Saturday, 18 April 2015

CANNES: AFRICAN DIRECTORS TO SHOW FILM, JOIN JURY

The award-winning Malian director Souleymane Cissé will present his movie Oka at the 68th Cannes Film Festival taking place in Southern France from May 13 to 24, while Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako will head the jury of Cannes' short-film category.

Director Souleymane Cissé
(photo courtesy of F. Ciss
é)
Oka will be shown in the “special-screenings” segment of the festival’s Official Selection of 42 films, announced in Paris on April 16. More films may be added before the event’s launch.

Cissé, who heads the Union of Creators and Entrepreneurs of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of Western Africa (UCECAO), won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1987 for Yeelen, one his best known films. Many of his other works have received awards at other festivals, including the Locarno International Film Festival.

He is the only African director in this year’s lineup, in contrast to 2014, when two directors representing Africa were selected - Philippe Lacôte of Ivory Coast and Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and brought up in Mali.

Cissé travelled to Cannes last year to support Sissako, who presented the moving and beautifully shot Timbuktu in the official Competition category. The film was seen as a strong contender for the top Palme d’Or award, but won the prize of the independent Ecumenical Jury, before gaining honours in other festivals.

Speaking with SWAN after the screening of Timbuktu, Cissé said that African directors faced special challenges in producing movies, and he called for increased national and regional backing.

Actress Fatoumata Diawara, who appeared in Timbuktu.
“Besides the issue of conflict, financing is still a huge problem,” Cissé said. “Even low-budget films have to fight for funding, and up until now there hasn’t been any political will to help because in Africa one doesn’t believe that cinema is an art and an industry.”

Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Frémaux announced that 1,854 films were submitted to the festival this year from around the world (compared with some 1,500 in 2014), and this has sparked questions about the current under-representation of Africa and Latin America.

Frémaux said it wasn’t true that the same internationally known directors get selected every year, and he stressed that the Festival was trying to stay fresh with first-feature directors and ground-breaking work.

“There weren’t many renowned auteurs whose films were ready,” Frémaux told reporters. “But there were several up-and-coming directors who presented us with works of quality, so we decided to go with them this time for the competition.”

Abderrahmane Sissako
In addition to the short-film category, Sissako will head the Jury for Cannes’ Cinéfondation section, which screens works by film-school students (18 works have been selected from the 1,600 submitted this year).

“Sissako crosses cultures and continents,” say the Cannes organizers of the director who did his film training in the Soviet Union. “His work is suffused with humanism and social consciousness and explores the complex relations between North and South as well as the fate of a much-beleaguered Africa.”

For more about African cinema and Cannes, see: http://newafricanmagazine.com/nollywood-just-single-plot/

Saturday, 11 April 2015

GUADELOUPE BOOSTS LIT WITH 4TH WRITERS CONGRESS

Following the nomination of several authors for prestigious international awards, Caribbean literature gets a further boost in April with the 4th Congrès des écrivains de la Caraïbe (4th Congress of Caribbean Writers), being held in Guadeloupe April 15 to 18.

With the theme of “Travel, Migration, Diasporas in Caribbean Literatures”, the congress features some 50 writers over the four-day event, hosted by the Regional Council of Guadeloupe and the Association of Caribbean Writers.

The authors will give readings, join panel debates and meet with students, according to the organizers. Participants will also pay tribute to Maryse Condé, the renowned Guadeloupean writer who was recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

“This biennial meeting is an occasion to place literature as the compendium of our Guadeloupean history, and equally to look at our international role and to examine our Caribbean culture,” said Victorin Lurel, President of the Regional Council.

In a statement ahead of the congress, Lurel urged Caribbean populations to support literature, and he reaffirmed Guadeloupe’s commitment to promoting books and bridging the language divide in the region.

“Although honoured globally, the literatures of the Caribbean still need these kinds of international meetings to go beyond linguistic barriers and geographic partitions, and to try to build a common literary space,” Lurel said.

Writers from 21 nations of the Caribbean and the wider Americas are set to participate in the Congress, representing countries such as Antigua, Barbados, Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Haïti and Jamaica, among others.

