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  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

Part 2: Peter Kalu recommends books he read & loved that did not make it to our 2021 longlist...

Peter Kalu, novelist, poet, essayist, critic and educator, was on our judging panel in 2021. In the second of his blog posts, he recommends the books he read and loved, and that are essential additions to the canon.

Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Love and Relationships by Dr Camilla Pang

A pop science book written by someone on the autistic spectrum. Chapter 1 on the virtues of tree thinking over box thinking is excellent. I have not come across the comparison before. It actually makes a deeper and cogent point of the expression ‘to think outside of the box’ and many of the other common sayings the author focuses on. Of the ‘Help’ books I’ve read this year, this is one of the most impressive.

A series of essays from a radical black feminist perspective and containing within its arguments firm challenges to consumerist feminism and neo-liberal feminism. The style is not academic: it does not have that drily, sideways crawl – that ‘scholastic stink’ that James Joyce noted adhered to much of academic writing to carry; nor is it journalistic – it eschews any needy, look-at-me flamboyance of style, wit or aphorism. Instead, the style is almost self-effacing in service of a series of well-argued essay-polemics that as a whole point out the deficit in analysis from standard liberal feminism and show the insights gained through examining the same issues using a radical black feminist lens. Feminism Interrupted quietly gets on with doing the intellectual work of challenging feminist orthodoxy. These are closely-argued essays that are intellectually stimulating, and Olufemi’s is a voice to listen out for.

A collection of poems, with energies and themes that range from the experimental to language to the blues. The gimbal poetry featured in the collection is worth noting, with its inherent considerations of movement, migration, circulation and stasis: to create a new poem is one thing, to create a new poetry form – one that works for the centrifugal 21 century in the way the sonnet must have worked for the iambic 16th century – is something else.

To language. It’s been a puzzle for me why polyglot poets write their works in one language only, when they possess two or more. The Ghanaian language, Ga features in Geez. There are poems I don’t fully understand but which I feel, and the lacunae open up rabbit holes of speculation.

Towards the end of the collection are a series of superb 12-line praise songs for well-known blues players. These form a mini book in themselves, and, what a launch it would be if musicians were found to play the poems’ rhythms on piano and strings, and Parkes, or a succession of singers, caressed the mic and howled the lines. As soon as this Covid time is over, let us hope the publisher, Peepal Tree hold this evening. As the ‘he’s a fool’ doctor in Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U says: ‘You gotta have fun!’

An excellently researched study of Toussaint Louverture using French, Spanish, English, American and Haitian sources, Black Spartacus gives a new insight into the life, thoughts and tactics of Touissant L’Ouverture. Black Spartacus’s broad thesis – of the innate originality and creativity of the Haitian thought and its primary influence on L’Ouverture represents a strong challenge to CLR James’ The Black Jacobins emphasis on French Enlightenment theory’s influence on L’Ouverture. The book’s argument that the Haitian Revolution – and not the American Revolution or the French Revolution – was the true harbinger of emancipation is a revolutionary toppling of orthodox Western thought that will gather and make waves for decades to come. This is a brilliantly written history with a radical, closely argued core.

Lote is a great intellectual banquet. Black Modernism is one of things it explores, particularly modernism’s rejection of neat endings, of consistency of character, its embrace of randomness and of a sense of an ordered world being unachievable. Lote also exhibits many tropes of postmodernism: multiple registers, multiple tones, multiple stylistic references. Its embrace of these modernist and postmodernist devices renders conventional/realist concerns with plot and character development secondary within its text. Instead, the book as a whole ripples with linguistic extravagance, rococo thought chains, esoteric research and methodological invention.

Ultimately, Lote as a text resists categorisation. It is fiction. But there is no hard-driving plot. It does have a fictional main character, Mathilda. But many other figures are actual historical figures rather than inventions and there significant sections of biography. The text can switch register easily from novel to art history to biography to news report to diary. For this reason, as well as the density of erudite references (the main character’s principal vocation is biographical research) it is not the kind of book that demands it be read in one sitting. But it is no lesser thing for that. Ultimately, qua literary text, the issue of polemics matters little here. The book is a triumph, a celebration of black oddity, extravagance and flamboyance. Lote is a breath-taking and singular addition to the weltering multiplicity of black literary voices/texts: a sauntering, sparkling, deep-diving joy of a novel.

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