Love in Colour

Nigerian British author, Bolu Babalola’s book is a symphony orchestrated in shades of love and romance. It’s an anthology of thirteen short stories, ten retellings of myths from around the world, and three original stories. These retellings range from Ghana to Greece to Egypt to Lesotho. She has reimagined certain Yoruba and Chinese mythical stories and made it her own. The original mythical stories were essentially told from the male perspective and had tinges of patriarchy and misogyny. However, the genius that Bolu is, has flipped that very narrative, that very story and given the agency and power to the female characters. These stories are now intersectional, rooted in feminism and coloured ever so beautifully with the myriad hues of love and romance; which in reality, if you observe, love is a spectrum and there can never be one rigid definition of it.

Out of all these stories, a few stood out for me. The story of Scheherazade may seem like a movie but the emotions running through it are so pure, almost scared. One can’t help but get misty eyed at the end of it. The banter between the lovers is so real, so convivial. The tale of Attem is all about a woman’s agency and control over her desires and sexuality, and the mighty prowess that she exudes when she celebrates herself. Nefertiti’s story is about feminism that’s active, affirmative and audacious. It’s also about sexuality that’s languid, undefined yet completely your own. The story of Naleli is empowering in so many ways as she comes to terms with her medical condition, her self acceptance of the same and basking in its glory whilst navigating teenage angst and politics. The breakup scene in Tiara’s story is breathtakingly heartbreaking and intimate. In fact the distance that creeps up between them during the conversation is deafening but deftly portrayed. The way Bolu has crafted the nitty-gritty of a modern day relationship involving long distance, jealousy and insecurity is ingenious to say the least. Lastly, Orin’s tale is fun, flirty and humorous. The scene in the bar, I wish I were Orin!

One doesn’t need to know or be familiar with the myths. The author at no point makes the reader feel abandoned for not knowing them. She in fact takes us on this lyrical, poetic journey of love through her writing. This book is lush, the writing is stellar. Bolu has achieved the indomitable feat of marrying ancestry with modernism. In fact, this is one of those very few books where the language is dripping with love, the emotions tug at your heart and the characters make you laugh and cry with them. It’s not a cliché, if I will tell you that this book will want you to fall in love and if you are already in love with a wonderful partner/s, then you would want to hug them tightly as you relish the book.

Take a bow, Bolu Babalola!


The Desert and the Drum

📍 Mauritania 🇲🇷

Mauritania is a sovereign country in Northwest Africa. It is the 11th-largest country in Africa, and 90% of its territory is situated in the Sahara. It achieved independence in 1960 from French colonialism but has since experienced recurrent coups and periods of military dictatorship. Despite an abundance of natural resources, Mauritania remains poor. It was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981, and criminalised it only in 2007. (Source Wikipedia)

This book is the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It was originally published in French in 2015 and translated by Rachael McGill in 2018. The book won the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2016 (the prize was established in 2004 in honour of the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, and it is awarded annually to works of fiction and nonfiction concerning Black Africa).

The story traces the journey of a young Bedouin girl, Rayhana, who has run away from her tribe and is on a mission to find the thing that has been snatched from her with force and deceit. While running away she has taken the sacred, symbolic and pious drum, rezzam, that belongs to her tribe and represents their pride and honour. She embarks on this perilous journey through the unforgiving Sahara and reaches a small town, Atar, and finally to the capital, Nouakchott. During this sojourn, she encounters various people who help her in their own ways, in achieving her mission, and also protect her from her tribe who are in search of her to retrieve their prized drum. Standout characters include that of the slave girl, Mbarka, who has now become a sex worker; and the very colourful and jovial queer guy, Hama.

The book is a raw, unapologetic and uncomfortable narrative of Rayhana’s turmoil. The chapters oscillate between the past and the present as does Rayhana’s thoughts from her secure yet stifling existence in her tribe, to the unknown and unwelcoming mores of the city life. She is torn about the fact that, she still cradles the belongingness she feels towards her tribe whilst despising the carefree and untethered cultural values of the city. She still remains a prisoner of her unpropitious upbringing, though freedom is now within her reach.

The author, Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, originally from Atar, is a journalist, who has written four books and has founded the country’s first ever independent newspaper. He gives an honest portrayal of the Bedouin life and their customs, and has kept the story rooted in Mauritanian ethos. The issues of patriarchy, misogyny, gender based violence, caste based oppression aren’t exclusive to Mauritania. Let’s get off our high horse, shed our condescension and pomposity, and examine the issues closely. They are as much prevalent behind the façades of glitzy high rises and modern lifestyles as they are in the humbling desert.