Daniel Maximin
The Guadeloupean poet and novelist Daniel Maximin is the guest of honour, with the Congress paying homage to his long career as writer, professor and advocate of the arts.

Maximin will give the inaugural address. His last published work is the seminal Aimé Césaire, Frère-Volcan - recording 40 years of dialogue with the late Martinique-born literary icon.

Other writers hailing from around the region include Joël Des Rosiers and Yanick Lahens of Haïti; Carlos Roberto Gómez Beras, of Puerto Rico; Earl Lovelace, Lawrence Scott and Elizabeth Nunez, of Trinidad  and Tobago; Kwame Dawes of Jamaica; Yolanda Wood of Cuba; and Mac Donald Dixon and Vladimir Lucien of St. Lucia.

Lucien, a poet, comes fresh from being honoured in Trinidad, with his book Sounding Ground on the shortlist of three works for the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

The Congress will present its own prestigious award, the Prix littéraire de l’Association des écrivains de la Caraïbe, and the competition is tough, reflecting the great productivity of Caribbean writers over the past two years. Eighteen nominees come from French-speaking islands, 10 from the Anglophone countries and 14 from Spanish-speaking nations.

The list includes Dany Laferrière (Haiti), Simone Schwarz-Bart and André Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Sharon Leach (Jamaica), and Héctor Torres (Venezuela), just to name a few.

Participating writer Kwame Dawes
The Congress has grown massively since its launch in 2009, when Nobel laureate Derek Walcott was the guest of honour, and both writers and readers are increasingly embracing the richness of Caribbean diversity and history, say scholars.

As Earl Lovelace notes: The linguistic plurality of our geographic basin is considered, often wrongly, as an obstacle to exchange, to cooperation. But In truth, it’s an extraordinary source of wealth.

Monday, 6 April 2015

JAMAICAN SINGER JACK RADICS GOES BACK TO BASICS

Asked how he's doing, Jack Radics replies that  he is “tired but inspired”.

The Jamaican singer, whose voice buoyed the Chaka Demus & Pliers international hit Twist & Shout, has good reason to feel positive these days. Reviewers have praised his new album Way 2 Long as a great return to roots reggae, and he’s on the road to healing after more than “30 years of being exploited by record companies”, as he puts it.

When Twist & Shout reached number one on the UK Singles Chart, back in 1994, Radics’ name was hardly mentioned because the song was seen as a vehicle for Demus & Pliers, the top-selling Jamaican reggae duo. But Radics’ sonorous voice was unmistakable on the record.

“You needed a magnifying glass to see my name in the credits,” he laughs now. “I had to fight tooth and nail for recognition. Such are the travails of us the artists.”

Speaking from a beach-view apartment in Negril, in a long-distance video interview with SWAN, Radics describes how he “stepped off the damn merry-go-round” some years ago and almost turned his back on the music industry.

“Commercial exploitation of artists prevails,” he says. “Some people make music for a living, and some live to make music. But me nah look no money - my quest and motivation are not for money.”

Radics depicts a hotbed of dishonest deals and mistreatment in the entertainment sector, but he says that he couldn’t help missing the music when he was away from it.

“I missed the music, the creativity, but I didn’t miss the business,” he told SWAN.

Supporters and a new manager encouraged him to return, and the current album is a “collective” of the different styles he has pursued over the years, from blues-and-soul-infused rhythms to roots reggae.

The title song is a slow, mellow track, with gentle strings and Radics’ persuasive voice declaring, “I been away too long, I wanna put my feet in the sand again”.

This sets the tone for an album that includes autobiographical notes, political views, love songs and covers of hits such as Valerie, which Radics reinterprets, in Caribbean style.

The CD might remind listeners of a certain era in reggae when accomplished singers like Jacob Miller, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown ruled the airwaves, and the songs told a story while still being “danceable”. This is the tradition to which Radics seems to belong, even though he released his first solo album in 1991, just as dancehall was going global. Way 2 Long shows Radics as a balladeer above all else.

He says that he was always singing as a child, so much so that family members thought he was “a pain in the neck”. Still, he got into the professional music business mainly by chance. After high school, he went to visit a friend in the Bahamas, only to find that the friend had moved to the United States. Stranded, Radics found odd jobs, and he was at a club relaxing one evening when it just so happened that the featured singer didn't turn up.

