words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

instruments of darkness

Ceridwen Dovey’s novel, Blood Kin, has no named characters. Each person is identified simply by job description, pronoun, or relationship to the president. This president himself is, at the opening of the book, dictator-for-life of an unnamed country, sketched out largely by his tastes and preferences than by any real exploration of his character. His character is dictatorial; that is all we need to know. The absence of names plunges the story firmly in the atmosphere of a fable, and Dovey’s almost archetypal focus on the roles by the main characters hints at an allegorical intent.

The most important of those roles are held by three men who serve the president: his barber, his portraitist, and his chef. The chef cooks for him daily, the barber comes once a week to clip his hair, and the portraitist does a new portrait of him every month. The opening pages are eerie, and the reader already suspects that the ensuing narrative will be dark. Dovey, a young South-African novelist, who won that country’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize last year for this book, introduces the work in ominous tones. Though what she describes in those first few pages are the respective procedures of the president’s men, and though these descriptions are at once precise and gently lyrical, she drops into each just enough of a hint of the menace to come.

So, there’s the chef, who takes apparent pleasure in disembowelling crayfish and beheading prawns. Her description of how he kills the abalones (large sea snails) is especially gripping: he must let them calm down for a half-hour before he smashes them with a rolling pin. If they see him coming and contract, the flesh becomes tough and inedible; they are wasted.The barber, meanwhile, having particular access to the president, idly muses about slitting his throat or snapping his neck in the middle of shave. He has no compelling reason to do so. The thought merely occurs to him. Even the portraitist is haunted by submerged violence, in his case the close observation that reveals the president ageing before his eyes. They are all present in the presidential palace on the day the president is deposed and, with him, they are all spirited away to another palace, outside the city, from which the rest of the story unfolds.

The story that Dovey tells is, as her title suggests, about kinship, blood kinship of two distinct kinds: the genetic connection between people, and the way people are bound by violence. Each of the book’s short chapters is narrated in the first person; as Banquo says in Macbeth, “the instruments of darkness tell us truths.” In the first part, the portraitist, the barber and the chef tell their stories, interspersing the stories of their lives with their current condition under house arrest and in service of the new dictator, a man who calls himself the Commander.

The second part of the book extends these stories, and gives voice to a few other characters we have met in the first part: the portraitist’s wife, the barber’s brother’s fiancée, and the chef’s daughter. These female voices deepen and complicate the story, a story in which two things can absolutely not be counted on: paternity and sexual fidelity. In keeping with the quasi-allegorical feel of the tale, none of these six narrators has appreciable differences from the others, at least in the telling of the tale.

The prose, spare and controlled, and as clean as a knife, is also burnished with a certain sensuality: around a mouth “wine is smudged like blood,” a child is “the size of a grain of rice,” ambition is like “a living creature, crouched and focused.” Dovey seems to have a special fondness for seafood, and there are many loving descriptions of crustaceans, of cooking fish, and even of the work of fishermen (the barber’s brother is a fisher-man). She doesn’t escape cliché completely: one character takes to politics “like a fish to water.”

But, for the most part, her prose serves the story well, and the story is essentially a report from the inside of power by people who have been mildly corrupted by their exposure to it. We see how easy it is for revolutionaries to become despots. There is little difference between the president and the Commander. Blood Kin reads, in parts, like what such a book about dictatorship by a South-African should. Some of these interlocking first-person narratives sound like testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, unvarnished confessions of what was done to whom, when it was done, why it was done. And the influence of her fellow South-African, J.M. Coetzee, is never far away, not only in the unemotional and fable-like narration, but also in specific incidents, such as when one of the characters overhears a man being tortured in the neighbouring room. It is impossible not to recall the cold-blooded Colonel Joll from Waiting for the Barbarians, who had no compunction about making other human beings suffer, allegedly in the service of the state.

