RABI ISMA, Nigeria.
It was a pleasure coordinating the Devolving Diasporas reading group in Nigeria (Kano), much enjoyed by the reading group members.
As a child in primary school I discovered my late father’s store of books and that set me on a journey of discovery: the Hans Christian Anderson tales, Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty, Heidi, and many more. I believe it was the early strength of my reading that led to my doing well in school and becoming a student “well above the average”, according to my secondary school testimonial and exam results :-)
Reading leads to knowledge and knowledge is power – the importance of encouraging reading among children and adults cannot be overemphasized. Myriad experiences shape our identity in my view, which is dynamic and evolves through generations. Exposure to other cultures and ways of life can result in a better understanding of our world. The written word is a valuable tool.
When the British Council embarked on a reader development scheme in 2004 and the Africa region came up with a reader development project called Africa@21, I took the opportunity to create a reading group in Kano, which read the project’s select list of award-winning books written by African authors (Reading Africa) and UK-based authors that had a connection with Africa either through heritage or life experience (Out of Africa).
News about the Devolving Diasporas project came at the right time when, our reading group having gone through the Africa@21 books, I was looking for something new to introduce.
The Devolving Diasporas reading group I set up was a new one, taking into account that Dr James Procter and his team of researchers were interested in lay readers without a professional or academic interest in literary studies – this eliminated many members of our old group. It was nice to get new people too.
The group was made up of nine members (four female and five male) with ages ranging from 19 to 42 (average age of the group: 30). There was a housewife, banker, telecommunications manager, journalist, IT professional, a recent university graduate of computing and another of Mass communication, a university student, and a stockbroker.
They read one book a month in the following order: Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), Brick Lane (Monica Ali), Small Island (Andrea Levy), White Teeth (Zadie Smith) and Adoption Papers (Jackie Kay). Group members met for a 2hr meeting each month.
We had two groups for Things Fall Apart (written by renowned Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe). After the face-to-face reading group meetings, group members participated in an online chat about the book, which was hosted by the Encompass Culture website on 26 July 2007, which also featured reading groups from the UK.
Instructions given had been that reading group coordinators were to stay out of the group discussions as much as possible and not interfere or lead the discussions in any way. The group discussions were informal with members taking turns to chair a session, being ‘Chair’ simply meaning that should there be a lull in discussions, the role is to say something to get the discussion going again. As it turned out, the group had plenty to say (getting them all to attend the sessions and on time was the hard part).
At a point during the reading group discussion for White Teeth, some female members loved the idea of Samad’s wife beating him up in their regular dispute-resolving wrestling bouts (“loved it”, “woman after my heart”). At a point when discussions in the reading group got heated I secretly hoped it would resort to a wrestle and I would of course watch the show, secure in the knowledge that Dr Procter had said reading group coordinators should not interfere in the discussion (after all wrestling is a unique form of discussion). Sadly it never came to pass, as members were able calm their emotions down whenever things got heated.
All the members of the group were born after Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, yet the colonial experience was never far from the discussions e.g. whether we are facing a neo-colonialist influence/movement of western ideals today.
Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
(TFA being a staple in the literature curriculum of our education system, most of the group members had read the book before.) It was felt that Achebe portrayed the injustice of colonialism. A member made the comment that before the ‘white man’ came the Umuofia society was a peaceful one, structured, communal, democratic, equal and just, where you had to earn the respect of your fellow man. This set off a debate challenging that view, especially in relation to women. Women “seem to have no value, so can it truly be democratic?” The opposing view was that women had power “in their own way” and, while not empowered, were “revered” e.g. the priestess. Then “what about the sacrifices?” came from the rival camp. A compromise was reached that the book reflected the good of society in pre-colonial Umuofia – except for the human sacrifices, outcasts (Osu) and treatment of women, which were deemed “irrational” and “heartless”.
The contradictory life of Umuofia society was highlighted: the same society that encouraged the killing of an innocent boy condemned Okonkwo for accidentally killing a boy.
A discussion of the conflict between modernity and tradition, a reflection of modern society even today, where each considers the other foolish. A group member made the observation that “superior cultures always try to swallow the other - superior, not in terms of value, but in terms of material things (guns, etc), a reflection of modern society today.” It was felt that Okonkwo was living a false life and had a personal conflict between his inner fear of becoming like his father and his outward show of strength and courage. Was Okonkwo portraying the “real African man”? Members felt that through Okonkwo, Achebe tried to balance the concept of bravery and weakness, showing you can be brave and still human, the nature of man (not necessarily African), and the internal struggles that man goes through.
Group members had a discussion on Smith vs. Brown and who of the two very different personalities was the “better missionary”.
There was a question about the book’s international popularity, whether it is popular because it represents an “exotic” view of Africa, reinforcing stereotypes about the continent, portrayal of an uncivilised Africa before the “white man” came. Two members contributed that it is rumoured that Achebe was moved to write the book in response to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Joyce Cary’s “Mr Johnson”. But “is Achebe’s novel any different?”
