Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Last Week of Summer School

Tomorrow, August 24, is the last day of my African Literature summer course. As I reflect on the experience of this course, I am particularly pleased to have taught Athol Fugard's Valley Song, Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences and Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, all of which I had taught only once before. Teaching these works again has enriched my understanding. I have also taught, for the first time, Mariama Ba's Scarlet Song.

Valley Song is a short play set in a rural location in post apartheid South Africa. There is an Afrikaner farmer who is rooted to this place and his granddaughter, Veronica, who dreams of going to the city of Johannesburg to pursue a career as a singer. The grandfather is worried, because his daughter, the aspiring singer's mother died in the city, having left the rural village. Fortunately, the matter is resolved, finally, and the old man allows Veronica to leave. There is optimism in the air, akin to the optimism of a farmer who sows pumpkin seeds and awaits a bountiful harvest of pumpkins.

The Tuner of Silences is a deeply moving text, riddled with paradoxes, suspense, and surprise endings. Unfolding under the shadow of the devastation of war, on a landscape rendered as an apocalyptic wasteland, the narrative is infused with existentialist sentiments, with spiritually broken human beings in a world that lacks a moral anchor. It is a tale of man's inhumanity to man, signified by betrayal and oppression, especially of women, and the violence of an unpredictable and disoriented father towards his own sons.

This is not, however, a depressing tale without redeeming qualities. In the midst of all the grimness, we see a bond of friendship blossoming between two women--one white and one black--born of a shared heartbreaking experience of betrayal by the same man. It is a natural bond, in the truest sense, neither sullied nor encumberred by racial differences, but transcending them.

Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a tale centered on three African young men, from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Congo, who find themselves in the same city in the USA, trying to make it. Despite the challenges they encounter, they exude a spirit of courage and perseverance.

It is not only immigrants who struggle in America. There are poor people and beggars, prostitutes and drug addicts, the homeless and the jobless. In the midst of all this, the human spirit shines bright. The solidarity among the three African young men, who look out for each other, and a friendship between the Ethiopian young man and a white woman Judith and her young daughter is heartwarming.

Our penultimate text for the course was Mariama Ba's Scarlet Song. I had not read this novel, even though I had bought my copy of it on July 21, 1987, in Dar es Salaam. I have been greatly moved by this novel. It dwells on themes found in Ba's first novel, So Long a Letter, especially polygamous marriage in the Islamic society of Senegal. In Scarlet Song, the theme is complicated by the fact that the protagonist, a Senegalese man, marries a French woman, against the wishes of her parents.

Although the woman converts to Islam before the marriage, and although the couple beget a son, cultural differences make her life very difficult, leading to her mental breakdown. In this state, she fatally poisons her young son. It is a tragic ending to an engaging novel which explores the complexities of human behaviour, religion, culture, and race relations.

I had wanted us to conclude our course with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories. We ran out of time and managed only to discuss the first two stories. In my introduction to Adichie, I had mentioned that her fiction dwells often on life of academics and their families on the campus of Nsukka University, which is where she herself was born and raised.

I had also said that she goes beyond that space and writes about the lives of Nigerians abroad, especially in the USA, where she went to school and spends considerable time. There is a marked cosmopolitanism in both Adichie's life and fiction, and those aspects are evident in the first two stories in The Thing Around Your Neck. Having taught and greatly appreciated other works of Adichie, I plan to teach The Thing Around Your Neck in the future.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Faribault International Festival 2016

The Faribault International Festival took place today. I had hoped to set out from Northfield at around 9:00am, but it was raining. I waited, knowing that the Festival would not start while it was raining. Eventually, at around 10:30am as the rain got down to a slight drizzle, I set out. I got to the Central Park in Faribault, the Festival venue, at 11:00 am. The drizzle had not stopped, but vendors booths dotted the area, under tents of various colours and sizes. Flags of different countries stood in the center, hardly fluttering because they were wet.

I did not set up my table right away, hoping that the drizzle would stop. Instead, I decided to walk around, checking out the booths. Only several minutes passed before I saw two ladies, I knew. I joined them in their booth and we talked for a while.

The clouds cleared somewhat and the sun shone down. Soon several dance groups appeared on stage in succession. One of the groups performed a Somali dance, something I had not seen before at the Faribault International Festival. In any case, the Somali population of Faribault, which in the earlier years of the Festival appeared reticent, has in the last few years come to embrace the Festival. I consider this clear evidence of the positive impact of the Festival.

