Sunday, July 21, 2013

Portrait of a Writer

Comrade Vusi’s blabbering worked on me, making me gulp my whiskey when I should have sipped. I ordered another double and squinted at him. It took an effort just to make sure he was one person and not two interchanging people playing tricks on me. I regretted calling him up when my afternoon was yet another couch-reclined, channel flipping, and wide-yawning drag. But what else could I have done? Mandisa, my girlfriend of two years, was nowhere to be reached, as often was the case on middle-of-the-month Fridays when my wallet was thin. Besides, Vusi always bought me whiskey.

All I had to do was listen as he talked. And boy, Vusi could talk. It was worse now that his Regional Executive Committee, of which he was the Secretary, had just been disbanded by the so-called National Task Team to rebuild the ANC Youth League.

Uyabona comrade? How can they just disband us like that? Who do they think they are? Hai man, bam’borile, stru!” I could feel the hurt gleaming off his eyes. I had helped him in his campaigns, done the groundwork, gave comrades free whiskey, entertained them to numerous dawns, and even took some lengthy breaks from my stuttering writing. Yet Vusi now found himself without the fruits of all that labour, a rug pulled from his feet, his backside still unsure how to deal with the thunderous thud from the trappings of airy influence. I thought perhaps I should write about it on my blog – Vusi didn’t read it anyway – on the whole satire of Youth League politics, the rises and the falls and the lonesome lives after the falls. Those could shore up my blog stats.

Mchana, we will work around this, don’t worry,” I lamely offered. Vusi was of course not assuaged, and stared at me blankly as if I had made the understatement of the year on the gravity of his situation. He had the hopeless look of Brutus floored by Popeye’s vicious, spinach-powered punch. I struggled to find something cheerful to say, and was grateful when Lerato, his girlfriend, showed up from yet another visit to the Ladies. She looked at me in barely disguised interest, her eyes shining suggestively through those bluish and purplish and pinkish and yellowish lights at the Cubana in Menlyn. I looked away, feigning disinterest. I didn’t want trouble with Vusi, my old friend, who now sought solace from his girl. Professor’s Jezebel was now playing, perhaps appropriately.

The club was thick with smoke. I sat leaning on the bar counter as the two drifted to the dance floor, and wondered where Mandisa was. She had left in a huff that morning when she couldn’t get me to service her car, an ageing Mini Cooper, way past its due mileage. Well, I told her the truth – I didn’t have money. It had become, to my alarm, a frequent and automatic refrain to her endless demands. Couldn’t be helped if she left me because of that. That would show her true colours, wouldn’t it? Not that I didn’t already know. She might use the excuse of that record of calls with Itumeleng, if only to save face. I gulped down the remainder of the double and ordered another.

Yes, it was on Tuesday when Itumeleng called me, her voice brisk as ever. I answered in a lazy voice that betrayed the state I was in.

“Oh my God, Juju, you’re drunk! Fancy that!” she had exclaimed in incredulous righteousness, disappointed yet vindicated in her unique and groundbreaking discovery. I was at once piqued that she used Juju for Julius.

“What do you want?” my voice, an octane higher, demanded. A pause ensued, as though she was deciding whether to tell me or not, whether it was worth it. I had apparently only confirmed her worst fears. Worse still, it was only eleven in the morning.

“Juju, I want you to meet your son.”


“Oh, you don’t want to see him?” The incredulity in her voice was enough to incite a crowd. She was the Itu of old, declaring an astounding piece of news in a nonchalant manner then proceeding to form assumptions while I was still digesting it in my drunken stupor. The previous night I had stayed up to write. Four hours of writing, after which I read what I had written, and promptly reached for whiskey in depression.

A son! Who would have believed it? My own mother, I recalled, had wondered aloud in her trademark bluntness if I was shooting blanks or what. And with Itu? How could she keep this from me, for all of three years? I had a good thing going with her then. She had kept up a fairy tale story among her friends about my lawyer job at a nice firm that dished out a nice salary and other benefits – until I spoiled a good story, as I often do on my laptop, by quitting to – of all things – write. She just couldn’t figure that out, how to tell her friends, my man is a writer. What does that mean anyway? It didn’t make sense to her. The mild success of my first novel didn’t impress her much, that is, didn’t bring enough cash for her liking. And so she abruptly ended things and retreated back to Soweto. Her friends must have lauded her for taking the right decision as my love for the tipple became well known.

