Sunday, 20 February 2011

Round-Up 18

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison
I loved this glorious photograph of Barack Obama kissing Maya Angelou, it is from The Guardian on Thursday. He had just presented her with the 2010 Medal of Freedom, at the White House. She looks so regal and I imagine that she is just holding all together,  though clearly full of emotion. I only got around to reading Thursday's paper on a train journey on Friday morning, and took the picture there and then. Apologises for the quality of the pic. 

Toni Morrison reached her 80th birthday on Friday - Happy Birthday, I hope that she had lots of cake and champagne and wish her many more wonderful birthdays. Here are birthday tributes to her from the LA TImes and from the blogger Afrobella.   

It is my opinion that the work of these two fantastic writers and mentors are the back bone of any book collection and I believe that their work will be read and loved by generations for years to come. 

Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2011
The shortlists for the continent categories of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize was announced this week. There are eight categories with the winners of each category going on to compete for the two ultimate prizes - the Best Book and First Book of the Commonwealth. These shortlist winners will be announced in March, with winners announced during May at a literature festival in Sydney. The Commonwealth Writers' Prize is about celebrating the ground-breaking work of  new and established writers; and finding the icons of tomorrow. So I like the way that the shortlisted writers are already described as winners.
It is a superb list that includes Andrea Levy (The Long Song), Aminatta Forna (The Memory of Love), EC Osondu (The Voice of America), Chioma Chikereke (Bitter Leaf), Leila Aboulela (Lyrics Alley), Zukiswa Wanner  (Men of the South), and Helon Habila (Oil on Water) - all of whom I have mentioned throughout the past year on this blog. 

I had not come across Colour Blind by Uzoma Uponi, inspired by lines from the Bible's Song of Solomon, it is a story of clashes between opposing families;  or Cynthia Jele's Happiness is a Four Letter Word, which is billed as Sex and the City set in Johannesburg. I look forward to finding out more about them. 

Interested also to see in the  South East Asia and Pacific Best Book category Lloyd Jones, (a New Zealander) with his book Hand Me Down World. He is a previous Commonwealth Prize winner. I had been meaning to include Hand Me Down World in a round-up before Christmas; but had not quite got round to it. It is an exploration of identity, and the focus is on the travails of Ines, an African woman who enters Europe illegally to look for her child, after she had been tricked by the German father into giving him up for adoption. The story is told from the perspectives of the people Ines meets as she makes her journey across Europe. 

While I think that the overall shortlist is really very good, I actually, could not quite get my head around how all the shortlisted winners had been selected for these continent based categories. For example, none of the Nigerian authors are based in Nigeria. The London based Aminatta, whose book is set in Sierra Leone is up for an African award - all the others in her category are South Africans.  At the same time Andrea Levy is in for a European award, with a book almost entirely set in Jamaica, as is Leila Abouleila, whose book is set in Sudan and Egypt.  Also, there don't appear to be any books from Caribbean authors, as all the entries in those categories are by Canadian authors, I am very surprised by this as two of the judges are based in the Caribbean. 

I have been following the so called 'Rastamouse controversy' with bemused detachment. I don't think the issue is that he's a based on a black reggae-type character or even that he's a rat/mouse.  He is after all having adventures that are about doing good and enjoying the company of supportive and creative friends. The real issue is that he's now on television, if you want your children to read and enjoy books -then get them the books, which is where Rastamouse started out about seven years ago. Research out this week suggests that the collecting bug starts when really young and it starts with books - youngsters & their time. There is no more to be said on this blog about Rastamouse, though Mr Muse thoroughly amused by the rumours that twenty-something Rastamouse fans think that his references to cheese is some code for marijuana, thinks not. More on Rastamouse.

33 Revolutions per minute by Dorian Lynskey
The Guardian published an extract from this book, which is an analysis of the protest song. This particular chapter looks at the  singer, Billie Holiday's 1939 song Strange Fruit, which was about the lynchings of the era. The author argues that this is song redefined popular music. Billie Holiday extract.

The Helen Fraser Publishing Fellowship/Penguin
Penguins annual search for a black or minority ethnic editorial assistant to take up a six month paid traineeship has just begun. The deadline for applications is Friday 11 March. 
I wrote about this a couple of times last year. Here and here.

Penguin have been on my mind a bit this week, and then I was surprised to hear the discussion about Penguin's Mini Modern classics (published this week) on BBC Radio 4's Open Book today, move so swiftly to a close after a late mention of how few women are on the list. You know where I am heading on this don't you...its an impressive 50 book collection of largely European male writers, a tiny handful of women, with the only black writer that being Jean Rhys - who was born in the Caribbean. I bought the Joseph Conrad, Jean Rhys and Margaret Drabble. (Sorry to whinge, but why is it always the third book of the 2 for 3 offers that take the longest to be decided upon.) Maybe Penguin's omission is about what is out of copyright, but I would dearly love to know why books priced at £3 each, to attract more people to read short stories, are so un-diverse. Listen again here. More about Penguin Mini Modern classics.

Out and about: Granta 114: Aliens
At the last moment, on a very dreary evening last week, I decided to head to the  School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in Bloomsbury to a launch event for Granta magazine's 114 edition. Entitled Aliens - this edition is all about what it means to feel displaced. The event was co-hosted by The Royal African Society. The speakers were the author Dinaw Mengestu, originally from Ethiopia and the biographer of  the former South African president Thabo Mbeki, Mark Gevisser.  Both writers now live in Paris. They had been commissioned by Granta's deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, to write essays about different aspects of the continent.  I most certainly agree with Ellah that it is important that African's write about Africa. The discussion was about the role of the participant and the observer.  I am pleased that I made the effort to go along as it was a rich and thought-provoking look at contemporary Africa. 

Dinaw's essay They Always Come at Night, is the culmination of a series of trips to the Congo. He described how his observer's role as a detached journalist was comprised, because he was seen as a Tutsi. This put in him as much danger as locals, who were either terrified of him - seeing him as a threat; or at other times seeing him as someone who could bring help and money. Dinaw spoke of his decision not to write about rape as a part of dominance of the people throughout the region. I think that this came up because it is much reported in the western news, most recently where the UN protectors failed to do the protecting that they were supposed too. Dinaw had spoken to women on this travels, but none who had been attacked, and he felt that it was not right to write about something he could not add anything too. As I say it came up in this discussion, but I was unclear whether it was something that the women that he'd met in the Congo would have raised. There is so much to find out about what is happening in Congo, and Dinaw writes about it brilliantly, leaving us all with the feeling that we all complicit with what is taking place there. 

Mark's essay is about a different kind of displacement and observation. His essay Edenvale, is a look at the secret lives of black men in Johannesburg, who lead double lives - married men 'respectable family men' who are also in long-established gay relationships. While he himself is a in a mixed-race gay marriage, with his relatively wealthy north Johannesburg upbringing he's able to access the freedoms that brings him more deftly than the black Africans that he's writing about. And he is very sensitive to the observer/participant role that he has, Mark clearly understand the world's of these men, but recognises that he's very much an observer too. It is a fascinating story that he has to tell. 

This edition of Granta  (114: Aliens) also includes the essay,  One Day I Will Write About this Place by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina.

As part of its season of Books on the BBC, I have just listened to an original version of the Showboat. It's not the version of the Hammerstein musical film with the memorable songs such as Ole Man River, but a less romanticised version, more faithful to the book by Edna Ferber - read about it here -   Listen again here

Spike Lee
Can't resist mentioning that I am looking forward to seeing Spike Lee on Who do you Think You Are? on Tuesday evening. Read about it here

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