Wednesday 27 February 2013

Looking for Transwonderland

Travels in Nigeria
Noo Saro-Wiwa, 2012
(February 2013)

Noo Saro-Wiwa has more reasons than most to feel ambivalent about the country of her birth. Given that, in the tradition of expats/exiles/diasporans everywhere she’s also very much from but not of her homeland, this would make for an interesting and conflicted read anyway; the murder of her father obviously contributes to that in a way I’m not wholly sure I can isolate, nor am I convinced it’s worthwhile trying to do so.

I’ve been reading this on-and-off since just after Mizora (which seems to be how I’m reading most of my non-fiction recently. Again, not sure why). It makes for an interesting comparison, because Saro-Wiwa also has that same wide-eyed, stranger in a strange land incomprehension regarding the people and places she finds herself engaging with that was so evident in Princess Zarovitch’s manuscript. The crucial difference being that this is meant to be her land, these are meant to be her countrymen. You’ll frequently read an incredulous description of a person or event so strange as to be obviously alien, only for it to be followed by ponderings on what it demonstrates about ‘us’ or what ‘we’ tend to do as a people. The contrast between her demonstrable outsider status and the constant use of the first person plural was one that never failed to pull me up short.

While it certainly stands up as a simple travelogue, that tension regarding notions of belonging was the most interesting part of the book for me. Let me be clear, I’m certainly not criticizing her for how she has accommodated the competing imperatives of the cultures she claims attachment to (she grew up and was educated in England), but for me, as the father of children who will also grow up in not dissimilar circumstances, it was a very affecting read.

Laced throughout the book are recollections of previous trips she and her siblings took to Nigeria with their father who would, it seems, attempt to emotionally bludgeon them into accepting and appreciating that aspect of their cultural background. That it didn’t always work out as he would have wished is definitely something for me to consider when my kids get a little older. It seems it wasn’t a totally wasted effort, but it also looks like I shouldn’t be expecting any seeds I plant to be germinating any time soon.


  1. I'm so happy this isn't science fiction. Your review gives me an inkling that you are a little burnt out from your sci-fi spree.

    I read this

    the other day and will probably go down to the book shop after work today and buy one of his books, most likely The Woman in the Dunes (砂の女)and put it on my 2 read pile.

    Does this sort of stuff wet your whistle good sir?

    I have been reading contemporary Japanese literature lately in Japanese. Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto were pretty good, but I am reading Kenzaburo Oe at the moment and it is a great read as in very interesting, but his vocabulary range is phenomenal, so I spend more time looking up words in some parts of the book than actually reading. I also like to read the small compact novels which are a great format and then read the English version afterwards on the Kindle if there is one of course. Reading two English translations of the same novel is also very interesting.

    I also have a copy of Demons that I want to have a crack at one day, but it has been sitting on the shelf for a few years now.

    Anyway, sorry to hijack your post.

    1. Just an inkling? I take it you didn't read Monday's post then...

      Kangaroo Notebook and Secret Rendezvous have actually popped up on my radar before. Can't remember exactly how now (brown cow), but I'm definitely intrigued. Actually got a Yoko Ogawa book coming up next week, which might interest you.

      I've had The Silent Cry on the shelf for years now. Genuinely, I keep carting it between houses and continents on the assumption I'll get round to it eventually, but still haven't quite managed it. I've never really had too much of an interest in comparing translations, but I can see how that could be diverting. Feel free to share your thoughts and/or hijack away. On Topic is for wimps.

      I'll also take the opportunity to point you in this direction. Well worth a look, imo.

    2. Yes I didn't read Monday's post, I scrolled to the bottom and saw that little icon and then gave up. Apologies.

      Blog link looks great, thank you very much. Ten points for including the publisher so you can find the bloody thing at the book store.

      I went down to the shop yesterday, but they didn't have The Woman in the Dunes, so I bought The Wall instead. He got a Akutagawa prize for it, so I chose it based on that as I had no idea on which one would be the best.

    3. No apologies necessary. You're under no obligation to read anything here, so I'm happy if you go for even some of it.

      That said, a hefty portion of Monday's post was a borderline rant on why I'm done with SF for the time being, so having an 'inkling' does seem charmingly understated ;)

      Let us know how The Wall goes. Be interested on your thoughts, as and when.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. I know so very little about any African nation, Nigeria included. Most of what I know is very global for the whole continent and I imagine that there are incredible differences between even neighboring countries. The outsider status of the author even when talking about her own native land sounds like an interesting contrast in the book.

    I'm definitely more open of late to learn about other cultures due in large part to the variety of non-Western settings in short stories that I've read of late. Not that I was ever actively opposed to learning, just wasn't something I consciously thought of much.

    1. Well, that's it, isn't it? No-one's ever really consciously opposed to this stuff, but unless you make a deliberate effort to seek it out it's very easy to fall into limiting, repeated patterns.

      That sounds far more patronising than I mean it to. Sorry. The 'you' is plural. I'd use 'one' but then it would just sound patronising *and* snobbish, which is hardly an improvement.

      Anyway, case in point: it's not merely differences between countries, but within them as well. Nigeria as a state is a result of a bunch of rather clueless colonial administrators drawing fairly random lines on maps. It's (apparently) riddled with different ethnic groups who rub along about as well as you'd expect.

      See also: pretty much all the rest of Africa and the Middle East.

    2. True, there is that side of it, but more often than not I think people stay within a certain (still wide) range of books simply because even the most passionate reader can only get so much read and there is no end to potentially great books out there. I could limit myself to only reading books published in say England and America and further limit that to only SFF and in my lifetime I would still end up missing out on many great, potentially inspiring books. It can be overwhelming to even consider adding the non-Western world to the potential reading list.

      Whatever choices one makes the reality is that great works will be missed. For me the key is being open to be exposed to a variety of work. This year I'm making a concerted effort to read more fiction written by women while at the same time trying not to turn this into a meaningless "exercise" instead of actually opening myself up to read fiction that I know I'll enjoy but not falling into subconscious patterns of limiting myself to the same group of male writers that I admire and haven't gotten to their stuff.

      Its a good problem to have, having too much to read. So no real complaints here.

    3. Certainly, if people are enjoying what they're reading and getting what they want out of it then it's all good.

      I did some rather depressing maths a while back and realised that I'm probably only going to get to read about 2,500 more books in my entire life, which comes so far from even scratching the surface of what's available it make me want to cry.

      There is, however, a fine line between a rut and a groove (a line I'm recycling here without apology ;) and as with your Not An Exercise I'm making a bit more of an effort to seek out good books by authors from a more varied range of backgrounds. This was one result of that and it's going pretty well so far. As you say, it's a good problem to have.