Monday, May 19, 2014

Is Grief Child a worthwhile novel?

There are more books meant for reading than any average reader would care to imbibe on. It is especially so for fiction which provides a wide array of texts to choose from. Lawrence Darmani’s Grief Child is one of these texts and my question is: Is Grief Child a novel worth our reading? Although book prescription is not by any means anything objective, I will endeavour to share my subjective and limited view on whether this novel is worth reading or not.
The old adage by the sages decrees that thou shall not judge a book by its cover. Darmani’s Grief Child is fairly crafted with a young readership in mind although the writer simultaneously tackles fairly complex issues like spiritual realism. It narrates the story of Adu whose life is appropriately summed up as one significantly characterised by grief hence the text’s title – Grief Child. Adu’s grief is intimately demonstrated in the tragic deaths of his mother and sister and a little while later the grim reaper wrestles his father from the tight grip of life leaving Adu to wallow in the abyss of ophanhood.   
Structured into two parts, the novel is fairly easy to read and to keep track of events as they unfold. In the first part, we are initiated into this bildungsroman novel’s setting. The story is crafted in a traditionally remote village that is reminiscent of most African people’s traditional settings. The villagers, in this story, are plagued by myths, beliefs and other forms of fears and misgivings for the supernatural and the unknown. But the story also highlights the twin points of convergence and divergence between the villagers’ mores and cultural values and that of Christianity – a new religion associated with colonialism.
As a result, the villagers appear to sometimes express doubt and even at other moments they seem to falter between doing things the traditional way or the Christian. It is an unenviable dilemma that Africans have had to grapple with since the missionaries set foot in the continent. There is a possibility that as a people, we are eternally aggrieved by the repercussions of colonialism thus bemoaning our lost sense of belonging through the deracination of our values as a people. Therefore, Grief Child invites the reader to read, nay see the many young African nations as being symbolised through the character of Adu.
Africans are grief children and the newly independent nations are orphans in one way or the other. We are able to grieve for our lost values as a people, our identity, our sense of belonging, our rootedness as a people amongst many other factors that characterise us as a community. This narrative is thus an allegorical story of the struggles of the African people to rediscover themselves at the backdrop of colonialism and its attendant consequences. We are constantly strung up in a complex chasm; whilst fighting to assert ourselves, we are simultaneously undermined by our knowledge that the world is constantly changing and hence we cannot remain static. However the challenge lies in deciding what to hold on to and what to borrow from other cultures even as we abandon others.
In its first part, the narrative initiates us into Adu’s world. Adu’s nightly sojourns are disturbed by nightmares that are a major concern to his father. Adu’s father, Nimo, is justified to be worried about his son’s nightmares. This is because Adu has been dreaming about a leopard chasing him. According to their beliefs, this is a bad omen because it means that someone close to the family is likely to die. Although Yaro, a staunch Christian, encourages Adu and prays for and with him, it is clear that Adu’s fears are not quashed.
When Adu’s mother and his sister tragically get killed in a storm by being crushed to death by a tree that has been struck by lightning, we are convinced that something ominous is prowling Nimo’s homestead. Both Adu and his father are devastated by the death of their loved ones. We begin to see what the text describes as the struggle between light and darkness. Adu’s aunt, Goma, is the devil’s incarnate. She is cast as an evil woman whose life is shrouded in mystery and crowned by an innate desire to hate others.
Goma’s visit to mourn with her brother Nimo is short lived. Through her, we learn of the village’s history and how it came to be named Susa. Apparently the owner of the vast land and farms had lost his wife, Susa, and daughter in a tragic road accident. Consequently, he abandoned the village and left his farm in the care of Nimo. As part of his tribute to his wife and daughter, Yeboah, the landlord named the village Susa. Goma’s suspicious behaviour either around Yeboah or whenever the story about Yeboah’s deceased family comes up ignites a sense of intrigue in the reader’s mind. We would like to read and discover what has contributed to her guarded interaction with or about the story of Yeboah.
Unfortunately, Adu’s grieving is compounded by the death of his father Nimo. Following closely at the heels of his mother and sister’s deaths, the father’s death comes as a fatal blow to the young man’s ability to cope with death. It takes the effort of Yaro, Adu’s spiritual mentor to comfort him and wean him away from the devastating effects of his family’s untimely deaths. This is also the time that the young Adu is initiated into life’s harsh realities and we begin to notice his transformation from naivety to a more informed young adult.
Part two of the novel begins with the physical journey of Adu from Susa to Buama, his aunt’s homeland. It is a journey that will eventually culminate into Adu’s most trying moments in his life. Goma’s hatred for Adu comes to the fore as she metes out mistreatment after mistreatment on her nephew. Goma is the prototype of an evil stepmother and if it were not for her influence over Ama her daughter, she would have ended up with both children hating her. The twist in the tale is that the reader discovers that the perceived daughter to Goma – Ama – is actually Yeboah’s daughter who had been assumed lost and dead when her body could not be traced after the road accident.
In Buama, Adu discovers a foster family in the form of his teachers – Ofori and Beckie. But it is the weight of Yaro’s spiritual words that holds him back when he is on the brink of committing suicide. Goma’s perpetual torture and the haunting memories of his deceased family is a tad too much to fathom. His life has become meaningless and his days are synonymous with pain and suffering. Despite the love and support he obtains from his friend – Anane and his teachers, Adu cannot come to terms with the turn of events that have catapulted him into an abyss of perpetual torment – physically, psychologically and spiritually.
The turning point of his life occurs when he chooses life over death. His role in helping the Chief of Buama apprehend and convict local thieves provides him with a sense of meaning in life. In addition, when Yeboah discovers that Ama is his daughter, the reader knows that things will never be the same again in this story. Eventually both Adu and Ama get life opportunities to move away from Buama and its associated painful experiences. Although Adu returns to his home village of Susa, he immediately sneaks away to be united with Ofori and Beckie as his foster parents. In the end, it comes as no surprise when the assumed sibling love between Adu and Ama metamorphoses into a man’s love for a woman when the two finally decide to live the rest of their lives together by sealing their fate with a kiss as the novel closes.

