Category: Books

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield (who also wrote The Legend Of Bagger Vance) begins this book with  words like these:

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust?… are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is”.

Pressfield drives home some very important points in a witty, funny and easy-to-read way. Whatever your calling is, you MUST follow through and do it kid. And you need to be aware of anything that will try to stop you. For Steven Pressfield that thing is Resistance.

He goes on to give examples of what Resistance looks like:

  • a repelling force whose aim is to distract us from doing our life’s work.
  • it doesn’t come from the outside – it is internal, self generated and self-perpetuated.
  • it never sleeps (the battle against resistance must be fought anew each day).
  • it’s fuelled by fear and commonly manifests as procrastination. Self doubt is another of its allies.
  • one of its favourite tricks is criticism (“when we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived our own”)
  • grandiose ideas of your fame and fortune are also symptoms of Resistance (and the mark of an amateur). A pro, according to Pressfield, concentrates on the work.

Resistance however can be beaten, and Pressfield offers some tips on how. First of all – you have to start thinking and behaving like a Pro (and not like an amateur). He gives the example of the writer Somerset Maugham who said “I write only when inspiration strikes, fortunately it strikes every morning at 9 o’clock sharp”. According to Pressfield “That’s a Pro”.

Among other things, the Pro:

  • is patient (an amateur dives in with over-ambition and unrealistic timetables for when things will be achieved).
  • is scared to death but forges ahead anyway. The “counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident”
  • “plays it as it lays” i.e takes it all as it comes and does not wait for the terrain to look good before taking action.
  • seeks order. After all, the Muse that every pro calls on before embarking on the work must not “soil her gown” in your messy physical environment.
  • “distances herself from her instrument” i.e the pro understands that she/he has a gift and she/he must work with it, not get caught up in it (as Pressfield humorously points out – Madonna doesn’t walk around her house in cone bras. She does not identify with “Madonna”. Madonna employs “Madonna”)

The War Of Art is not just another manual of dos and don’ts.

In the final section of the book Pressfield discusses higher realms (he writes, “I plan on using terms like angels and muses, does that make you uncomfortable?”). Pressfield understands that any labour of love involves not just your hard work and determination but other unseen forces – and you can call those forces whatever you want. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication”. So say your prayers, meditate, whatever, and then sit down and do your work. When you set out to truly create something (anything!) an intelligence steps in and begins to work with you and through you.

We all know that the process of being true to ourselves is not easy but you have to take the plunge. “The Knights of the Round Table were chaste and self-effacing…[but] they dueled dragons. We’re facing dragons too.” And by “dragons” Pressfield is simply referring to all those things within us that stop us from living to our highest potential.

Pressfield also says that anyone who has children will tell you that babies don’t pop out “tabula rasa” (a blank slate). Children are born with distinct and unique personalities. You came into this world with a specific personal destiny. You have a job to do.

Perhaps the best part of this book is that Pressfield is honest about his own journey. It was years before the success of The Legend of Bagger Vance. But even before the glory, when no one knew and no one cared, that moment when he finished the book was  profound. “I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped its last sulfuric breath”.

So:

For all of us out there who are on the fence, or scared about taking the plunge, I encourage you to go ahead and do it. And grab a copy of “The War Of Art” so that on those days when you’re down and out, you can flip open a page and remember why you’re in the game to begin with.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian newspaper. You can read it here:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/estranged-in-strange-land/story-fn9n8gph-1226644462159

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel offers an unvarnished look at contemporary race and inter-cultural relations. It uncovers the less-told narrative of the compromises made by some émigrés, who are not fleeing dire circumstances in their home country, but leave anyway, certain that life for them will be better in the West.

Ifemelu and Obinze are two young Nigerians, in love and aspiring to create a future together. But everyday political and economic uncertainties in Nigeria begin to take a toll. Strikes at their university for example mean classes stop abruptly and you can never be sure for how long. Leaving the country to pursue opportunities elsewhere becomes imperative. Ifemelu moves to the US for postgraduate study. The plan is Obinze will follow her, but fate leads him to London instead and their connection is eventually severed. Before either of them leave, his mother sadly observes that “Nigeria is chasing away its best resources.”

