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.