Author Archives: Rachael Somerville
“Zoo City” is a short story by Lauren Beukes, a South African writer who’s written short stories, novels, news articles and television scripts. It is an excerpt from her novel of the same name, and set in Johannesburg, the author’s birthplace. I chose it because the excerpt itself may be published exclusively online, as a digital teaser to the print novel, which I think is a cool strategy by the author.
The story itself was really enthralling fantasy. The premise is criminals are called “zoos” or “animalled” and are assigned an animal familiar that they must carry around, marking them as criminals. In Johannesburg, there is a concentration of criminals in ghettos, but Beukes makes it clear that zoos exist around the world. She Hillbrow as one of the places her protagonist, Zinzi, frequents in her line of work. Zinzi has a sloth familiar and with it, magical abilities to find lost things. This novel excerpt follows Zinzi on a day that begins typical and becomes extraordinary when one of her clients is murdered. It ends on a cliffhanger to encourage readers to by the full-length work.
I enjoyed this story and would recommend it to people who like fantasy stories. The premise is very interesting, and some of the words Beukes’s used reminded me of Achebe’s idea that African writers use English in a unique way. Words like “scrolf,” “skritching” and “slops” were words I’d never heard before and gave the piece a non-American feel. It also had a little dialog in Lingala that was explained using context clues.
This was an awesome read from Ms. Beukes that I encourage everyone to check out.
I am currently reading my third Adichie novel, Americanah, because I really enjoy her work. But I would argue that she sometimes holds her protagonists to unrealistically-heroic standards. For instance, in The Thing Around Your Neck, three stories feature strong female protagonists who take moral stands when they stand to lose a lot by doing so. Even more specifically, all three walk away from a key opportunity in order to hold onto their principles.
In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” Ujunwa leaves in a huff after her story is refuted at an African writer’s conference as not “a story about real people” (114). In “American Embassy,” we see a grieving mother turn away her opportunity for an American visa after realizing “that she would die gladly . . . before she hawked Ugonna for a visa to safety” (139). Lastly, in “Arrangers of Marriage,” Chinaza plans to leave her husband, though she differs slightly from the other two characters by staying with him until her paperwork comes through, showing some sense of self-preservation.
I think that literature is a key place for heroism and questions of ethics, and I still admire Adichie’s work in The Thing Around Your Neck. However, this repeating motif began to feel a bit formulaic by the end of the collection. One way that I see Adichie’s work deviating from Achebe, who is one of her greatest influencers, is that Achebe always focuses on realism over heroism. Okonkwo is not a particularly heroic protagonist by any stretch of the imagination. Adichie, on the other hand, doesn’t solely focus on larger-than-life protagonists, but she does rely on them frequently. I would like to argue in my second paper that the reason for this is that Achebe was attempting to paint a realistic pre- and early colonial picture of Nigerian life, whereas Adichie has another goal entirely. I think Adichie’s work is in part a call to action for modern, everyday Nigerian citizens to topple the corruption and greed that perpetuates the country’s inequity. I see this in The Thing Around Your Neck, as well as her novels like Purple Hibiscus and Americanah.
Aminatta Forna’s novel Memory of Love explicitly considers the implications of silence through the actions of many characters. On Tuesday, we also were given a quote of hers from 2006, four years before she wrote Memory of Love. In response to a diplomat who said he kept quiet rather than spoke up and criticized the government, she “said I was sorry that an entire generation did the same thing. I don’t think people have recognised (sic) this yet, but that form of silence is as complicit as any action.
Elias Cole, one of our protagonists and certainly the most deplorable character I’ve encountered in a long time, uses silence for personal gain. He never speaks out against the government, or the university administration, and ends up turning in his friends. But the ultimate moment where his silence can be thought of as complicit is when he hears Julius having an asthma attack in his cell and does not call any attention to him. I see this as one of Forna’s more direct appeals to the reader about the dangers of silence and the fact that remaining silent does not make someone an innocent bystander.