Radics in pensive mood.
Radics says he took the mic and after performing was offered the job to sing at the venue. On his return to Jamaica, he stopped in Miami, Florida, and bought musical instruments, and so his career was launched, with stints in England, the Netherlands and other countries to follow.

Now a father of six, he is back home, with a comfortable base in Negril, on the westernmost tip of the island. He emphasizes that he’s “Jamaican to the bone” and told SWAN that he feels inspired and relaxed by the birdsong he hears every day, and by the sight of the white-sand beach outside his window.

“I don’t like to go to Kingston at all anymore because everybody is a tough guy, and nobody smiles,” he declares, referring to the intense ambience of the capital.

Radics' rejuvenation seems a reflection of one of his hits, a song titled No Matter. The refrain goes: It don’t matter ’cause life has never been better … I’m free to be me, and as far as I can see, it’s much better. (© SWAN)

Monday, 23 March 2015

PARIS BOOK FAIR: BRAZILIAN LIT, FOOD AND A PROTEST

The Paris Book Fair advertises its guest of honour.
The aroma of Brazilian cooking, the poetry of the Portuguese language, and a spirit of protest pervaded this year’s Paris Book Fair, May 20 - 23.

Billed as “un pays plein de voix” (a country full of voice), Brazil was the guest of honour, with 48 writers invited. The world-renowned Paulo Coelho was supposed to be the star of this lineup, but he couldn’t fit Paris into his busy schedule, according to the Fair’s organizers, so others kept the words going.

Ana Paula Maia (photo: M. Correa)
These included Bernardo Carvalho, considered one of Brazil’s best contemporary authors, and the emerging writers Tatiana Salem Levy - author of the acclaimed novel A Chave de Casa - and Ana Paula Maia, who began her career with “short pulp fiction” on the Internet and now has numberous fans.

Maia's French publisher, Paula Anacaona of Anacaona Editions, told SWAN that the young Brazilian author gives voice to those who normally have no presence in literature - a slaughterhouse employee, a worker at a crematorium. 

At the Fair, Maia and her peers discussed topics ranging from the depiction of urban violence to dealing with memory and displacement. 

But food was also a part of the experience at the Brazilian pavillion, as chefs gave workshops on the country’s cuisine, presenting appetizing-looking concoctions alongside their cookbooks.

The smell of food intermingled with sounds of protest when, on the second day of the Fair, French writers demonstrated to highlight the dangers that all in the profession are facing: work insecurity, "derisory" income, and unfavourable state regulation, among other issues.

“No writers, no books,” the protesters warned via their placards.

Still, during the four days of the Fair, book lovers filled rows of sturdy white plastic chairs as they listened to the invited Brazilian authors as well as writers from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Writers from France's overseas territories.
The African presence has continued to grow, and the huge pavilion featuring “Livres et auteurs du Bassin du Congo” (Books and Writers of the Congo Basin) acts as a magnet for a broad cross-section of visitors.

African and Caribbean authors participated too in readings and debates at the pavillions of publishers from French overseas territories including Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Martin.

Guadeloupe’s Editions Jasor presented several writers including playwright Gerty Dambury, and the Guadeloupe Region’s Culture Service promoted its upcoming Caribbean Writers Congress, taking place on the island April 15 to 18.

Dominique Hubert
“We’ll have writers from all over the Caribbean, speaking French, Spanish, English, and showing the richness of the region’s literature,” said spokesperson Dominique Hubert. (SWAN will have a special report on the annual Congress in April.)

Another highlight of the fair has been discovering off-beat, independent publishers that produce strikingly original books, both in format and content.

La Cheminante, a French publishing house headed by Sylvie Darreau, has launched a Harlem Renaissance collection, for instance, that emphasizes the links between African American writers and the Diaspora.

Beautifully produced, the layout of the books tells as much of a story as the words. Even the font and size of the page numbers are meant to evoke certain feelings among readers.

Darreau and Boum
La Cheminante also publishes French-based African writers such as Hemley Boum, who presented her third novel Les maquisards (The guerillas) on March 22. Through a family saga, the book shines light on little-known aspects of the fight for Cameroon's independence.

