Words from… the bedside…

In today’s digest, our Reviews team – Wesley, Tom, and Katie – share two each of what’s on – or just on top – of their current bedside reading piles…

Talk of the Town, Fred Khumalo (Kwela Books, 2019)

In this collection of short stories, Khumalo employs subtlety and outstanding witticism to talk about township life and the troubled lives and history of marginalised black populations in South Africa. He not only unearths the persistent evils of the apartheid system but goes further to demonstrate how its attendant social death has threatened contemporary lives of immigrants in the country. Khumalo traces the roots of the social ills in South Africa while at the same time celebrating the joys of township life. It is a page turner!

“Fathers tend to disappear every now and then from their homes. They go to that horrible place called prison. It’s a place where they keep criminals. Thieves, killers and law breakers in general. Except your father has never killed anyone, nor stolen anything from anyone. But he is constantly in trouble with the law because they always find something wrong with his papers. In this, he is not alone. Many fathers from the neighbourhood, who disappear every now and then, have problems with their papers.”

Fuchsia, Mahtem Shiferraw (University of Nebraska Press, 2016)

This poetry collection is part of the amazing books coming out of the “Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets” that has seen the publication of intelligent poets like Warsan Shire and Clifton Gachagua, among others. In this collection, Shiferraw manages to capture war, exile, and the question of home in words that leave a dent in a reader’s heart. Women have also been given a strong voice, albeit at the edge of violence. Shiferraw is also very good at capturing colour in her language – even the colour of emotions. These are poems that you live with. Simply exhilarating!

“I am “other”; it is such

an indistinguishable form, beyond the construct of the proper self.

sometimes I am asked

if I am Indian, Middle Eastern, or Biracial;


I don’t know how to fit, adjust myself within new boundaries –

nomads like me, have no place as home, no way of belonging.”

The Theory of Flight, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Penguin-Random House, 2018).

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while since I saw Ivan Vladislavic talk about it when promoting his new book The Distance. It’s not yet available in paperback form in the UK (only Kindle), so I was lucky to pick it up when I was last in Johannesburg. A debut novel by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, The Theory of Flight is a little bit of (and a little bit not) magical realism that won the South African Sunday Times Barry Ronge award for fiction in 2019. Oh, and for for those who – like me — enjoy a physical book, its UK/US release is January 2021.

“As Imogen Zula Nyoni, aka Genie, lies in a coma in hospital after a long illness, her family and friends struggle to come to terms with her impending death. Genie has gifts that transcend time and space, and this is her story. It is also the story of her forebears – Baines Tikiti, who, because of his wanderlust, changed his name and ended up walking into the Indian Ocean; his son, Livingstone Stanley Tikiti, who, during the war, took as his nom de guerre Golide Gumede and who became obsessed with flight; and Golide’s wife, Elizabeth Nyoni, a country-and-western singer self-styled after Dolly Parton, blonde wig and all. With the lightest of touches, and with an overlay of magical-realist beauty, this novel sketches, through the lives of a few families and the fate of a single patch of ground, decades of national history – from colonial occupation to the freedom struggle, to the devastation wrought by the sojas, the hi virus, and The Man Himself. By turns mysterious and magical, but always honest, The Theory of Flight dwells not on what was lost and what went wrong in a nation’s history, but on the personal triumphs and why they matter.”

Iron Love by Marguerite Poland (Penguin 2000).

This one has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while and I’ve read it before. But with Marguerite Poland recently releasing a new novel in South Africa called A Sin of Omission (2019), I thought it was time to revisit one of her past masterpieces:

“Call it devotion. It was as good a word as any. Why Charlie? Why not Dan or Mac or dear old Sparrow? Herbert only knew it to be so – for Charlie Fraser, despite his odd detachment, had presence. Presence.

And whatever presence was, it ensured absolute devotion…

The year is 1913, the place a boys’ school in colonial South Africa. For every boy, the heart of the school is his own House, his housemaster and his particular Hero. And, for every newboy coming through the hallowed doors, there are two commandments. The first: Silence and Denial. The second: Not to fail at Footer. Validation lies in honouring these. At whatever cost.”

Bird Summons by Leila Abouleila (Hachette UK, 2019).

Similar in generic terms to Theory of Flight, Sudanese-born writer Abouleila’s latest is a little bit magic, a lot straightforwardly realistic in terms of its explorations of friendship, faith – both religious and in leaps of – love and its obligations:

“On a road trip to the Scottish Highlands, the women are visited by the Hoopoe, a sacred bird whose fables from Muslim and Celtic literature compel them to question the balance between faith and femininity, love, loyalty and sacrifice”

The trip is itself a pilgrimage, with “the journey” and all the tales that result a multiply embedded narrative arc and device, with a difference. The three central characters, Salma, Moni and Iman, each members of the Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group living in Dundee, hit the road to the Highlands — its “hills and crags in shades of rust and copper” — to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, which nestles plainly in a hillside of the estate, facing south-east, the direction of Mecca.

The first British-born Muslim woman to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in her 60s, after confirming her conversion to Islam and taking the Arabic name Zainab by 1915, “Lady Evelyn” (as she is known in Bird Summons) considered herself a Muslim from a young age, having spent her childhood winters in Egypt and North Africa, looked after by Muslim nannies and teachers – professing her faith spontaneously when she met the Pope at the Vatican, and requesting an Imam travel to the Highlands to perform burial rites. 

A slow burn for me, this has been on my bedside for a while as Abouleila’s inspiration taken from Lady Evelyn’s life story builds through controlled lyricism and these layered backgrounds. Bird Summons is a warm, intimate portrait of these women’s inner loves and challenges, acknowledging both birth and adopted countries, and the moving power of text and tale, also lived through the spiritual geographies offered by the physical ones they find themselves in. 

“‘In every journey,’ said the Hoopoe, ‘there comes a point, around three quarters of the way through, when the traveller, without a guide, can go no further. But not everyone finds a guide. Not everyone accepts a guide. Not everyone is convinced. Many would rather keep fumbling on their own, trying and trying again. They would rather risk not completing the journey, they would rather risk getting lost or content themselves with the advance already made, than follow in trust.'”

You can catch Leila Abouleila at the third Afrolit Sans Frontieres, running from May 25 to June 1 – Past, Present, Future – on Friday, May 29 at 18:00hrs, hosted by Natasha Omokhodion-Kalulu Banda.

House of Stone, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic Books, 2018).

I keep going back to this stunning debut – deeply macabre, wildly hilarious, profoundly sad and disturbing – and its weirdly compelling loveable-horrible protagonist Zamani, who narrates “Zimbabwe’s story, extraordinarily told” (Helon Habila, Aug 2018). It’s upped its position again in the bedside stack after the brilliant Cheeky Natives frank and ranging live IG chat with Tshuma:

And I am in good company (ahem), as it’s also on Adichie’s nightstand:

As Habila’s review sums (no spoilers):

“Tshuma is incapable of writing a boring sentence: she inhabits her narration so totally that even the most absurd and silly actions become believable. The wordplay and absurdist plot lines act as comic relief, but the author never lets us forget the serious stuff even for a minute, and it is this balance that makes the book work. By the end she has managed to not only sum up Zimbabwean history, but also all of African colonial history: from devastating colonialism to the bitter wars of independence to the euphoria of self-rule and the disillusionment of the present.”

What’s on your bedside? … 

Categories: Reviews & Spotlights on..., Words from the team

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