Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just for the record.... drumroll... T-C endorses Barack Obama for president!

Ok, just to get this on the record before I go on another media fast (since I am obsessively following the presidential campaign rather than writing my dissertation proposal, which I've GOT to turn in early next week)... If it has not already been obvious (and to those who are friends on facebook, where I post a new Obama article every hour or so, it's pretty obvious), I'm voting for Barack Obama in the upcoming primaries. I'll try to write more on my reasoning later, but here are two firsts for me.

1) I made my first ever political contribution last week--to the Obama campaign, thus apparently becoming one of the 170,000 new donors to his campaign this month.

2) I am an independent (morally so--disliking the partisanship of American politics I've seen my whole life), so I have never voted in a primary presidential election before. But next week, I'm going to go in and file my absentee vote for the primary (I don't live in one of the Super Tuesday states, and I don't have to register for a party--although I would if I had to).

I watched the debate tonight and thought it was a very pleasant conversation. (And isn't that a great photo...?)Hillary would probably do fine, as a president, and I actually enjoyed hearing her speak tonight. But Obama has a rare fire, and the charisma both (paradoxically) to unify and to shake up the status quo. This is not your everyday candidate...

I'm impressed and moved by how he has built up a grassroots support of independent voters and youth. I support his policy of not taking money from federal lobbysts and his committment to a "clean" and positive campaign. I also am impressed with his experience with grassroots level community activism, and I believe that he, more than Hillary Clinton, can actually rally young voters to continue their activism during his administration. While initially I had hoped that he might have more experience Washington before he ran, I find convincing his argument that being a Washington newcomer is an advantage. While Hillary Clinton has been moving in political circles for the past 20 years or so (and would be yet another dynastic succession should she win the nomination), he has recently been a community activist and had experience at a local level. (The other counter argument, of course, might be that GWB did not come into the White House with much experience...and we don't want a repeat of that. But then again, WHAT exactly was GWB doing before he was a governor? Managing a failing baseball team? Why did people vote for him--was it--perhaps because they looked nostalgically back to his father's time in office and thought that his father's advisors might do a good job helping him lead the country?) And finally (and perhaps this should not be the last reason), I also agree with Barack Obama's positions on the environment, on immigration (more than I agree with Hillary--ie. drivers liscences), his plans to make health care affordable, on his desire to bring a new international diplomacy to the White House.

So, my underlying idealism (always there, deep down) has burst my educated veneer of cynicism about politics and for the first time in my life, I am voting for someone I am excited about, rather than for someone I dislike less than the other guy/gal (and it IS good to have, for the first time, such a strong female candidate, though I'm not voting for her) running. He has made me hopeful about politics--has introduced the startling idea that politics can actually be practiced to bring about positive change, which is, believe me, a transformation from the way I've ever thought about politics before. And this perhaps is at the root of the youth movement behind him. The media has this truism about how youth don't come out to vote. Perhaps the REASON behind this is that for our whole lives (or at least the time we've had to vote) there has been nothing really to rally behind, other than, perhaps, trying to unseat Bush, which is not really a positive reason to vote. It's been the same old politics as usual--always nasty, always partisan, always predictable. Barack Obama represents something new and exciting.

I like him so much I fear to see what American politics will do to him and, of course, I dread the inevitable letdown that people who have claimed him as a kind of messiah will feel when he gets into office and they discover that he is a human being who makes mistakes, but I think the dream he offers is one worth following. Will he establish peace on earth and good will toward men? No. Let me not be blasphemous.

Will he be able to do what he's promised? Probably not altogether. Not by himself, but if enough youth continue the grassroots movement they've begun to elect him, we might be able to bring about some serious change. Maybe. It's worth hoping for, anyway--and it's worth my vote.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

random blurbs

outside sleet chases hail at a 45 degree angle interspersed with random snowflakes that float above the fray. Above the snow-dusted roof the tips of skeletal trees sway, and curtains of snow sweep from the gutters.

on my cd player, Issa Bagayogo croons to a writable beat, followed by Brenda Fassie.

i attempt to induce my brain to begin labour of a dissertation proposal.

And I wonder about the mandatory charity tax imposed by shari'a in Bauchi....

last night i tried to listen to the state of union address while simultanously skimming a dissertation someone else finished in 2005. I could only make it about half way through the address before my annoyance superseded my desire to be an informed citizen. who were all those idiots applauding and cheering? and has there ever been a president of this country that sounds as absolutely unintelligent as GWB?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Barack Obama Speaks at Dr. King's Church

"Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not ignorance of the barriers and hurdles and hazards that stand in the way.... [It's] imagining and then fighting and then struggling for and sometimes dying for what didn't seem possible before... Change doesn't happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up." (21:30, 24:48, etc).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Review of Measuring Time and Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila

Coming up for a gulp of air and then down again into the fetid swamp of studying for prelims [comprehensive exams for the PhD]. In addition to typing up old class notes, cramming theory anthologies and seminal books I should have read far before I reached this point in my career, I have been going over various papers I've written so as to remind myself of charachter names and events in all the novels and films and theoretical works I'm supposed to know well enough to write a couple of "robust" essays on next Wednesday and Friday. I re-read this review I wrote of Measuring Time last November alongside the interview I did. But I don't think I ever posted it here.... If you are in Nigeria, you can buy the Cassava Republic Nigerian editions of the novels at any of these venues. I note that Jos is not on the list, despite it being the home of Habila's alma mater, but if you are in Jos, I found copies of Waiting for an Angel at Castro Books across from Modern Bookshop; hopefully, they have Measuring Time there now too. Enjoy:

If you’ve never read anything by the Caine and Commonwealth prize winning author Helon Habila, the first thing to know is that his use of language is exquisite. The second thing to know is that he makes generous use of irony. Although he is a clearly political writer, he questions over-easy assumptions and political binaries. In his latest novel, Measuring Time, Habila continues the project he began in his debut novel Waiting for an Angel—that is to tell history through the eyes of ordinary people.

Waiting for an Angel opens in a prison setting. The imprisoned journalist Lomba is engaged in a battle of wits with the prison superintendent who is extorting poetry from his prisoner in an attempt to impress a woman. If Lomba’s story were told in a straight line, the way it might appear in his prison file, it would be the story of a failure: a student who drops out of university, who loses friends to madness and military violence and the women he loves to other men, a writer who never finishes his novel and whose journalistic career is cut short by his arrest in the slums of Lagos. However, this is not the story that Habila tells. By breaking up and rearranging the linear story of Lomba’s life, he wrests control of the narrative away from an environment-determined fate. The novel starts at the end of the chronological sequence and then circles back to gather stories of other characters in Lomba’s Lagos: a young boy banished from his home in Jos for smoking Indian hemp, an abandoned out-of-wedlock mother, an intellectual in a tragic love affair with a former student turned prostitute, the daughter of a general whose mother is dying of cancer, a disillusioned woman who runs a neighborhood eatery, a man who defies the soldiers on the night of Abacha’s coup, an editor pursued by the police who refuses to go into exile, a legless tailor who dreams of bidding poverty goodbye.

While the form of Waiting for an Angel reflects the frenetic beat of life in Lagos, the small town setting of Habila’s second novel Measuring Time allows for a more meandering pace. Mamo and LaMamo are twins growing up in the middlebelt town of Keti, and they hate their father, a womanizing businessman with political ambitions. They hate him for breaking their mother’s heart before she died giving birth to them, and they hate him for his long absences and his neglect. The twins’ simultaneous desire for revenge and quest for fame ends in their separation. When LaMamo runs away in search of adventure as a mercenary soldier, Mamo’s sickle cell anemia forces him to stay at home, spending more and more time in his imagination. The narrative of Mamo’s day to day life in Keti is rhythmically punctuated by adventure-filled letters from LaMamo as he travels around West Africa. Mamo reimagines events in Nigerian history: the poet Christopher Okigbo did not die in Biafra but instead lay down his gun to travel around Africa with Mamo’s Uncle Haruna. LaMamo enacts Mamo’s imagined story, becoming a soldier-poet who reports from the Liberian war front, and his words capture the spiritual horror and the boredom of war as it is rarely recorded in international news. The twins long for the other: while Mamo imagines adventures beyond the borders of his small town, LaMamo constantly searches for reminders of home in foreign lands.

The narrative of Measuring Time is frequently interrupted by folktales told by Mamo’s Auntie Marina, letters from LaMamo and a professor in Uganda who becomes Mamo’s mentor, excerpts from the memoir of the first missionary in Keti, his wife’s diary, and colonial reports, and the oral histories told by other characters. One of the most remarkable aspects of Habila’s prose is this inclusion of multiple genres alongside a continuous pattern of tributes to preexisting literary works. In Waiting for an Angel, he borrows the character of the prison superintendent from Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and gives him some of the associations of the folkloric dodo, a dim-witted monster who is often outwitted by the youth he kidnaps. Throughout the rest of Waiting for an Angel he references writers as varied as Ayi Kwei Armah, Ousmane Sembene, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Franz Kafka, John Donne, and Sappho. Similarly in Measuring Time, he bundles together Plutarch, Christopher Okigbo, William Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, Alex La Guma, the Arabian Nights and Faust legends, as well as references to oral tales and Nigerian video films. The effect of these competing voices is to open up the boundaries between his fiction and other fictions and historical accounts that lie outside the novel. The illusion of a smooth, progressive, and abbreviated history, such as the Brief History of West Africa that is brought to Lomba in prison (as the Letters of Queen Victoria had been brought to Soyinka in prison) is a false one. Habila’s fictional histories play a function similar to the colonial history the Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in which the district commissioner writes only a paragraph on a man who has been the subject of Achebe’s entire novel. Habila parallels Achebe’s fictional colonial text in Measuring Time with the missionary text A Brief History of the People’s of Keti by Reverend Drinkwater.

