Reading List (2023 edition)


7. Audacity To Refuse

There is one genre of literature that Nigerians are hesitant participants in – Biography (Autobiography). As a people, we are reluctant to tell our personal stories. In other climes, it is common for football stars, artists and even political figures to look back and tell critically acclaimed stories of their careers. I have come to the conclusion that a paucity of such literary works in our society is often due to a lack of introspection, laziness to document and an unwillingness to be challenged. Imagine a society where a presidential candidate has a vague record of his childhood, a questionable record of his source of wealth and even no record of his age. If we had public figures writing decent autobiographies or even allowing access to writers to write their biographies, their stories will be in the public domain and the fact that they can be easily refuted, they will not churn out fantasies. In the face of the paucity of proper biographies, we are left with common tales of “God’s grace and hard work”. Our literary landscape will be richer if personal stories were commonplace. Where authorised biographies compete with unauthorised ones. Luke Chinua Achebe said, “If you don’t like somebody’s story, write your own”.

It is for this reason that I found Audacity To Refuse a very refreshing read. Sunday Oliseh’s courageous attempt to tell his story of football success is rare and applaudable. I can’t remember any other football star of his generation finding their success and journey worthy of a biography. Reading Audacity To Refuse refreshed my mind about the time when Nigerian football was glorious. Some of the details that Sunday Oliseh tells in his book are details that I had long forgotten. Some I (as a fan) did not recall as important back then but hearing them contextualized by a primary participant throws a different light on the issues. Sunday Oliseh had a glittering career by all standards. A 16 years career that saw him play in most top European leagues; Belgium, Italy, Germany and Italy. He won league titles in Holland and Germany, was instrumental to Nigeria’s qualification to 3 world cups, and several Nations cup competitions and was captain at several tournaments during his 9 years stint in the Super Eagles.

Audacity To Refuse is Sunday Oliseh’s account of his refusal to give in in the face of adversities – the maladministration that characterized the Nigerian national football teams and the subtle and obvious racism and cultural prejudices that he encountered at his European clubs. The book mostly covers his national team adventures and is less descriptive about his club career. So, it is directed at a Nigerian audience. A lot of research had obviously gone into it as detailed squad lists and lineups are provided to give more context. It is also obvious that this was not ghostwritten as the writing has no literary flavour. The book is not properly structured, the prose is replete with grammatical errors and the football language is extremely pedestrian and devoid of any technical insight. For Sunday Oliseh’s remarkable achievements and pedigree within the context of African football, a collaboration with a proven football writer and an experienced editor was the least that Audacity To Refuse deserved. In the absence of a better-packaged literary product, Audacity to Refuse is a decent testament to Sunday Oliseh’s substantial contribution to Nigerian football and I hope we get to read even better-written biographies from the likes of Mikel Obi, Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, etc.


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6. The Son of Good Fortune

As I have repeated elsewhere, novels with migration themes resonate a great deal for several reasons, but most importantly because the sense of belonging and assurance of homeliness is integral to what makes us human. I have just finished The Son of Good Fortune barely days before Lagosians like the rest of Nigerians go to the polls to elect a new governor. The run-up to this particular election has been toxic, to say the least. The campaigns have been particularly characterised by xenophobic and alienating rhetoric. Suddenly the true meaning of the word Lagosian is being disputed and people who were born here and lived all their lives here are being pushed to reevaluate what home means to them. Like Excel recounted in The Son of Good Fortune, “Arrival – was utterly foreign to him – he’d never really come from somewhere else before”. It is an awful feeling to be told that you do not belong to a place you call home. It is even worse when you are made to suddenly accept that your own definition of home is invalid.

Lysley Tenorio’s excellent novel – The Son of Good Fortune is one that touches on themes of belonging, family and migration. In it, Maxima, a D-class Filipino action hero buys a one-way ticket to California and with her undocumented status lives perpetually below the radar while trying to make a living off online dating scams. It is bad enough living like that alone. It is worse for Maxima because she has a son, Excel (like the spreadsheet!) who she had on the plane while flying to America from the Philippines. On Excel’s 10th birthday, his mother gives him the worst possible gift any child can get – that he is a TNT – Tago ng Tago (hiding and hiding) which is the Tagalog slang for an illegal migrant. Excel is told to keep a secret and try to live his life as invisibly as possible. Excel spends the next 9 years trying to go through life as unobstructive as possible. As a TNT, he can’t dream, not even mediocre dreams are within his reach. A dream or aspiration of any sort will humanise him and as a TNT, he is undeserving of that. Hiding is the only thing befitting for the likes of Excel and Maxima.

