African Literature

Reaper-Sensation: Children Of Blood And Bone

By Niki

 

One of the most anticipated reads of 2018 and Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show 2018 Summer Read, Tomi Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone is an Afro-mystical re-awakening.

Covers: Macmillan Publishers and Ouida Books. Image: Elena Seibert via Macmillan Publishers.

 
They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.
NOW WE RISE.
 

I

have been a part of many conversations about diversity and representation, and thought I understood what it meant to be represented until a few pages into Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel. The opening scene, presided over by a character called Mama Agba, is reminiscent of a female elder authority that shaped my childhood. As per tradition, I would sit around her whilst she wove tales of culture and folklore. To see this fictionalised in Children Of Blood And Bone was thus nostalgic.

The story follows a young girl: Zélie. She is haunted by the murder of her mother and the subjugation of her Reaper clan - one of the ten Maji clans that suffer abuse from corporal powers and are oppressed by the ruling class of Orïsha. Circumstances see her journeying and fighting alongside her brother and an escaped princess to restore magic to the land and allow her clan and the nine other Maji clans in the land, a fighting chance.


In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities.

The quest takes Zélie, Amari, Inan and Tzain and their pursuants from city to floating villages, up mountains and into sacred underground lairs. They sleep in tents in the deserts, fight in arenas, meet shady characters in caves and sail over walls on the back of mythical creatures. Adeyemi’s debut novel takes place across different terrains and climates, all within a singular imagined country. What is most striking about the multifaceted terrains in the book is Adeyemi’s mirroring of natural phenoms to Nigeria’s topography.

As with many Young Adult novels, Children Of Blood And Bone is also love story—in the romantic and familial sense—as well as a story of self discovery. The added beauty of this narrative is its Afro-mysticism: a genre that is finally getting its deserved spotlight after existing off the fringes of literary discourse, and being conflated with magic-realism. In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities. These deities are pointedly inspired by the Yoruba tradition.

 

Names Mean Things

The deities in Adeyemi’s novel are pointedly inspired by the Nigerian, Yoruba tradition. This influence is similarly evident in the naming of places and characters within the novel. For one, the entire province is called Orïsha1—representative of the head of all divinity in the Yoruba tradition. This anchoring of the overall location of the narrative to the divine through naming, makes it a great playing field for a journey to restore lost magic.

Particularly in Ilorin—the fishing town where Zélie and her family reside—the older generation are given the respect of Mama and Baba. This naming, the people and the town are, again, based on Yoruba culture. For this reason, I was very disappointed by the ambiguity of the names given to the major characters. If anything, these names stand out for the wrong reasons; they felt like a pandering to a wider Western audience, and an attempt to create a space for them to relate to the characters at base level.

In Yoruba tradition, children are named to reflect the circumstance of birth, or, as prophecy into their destinies. The names given to a child usually holds weight both on paper and when sounded out. In both reading and sounding out the names particularly of the four central characters, I felt no depth. On the other hand, as a friend suggests, the ambiguity of the names could be seen as representative of the loss of and disdain for magic across Orïsha. In this sense, Zélie and Tzain’s names can be seen to reflect the new Maji existence under their tyrannical, magic-hating ruler, and displacement from their true identity. Though this perspective is equally valid, it is with one exception: the novel’s time frame.

The young sojourners in the novel were born to parents who wielded or fought against magic. Zélie is a replica of her powerful Reaper mother—murdered by the oppressive authority in a bid to eradicate all who had tasted magic. Zélie’s survival stemmed from the fact that Maji children only come into their powers at the age of thirteen - she was six when her mother was murdered and magic ceased to exist in Orïsha. However, her birth and that of her brother, Tzain, occurred in a period where parents expected Maji children to grow into their divine destinies and, as such, their names should reflect this.

 

Lagos Under A Microscope

Lagos, the place the King, royalty and the wealthy flock to and the most densely populated city with a great deal of slum-living is the centre of Orïsha. In many ways, Adeyemi’s presentation of Lagos, Orïsha is very similar to the reality of Lagos, Nigeria. Early in the story, the reader follows Zélie’s singular visit to Lagos and the picture of gross wealth disparities, market haggling and abuse of corporal power is very reminiscent of Lagos. However, the language of discourse in these scenes keeps the Lagos in Children Of Blood And Bone distinct.