I opine that Grief Child is an interesting novel to read but the aesthetics of the narrative are marred by the numerous authorial intrusions. It is not surprising that in many instances the writer appears preachy and deliberately infuses excerpts that would be conceived as telling and not showing. Probably the writer intended to conform to certain publishing restrictions or the fact that Daystar University was involved in the publication of the text contributed to the overt spiritual theme that the novel rides on. Whatever it is, Darmani could have done better and let the story take its course and not give in to the controlling impetus that is at time wont to come into play in creative writing. Is the novel then worth your time to read? My suggestion is that you would have to give it a chance and then make up your mind whether it is worth it or not.

Using literature to fight child molestation

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In its characteristic nature, literature reflects the society in which it is conceived. When and how literature should explore issues afflicting human beings is a debate whose roots can be traced to Plato and Aristotle’s discourses. But when writers choose to narrate about societal issues should they exercise creativity, restraint or imaginative wantonness?
Owing to decades of squabbles between writers and publishers in Kenya, the country has experienced a significant diversification of the nature of book publishing. There has been a noticeable shift from what might be considered mainstream publishing to other smaller publishing houses and even where possible self-publishing. Although this might be venerated as a wise move in helping to open up the industry of publishing, it is not without its setbacks. One of the main challenges to self-publishing would definitely be a matter of the quality of manuscripts that would be spewed out into the market. 
I have read Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s texts: Different Colours and Terrorists of the Aberdare which are both self-published. My reviews for both have demonstrated my respect for the writer’s conscientious efforts to give the reader a chance to interact with quality fiction that provides good fodder for criticism and scholarly engagements. It is also worth noting that both texts have won the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize for Literature in recognition of their literary value. In such a scenario, I would not in any way fault self-publishing as a precipitous option when it comes to publishing.
However, it would be imprudent for me to praise self-publishing and overlook instances where the same has fallen short of the expectation of producing texts that can stand the test of time in terms of hardy content and the worth of their literariness. This does not mean that mainstream publishing houses do not fall prey to such malaise – they do and indeed they have been victims of the same. But I am not going to concern myself with a discussion or illustration of how such firms have at times been compromised to produce mediocre fiction. I will instead fairly lay my argument on Wanjiku Manyatta Wambui’s The Innocence Predators.
Manyatta’s The Innocence Predators is a self-published novel that narrates about child molestation. It is the story of Victoria a young girl whose life is scarred permanently by a child pest through molestation. This catastrophic act is exacerbated by the fact that the molester is well known to Victoria and as if this is not enough he is a revered man of God. Unknown to Victoria’s parents is the fact that she is molested by the very person they have entrusted the care of their daughter to. Worse still Uncle Caleb, as he is fondly referred to, is not the person they think he is. Indeed, what everyone in this locale does not know is that the person they consider as Caleb is a victim of HIV/AIDS, a bitter estranged lover who has vowed to try whatever means possible to either heal or to infect as many other people as much as he possibly can.