This year the Fair additionally launched a “Talented Indies” programme, “starring” up and coming French-speaking publishers from cities such as Algers, Brussels, Marseille, Casablanca, Geneva and Tunis.

"This is  a space where we can come together, and we need that more and more, in light of all the incidents that have taken place since the beginning of the year," said Darreau, referring to attacks in France, Tunisia and other countries.

Monday, 2 March 2015

CARIBBEAN PLAYWRIGHTS CONVERSE AND PROVOKE

“I think Afro-American theatre comes out of protest. It is a violent reaction to untenable conditions. Caribbean theatre has all the same reasons for the anger, but our memory is not the same kind.”

This remark from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott is just one of the frank and provocative comments in Visions and Voices, a captivating book by Olivier Stephenson that comprises interviews with 14 Caribbean playwrights.

The 435-page volume includes conversations with Jamaica’s best known dramatists Trevor Rhone and Dennis Scott, Montserrat’s Edgar Nkosi White and Trinidad’s Errol Hill - “widely recognized as the father of the English-speaking Caribbean theatre”. And, off course, there is St. Lucian-born Walcott, the Caribbean’s most celebrated poet-playwright-artist. But only one female dramatist,  Jamaica’s Carmen Tipling, is featured in the collection, which detracts from its completeness.

Stephenson, a Jamaican-born, United States-based journalist and playwright himself, conducted the interviews in the 1970s and 1980s when he was actively involved in theatre in New York as a founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre.

Many of his peers (and “elders”) were also living in the U.S. or visiting at the time, which was a crucial period for the genre, full of new plays and a sense of community. After Stephenson’s interviews were completed, it would take more than 30 years for the book to be published, however. 

“Some publishers said it was too academic, while others said it wasn’t academic enough,” Stephenson recalls. Finally, England-based Peepal Tree Press stepped in and the book came out last year, with a preface by prize-winning writer Kwame Dawes.

Olivier Stephenson (photo: C. West)
In the interim, Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and several of the playwrights have died; but their words still give a riveting picture of the Caribbean theatre world, with all the experiences, visions and goals. Walcott, now 85 years old, delivers some of the most insightful comments, positioning the Caribbean artist in an international context and criticizing the lack of state support for art and culture in the region.

“The body of Caribbean literature in the theatre, I think, is still minuscule,” he tells Stephenson. “And I think the reason for that is that there is not enough encouragement given to the development of the Caribbean actor and dancer in his or her native island.”

Since Walcott said those words, some things have naturally changed, with high-quality arts festivals now taking place across the Caribbean and several home-grown awards being launched. But much more needs to be achieved in the area of cultural policy.

“What stultifies and cripples in the Caribbean is the absence of that machine (to get plays made),” Walcott says. “So what you find is a lot of people having to give up writing plays because they can’t get them done.

“The total amount of unproduced plays in the Caribbean must be very, very large and God knows how many are good,” he adds.

Stephenson, in an interview with SWAN, said he completely agreed with Walcott’s assessment. “There is unquestionably not enough support,” he said. “A lot of lip service is paid to promoting the arts, but nothing is really done because that is how governments work.”

An interesting aspect of the interviews in Visions and Voices is the way Caribbean dramatists respond to comparisons between them and others in the sector. Of the criticism by some African-American playwrights that Caribbean - or West Indian - writers aren't angry enough, Walcott has this revealing response (worth repeating in its entirety):

Derek Walcott
Well, you see, I don’t think that a West Indian gets up in the morning saying, “I am black.” There is not an American Black who doesn't get up in the morning and think, even subliminally, “I am black and I have to face the day.” They get up in the morning with the feeling that something’s going to happen to them simply because they are black. That goes on in this country (the U.S.) still. It does not happen in the Caribbean. One does not get up in the morning and say, “Jesus Christ, I am black and some mother is going to be out for my ass today!” And that’s the difference. And because the Caribbean writer does not wake up in the morning with that kind of burden, he has the advantage of being able to develop a sense of universal anger, a certain perspective on the conditions of the Black or any Third World disadvantaged race.