It is with these “brief histories” that Habila’s project in both Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time becomes clear. Mamo is determined to write a history that does not “cut details” as the colonial histories had—a history that tells the stories of “individuals, ordinary people who toil and dream and suffer” (MT 180). The traditional ruler’s story he has been hired to write, Mamo states, is “simply a part of the other biographies…. [that he would] eventually compile to form a biographical history of Keti. That’s what history really is, people and their lives, no matter how we try to manipulate it. It is the story of real people with real weaknesses and strengths and… not about some founding fathers and … even if we want to write about the founding fathers we shouldn’t privilege them, we should place them on par with other ordinary folks…” (225). In Mamo’s subsequent “biographical history,” he writes of his father the failed politician, and his aunt the divorced wife, placing their stories alongside the less than glorious history of the mai, the traditional ruler, of Keti. Every story has its own place alongside the others. When LaMamo returns with a revolutionary fervour reminiscent of Ngugi’s Matigari, the separate lives of the twins blend and become one—LaMamo’s panAfrican experience and his soon to be born child are given into Mamo’s safekeeping and for recording into Mamo’s history of Keti.

Such a history is not merely a radical rewrite of racist colonial histories but an empathetic window into the lives of even the unpleasant characters. The characterization of the prison superintendent in Waiting for an Angel follows Soyinka’s original caricature, but the man is given a more complex psychology. He is a man grieving for his dead wife, a father of a young son. As Lomba realizes when he meets the superintendent’s girlfriend, “The superintendent had a name, and a history, maybe even a soul” (WfA 37). While in Measuring Time, the sleepy-eyed traditional ruler of Keti and his evil vizier take on the typed characteristics of folktale or a video film, most of the characters in Measuring Time are treated with complexity and compassion. When LaMamo calls the old widows who had pursued their father all his life “shameless old women,” Mamo reminds him that “they weren’t so bad… People are just people” (MT 343). And although the missionary Reverend Drinkwater may have misrepresented the history of Keti, his family has become a part of the history of the town. The missionary’s daughters, now old women, live in Keti, tending their parents’ graves. Although they are not Nigerian, they belong in Keti. It is the only life they have ever known.

This concern with multiple perspectives on history is behind what at first glance might seem to be an editorial flaw in Habila’s two novels. When reconstructed in both novels, time doesn’t quite add up. According to the chronology given in “Mamo’s notes toward a biography of the Mai,” the number of years between the installation of the first mai by the British and the current mai should be about thirty two or three years, yet the time period is stretched from 1918 up to the 1980s (MT 238-240). The year-long planning period for the celebration of the mai’s tenth anniversary seems to turn into three. Similarly in Waiting for an Angel, the time between Lomba’s stay at the university and his imprisonment seem much longer than the actual historical tenure of Abacha’s regime. He supposedly meets and falls back in love with an old girlfriend some time after he becomes a journalist. Yet, two weeks before he is arrested (after he has worked at the Dial for two years), another girlfriend, with whom he has lived for a year, leaves him. The times between the two love affairs don’t quite seem to add up.

Placing the novels side by side gives a hint to what Habila is doing here. In Waiting for an Angel, Habila gathers up historical events that happened along a spectrum of ten years and bundles them into the space of a week. Although Nigeria is kicked out of the Commonwealth in November 1995, in the novel, a week after this event, Dele Giwa, the editor of Newswatch Magazine, is assassinated by a parcel bomb on the same day that Kudirat Abiola is assassinated by gunmen. Of course, historically, the two activists were killed ten years apart: Dele Giwa during the Babangida regime in October 1986 and Kudirat Abiola during the Abacha regime in June 1996. The quickening rhythm of disaster in this chapter of Waiting for an Angel parallels the last quarter of the Measuring Time in which Mamo falls into the hard-partying lifestyle of corrupt politicians, religious riots break out, and the quiet town of Keti goes up in flames. Time here is not a mathematical iambic pentameter that can be measured with a clock, but a living fluctuating force that lags behind and loops around to find the stories of multiple characters. It reminds me of the way time acts in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or in oral tales and epics. It cannot be diagramed into a dry progression of events such as those found in A Brief History of West Africa or A Brief History of the Peoples of Keti but instead can only be mediated through the memories of those who experienced it. In his afterward to Waiting for an Angel, Habila acknowledges the liberties he has taken with the chronological order of events, “[N]ot all of the above events are represented with strict regard to time and place—I did not feel obliged to do that; that would be mere historicity. My concern was for the story, that above everything else” (WfA 229).

