Author Archives: davsweet
For my digital participation I watched the film Blood Diamond, which was directed by Edward Zwick, who is known for directing films based on global racial and social issues such as Glory and The Last Samurai. My interest with Blood Diamond, however, revolves around the idea of the “single story.” I was curious how successful an American director could be at presenting a story about one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars without playing into the single story.
For those who don’t know, the civil war I’m referring to is Sierra Leone’s which lasted from 1996 until 2001, as portrayed in The Memory of Love. The story follows Solomon Vandy, a fisherman enslaved to dig for diamonds all day in order to help fund the rebel faction Revolutionary United Front. After finding a golf ball-sized diamond, Vandy is sent to jail in Freetown where he meets Danny Archer, a white rodesian smuggles who was jailed for trying to smuggle diamonds into Liberia. Meanwhile, while Solomon is in jail his son is abducted in Freetown and forced to become a child soldier. Archer, who finds out Solomon knows where this massive diamond is located, pledges to Solomon that he will help him relocate his family if he brings him to the diamond.
This movie quite obviously has the “single story” theory written all over it. There is a horribly violent civil war. There are child soldiers. There is a humble working man main character who is ripped away from his family and forced to succumb to the will of rebel warlords. There is a government bent on indiscriminant violence that draws no distinction between civilians and hostile rebels. There is a white “savior” that blurs the line between good and evil, emerging within the storyline from his selfish wrongdoing beginnings to a man who offers up his diamond to Solomon while lying on his death bed.
So yes, this is the single story. But I have no problem with the single story if it is true. The truth is that this was the reality of the civil war in Sierra Leone, one of Africa’s most brutal wars in the last century. The incorrect response to criticizing the single story is to render it useless, as if it bares no resemblance to reality and contains no lingering lesson. I applaud Zwick’s effort, as long as it was a portrayal of the truth.
The short story I read was “An Honest Exit” by Dinaw Mengestu. Mengestu is the author of “All Our Names” which we read in class, so I’m sure everyone is familiar with that name. Mengestu tells this story from the first person as a teacher at a privileged high school he refers to as “The Academy” on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. After his father passes away he spends many days in class telling the story of his father’s journey to Europe from Ethiopia. The school administration is frustrated by Mengestu’s decision to do this but his students are fascinated. The story follows Mengestu’s journey from Ethiopia, to Sudan, to Europe, each fragment enlightening class on a slice of life they had never pondered before. Compared to All Our Names the story did not have the lingering fascination of revealing the identity of the main character, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I’m curious whether or not this is a true story.
Chimamanda Adiche has done a wonderful job of holding my attention in “The Thing Around Your Neck.” I personally had never read a book full of short stories until this point, but I’ve come to realize that this might be the best way to keep my attention. The message that sometimes takes days of reading to communicate is conveyed in the length of a chapter. Each story is totally unique and yet related (if that makes sense?). After reading 3 or 4 of these I began to feel the sense that each story plays a role within the bigger picture Adiche is trying to portray.
Anyways, I was so impressed with this book that I began to look up other short stories about Africa to see what other gems I could find. I actually didn’t find anything I liked that was free and online (maybe the best short stories are in published books?) but I did stumble upon this:
^^^^ This is a list of African proverbs, which I have always been entertained by. The website though, afritorial, has a lot of original content related to Africa that a lot of people might be interested in. Some of it seems to be pretty well written so it might be worth checking out.
So in conclusion I need short story recommendations. But I thought I would share what I found.
I understand that at this point, as the newspaper headlines begin to slowly turn away from western Africa in favor of Middle Eastern wars and U.S. politics, people are very tired of the Ebola conversation. The topic, for many, has run its course and veered into the realm of pop culture. Yet for so many weeks–months even–it was the cover story of every major newspaper and broadcast. My question for readers is three-fold:
1) Why did this disease get so much press coverage compared to other African diseases like AIDS?
2) Why is it suddenly not getting as much attention?
3) What does all of that say about the relationship between Africa, the media and deadly diseases?
My inspiration for this question is Yesterday’s struggle with AIDS. Clearly this isn’t the rapidly murderous disease that Ebola is but it exists on a far greater scale than Ebola and hardly receives any media attention.
I initially found Aminatta Forna’s writing style very unappealing when I began reading The Memory of Love. There were too many intertwining stories and characters and I was kind of frustrated with the fact she as the author chose to let the reader go for so many pages without explicitly spelling certain things out in one way or another. Typically I am very impatient with novels like this and won’t complete them.
Had this been just a casual read I would have done just that–thrown the book aside and never looked at it again. Obviously that was not the case. Now, after finishing the book, I can confidently say that it won me over. This was for two main reasons.
The first is the sheer brilliance of Forna’s writing at both the macro- and micro- level. The micro-level details and characterizations were crisp and authentic. I was taken back by Forna’s ability to write from the perspective a male with such ease (I say “ease” because clearly she is comfortable writing male dialogue). At one point she describes Elias as having a “tightening in his balls” which is something I personally have experienced once or twice. This is just a brief example. The point is that she repeatedly kept even the most routine dialogue original and interesting. At the macro-level, I was impressed with the way she connected the three main characters’ stories and their “memories of love” in a way that I should have probably seen coming, but didn’t and as a result was left saying to myself “Ohhhhh! That’s the name of the book, I get it now!”