By now I found the high stool at the bar counter tiresome, and I motioned myself towards a set of couches filled with vivacious and loud young girls, black and white, living it up in Mandela country. One made space for me, swaying this way and that in giggling drunkenness. Funny how alcohol can result in unlikely friendships borne out of nothing but shared intoxication. I mumbled thanks and said my name is Julius. Yeah right, she said, picking up a joke that wasn’t. Her bespectacled face gave her a nerdy look, and I couldn’t help but think how out of place she was. She was still smiling at the joke that wasn’t, and, hardly in the mood for pleasantries proceeding from that annoying premise of my name’s association with an insidious Julius Malema, I turned away.

Yesterday I met my son. A nice winter morning, not too cold, with the memorability of a clear, blue sky. I had stayed away from the alcohol. Itu had insisted on meeting at a central place. “I can’t drive all the way to Pretoria!” she had declared. So ten o’clock found me seated at the Mugg & Bean in Rosebank mall, eagerly checking on every entrant.

He had stared at me from across the table, wide-eyed, unblinking, and I imagined a hint of accusation in his eyes. I stared back, wide-eyed. Eyeball to eyeball. This is indeed flesh of my flesh, I thought. He had the same thick lips as mine, and a nose that promised to be bigger in proportion to other features of his face. His dreamy eyes were those that would interest the disinterested, and beguile girls as mine did, or craft stories by intricate interplay and flourish of words as I struggle to do. He didn’t back down from the little staring contest. Finally, he smiled. A connection had been established. No need for words, this is my son, I said to myself.

My phone had rung repeatedly – the frustrated agent in pursuit of yet another revised manuscript. But not even him could dampen my joy. Even Itu mellowed a bit. I would see him whenever I wanted, she declared. Coming from her, that was huge, as for three years she had considered me a lunatic goner.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, you can’t sleep here, sir,” a firm voice was saying. I opened my eyes and a frame of a burly, tall man took what seemed to be ages to form in front of me. I raised my glass at him, smiling a conspiratorial smile that met a stern, disinterested face. As he walked off I heard the bespectacled, nerdy girl asking me to dance. “Sure!” was my eager response.

She moved jerkily like a true nerd. This one can read my drafts, I thought. An uncle of mine once whispered that nerdy girls make the best wives. And who said you can’t pick a girl like her from a club? Plus, she had that famished look of girls yearning for attention. She yearned to be pursued like the more worldly girls. I figured the club scene was not really her thing but what’s a girl to do?

“So what do you do?” she asked through the club noise.

“I’m a writer.”

I expected an attempt at hiding a disappointment and a feigning of interest, even from a nerd. Mandisa had certainly done that. It’s hard getting a decent girl these days, and I had resigned myself to this reality. Instead, she asked what I wrote with genuine interest. Literary fiction, I said, and my first book was My Dad is Back. I added that I was working on my second book, and that it was taking much longer than expected, much to the chagrin of my agent. I kept it to myself that “much longer” was two years when the target had been a year.

Suddenly she stopped dancing, moved a yard away from me and sized me up again, a sense of discovery drawing her petite hands to her mouth in pleasant surprise.

“Oh my God it’s you! Julius Mcebisi! I totally loved your novel!!”

How about that. The attention I drew from that book had dissipated within a year, and here was someone, a stranger in a fancy club, heavily inebriated, who could still remember it. She went ahead and said she didn’t like the ending – she would have loved father and son to live happily ever after. She liked Fikile’s character, bold, successful, but haunted by a missing father, and hated the fact that he had a string of bad marriages. And the corporate world surely isn’t that bad? ANC patronage surely isn’t on the scale I portrayed? On the whole, she averred, it was a fitting commentary on the malaise of South African society, though a tad exaggerated.