Paradoxically, the strengths of the novel are also signals of its weakness. A certain circumspection in recounting violence is necessary, and we perhaps can only properly approach it if we don’t get too familiar with the stories it (violence) tells to justify itself. The burden of witnessing requires caution. On the other hand, to universalise it is to weaken the claims made by specific victims. The absence of clues about the location, or rather the presence of inconsistent clues (the country appears to be South Africa, but almost all the characters are white), creates a mystery that detracts from the main philosophical centre of the book. That centre is the question of why people are so ready to do violence to each other, eager to decapitate, unhesitating in sneaking up with the rolling pin. These quibbles aside, Dovey has written a beautiful book about a subject that many people, Nigerians not least, are uncomfortable thinking about.

One thinks back to the series of residents occupying Dodan Barracks, the broad networks of influence and power they cultivated, and the souls that were bought with money or recruited by force. It is impossible that there aren’t now large numbers of Nigerians who came close to power, and participated as auxiliaries in power’s horrors. But such is life. When power fades, its auxiliaries slip into normal life, and are happy to blend there, happy to have the past forgotten. Having consorted with killers, they retire, and try to enjoy life out of the spotlight. It goes without saying that this pattern continues right to the present day.

Blood Kin is marred, slightly, by some soap-opera plotting towards the end. But it is a fine book otherwise, an indirect tale that makes a contribution to an area of contemporary experience that urgently needs to be addressed, directly and indirectly.


Filed under: literature

design without end

Last week, The New York Times printed one of the most troubling articles that I’ve ever seen in the mainstream press. It would seem that the travel section, and the food and fashion pages are the last remaining places in America where a certain brusquely racist language is permissible. Those sections, apparently, are not required to move on from 19th century attitudes.

This particular article, by one Suzy Menkes, was unpromisingly titled, Out of Africa. The title is a triple reference, though it is unlikely Menkes was aware of all the layers involved. The 1985 film of that name, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, used Africa purely as a backdrop for the romantic entanglements of a group of white settlers. The sunsets are magnificent, the land is broad and strong, awaiting conquerors, and the animals are wonderful. In the film, as well as in the 1937 Isak Dinesen book of the same title, blacks are in a servile position, there to provide little more than local colour.

Dinesen’s own title probably came from a phrase by the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder. “Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre,” Pliny wrote; “Africa always brings us something new.” The quotation is often rendered in a subtly different form: “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” which means “always something new out of Africa.” In both forms, the intent is to present Africa as a source of the weird, the exotic, and the unbelievable. Once, hearing a story he couldn’t quite believe, Aristotle is alleged to have muttered, “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.” Out of Africa? Unbelievable.

And so Menkes’ New York Times article, some 2000 years after Pliny’s book, shamelessly revisits the same tropes. The ostensible point of the piece is to relay news of how much the haute couture of Vuitton, Dior and Gaultier owe to African inspiration this season. Other than the obvious objection that this is not news, any sensible reader is immediately troubled by Menkes’ language and descriptions. The article begins: “The masked face with its feathers of hair glares from the instep.” A shoe is characterised as a “savage hybrid,” for the designers, “African style is a drumbeat,” and the article is littered with words like “exotica,” “spicy,” “tribal,” and “wild.”

Is this a joke? Sadly, no: Menkes, and presumably her editor, are in deadly earnest. When they look at “Africa’s tribal fabrics,” what they see is savagery. Every paragraph of the story contains an insult, and she ends the piece with perhaps the deepest insult of all: “The irony is that one step on African soil in this high and mighty footwear would probably bring even a hardened fashionista to her knees.” Are there no buildings in Africa? No roads? No flat surfaces? Not according to Menkes, but if one were to wear the flat strappy sandals, then one could walk “on the shores of the Limpopo as in the world’s fashion capitals.”

Unfortunately, this sneering attitude to Africa and Africans is not unusual. It goes on because there is no one to complain about it, or complaints are ignored. Menkes, in fact, wrote a virtually identical piece for the Times in 1997, screeching about jungle animals and tribal bangles. “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”-many Western commentators care only about the peculiar and the savage. Reading them, one would think the likes of Franz Fanon, Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire had never published a word.

But there are some who do get it, who get that Africa is various and magnificent, not merely in the general but in the particular. A starker counter to Menkes’ article could hardly be imagined than the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition on African textiles. One might expect that such a show would simply be wall after wall of pretty fabric, but something far more sophisticated is at work.

