Monthly Archives: November 2011

Author Q&A Series: Chika Unigwe

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Chika Unigwe is the author of On Black Sisters’ Street, which has enjoyed wide acclaim since its release in 2009. She won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her short story “Borrowed Smile”, and a Commonwealth Short Story Award for “Weathered Smiles”. Chika lives with her husband and four children in Belgium. She talks about nostalgia for youth, her chocolate-bar dilemma and Alastair Campbell’s endorsement.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

Probably Ama from On Black Sisters’ Street. She seems like the most resourceful, the most fun but I’d probably have to watch out for her acerbic tongue.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

A poem about children playing.

Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

I’ve had a few fortunate run-ins with people whose works I really admire telling me they enjoyed my work. When Alastair Campbell tweeted that my novel was his best book of the summer, I was well chuffed.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

Lots. I go through book-envy a lot.

Name one author that you consider overrated.

Hmmmm…can’t think of one at the moment. There probably are a few of those.

Achebe or Soyinka?

They fulfill different reading needs in me. It’s like asking me “Mars bar or Bounty?” I couldn’t choose.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Easy! Win the Nobel. That’d be getting both prestige and wealth.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

Can’t I have both?? Maybe sustained career of good books. I could not imagine doing anything else but write so if I were to write the one book and retire I’d die of boredom.

Best perk of being a writer?

Having a legitimate reason for getting out of doing the ironing.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Tired eyes.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I have been very lucky with On Black Sisters’ Street. Got loads of good high profile reviews. Worst? a four liner in the Wall Street Journal, but I was in good company.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

Nothing. I’m enjoying all the discoveries I am making.

How much would you say the characters in your books are based on real people?

I am sure there are people like the ones I write about, but I do not base them on any one person I know.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

None. I never apologize for two things: my taste in books and my taste in films.

What is your guilty reading?

Women’s magazines with lots of gossip, outlandish stories and crosswords that make me feel intelligent.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Writing that first sentence.

And the most pleasurable?

Writing that last sentence.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Language.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

My youth (but only on some days).

What’s next?

I have a novel out in June 2012 – Nightdancer, and I am just finishing another one.

Read my review of  OBSS, and visit her website for more on her writing.

Read others in the Author Q&A series

Daring death on the 9373: Surfing Soweto

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As far as weird sports go there’s planking, there’s free running and then there’s train surfing. In the documentary, Surfing Soweto, featured at Hackney Picture House this November as part of the Film Africa 2011 festival, Director Sarah Blecher explores why Soweto’s young, black, male population is fascinated with the extreme adrenaline sport of train surfing and risking life and limb performing acrobatic displays atop, beneath and alongside trains. High tension electric cables and the rising death toll aren’t deterrent enough.

It all started in 2006 with a rail guards’ strike. And with Bitchnigga, renowned in Soweto as the father of train surfing. What Blecher noticed back at the time were the one-liner obituaries: “young black man found dead on train tracks” and their growing frequencies in the daily newspapers. What she found out in the course of the four years it took to film Surfing Soweto is not only that the cause of these deaths is train surfing, but that the sport has become rampant among adolescents in Soweto, has attracted a large female following, that their arena is the rooftop of the 9373 morning train conveying workers from Soweto to Johannesburg, that three boys – Bitchnigga, Lefa and Mzembe are the city’s champions, and that the sport claims the life of one in three participants.

The documentary opens with the image of a train surfer atop the moving 9373. A monologue recounting the fatalities serenades this unlikely gymnast as, with legs splayed, he contorts his body to a rhythm in his own head. With legerdemain he avoids the high tension cables overhead – one graze and he is a goner.  He maintains grace unexpected in his life- threatening circumstance, His reed thin body barely acknowledges the force of the wind. Like a jewellery thief dancing within the infrared barrier protecting some valuable piece, he has his sequence down-pat – a flex here, a slide there, then arms spread wide. Only this time the stakes are much higher. And the reward is not riches, it is admiration from the teeming congregation of adolescent females who have turned out to watch his performance.

Over four years, Blecher follows the  tortured existence of these champions. Bitchnigga is a heroin addict who hopes to open a hair salon. he knows he could do well if he applies himself to education but train surfing and drugs beckon. Lefa’s mother and sister dread the inevitable phone call, that one that will confirm the fears they’ve carried around since Lefa’s addiction to train surfing was established. Lefa is the only surviving male in his family, he has inherited a love of All-Stars trainers from his father, as well as a penchant for violence towards women. Mzembe has impeccable pedigree. Mzembe’s grandfather is a successful livestock merchant, he educated his eleven children from the proceeds of this trade. Mzembe’s father was in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, he died for his cause and his memory is etched in grateful hearts. Mzembe is an alcohol addict; drink and the devil push him towards the trains. A life of crime goes hand to hand with their lifestyles. In explanation of their alcohol and drug binges, their crimes, the illicit stolen-goods trade they conduct with Nigerians and their deleterious past-time, they all have come to one conclusion: “It is Satan.”

