Friday, February 23, 2007

We are like crabs in a basket

Some things you cannot write about publically, so you quote other people who say similar things in other contexts. Perhaps that is why Lomba "plaigerized" poetry to send to Janice--those “message[s] in a bottle, thrown without much hope into the sea,” were for himself, "perhaps, written by me to my own soul, to every other soul, the collective soul of the universe" (38). He could not directly scream out against the prison, so he used other people's symbolism to indicate his position.

You feel hopeless, so you toss out the message, knowing there is nothing, really, that anyone can do about it, but it helps to have it out there, in the ocean, in the waves. Here's my quote for the bottle, from Helon Habila's Waiting for an Angel:

As soon as they [the state intelligence] were gone, Auntie Rachael left the bed and came and sat on the arm of my seat; she put her arms round my neck, resting her chin on my head..... Finally, she pulled back. There were tears in her eyes.

"Kela, my son, you must be careful. Never ever show them you are brilliant. They'll kill you. Don't you know that lightning only strikes the tallest tree?" Her eyes left me and went to the wall. And I saw it now: what I had missed all along. The soldier's picture was not on the table close to her bed any more. It was up there on the wall with all the others.

"Poor Davou. He was like that, too. He never learned to keep his head low. He was always standing up for something, for someone. He was among the very first to volunteer when the war broke out. They killed him." Her voice was low and whispery. Her print dress smelled of camphor. Her eyes were not red any more these days, and the tell-tale smell was totally gone from her breath.

"Go," she said, standing up, "and always remember, our land is a land of pygmies. We are like crabs in a basket; we pull down whoever dares to stand up for what is right. Always remember that."

As I left her, I recalled Joshua's words at the hospital: that some day I too would have to stand up for something. But did that mean I'd be pulled down when I stood up? I toyed with the question for hours, but I was unable to solve it. I finally abandoned it, deciding that perhaps I was too young to answer it. "Not all things must be understood immediately," Joshua had told me. "The important thing is to see and memorize all the faces and ideas and impressions, and one day they will begin to make sense to you."
(Pp. 186-187)

Habila, Helon. Waiting for an Angel. New York: Norton, 2002.


Proteinstar said...

A little comment on pennies and missing teeth. Not to take away the mystique but often when you lose a tooth you lose a little blood as well. Iron happens to be a key component of hemoglobin. The metallic taste of pennies, although not iron is similar to the iron taste of blood, which is what you taste when you lose a tooth.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Aha! Everything begins to fall into place. Thanks for this insight which has revolutionized my life, PS! {-; Enjoy that baby, and give M. a big, big hug for me!

Fred said...

In a way, this passage is symbolic of the human struggle, although it is most poignant in Nigerian life, like the concentrated salt crystals left after sea water has evaporated.

"They will kill you."

How true.

By the way, I got my copy of Measuring Time today. I'll start reading tonight.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Thanks, Fred. Yes, I think it can be read in multiple situations... I'll be interested to hear what you think of Measuring Time. After some thought, I think I still prefer Waiting for an Angel, but Measuring Time is very thought-provoking and continues many of the same themes that Waiting for an Angel began.

Fred said...

I'm some 50 pages in on Measuring Time and so far, I'm still undecided about Habila's story-telling method. There are things I like and don't. I'll expound with more time and reading since I want to make sure they are still present at the end of the book.

I did notice a thought wandering in to my mental periphery about African writers. I don't know whether it's true or not, but it seems they're given a "pass" by the establishment because of their subject matter. I would like to see Chimamanda or someone of that ilk write something "not African"--perhaps a general "human" story. Heck, how about a Japanese historical novel? Let's see how talented they are in weaving a yarn.

What do I know though!

Talatu-Carmen said...

Hi Fred,

I wish I had urged you to read Waiting for an Angel first. I think Measuring Time is a bit slow-paced and meandering and probably not the best introduction to Habila's longer fiction. I like it a great deal because of how it connects with certain themes I see him continuing to work with, but Waiting for an Angel is probably a little bit more exciting as far as the way the story/ies is/are told, etc.

As for your question about African writers writing a general "human" story... does that mean African stories are not human?? But I think I know what you are getting at--there's a comment by an N. Nwokebia on the reviews of Waiting for An Angel that says something similar (ie. looking at basic human stories of how people live rather than always tying it up in politics), and I discuss this briefly in my thesis. But let me let Habila answer you in his own words. Here's a brief essay he wrote at the University of Iowa international writer's workshop that I think addresses your concerns:

Fred said...

I don't actually mind the pace of MT, that's not my principal gripe. One of those gripes is one I've touched on and which you and Habila attempt to explain: the literal compartmentalization of many, if not most African authors.

I read Habila's riposte but I don't really have any problems with politics playing such a large part in these (especially Nigerian) authors' work. In fact, like Cicero, I believe politics belongs in the forefront of every one's consciousness, for the important role it plays especially in Africa and one writes what one knows.

No, it's something else and I'm still attempting to feel it out, give it legs, if you know what I mean. As I read more, I'll flesh it out further.

Alas, I didn't read any more of the novel last night. I was too tired and watching MTV. Total veg mode. :-)