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Chioma Okereke – Bitter Leaf
In Bitter Leaf, the lives of six characters intertwine in an idyllic village that is African in nature but never geographically placed. Set during a time of encroaching commercialisation, these colourful inhabitants of Mannobe try to get to grips with their changing situations, without losing themselves in the process.
Babylon, the gifted musician and local lothario captivated by the beautiful Jericho Lwembe newly-returned from the city...Jericho, struggling to settle back in at home after the life and relationship she left outside Mannobe...Mabel and M'elle Codón, twin sisters who run the village's most popular eatery and battle local politics alongside old age...Magdalena, Mabel's daughter, the latest casualty of Babylon's ephemeral brand of affection...and Allegory, the self-appointed visionary adopted decades earlier after fleeing his own home town...
As the published author of Bitter Leaf, you were shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Some of the themes in your novel include the commercialization and modernization of Mannobe village. What did the small village of Mannobe represent in your novel?
Mannobe was in a many ways another one of the novel’s characters and I’m very pleased that readers seem to have understood this. As people adapt to life’s twists and turns, so do places; larger entities, so it was interesting to also explore how burgeoning industry and all of its implications affected a small community with very mixed feelings about the onset of this inevitable ‘progress’.
What would you say are the key texts that first spawned your love of African literature?
Second Class Citizen (Buchi Emecheta), The Famished Road (Ben Okri), Things Fall Apart(Chinua Achebe), Weep Not, Child (Ngugi wa Thiong'o), Coming to Birth (Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye) and July’s People (Nadine Gordimer) are perhaps some of the first I remember reading that had that stronghold over me... Books that reach right into your core and change you in some way. But it’s a love of literature as a whole. These writers happen to be African but there are a thousand others I could list that I read in those formative years that had the same effect.
From Chinua Achebe to Wole Soyinka, Nigeria is known to have produced some of the biggest names in African writing. But can you pick out your most influential writers from other regions of Africa?
My influences aren’t limited to literature, or African literature at that. I think Nigerians are among the biggest names in African writing but so too are South African writers like Nadine Gordimer and Andre Brink, whom I love. Additionally, people are becoming more aware of the other voices out there - Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava, from Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone’s Olufemi Terry to name a few. What is encouraging is that there are so many wonderful perspectives and we really do experience the continent’s diversity of the continent through the different writing.
Finally, who do you think are the new emerging writers our followers should look out for in 2012?
That’s a hard one as I’m a champion for all writers in general (and am even now still uncovering some older writers that have thus far eluded me) but I’d say E. C. Osondu, Charlotte Rogan, Krys Lee, and I can’t wait for more from NoViolet Bulawayo.
Review of Bitter Leaf
In Bitter Leaf, the lives of six characters intertwine in an idyllic village of Mannobe that although African in nature is never geographically placed. Set during a time of encroaching commercialisation, these colourful inhabitants try to get to grips with their changing situations, without losing themselves in the process.
For the first time in ages I found myself truly invested in a book from the opening pages. Early on we are introduced to Jericho, the independent young woman returning to her home village after years in the big city. From there the novel opens out into a cinematic sweep through Mannobe where we encounter the other beguiling villagers and their oftentimes bittersweet lives. From the twin matriarchs M’elle and Mabel – the proprietresses of the best café around – to the local lothario, Babylon, the characters are richly drawn and authentic. Okereke juggles these multiple storylines with skill and surety and uses them to explore such themes as equality, infidelity, tradition and modernization. Another interesting element of the book is the writer’s use of music and poetry to bring alive the characters and their environment.
For a debut novel, I was struck by the confidence of Okereke’s narrative voice; her storytelling reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston in its melancholy pace and tone. Her rich poetical language evokes a sensual and vibrant community in which the reader can lose themselves and discover a new yet familiar world.
You can buy a copy of Chioma’s Bitter Leaf, here