But they are not impenitent; in the face of growing fatality they are compelled to swear off this dangerous lifestyle. For Bitchnigga, “being the father of train surfing is one thing. Inspiring kids who end up as bloodstains on train tracks is another.” When a campaign kicks off against train surfing, all three sign up. It would accomplish three things: deter would be surfers and in a sense correct the wrong trend that they had set in motion; it would help force their own wills to renounce train surfing, and it would be a way of earning money and turning from their life of crime. Everything goes well… until one of the campaign members (none of the three) dies train surfing, and the whole thing is called off. Inevitably, the spiral into old habits is a bottle, a joint and  a train station away.

In the course of this documentary, which makes copious use of train surfing videos, interviews and historical evidence, and diary-entry type quotes from its subjects, one worries that the boys seem too comfortable being filmed. Are they playing up to the camera? Blecher explains that for the most part they filmed themselves, “They are letting you see their lives,” she says. “And a lot of it isn’t pretty.” equipped with basic cameras and the skills to operate them, they make us privy to their private thoughts and actions. We accompany Mzembe to his grandfather’s house, and with him make tearful acquaintance with a half sister he never knew existed. With Bitchnigga we utter a prayer of salvation by candlelight, and we feel the agony of loss when Lefa searches in vain for his father’s unmarked grave. He had died of Aids while his son was away.

Surfing Soweto is an expansion of Blecher’s shorter piece, and is about the extents to which the human spirit can stretch in order to cope with present circumstances. When they are on top of a train concentrating on not getting hauled off by an electric cable during a daring stunt,  knowing that missing a beat can cost their lives, they can block out the rest of the world. With many fathers lost from apartheid, there are few role models to teach the youth of Soweto how to become men. And diseases like HIV and its opportunistic illnesses are claiming breadwinners and forcing the young to confront stark financial realities.

The documentary concludes by affirming the death statistics – “for every three, one dies.” For the young men of Soweto the future is bleak and life is short. Maybe it is not just an unfortunate omen but a recognition of his “Leviathan” reality that prompts Lefa to beg his sister to dress him up in a suit and make him look like a “decent chap” for his funeral. Like many of the youth of Soweto, his days are numbered unless drastic measures are taken to improve the social standard. Unfortunately, the system seems to have disclaimed them. Maybe train surfing isn’t quite so puzzling after all – it’s their way of going out on their own terms – gangster style.

Author Q&A Series: Tonikan Onwordi

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Photo: David Njoku

Toni Kan is an award winning poet, essayist and short story writer. He is one of Nigeria’s most anthologised poets and short story writers. Author of the critically acclaimed book of short stories, ‘Nights of the Creaking Bed‘, novella ‘Ballad of Rage’, and poetry collection ‘When a Dream Lingers Too Long’, he discusses creative alchemy, epiphanies in foreign lavatories, and infidelity in Las Gidi.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

Wasiu Karimu. He is the unseen hero of a new short story I just wrote. He is inventive, aspirational and very Nigerian.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

Love letters, what else? Yeah. I guess I’d say poetry. I think, I am at heart, a poet.

Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

In the loo of this lovely house in Nairobi, Kenya. I opened a copy of True Love and there on page 7, I think were two of my book reviews. It was a relief because I was already assuming all the ladies in Kenya were liars because every time I said my name in company some lady or the other would say, I know you. I was beginning to wonder until that eureka moment. Pity I couldn’t pull an Archimedes and dash out. There was the little issue of… .ok, next question.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

Sula by Toni Morrison and the first five books written by Jim Crace.

Name one author that you consider overrated.

Man, you wan put me for trouble? I know a few but let’s not go there.

Achebe or Soyinka?

Depends on my mood. I’m a slut like that.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Nobel what? I want to be read, man.

Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?

A classic. Salinger ‘em all and then not go quietly into the good night.

Best perk of being a writer?

The money, in my case, which is funny. But I make cool money just writing. And then it opens doors. You walk into a place and chances are someone has heard your name or read your piece. Makes life a lot easy especially in a country like Nigeria where much depends on who you know or who knows you. You can’t put a price on that.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Being a writer. It’s tough.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

Worst review must be some guy who reviewed my book almost 3 years after it was published. Bloody slow reader! Has no business reviewing anything. Best? Every single review I ever got. They all add up, bad or good. I am always grateful to the reviewer who bothers. Do you know how many books I get and never bother to review?