When Ifemelu first arrives in Flatlands, Brooklyn, she is struck by how “disappointingly matte” the landscape is. She had imagined that even ordinary things in America would be glossy. In time her world becomes one where interactions that could have been unremarkable, suddenly become encumbered with identity. Simply saying how hot it is can elicit the response “You’re hot? But you’re from Africa!”. She must explain to her boyfriend, Curt, why magazines like Essence that target black women exist. What’s a girl to do when other publications advise to “pinch your cheeks for colour”? At university she joins the African Students Association because she needs a haven where “she…[does] not have to explain herself”. Eventually Ifemelu starts a provocative race relations blog. Her personal experiences and the ensuing introspection are its content. In one post she postulates that one of the reasons dark skinned women like Barack Obama is because he has a dark skinned wife, a refreshing change from the mainly light skinned black women that you see in mainstream media. In another post about hair she says that her afro is not a political statement (“No, I’m not a…poet…or earth mother”), she has simply stopped using carcinogenic hair straightening chemicals.

But droll musings on an anonymous online forum do not really change how challenging life for an immigrant like her can be. She must attend one job interview after another even to find casual work. At one point Ifemelu retreats from the world for too long, no longer going to class, “her days…stilled by silence and snow”. When her friend Ginika suggests that she may be suffering from depression, she finds this difficult to accept. It is not vocabulary she grew up with. “Depression was what happened to Americans…”

Halfway through the novel we are in London where Obinze is facing obstacles of his own. As he cleans toilets in an office building one evening, he recalls with irony the jokes in Nigeria about how some people went overseas and ended up as toilet cleaners. He acknowledges that he is “soft”, he grew up quite comfortable, and some might find it difficult to understand that people like him leave their home country just to escape “the ominous lethargy of choicelessness”.

One of this novel’s striking features is how it covers issues that may not be discussed openly, but are relevant in many lives today. There are people whose intimate relationships are burdened because one person does not have a green card, can’t find a regular job and may have to leave the country. Reluctantly adjusting your full name for the discomfiting reason of making it easier to pronounce by locals in the country you move to  – Obinze’s workmate Duerdinhito has resorted to calling himself “Dee” for this reason. At the novel’s opening we are privy to the romanticism with which Ifemelu regards returning back to her country of birth, an expression of that desire to feel anchored somewhere.

It goes without saying that this novel is thought-provoking too. One man’s response to Ifemelu and her blog is: “race is totally over-hyped these days…it’s all about class now, the haves and the have-nots.” Throughout the story you are also always wondering whether she and Obinze will reunite, and there are humorous incidents scattered along the way, like when she chooses to return to Nigeria but then starts complaining about the pollution. “I can’t breathe!” her friend Ranyinudo mocks, mimicking her. “Haba! Americanah!”. That word, especially created to denote those who do decide to return home.

A refreshing take on modern day life, and the less-told narratives of being African.

A Bit Of Difference by Sefi Atta  – Review

“A bit of difference” is available from Spinifex Press Australia
www.spinifexpress.com.au

In her third novel, Sefi Atta invites us into the modern day life of a particular kind of African, where everyday interactions bring thought-provoking outcomes, and not just because of our shared histories. If anything it reminds us of the issue of identity. Wherever you’re from, what informs your choices as you determine who you are? And more importantly who is telling (and has been telling) your stories?

Many times throughout this novel, I was reminded of the experiences (and the commensurate internal dialogue) that come with voluntary emigration. This time we are in the world of 39 year old Deola Bello, the Nigerian female protagonist. She has studied in boarding school in Somerset and now works in London for an international charity foundation called LINK. The members of her birth family – her mother, sister and brother – all live in Lagos.