Fancy a nerd to dissect a book for you while drunkenly dancing away in the middle of the night at a Cubana near you. Couldn’t happen in a million years. While I was touched, I thought that’s why guys didn’t pursue her.

Comrade Vusi showed up with his Lerato. “I see you’re doing good for yourself neh?” he said to me, glancing at the nerd. One could tell if a girl was hot or not by the look on Vusi’s eyes, and they showed the nerd was hot. He saw through the spectacles – they didn’t fool him. Lerato coughed a bit loudly. It didn’t stop Vusi from stretching out his hand, gallant in his own introduction.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Nomsa.” Aha, so that’s her name, I said to myself, a little sheepish. She moved closer and wrapped an arm around me, halting whatever ambitions Vusi had. On cue, I wrapped mine around her too and grinned at him a victorious grin. Lerato’s face on the other hand was a confused double tragedy. A random nerd out of place in a club bagging me and drawing interest from her man too! I made a mental note of this curious scene – it could appear in one of my writings. I had a note and pen in my pocket but I couldn’t take them out in the goddamn club.

The mercurial Vusi snapped out of his little ambition with a visible grimace on his face and said, “Ah, mchana, I’m thinking of joining the Economic Freedom Fighters. We need economic freedom in our lifetime, comrade. This ANC is not assisting. We need to take over what is rightfully ours…”

Poor comrade Vusi, now that his municipal deals are threatened he wants to take on the mighty ANC. I nodded as he babbled on. My mind was on Nomsa; I discovered a strange peace around her. She had a certain aura about her, a subtle challenge that intrigued me. I wanted to know her, to take off her spectacles and look through her eyes. Something told me that they would be worth many, many words on that mocking mirror of the blank word document, an unlikely writer’s nudge.

It is four in the morning now. I have just read what I have written tonight. I don’t feel like a whiskey. I think I’ll soon be calling up the agent who brings out murkiness in me.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah blows a gust of wind into the sail of Nigerians’ (and Africans’?) ship of fascination with America. Of the five shortlisted stories (four by Nigerians) for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, three had something to do with America. Of these, Pede Hollist and his Foreign Aid spoilt the fun by being Sierra Leonian. Chinelo Okparanta’s America told of a woman agonizing over joining her lover in America, while the winning story, Tope Folarin’s Miracle, was set in a Nigerian church in Texas.

At its most basic, Americanah is a simple love story of Ifemelu and her lover Obinze, separated for years by the lure of America and London. Spurred by frequent and prolonged teachers’strikes, Ifemelu goes to America to join her Aunt and get “better education”. Obinze hangs on and later tries to get a visa to join her, but fails. Ifemelu cuts contact with him after “betraying” him in her struggle for survival in America. He is able to go to London later, but is deported when his visa expires. They both move on with their lives, with Obinze even marrying and having a daughter, until Ifemelu decides to come back to Nigeria. She becomes an “Americanah” – a returnee from America.
At a more fundamental level, Americanah is a novel about race in America from the point of view of Ifemelu, a “non-American Black”. It also portrays the struggle for survival faced by most Africans in the West after their “escape” from Africa. Most annoyingly from a male perspective, it is also a novel about – quite simply put– hair!