One of the reasons why Caribbean plays are so banal - so many plays are just jokes, comedies, or backyard farces - is because that problem, the weight of being Black, does not exist for them; there’s no fight against “The Man”, against a visible oppressor. If anything, the Caribbean tendency is toward a political anger rather than a personal anger - towards a socialist or a Marxist perspective. You can’t help but be leftist in the Caribbean if you’re a writer - you have no choice, really.

When Stephenson asks why Walcott says this, the grand old man of Caribbean letters replies: “Because of the poverty, of the violent contrast between the rich and the poor. And anybody with a simple sense of justice realizes that the system in the Caribbean is unjust for the majority of the people. So that kind of anger is there.

Whether one agrees with Walcott or not, Stephenson's book does give readers much to think about, and perhaps it will also encourage the public to see a Caribbean play the next time one is presented in their area.

For more on Caribbean literature, see: https://caribbeanbookblog.wordpress.com

Friday, 6 February 2015

NINA: SINGERS PAY TRIBUTE AND CAST THEIR OWN SPELL

Autour de Nina ('Round Nina) is both a joyous and poignant tribute to Nina Simone, nearly 12 years after her death at the age of 70. This French-produced CD brings together top vocalists from different countries to re-interpret some of the songs that Simone made her own, which is quite a tall order.  But the singers deliver, for the most part, backed by intelligent and captivating arrangements.

The album starts with a very modern, “ultra-cool” version of Baltimore by the 25-year-old British artist Lianne La Havas and then moves into a scorching gospel-rock adaptation of Sinnerman, performed by the Nigerian-born musician Keziah Jones. They both manage to give the songs an individual flavour that most listeners will appreciate.

On the sixth track, French singer-songwriter Ben L’Oncle Soul stands out with his rendition of Feeling Good, sounding almost like a reincarnation of Simone with his passionate and dramatic delivery.

Composed in 1965 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, this song was one of Simone's masterpieces. Critics have hailed Feeling Good for bringing together classical music, blues and soul, and launching what would become a jazz standard, and Ben L’Oncle Soul does this musical history justice.

In contrast, his compatriot Olivia Ruiz might have opted for a different song because she has the insurmountable task of making something individual from My Baby Just Cares For Me, one of the pieces most closely associated with Simone. Ruiz doesn’t quite succeed, despite the “extra jazziness” of the music.

Singer Ben l'Oncle Soul (photo: FPT)
American singer Melody Gardot, meanwhile, brings new gravity and beauty to Four Women, composed by Simone in 1966 and first released on the album Wild is the Wind. She is matched by Swiss-born jazz artist Sophie Hunger, who lives up to her adopted name with a searing performance of I Put A Spell on You, probably the most memorable interpretation on this tribute CD – all hungry, tormented vocals, wailing instruments and an extended finale. One will want to listen to it again and again, along with the track by Ben l'Oncle Soul.

The other songs feature South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah, the Franco-Moroccan performer Hindi Zahra, American jazzman Gregory Porter and French singer-actress Camille. Their performances are all enjoyable and touching in particular ways, even if one can’t help feeling that they don’t quite measure up to the “original” versions. But how could they? Simone took everything she did to an inimitable level.

Still the CD is a fitting tribute, especially when one refrains from comparing the singers to an incomparable star and pay attention to the superb instrumentation of the backing musicians. (Label: Verve. Produced by Maxime Le Guil and Clément Ducol.)

Thursday, 15 January 2015

MADNESS IN CARIBBEAN LIT: SCHOLARS & WRITERS MEET


The University of Liège in Belgium will hold a symposium titled “Altered States: Configuring Madness in Caribbean Literature” in April, with renowned international scholars and Caribbean writers participating.

The event is being hosted by CEREP (Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherche en Etudes Postcoloniales / Centre for Teaching and Research in Postcolonial Studies), one of the first research units in Europe to focus on postcolonial and formerly Commonwealth studies. Founded in 1968 by Prof. Hena Maes-Jelinek, an acclaimed academic and author, the Centre frequently organizes seminars, lectures and conferences at the University of Liège.