The Son of Good Fortune is a poignant coming-of-age novel of sorts as Excel grows into an adult while still hiding. He learns to seek a sense of belonging in Hello City with his fellow band of misfits. During this time and the period afterwards, he explores his humanness and makes sense of the difficult choices that his father Maxima has had to make. His humanness is not blunted by the society that wants him to hide indefinitely – the grandiose act of kindness and understanding that he extends to Z, his Serbian coworker bears witness to that. While the issues dealt with in The Son of Good Fortune are heavy, Tenorio has a style of writing that lightens the mood and even the hilarious moments do not seem forced or misplaced. The chapters alternate between the past and present and are so excellently crafted in a synchronous manner that the past does not feel like a flashback at all. The characters all seem ordinary yet almost unforgettable as they confront daily challenges in manners that make them seem heroic without being heroes of any sort. In all, the questions that The Son of Good Fortune raises about community, belonging and identity are very valid in our world at large and particularly in Nigeria in this current season.

Excellent Read.


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5. Once More We Saw Stars

The parental instinct of almost every parent entails that their biggest fear is having to bury their child. It is virtually every parent’s worst nightmare. For Jayson and Stacy Greene, this nightmare came to pass and in Once More We Saw Stars, Jayson writes about the death of their 2-year-old daughter. It is a memoir of pain, grief and a search for healing. The poignancy of the memoir lies in its brutal honesty. Jayson Greene is able to capture the pain and brokenness that is experienced by not just him and his wife, but also how the sudden death of Greta impacted the dynamics of their extended family.

While spending a weekend with her grandmother Susan and sitting on a bench outside Susan’s apartment, a brick falls from the 8th floor and lands on Greta’s head. She is rushed to the hospital and never makes it out alive. One minute, Jayson and Susan were overwhelmed by parental duties and sending Greta to spend the weekend with her grandmother, the next minute they were making decisions about donating Greta’s organs after she was pronounced brain dead. There is never a good time to suffer the loss of a loved one (I knew that after recently losing a parent after a prolonged illness that made being alive seem like the 2nd best option), it is worse when such loss is sudden and involves a young offspring. This is the measure of pain and grief that the Greenes are struck with. The pain and attendant grief reconfigures their extended family. Because grief has no manual, relationships within the extended family are tested in diverse manners. Stacy and Jayson struggle to make sense of their loss. It is in times of crisis that o belief systems are questioned. The Greenes seek healing and closure from almost every available means; grief resorts, psychologists and even consult a medium despite being atheists.

Once More We Saw Stars is a poignant and vulnerable journey of one couple’s journey in search of healing from their grief and pain after a devastating loss. It is well-written and vulnerable. The only minus I have with the book is that the author’s writing is a bit too superfluous and colourful for my liking. Excessive descriptions of objects, persons and scenery come off as a bit pretentious. Apart from this, this is as good a memoir of grief as one can wish to access.


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4. The Burning

Through Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir, The Burning explores the condition of the marginalized and the helplessness of the poor in their fight against state institutions. In Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir, Megha Majundar constructs three interconnected and well-formed characters. Each is on the margin of society in a distinct way. Jivan is a Muslim girl (in Hindu majority India) who lives with a peasant trader mother and her invalid father. They moved to the slums after the government destroyed their previous home and in the ensuing violence, her father was beaten by the police. Lovely is a hijra – part of a community of mostly eunuchs, some intersex and transgender people. Shunned by most and denigrated at every turn, like the other two protagonists in The Burning, Lovely is on the margins of Indian society. Like Jivan, Lovely is full of dreams and aspirations. Aspirations that are not even so lofty but made almost unattainable by her marginalisation. For Jivan, it is to escape the clutches of poverty and become part of the middle class. Fo Lovely, it is to be a renowned actress; a dream that is very achievable given her incredible acting talent and her dedication to her craft. Lovely’s audacity to aspire is incredibly inspiring, even to the reader.

Jivan had dropped out of school in Grade 10 to work and support her poor mother and sick father. One of the dividends of her job as an assistant in the shopping mall is that she is able to afford a smartphone. The same benefit ends up being the channel of her incarceration.  A careless post on Facebook makes her a prime suspect in a train bombing near her slum. A terrorist act that leads to the death of hundreds of train passengers. Because she is on the margin – poor and Muslim, the government are able to use her as a scapegoat to satisfy the thirst of the nationalistic public in their hunger for jungle justice.

PT Sir is a worrying character. He is not as marginalised as the other two but turns a willing tool in the hands of the oppressor, all in a bid to satisfy a desire for political power. Permanently unstable in all his ways. He is giving to deep introspection but his hunger for power means that he always ends up betraying his conscience. He longs to belong to the political elite but because he is on the outside, climbing the ladder will mean betraying his conscience.

The intertwined nature of the three protagonists is well-crafted and the distinctiveness in each of their voices in dedicated chapters is skillfully written. Lovely is the stand-out protagonist. Not just for her physical uniqueness but also for the narration done in the present progressive tense. It gives her voice a sense of immediacy that denotes defiance.  In all, The Burning is an excellent novel that reiterates the point that most governments are willing to trample on the marginalised in a bid to satisfy populist tendencies.

