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
IndieBound
Amazon
Barnes & Noble

Notes on Writing: Productivity Tools

My absence from blogging has, in part, been because I’ve been writing, reading, and researching for a writing project.  I’m discovering a lot of exciting history but because I rely heavily on a computer for the research aspect, I do get a bit distracted by THE INTERNETS.  As a writer, I know I’m not alone in this; I once saw on Twitter: “Like many writers, I have rituals. Before writing, I pour coffee, open the window by my desk, and attempt to read the entire internet.” ha! Anywho here are a few productivity tools that I’ve been using as of late:

LeechBlock
With LeechBlock, I can create sets of websites and block them for certain periods of time. For instance I block access to my email account from 11pm to 12noon. I block Facebook and Twitter from 11pm to 2pm and block my Google Reader and other blogs I visit from 11pm to 1pm.  I have also selected the option that prevents me from modifying the blocked time unless the blocked time period has ended.

Time Out
I’m not currently employed but that last full-time job I worked had me sitting at a computer for 8+ hours a day. About a year into the job I developed carpal tunnel in my right wrist and months after that I developed back pains. All of this was because I had poor posture and rarely took breaks. Time Out is a program that encourages you to take a break to allow your muscles to relax.  You can set how often and for how long you want to take breaks — the default is a 10 minute break after 50 minutes of work. You can also set a micro break -defaulted to occur for 10 seconds after every 10 minutes of work.  Time Out may seem like a very simple and unnecessary program for some, but for those who struggle with healthy work habits, this could be really helpful.

WasteNoTime
Similar to LeechBlock, WasteNoTime is a time management program for Safari.  However, WasteNoTime works differently from LeechBlock in that you set your working hours then allot a certain amount of time for each blocked site during your working hours (you can also allot a certain amount of time to those sites after your working hours).  For instance, I have my working hours set from 8am to 3pm and I have allotted myself access to Facebook and Email for 30 minutes each during those hours.

Do you use any additional software to assist your writing productivity?  If so, which ones and how effective has it been?

Open City

Back in February I emailed Teju Cole asking if there was any way I could get a hold of his novella, Every Day is for the Thief.  I’d read so many positive reviews about the book, I knew it contained Cole’s photography, and I knew the basic plot was something of interest to me: after many years abroad, a Nigerian returns to his home country for a visit.  I wanted to read the book and I thought my proximity to Cole (my Newark to his Brooklyn) at the time of my email would be an encouraging factor.  In the nicest way possible he responded that there would be no way for me to access the novella in the U.S.  I then phoned my mother, who was in Accra at the time, and asked her to check the shelves at Silverbird in Accra Mall.  The book was not there either.

In an effort to get closer to Cole’s literary self, I decided to purchase Open City — his debut novel that was originally published in 2011.  Considering the previous reviews I’ve read about the book which characterized it as boring and my thoughts after finishing the novel, I’ve come to two conclusions: (1) I appreciate what others may label as mundane and (2) though I’ve been aware of my high level of self-involvement for awhile, I didn’t realize that the outside perceptions of me as an asshole (which I’ve attributed to my introversion) may actually be true.

A little insight on what happens in the book:

Julius is a thirty-something year old psychiatrist, the son of a Nigerian father and German mother, he was raised in Nigeria but came to the United States for his postsecondary education.  When we meet him in Open City, he is a psychiatric fellow at New York Presbyterian Hospital.  Through what could very well be extremely detailed (and edited) accounts of Cole’s life from his diary, we tag along with Julius as he walks through NYC, recounts pieces of his relationship with his girlfriend and family, and as he travels to Brussels.

Thoughts on the book (from the perspective of someone who didn’t consider Julius an asshole until chapter 20):

I’m almost sure the novel originally ended at chapter 20 but they (the publishers? editors? agent?) didn’t want readers to walk away too disturbed or angry with the big reveal that occurs in chapter 20.  The official last chapter (chapter 21) took me back to the feelings I had for the book in the first 3 chapters.