Current director Bénédicte Ledent says that the symposium takes as its main starting point the "ubiquitous representation of various forms of mental illness, breakdown and psychopathology in Caribbean literature" and the fact that this topic has been relatively neglected in criticism, especially in Anglophone texts, apart from scholarship devoted to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

“While acknowledging a small number of recent publications on the topic … we believe that much remains to be done to rethink the trope of ‘madness’ across Caribbean literature by local and diaspora writers,” she said.

Those interested in attending the sympsium can find registration information here: http://www.madness.ulg.ac.be/programme.html

Monday, 5 January 2015

FEEDING THE SPIRIT: EXPO HIGHLIGHTS ART OF EATING

The “Art of Eating - Rites and Traditions” is the latest exhibition at the Dapper Museum, a cultural space in Paris, France, that focuses on Africa, the Caribbean and "their diaspora".

Running until July 2015, the show takes viewers on a journey through the traditions as well as daily actions that govern the preparation and consumption of food, providing a contrast to the “sameness” of the global fast-food industry. 

One can observe the links between specific objects, food preparation and the offerings made to “ancestors, deities and spirits”, for instance.  These objects are made from an array of materials and come in different and fascinating forms, attesting to rich traditions and rituals. 

For more information, go to: http://www.dapper.fr/en/

Friday, 19 December 2014

REVIEW: A FEW GOOD BOOKS TO TAKE US FORWARD

This year has seen a bonanza of worthy books, covering various genres. But while best-book lists in many newspapers have focused on fiction, we’d also like to highlight some of the critical work produced by scholars in 2014. Here we select a short list of books that we hope will be widely read in the coming months. We’ve found them to be incisive, superbly written, and extremely thought-provoking.

From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life, ed. by C. Oberon Garcia, V. Ashanti Young and C. Pimentel

This collection of essays is a timely examination of “racial ventriloquism” in the United States - that is “when white authors appropriate the history and stories of black life”.

Edited by Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charlise Pimentel, the book looks at how “white-authored narratives are consistently used to structure perceptions of American race relations”, infiltrating our consciousness and perpetuating the current hegemonic power.

The editors state that despite the success of contemporary American writers such as Toni Morrison, “the most influential and widely disseminated narratives of black life are created by white people through the institutions and discourses dominated by white money, decision-making, and interests”.

Focusing particularly on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, and the film it spawned, the book discusses the critical controversies around these works and investigates the divided opinions about them in the Black community itself: from Oprah Winfrey’s embracing of the story to writer Touré’s slamming the film as “the most loathsome movie” in America.

The Help links us to questions that are not only literary or cinematic but also deeply social and political,” say Oberon and colleagues. Among these questions is: why does Hollywood constantly reward black actors and actresses “for playing subservient, violent, or hypersexual roles often created by whites”?

With the current racial crisis playing out in the United States, following the high-profile killings by police of African-American men and youngsters, these issues are more pertinent than ever. As the editors assert, “stories … create our realities”, and if we don’t question and challenge the sources of these stories, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

Claire Oberon Garcia
Oberon Garcia, a professor of American literature and a race and ethnic studies scholar, particularly wishes to “encourage readers, students, and teachers to be more aware of how works such as these perpetuate the racism that so many of us are committed to eradicating”.

The editors realize that some people will disagree with their views and pose the question: “doesn’t every artist, writer, producer, or director have the right to tell stories as he or she sees fit?” The answer to that would be “yes”, of course, in a world where equality is the norm. 

But sympathy and empathy are not the same as painful experience, and “racial ventriloquism” may be fundamentally doing more harm than good. Anyone who has doubts about this can skip directly to Chapter 4: “Taking Care a White Babies, That’s What I Do – The Help and Americans’ Obsession with the Mammy”, written by Katrina Dyonne Thompson.

Thompson was a doctoral student, sitting frequently in a café “armed with stacks of books” and her laptop, when one day “an older white gentleman” approached her and asked, “Are you here to interview for a nanny job?” As she says, she felt “the burden of hundreds of years of stereotypes in this one exchange”. Thompson’s essay goes on to illustrate how Stockett’s novel feeds these stereotypes. Like the other essays in the book, it may make some readers reconsider their take on the whole “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” genre.

