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Next in the Meet Series


I haven't done this in a while, but I am back with another interview as part of my 'Meet' series - my chance to interview anyone involved in African literature that I would love to meet in person. And I am so very excited to announce that up next is Abdulai Sila - author of The Ultimate Tragedy - 'the 'first ever book to be translated into English from Guinea Bissau'. 



The Ultimate Tragedy  was one of the winners of a 2015 PEN Translates Award and has been translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar - a translator of Portuguese and Spanish books into English. It was published by Dedalus Books in April 2017, and is a tale of love and emerging political awareness in a country beginning to challenge Portuguese colonial rule.


The Ultimate Tragedy will be launched in the UK, July 2 as part of Africa Writes. Ahead of the book launch, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Abdulai Sila, and I would like to say a big thanks to Africa Writes for connecting us. 

During our conversation, Abdulai Sila spoke to me about how he became interested in writing; how living in Guinea Bissau during colonialism, the liberation war, Independence and post-independence feeds into his three published books -  Eterna Paixão (1994), A Última Tragédia (1995) and Mistida (1997); the publishing house he co-foudned in 1994 with two other friends; his plays - one of which was banned; and how he manages to juggle his career as an engineer, his company, his writing and being a publisher.


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#100AfricanWomenWriters: 10. Deolinda Rodríguez de Almeida


Deolinda Rodríguez de Almeida lived an extremely short, but rich life. Known as the ‘Mother of the Revolution’- Angola’s Revolution – Deolinda was an Angolan nationalist, heroine, militant, writer and translator - who also taught, wrote poetry and worked as a radio host.

Photo via Dear Deolinda.
Rodríguez de Almeida was born 10 February 1939 at Ikolo-i-Bengo in district Katete, in the family of a Methodist pastor. She went on to a Methodist mission school, and secondary school in Luanda – living with her cousin, the poet Agostinho Neto, who went on to become the first president of Angola. Rodríguez de Almeida later received a scholarship to study in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As a sociology student at Methodist University in Sao Paulo, she corresponded with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
In a 30 May letter Rodriguez, a twenty-year-old Angolan student living in Brazil, requested King’s advice and support for the independence movement in her native country but admonished: “Please just do what You really can with no harm for You…. If some people have to pay with their lives…. let it be ourselves.” In his reply, King suggests that the Angolan movement needs a “person or some few persons to symbolize the struggle: “As soon as your symbol is set up it is not difficult to get people to follow, and the more the oppressor seeks to stop and defeat the symbol, the more it solidifies the movement.”
I found out more on Rodríguez de Almeida via her entry in Wikipedia, which discusses her life after leaving Sao Paulo:
Fearing she would be extradited from Brazil because of the Portuguese Imperial relationship between its colonies and her support of the growing Angolan Independence movement, Rodríguez de Almeida moved to the United States the following year and studied at Drew University. 
Because she wanted to be an active participant in Angola's independence, Rodríguez did not finish school and decided to leave the U.S. In February 1961, she was recruited to participate in the [Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola] (MPLA) attack on "Fortalesa", later gaining the honorary title of "Mother of the Revolution" Rodríguez traveled to Guinea-Bissau and Congo Kinshasa, where she co-founded the Organização da Mulher de Angola (Organization of Angolan Women; OMA), the women's division of the MPLA. She received guerrilla training in Kabinda, and joined the Esquadrão Kamy. She returned to Angola in 1962. As a revolutionary movement leader and activist, she campaigned for human rights in Angola, and was associated with the Corpo Voluntário Angolano de Assistência aos Refugiados (CVAAR).
Deolinda Rodríguez de Almeida was also a writer and a poet, and her writings can be found in two books - her diary, Diário de um exílio sem regress published in 2003; and her letters and correspondence - Cartas de Langidila e outs documents, published in 2004. They are both published in Portuguese. Although the entry in Wikipedia notes that her writings from 1963 
... show an increasing move towards Marxism–Leninism and a painful awareness that her womanhood made her invisible even though she was part of the leadership. She expressed her frustration at the discrimination she faced for her lack of domesticity saying that she was treated as if being single was "shameful or of the devil".
I also found some of Deolinda’s poetry on the website Dear Deolinda, set up by Marcia Gleckler who shares letters Deolinda wrote to her as well as their time together. The on-line memoir was also published as a book in 2011 (by the same name). Here is one of the poems, Luanda, written in 1956:
No longer the Luanda we once knew
the shade of the Mulemba tree
the Caconeiras and Piteiras
bringing us joy.
Instead, in their place
hi-rise buildings
occupy the sacred land
where familiar lovely gardens grew.
I am distressed
because Luanda is no longer
the beautiful African city
of my heart.
Do people today
find happiness here?
Unhappy people
greatly need Christ and school.
A sad truth.
How long can we wait?