Memory of Love moreso than the other novels we’ve read has concerned itself with the political details of the country it’s set in. It has been an incredibly illuminating experience at times, and at other times baffling, because, as Forna points out, the civil war which began as a ‘haves’ versus ‘have-nots’ dissolved into “a mindless rage of those who had nothing against others in exactly the same situation.” This can be hard to swallow, but Memory of Love shows us the importance of telling uncomfortable stories. Professor Green-Simms pointed out that one of the themes throughout the novel is the importance of not being able to forget the events that transpired during the war. Characters like Kai are plagued by wartime events, and literally carry painful memories with them as a burden. But in the larger picture, the I see the importance of sharing stories like the characters in Memory of Love is to hopefully understand where Sierra Leone lost its way, as Forna puts it, and hopefully prevent future conflicts.
Over the weekend, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and I really enjoyed it. We’ll be reading Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck at the end of the semester, and if you’re looking for extra stuff by her, Purple Hibiscus was awesome. Definitely reminiscent of Nervous Conditions, at least for me personally.
Best wishes and hope midterm studying is going well.
On page 138 of All Our Names, Mengestu confirms that the Isaac we’ve been following in the Midwest is Langston at the beginning of the novel. When I read this passage, I had to put the book down because I was simultaneously shocked and impressed with Mengestu’s bold literary choice. I would like to look back on some of the foreshadowing throughout the novel.
On page 5, the narrator says Isaac’s “name became his last and most precious gift to me.” I also found it interesting that Langston says he wants to be a writer on page 10, and then Helen immediately remarks about Isaac’s literary passion, when the original Isaac did not seem particularly inclined toward literature, instead dubbing Langston “the Professor.” And Midwestern Isaac’s restlessness and lack of a sense of home on page 100 is paralleled by Langston’s mental separation from his family in the chapter immediately following, after he’s beaten up and loses his Kampala home (102-3). Lastly is Helen’s comment on page 98 that the only solid fact in Isaac’s file was his name, “but even that was no longer substantial: any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.”
These clues on top of the fact that the chapters switch between Isaac and Helen, not Langston and Helen, something I brought up in class the other day before reading ahead and realizing why Mengestu made that stylistic choice. I found this frustrating throughout the novel until he justified it with the surprise twist in plot. He did a good job leaving room for this switch to be plausible, given the mystery Ugandan Isaac remains shrouded in on both sides of the pond, and a number of places where he throws us off, such as setting up false parallels. For instance, the similarity in the two restaurant scenes implies that our male protagonist is the same relatively-confrontational person in both situations.
Mengestu’s novel is beautifully crafted and incredibly well-executed; it would have been successful without this surprise, but its successful execution enhances the story.
One idea that reoccurs throughout the text is the importance Tambu places in self-determination, which is something we discussed in class on Tuesday. However, I wanted to delve into the ways that her attitude implies that she considers herself superior to those around her. For instance, her mother explains that “womanhood is a heavy burden,” (16) and it is clear to Tambu that she doesn’t have the same privileges as her brother. However, when she is finally sent to school, she considers herself a lesson to her sisters that “no burden [is] so binding that it could not be dropped” (58).
Another example of this attitude comes when Tambu moves in with Maiguru and Babamukuru. When she arrives, she carefully observes their house, because, as she says “I would own a home like this one day; I would need to know how to furnish it” (68). She also scorns her brother’s transformation amongst the wealth that her aunt and uncle possess; “I triumphed. I was not seduced” (70). Directly comparing herself and her brother, she finds herself stronger than him—but she’s hardly making a fair comparison. She is not seduced after fifteen minutes in this new setting, whereas she didn’t see her brother until months had passed in his new home and at his new school. Lastly, her feelings toward Nyasha throughout the first half of the story are consistently superior—she judges her cousins for the “inferior” manner and style of England, perhaps because she is insecure around her.
That said, Tambu always works hard to back up her self-confidence. She observes that her dad has avoided taking responsibility for himself and his actions, using Babamukuru as a crutch. This is illustrated on page 5, where she inquires about the specific reason behind the gap between her father and Babamukuru. I also think her self-confidence and feelings of superiority come from the fact that she is a young, bright child whose hard work has thus far paid off.