Where Zélie trades in the Lagos market, her capabilities as a trader is recognised. This setting highlights how wealth gaps and abject poverty are sustained by the wealthier class. The King’s ever rising Maji tax-levies—designed to force Maji folks into prisons, slavery and to keep them poor—is what drives Zélie to Lagos. Where her father and brother hope that she can return with enough to last them through the month, Zélie is able to barter the rare fish she has in exchange for almost a year’s worth of money. That someone, desperate to eat fish to which the King has no access, can hand over enough cash to last Zélie, her father and brother a year, while Zélie and her family live day-to-day, is a travesty occurring in Adeyemi’s world, and likewise, in the real world.

Another prominent theme that comes up in the royal family is the issue of bleaching. The lighter skin is seen as a sign of royalty while darker skin is distasteful and scrubbed away with potions and creams. Princess Amari, darker than her family, is forced by her mother to undergo beauty rituals with the aim of lightening her skin. This experience leaves her with a skewed perception of her own beauty—a trajectory very similar to that of many young men and women across Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

Zélie’s interaction with the guards, on an attempt to enter Lagos, likewise reflects another societal issue: the sexual danger faced by women. Her status as Maji or “maggot,” as non-Maji individuals are hatefully labelled, presents her as fodder for the guards’ sexual desires. This perception of women as weak and easy to attack has allowed for sexual assault to be an issue women face. For the fear of being abused and murdered, she has to temper her reaction and adopt a false meekness—an all too real experience for many women.

 

Hate: A Four Letter Legacy

What takes Children Of Blood And Bone from a simple YA novel to a masterpiece is the level of complexity added by the self-loathing that drives two characters. For a particular character, the duality of being something one hates causes alliances and allegiances to shift. The internal and external conflicts these characters come against, owing to their understanding of the past and their position on the quest to restore magic, gives this story layers that are impressive for a first time author.

Tackling and sustaining the theme of deep hate—the kind that drives people to kill without mercy and teach hate to their offspring—is not an easy task, as any author could fall into the trap of presenting hate from a very linear perspective. Thankfully, Adeyemi does not. She writes characters that stay true to themselves. While there are twists and turns that make the book a fantastic read, character reactions are never implausibly outlandish or written to force excitement in the narrative. The plot and characters flow seamlessly.

The story ends on something of a cliffhanger. There is an ambiguity around the the success of the quest; creating an eagerness, post-completion of the novel, to break down theories therein. The end of Children Of Blood And Bones creates a clear path for new themes to be explored in the subsequent novel in the trilogy—Children Of Virtue And Vengeance. Adeyemi’s debut YA novel has a freshness and a simplicity that make it compelling. You may call it a must-read!



Have you read Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone? Tell us what you think about it!

 

Note

1 The word 'orisha' is related to several other Yoruba words referring to the head. It can also be spelt orixa or orisa. An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers.

In this story, the ruling class of Orïsha can be seen as a metaphor for oppressive classes or races across the world, with the Reaper clan and other formerly magic clans being forced to live in slums, work as slaves and suffer abuse from corporal power.

 

Time

A poem by Zimbabwean graphic designer, photographer and poet Munya Chidakwa.

 
Dear My Time,

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Or was the first time 

way back in time?

Do you remember the time your heart and mind combined,

releasing thoughts and feelings that made you unwind

to a place where your guilty pleasures are no longer a crime?

Relax and unwind.  

Do you remember the last time your thoughts

and his thoughts intertwined to a place beyond space and time? 

Leaving you both bathing in a unconscious mind. 

Leaving your time and his time to take time... together?

Dont waste your time, or his time,

because time wont wait for time. 

So make time

because time only reveals in time.

So I ask...

when is the next time you’ll do something for the first time?

Hope you get this in time 

Yours sincerely

Your Time
 

About Munya

Multidisciplinarian Zimbabwean spoken word artist, photographer, grahic designer and poet Munya Chidakwa uses his art as a way of trying to understand the complexity of the world. As the son of a former minister, Munya has known struggle and success - at one stage sleeping rough and also travelling the world to indulge his passions.

 

Image: The Odyssey Online.

This poem is published exclusively with The Book Banque. and shared with the permission of the author, Munya Chidakwa. All rights of the author reserved.

 

South African Women To Read

 

A list of some must-read books by South African women.

