Read This Short Story: A Temporary Matter

A Temporary Matter is from Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies.  I prefer to read short stories without any prior synopsis so I’ll skip that part and let you read:

The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M. A line had gone down in the last snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived for three years.

“It’s good of them to warn us,” Shoba conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar’s. She let the strap of her leather satchel, plump with files, slip from her shoulders, and left it in the hallway as she walked into the kitchen. She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble.

She’d come from the gym. Her cranberry lipstick was visible only on the outer reaches of her mouth, and her eyeliner had left charcoal patches beneath her lower lashes. She used to look this way sometimes, Shukumar thought, on mornings after a party or a night at a bar, when she’d been too lazy to wash her face, too eager to collapse into his arms. She dropped a sheaf of mail on the table without a glance. Her eyes were still fixed on the notice in her other hand. “But they should do this sort of thing during the day.”

“When I’m here, you mean,” Shukumar said. He put a glass lid on a pot of lamb, adjusting it so only the slightest bit of steam could escape. Since January he’d been working at home, trying to complete the final chapters of his dissertation on agrarian revolts in India. “When do the repairs start?”

“It says March nineteenth. Is today the nineteenth?” Shoba walked over to the framed corkboard that hung on the wall by the fridge, bare except for a calendar of William Morris wallpaper patterns. She looked at it as if for the first time, studying the wallpaper pattern carefully on the top half before allowing her eyes to fall to the numbered grid on the bottom. A friend had sent the calendar in the mail as a Christmas gift, even though Shoba and Shukumar hadn’t celebrated Christmas that year.

“Today then,” Shoba announced. “You have a dentist appointment next Friday, by the way.”

He ran his tongue over the tops of his teeth; he’d forgotten to brush them that morning. It wasn’t the first time. He hadn’t left the house at all that day, or the day before. The more Shoba stayed out, the more she began putting in extra hours at work and taking on additional projects, the more he wanted to stay in, not even leaving to get the mail, or to buy fruit or wine at the stores by the trolley stop.

Six months ago, in September, Shukumar was at an academic conference in Baltimore when Shoba went into labor, three weeks before her due date. He hadn’t wanted to go to the conference, but she had insisted; it was important to make contacts, and he would be entering the job market next year. She told him that she had his number at the hotel, and a copy of his schedule and flight numbers, and she had arranged with her friend Gillian for a ride to the hospital in the event of an emergency. When the cab pulled away that morning for the airport, Shoba stood waving good-bye in her robe, with one arm resting on the mound of her belly as if it were a perfectly natural part of her body.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon Street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments. He imagined himself gripping the wheel, as Shoba turned around to hand the children juice boxes. Once, these images of parenthood had troubled Shukumar, adding to his anxiety that he was still a student at thirty-five. But that early autumn morning, the trees still heavy with bronze leaves, he welcomed the image for the first time.

Read the rest here (you will need a New York Times account).

On My Radar: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

Over on bookshy, I found out that Chinua Achebe will soon be releasing his memoir.

Penguin Books has more details:

The defining experience of Chinua Achebe’s life was the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War,  of 1967–1970. The conflict was infamous for its savage impact on the Biafran people, Chinua Achebe’s people, many of whom were starved to death after the Nigerian government blockaded their borders. By then, Chinua Achebe was already a world-renowned novelist, with a young family to protect. He took the Biafran side in the conflict and served his government as a roving cultural ambassador, from which vantage he absorbed the war’s full horror. Immediately after, Achebe took refuge in an academic post in the United States, and for more than forty years he has maintained a considered silence on the events of those terrible years, addressing them only obliquely through his poetry. Now, decades in the making, comes a towering reckoning with one of modern Africa’s most fateful events, from a writer whose words and courage have left an enduring stamp on world literature.

Achebe masterfully relates his experience, both as he lived it and how he has come to understand it. He begins his story with Nigeria’s birth pangs and the story of his own upbringing as a man and as a writer so that we might come to understand the country’s promise, which turned to horror when the hot winds of hatred began to stir. To read There Was a Country is to be powerfully reminded that artists have a particular obligation, especially during a time of war. All writers, Achebe argues, should be committed writers—they should speak for their history, their beliefs, and their people. Marrying history and memoir, poetry and prose, There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid firsthand observation and forty years of research and reflection. Wise, humane, and authoritative, it will stand as definitive and reinforce Achebe’s place as one of the most vital literary and moral voices of our age.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a popular first African literature read for many.  I remember first picking up the book when I was around 12 then reading it again in high school.  I’m looking forward to this release.

Willful Creatures

Another detour from my summer of African literature.

I stan for Miranda July and according to Feminist Texican, If you like Aimee Bender then you may like Miranda July.  Banking on the converse also being true, I requested Bender’s Willful Creatures from the library.   A collection of 15 stories in 3 parts, Willful Creatures is a perfect mix of reflections on life and humor.  When I first started the collection, I wasn’t getting it, the first story, “Death Watch” was too weird for me.  By the third story, “Off”, I was a fan.  My favorites in the collection:

Off
An awkwardly arrogant woman attends a party.  She has one goal for the night: to kiss 3 men (one with blond hair, one with red hair, and one with black hair).  The shenanigans that occur in her pursuit are hilarious and pitiful.

The Meeting starts:

The woman he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met. She was not the woman he expected to meet or planned to meet or had carved into his head in full dress with a particular nose and eyes and lips and a very particular brain.

*sigh*  When we meet someone who is unlike the image of our perfect partner and we decide to give it a try, are we settling or being more open?  “The Meeting” is not ambivalent in its response but I’m not convinced by the answer it leans towards.

Motherfucker
This is the story of a man who literally fucks mother.  Yeah, sounds crass I know but I loved how this story developed. He travels by train from the Midwest to Los Angeles, meeting women along the way.  When he lands in L.A., he meets a mother who is also a well-known actress.  She is so good at her profession, she sometimes doesn’t know when to not act.  And this is where the magic happens, he gets her to open up in a way that has nothing to do with sex.  I absolutely loved this story!

You can read excerpts here and you can purchase Willful Creatures at
Barnes & Noble
Powell’s
IndieBound
Amazon

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

I’ve been reading a lot of history and heavy fiction so I was looking for something light to read when I picked up Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).  Prior to reading the book, I was completely unaware of Kaling’s talent beyond acting.  As an uncommitted fan of The Office, I had no idea that she has writing, directing, and producing credits on the show.  She is incredibly talented and hilariously funny — I was laughing out loud from page one (and even used the book as a pick-me-up the night that I spent too much time on social media concluding that I wasn’t doing enough to be as cool and accomplished as everyone else).  In the book, which is a series of essays, she shares:

– advice to teenaged girls who want to know how they can get a career like hers:

…please don’t worry about being super popular in high school, or being the best actress in high school, or the best athlete.  Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing else going on in her current life.  What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also big star later in life.  For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair.

– her very pragmatic take on marriage (after expressing her frustrations with complaints from the married):

What happened to being pals? I’m not complaining about Romance Being Dead–I’ve just described a happy marriage as based on talking about plants and a canceled Ray Romano show and drinking milkshakes: not exactly rose petals and gazing into each other’s eyes at the top of the Empire State Building or whatever.  I’m pretty sure my parents have gazed into each other’s eyes maybe once, and that was so my mom could put eyedrops in my dad’s eyes.  And I’m not saying that marriage should always be easy.  But we seem to get so gloomily worked up about it these days.  In the Shakespearean comedies, the wedding is the end, and there isn’t much indication of what happily ever after will look like day to day.  In real life, shouldn’t a wedding be an awesome party you throw with your great pal, in the presence of a bunch of your other friends?  A great day, for sure, but not the beginning and certainly not the end of your friendship with a person you can’t wait to talk about gardening with for the next forty years.

– a set of instructions for her funeral:

None of my exes are allowed to attend.  Distracting. Weird. (Okay, the only way I would even consider an ex attending is if he were completely, horrifically devastated.  Like, when he heard I died, it made him take a good hard look at his life and his choices, and he turned Buddhist or something.)

No current wives or girlfriends of my exes are allowed to attend.  This part is really, for real, non-negotiable.  They’ll just use the opportunity to look all hot in black.

In many ways I think Mindy and I are kindred spirits.  Like Mindy, I’m a child of immigrant parents, raised in the U.S.; I got out of chores by reading books; I will never let go of the memories of being picked on as a kid; I’m awkward around strangers’ babies; and I’ve seriously considered an invite list for my funeral (but who hasn’t…).  I also used to wear thick framed glasses (long before hipsters made them hip).  Now if only I had her comedic talents!

You can purchase Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) at
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound
Powell’s

Read This Essay: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

Came across this incredibly moving, beautifully written essay: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance by Kiese Laymon

I’ve had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I’ve helped many folks say yes to life but I’ve definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.

Read the rest here.

A few of my thoughts while reading this essay:
1. I want to be a better writer.
2. I hate being like his mother.
3. I hate loving those with this level of awareness (and those who without it…)

The Other Crucifix

It is in the American Centre at his secondary school that Jojo Badu first considers pursuing his postsecondary education in the United States.  His original plan was to attend the University of Ghana but with encouragement from the American Centre, he applies and is accepted to The University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. In the Summer of 1963 he leaves Ghana with the plan of obtaining an Economics degree and returning home to become a leader at a bank, another corporation or in the government as encouraged by his Uncle Kusi.
The novel starts with an older Jojo as he is reflecting on his life, more specifically his decision to come to and stay in America:

What if I’d stayed in Ghana, land of my birth, embodiment of my past?  What if I had gone to Ghana Law School, married a Ghanaian woman, bred children who spoke Asante and swam in the same waters as I, recognised the same landmarks as I did and my forebears before me?  What if I’d established my practice there; aged without the sense of abandonment rattling as chains on my heels and canvassed perhaps for a political office or two?

Within the first few pages, the tone is set for a pensive story about a Ghanaian man traveling to the U.S. in a time when no country seemed to be without some sort of political unrest. Ghana is 6 years out of British colonial rule but heading towards decades of political and economic instability and the U.S. is nearing the end of the official Jim Crow era and in the midst of the Vietnam War.  At The University Jojo meets 3 men who play a large role in his new life: Dwayne, a race-conscious and politically active black American student; Ed, Jojo’s first roommate is a rich kid who spends his college years fighting “the man” and trying to sleep with as many “chicks” as he can; and John, a racist white student who writes for an unsanctioned campus newspaper that has a conservative slant. Through his relationships with these three men (and other students) we see Jojo acclimate to U.S. racial tensions, experience foreign-ness amongst other black people, and deal with the basic realities of being a college student — studying, partying, dating.

As a child of two parents who both emigrated from Ghana to the United States for education in the same way that Jojo does, I appreciate this story.  However there were some chronological inconsistencies towards the end of the novel and I wish Jojo had shared more about his long distance interactions with his family.  Still yet, The Other Crucifix is a book I have already recommended to others.  

You can purchase The Other Crucifix at
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My First Coup d’Etat: And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa

*Update: I wrote this post about a little over a week ago when John Evans Atta Mills, PhD was the sitting president of Ghana and John Dramani Mahama the Vice President. Yesterday afternoon it was announced that Dr. Mills had passed away. As deemed by Ghana’s 1992 Constitution, Mahama was sworn in as the President to serve the remaining 5 months of the term. You can watch his swearing-in here. You can read the Al Jazeera obit for Mills here. RIP.

***

It is a show of my humility Pan-African pride that as a Ghanaian I am admitting that my most recent enthusiasm and interest in African history should be attributed to a Nigerian woman. I’ll credit my parents for planting the seed with their stories of life in Ghana before they emigrated to the U.S. (where they met each other). But it was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who sparked something in me; who made African history fascinating, real, and something that I could discover on my own.
It was after watching Adichie’s popular TEDTalk, The Danger of a Single Story, that I was driven to explore her written work.  Of her two published novels, I decided to read Half of a Yellow Sun first.  It turned out to be a great decision; through nearly every scene of the novel, I called my sister, exclaiming that she must read the book when I was done. Without revealing too much of the plot, I would share with her the embarrassing moments in which I laughed out loud at humorous scenes in public or was pushed near to tears as the story of the Biafra War enters the lives of the novel’s characters. When I was done I knew I wanted to study African history — to learn the who’s, the what’s, the when’s, and the where’s. But how and when was a another matter.

When I met Adichie, I was in the midst of a tumultuous, on-again, off-again 2-year relationship with my Master’s thesis and at the time we were not on good terms. There was no way I could add on the task of learning history on my own with a thesis in progress, a full-time job, and my other commitments. I put the task off, while sporadically reading novels and short stories from an international perspective for pleasure. When I finally parted ways with my thesis, I dove head first into Ghanaian history. I started in the late 1940s with the Accra Riots, I took note of the major events and people who led us to March 6, 1957. At first forgoing the period under which Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was head of state, I started noting all of the heads of states which led Ghana, the coups through which they achieved power and the policies they enacted (I chuckled a bit at the straightforward naming of the agriculture policy which was supposed to help the nation become more self-reliant in food production — “Operation Feed Yourself”). I did this all through history texts available online and through U.S. American newspapers available at public libraries.

Through a post on Ghanaian author Nana Damoah’s blog, I knew that I should be expecting a memoir from Ghana’s current Vice President, John Dramani Mahama. As Damoah had noted, Mahama’s memoir would be history-making considering the paucity of memoirs from African heads of states. After reading the excerpted introduction and 1st chapter of the book, I pre-ordered the memoir (along with Benjamin Kwakye’s The Other Crucifix and Marilyn Heward Mills’s The Association of Foreign Spouses). I wanted to view Ghanaian history from a variety of narratives. I wanted to know the mood at the times of the various coups, the mass expulsions of Ghanaians from Nigeria, and other devastating changes to Ghana’s economic and political landscape during the ’60s and ’70s. It was one thing to read reports from American newspapers about the flogging of market women by soldiers under the Rawlings regime, it would be another to read more intimate accounts of brutality and harassment at the hands of these soldiers.

It is this intimacy through which Ghana’s history is told that make Mahama’s memoir special to me. The book feels like a collection of personal anecdotes with broader stories developed around them.  We start with a 7 year old Dramani who is lost and confused when no one picks him up from his boarding school during Easter vacation.  His mother who lives in the northern part of Ghana has no way of knowing that he’s been left at his boarding school in Accra and his father’s absence in the matter is a direct result of the military coup that occurred less than 2 months earlier.

Ghanaian politics remain ever-present through his life starting in childhood with his father serving as a Member of Parliament then as a Minister of State under Nkrumah.  But in the 17 chapters of the memoir, Mahama shows us some of the more tragic ways politics was a part of the everyday lives of all Ghanaians during the 1970s and 1980s — there is the military brutality against students protesting General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong’s proposal for a new style of government in Ghana; the ineffective “chit” voucher systems for purchasing food at state warehouses and the rising black market (“kalabule”); and the presence of the “Rawlings chain” (referring to the exposed collarbones resulting from hunger during the Rawlings regime) .  But it is not all heavy; there are stories of first crushes, indulging in popular music and enjoying discos, humorous tales of boarding school life, and the beginning of Mahama’s journey to politics including how he came to study History and Communications and his explorations of Socialism.

My First Coup d’Etat is a fairly quick and informative read for anyone interested in Ghana or John Dramani Mahama and it is a must-read for Ghanaians of the Afropolitan generation (those of us born and raised abroad); take a glimpse into a bit of Ghanaian history that explains why many of us are Afropolitans in the first place.

Read excerpts from the memoir here (click the Google Preview button) and here.  Purchase the book at

Powell’s
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