When I first started the novel, I was upset with it’s pace and its focus and I noted the writing as dense.  I was not interested in the connections Julius was making between his everyday life and the art of dead white men or the animism of Yoruba culture and I didn’t know if I should direct my anger at Cole or at Julius.  Then in chapter four, there was one particular line that made me feel like I was getting to know Julius beyond his observations and occupation; while at work he reflects: “…I was oversensitive to the hospital’s white lights and felt more irritated than usual with the paperwork and small talk…”  It was a simple line but it was the first time Julius had ever said he felt a certain way and it resonated with me.  At chapter five, I felt fully engaged, primarily because of Julius’s interactions with two men — one a Haitian who worked as Shoeshiner at Penn Station and the other a Liberian detained at an immigration detention facility in Queens.

It was during his trip to Brussels that we met a more open Julius.  Perhaps because it is not a place he calls home that we see him making friends, fulfilling sexual needs, and having interesting discussions (including one that surprisingly makes Cosmopolitanism seem like an interesting topic for debate) yet still spending quite a bit of time in his head.  It was in these moments that I also began to see his insecurities and his coldness; he became more complex yet still evoked little emotion on my part as a reader.  It actually wasn’t until chapter 20 that I was really moved to feel something beyond recognition of myself in or annoyance for Julius.  It came after a moment of profundity which I will leave you with:

Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him.  Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories.  In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.

And so, what does it mean when, in someone else’s version, I am the villain? I am only too familiar with bad stories — badly imagined, or badly told — because I hear them frequently from patients.  I know the tells of those who blame others, those who are unable to see that they themselves, and not the others are the common thread in all their bad relationships.

Read an excerpt of Every Day is for the Thief here.  Read an excerpt of Open City here.
Purchase a copy of Open City at
Powell’s
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound

Watch Short Film: Tall Enough

So I’m supposed to be abstaining from films of the romantic kind but I was over at Colorlines checking out the new reality web-series K-Town.  In considering comments from the show’s executive producer about the exaggerated stereotypes and the model minority that the media often portrays Asians as, I started to think about Barry Jenkins’s short film Tall Enough.  As I said in the comments sections on the Colorlines article, Tall Enough was the first time I’d seen the Chinese language portrayed in a romantic way from an American filmmaker.  It completely turned the presentation of Asian languages as comical on its head.  Check it out below:

On My Radar: La Playa D.C.

The trailer:

A synopsis from Shadow & Act:

The film centers on Tomas, an Afro-Colombian teenager struggling with the difficulties of growing up in a city (Bogota) of exclusion and racism against those who look like him; When his younger brother disappears, Tomas is forced to leave his home to look for him. With the help from his older brother Chaco, Tomas roams the city’s streets, as his search becomes more of a journey in which he’s forced to face his past, and to leave aside the influence of his brothers in order to find his own identity, all with the vibrancy and instability of a city in flux as the film’s backdrop.

Web Finds: Jamaica Kincaid, Avatar Remix, & More

For Creatives, a few places to submit your work:

Got a high-quality film with commercially appealing content? Consider submitting it to be screened at the Big Shade Tree Film Salon (a monthly film screening event in NYC).

Are you an African writer in the diaspora with an unpublished manuscript?  Consider submitting to Kwani? Manuscript Project

From the Black Film Center/Archive: the African Media Center releases a call for papers on Evolving African Film Cultures

Reading & Writing:

Have you checked out AfricaBookClub.com?  It’s a great resource for reading about contemporary African books and authors.  They also have an online store.

I just finished reading my first Jamaica Kincaid novel, check out this interview she did with Mother Jones back in 1997.

Tayari Jones shares some facts about Artist Residencies

I like these writing prompts Tayari shares with Gotham Writers Workshop

I just finished Chapter 2 of Teju Cole’s Open City.  His comments on The Last King of Scotland reminded me of this video:

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

In the first pages of Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat opens with a descriptive recounting of the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin.  Though these two men, members of a guerrilla army fighting against then-president Papa Doc Duvalier, were executed before Danticat’s birth, she considers their story one of her “creation myths” – a story that haunts her, that she obsesses over.  Since her memory cannot take her back to 11/12/64 – the date of the execution, she has filled in the details of their story with photographs, books, films, etc.