This is an exquisitely written book. Adichie masterfully creates characters that are as compelling as they are flawed – normal human beings who succumb, perhaps too easily, to circumstances, temptations, and expectations. From a purely whimsical point of view, she has written a story about the triumph of love. She tackles the main themes – race, struggle, love, escapism, and hair – in a subtly powerful way.
For instance, through Obinze in London, she captures the tempting motivation to “escape” from Africa, even among relatively well-to-do Africans:
"Alexa, and the other guests, perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they could not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned by birth to look somewhere else, eternally convinced that real life happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty."
Race is by far the most dominant theme in the book, and Adichie uses every possible opportunity to detail Ifemelu’s experiences as a Non-American Black. The extensive elaboration – done also through Ifemelu’s successful blog titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black – renders a certain academic character to the book. It becomes a sort of treatise that I suspect may be overbearing for those not directly affected. I certainly skipped some of Ifemelu’s blogs, but some are provocative and powerful such as this:
"Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care… And admit it – you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad”? I didn’t think so. So you’re black baby…"
Or this:
"So lots of folks – mostly non-black –say Obama’s not black, he’s biracial, multiracial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white. But race is not biology; race is sociology…It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair… If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be?“Black Man.”"
And some humorous such as this one, which my friends in South Africa can relate to:
"If a black cashier gives poor service to the non-black person in front of you, compliment that person’s shoes or something, to make up for the bad service, because you’re just as guilty for the cashier’s crimes… If you go to eat in a restaurant, please tip generously. Otherwise the next black person who comes in will get awful service, because waiters groan when they get a black table. You see, black people have a gene that makes them not tip, please overpower that gene."
I think ladies will find Americanah most enjoyable, beginning from the question of hair. I am obviously biased, as I found myself resisting the temptation to reach for the TV remote or to skim through the pages whenever Adichie discussed female hair. Men (unless you are a hair stylist), be warned: you will feel left out of the conversation.

On a more serious note, Ifemelu is a relatively new kind of female character in African literature – strong, assertive, independent, and successful. Apart from being dumped by Curt, her white boyfriend in America, because she cheated on him, she has come off as being firmly in control in all her relationships. I identified very much with Obinze in the initial stages –self-assured, easy going, bored with his life – until he let the male species down in the ending. Feminists will smile all the way: Ifemelu cutting all contact with Obinze for years, then out of the blue contacting him, coming back to Nigeria, and seducing and manipulating him to the point of desperation. If looked at this way, one might miss the fact that the ending is almost cheesy (read it for yourself). I couldn’t help it but Mills & Boon romance (and a little bit of Nollywood) came to mind.
Gone are the days of female characters in African literature being the homely types with cheating husbands; nay, Adichie in fact secondarily papers over Obinze’s wife’s experience when she discovers Obinze is cheating with Ifemelu. I don’t know whether this, coming from a female author, is a triumph or not. For the moralizing kind, this is not your ideal read.

On the whole, a very interesting book. Get yourself a copy. Adichie makes some references to Nina Simone’s music. I made a point of getting a compilation of her hits, and I Put a Spell on You curiously took my understanding of the book to a whole new level.
Related Link:
Goodreads: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Chance Encounter

Chidi kept walking. He had kept at it for close to an hour now. He struggled to ignore the early morning winter chill that gnawed at his skin despite having on his heavy Daniel Hechter jacket. Not that it was snowing – ever since he came to Pretoria he had marveled at how sunny but cold it was in the winter. Nairobi was similar in August, but not quite as cold and definitely not as sunny. It only made him yearn for the hot and humid Mombasa where he grew up. He bit his lip, rueful at this memory. He sorely missed Mombasa, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to go back.

A playful bark made him look up from the dried grass on his path, and his eyes met those of a woman walking her German shepherd. The dog rolled his eyes in wild excitement, the leash on his neck not dampening his freedom as he surged in the morning freshness. The brief annoyance that flashed on Chidi’s dour face at the interruption of his thoughts was quickly replaced by interest aroused by the warm curiosity in the woman’s eyes: she was smiling at him.

“Hi!” she called out gaily.

He almost misstepped on the curb lining the grass that would have been lush in the spring. He thought he heard a car approaching from behind and tried to keep his balance off the street, all the while attempting to smile back and summon a reasonably gay voice.

“Did you keep him in all week?” His eyes were on the big dog, bristling with masculinity, tongue flapping about loosely in tandem with quick, short spurts of breath. The dog’s masculine energy was incongruous with her frail femininity. He felt manly as they approached each other. He straightened himself to emphasize his already tall frame. Her eyes were a striking blue, and he was momentarily lost in them. She was surefooted for her young and innocent face: he figured she could be around twenty-one, twenty-five at most. There was something fresh about her. He wished she had dressed light so he didn’t have to settle for the hint of curves his trained eye detected.