-                          -  Poem via Dear Deolinda

As written in Immortal Heroes of the World
... in 1967, a large group of MPLA members – under the leadership of Deolinda Rodríguez de Almeida – was on its way to Angola from Congo to deliver food and medicines to the fighters of first military-political-district. On March 2, this group was attached by Roberto Marauders.
Rodríguez de Almeida and four other OMA members (Engracia dos Santos, Irene Cohen, Lucrecia Paim, and Teresa Afonso) were captured by the União dos Povos de Angola (UPA) guerrilla group (later, National Liberation Front of Angola) on 2 March 1968. They were tortured. Rodríguez de Almeida was taken to the FNLA camp, Kinkuzu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she was executed in prison. March 2 is celebrated every year in independent Angola as Angola Women’s Day. 

A documentary (in Portuguese) of Rodríguez de Almeida's life was released in 2014. Langidila—diário de um exílio semregresso (Langidila—Diary of an exile without return) took four years to complete, was filmed in Angola, Brazil and Mozambique, and interviews associates and incorporates text from Rodrígues's diaries. 

Still from Langidila documentary.
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#100AfricanWomenWriters: 9. Aminata Sow Fall


'In life, you have to make choices. My choice is to write.' explains Senegalese writer Aminata Sow Fall in an interview with the Washington Post. And write she has done.


Born in 1941 in Saint-Louis, Senegal, Fall is said to be the ‘first published woman novelist from Francophone Black Africa’. To date, Fall has published more than eight novels and a number of essays, including Un grain de vie et d'espérance (Food for thought and tomorrow's life) in 2002 on her reflection on the significance of food in Senegal, followed by some twenty recipes proposed by Senegalese Chef Margo Harley. In June 2015, Fall received the Grand Prix de la Francophonie for her literary work in French.

Aminatta Sow Fall first achieved literary attention with the publication of Le Revenant (The Ghost) published in 1976. As described on the University of Western Australia's African Literature page, it follows:
... an honest post office worker, Bakar, who realises that he is in debt because he has been financing the extravagant needs of his circle of family and friends. So he steals money from his employer and ends up in prison for misappropriation of funds. He is then abandoned by all those who had profited from his extravagance and so Bakar decides to get his revenge. 
... when [Fall] published her first novel, 'Le Revenant', in Dakar in 1976, it was the first time a black African women had written a work of fiction in French which was not obviously and autobiography or memoir. 
Fall was also ‘the first Muslim woman writing in this particular context’.



Her second novel, La Grève des bàttu [The Beggars' Strike] was published in 1979 and has been translated into eleven languages, including into English by Dorothy S. Blair. In it, Mour Ndiaye takes draconian measures to rid Dakar's streets from its beggars in order to curry favour with the President. When the beggars are chased out of town, they regroup and reorganise. When the capital's inhabitants find it increasingly difficult to abide by the Prophet's instructions to give alms to the poor, the end of Mour Ndiaye's political career is in sight. 

La Grève des bàttu was nominated for the prestigious French literary prize the Prix Goncourt and awarded the Grand Prix litteraire de l’Afrique des Arenes. It has also been adapted for both stage (by Carlyle Brown) and screen (in 2000 by Malian director, Cheikh Oumar Sissoko and called Battu).