While the dance performances were in progress, I set up my table and had the opportunity to talk with people who stopped by. I knew several of them. Several I had forgotten, but they remembered me from past years. We had good conversations about my books, my teaching, and my work as a cultural consultant. It was exciting, as usual, to share jokes and anecdotes about the differences between African and American culture.

I had the longest conversation with a woman who showed great interest in literature, and was particularly interested in my work on Ernest Hemingway.

As a regular participant in the Faribault International Festival, I note some unique elements every year. Apart from the increasing participation of the Somali population, I saw today, a booth displaying information about Islam. I thought this a very valuable addition to the Festival.

I wish to commend the Faribault Diversity Coalition for organizing the Festival, which is a great opportunity for people of different cultures to learn about one another.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer School Started Today

Today, the second term of summer school started here at St. Olaf College. I did not teach the first term. Instead, I pursued my interests in Ernest Hemingway. I went to the J.F. Kennedy Library to do research in the Hemingway Collection, and, upon my return, read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, and a few of his letters and stories.

Returning to the classroom today felt like embarking on a new adventure, even though the course I am teaching this time, African Literature, is familiar territory. I met my students and talked about myself and my teaching philosophy, and about basic issues of the course, starting with the significance of Africa as the cradle of humanity, language and story telling, which evolved as an oral tradition and later embraced writing.

Before we dispersed, I told the class that I would continue my introduction during our second meeting. I want to reflect on the evolution of written African literature, starting from ancient Egypt and moving into the colonial era, which created the conditions for the emergence of African literature in European languages.

Here are the works I have decided to use this term:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, The Thing Around Your Neck.
Aidoo, Ama Ata. The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa.
Ba, Mariama. Scarlet Song.
Couto, Mia. The Tuner of Silences.
Fugard, Athol. Valley Song.
Mengestu, Dinaw. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Death of a Matador

Today came the shocking news that Victor Barrio, a famous matador, was fatally gored by a bull in Teruel, Spain. Viewers around the world saw the heart-wrenching television footage of the episode. What a sad day.

For me there is something uncanny about the news, coming when I was halfway through reading Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Riseswhich concerns, in large measure, the Spanish tradition of bull fighting. Having traveled from Paris, the characters in the novel have arrived in Pamplona for the San Fermin festival, and the story of the running of the bulls and bull fighting is in progress.

Readers of Hemingway know that he was an avid and very knowledgeable fan, an aficionado, of bull fighting, which served as a focus of his meditation on life and death, and which he held in high esteem as both a perfect exemplar of his ideal of courage and as a window into Spanish culture. He devoted a subsequent book, Death in the Afternoon, to bull fighting.

Reading The Sun Also Rises under the shadow of the tragedy that struck today in Spain intensifies my feelings arising from my reading. The intimations of danger in Hemingway's descriptions of the running of the bulls and of bull fighting assume an ominous aspect, and the coincidence between what I am reading and the tragic event will remain permanently etched in my memory.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1926-1929

Today, I got The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1926-1929. This volume, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon, is the third in a projected 17 volume series. Like the first two volumes, this one is a treasure trove of information that illuminates Hemingway's writings, his relationship with family members, friends, fellow writers, editors, and publishers.

Hemingway comes out as a man devoted to his family and friends alike. After the birth of his son Patrick, for example, on June 28, 1928, Hemingway constantly writes in his letters about the event--a difficult, 18 hour experience for his wife Pauline, which culminated in a caesarean operation.

In letter after letter, in the subsequent weeks, Hemingway let people know how Pauline was recovering and how the baby was doing. Patrick, he writes again and again, was a fine baby who slept soundly, hardly ever cried, laughed always and at any joke, and liked to play with his father's gun. I am amazed how, right in his old age, Patrick continues to be jovial, full of jokes and laughter.

In addition to the letters, there are photographs in this volume, some of which I had never seen before, such as one of Hadley and Pauline, Hemingway's first and second wife respectively. Equally memorable for me is a photo of Patrick Hemingway as a baby.

Though Hemingway himself never intended these letters for publication, it is clear that their publication is a great service to humanity. They afford insights into Hemingway which are not available anywhere else. The Hemingway most people know is more myth than reality, and these letters show us the man behind the myth, a human being who is in turn or simultaneously serious, sensitive, conscientious, humourous, and admirable.

Monday, May 30, 2016

An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway

In the last two days, I have been reading Denis Brian's The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway by Those who Knew Him. I bought this book attracted by its subtitle, the opening lines of its introduction, and the blurbs on its back cover.