The Innocence Predators is a cautionary novel that unravels the intricacies of HIV/AIDS infections, the myths and intrigues that have encased a disease that has remained without cure for almost three decades now. Throughout the narrative, we discover that no one is safe from HIV/AIDS. Although the text’s title preys on the innocence of children to communicate the message, it is also the innocence of adults coupled with naivety that at times costs them dearly when it comes to sex and the vicious cycle of HIV/AIDS infections. Ironically, those who appear to be innocent, like pious church leaders, are cast as guilty and cruel persons who distort the philosophy of spiritual matters to pursue selfish interests.
Manyatta succeeds to use suspense and to hold the reader prisoner until the end in order to discover what has been transpiring throughout the lives of the characters in the text. Although the reader’s predictions are at times true hence rendering the suspense suspect, there are enough twists and turns in the narrative to make it a fairly interesting read. Aspects of a family’s life, finance, social life and spirituality are dealt with in detail and the author even broaches the delicate topic of sex amongst children and how best parents can tackle it. At the end, the reader would appreciate that the writer’s intentions were well meant even though the story is not as aesthetically appealing as one would have wished it to be.
Although Victoria, the child protagonist in the story, is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS at a tender age, the parents fight off stigma and help her to grow into a spirited young adult who has learnt to accept and appreciate herself. But Victoria has subconsciously vowed not to fall in love in the fear that she would infect other people. This is however scheduled to change towards the end of the narrative when she meets James, a young man who seems to read her mind and heart and one who is willing to go to any end to win her emotions.
The narrative lays bare the story of Caleb aka Jelob aka Jack. He is the assumed youth pastor who in the initial pages of the novel molests Victoria and infects her. It is through the narrative that we discover he had gotten himself involved in an affair with an older woman who had not only infected him but spurned his love when she got tired of sleeping with him. Although Jelob had sincerely fallen in love with her, she was only interested in young school boys. Jelob is lucky to hail from a family with a rich economic background. His father helps him set up business when he performs dismally in school and cannot pursue higher education.
Jelob’s change of character into a bitter individual occurs when he discovers that he is HIV positive. At his lowest moment he becomes a victim of an unscrupulous pastor who has started a church to prey on gullible Christians in order to make money – Pastor Collins of THE EYE OF GOD CHURCH. It is Pastor Collins who lies to Jelob that he can be cured by sleeping with a given number of virgins so as to cleanse himself from the sexual sin he has committed. The power of religion and its bewitching allure makes Jelob to entangle himself in a web of lies, trickery and unforgivable events that culminate in his capture by the police albeit after he has destroyed the lives of innocent children.
Manyatta’s novel provides reprieve, remorse and forgiveness for the perpetrators of HIV/AIDS infections. However, most of the narrative stances appear too contrived, NGO like and generally too preachy for a novel. The dialogue is dry, static, forced and the reader feels like the author was under obligation to tell the story as opposed to letting the narrative take its toll through showing. Call it authorial intrusions or whatever else but The Innocence Predators is a difficult text to read for those of us used to conventional fiction.
There is little effort at creativity and wherever it appears the story gets marred by a moralistic voice that abrogates itself the power to moderate the flow of events. This novel is punctuated by numerous instances of telling as opposed to showing. Manyatta appears to have let her guard down and consciously decided to sell her agenda to the reader as opposed to narrating a story. The story would have sufficed on its own with the different settings in the village, at the university, at the working environment etc. without the writer forcibly having to explain virtually almost every turn of events in the story. For example, “The girl nodded with trepidation and fled from the man who had preyed on her innocence” (p. 111) or “Victoria could clearly tell that James harboured some unresolved issues, his heart was bleeding” (p. 162).

