle circumstances are the tug between Mabo’s French education and the instruction of Djeliba, the griot.

When I watched this film as an undergrad, I remember forming a distinct impression that French literature was inherently bad, and that African oral literature **** was inherently awesome. Which pretty much continued to guide the next…what’s today?…the 18th?…the next nine years of my own education. I had an intellectual swagger. Old white European guys? Psh, who needs ’em? Why don’t you run along back to your Proust.***** I stopped swaggering a long time ago, but I never quite gained the passion for French literature that was supposed to be pounded into me.****** Nos ancêtres les Gaulois ??? Screw ’em – they weren’t mine. But then…neither was Ousmane Sembene… Continue reading