Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Things Fall Apart reading - Fabrica gallery

Last Friday I went to a reading of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart by Rounke Williams at Fabrica in Brighton.

If you haven't read Things Fall Apart I'd definitely recommend it - it's one of the seminal texts in the postcolonial canon (if there can really be said to be such a thing) and an unassuming, but very powerful, look at colonial relations.

Rounke Williams' bio on the Fabrica site says - 'Born of mixed parentage (Nigerian/British), Rounke grew up in Lagos and studied Achebe's novels at school. As her father was one of the newly educated classes that took over after independence in 1960, these books held more than an objective fascination for her. The fact that her mother was from the country of the colonisers, provided extra depth to her reading of these classics. Rounke came to the UK in 1978 to finish her formal education. From 2000, she facilitated the development of resources for Brighton and Hove local authority on cultural diversity for school children.' She is also a writer, and has stories published in African Love Stories: An Anthology and The Map of Me: True Tales of Mixed Heritage Experience. Rounke's passion for Nigerian literature as a whole, not just Achebe, was really energising - she prepared a brilliant reading list (which I'll repeat in brief below) which has provided me with a load more books to look out for and also reminded me of how many authors go out of print or fail to make it to print in this country.

Being fairly familiar with the text already, it was was great to discuss it and share ideas - something I hadn't realised that I'd missed since I finished university last year. However, what I enjoyed most was listening to it being read aloud. Rounke proved to be a great storyteller, which is a rare thing - I think I could have listened to her read the whole novel. Some texts seem to just blossom when you hear them - I always read poetry out loud (or mutter it under my breath, depending on where I am!) and I'm wondering now why I don't do it with novels more often. Someone at the reading also alerted me to a great resource called LibriVox - which provides free audiobooks to download, as read by enthusiastic volunteers. I haven't given it try yet, but I'll report back when I have.

Anyway, here's Rounke's (non-exhaustive) Nigerian literature reading list - I've tried to include relevant links where possible.

(I'll try and add to and improve these links when I've got a bit more time)


There's so much I want to blog about, but time is not my friend at the moment - the reading of Things Fall Apart I went to at Fabrica in Brighton on Friday night, the BBC's poetry season, the Derek Walcott-Ruth Padel fiasco, not to mention The Selected Works of TS Spivet which I am reading and loving at the moment. I'm going to have to make time, or actually start acting like someone who works in digital media and get myself a dongle and take my laptop on the train....

Monday, 11 May 2009

Mau Mau veterans to sue UK & A Grain of Wheat

I read today that Kenya's Mau Mau veterans are to sue the UK for their treatment during the insurgency in the 1950s - and was instantly reminded of reading Ngugi Wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat at university and all the compelling contextual material that we read alongside the novel.

The case is being brought by five now elderly Mau Mau veterans - their lawyers have documented 40 incidents of torture, and a spokesman has said they are confident of success. Meanwhile the UK government says their claim is invalid because it has been so long since the alleged abuses took place.

I can't tell the story of the Kenyan conflict or Mau Mau here - I don't want to trivialise this shameful chapter in British history or do injustice to those who died or suffered. However, as an illustration of what happened, the Kenya Human Rights Commission relates that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed and 160,000 were detained in concentration camp-like conditions. Noted texts on the subject include Histories of the Hanged: Testimonies from the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya and Britain's" Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya - I haven't read either.

It is against this backdrop that A Grain of Wheat is set. Originally published in 1967, it is centered around Mugo and the other inhabitant of his village, whose live are transformed by the conflict in the run-up to Uhuru or independence. The text weaves together myth and history - Ngugi is an uncompromising and deeply political author and reading the novel for me was like an explosion - I had no idea about this chapter of history and this ambitious and passionate text was such a stirring depiction. When I first read it, I looked at newspaper articles and Mau Mau sings from the period that really enriched the experience for me.

This is not the first time that Kenya's former independence fighters have brought a claim against the British government, and if this new claim is successful, thousands of other people could come forward to build a huge class action suit. I don't think compensation equals justice, but it would be an expression of remorse and a significant admission of culpability.