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3. The House My Father Built

I have a very interesting relationship with this book. I bought the first copy that I owned about 8 years ago. Since then, I have purchased 3 more copies, yet this is the first time I have read it. The first time I bought it I was intrigued by the premise: Nigerians are not big on memoir writing (that was one reason why I found I For Don Blow But I Too Dey Press Phone very refreshing) and even when they do, it is often an egotistical trip in which they flaunt (or exaggerate) their achievements and lace it with vague details of the process to their assumed success.  The uniqueness of The House My Father Built was the specificity of the context and subject. The 2nd time I bought it was because I was book browsing in a bookshop while waiting for a meal in a restaurant, ran out of options and picked it up because I just forgot that I already owned a copy. The 3rd time, I knew I had it at home but I liked the new cover. It was very colourful so I bought it and ended up with 3 copies on the shelves. The 4th and final time was also because a newer cover had been published. I bought it and finally gave out the other 3 copies and finally, this year, I read it.

The House My Father Built is a harrowing tale that is infused with wit, honesty, self-depreciation and a good dose of introspection. It is a tale that details the author’s protracted pursuit of reclaiming a house that has been willed to him by his late father. The time period is between 1993 and 1999. The house was inhabited by a motley of interesting characters. The book is not just a picture of the rental sector that caters for the average working-class Nigerian but the whole tale is a microcosm of the Nigerian state – a place where lawlessness thrives and one where reclaiming what is lawfully yours is not as straightforward as it should be. The House My Father Built is one endless cycle of excursions between police stations, police holding cells and courthouses. At some points, it is difficult to keep track of who is suing who and which party is the complainant and which is the defendant in a police visit. The fact that the lawful owner of the house has to incorporate the services of a local tout (Prince) to the point that the tout has to move in with him, in order to evict non-paying tenants is an indictment on the system.

While the book tries to stick to the subject and largely succeeds, one is left wondering if the author would have gotten himself mixed up with the shady characters he ended up with if the system worked. It is worrying how in a bid to enforce his rights, one can end up using extrajudicial means and mixing up with shady characters. It is a slippery slope that led to the author turning an eye to Prince’s paedophile tendencies. He did not approve of his questionable behaviour but turned a blind eye to it all because the perpetrator is useful to him in aspects that he should be irrelevant in if the state was functional. In all, The House My Father Built is a decent read that paints a sad picture of the Nigerian polity and shows hoa a lack of proper law enforcement impacts everyday life.


2. Girls at War and Other Stories

This is one of Achebe’s lesser known works. Girls at War and Other Stories is a collection of 11 Short Stories written between 1953 and 1970. Similar to his other works, the stories have an underpinning of societal observations within the Igbo culture; whether exploring inter-tribal marriages, the effect of the civil war, the clash between colonialsm and indigenous Igbo culture  or democracy and the polity. In each of the stories, Achebe is commenting as an astute observer of the world around him.

While Achebe has no other Short Stories collection, it is obvious to see that these were earlier works and less polished compared to his more famous novels. The plotand character development in some of the stories are not fully formed, while some of the earlier stories in the collection are just plain flat. Like most Short Stories collection, there are hits and misses. While the hits are not particularly spectacular, I would recommend Marriage is a Private Affair, Vengeful Creditor and Girls At War. A massive bonus for the collection is that one of the Short Stories references my village! Considering how unpopular my village is, that was a pleasant surprise when I read. Yet, this is not highly recommended.




1. Family Matters

I eagerly anticipated this read after reading A Fine Balance two years ago. Mistry is an incredibly good storyteller and Family Matters reaffirms that fact. The title of the book works in two ways. It affirms the criticality of the family unit, on one hand, while it delves into matters of a particular family, on another hand. Either way, the title of the book does justice to its content and plot.

Family Matters explores the changes and disruptions in a Parsi extended family that is trying to keep up in the city of Mumbai (then recently changed from Bombay). The disruptions are caused by the claustrophobic living conditions occasioned by an overpopulated city on one hand and the living conditions of most of the characters in the book. The changes are due to the failing health of a retired professor of literature, Nariman Vakeel. At 79 years, he breaks his ankle and coupled with his fast-deteriorating Parkinson disease, he needs extensive home care. These health issues demand extensive changes to his extended family; his unmarried middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy, his daughter, Roxana and her husband, Yezad and their two pre-teen sons, Murad and Jehangir.

Family Matters is an exploration that focuses on the domestic crisis of Nariman Vakeel’s extended family. The beauty of it is that every voice is heard, everyone’s crisis is fully pulsated and the readers are drawn into each of the protagonists. Be it the repercussion of Vakeel’s arranged marriage and his lingering devotion to his long-dead lover Lucy (a non-Parsi who his parents forbade him from marrying), Yezad’s crisis of conscience either when playing Matka or contemplating to help himself to his employer’s cash that is in his custody or Jehangir’s bribe-taking while performing his duties as a class captain in class. In economic and unobstructive prose, the reader gets drawn into the struggles of daily living that this family of three generations contends with, and all within the context of Bombay which is bursting at its seams with population explosion, dilapidating infrastructure and religious fundamentalism. Through the three generations of this family, we explore their failings, their hypocrisy, forgiveness and constant attempts to remain a family despite the constant bickering. Mistry is an excellent storyteller and in his pen, ordinary everyday domestic matters soar into an epic novel.


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