Friday, October 26, 2018

The Gambia: Reading the Ceiling, by Dayo Forster

On her eighteenth birthday, Ayodele has a decision to make. She has decided to do The Deed. But which one of four possible men will she do it with? The ramifications of this decision will lead to different futures for her. "Reading the Ceiling" follows three possible stories for Ayodele, introducing the reader to the range of experience of modern African women.

While there are commonalities between the three different stories, each has very different outcomes. In one, Ayodele studies in England, and returns to work in the Gambia. In another, she travels the world, working in development in Mali and elsewhere. In a third, she stays in the Gambia as a single mother without tertiary education, raising her son, but eventually finding well paid employment and making a successful life for herself.

When my children were younger they sometimes read books in a series called "Choose Your Own Adventure". Every page or so, the reader was faced with two choices: "if you do this, turn to page 72. If you do that, turn to page 43". Although written in the first person, not the second person, this novel reminded me a little of those books. Eventually I realised that the reason was that both are written in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to the narration, and also elevates action above feelings, although feelings do play a part too. At any rate, I found it an engrossing read, and was absorbed in wondering as each story drew to a close, how the next alternative would work out differently for Ayodele.

Dayo Forster was born in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Like her heroine in two of the stories, she left Gambia to study at the age of 18, because at that time there were no universities in the Gambia. Reading the Ceiling was published by Simon and Schuster, UK in 2007 at which time she was living in Kenya.It was shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-Africa Region.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tanzania: Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzania is a country that was created out of an amalgam of Tanganyika on the mainland and the island of Zanzibar. I knew something of life on the mainland through friends who have worked as volunteers there, but this book is set in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, which is largely Muslim.

Salim grows up there in the 1970s. When his father moves out of the family home, he lives with his mother and her younger brother Amir. Amir becomes a senior diplomat in London and offers Salim a home there and an opportunity to study.

This is not, however, really an emigrant story, even though Salim spends may years in London. It is more about the events that caused his father to move out, and the secrets arising from them. Eventually Salim returns to Zanzibar for his mother's funeral. There he reunites with his younger half-sister, and with his father, who tells him his story.

The narrator of the novel is Salim, but in the last part of the book Salim is relating what his father told him, which to me seemed to add a certain amount of detachment to the story as we are hearing it at two steps removed. Other than that, I found the novel interesting both as a story, and as an insight into the history of Zanzibar, and of the events of the 1970s when the country was in some turmoil through political revolution. I would be happy to read more from this author, though I would also like to find other Tanzanian writers from the mainland, to give some perspective on the rest of the country.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. From 1980 to 1982 he was a university lecturer in Nigeria. He then moved to England, to the University of Kent and has been based in the UK ever since.
Gravel Heart was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.