The second reason is that the scale of the story’s violence and the way the story transcends into reality and the bigger picture in Sierra Leone is both horrifying and fascinating. The fact that Charles Taylor is responsible for the torture and murder of Forna’s father makes this story seem eerily personal and even shocking and disturbing at times. Some might call that blood lust, but those people surely have not read this novel. Every detail of this story, no matter how shocking or disturbing, was an attempt to capture one of history’s most shocking and disturbing realities.
I am glad Forna did not shy away from that.
Since I was a child I have always wanted to write fiction and so I have always been curious about the methods in which writers line up the timelines of their stories. For several reasons, Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names exhibits a story line that I find both unique and sheerly brilliant.
The first, and most obvious feature of Mengestu’s unique style is his choice to alternate narrators by the chapter. I found this to be a brilliant choice because 1) it keeps the readers attention because even if they find themselves becoming bored with a storyline they have the next chapter to look forward to, and 2) the possibilities of coordinating how those story lines will intersect is fascinating and has the potential to make a story just that much better.
One very interesting twist Mengestu adds to has story is that the main character, Isaac, is not the narrator in either of the perpendicular story lines. While at first I found this extremely frustrating (because my instinct in applying perpendicular story lines to this plot would have been to make Isaac a narrator) in by the end of the book I realized Isaac’s lack of an objective voice is one of the most important things about this novel. This is a novel partially about perceptions of an individual’s identity, and the two perspectives that are heard from as narrators are totally different, yet they are both about the same person. That is a lesson that would not have been possible to convey were Isaac a narrator.
One last method that Mengestu used that I found interesting was his strategy in informing the reader about the narrators’ lives and the roles their personal stories play in Isaac’s life and the perception you gather from their telling of their stories. By the end of the book all three of the main characters seem like totally different people then the impressions they originally gave at the beginning of the book.
I found this blog on washingtonpost.com that discussed some of the more recent political issues relating to the Congo. In short, since Mobutu was overthrown during the first Congo War the country has not shown any true signs of improvement politically, democratically or economically. Joseph Kabila is a President who is democratically elected, but his elections are not viewed as legitimate. The north and eastern regions are the most conflict-heavy zones because of their proximity to Rwanda (spillover from Rwandan genocide) and their richness of minerals. In 2010 the Dodd-Frank Act was passed in the United States which contained a provision that essentially prohibited banks from profiting off of minerals extracted from conflict zones in eastern Congo. However, many experts believe this provision is only further enflaming violence, sectarian tensions and economic hardships among the common people while the same elites continue to profit at record levels.
Does anybody see any correlation between the current state and the events and themes that were discussed in Lumumba?
A theme that continues to resurface as we read through these texts is the role of the father figure–either as extremely weak and petty or overly masculine and conservative–and the underlying role that plays in shaping the coming-of-age process for the protagonist.
In Okonkwo’s case, his father Unoka was one of the lowest ranking members of Umuofia’s Ibo society. He was perceived as lazy, piled up massive debts to his peers which he rarely paid off, and possessed no real trade or skill which was valued in Ibo culture. Despite this perceived laziness, Unoka is painted as an individual with a certain positive light to him, in that his joy for playing his flute is all that really matters to him and all other matters lack seriousness. Okonkwo, as a result of his father’s character, shapes himself in the polar opposite image of his father: strong, hard-working, fearless and a ranking member of Ibo society.
Achebe successfully points out that both of these characters–the destitute lower clansman and the fearless ranking warrior–have both destructive and redeeming qualities. This especially comes to light when Okonkwo is forced to leave Umuofia after killing a man (at which point Okonkwo’s character is already put into question) and he is reacquainted with his Uncle Uchendu. Uchendu, one of the eldest and wisest members of his clan, enlightens Okonkwo on the important role of women in religion and society. This fact, which Okonkwo overlooks and never takes seriously, is the perfect representation of Okonkwo’s backward mindset and outlook on the roles of men, women and himself within society. His father is perceived as weak and inferior, but he at least he achieves happiness through playing his flute; an emotion that Okonkwo fails to experience through his extreme pursuit of being the Ibo alpha male.
In Nervous Conditions, the main character Tambu begins the story as an uneducated female who devotes her time to serving the men in her family, which is the typical role for a woman in her culture. Her father, Jeremiah, ferments this position within her by initially neglecting her wishes to study, not allowing Tambu to perform tasks with the males in the family, and deceiving Tambu by taking credit for her hard work and making a profit off of the crops she worked so hard to harvest. Due in large part to her father’s neglect and disrespect for Tambu’s dream to be educated, Tambu becomes an impassioned young lady who fights for what she wants, learns English and eventually achieves her dream of being educated at the missionary school.
Babamukuru, meanwhile, is Tambu’s uncle, who is regarded by Jeremiah and the family at large as the saving grace of the family; he is educated and wealthy. He is the means by which Tambu’s brother Nhamo is initially invited to study at the missionary school and eventually (after Nhamo dies) the means by which Tambu is allowed to study. Tambu looks up to her uncle with great respect for the opportunity he essentially gives to her, but is appalled one day when he lashes out at her cousin, Babamukuru’s daughter Nyasha, and physically abuses her. This incident, along with her brother’s apparent feeling of shame after he returned home to the village for the first time after leaving for school, shaped her own quest for education in a very different light than her brother and father viewed it. Therefore, it is both the negative and positive aspects of all of these male figures that molded Tambu into the woman she became.
There are obviously significant roles in shaping both of these protagonists that were played by other characters: friends, mothers, siblings, etc. But the role of the dominant/weak male figure in shaping the character of the protagonist is a major reoccurring theme in the two novels we have read thus far.