Ultimately, the story ends with a romantic tone as the reader assumes that Victoria and James will accept each other in spite of their differences and be willing to embrace and face an uncertain future premised on the knowledge that they would stand side by side to weather the storms of life. Whether this is plausible or not dents a blow to the narrative because it adds to the pool of contrived twists that have been proffered in the novel. How some of the characters develop a change of heart from innocence to cruelty and back to innocence leaves a lot to be desired. Thus, as you look through the lenses of literature and how it teaches us about child molestation in Manyatta’s novel, take time to connect with the writer’s attempt at creativity. It is my hope that Manyatta’s subsequent writings will exercise patience to allow characters and the story to grow on their own.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Just what happened to Language? Treatise to Rebecca Oladipo’s Essentials of English Grammar

Contemporary companies, corporates and many other organisations have decried the poor standards of language amongst young professionals. The complaints range from poor use of spoken to written language. It seems that no one is keen anymore to, so to speak, mind their language. It is thus in order to contemplate upon the travails of language on whose back our communicative itinerary rides.

Suffice to mention that very few people, if there are any, encourage youngsters to pursue language related courses in school. Our obsession with “professional” courses has disparaged language as a subject for teaching and passing exams and not as a professional tool to aid our growth professionally, economically or even politically. It is therefore no surprise that English and other languages are deemed only as subjects for classroom and not beyond the confines of academic walls.

Many children are groomed to pursue courses in sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, communication, business, accounting, project management etc. In other words, it is not cool at all to study language even when editors, translators and rapporteurs make a tidy sum from their language skills. Because we don’t think language is inextricably tied to other professions, it is no wonder that our language skills have continued to deteriorate. I wonder what a poorly written medical prescription would result to. Most probably it would culminate into a wrong dosage and God forbid complications that might eventually lead to death. 

Although there are many texts with a wide range of information regarding grammar and language usage in general, Rebecca Oladipo’s Essentials of English Grammar published by Longhorn (2013) is one text that language enthusiasts will want to judiciously study. In its blurb, the text is referred to as “a good reference material for writers in all fields and for those interested in improving their grammar skills and usage”.  I concur with this view and reiterate that the book proffers an easy to use approach by providing practical examples and illustrations.

My communion with language taught me that it is intricately constructed upon four key precepts: phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Phonology tackles the scientific bit on sounds and for those keen on Received Pronunciation (RP) it is pertinent to pay attention to the manner and place of articulation of language sounds. Furthermore, morphology provides knowledge on how sounds combine to form words and how this is syntactically translated into phrases, clauses and sentences under syntax. Ultimately, it is the meaning derived from such constructions that is the dictum of semantics. 

Consequently, our use of language is unconsciously pegged on all the four maxims of language study. Oladipo’s text squarely explores grammar and its usage by revisiting the basics. The researcher examines the eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. She reminds us that “The words of a language belong to different groups or parts of speech according to how they behave.” Hence words are categorized dependent on the function that they execute. For example, the verb denotes action or state whereas an interjection expresses strong or sudden feelings. These are some of the issues that the scholar sets out to explore and to demonstrate their practical use in our daily lives.     

Essentials of English Grammar is thus a user friendly text which can provide a one stop destination to language users with specific needs. A writer who has been struggling with the use of prepositions but has no challenge in utilizing other parts of speech will not need to read the entire text. The writer will just flip to the chapter on prepositions and plug into the descriptions, the illustrations and the sample exercises provided without the need for a teacher. It is thus without a doubt that this text provides ample resources for English users, both beginners and polished users, to help them to continuously perfect their language skills.    

Therefore, instead of employers turning the heat against teachers, lecturers and other language mentors, it is astute for all of us to take responsibility for the malaise afflicting language use amongst the general populace. We need concerted efforts and a spirit of collective responsibility to ameliorate the effects of poor language skills through reading and encouragement of those who want to pursue language as their professional field of study. Probably, Rebecca Oladipo’s Essentials of English Grammar is a good illustration of where we need to start the reparative process for language learning.

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