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

Don’t be so crazy about being a literary writer. Just be a writer. That way you can write anything and make a good living. God has given me this gift and I would be an utter idiot to not use it to feed my family.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to ten for spelling/punctuation.

Spelling – 7. Punctuation – 8. My punctuation used to be bad, but once my dad read my essay and after I saw all the red marks, I learnt my lesson.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

None. I have read all the books I want to read. And i get a steady supply from a good friend of mine.

What is your guilty reading?

Don’t know what that means. I read everything with joy.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Sitting down before my laptop.

And the most pleasurable?

Sitting down before my laptop.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

A poor grasp of language. A writer should be an alchemist, and what is alchemy but language?

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

My dead big brother.

What’s next?

Las Gidi – my homage to Lagos and infidelity; my new book of short stories.

Read others in the Author Q&A series

Theatre Review: “Speechless”

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In what should have been the already anticipated climax – we’d after all waited all of 90 minutes for this – June and Jennifer Gibbons, trapped in a haze of smoke, reported their own crime of arson. Instead, it caught us by surprise and left us uncertain for the few seconds before the curtain call

Staged by Shared Experiences at the Arcola Theatre, Speechless is adapted from Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent Twins reviewed here. The book tells the poignant story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who at about the age of four, became “elective mutes” – inseparable and refusing to speak to anyone but each other.

Their journey towards this outburst – and their eventual confinement in Broadmoor Hospital – is, in Speechless, told in painstakingly choreographed sequences. The play employs a small cast and minimal set design and costuming, and is replete instead with socio-political innuedo and criticism.

It begins with the twins’ school being frustrated with their refusal to speak, and convinced that this encouraged, if not warranted bullying. The twins are then transferred to a special needs school much to their mother’s disappointment. Their new teacher commences a student led programme that records some level of success – several stuttered hellos from June to the initial chagrin of Jennifer.

Earlier on, the play opens with a monologue while the twins stalk each other around a bunk bed, the audience get a glimpse of the kind of love and devotion that can coagulate into hate and turn inwards on itself. Then Jennifer is immediately identified as the more dominant twin, who by some natural arrangement enforces the twins’ muteness and punishes her twin for any attempts to break away from what for ten years had become their norm.

But this stage adaptation by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan is more than an examination of the dark side of a bond that many may envy from the outside. It is about the human need to be acknowledged as an individual, to be seen as well as heard. And the twins enthralled as they are by a white society that would often flagellate them for being different find fulfilment for this all-important need in the privacy of their bedroom where they enact role-plays of ‘The Queen’s Silver Jubilee’ and ‘Princess Diana’s wedding’, write poetry and take tutorials on “the art of conversation.”

But even though June seeks a release from her twin that she herself hardly acknowledges herself, her infrequent attempts at freedom are often quelled by Jennifer’s chants of “You are Jennifer, you are me…”; their family, whose denial of their problem unwittingly keeps them leg shackled, and to whom they will never be June or Jennifer but “the twinnies”; and the British society of the 80s, with its antagonism towards immigrant blacks, that further forced them together. Were they co-joined, theycould not have been more irrevocably bound.

The intriguing thing about Speechless is its agelessness. Set thirty years ago, it still reflects today’s reality – the race riots in Brixton have been replaced by 2011’s London riots triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan. The UK’s lip service to welcoming its former colonies has given way to widespread political hostility towards immigrants, economic crises and high unemployment of the Thatcher administration is mirrored in the present day’s recession, while the backdrop of popular engagement with the monarchy is replicated in the recent surge of anglophilia inspired by yet another royal wedding.

We never get to know why Jennifer starts out in confinement for violent behaviour, or why the twins are alternatively jejune (being bribed with jelly beans) and mature (sending manuscripts to publishers), or why being bullied by a white male transports the twins into episodes of erotic delight. Rather than tell us the whys or hows, Speechless reinforces the strength of the invisible ties that bind us not only to our tormentors (June to Jennifer, Gloria Gibbons to the RAF Base wives, and shabbily treated immigrants to their ‘Mother Country’) but also to our unique circumstances, and our need to wallow in them.

The overly synchronised and measured motions of June and Jennifer and the extensive role-play begin to wear thin after the first few times, while the introduction of Kennedy is salvaged only by his employment as a means to shoe-horn yet more significance into the play – juxtaposing the nuptials of the virginal, white, royal bride with the sullying of under aged, drunken, somewhat under-privileged black girls.

The play appears to have missed its cue to wrap up or to move on – probably in attempts to end it on better note than sexual exploitation or insulate the audience from the subsequent sorrows that culminate in the death of one of the twins. Nevertheless, this performance by Speechless’ cast of five, especially the twins, played by Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran, is nothing if not compelling.

Speechless will be showing at the Arcola Theatre until November 19