South African Women_The Book Banque.jpg
 

In South Africa, August 9 is celebrated annually as the National Women’s Day. It marks the day women united, in voice and in spirit, to protest the repressive pass laws—initially instituted for black men and then extended to black women—which restricted the mobility and economic freedom of black people in Apartheid South Africa. This day in 1956 saw 20,000 women march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, calling for the pass laws to be abated. In commemoration of this historic day, here are some must-reads by South African women, young and old, who have used their pen as a mighty sword in ways that inspire.

 

The Ones With Purpose

Nozizwe Cynthia Jele

Cover: Kwela Books; Image: Saaleha Idrees Bamjee.

This is one of my absolute favourite books to be published in South Africa in 2018. After a 10-year hiatus, novelist, Jele, delivered a book that presents a myriad of complex black family dynamics. It is centred around Anele, who loses her sister, Fikile, after she succumbed to breast cancer. She is then thrust into a position she had not entertained—one in which she has to become everything to everyone.

The Ones With Purpose is like delicate knitting. In it, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele writes as softly as she speaks. The painful incidents covered do not stab beyond recovery. Instead, Jele carefully rubs the reader’s wounds with her compassionate, non-abrasive writing style.

 

Cover: David Philip Publishers; Image: Adrian Steirn via 21 Icons South Africa. 

If there is a short story collection every (South) African needs to read, this is it. It is seasoned with history: life on train rides, black love in a time of resistance, and general community life in her era. What is more is that Tlali was the first black woman to be published in South Africa in 1989.

What strikes me about this book is the revelation that though South Africa has progressed past the period of pass laws, much still remains unjust. Lived experiences of disparity and discrimination are still writing books. In narrating her stories, Tlali also writes from a position of wisdom. This is displayed in sentences like “as you grow older, you learn the wisdom” and, in her words, ‘ho boloka khotso’ in a marriage.

 

Collective Amnesia

Koleka Putuma

Cover: uHlanga; Image: Elelwani Netshifhire.

Putuma’s debut offering is stacked with striking poetry that feels so familiar and relatable. At times, when reading, it felt like the author and I were raised in the same household. Some of the lines are punchy and daring, and leave you clicking your fingers in satisfaction. Lines like "Growing up black and Christian, the first man you are taught to revere is a white man" and "Madness sits at the dinner table, too, saying grace with one eye open" dance on the pages of the book.

 

The 30th Candle

Angela Makholwa

Cover and Image: Pan Macmillan.

It is hard to talk about South African fiction without mentioning Angela Makholwa. In a slightly corny move, I read The 30th Candle shortly before my 30th birthday. The book introduces you to four friends entering into the all-notorious age of 30. The friends—Linda, Dikeledi, Nolwazi and Sade—are at different stages of their lives and careers and, naturally, their lives prove to be messy. Through them, Makholwa skilfully entertains yet highlights valuable life lessons; rendering a fair representation of just how and amusingly unpredictable “adulting” can be.

 

Miss Behave

Malebo Sephodi

Cover: BlackBird Books; Image: Okay Africa.

The title of the book is borrowed from the ever-so-relevant and popular phrase, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In expressing herself as a black feminist in South Africa, Sephodi encourages the reader to do the same. In her words, shared in the introduction of the book, she is “attempting to reclaim her voice one word at a time and to live her truth to the best of her ability.”

What is, perhaps, key is, Sephodi’s accessible writing style about fairly complex issues; using conversational language and personal experiences, as opposed to an academic tone, as many books on feminism tend to adopt. The book tackles navigating male-dominated environments, sexism, what marriage really means for a woman, and, even, self-care.

 

Cover: Kwela; Image: Fungai Machirori.

As the title suggests, this novel takes place across three different cities—the latter two being in South Africa. London-based couple, Germaine and Martin, take on the land “alive with possibilities,” with their young son, Zuko, in tug. Family secrets and reminders of life’s regular clumsiness await them in South Africa.

The story ends with an unexpected twist, as things take a turn for the worse. For me, the ending induced a yell of horror. In a book club discussion with Literary Alliance, the author shared the ending as an intended reaction from readers, and a medium to highlight the state of the crucial issues she wrote about.


What are your favourite books written by South African women?


These books can be purchased online at Kwela or at these bookstores in South Africa: