Sunday, December 30, 2012

Do talented people have an obligation to success?

It's been a tough, crazy 2012 and many of us, including me, will be looking at making hard decisions in 2013. As I stand poised to reshuffle my career I have started to wonder about the nature of drive, passion, decision and destiny. It all came down to one question: Do those who are talented in some way have an obligation to use their talent? 

I suppose most of us would say yes. It would be selfish of a man who could be a gifted doctor to turn down the opportunity to save lives to learn to stilt-walk instead. What if Beethoven had decided to go be a fisherman or Thomas Edison had remained at his job at the patent office? That is a good point. But what if despite his talent for music, the piano bored Beethoven? Or if Edison had been immensely happy at his job?

You see, to me, it doesn't matter that Beethoven was a musical genius. Without a genuine love for music he would have found himself able to compose pieces with technical perfection but his music would have lacked the soul, grace and passion that turn the good into the great. People often forget that it’s not enough to be talented at something. One has to enjoy doing it as well.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Breaking The Cycle of Abuse

Today I woke up to the sound of a child crying. It wasn't the whiny moan of an over-indulged child throwing a tantrum. This was genuine pain punctuated by the sound of flesh slapping flesh and the angry voice of an adult. If this were a once-in-a-while phenomenon I wouldn't be writing this post. But since I moved into my apartment almost two weeks ago, this is the sound that has woken me up nearly single every day. This is not right. No child is so badly-behaved that it needs to be beaten every single morning.  This is not a problem with the child it is a problem with the parent and it is abuse.

Now, I don’t know where this family lives – they are close enough for me to hear through my second-floor window, but a walk-through of my compound today told me they are not my immediate neighbours. I don’t know the circumstances they are going through – maybe there’s financial trouble or perhaps it’s a struggling single mother or maybe it’s a mixed family who haven’t learned each other’s rhythms yet – but whatever the reason there is no excuse for what they are doing to that child.

A lot of you may not see a problem with this scenario. After all, you may have had a similar childhood and come out no worse for it. You may even be doing the same (or intend to) to your children. Don’t. The legacy of abuse is a crippling one. And as Nigerians, we are all trapped in it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Trials and Tribulations of Making New Friends

My high school posse then.
Making new friends has always been difficult for me. I’ve long suffered from a crippling social anxiety that makes it difficult for me to enter into unfamiliar social situations. Close friends say that once I relax I’m bubbly and enthusiastic, but getting there is like pulling teeth – especially when it comes to meeting men. Going to parties can be hell for me. All that small talk is torture. I really want to launch into discussions of philosophy, art, literature and anthropology, but I am forced to feign interest in what you do or where you grew up. And I’m sure that people can see through the mask. I mean, no one is that enthusiastic about presidential airplane pilots, or Bavaria. That’s why I drink!

Over the last few years I’ve been through a series of personal misfortunes: I lost my job, moved to a new country, my income fell (drastically) and I went through a painful break-up. The resulting depression was awful, and I used it as an excuse to simply stay home. Not only was I socially awkward, I was socially awkward and mildly suicidal – not a good combination for lively conversation.

My high school posse now.
Recently I’ve been feeling good enough to try and get back in the game. Had some lunches, met for a few drinks and attended a few parties. I’ve met a couple of interesting people, but I haven’t really found the connection I’ve been looking for. Until recently I thought I had some sort of social deficiency – and don’t get me wrong I’m awkward as hell. I laugh inappropriately, I often drop the ball in conversations because I can never think of the next “small talk” topic quickly enough, and I often forget what’s just been said (partly because I’m too busy worrying about how awkward I am) – but thankfully, I’m not the only one having problems making friends.

Monday, July 23, 2012

An Inconvenient Prejudice

I’ll admit something I’m not proud to say: I have a prejudice against fat people. I’m a fattist. I have many excuses for my judgemental attitude. For a long time I felt that the obese were simply people who lacked my discipline. Why couldn’t they just get up every morning at 6 am and run several miles? Why couldn’t they just limit their breakfast to a single slice of buttered toast, lunch to one sandwich and dinner to water and a piece of chicken? I did.

It was many years before I realised that I struggled with disordered eating, but that never quite removed the taint of moral superiority that I had about my weight. Even in the times during my childhood when I lived in Nigeria and was derided for being too skinny (the traditional beauty ideal in many African countries is bigger and curvier than in the West) I could never quite shake the feeling that I was still better off.

