Author Archives: matteafalk

Digital Participation: Adichie on Homophobia

In February of this year, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichia wrote a response to the rampant homophobia in her native Nigeria. I found the piece comforting in its unabashed, systematic dismantling of homophobic arguments. I noted many parallels between our discussion of Ireland’s article and Dibia’s novella, and her response. Of particular interest to me was her complication of homosexuality as western import. She writes: “There has also been some nationalist posturing among supporters of the law. Homosexuality is ‘unafrican,’ they say, and we will not become like the west. The west is not exactly a homosexual haven; acts of discrimination against homosexuals are not uncommon in the US and Europe. But it is the idea of ‘unafricanness’ that is truly insidious. Sochukwuma was born of Igbo parents and had Igbo grandparents and Igbo great-grandparents. He was born a person who would romantically love other men. Many Nigerians know somebody like him. […] people like us, born and raised on African soil. How then are they ‘unafrican?’”

Her relation to the issue is particularly touching when illustrated through her witness of a gay schoolmate’s experience of persecution. Though the piece does not sing with the same aesthetic beauty as her short stories (though why would it, as a completely differently oriented text and medium?), I enjoyed the connection it might bring to bear on “the Shivering.”

http://www.thescoopng.com/chimamanda-adichie-why-cant-he-just-be-like-everyone-else/

Digital Participation: Hallelujah Chicken Run Band

Hallelujah Chicken Run Band is a Zimbabwean group that plays “chimurenga” music, the name meaning “struggle” in Shona, and signifying the bands political resistance against the Ian Smith headed white minority government of then Rhodesia. Headed by Thomas Mapfumo, the band marries traditional Shona sounds and Western rock music, as well as rumba and jazz; the very act of performing Shona lyrics and using Shona instruments, like the mbira, was itself a kind of implicit resistance in a society that devalued and silenced the native population.

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Hallelujah Chicken Run Band continues to produce music. Mapfumo, sometimes called the “The Lion of Zimbabwe,” now lives in exile in the US due to his outspoken criticism of the Mugabe regime.

If you like their sound, check out these articles on their history & style:

http://mg.co.za/article/2011-09-30-hauntingly-quintessentially-chimurenga

http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/9xgb

Short Story: The Stool by T.J. Benson

“The Stool” by T.J. Benson, featured on online quarterly Sentinel Nigeria’s webpage, is a short piece detailing the return of the protagonist, a 50-something grandmother invoked in the second person, to her family’s compound in Orlu after 40 years of absence. Benson’s writing is wistful and melancholic, and offers a textured if brief portrait. In the piece, the “you” contemplates her role as daughter, mother, and grandmother, in response to her own mother’s death. She also reflects upon the knowledge she passes on to younger generations, and the choices she made in life. Specifically, she reflects upon her choice to move away from the family compound to follow “the Reverend Sisters,” a group of white women, and a choice for which her father and mother thought her mad and threatened to ostracize her, yet she remarks that little has changed on the compound. Ultimately, the piece ends on a note saturated with tradition in the “you”‘s contemplation of the eke day and its cyclic presence in her life.

http://sentinelnigeria.org/online/issue-14/the-stool/

***Interestingly, one line of the story somewhat pigeonholes African women; the protagonist reflects, “Maybe one day, if Jason asks you about motherhood, you will tell him it is not a choice for an African woman, it is a duty.” T.J. Benson, from the image attached, seems to be a male wonder and I wonder about that comment.

I woud also note that Sentinel Nigeria has a blog-like format, similar to StoryTime noted in the Jaji piece, and there were 4 really positive and supportive comments on this story, the first of which also noted and commended the use of the second person! The website also features poetry  – I liked Uchechukwu Agodom’s (http://sentinelnigeria.org/online/issue-14/uchechukwu-agodom/ – he does cool stuff with enjambment) and Tares Banigoe Oburumu’s (http://sentinelnigeria.org/online/issue-14/tares-banigoe-oburumu/ – which somewhat obliquely addresses several African tragedies in 1994, but in a mode I think successfully defamiliarizes the scenes.

http://sentinelnigeria.org/online/issue-14/the-stool/

“Passing,” Lit, and Queer Community

In the final moments of “Walking with shadows,” Adrian contemplates an interaction he has with a woman in the airport lounge who (mis-)recognizes him as a straight man. The moment comments on what it means to pass (to act and present as “straight”), as opposed to being visibly or readably queer (to speak, dress, enact a “queer” identity).  I am uncomfortable with the binary implicit in the distinction, and present throughout the novel, which would have us believe all feminine (or else, flamboyant/glamourous/etc) male people are gay, and that those traits are essentially indicative of such; still, I am willing to bracket that discussion, given the experience at hand. I can recognize that such generalizations, though problematic, do indeed apply to many queer lives, and that an attempt to address that issue, given the current Nigerian socio-political atmosphere, would redirect attention away from a more pragmatic and urgent discussion of basic rights. Adrian’s ability to pass – which relies on those terms which would have us subscribe to the notion that feminine/flamboyant/”glamorous” = gay – allows him to travel safely and enabled his life with Ada and Ego up to his outing; yet, the lounge woman’s (mis-)recognition of his orientation, after his outing and eventual self-acceptance, opens the space to ponder “how she would react if he told her” (219), simultaneously suggesting the potential number of those “many other masculine looking and acting” gay men.

In his talk this evening, Dibia read a piece about a gay character named Sasha (from an abandoned novel, if I remember correctly), who “found it necessary to tone down how he presented himself,” though he loved to wear make-up, jewelry, etc. Of his own experience, Dibia said that the separation of his two careers (literary and – I think? – managerial, at the time) allowed him to “exist as 2 different characters”. Given the intense performativity of this particular kind of passing (in terms of sexuality or even politics), and the way the ability to pass both protects and insulates an individual, paired with the outlawing of queer gatherings and organizations, I wonder how queer communities are formed. Dibia spoke of the internet as a site for connection with other individuals – whether through e-mails in response to his book, through online publishing, or even online dating. But the Sasha piece, the death threats Dibia received (though he emphasized the fact that such reactions were the minority) and a harrowing news story of a boy killed after meeting someone from online related at his talk all seem to say that even the internet is not safe. Can literature, in a shift away from the harmful narratives like the Nollywood paradigms discussed in class, become the site for such connection? Moving forward, what can literature do so that queer individuals don’t feel the need to “pass,” both in written or filmed narratives and in lived experience? – can, if they so want, present as readably queer?

Negotiations of Blame in Mboudjak’s Yaounde

The Yaounde that Mboudjak bears witness to is one characterized by ever-shifting negotiations of blame-placing. The wild accusations of cannibalism throughout and the specific accusation of theft in the marketplace especially show the often incoherent nature of these experiments in blame. The actual, confirmed innocence of the accused in the latter case and presumably (hopefully?) in the various iterations of the former show the directionless and illogical casting about for somebody to blame. Furthermore, they illuminate how the act of blaming, not actual guilt or proof, is really an exercise in claiming power on a small scale, in a fleeting context, rather than actual, lasting pursuit of truth (thus, change).

Of particular interest to me were the two attempted suicides in the novel. Both individuals shift the locus of responsibility for their threatened demise away from themselves, a seeming paradox given the obvious nature of suicide.  The first attempt by the civil servant in the bar is interesting in its specific blame of Mini Minor. Though she denies her guilt and derides the man for the attempt, his choice to name her specifically and, in my opinion, somewhat reasonably (that is, I but the alleged relationship and abandonment) is uncharacteristic of blame elsewhere (where it seeks to blame irrationally, fleetingly). Most interesting to me is the man’s claim that ‘The only one who can take this gun from me is Mini Minor!’ (42); that claim sets up an interesting logic in which the one to blame for his threatened death is also the only one who can save him.
The second attempted suicide assigns blame through the woman’s deployment of vague language ( ‘Today is the day they‘re gonna kill me!’ (142, 143)), but somewhat specific reference to the state, or, in a more abstract (but, I would say still specific) sense, the interminable wait for change which constitutes the crisis. On that point, we are told “[t]hey made her wait. Everyone was always asking her to wait, yes, to wait, and then wait some more” (145). She specifically names the bank, but that reference, of course, carries the trace of complicit institutions, namely the corrupt government and the failures of the community at large to invest in mutual care.

Arguably the suicides fail to come to fruition because of their nature as negotiations of blame, albeit dramatic ones. Through the blame placing performed by each individual, each suicide shows that the suicidal party does not actually want to die – they instead feel as though they are being murdered at the hands of others in every sense except the literal.
No doubt the observers’ reactions in both instances deserve more scrutiny (Why do so many encourage the suicidal individuals to go through with it? Or deride them for their failure? Does this betray their own frustration with the ubiquity of waiting? )