The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End seeks to understand the inner world of textiles, an art form that has, for too long, had only a tenuous grip on the respect of collectors. This is strange because, even in the Renaissance, tapestries were more expensive and more highly valued than paintings. In the case of Africa, textiles continue to occupy a complex of meanings, from materials made for everyday use to objects woven for sacred purposes. One of the most striking pieces in the show (which is curated by Alisa LaGamma) is a Hausa men’s tunic from the late 19th century. Every inch of it has been stitched with blessings and protective verses from the Koran, and it has thus been transformed from a shirt into a mantle of impermeable protection. The show also contains dozens of examples of restless creativity: lovely hand-loom pieces from the Ewe people, woven silk tapestries from Madagascar, tie-dye from the Gambia, and early 20th-century Yoruba adire. The cumulative effect is stunning.

But the Design Without End really soars in the way it incorporates contemporary African artists’ encounters with African fabric. “Between Heaven and Earth,” a luminous “metal textile” piece by Ghanaian-born Nsukka-resident artist El Anatsui, is made entirely of collected aluminium bottle-caps stitched together with copper wire. The shimmering result brings to mind kente cloth and at the same time looks like a medieval mosaic. Anatsui has said that he is influenced by Sonya Clark’s formulation: “Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners.” It is a profound truth. For us, cloth commemorates and honours, it enfolds and it sacralises.

A wall-hanging piece in the show, by Yinka Shonibare, consisting of a hundred small panels, employs ankara (Dutch-wax print) in combination with acrylic paint. Another wonderful piece is “Nigerian Woman Shopping” by Sokari Douglas Camp, a life-size open-work steel sculpture in which adire has been transmuted into metal. And, in photography, there are several prints from the Malian genius Seydou Keita (1921-2001), who ran a portrait studio in Bamako from the 1940s to the early 60s, and was fond of juxtaposing his clients’ brightly patterned clothing against equally exuberant backgrounds.

Was there any chance at all that the New York Times’ fashion writer had seen this show? In its form, its content and its tone, the show respects African enterprise and African creative diversity. It’s an old lesson by now, that the way to really understand a people (or a group of peoples) is to pay attention to what they value. All across Africa, there is careful attention and vigilance where cloth is concerned. It is like a little window into the soul of our various peoples.

But perhaps it would be too much to ask that this be understood by those who are only after strappy sandals, something comfortable to wear on the banks of the Limpopo.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before “ex Africa semper aliquid novi” gains a richer meaning: that African ideas, African ideals and African cultural practices can refresh a Western world staggering towards exhaustion. It can happen, but if it does, it can only begin with respect.

Filed under: literature

walcott’s dizzying array

I experienced the election of Barack Obama partly through the poetry of Derek Walcott. There was no obvious reason why this should have been so: Walcott is not a nakedly political poet, nor is he American. In the run-up to the election, he hadn’t been particularly in the public eye, not much more than usual. There had been the spat with V.S. Naipaul, but that was a passing thing, a small scrolling item on the news-ticker, a pair of elephants trampling a distant patch of grass.

Yet his work was reviving itself in me. I had read the poems for years, had probably dulled them a little with familiarity. But, as America’s hectic electoral year rumbled to its close, I picked up the Selected Poems and began to dip into it for comfort and wisdom; and not just for those, but also for the sheer exhilaration of experiencing a master remake the world through his words.

Walcott came to mastery early. He was eighteen, a mere sapling, when 25 Poems, his first collection, was published. That was in 1948. The vigour of those poems, the ambitious reach of them-he employed a Miltonic-Wordsworthian blank verse-were a prophecy. Right from the beginning, the gift for startling imagery was there: not many teenagers can illuminate a poem with “the variegated fists of clouds” and “the bowels of the hours.” Forty-three years later, the sapling had become a stout oak, and he was awarded the Nobel.

This public acclaim can become a problem. Any winner of a great literary prize, especially that eminent one bestowed by the Swedes, risks becoming an institution. The books accumulate like unpaid bills, dusty, seldom read, found fit to furnish rooms and not minds. As August Kleinzahler put it, certain poems come down to us in Nobel-ese, full of their own importance, imprisoned in seriousness. But is this true of Walcott? A reputation can be a dreadful thing, setting up expectations that have nothing to do with the work of sitting down and writing. But let us remember that the proof of poetry is nowhere but in poetry. Walcott’s are fresh, with no hint of fustiness or mildew, perpetually surprising in their beauty and exactness: “Days I have held, days I have lost, days that outgrow, like daughters, my harboring arms.” Who would not wish to express the thought of past time in such invigorating language?

