We’re now three months into 2021. This year really is in a rush, just like countries around the world which are all rushing to vaccinate their citizens against COVID19. The Philippines is lagging behind in its campaign although I am happy that many health care workers, including my mother, are about to fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, there is a resurgence in the number of cases as we experience new highs daily, prompting the government to resort to reimposing the strictest level of lockdown in the capital and its environs. Looks like we’re back to square one.
Reading-wise, March has been productive. From indulging in Booker Prize winners and nominees in February, I decided to immerse in African literature again; I had one in 2020 and it left a great impression on me that I decided to do one again this year. Despite my fully occupied schedule, I managed to carry on the momentum I have gained in the first two months of the years; I again completed eight books, three of which were written by Nobel Laureates in Literature. Moreover, I had my first memoir in over a year. Whilst 2020 introduced me to the vast halls of African literature, my March 2021 African literature month gave me a deeper insight into the continent’s tumultuous and intense political atmosphere. It was more colorful than I expected, or maybe I can owe it to the fact that I barely read any African books previously. Without further ado, here is my March 2021 reading list.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
My March African literature month commenced with Zimbabwean writer’s We Need New Names. It was one of the books I randomly purchased during the first Big Bad Wolf Manila sale; it was unfortunate that it had to gather dust before I got the chance to read it. Shortlisted for the 2013 Book Prize for Fiction, in a way it was the perfect transition from the February Booker Prize Month to the March African Literature Month. We Need New Names is the coming-of-age story of Darling. Darling and her band of friends live in tin shacks in a community referred to as Budapest. There former homes were bulldozed by Robert Mugabe and his paramilitary police. Eventually, Darling moved to the United States, in suburban Michigan, to join her aunt. Prior to traveling, she was filled with wonderful images of America. To her dismay, the real America is a far cry from the pictures she painted in her mind. She had to grappled with seminal the stereotypes many hold towards Africans in general. It was a good and insightful read but I found it lacking in flavor. It underscored timely and seminal subjects but the exploration lacked dynamic and the impact was ephemeral.
Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
From Zimbabwe, my literary journey next transported me to the fictional Western African nation of Kangan. Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah was his fifth novel and was the second book from his repertoire that I read. Anthills of the Savannah was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1987. Kangan, however, is an allegory for Achebe’s nation of birth, Nigeria. Anthills of the Savannah is the story of three friends belonging to the upper echelons of the Kangan political hierarchy – Chris Oroko, the Commissioner for Information; Beatrice Okoh, an official of the Ministry of Finance; and Ikem Osodi, editor of the national paper. Above them is Sam, a Sandhurst-trained officer who rose from the ranks, and through a coup d’état, was installed as Kangan’s leader for life. Compared to Things Fall Apart, Anthills of the Savannah was brimming with political themes. The former was also a reflection of the pre-colonial Nigeria whilst the latter is a commentary of the more contemporary history of Nigeria. It was also a fine read, just middling. However, it did make open my eyes to the tumultuous political atmosphere existing across Africa – with Mugabe in Zimbabwe, to the genocide in Rwanda, to the apartheid in South Africa, and, captured in Anthills of the Savannah, the military juntas that shaped the modern history of Nigeria.
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer
Speaking of the apartheid, it was unfortunate that I haven’t read that much literary work exploring this dark phase in South African history. Nobel Laureate in Literature (the first of three in this list) Nadine Gordimer explored the apartheid in her work Burger’s Daughter. A work of political and historical fiction, it related the story of Rosa Burger, the titular daughter of Lionel Burger. Lionel Burger was a white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist. He was captured by the authorities because of his activities and three years into incarceration, he passed away. Although Rosa grew up in a household that was strongly against the apartheid movement, her surservience made everyone question her role in the anti-apartheid movement. Rosa, I surmised, was a representation of the attitude of the white Afrikaners vis-à-vis the apartheid. Whilst her father was vocally against it, Rosa was uncertain of her own stance. Unfortunately, I found it a challenge understanding Rosa’s character. The mix of third person and stream of consciousness narrative structure did little to help my understanding of the story.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
March was filled with Nigerian writers, who, over the years, have started making their own waves in the world of literature. I am no stranger to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, having previously read her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. It left a deep impression on me that I resolved to read Adichie’s other works. Two years after reading my first Adichie, I am immersing in my second, Americanah. Americanah is the story of star-crossed lovers Ifemelu and Obinze whose paths crossed when Obinze and his mother transferred to Lagos. Together, the young lovers forged their dreams and in light of the tumultuous political climate hovering above Nigeria, Ifemelu decided to join her Aunt Uju in the United States. Like We Need New Names’ Darling, Ifemelu experienced a culture shock. There was a startling difference between the image of USA she had in her mind and the reality that was before her. Americanah, like any African diaspora novel, explored seminal themes of identity, race, and discrimination, albeit in a more subtle way. By accentuating it with blogging entries, Adichie made her novel keep in touch with the current trends. Just like Half of a Yellow Sun, I liked Americanah not just because of the writer but because it demonstrated the versatility and ambitiousness of Adichie’s prose. I just wished Adichie also elaborated on Obinze’s experiences in London but otherwise, it was a rich and memorable narrative.