But times they are a-changing. As looking well-fed is becoming easier to achieve in Nigeria, it’s becoming more socially desirable for women to be slim. The slang word Leppa, which used to be a derogatory term for a skinny woman when I was growing up, is now used positively. Women now talk of going on diets, and mornings in middle-class and affluent neighbourhoods are awash with potbellied residents marching about in jogging suits - exercising. And for the first time, I’m seeing obese children.

I have come to understand that obesity is not a lack of moral fibre. It’s an addiction. But unlike narcotics like cigarettes and heroin, its users don’t even know that they are junkies.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Incomplete Revolution

As a woman of a certain age, I have started thinking about how I will navigate the delicate balance between family and career. I’m not married yet, nor do I have children, but I hope to soon. And the question of whether I can "do it  all" has been bothering me.

I have long been attracted to the bright side of academia – the lectures, the conferences, the prestige that comes with being called “Dr.” But I was always daunted by the amount of time getting a PhD required (5-7 years for a humanities degree) and the long tortuous road to tenure. Beyond personal fears of intellectual adequacy and sustainable interest in my chosen field of scholarship, there was also the problem of how I would balance having children.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Success: Redefined

Since I returned to Nigeria at the tail end of 2009, I’ve been preoccupied with the notion of success. How to get it, how to keep it and most importantly, how to grow it. For me, success was having a job that paid me lots of money, owning lots of nice things, living in a nice place and being in a relationship with someone who also had a lucrative job and lots of nice things. And, success was synonymous with happiness – once I was successful, I’d be happy and I could only be happy if I was successful. The problem was, I hadn’t taken much time to figure out what either “happiness” or “success” meant.

For most of us, success is synonymous with material wealth. You can tell a person is successful by their possessions – the kind of car they drive, the house they live in and the amount of money in their bank accounts. While happiness is usually measured by whether one has a significant other in their lives. And the assumption is that those who are successful and happy are superior to those who aren’t. That’s why there’s a billion-dollar industry in self-help literature that promises (usually in easy steps) to show people the paths to success and happiness.

But what if our definition of happiness and success is fundamentally distorted? What if, it is actually completely wrong?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

In Japan, the Magical is Mundane

Japanese literature
I am fascinated by Japanese pop culture. Ever since I realised some of my favourite cartoons growing up were Japanese Anime, I was hooked. That fascination has since grown to encompass other parts of Japanese culture from movies to clothing, food and now literature.

I think the first work I read by a Japanese author was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami in college. It drew me in with its haunting atmosphere and delicate tension. In it, we follow a man who is  looking for lost a cat, but at the same time considering questions of philosophy, religion and physics in an unpredictible world where anything can - and does - happen.

I recently read two more works by Murakami - Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood - and three novellas by Banana Yoshimoto compiled into a collection called Asleep. They were all wonderful. Though they were written by very different authors about very different subjects, they all contained the same elements of mystery amid the mundane that kept me compulsively turning each page. I came away with the sense of clean, spare spaces, uncluttered lines, haunting sadness and endearing weirdness that I have come to associate with Japan.

What I loved most about all these works, though, is that in them the the lines between fantasy and reality don't quite match up. There is a comfortable blurring between the here and there, the past and present, the living and dead. In each of the novels I read, characters confront alternate worlds, ghosts, spirits and all sorts of supernatural phenomena with superb aplomb. They don't make a big deal out of it; it happens and life goes on.

And that, to me, is absolutely refreshing. So often in Western writing characters are defined by their struggle to understand and accept their encounter with the supernatural. But in many cultures, including my own, the supernatural is a given. Magic is real. Witches, spells, spirits and ghosts exist.

To read works that treat the magical with as much gravity as buying a loaf of bread actually heightens my sense of wonder. It makes me feel that there might be more dimensions to my own quotidian existence as well - like I too might be able to open my front door and step into another world. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On Wretches and Kings

Last year I read Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building about the residents in an aging building in Cairo, Egypt. What struck me about this book was how similar Egyptian and Nigerian societies – as portrayed in Blackbird by Jude Dibia – were. The same rigid class structures, the same juxtaposition of extreme poverty and wealth side by side, the same corrupt government systems. It was eerie.

Then last week I read White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, an amazingly well-written book about how a servant manages to rise to riches and power – by murdering his employer, only to see all the same issues mirrored there. That got me worried. How was it that three very different books about three very different parts of the world seemed to reflect the same depressing realities?