He achieves stateliness by opposing stateliness; his civilisation is of hybrid and brindled things, shot through with Caribbean slang and wit, and every poem from his half-century of creativity seems suffused by sea air. The first of his books I encountered was Sea Grapes, a collection from 1976 that I accidentally found some twenty years later in a small local library in Michigan. To fall into one of those poems was to plunge like a body into clear water, and then be brought aloft again by the water’s swell. The title poem began: “That sail which leans on light,/ tired of islands,/ a schooner beating up the Caribbean/ for home, could be Odysseus,/ home-bound on the Aegean.” And its final line was: “The classics can console. But not enough.”

This had the air of a manifesto, and it was fully manifested in his book-length poem, Omeros, published in 1990. A remix of Homer, Omeros lays down, in St. Lucian patois and English, a well-wrought narrative of Achille (a poor fisherman), Helen (a strong and beautiful local girl) and Hector (his rival for Helen’s love). The narrator, presumably Walcott himself, meditates on the history of the islands; the clashes and struggles that have brought them to their present form; the Dutch, French, English, African and native Caribbean origins; the consolations offered by the classics.

Such material can be heavy going, but in Walcott’s skilled hands, it is bright-hued, flecked with light and good humour; silvered. When half-literate Achille is teased for his boat, which he’s named In God We Troust, he shoots back, “Leave it! Is God’ spelling and mine.” The smile is still playing on our lips when Walcott ends that verse with: “After Mass one sunrise the canoes entered the troughs/ of the surpliced shallows, and their nodding prows/ agreed with the waves to forget their lives as trees;/ one would serve Hector, and another Achilles.”

Such is the sense one gets from Walcott’s work: a talent held in trust, a gift deployed on our behalf, the shallows surpliced and the depths equally sanctified. It is commonplace, I suppose, to refer to such people as a treasure. And yet, opening the books, I feel how literal this description is.

The pleasure one feels, in fact, is darkened (if the reader is himself a writer), by a little cloud of envy. This poetry is an intimate, an embarrassingly intimate, connection to language, the connection we all hunger for when we set pen to paper. The metaphors and figures spin off the page in a dizzying array, page after page of lush description, the boon of a painter’s eye. The rhymes, slant or fitted, thrum to-and-fro like ocean waves, like the call and response of the black church. One imagines the poems set to music, a poet who sings and sings because he sings so well.

There must be some hope that generations to come will remain alive to such thrills. Is there anywhere else in human endeavour where the fleeting moment, and its eternal echo, are as expertly pinned as in a poem? But, in all countries, poets receive shabby treatment-they are honoured when it is convenient, but the deeper honour of being read and properly cherished is denied them. But there’s no arguing about taste. Walcott, or other poets, might mean nothing to some, even to intelligent people with open minds, and that is fine. Poetry, perhaps, is also found in other forms. So, I confess a private joy: these lines delight and trouble and heal. I find sustenance in the craft of lyric verse. It enlarges my world. And Walcott’s verse, as much as that of anyone now writing, honours that craft.

For me, on the 4th of November last year, as I attempted to make sense of the moment (Barack Obama-black, smart, with a precious instinct for human rights-just about to enter into the centre of world history), it made a kind of sense to reach for Walcott. I took The Arkansas Testament, in which his Antillean and black sensibilities confront the American South. Walcott captures America’s lassitude, its small beauties and small uglinesses. It was for me, on that day, at the moment of still hoping for a favourable outcome in the evening, the perfect note: “Afternoon sun will reprint/ the bars of a flag whose cloth-/over motel, steeple and precinct-/must heal the stripes and the scars.” The day had found its words, and I headed out to Harlem to meet the prophesied result.

And the following day, as fate’s sense of humour decreed it, the president-elect was seen holding a volume of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems.

Filed under: literature