The Ardent Swarm

📍 North Africa

Tunisian author, Yamen Manai’s book, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, is brooding and contemplative. This wonderful parable, can seem deceptively simple but is a rich tapestry of human emotions and behaviours. The story takes place in a far flung village of Nawa. Sidi, the beekeeper of the village, has devoted his life in taking care of his precious honeybees. However, one day when he finds them brutally massacred, he sets out on a quest to find the perpetrators behind the attack. He soon reckons that hornets are responsible for it and takes it upon himself to safeguard his bees from the menacing and dangerous hornets. At the same time, the unnamed country is going through a new post-Arab spring transition which sees the rise of radical fundamentalists to power. Using God, they are on a mission to convert the people into a bunch of zealots. As Sidi, grapples with the changing sociopolitical scenario and attitudes of people, juxtaposed with the imminent threat to his bees due to a natural predator, he comes to a realisation that human beings are far worse and vicious.

It won’t be too difficult to draw parallels, with the current political situation in our country. As zealotry and jingoism take centre stage, God has been weaponised to spread hatred, bigotry and radicalism. Is this going to be a massacre of our humanity?


Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

📍East Africa (Kenya/ Tanzania)

Nobel laureate, Abdulrazak Gurnah, needs no introduction. He won the Noble Prize in Literature in 2021, for his uncompromising and consistent retelling of stories from East Africa. He was born in 1948 and grew up in Zanzibar, and arrived in England as a refugee in the end of 1960s. Gurnah has published ten novels and a number of short stories. However, his fourth novel, Paradise; was a breakthrough, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award in 1994.

Paradise tells the story of Yusuf set during the late nineteenth century. Born in a remote village in East Africa, Yusuf gets sold off as a child, by his parents, to a wealthy Arab merchant, Aziz. The story then tracks his journey as he grows into his adolescence whilst being a servant and unpaid labourer to Aziz. As the region becomes increasingly colonised by the Europeans, the book draws parallels to the captive life of Yusuf. When he accompanies Aziz on one of the caravan journeys to the interiors of African hinterland, he encounters trading, enslaving, combat, and forms of human misery. This is when he also gets introduced to the Quran and the Muslim way of life. As Yusuf questions his purpose and principles in life, he seesaws between feelings of love and bereavement for his parents and the angst over his abandonment. He is also embittered by the cruel systems of patriarchy overwhelmingly prevalent in the region. Whilst toying with these mental conflicts, he also experiences nuances of romantic love. The climax is unnerving and surreal as Yusuf voluntarily chooses captivity over freedom. With this Gurnah makes this poignant observation of how humans would prefer their comfort zones, even if that meant being enslaved. Paradise can be paradoxical.

The book is unapologetically African in its presentation. The author takes us on this uncomfortable tour through parts of Africa, where poverty, classism and slavery remain cornerstones of the societal narrative. He doesn’t shy away from presenting differing opinions on various religions and their beliefs spoken through a myriad of characters including an Indian. He also vehemently discusses imperialism through the lens of a marginalised and colonised race. Stellar!

Gurnah’s latest book, After Lives, released in 2020, takes up where Paradise ends. Can’t wait to read!


Co-wives, Co-widows

I am beyond delighted to have come across this gem of a book, thanks to Brittlepaper, an Instagram account dedicated to African literature. The book, originally written in French, by Adrienne Yabouza and translated by Rachael McGill, is set in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic (CAR). It’s a story of two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, wives of Lidou. Both women live amicably in adjacent houses and are fond of each other. When Lidou suddenly dies, the women are left bereft and are forcibly expelled from their homes with their children by Lidou’s cousin and his sister, who plan on taking away all of his inheritance. The co-widows then take it upon themselves to seek justice for the retribution inflicted on them just because they are widows. However, the justice system of CAR fails them and both women are forced to return to their respective parents’ homes. But grit and determination never leave Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, who choose to be hopeful and don’t shy away from owning their share of joy and happiness.

Yabouza tells a very compelling and uplifting story. This is an exemplary narration of women supporting women and gaining confidence and strength from each other. Set in the backdrop of political turmoil and presidential elections in CAR, the author paints a very poignant picture of the plight of women in the country, especially widows. She highlights the deep rooted patriarchy and chauvinism in her unwavering writing. And at the same time, it’s a joy to discover and imbibe oneself in the culture and tradition of the people of CAR. I found the descriptions on food and clothes so beautiful, that I couldn’t stop romanticising Bangui.

Books can transcend borders even during a pandemic. Allow this one to take you to CAR!