On the focus on beggars and begging in La Grève des bàttu, Fall explains in a 2012 interview how ‘many people ask me about that novel:
Begging is a crutch for this [Senegalese] society. Yes, we do need it, but it is a need that we created.  It is not an inherent need.  If we take it away, we don’t know what to do with ourselves.  We’ve twisted certain teachings in the Koran and we think that our salvation is based, in part, on our charitable offerings.  So instead of refusing to let these individuals live on the street and not have access to the most basic of necessities, instead of creating a system where we can be charitable by not relegating someone to destitution, we say that we must have beggars so we can give alms … We forget that in many cases we cause their poverty.  And in essence, we want them to stay there.  Because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Because we want them to be dependent on us. Because we think we’re following a holier example.  In short, we isolate them in order to feel good about ourselves.  It is not right, but we use religion to justify it.  The Western world does it, too.  If someone thinks otherwise, they are in denial.
While Fall’s native tongue is Wolof, she writes exclusively in French. Her writing style - according to Fall, also tends to take a positive outlook as she also explains in this 2012 interview:
So it goes back to how I write.  I write about that light, the one that each of us has within us.  I do not tell, I show a pattern, example, or path.  Our world has changed so drastically that many people don’t even recognise that light anymore – they’ve gotten so wrapped up in this or that, money, success, fame, that they’ve isolated themselves from themselves.  Do you see?  They have taught themselves to ignore that inner core, that light, which is the very essence of their being.  Thus they wander emotionally, figuratively, and sometimes physically, do they not?  The solution is to rediscover that light, uncover it, feed it, and let it shine and influence our choices, actions, and behaviour.  That’s why the children in my novels succeed – because they, more so than the adults, have the courage to do what is right, by letting the good of the past direct their future.
It's difficult to write about Aminata Sow Fall without mentioning her track record – which, like all the other women featured so far in this series – is pretty fascinating. Her education was split between Senegal and France – spending several years at the Faidherbe grammar school before finishing her secondary schooling at the Van Vo grammar school in Dakar. After obtaining her baccalaureate, Aminata Sow Fall then went to France to train as an interpreter, while taking French language and literature classes at the Sorbonne. In France, a sense of her love for writing is revealed:
Sometimes while studying in the library, she would scribble lines of poetry, short stories, plays and random articles that were never edited for publication.
Fall later dropped the interpreter programme to concentrate on her academic studies – getting a degree in Modern Languages, where she became agrégée de letters. Returning to Senegal in the early 1960s, Fall became a teacher (she first taught at a high school and sometimes at the Institut Cesti, which trained journalists). Later she worked in a group under the auspices of the Commission Nationale de Reforme de l’Enseignement du Francaise  (National Reform Commission for the Teaching of French)- adapting the teaching of French language to African realities. There, they produced textbooks for senior classes in French grammar and literature. 

Her many accolades also includes: being a member of the Commission for Educational Reform responsible for the introduction of African literature into the French syllabus in Senegal, before becoming director of La Propriété littéraire (The Literary Property) in Dakar (1979-1988). She was appointed the first woman president of Senegal's Writer's Association in 1985. In 1990 she founded the publishing house Éditions Khoudia – named after her mother. Director of the Centre Africain d'Animation et d'Echanges Culturels in Dakar and head of the Centre International d'Etudes, de Recherches et de Réactivation sur la Littérature, les Arts et la Culture that organised regular national and international Conferences in Saint-Louis. In 1997, Aminata Sow Fall was awarded an Honorary Degree at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

‘Fall says she considers herself a novelist first’, in June 2015, Fall received the Grand Prix de la Francophonie for her literary work in French. As explained in the Washington Post interview, 'Fall says she considers herself a novelist'. And one who draws a lot on her imagination - as she explains (also in that Washington Post interview):

All great works begin in the imagination …[and] a human being who does not dream realises nothing.’
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Me, Myself and Alain: On My Mission to Read Alain Mabanckou's Books


Alain Mabanckou's works in English

Back in May 2012, I wrote a post revealing my obsession with wanting to read every book ever published by Alain Mabanckou - award-winning writer from Congo-Brazzaville.  Clearly, I was restricted by my inability to read French, but thankfully at that point four of Mabanckou's books had been translated into English - African Psycho (2007), Broken Glass (2009), Memoirs of a Porcupine (2011) and Black Bazaar (2012).  Not one to let my obsession go, I followed it up a few months later with a personal reading challenge - to spend a month reading Mabanckou's works that had been translated into English.

I started with African Psycho, which was first published in French 2003 and translated into English by Christine Schwartz Harley in 2007. A disturbingly funny novel, African Psycho centres on Gregorie Nakobomayo - quiet possibly the worst serial killer that never was - who lived in 'He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot' and was plotting to kill his girlfriend, Germaine. I followed it up with Mabanckou's second novel to be translated into English, Broken Glass (published in French in 2005 and translated into English in 2009 by Helen Stevenson). The story follows Broken Glass, a 64-year-old former teacher madly in love with the bottle and a regular customer at the local bar Credit Gone West in the Trois-Cents neighbourhood. The owner, Stubborn Snail (don't you just love the names?) - wanting the bar to not 'vanish one day', gave Broken Glass a notebook 'to record, witness and pass on the history of the place', and boy did Broken Glass do that. 