Brick Lane (Monica Ali)
Members felt the author wrote confidently and with simple, precise language. However it was felt that the story was “slow”. Many members had a problem with the author:
“The story says the characters should get out of their culture and they would be liberated”
The author is “standing against her own culture. She did not give the Bangladeshi people a good representation in an alien land”
“The more they tend towards English culture, the happier they became. The Bangladeshi culture inhibits them”
“From the perspective of a Bangladeshi person, she was writing for the English”
“The author writes as an outsider for the English people, though she is Bangladeshi”
An aspect of the book that some members did not like was the letters from Nazneen’s sister, Hasina and there was a discussion around this:
The letters “allowed the reader to follow what was happening in Bangladesh (Dhaka)”
“Without the letters Dhaka would not be understood, but with the letters Dhaka was as much in focus as London”
“Translating a local language to English would appear exactly the way the letters have appeared. The letters are translated exactly as they are written.”
“If you speak many languages your local language will influence …”
“The letters provide room for flashback about their past, about time too. I had to be patient to read the letters”
“The letters are not relevant to the story (nuisance). Showed how foolish and gullible the girl was”
“The girl was not foolish, she was vulnerable”
“The letters were a bridge between Dhaka and the UK, explaining what they were both going through. The letters were written in the Bengali language but translated unedited”
A question was asked about how they can maintain a Bangladeshi culture in a city of multicultural people.
“The Bangladeshi people are living in a small society (cocoon) e.g. a black man in their midst was not accepted initially”
“Tradition vs. modernity”
“It is very real. People come together to protect their culture”
“Brick Lane is Bangladeshi community. It is a cultural place in a global world”
“Clash of cultures”
“It was not an easy read”
“It drifts away from the story and then comes back suddenly”
Small Island (Andrea Levy)
Some members felt that the book was about racism, how immigrants settling into new societies coped with preconceived notions and adapted. How the nationals adopt a superior attitude when they are not really superior. There was an interesting discussion about the difference between American racism (“in your face”) and British racism (“polite”, “hypocrisy”).
Was the story “about the blacks (Hortense/Gilbert) or the whites (Queenie/Bernard)?” It was generally felt that it was about both sides of the divide. One member felt strongly that the minor characters (“Gilbert’s cousin, Maxi, the twins Winston and Kenneth“) were “so important” to the story.
Queenie “had love for black people, felt more accepted by blacks than by whites. Was she a disappointment for not keeping the child?” This set off a discussion about the merits and demerits of her keeping the child. Some members felt that Queenie had conviction (e.g. when she stood up for Gilbert at the theatre, but “her conviction only went so far” and she “lost it when she gave up the child”
Members felt that towards the end the author (Andrea Levy) was running out of ideas and “concocted an improbable ending”. Michael key “but not strong enough”, Winston “miraculously coming up with a fortune”, the explanation for Bernard’s two years away from Queenie, Gilbert’s “surprising reaction to the baby”, “surprising that Bernard who was conservative and racist wanted to keep the child”.
There was a discussion about the title. “In our small worlds we think we are the whole world (e.g. Jamaica calling surrounding islands ‘small’), but experience shows much beyond that (e.g. Gilbert going to the UK and Bernard going to India)”
A discussion that it was much more than about white/black, but about human nature – “people tend to discriminate in favour of those closes to them (those they know)”; “normal”, “natural”. The group digressed into discussing forms of discrimination (educated people vs. uneducated, light skinned vs. dark skinned, etc) and whether discrimination abroad hurts more than being discriminated against in one’s own country.
White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
Central London “a hodge podge of culture”, author being “objective”.
“So many stories; I found it difficult to understand, but in the end I thought it was about racism (couldn’t finish the book)”
“Author tried hard to impress, I felt in the end that she didn’t do a good job”
“Thought she wrote well, but she perhaps brought in too much complexity”
“Very humorous, description perfect”
Many group members suspected that the author’s “personal experiences run through the whole story”
“Depicts the typical problem Muslim Britons face”
“I love the characters. Love Samad’s wife and Samad himself”
Discussion about confusion as to identity (Abdul-Mickey, Abdul-Colin) with immigrants: “usually happens”. “I think they were in the story only to make me laugh”
The author’s writing style: “There were times I understood when she was jumping ahead or going back. But other times… I guess it was alright for her to write in that manner”. Other members agreed.
Was the author “trying to sell an idea to us, or was it just a long story?”