Mamo’s story of Keti, like the story of Lomba in Waiting for an Angel, becomes in miniature the story of Nigeria—not that it can represent all the complex and multi-faceted stories of the nation, but that it offers an example of what can be written: the individual stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. Habila layers his work onto that of older writers such as Achebe and Ngugi who rewrote colonial history in their early works, and joins other contemporary Nigerian writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole whose writing seems similarly concerned with providing entry points into historical events as lived by ordinary people. Measuring Time ends with the performance of a play by church women’s group, both celebrating and mocking the appearance of the missionary Reverend Drinkwater into Keti history. Mamo realizes that through their caricatured performance, they are telling the story on their own terms, invoking a way of life much older than the colonial encounter: “They were celebrating because they had had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs: they had done this before when they first met the Komda, and many times before that in their travels and migrations, in times earlier than even the oldest among them could remember. This was their wisdom, the secret of their survival. This was why they were still able to laugh… each generation would bring to this play its own interpretation” (MT 382). This at root is the power of Habila’s work—the ability of humanity to laugh in the face of tragedy—the ability to undermine stories that have been told for you by telling them yourself.

(Update 10 April 2012): To buy the books reviewed here, click on the links below:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Kenyan Electoral Crisis

On the ongoing crisis in Kenya: here is a link to a Reuter's article on the Kenyan electoral crisis. Here is a petition created by Wangui wa Goro, Firoze Manji, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Ronald Elly Wanda, King Omoga, Cenya Ciyendi and written by Firoze Manji.

Here is an article written by Ngugi wa Thiong'o about the elections before the election. And here is an article about how PNU party members harassed and violently intimidated Njeeri wa Ngugi, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's wife, and Ngugi's children before Christmas.

Denzel Washington tells it...

I was taking a little break from my prelims studying a few minutes ago to make some rice and gumbo to eat for the rest of the week, and I turned on NPR to listen to the news, while I was cooking. After the news, Fresh Air with Terry Gross came on. She was interviewing Denzel Washington about his new film The Great Debaters. You can listen to the interview here.

At one point in the interview (around time code 27:10) , she asks him about growing up with a father who was a Pentecostal pastor. Then she asked him if he still belonged to the church (Church of God in Christ [COGIC]), which he affirmed.

Terry Gross then says (around time code 29:00), "I'm wondering if that has even more meaning because you were so brought up in it... since your father---""
And he says, "No it has meaning because it has meaning. Because I believe in the scriptures. I'm a God fearing man who believes what he reads in the Bible, and that has meaning. The meaning that it has is the effect that it has on me, on him [his father] and has on thousands if not millions of other followers. It is our faith in God and our belief in these commandments and in the stories in the Bible...I've read the Bible a couple of times, and I'm working through it again.... I'm now in the book of Romans and listening to the examples and teachings of Paul. The perserverance and the faith that he had in spite of what he was up against... And I'm inspired by those teachings of Paul, of Luke, of all of the apostles, and the great leaders of the Old Testament, as well, obviously, Abraham, Moses..."

Later he says, (around 31:00) "You have to understand. Everything that I've done in my career, and hopefully in my life, is a reflection of my spiritual upbringing and cultivation. I'm not saying I've been an angel all my life. Heaven knows, I haven't.... But you learn. Because I had to go to church, I rebelled against the church, and probably many people out there have gone through that based on whatever negative experiences they may have had. But I can say this to you, whatever success I have, has been a direct result of my faith and the grace of God in my life. period. It's not hanging out with the right people, and it's not studying at some school, or training at some acting school. It's a gift from God, I recognize that. We all have it.

"So, the question is not what you have or what you're going to do with what you have, but recognizing that we all have that gift. It is the grace of God and the gift of God. For some it's acting. Some, it's radio. Whatever your ministry, as they say, is. Understand where it comes from and don't be ashamed of it. If you've had negative experiences in church, (because I'm talking about spirituality and not religion. You know, religion is where man gets ahold of it, and, Lord knows, that's where the problems begin), but if there is something still tugging at your heart, and you're not satisfied, and you feel that there is something there, there IS something there. And don't be ashamed or afraid to continue that search. It led me through all kinds of religions.... One of my favourite books is Siddhartha, you know Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, because it is the journey. And the journey has led me back to the Bible[....]"

Because I need to get back to my books, I won't transcribe the rest of the interview here, but it's a great listen. If you're interested, you can go to the website and listen to it.

What an unexpected blessing and encouragement in a long day of studying!
(And I'm planning to stay away from blogging for the next couple of weeks before my prelims, but I was so touched by this interview that I had to post.)
For the photo credit (Entertainment Weekly, 20-Dec-2002, DETAILS: Best of 2002 featuring Denzel Washington as Entertainer of the Year [photo by Norman Jean Roy]) and bio of the actor, see NNDB.