While African Psycho had a 9-page non-stop narrative, Broken Glass was written with 'no full stops, only commas and more commas'. Yet, reading African Psycho and Broken Glass made me realise something about Alain Mabanckou - he wrote what he wanted, how he wanted and didn't seem to be confined by specific rules. Plus, I loved how disturbing, weird and humourous his writing was. So two books in, I was hooked! I had gone into the mind of a wanna-be serial killer, an alcoholic/former teacher/aspiring writer, and now I was off to find out what a porcupine thinks. 

First published in French in 2006 and translated into English in 2011 (also by Helen Stevenson), Memoirs of a Porcupine is about the (animal) double of a human. The porcupine tells us his life story of carrying out murders with (and for) his human master, Kibandi. Similar to Broken Glass, there are no full stops, only commas and more commas. My last book in my Alain Mabanckou month was Black Bazaar (first published in French in 2009 and translated into English in 2012 by Sarah Ardizonne). 

Unlike the first three books, Black Bazaar was the first book not set in Congo-Brazzaville, but in Paris. It followed the lives of African immigrants in France - as told by the narrator, Buttologist, who has lived in Paris for 15 years. Buttologist is a sapeur (a member of the Society of Ambience-makers and People of Elegance), spends time at an Afro-Cuban bar with other African immigrants in Paris, and is also an aspiring writer (like Broken Glass, in well, Broken Glass). Black Bazaar is his journal on everything - his relationship with Original Colour (his ex-girlfriend), his experiences with his racist neighbour, the 'Arab around the corner', his time at the Afro-Cuban bar with his friends, and even his view on colonialism and post-colonial Africa. 

By the end of my month reading Mabanckou's works, it was official, I was a hardcore fan. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait too long for Mabanckou's next offering. By 2013, Tomorrow I'll be Twenty - the fictionalised memoir of Alain Mabanckou's childhood in Pointe Noire - was released. Translated by Helen Stevenson, it was first published in French in 2010. 

Narrated through the voice of ten year old Michel, who lives in Pointe Noire, Congo in the 1970s, I must confess - without a doubt - this is my all-time favourite of Alain Mabanckou's books. I loved how historical events, such as the Cold War, were intertwined with the daily lives of a family living Congo-Brazzaville in the1970s. More than that I absolutely adored Michel. One my favourite lines from Michel - "I'll keep you in the castles I've got in my heart too, where no one can harm you". 

When interviewed by the Africa Book Club on the importance of writing this story, Mabanckou writes:
It was very important because I figured out that we had no stories told through the voice of a kid in Congolese literature. In 'Tomorrow I'll be Twenty', I wanted to explain the way we were living under this Congolese regime called 'Soviet Socialism'. We were a red country! Everything was Marx and Engels, about materialism and the philosophy coming from the USSR.
By now I was five books in. You would also think by this time my obsession with reading Alain Mabanckou's books would have died down a little. Not one bit! 

This hasn't been helped by the fact that since 2013, Alain Mabanckou has published four other books in English. There's Blue White Red (first published in French in 1999 and translated by Alison Dundy in 2013). As well as his essay - Letter to Jimmy (first published in French in 2007 and translated by Sara Meli Ansari in 2014). Letter to Jimmy is Mabanckou's 'love letter' to James Baldwin which was published in France in 2007 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Baldwin's death. It also serves (indirectly/unintentionally) as an introduction to Baldwin's writings. His memoir - The Lights of Pointe-Noire (first published in French in 2013 and translated by his regular translator Helen Stevenson in 2015),  sees Mabanckou return to Pointe-Noire after twenty-three years away; and most recently is Black Moses (first published in French in 2015 and translated by by Helen Stevenson in 2017). 

Five years later I like to think I haven't done too bad with my challenge - seven novels and one essay. Although I am yet to read Black Moses - it's currently on my reading list for this summer - or Blue White Red (very sad to say that is the one book that is not in my collection) ... and to think, there is still there is so much more of Mabanckou's work that are yet to be translated into English - poetry collections, novels and essays and non-fiction.  Still, it has been an absolutely amazing journey reading Alain Maanckou's books and being transported into the minds of very weird and wonderful character - and along the way, whether it was about childhood, folktales, magic, murder, migrating or returning home, the dark humour that first struck me when reading African Psycho hasn't gone away. 