“Very unfortunate that Magid had to end up a writer (because he is very intelligent)”
“Millat rebelled because of outside forces”
“But there will always be outside forces in our lives”
“At a time I thought we were being set up for an affair between Joyce and Millat”
“Similarities with Brick Lane, perhaps because of the Bangladeshi link”
“I felt like pulling the kids out of the book and giving them a knock”
“I can see a relation of mine in Samad, always glorifying an ancestor…”
“I don’t know why the cleaner had to be a Nigerian”
“Because the majority of Nigerians there are in lowly jobs”
“I tried not to have a problem with it”
“I like the book because she didn’t talk about colonialism and undermining Africa”
“But she didn’t dwell on it”
“I found it interesting that she made references to books she had read (e.g. veiled reference to the Satanic Verses)”
“I did not relate it to the Satanic Verses”
“I found it a bit long in some parts, prefer shorter in parts, less repetition. I like the description/titles of the chapters interesting”
“Yes; ‘Mitosis’ was the best chapter title, separating one from the other”
This set off a discussion about the reason for the book title:
“Because false teeth are white, I think it’s a reference to all of them trying to be perfect”
“White teeth (UK) from the outside looks wonderful, but when you get there, very different”
“White teeth, usually fake!”
A member asked whether other members would recommend the book.
“My lecturer always talks about identity, saying it is dead. I would recommend this to him, as I think it would help his case.
“Once I persevered beyond the first 100 pages, I was okay”
“Easy read in my case because, unlike Small Island, I didn’t have to go back and forth trying to remember who the characters were”
“Perhaps because she tells us so much about the characters”
“Use of acronyms, things you can easily remember: KEVIN, FutureMouse”
“Archie was the final hero at last”
“An unlikely hero”
The Adoption Papers (Jackie Kay)
At the beginning of our sessions most group members were happy that poetry (Adoption Papers) would be the last book to be read. They felt they would have a hard time with it. However:
“Simple, uses it to express herself. Story flows”
“It didn’t follow my own typical idea of poetry”
“No usual rhyme or reason”
“Homosexuality / lesbianism”
“Typeface technique good, but…”
“She is a literary genius”
“Every part speaks a lot of pain. At the end it doesn’t matter any more?”
“Contradicts herself in a way; she says she doesn’t care, but she does”
“Hers was a more painful adoption than white baby by white parents or black by black”
“Her struggle for identity is more painful than in all the other books we read”
“She is still struggling personally”
(Some group members went on to read aloud excerpts of the poems they liked.)
Each of the five books was chosen by at least one group member as their favourite book of the five. Based on numbers the general “favourite” was a toss up between Things Fall Apart and Small Island. Members of the group could identify with the characters of TFA and appreciated its simple yet rich language (“beautifully written”) and elaborate depictions of the culture of the people, for instance myths that live with some of us even today (e.g. Ekwefi not answering to her name and instead asking “is that me?”). The art of language bringing character to life (e.g. Amalinke the cat whose back would never touch the earth) and proverbs, which were enjoyed by all members e.g.: “good conversation is the palm oil with which words are eaten”, “since men have learned to shoot without missing, Eneke (the bird) has learned to fly without perching”.
Many of the group members said that Small Island caused them to wonder “so this is what Nigerians in the UK in those days faced?” A member said that there are 3million Nigerians in the UK now, most “had to be like Hortense and Gilbert in their beginning there before making their way up. “You finish school and think the world is at your feet, but find that your qualification may not mean much” and “settle for what you can get”. They liked the language of Small Island and could relate to the characters “according to the language they spoke”.
Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came next.
The book that the group members in general like least was Brick Lane, for the story flow and also because of what most of them considered the derogatory portrayal of Bangladeshis.
The members identified three “major threads” in the five books read: colonialism, racism and culture.
The group discussions were recorded. The team of researchers have the audio/video records and are no doubt doing what researchers do (in between tearing their hair out): analysing, dissecting and drawing some meaningful sense out of the discussions, which may point to a ‘relationship between locality/location and the interpretation of ‘diasporic’ writing’. I have only given what I (layperson/non-academic) felt were highlights of the discussions, interesting bits.
I end this account by thanking the researchers (James Procter, Bethan Benwell and Gemma Robinson) for the work they are doing and for the opportunity to participate. I look forward to the research conclusion. As for when that would be, my dictionary defines the word Conclusion as “noun: what researchers reach when they get tired of thinking”… so I will just have to wait and see.
It is the most populous country in Africa with about 140million people (approx 50% Muslim, 40% Christian), rich in culture and history, and over 250 ethnic groups with distinct languages. About 42% of Nigerians are under the age of 15. Since the 1980s there has been a steady decline in the education sector. Plagued by falling academic standards, inadequate infrastructure, and low capacity and funding, the sector is a shell of what it used to be. In 2005 there was a 13% success rate for the entrance examinations into tertiary institutions. Added to concerns about the current literacy level at 68% (females: 61%, males 76%) is the ever increasing population demanding education, which is inadequately served by supply, further deepening the challenge before Nigeria in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in particular MDG No 2: Achieve universal primary education for all boys and girls.
A paper for the Devolving Diasporas project / Reading after Empire: Local, Global and Diaspora Audiences conference. University of Stirling, September 2008.
Rabi Isma, Nigeria.