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Right to Racism

April was a weird month for me. I got some devastating news that sent me to some dark places inside myself for a while. And it didn’t help that April was also the month that several race-related news stories hit the airwaves (or at least broke into my conciousness). From the murder of Trayvon Martin, to the Swedish Golliwog cake scandal, the expulsion of Nigerians from South Africa, and racist reactions to a black character in the Hunger Games movie, it just seemed like a bad time to be black in the world.

It is easy to attribute the racism that spawned these issues to a few bad eggs, but that’s not the problem. There will always be racists. The real problem is that racism is not just individuals who don’t like other individuals because of the colour of their skin. Racism is built into systems of power and privilege. Systems that allow some people – because of the colour of their skin – to have more opportunities than others.

Some people – because of the colour of their skin – have the opportunity to live in nicer homes, grow up in safer neighbourhoods, attend better-resourced schools, and live richer, more fulfilling lifestyles than others. Some people always get the benefit of the doubt – if they mess up, it’s not automatically assumed that it’s because of a “cultural” or racial pathology. Some people – because of the colour of their skins – can turn on the television and always see themselves reflected back. For them, race is not something they ever have to think about, if they don’t want to.

And the problem I have with too many of these people is that, because they don’t have to live their lives circumscribed by their race, too often, they dismiss the experiences of people who do.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Calling for submissions

Art by Olisa Onwualu
I don't know if its the season or something, but suddenly I'm seeing all these calls for speculative fiction about women and Africans and I'm excited.

Crossed Genres is a cool a small press publisher of speculative fiction. They also publish Crossed Genres Magazine. They're accepting submissions for two publications: an anthology of short science fiction stories about skilled labour called Menial. For complete guidelines and to submit, click here. Deadline is end of May.

Their second call is for Winter Well: Speculative Novellas of Older Women. They are looking for sci-fi and fantasy novellas featuring women of advancing age (late middle age and older) who are smart, tough, and have wills of their own. The deadline for submissions is September 30, 2012. Click here for more information.

Both CG calls strongly encourage under-represented characters such as characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and female characters.

Also, TU Books, publishers of speculative fiction for children and young adults featuring people of color and set in worlds inspired by non-Western folklore or culture. In particular, they want: Asian steampunk, any African culture, Latino/a stories, Native American/Aboriginal fantasy or science fiction, original postapocalyptic worlds, or historical fantasies or mysteries set in a non-Western setting. For more information check out their submissions page.

Then there's the Kwani? Manuscript Project which is a one-off literary prize for African writing from the Kwani Trust. They are calling for submissions of unpublished fiction manuscripts from African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. The deadline is open until the 20th of August, 2012. More information about guidelines and prizes can be found here.

Finally, there's the Golden Baobab Prize for children's literature. Their tagline is: "an African literary award whose goal is to inspire the creation of African stories that children and young adults the world over will love!" And they're open to all genres, including speculative fiction. In fact, two years ago, their winning entry was a sci-fi story set in a future Zimbabwe called Mr Goop by Ivor Hartmann. Their deadline is June 24, 2012.

I'm sure that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but it really gave me hope that there are places to publish the weird mish-mash of Afro-spec fic that I love. Now all I've got to do is start writing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Women and Modern Misogyny

So I just finished watching Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo. The original Swedish one – not the Daniel Craig version. While I enjoyed the film, I found it strange that a film that is ostensibly about fighting against misogyny lingered almost lovingly on scenes of rape and violence against the main female character, Lisbeth Salander. And even though she kicks ass, in the end, she still needs the approval of her male lover (which was confusing to me, as earlier in the movie we see her waking up naked next to a female companion) to sanction her act of self-defence and defiance. The whole thing got me thinking about modern misogyny. Why do so many men hate women?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Interview with Akumbu Uche

I don't know why I never put this up, but over the Christmas break I did an interview with the lovely Akumbu Uche, a blogger and writer in Abuja. She's one of those amazingly productive people who make you realize how much potential this country has. 

The original can be found here, but you can also read it below:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The rise of African science fiction

There is something bubbling beneath the surface in the world of science fiction and fantasy as we know it. I'm a little late to the game on this blog, but I've been following some really cool examples of African Science Fiction - and I distinguish Sci-fi by Africans from Sci-fi and fantasy written by non-Africans but set in Africa - and I wanted to share some findings with you.

First there's the truly exciting AfroSF anthology coming later this year. The anthology is open to submissions from African writers only on the continent and in the Diaspora. It will be edited by Zimbabwean author Ivor Hartmann. The deadline for submissions is May 31st, 2012. I would encourage everyone who's doing anything in this genre to apply.