My Mabanckou Collection. 
As I write this, I am counting down to July 2nd. Africa Writes - London's top African literary and book festival - returns in a month, and this year Alain Mabanckou headlines it. Let's just say, when I initially found out, I might have been a little too excited. Yet, if I'm honest, I'm also a little nervous. Sometimes it's difficult meeting people whose works and writing you admire. I'm going to try not to think to much about that for now. All I know is I've got my ticket and I'll most certainly be front row paying very close attention to Mabanckou as he explores language, style, politics and his journey as a writer beginning in Pointe-Noire. 

PS. If you want to find out more about Alain Mabanckou, here's a recent essay on Brittle Paper on Mabanckou himself, as well as another essay from 2016 on World Literature that takes you to the world of Alain Mabanckou and this conversation between Binyavanga Wainainan and Alain Mabanckou

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SIMPLYGorgeous Sunday Chill Session with Irenosen Okojie



On Sunday June 4 2017, I will be in conversation with Ireonsen Okojie as part of SIMPLYGorgeous' first in their Sunday Chill Sessions - a series of events centred around the arts. A family owned afro hair salon, SIMPLYGorgeous  is taking inspiration from the idea of a salon as a place for discussion and learning to host these Sunday Chill Sessions. Through it, they aim to provide a space for likeminded women to convene, discuss ideas, identity and be inspired. As the Deborah Johnson - the brains behind the event explains: 
Our aim with these events is to offer women of colour a kick back offline environment to be inspired and connect. In a nutshell, it’s creating a space that I would’ve loved to already have found. A place that champions and supports arts from the experience and perspectives of women such as myself. It’s not about excluding anyone but is more about providing a platform for the talents, issues and themes that are unique to women of colour and allowing these experiences to be nurtured and supported. 
This is our first session and we hope to have them occur monthly at least and have women view SIMPLYGorgeous as a place that supports all elements of beauty. Both physically and mentally. 
I was first approached by Deborah Johnson about the salon event earlier this year, and I instantly said yes. First, I was absolutely honoured that I would be moderating the first of what sounded like a fantastic new series celebrating black women doing great things in the arts. Second, was the opportunity to be in conversation with Ireonosen Okojie - who I first met and had the pleasure of being in conversation about her debut novel, Butterfly Fish, at the 2015 Ake Festival in Nigeria. This time about her very weird and very wonderful collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular


Book Chat with Irenosen Okojie at Ake Festival 2015. Photo via Ake Arts & Book Festival
Third, was the space. I can't speak for any other type of salon, but there is certainly something about black, Caribbean and/or African hair salons. I actually didn't go to a salon until I was probably 15. Prior to that, my mum either did my hair or I got it braided (but never in a salon). Being at a salon for the first time as a teenager, I noticed that any and everything was up for discussion. The salon really is a space where individual stories about identity, beauty, modern life and more happen. 

I will be honest, I stopped going to salon's regularly in 2010 and in the last seven years I have had an on and off relationship with it. Although in the last six months, the salon and I have rediscovered ourselves, the one thing that remains constant all these years is the conversations, music, laughter, waiting, waiting, waiting and more that comes with hair salon day. So, taking part in Sunday Chill Sessions was a pretty easy decision for me to make. 

'All That Glitters' by Annie Lee

I did also ask Deborah Johnson her inspiration behind the event:


Afro hair salons are such culturally relevant spaces for black women. We go to beautify, but also such great conversations and discussions are had and I wanted to explore this further. With the Sunday Chill Sessions I’m using the salon space in the artistic sense of the word as meeting room for creative minds. 

Irenosen Okojie's Speak Gigantular is also a great collection to launch the series with, as we will be discussing black female identity and how Okojie's work challenges its traditional perceptions. This was also echoed by Deborah Johnson, who explained her feelings after reading the collection: 
I came across Irenosen’s work just over a year ago when I first picked up "Speak Gigantular". I was enthralled and excited by the nuances of her narratives in the collection. I'd never come across such  left of field work from a black female writer before and it hooked me. Mainly because I felt the “black literature” I’d previously been exposed to was always of a certain hilt. Slave related. Female characters depicted in typical ways that bored and offended me. I related to her offbeat approach and Irenosen’s voice came as a refreshing find as I think the way her work challengers typical depictions of black female identity are important. 
So if you're in or around London (or know someone who is), come chill with us this Sunday, and be part of the first of an informal and relaxed event centred on literature, the arts and more. It's 12 - 2pm and free - although donations are being accepted for Ignite Africa Library - a Nigerian charity dedicated to the creative and literary development of teenagers and young adults in Nigeria and beyond. More details can be found here.

  

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