This is a remarkable and most satisfying book. It not only confirms things I knew about Hemingway, such as his tendency to fabricate stories and pass them on as true, but it also offers new insights into the man famously known as Papa, providing more details than I have read anywhere else about his life and activities.

For example, while I knew that during the second world war Hemingway engaged in espionage against German submarines in the Caribbean sea around Cuba, using his boat, the Pilar, The True Gen provides more light into this matter in the form of testimonies by people who collaborated with him and also documents from FBI files.

I have also gained a new understanding of Pauline, Hemingway's second wife. My previous readings had led me to see her as lacking a maternal instinct, and whose devotion to Hemingway led her to put aside her own children: Patrick and Gregory. The True Gen changed my perspective, when I read the favourable testimony of Carol, Hemingway's sister:

Pauline was very friendly and kind and when I was living in Florida she invited me down to Key West--when Ernest was living in Cuba and was remarried to Martha Gellhorn. Pauline had always been very kind to me and treated me like a younger sister. When I went to Europe she helped me buy clothes and not only gave me the money, but gave me good advice. She knew what I'd need (184).

With my abiding interest in Hemingway's connection to Africa, I wish there was more in The True Gen on that side of Hemingway. Apart from books such as Mary Welsh Hemingway's How it Was, there are letters by Hemingway, and there are people--such as Patrick Hemingway--who could have provided testimonies.

Overall, The True Gen confirms Hemingway's image as a complicated, enigmatic person. Denis Brian's characterization of him is right on target:

Ernest Hemngway had an extravagant effect on others, leaving them beguiled, besotted, bruised, or bitter. To everyone he was an extraordinary, unforgettable presence (3).

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Talk With Patrick Hemingway

I called Patrick Hemingway yesterday evening at 8:22 pm, to let him know that I will soon be going to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, to visit the Hemingway collection. As usual, his wife Carol picked up the phone, and the moment she realized I was the caller, she got Patrick on the line.

As soon as we had greeted each other, Patrick mentioned his impending birthday and remarked, light-heartedly, that he was not getting any younger. I told him that his birthday reminds me of my visit, years ago, to Kansas City, where he was born, and the places I visited in that city, which are associated with Hemingway: the premises of the Kansas City Star, the Hemingway home, and the railway station. I forgot to tell Patrick that I also visited the Muehlebach Hotel.

I gave him an update of my Hemingway pursuits--that I had been encountering and reading his prefaces to the new editions of Hemingway's books prepared by Sean Hemingway. I also introduced the subject of the work Sandra Spanier is doing in producing volumes of Hemingway's letters. We agreed that Sandra's work is very valuable.

We talked about developments in Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa in general, and Patrick reiterated his concern about the future, wondering whether our countries will be able to sustain their urban populations. He is concerned about the kind of urban growth that is taking place, and the increasing burden on the rural people who are supposed to feed the urban populations.

Patrick's concerns about the negative developments taking place in Africa remind me of Ernest Hemingway, who also bemoaned the disappearance of the balanced life of the African people he knew, such as the Maasai. Patrick emphasized again and again that he did not know the solutions to the encroaching problems he was so aware of.

I told Patrick that I called him to let him know about my plans to visit the Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy Library, in mid-June, and he repeated his previous pledge to introduce me to the library staff. One thing I always note in my conversations with him is that despite his age--turning 88 this June--his memory is incredibly sharp. He told me that this was a good time to visit the John F. Kennedy Library because there is an exhibit in progress which will continue for some months. He said I should make sure to also see the lion on the floor.

I didn't know anything about this "lion on the floor," but just now, while writing this blog post, I have checked online and read about it. To my surprise, this is the famous "Miss Mary's lion" we read about in Ernest Hemingway's Under Kilimanjaro. This is truly exciting, since I didn't know that this lion had been transported to the U.S.A. I also checked online just now and found information about the exhibit. This is going to be a truly remarkable experience for me.

I also mentioned to Patrick my desire to visit the Hemingway home in Key West, but he said I should think more about visiting Cuba. Patrick and I have talked about Cuba before, with a focus on the Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway's home. He noted that with the current state of relations between Cuba and the U.S.A., this should be easier than in the past, although such visits for researchers were allowed.

We talked for 25 minutes, which is probably the shortest conversation we have had, but it was valuable and memorable. (The photo above was taken at Patrick and Carol's home in Craig, Montana, on 27 April, 2013)