Deola’s day to day interactions with a diverse range of people, each with their unique personal histories, opinions and ways of being makes for a funny and thought-provoking read. Take for example her writer friend Bandele. He is born of Nigerian parents and was sent to school at Harrow in England. His parents at one stage lived in the highly affluent district of Belgravia but Bandele is now on government support. He does not consider Nigeria home. He animatedly complains about how tedious literary events can be and has had enough of African authors writing about “the same postcolonial crap”. Deola attributes his attitudes to a “self loathing that only an English public school can impart on [an]…impressionable foreign mind”.

During a work trip in Atlanta Deola encounters her American colleague Anne. Anne is questioning what she perceives to be a misguided and arrogant American mindset, but for Deola it is not difficult to demonstrate that other nations have plenty of skeletons in their own closets. Anne asks Deola whether she considers herself Nigerian. Deola certainly doesn’t consider herself British but she is acutely aware that she “has…been to more corners of London than …of Lagos”.

The nature of work at LINK also provides food for thought. The spokesperson for their Africa Beat campaign is a Nigerian hip-hop sensation called Dára. Dára has managed to ‘cross over’ as they say. He has made England home. He is a college dropout but, as Deola notices, people overseas ask him his opinion on Africa. In Nigeria, he would not have this much attention. In the US, the rocker Stewart “Stone” Riley is the Africa Beat representative. For Deola photo ops of celebrities in African villages are amusing. She doesn’t doubt that the recipients are grateful for the help, but she wonders whether as they receive the “important visitor from overseas” they are also thinking “Who the heck is this?”.

The bustling nature of life in Lagos is a marked contrast to her quieter life in London. In Lagos we are introduced to lively multi-dimensional characters – Deola’s animated sister Jaiye is a hip-hop-loving doctor and mother of two, doing her best to deal with the challenges that any marriage can bring. Her brother Lanre has taken over the bank their father founded. He is content with his decision to return back to Nigeria after studying in England. There may be frustrations in Lagos but at least he does not have to deal with the experiences like racism. In one sitting we meet numerous Aunts, some wearing huge Chanel sunglasses and others with nicknames like “Mappin and Webb” after the retail jeweller. Not all of these women are related to Deola by blood – it is enough that they are close friends of her mother Remi. More often than not they are trying to persuade Deola to return home.

Irrespective of what may be happening politically, life is still going on in Nigeria. Driving through once quiet, familiar streets Deola notices how commercial they have become. She bumps into old friends who are married with children, flying high in their full time jobs, but creating more opportunities for themselves by running businesses on the side. Some of her age mates are now earning higher salaries than she is in the UK. Newspapers in Lagos discuss matters like “trade and politics” and not the stock standard narratives about Nigeria you reads about elsewhere like “Internet fraud…[and] Islamic fundamentalism…” She notices that despite the frustrations of everyday life, Lagosians like Lanre and Jaiye refuse to be victims of the dominant narratives – they do not feel sorry for themselves.

I found myself pondering a number of pertinent subjects as I spent time in Deola’s world. Some of her young nieces and nephews do not speak Efike or Yoruba – only English. Lagosian DJs with American accents (“yo yo yo”). She watches a film about Africa with “the usual elements” including “Red-eyed military men…brandishing machine guns…[T]here is much drumming and singing and panoramic shots of green hills”.

Even as I write this review there is currently an advertisement on local TV for a program about Africa – and it does indeed have “the usual elements”. A sunset, music that evokes thoughts of mystery, the voice-over booms “AFRICA” – and an elephant charges at the camera. It is a documentary about wild animals. I recall an incident at a Melbourne train station some years ago. A station employee standing next to the turnstile had a card in his hand that he used to automatically open the turnstiles to let commuters through. When it was my turn to go past, he stopped. He didn’t use the card in his hand to open the door. I had to produce my train ticket, insert it into the machine for the doors to open and let me through. As I ascended the escalator, I turned around to look at him. Surprisingly enough he was looking back up at me. I smiled a knowing smile. When Deola experiences something of this nature at an airport she is “loathe to say an incident so trivial amounted to discrimination – it wasn’t that straightforward was it?”. But like Deola, I wondered about it anyway.

Imagery, humour and thought-provoking. Read this novel.