Like her character, Yannick, in Stones in the Sun, Danticat has committed herself to being a witness to Haitian history.

In reading that first essay, from which the book takes its title, and the ten essays that follow, I began to piece together ideas that had been circulating in my mind: Kalamu’s essay on the value of being immersed in an era/culture; the sincerity and necessity of art as activism; and the types of commitment and sacrifice that artists are required to make.

In the essay entitled Walk Straight, I see the origins of Night Talkers (a short story from Danticat’s The Dew Breaker).  The essay starts as Danticat is traveling through the mountains of Léogâne to visit an elderly and fiercely independent aunt (who talks in her sleep).  One of the most personal of all the essays, Danticat shares that it was during this visit to her aunt that she wrote the addendum to Breath, Eyes, Memory — a letter to Sophie, the novel’s main character:

I have always taken for granted that this story, which is yours and only yours, would always be read as such.  But some of the voices that come back to me, to you, to these hills respond with a different kind of understanding than I had hoped.  And so I write this to you now, Sophie, as I write it to myself, praying that the singularity of your experience be allowed to exist, along with your own peculiarities, inconsistencies, your own voice.

In my notes, I jotted down that Edwidge is my sister-aunt, because after being a fan of her work for half of a decade, this is the first time I’ve truly seen her and empathize with her.  In discussing some of the backlash she’s received from within Haitian communities, I see more than an award-winning writer that I look up to; I see a woman who struggles with the responsibilities of her writing gift and with her Dyaspora1 duality.

The honesty that exists in this more personal essay pervades the entire collection.  In a most truthful way, Danticat shows the complexities of herself, her family and her mother country in each essay of the collection.  There are no overly romanticized reflections nor are any of the recounted stories littered with bitterness.  Through essays on political violence, family, art, and natural disasters, Danticat’s eloquence permeates.

Read the first chapter here.

1Dyaspora is a term used to describe Haitians living outside of Haiti; it sometimes has a derogatory connotation like Akata.

Purchase the book here:
IndieBound
Powell’s
Barnes & Noble
Amazon

From the Soundtrack: Magic System & More

In writing my Akata Witch post, I recalled memories of putting together cultural events with my colleagues in college.  No matter the event, music was one of the most critical components of it — our events would not exist without African songs from the past and current hits.

Magic System’s Premiere Gaou is one of those songs that takes me back to the days of imitating our parents with fashion shows, potlucks, and parties. Check it out:

And a few more tracks that take me back to college:

Web Finds: Half of a Yellow Sun, Speculative fiction, African activism & More

Film
Principal photography for Half of a Yellow Sun has begun!

The trailer for La Haine looks interesting, but from that alone, I can’t see a rip-off of Do the Right Thing… adding it to my to-view list.

Literary
Much gratitude to Nnedi Okorafor for sharing my post on Akata Witch, it brought a lot of traffic to my site and introduced me to other bloggers and writers.  I’ve been taking my time checking out P. Djèlí Clark’s blog.  There’s a lot of good stuff for sci-fi/fantasy fans and for writers of all genres.

From a Fall 2007 issue of Bomb Magazine, Edwidge Danticat interviews Juno Diaz

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See.  I’m not a regular reader of the New Yorker, but I found these covers to be quite provoking, especially this cover inspired by the assault of Abner Louima.

Other
I’m in the midst of reading about recent Ghanaian history (1960s-current) so I was ecstatic to see The African Studies Library post a link to the African Activist Archive!

I enjoyed this video from The Love Project:

A History Lesson from AfroPop

I tagged this post as ‘research for the story’ because the embedded radio show highlights some of the history that is integral to a story I’m working on.  Check it out for yourself:

You can read a transcribed version of The Hip Hop Generation in Africa: Ghana and Ivory Coast over at AfroPop.

Other interesting links I discovered after this podcast:

writer/DJ Juan G’s Tumblr Digging 4 Gold

Burger Highlife Explosion!!! – a documentary film about musicians who left after the curfews mentioned in the AfroPop podcast

some Ghanaian political history from Nations Encyclopedia