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.

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