The Soldiers’ Petition

Around halfway through (approximately the 45 minute mark) we, the viewers, are confronted with a rather tense scene in which a group of soldiers breach the PM’s compound to speak with Lumumba and his cabinet directly. This scene is particularly interesting for the play between legitimate (perhaps I’m being overly simple, but for the purpose of discussion, I’ll also say “peaceful”) acts and demands and illegitimate (or violent) acts or threats. Obviously, the group has no scheduled place in Lumumba’s compound, have been resisted by Lumumba’s security forces, and approach the cabinet bearing arms. And yet, they present a petition, an indiction of a highly organized political agenda, and a method that it, though conducted to its recipient in a violent manner, ultimately a peaceful method of dissent. The fact that just before their entrance Mobutu cries, “They’re crazy! What do they want?” (bearing in mind this is before his appointment to commander) indicates that they may have had no other choice. The language used (specifically “crazy”) indicates that the higher-ups viewed the soldiers’ concerns as illegitimate. The respect of the lead soldier’s address saying “Excellency” and using the “vous” form suggest something less crass than the stupid drunken rebellion we see elsewhere. Their cries of “Let us in! We want to see him!” mirrors a parallel sentiment to the same protests launched against the colonial regime; one of self-assertion, the demand to be heard. Ultimately the threat against the lives of the white officers bring the soldiers back to a position of violence. But the complication remains. What do you make of this moment? Is it Lumumba’s response that turns these soldiers into the demonized figures we see later (as in the road stop scene where the white couple is assaulted)? I realize that Lumumba and his cohorts spoke of the Katanga/Belgian/UN/(to a certain degree) US forces fomenting much of the unrest, yet I still found this scene arresting in the way that it humanized and, in a particular way, made more legitimate the unrest of the soldiers. I would also note that here we see soldiers pitted against soldiers (that is, those loyal to Lumumba, protecting his compound, and those presenting the petition) while later all soldiers seem to be coded as “bad,” that is against Lumumba.

Unpacking the Patriarchy

“[T]he ceremony was for men […] there were many women but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders ” (66).

In light of our discussion about the reception of Things Fall Apart, I recall the comment made by Adichie in her TedTalk about one of her readers assuming all Nigerian men were abusers like the father figure in Purple Hibiscus. Similarly, the danger of Things Fall Apart’s (certainly now past, but in some circles, remaining) status as “the” African novel is that, if divorced from its context or read alone, the novel may not necessarily undo “the single story” but replace it. I worry about the reception of Okonkwo’s actions toward women as emblematic or one-dimensional. I suspect that the portrayal of women in Things Fall Apart has already garnered a great deal of feminist/literary criticism, but I’d like to put forth some personal points of interest.

Overall, the treatment of women in the novel – the exclusion from major ceremonies, the rampant physical and emotional abuse, and the scorn with which the men mock the idea of matriarchy (55-56; of note is Achebe’s choice to include a reference to matriarchal African society, a clear indication of the local nature of his novel) – obviously codes them as subservient and second-class, often dehumanized and objectified. The marriage negotiations especially speak to a larger view of the female body as a commodity whose price can literally be haggled over (53-54). In the same scene, the bride-to-be’s body is twice described as “ripe” (52). When we consider that ripeness refers to fruit – kola nut, yam, cocoyam – the description obviously reinforces the equation of the female body with commodity; yet the symbolic elision here becomes even more interesting when we consider the positive linkage of a “good” female body with wealth and sustenance (especially in light of the extensive treatment of fruit/yams elsewhere in the book and their equation with prosperity).

I am fascinated by the line on page 31: “[Okonkwo] trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue. It was like the desire for women.” Here, the female-figure is clearly cast as an object of desire and, disturbingly, one which merits violent overpowering. But I would argue this pathology is specific especially to Okonkwo, or at least, specific to him in its severity. Though other husbands beat their wives, some garner disrespect for the action, and, as in the trial scene in chapter 10, ridicule. Elsewhere, the love between Ndulue and Ozoemena (49-50), and even some of the more tender moments between Okonkwo and Ekwefi, suggests the possibility of a relationship that moves beyond master-subject/human-object.

Ultimately, I caution the reader to examine the patriarchy depicted in the novel as locally specific and more complex than one might think. I think the novel itself does signal the local-ness and complexity of its depiction, but I believe those aspects merit unpacking. I also think the depiction of the women as “outsiders” (66) in their own community may point to Achebe’s own gendered perspective and the pressing need for female voices from the same community.

**A brief apology: I have not yet gotten to part 2 and my high-school recollections are foggy. Forgive me! Also, I’m using an online version so my pagination may be different.**

***I also want to say that the depiction of female dehumanization does not mean an endorsement of it and I think the narratorial voice does a good job of avoiding/rejecting that reading***