But the editors aren’t necessarily recommending that these narratives not be written or read; what they are calling for is context. “Racial ventriloquism” should be given its appropriate framework, and should be taught alongside books by African American writers, in a comparative and critical space. The message here is that white-authored stories should not provide the prevailing and accepted view of black lives.

The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory

Shalini Puri’s elegantly written book comes 31 years after the United States’ invasion of Grenada and is the first scholarly work from the humanities on the subject of both the Grenada Revolution and the US “intervention”, according to the publishers. The author herself describes the book as “simultaneously a critique, tribute, and memorial”, and it fills all those roles in excellent fashion.

Puri, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, argues that the 1979-1983 revolution was a transnational event that had a great impact on the politics and culture across the Caribbean and on the region’s Diaspora, both during its short span and in the three decades since its fall. Her research includes interviews, landscape studies, literature, visual art, music, film, and newspaper accounts to give a gripping description and analysis of the revolution and its effects.

Her main premise is that the region has been participating in a kind of collective silence about the revolution, hence her subtitle “Operation Urgent Memory”, a play on the name of the American offensive - Operation Urgent Fury. “The degree to which Grenadian memories are silenced is especially striking in comparison to the loudness of pro-US narratives,” she writes, adding that on the Internet, “data on the US invasion, which lasted barely a week, far outweigh those on the Grenada Revolution, which lasted four and a half years”.

Puri makes it clear from the outset that this is not a history book, but a “meditation on memory, on its frailty and its survival, on the unexpected sites and manner of its surfacing”. As such, the book can be considered a literary work, fused with criticism and journalism. It even has photographs – some snapped by Puri and others taken from archives or provided by Grenadian sources.

Shalini Puri
Readers will gain new insights into the momentous events on the Caribbean island, from the overthrow of Prime Minister Eric Gairy in 1979 to the invasion by the United States in 1983.  Puri delves into the charismatic personalities of revolutionary leaders such as Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard and recounts the tragedy of Bishop’s execution in October 1983, before the age of 40. She provides compelling answers to the question of: what is the significance of a revolution on a tiny island measuring 310 square kilometres, smaller than many US cities?

As she points out, the Grenada Revolution was the “first socialist-oriented revolution in the Anglophone Caribbean; the assassination of Maurice Bishop was the first assassination of a head of state in the Anglophone Caribbean; it was the first time the United States invaded the Anglophone Caribbean.” Even now, the events still generate political debate in the region and there is disagreement about the revolution’s legacy.

Puri also examines the long-held silence of some of the participants, including noted writers, but what is most striking about the book is the compassionate tone throughout. It’s as if the author is herself moved by the story she is telling, and touched by the cast of unforgettable characters.

Stylistic Approaches to Nigerian Fiction, by Daria Tunca

One doesn’t have to know anything about the field of “stylistics” (analysing and interpreting texts through an examination of language) to appreciate Daria Tunca’s enlightening work on Nigerian literature. The Belgium-based researcher, who teaches in the English Department of the University of Liège, asserts that the “analysis of style in Nigerian fiction needs to be broadened to account for the range of linguistic techniques deployed by contemporary writers”.

In a clear and engaging manner, Tunca addresses issues such as the links between style and characterization and between aesthetics and ideology. She also casts light on the use of language and folklore in selected texts but goes beyond studies of the writers’ mother tongues to explore form and content.

In all of this, the figure that looms large is that of Chinua Achebe, the late “grandfather” of “African” literature. “Ultimately, beyond all criteria of differentiation, second- and third-generation writers have at least one major thing in common: everyone, from Nigerian academics to American radio hosts, obsessively compares them to their illustrious compatriot, Chinua Achebe,” Tunca writes.

Achebe played a defining role in the debate on language, and Tunca’s book addresses his influence and that of others including Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Among the issues: to choose or not to choose English as the means of expression?

For those who are fans of the current generation of celebrated Nigerian writers - Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others - this books provides accompaniment to the reading of their work. One will learn the names for an array of concepts and techniques used by these authors, such as “underlexicalization”: which is “withholding the usual term for something that is being described”.

Tunca says that every magician (or writer) has a trick. To discover it, “onlookers must not simply allow themselves to be dazzled, but rather observe and analyse – meticulously, systematically, and with appropriate technique. This is the aim of stylistics.” Of course, one can choose to be dazzled without any deeper observation, but then one would miss out on stimulating books such as Tunca’s.