Some other really cool things I discovered over the past year include the two African science fiction movies: Pumzi and Kajoola. Haven't seen either yet, but I've heard good things about both.

Then there's Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death which won the World Fantasy Award last year. It's a wonderful novel set in a futuristic Africa. And her Young Adult novel, Akata Witch, about a young Nigerian girl with special abilities coming soon to Naija! And let's not forget the Griots anthology of African and African-American science-fiction on shelves now.

It's a good time to be an Afro Sci-fi nerd, isn't it?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Truth Behind the Noise

Welcome to 2012, everyone. First, I must apologise for my long absence last year. Things have been tough for the girl – but she’s looking ahead to brighter days. It may be a positive self deception, but it helps me sleep at night.

So as you may or may not know, for the first few weeks of the year, Nigeria was rocked by a series of protests sparked by the removal of government subsidies for petroleum. Overnight, the prices of fuel, food, and transportation more than doubled and the National Labour Congress called a nationwide strike which paralysed the country for nearly two weeks.

Thousands of people took to the streets across the country. Friends and acquaintances eagerly joined – one person I know camped out in front of the National Assembly for days screaming herself hoarse. For a week, I was glued to the news channels, following the many breathless rumours of impending societal collapse. Yet, something bothered me about all this agitation.

It wasn’t that it was unjustified. The government used a flimsy pretext and very shaky economic arguments to raise the cost of living on a people who mostly live in poverty while doling out millions in luxuries to themselves. It was more than time that people rise up in protest. What bothered me was not the why, but the how of it.

Maybe it was just me, but the protests smacked of populist manipulation. I watched half-literate protesters who, when asked why they were protesting, were unable to articulate their positions. That’s not surprising. People are angry – tired of a government that keeps making life more difficult for them – but because most Nigerians are poorly-educated and ill-informed, many had no idea what, specifically, they were protesting against.

And this is what the leadership of the Nigerian labour movement used to its advantage. That’s why they called off the strike after getting only minimal concessions from the government – the price is now N97 per litre instead of N65 – and securing cushy government appointments for top members.

In the meantime, the government’s official fuel price is not being uniformly enforced and prices of other commodities have yet to go down. In this country, once prices are raised, expect them to stay that way.

But what really angered me about this strike was how a certain sector of the Nigerian population – those well-heeled children of our political and social class – were all too happy to jump on the protest bandwagon. I watched in disbelief as young people driving shiny imported cars, dressed in expensive “protest chic” outfits and spent the day taking pictures of themselves with their Blackberry phones at various protest sites.

This wasn’t about anger for these people, for many of them, it was a fun day out. Protest is the “in thing” and they didn’t want to be left out. At the end of the day it wouldn’t matter if fuel ended up costing as much as N200 because they can afford it. These people live in a social media echo chamber – accessible to a small minority mostly located in the big cities of Lagos and Abuja – where they have been lulled into thinking that they’re making a difference. They aren’t. Not really.

To me, there is a profound disconnect with reality when a group of people believes that they are on the forefront of curing the nation while simultaneously benefitting from the very disease that caused all this woe in the first place.They protest vigorously against corrupt leaders while at the same time jockeying for a place at their table and happily accepting any oil money that filters down to them. It is a hypocrisy of the highest order – and they don’t even realise they are doing it.

I am convinced that there is a rot eating away at our society, destroying us from the outside in. This rot of corruption has seeped deep into our consciousness. I see it in the way we treat ourselves and each other. I see it in the way we value material wealth over merit or moral character. It’s like we live in a fishbowl that has grown so murky with grime for so long that we can’t remember what it was like when the water was clean.

And rushing out to express our anger is only one step towards fixing it. More than ethnicity and religion, Nigeria is divided between the haves and the have-nots – and these two groups don’t live in the same reality. Corruption helps to fuel this divide because it makes us selfish. We want to get as much as we can as quickly as we can when the opportunity presents itself – and damn the other guy. This means that those who have the most power to change the system have the least incentive to do so, they will happily criticise the system they are benefitting from.

That is not to say there aren’t true reformers working to effect genuine change in the country, but they are few and far between. Some civil society activists have called for continued protests, but no one has really heeded them.  Plus, there are soldiers roaming the streets of Lagos to ensure that no real move toward change takes place without a fight.

So yeah, the protests are over and we are all going back to business as usual. Tomorrow when the government does something that’s selfish, short-sighted and destructive, you can be sure that the internet activists will be there to “protest,” but whether this will really change anything is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps living in Nigeria has made me cynical, but me, I’m not going to hold my breath.