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta – Review 

This review first appeared in the PEN Melbourne December Quarterly of 2012
www.melbournepen.com.au

“Everything Good Will Come” is available from Spinifex Press Australia
www.spinifexpress.com.au

Sefi Atta’s debut novel is a moving and delightful read that leaves you with that increasingly evanescent but wonderful feeling of hope. After reading it one can’t escape the question many of us are asking these days – in a world where we are all connected just what kind of human being do I want to be? Should I care that others are suffering? And if not, for how long can I get away with being willfully blind?

From the moment it begins, this novel gives you a wonderfully vivid image of the world inhabited by Enitan Taiwo, Sefi Atta’s female protagonist, who in the early pages is just 11 years old, growing up in modern day Lagos. Reflecting on the television programs of the day for example, she writes: “…oblivious to any biased messages I was receiving, I sympathised with Tarzan (those awful natives!)…and memorised the happy jingles of foreign multinational companies…”

You find yourself holding your breath, wanting nothing but the best for her as she develops from a curious young girl, to a teenager who begins to realise that the world can be a harsh place. She emigrates to the UK for school, where she befriends Robin Richardson, a spunky English girl who can’t pronounce her Rs. The resulting teasing from classmates is aptly described in one word – “Twagic”. You remember your own personal anecdotes when she returns to Nigeria – a questioning, observant and passionate young woman, exploring among other things romantic love while trying to find her place in a complex world.

Perhaps one of the most appealing attributes of this book is that it is littered with heroines but Atta does not beat you over the head with their struggles and triumphs. There is Sheri  – the saucy half black half white neighbour. Flawed, unapologetic and wise. From the outset it is apparent that she is not like other girls, and throughout the novel she remains a refreshing original. And what of the firebrand Grace Ameh – mother, wife, journalist. Determined to speak, driven by the principle that she has a voice and should therefore use it to make a difference. And let us not forget Enitan’s mother, who for reasons more complicated than first appears, has turned to the church to escape her own personal challenges. As the main protagonist insightfully points out however “Had she turned to wine or beer, people would have called her a drunkard”.  You get the impression that these women are who they are, they just do what they must. And not for the glory either. Their resilience and sense of humour, in a world that has made the mistake of overlooking and underestimating them, is magnificent.

The men in this novel are not just token characters either. Mike, the architect-turned-artist wonders why more people don’t know about the Nigerian goddess Oshun. The Yoruba religion has after all been exported to places as far away as Cuba and Brazil. Enitan’s father Sunny wants more for his daughter than a life in the kitchen. Enitan is clearly a fan of his courage and desire to take on a system that has turned many into cowards by default.

The book’s appeal also comes from its ability to touch on numerous contemporary and universal themes with ease and wit. Multiple issues that matter to us in our everyday lives are covered without becoming tedious. The father-daughter relationship for example is more colourful as Enitan observes the varying presumptions when she expresses a political opinion versus when her father does. “Whenever I stood on my soap box, he wanted me to step down. When he stood on his, it wasn’t a soap box; it was a foundation of truth”. Romantic love has even more complexities in a relationship where one party is concerned that they may literally choke on the humility expected of them by society. The spoils of hard work and a well paying job become difficult to enjoy if your gated community is an island of illusion surrounded by poverty, injustice and inept government.

Enitan’s life and indeed those of the characters in this book is energetic, colourful and emotional in the way the lives of most Africans tend to be. No boredom or idleness here. You are left in no doubt that the bustling city of Lagos will force you to wrangle with it, with or without your permission.

This novel is rich in imagery, humour (Sheri is certain that downtown Lagos can turn even the Queen of England into a brawler), moments of tenderness and poignancy. But apart from all that it is just really well written. I’ve never been to Lagos, but Sefi Atta makes me feel like I’ve made a recent visit there.

For me personally it also drew me back to my own experience growing up in Kenya. Different country, different sides of the continent, but the themes are the same. From the hilarious shenanigans of workers in the house-hold, to being African in a foreign country, to the challenge of how best to deal with issues of poverty and corruption in a place where there is also much beauty, laughter and joy.