“Oh, don’t worry about him, he’s just being him.” He recovered himself enough to hear the last tapering of her elegant, high-pitched voice. Urbane. Faintly tinged by an Afrikaans accent. She saw he was distracted, and chuckled as he fought the busted look on his face.

“Hi, my name is Chidi.” He stretched out his hand, and couldn’t help it that his handshake was firm. He found hers soft and even more inviting.

“Chidi? What a name. Where are you from?” Her curiosity was refreshing in its candidness. He found himself opening up more than he normally did. He told her about Mombasa, about Nairobi and how he wound up in Pretoria in a well-to-do neighbourhood like Waterkloof, snug with his own house. He understated his success despite her friendly prodding.

The German shepherd whimpered, impatient and unhappy at the unwelcome intrusion into his world with Michelle, as Chidi gathered her name was. She told him in exaggerated nonchalance that she was a student at the University of Pretoria, studying Law and Politics. Their conversation charmed him; her ambivalence towards him all in the space of a few minutes, and her unsuppressed, infectious cheer. Intrigue seeped off her pores, and he felt himself drawn without resistance. Genuine laughter escaped freely from his temples: he couldn’t remember the last time it felt so good to laugh. The morning sun accentuated his ruggedly handsome features, further ensnaring Michelle who was already hooked on the promise of his athleticism. He was a picture of the exotic.

As she walked off he felt so good he didn’t remember what it was they had talked about in all of half an hour. A knowing promise to keep in touch was made. Numbers were changed. He felt warmer now; there was a spring in his step. He resisted looking back as he used to do back in Mombasa to catch a glimpse of an unmissable behind or to confirm if the feeling was mutual.

The curbs, grass, and driveways alternated successively as he continued his walk in the affluence of the neighbourhood. He met a group of dreary-looking ladies walking to the local Woolworths shop, ready for a day’s work. A couple among them glanced at him, hopeful that he might be their ticket out of the struggle. They knew about his car, that he wasn’t from around, and that he seemed harmless enough to smile at in subtle offering. Even better, he bought bachelor food. He smiled back, polite and non-dismissive. After all, he saw them every other day at the shop.

Michelle lingered on his mind. Perhaps next time he would tell her about his struggle. As they got to know each other better maybe he would tell her about Rahma and how he loved her; would always love her. God willing he would muster the courage to tell her how her family blamed him; how Mombasa reminded him of her; and how the eyes of his own family had followed him with an accusing burn. Man has the choice to redeem himself, and he had made the choice, but it didn’t matter. She was gone. She had been his Bonnie, him her Clyde, but the story didn't fit because she was gone.

Maybe Michelle would understand. Maybe she would not be encumbered by the unseen but ubiquitous Rahma in his life, as Lerato had been, or Nolitha before her. He hoped she hadn’t seen the haunt in his eyes in that brief half-hour. It had been almost perfect: Rahma had not been on his mind. He tripped and almost fell on his guilt.

He walked on and away, as if from a past. The chill, conspiring with the wind to torment him, descended upon him again, making his eyes wet and his nose run.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Wishes Aren't Horses

Wishes aren’t horses
So she sure won’t ride
She will trudge over her losses
And swallow her bruised pride
She was told, but wouldn’t listen
She thought she knew
But now she knows she doesn’t:
What she feared has come true

Every single one of them
She remembers with pained rue
Said it in their own way, bold or tame
Yet the din passed through
And now look
She’s drowned in the silence
A silence she worked hard to brook
To block the din that betrayed the pretense

But why did she do it
When every fibre in her told her not?
Why did she pay homage to it,
When it was what she never thought?
Try as she may, she will not fathom
Perhaps it was a moment of weakness
A weakness more enduring than random
And scattered with an abandon so careless

And now the future beckons
She looks at it with eyes anguished
Is it bleak as she reckons
Or will she seize the cudgel and vanquish?
She knows not, but whatever life’s courses
She will the turbulent times bide
For wishes aren’t horses
So for sure she won’t ride.

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