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Graphic books – Part 2

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Last week I was talking about the way the graphic book can be used for serious purposes, beyond the adventures of Tintin or Asterix. The medium hasn’t quite caught on in Africa, possibly because the books are expensive to produce (you need more than a laptop to make one of these). One notable example came out of South Africa about 25 years ago, Shaun de Waal’s graphic novel for young readers, Jock Marks, which is intended to help young gay men come to terms with their sexuality and to stand up against persecution. But in terms of its scale and the style of its visuals this was a very modest production. More elaborate are a series of books produced by the Nigerian artist Alaba Onajin, which have been facilitated by grants from UNESCO. (At this point, my readers and long-suffering editor shudder and exclaim: “oh, now he’s going to start banging on about Nigeria again!”) Onajin’s work includes Anike Aleko, a graphic novel for young readers on the importance of girls’ education. And there is Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Women’s Union of Abeokuta, a non-fictional graphic book on one of the most remarkable women of Africa’s twentieth-century, a tireless activist for women’s rights (political, educational, economic) and a participant in negotiations for Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule (she was also the mother of Nigeria’s best-known musician, Fela, and the great-aunt of the country’s best-known writer, Wole Soyinka, who, at the age of 86, is about to publish a new, 500-page novel). More recently, Onajin has produced the graphics (visual materials) for On Ajayi Crowther Street, with a story-line and verbal text by Elnathan John, whose photo adorns this week’s column. Before turning to this splendid novel, I want to say something about John, as I regard him as one of the most outstanding contemporary African authors. Nigeria has many supremely gifted poets, dramatists and essayists (Soyinka is all three). But it is perhaps in the field of the novel that the country’s literary scene shines most brightly; indeed, Nigeria can be regarded as the powerhouse of the contemporary African novel, with its output winning a wide international readership, being frequently translated, and scooping up prizes on a regular basis. (The French translation of Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday won the Prix d’Afrique a couple of years ago, with the prize money being shared by author and translator). The pre-eminence of Nigeria on the novel front is small wonder, as Nigeria is a country of great complexity and outstanding vitality, and with a history of long-unresolved problems, all of which features are grist to the novelist’s mill. John’s work covers a range of genres. He has published poetry and short stories, and is well-known as a satirist. A collection of his satirical sketches, Be(com)ing Nigerian, is a good guide to much that is wrong with the country. The word “hustle” crops up again and again as a swipe at Nigeria’s con-men and con-women; the “prosperity” churches get it in the neck as they proclaim “God bless your hustle”, as do foreign journalists who are always looking for a scoop—meaning coverage of the worst depravities the country has to offer. Then there is Born on a Tuesday, a deadly serious, searching work that I regard as the essential African novel for our fraught times (like Be(com)ing Nigerian and the graphic novel I turn to next week, it is published by Cassava Republic; I urge you to try to get hold of it). Born on a Tuesday has to do with the growth of Islamic terrorism. Not explicitly with Boko Haram, which is based in the north of the country, but with a movement building up along those lines, and terrifying enough. The central character of the novel is a young lad called Dantata (Hausa for one born on a Tuesday), who is rescued from a life of addiction and street crime by a kindly Sheikh. Here he comes across a thuggish individual who is opposed to the Sheikh’s mainstream version of Islam and he witnesses a growing storm of violence as the rebels try to impose their skewed, intolerant misconception of Islam on the community. John also covers the corruption of local and national politics and there is a brilliantly shocking plot twist towards the end. But there’s more to this wonderful novel than all this, as it has primarily to do with Dantata’s struggle to understand the world around him and record this in his diary—in other words, it’s a novel about ways of seeing and ways of telling. And in recounting Dantata’s caring, nurturing relationship with a fellow pupil, Jibril, it is heart-wrenchingly tender. Not too long ago I brought a group of friends at dinner close to tears, reciting the last page of the novel from memory. Over the last two weeks I’ve been leading up to a discussion of Elnathan John and Alaba Onajin’s graphic novel On Ajayi Crowther Street. Brace yourselves. I promise some nice pics to enliven the discussion. To be concluded Chris Dunton  

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