This is the story of a lonely boy, Dantala (literally Born on a Tuesday), coming of age in Northern Nigeria in the wake of religious extremism. This is a society in which the passive violence of poverty and freak weather conditions, such as the floods that wrecks his home village, incites and exacerbates the more active violence of men and boys who use their fists and weapons as a substitute for authority. He’s seen his mother beaten by his father and, at the Quranic school where he boards for six years, his fellow students similarly abused for not learning fast enough. When his father dies, Dantala hasn’t the funds to return home, so falls in with a gang of street kids sleeping outside, warring with rival gangs and used as pawns by political parties prepared to win the election by any cost.
After seeing his best friend killed, Dantala flees Sokoto, where he is blessed with a period of relative peace and stability as a dogsbody at the mosque. His hard work, and seemingly reformed character, is rewarded as he progresses to deputy to the imam. Here he discovers a genuine love of learning, especially language, alongside the confusions of a burgeoning sexuality. But, while Sheikh Jamal preaches tolerance, he can’t prevent the theological debate turning violent as his former acolyte establishes a fundamentalist sect reminiscent of Boko Haram (which is referenced in the blurb but not in the text, and perhaps a little confusing as in the novel it’s the Shia who are the extremists).
The necessarily disturbing story is mitigated by the charm of Dantala’s voice and a hint of redemption in the finale. Thanks to Cassava Republic for my review copy my first from this Nigerian publisher with an outlet in the UK.
For other debut novels about Nigerian culture see Under the Udala Trees and The Fishermen, or Jihadi for an insight into twenty-first century Islam in the USA and Iraq.
In the sprawling Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle, desperate people wait for an opportunity, legal or otherwise, to make it across the UK. As they wait, they dream of their futures, build makeshift hospitals, queue for haircuts, learn the flute, lie – via the ever-present mobile phones – about their lives to their families back home. Young women try to raise funds selling their bodies to truck drivers, young men suffer panic attacks within freezer trucks laden with oranges. A phalanx of volunteers, police, smugglers and confused locals support them, prey on them, fall in love with them, assist or resist them with varying degrees of empathy and understanding.
In Europe, the refugee “problem” has reached crisis point while we, snug in our homes, watch the unfolding story on TV with a mixture of compassion, anxiety and political expediency. There’s no clear line of demarcation between the deserving and undeserving, just as there’s no definitive separation between saviours and villains, so the authors don’t try, instead they explore the “laboratory” that is The Jungle in all its complexity, by taking the reader right inside their characters’ heads.
This collection of short stories is a new departure for Peirene Press, better known for their translations of quirky European novellas, such as The Empress and the Cake. Meike Ziervogel, editor and publisher, says of this project:
I have commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, this work will also take seriously the fears of people in this country who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue it isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.
While conceived prior to the shock of the UK referendum to leave the European Union, and published at the beginning of August, it couldn’t be more timely with the first real action in the drawn-out process of bringing child migrants to Britain earlier this week. Peirine is looking to produce more politically engaged fiction, with a novel on post-Brexit Britain planned for June next year. As with many independent presses, funds are tight, but if you believe in their objectives, you might like to support their Kickstarter campaign that runs until 4th November. (For £12, which is the normal price of their books, you get a copy in the post if the project goes ahead.)
For other novels on the refugee experience, see my reviews of These Are the Names and The Spice Box Letters. You might also like to see my flash fiction on how we do/don’t respond to the refugee crisis. For another novel on the shifting sands of borderlands, see Death and the Seaside.