The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta
I didn’t have to travel that far to get to my next literary destination. Buchi Emecheta (along with Achebe) was named by Adichie as one of her literary influences and I found it surprising that I have never heard of her or any of her works until I encountered The Joys of Mother hood through on online bookseller. It was pre-World War II Nigeria. Tribes were headed by strong and charismatic tribal chiefs. In a small Nigerian countryside village, Nwokocha Agbadi impregnated Ona, the daughter of a fellow chief. The result of their union was Nnu Ego who was raised in the traditional way. When she reached the right age, she was married off to her first love. Unfortunately, the intervention of her chi left her childless. After an act of sudden violence, Nnu Ego was returned to her father before being married off again, now to a lowly laborer living in Lagos, Nnaife. Contrary to the title, Nnu Ego experienced very little joy as she had to balance rearing her children, to keeping up with the expectations of the men that loomed large in her life, to coping with her new environment. The Joys of Motherhood is a homage to motherhood and its pains. This book is not going to leave me for sometime.
The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz
Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz is the second of three Nobel Laureates in Literature in this list. It has been nearly five years since I first read his works, Miramar, although I have a copy of two of the books in his Cairo Trilogy. The Thief and the Dogs, a recent purchase, charts the story of Said Mahran. He was a thief who used to work for Ra’uf ‘Ilwan, a vocal political activist. However, an act of betrayal left him incarcerated. The readers meet him as he finally gets out of jail and tries to reconnect with the people he left behind when he was imprisoned. What he didn’t realized was that the landscape has been inevitably altered. Ra’uf ‘Ilwan is now a celebrated journalist. His daughter refuses to recognize him. Nabawiyya, his former wife and the love of his life, is now married to his friend, ‘Ilish. At its heart, The Thief and the Dogs is an existential novel that also explored dark themes such as betrayal, incarceration, and darkness. In contrast to these themes, loyalty is found in the least expected places. I just wished the story was longer.
Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka
When I purchased Aké: The Years of Childhood last year, I didn’t have an inkling that it was actually a memoir. The only thing I knew of was that Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was a Nobel Prize in Literature winner; he was actually the first African Nobel laureate. Back when I bought the book, I was just interested in what Soyinka’s prose has to offer. Although it was a memoir, I still heartily immersed in the narrative. It was, after all, my first memoir in over a year and I did promise to read at least one nonfiction work every year (broken last year). In Aké: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka recounts his childhood memories while living in the Nigerian countryside village of Aké. Even at a young age, Soyinka was demonstrating brilliance that was beyond his age. At the age of three, he managed to convince a teacher to take him in as a student even though he was too young. Soyinka also introduces his family, a cast of interesting and complex characters. Soyinka’s writing was lyrical and descriptive but despite this, I find it challenging to rate memoirs.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
During his post-World War II travels across the world, South African author Alan Paton begun working on what would be his debut novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. It was eventually published in 1948 to global acclaim. Literary pundits commended him for his lyrical prose. The response in his native country, however, was less than stellar. Cry, the Beloved Country is the story of Stephen Kumalo, a Reverend looking after a small parish in the countryside village of Ndotsheni. One day, he received a letter from a fellow Reverend, Msimangu, summoning him to Johannesburg as his sister, Gertrude has fallen ill. Kumalo undertook the long trip to the budding metropolis not just to find his sister but also his missing son, Absalom, who left home for Johannesburg but has never been heard from since then. Although Cry, the Beloved Country was written and published pre-apartheid, it explored various conditions that eventually led to it. It vividly portrayed the division and inequities that existed in South Africa. It was, to say the least, a memorable and lyrical read.
Reading Challenge Recaps
- My 2021 Top 21 Reading List: 5/21
- 2021 Beat The Backlist: 2/12
- My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List: 0/11
- Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 24/60
- 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 7/20
Book Reviews Published in February
- Book Review # 241: Wide Sargasso Sea
- Book Review # 242: Life of Pi
- Book Review # 243: The Road
- Book Review # 244: The Joys of Motherhood
- Book Review # 245: Americanah
- Book Review # 246: Hamnet
Compared to my February 2020 African literature month, my March 2021 African literature month pales in comparison. The books I read in February 2020 painted a picture of African culture and society while the March 2021 books drew up the political atmosphere. Maybe it was the seriousness of the subjects that made me feel a bit disappointed in my recent venture. Nevertheless, it still left a deep impression on me because unstable regimes, dictators, and segregation are still relevant themes in the contemporary.
Another downer in March was that I was not able to write as many book reviews as I initially planned. One half of the reviews I wrote were from 2020 and the other half from my recent reads. Nevertheless, with 24 books completed (25 so far), this is my strongest start since I started reading. Yes, I still have nearly 20 pending book reviews from 2020 but I am making decent progress. I am hoping that I can carry over my momentum in April and write more book reviews.
Just like March, I have planned April to be a themed month. I have now begun a pivot towards Asian literature, starting with Korean American writer Chang-rae Lee’s most recent work, My Year Abroad, which I just completed today. I am about to commence reading my first Urdu novel, Mirza Muhammad Hadi Rusva’s Umrao Jan Ada. I have never heard of the writer before but I am looking forward to what he has in store. I also have in line for this month Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. I am also hoping to purchase a copy of Viet Nguyen Thanh’s latest novel, The Committed.
How about you readers? How was your March reading journey? I hope you had a great journey. You can also share your experiences in the comment box.
Happy reading everyone!