Friday, 8 May 2009

52 Poems

I Tweeted about this earlier this week - I thought it was quite a sweet app, I don't think it's going to bring poetry to the digital generation or anything like that, but it' the kind of thing that's nice to have...

E-readers - friend or foe of the bookworm?

Some interesting chat about e-readers on the Beeb this week - an article by Michael Fitzpatrick here and a video of Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder) talking about the Kindle 2 here if you're interested...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Blood Relations - Anish Kapoor & Salman Rushdie

I've managed to see some of the Anish Kapoor pieces that we are privileged to have in Brighton at the moment as part of this year's festival. As I've mentioned before, I'm an admirer of Kapoor - I can remember seeing his sand sculptures at a gallery in Liverpool when I was very young. The bold colours, strong shapes and irresistible texture of the sand must have made a big impression on me - Ive never forgotten it.

I could happily talk about all the pieces I saw, but I'm just going to look at Blood Relations - because as a collaboration of sorts with Salman Rushdie, it's got a literary bent, and this is meant to be a blog about books after all.

Situated in the fabulous Fabrica gallery, Blood Relations is a sort of bronze tank, divided into two by a thick band of Kapoor's signature blood-red and engraved all around with text written specifically for Kapoor by Rushdie. To read the text in order and in its entirety you have to walk around the whole piece six times.

Inside, the tank is again divided into two halves, one filled with what looks like either red paint or blood, the other with large, red, fleshy lumps and pile of something that looks suspiciously like entrails.

I found the piece sensual and almost hypnotic, but with a disturbing edge - walking around and around the sculpture to read the text is slightly dizzying and really draws you in. It takes you on a physical journey, perhaps paralleling the mental process that Kapoor and Rushdie hope the experience will inspire.

Rushdie's text - an 'interrogation of the Arabian Nights' - exhibits all his usual characteristics as an author - humorous and insightful, and I noticed other people there half laughing at the words as they read them, before casting a wary, almost guilty, eye back toward the bloody mess lurking inside the tank.

It might seem an overly blunt and clumsy analysis to suggest that Blood Relations muses on the Satanic Verses furore - but as Rushdie's words encircle the bloodbath, in which the viewer/reader comes to be implicated as they slowly circle the tank, taking in the words, this is what came to my mind. There is a sharp contrast between Scheherazade, who tells stories night after night to keep herself alive, and Rushdie, whose storytelling in The Satanic Verses ultimately and tragically became implicated in a number of deaths - which is brought into focus as you orbit the tank, reading the words, delaying the inevitable glance you know you'll make at the gore that lies within.

One line stuck with me from the text engraved on the piece - 'There are no answers. There are only questions. We are alone with our imaginations'. I think these words encapsulate how all great art makes me feel - that more often than not, there is no answer and that it doesn't matter that there isn't - because the questioning is the most important thing.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

I'm on Twitter

I'm now on Twitter

First lines...

I love Iain Banks - but I bought Complicity months and months ago, but read the first page and decided I wasn't into it and put it back on the shelf.

I picked it up again a couple of days ago, and looked at those first lines again, and still felt disinterested but shrugged and ploughed through it because I was on my daily commute, so the only other option I had for reading material was the Metro - which isn't really an option if you actually like reading.

Complicity is a great book, classic Banks in its dark, disturbing, gritty Scottishness - I was thinking what a shame it was that those first few lines could have stopped me from reading it. I looked back to try and pin down what it was that put me off - but now I've read it, I don't know what it was. (If you click on the link you can see the first few pages - maybe you can see what I couldn't). Perhaps I got used to the tone of the novel, or I can view it in the context of the book as a whole, who knows.

There's a saying about how you can never step in the same river twice, and perhaps you can never read the same book twice. How you read and interpret text is shaped by how you feel, your situation, even where you are - for example, the experience of reading reading Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer before and then again after I had visited Bosnia was like reading different books.

Perhaps it's also why we can reread books we love time and time again, year after year, because at different stages in our lives, we can draw something new from them.

I think I need to keep this in mind, as I'm now struggling with the first chapter of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things....