A Luxury of Textures and Traditions

Reviewed by Misao Dean

These three books by African Canadian authors, all of them first-generation immigrants—one from Togo, one from Nigeria, and one from Ghana—are a fascinating introduction to a diversity of literary traditions and approaches. A wonderful discovery for me among these three books is Quebec novelist Edem Awumey, whose novel Mina among the Shadows is translated from French to English by the accomplished partnership of Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott. In the novel photographer Kerim returns to his childhood home in an unnamed West African country to search for his muse and former lover, Mina. Kerim finds a very different city to the one he left; the nation has been seduced by religious extremism, and his former collaborators in a revolutionary theatre group have become conservative and cynical.


Kerim’s memories of Mina emphasize her continuing hope and daring political commitment, as well as her sensuality and beauty. As Kerim searches for her at her bookstore, among her old friends, and at her brother’s new mosque, Mina comes to represent much more than herself, becoming a figure for the energy, optimism, and spirit of creativity and critique that she alone seems to have been able to preserve “among the shadows” of fear and violence that now haunt the city. Kerim’s quest for her calls to mind the search for the elusive K in Hubert Aquin’s Prochain épisode, with its mix of symbolic, realist, and popular narrative conventions.


Edem Awumey works very much in a French tradition, which makes his work stand out among the many contemporary African novelists (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example) who are perhaps more influenced by African American realist fiction. Mina among the Shadows uses language poetically, in short allusive chapters, and relies on metaphor and symbolism as well as realist dialogue and description. The book references Sartre’s Les Mouches, which provides the name for Kerim’s theatre group as well as its most prevalent symbol, a cloud of flies. While in Sartre the flies represent the inevitability of death, in Mina Among the Shadows their meaning is not so clear; periodically they engulf the characters and hinder the action, expressing (perhaps) a kind of disgust, chaos, or loss of hope. Kerim’s work as a photographer, and his chosen subject, portraits of women, also provide the opportunity for visual description and meta-commentary on art.


Mina Among the Shadows is definitely political, but its evocative imagery resists paraphrase, and its commentary on art and the ethical issues attendant to its creation complexify all of its representations. Edem Awumey is an author who repays careful re-reading, and a lovely discovery.


Maame (Mother) by Elizabeth Ahua Vaah is a much less self-consciously literary book. Maame is a volume of fictionalized stories of rural West African mothers and children, with lots of information about traditional lifeways in a small Ghanaian village. In this way it seems more like a cultural document than fiction, or perhaps it escapes these categories altogether to exist simply as a stories, ones that preserve histories and teachings that we can learn from. The information is arranged into narrative form by a first-person narrator, who describes her own life and those of their friends, while also explaining traditional beliefs and practices of childbirth and spirituality. These narrators describe the impact of modernity on traditional cultures, and their struggles to help their children escape the limits of their rural upbringing. This would be a good text for a course on life writing, or on mothering and gender, in addition to being a fascinating and heart-warming read.


A Good Name by Yejide Kilanko is by contrast a conventional realist novel about a Nigerian immigrant to the US who returns home after ten years to find a youthful wife. Frustrated by his lack of economic success in the US, Eziafa is determined that his marriage will make up for his disappointments.  He inspects the many young women trotted out by their mothers as possible mates, and chooses a much younger woman whom he barely knows. After their return to the US, he fences in his new wife Zina with so many rules and requirements that she is unable fulfill any of her own dreams. Predictably she rebels, and threatens to leave him.


This bare plot summary does little to convey the descriptive texture and challenging narrative voice of A Good Name. The novel conveys the wide gap between Eziafa’s expectations and his ability to achieve them, as his dogged work as a taxi driver seems barely to support him. Eziafa’s lover, a Nigerian woman raised in the US, constantly points out the way that his stubborn conformity to Nigerian cultural expectations sabotages his own happiness. And in the background is the constant voice of the family that he left behind, whose inflated ideas about American financial success reinforce Eziafa’s sense of shame and failure. Zina gradually achieves independence and American cultural literacy, but Eziafa becomes even more recalcitrant, with violent results.


Where is the space for “Canada” here, and for these books in a journal called Canadian Literature? All three seem to resist national identification and to assert the artificiality of such categories.  All of these books should find audiences in Canada, thanks to the ground-breaking work of Mawenzi House publishers and the always reliable Guernica Editions. Their diversity and their excellence reiterate something that North Americans sometimes forget—that “Africa” is not a single place, but a luxury of textures and traditions, inviting both careful scrutiny and joyful engagement.

This review “A Luxury of Textures and Traditions” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Apr. 2022. Web.

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