(The three books above were published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

FICTION – THE SHORT AND LONG OF IT

It’s sometimes difficult to cut through the hype surrounding works of fiction, especially with everyone and his grandma now using social media to push their publications. The promotional screams can be deafening, but every now and then, amid the noise, the sweet calls of beguiling stories break through. That may sound a bit over the top, but it reflects the thrill of discovering truly memorable books, two of which are described below.

Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go, by Sharon Leach

Sharon’s Leach’s stories are mesmerising, to put it in one word. The range of characters created by this Jamaican author and journalist stays in one’s head after one has finished the book, with bits of conversation or description recurring. From a particularly poignant story, “Lapdance”, comes this, for instance: “I’m here because I love lapdances. They’re my poison. Chillin’ in the champagne room, son. I figure people would say I’m addicted to them. That’s a hell of a thing to get addicted to.”

Leach’s protagonists are “people struggling for their place in the world, always anxious that their hold on security is precarious,” according to the blurb, but they’re more than that. They’re the products of an inventive imagination that gets to the soul of things, without sentimentality or judgment. They’re people with secrets, with heavy pasts and, in some cases, without a future.

Underpinning the skilful, fast-paced writing is a sly sense of humour, as Leach highlights the absurdities of various sexual situations. Whether readers are meant to take at face value certain improbable acts is a question that will linger, but this doesn’t necessarily detract from the strength of the collection. It makes it somehow more unforgettable. (Peepal Tree Press)

Ryad Assani-Razaki and La main d’Iman (The Imam’s Hand)

Ryad Assani-Razaki (photo by A. McKenzie)
With his air of quiet assurance, Ryad Assani-Razaki just looks like a good writer, and his first novel bears out the initial impression.

Published in Canada in 2011, and in France a year later, La main d’Iman is a story of people caught up in a web of inequality in an African country, where the main characters include children sold by their parents into domestic servitude.

The book is told from several points of view, and pulls one in from the first few lines because of the beauty and sophistication of the writing. The author’s particular talent is in describing the unspeakable, not in crude terms, but in poetic prose - much like Toni Morrison, whom he cites as an influence.

We spoke with Assani-Razaki this year in Paris, when he attended the biennial Festival America literary event. We wanted to know more about this talented writer, who was born in Benin in 1981 and currently resides in Montreal, Canada, after studying in the United States.

SWAN: What was the inspiration for La main d'Iman?
A-R: Following a long period away from my home country, I eventually returned to Benin when I could afford the trip. Upon my arrival, one of my most puzzling impressions was the feeling people gave me that they all wanted to depart. At every level of society, the eagerness seemed the same. The question of why it was so important for people to leave was my inspiration. Some people are ready to go to the furthest extremes, to achieve that goal, even risking their lives. That was puzzling to me.

SWAN: Who are your influences?
A-R: My influences are multiple. Having been educated in two languages, my influences are both French and English. But in any case, I always favor authors and works that focus on character development. My French influences would be such as Annie Ernaux for her treatment of language, Nathalie Sarraute for her thinking. The English-speaking writers that most influenced me are Toni Morrison for her courage to tackle the most disturbing themes, Jumpha Lahiri for the beauty of her words. I have also read Anchee Min, hanan al-shaykh, V.S. Naipaul. I like to travel with literature

SWAN: Do you think that francophone writers from Africa get the same attention as their English-speaking counterparts?
A-R: I think francophone writers from Africa get a lot of attention in the Francophone community. However, to cross over to the English-speaking word with translations is a bit of a challenge.

SWAN: Do you also write in English?
A-R: I do write in English.

SWAN: As someone who left his home country, is identity an issue as a writer?
A-R: I think identity is the central issue for every human being on the planet, whether they are writers or not, and even for those who haven't travelled. We spend our lives, constantly redefining ourselves. Which is why a book such as La main d'Iman that deals with the theme of improving one’s condition as a human being can resonate with anybody, regardless of their life experiences.

La Main d'Iman won the Prix Robert-Cliche, a Canadian award for first novels.