How do you tell an African Story?
“As it fades, I see the truth — in plain sight, yet hidden all along. We are all children of blood and bone. All instruments of vengeance and virtue. This truth holds me close, rocking me like a child in a mother’s arms. It binds me in its love as death swallows me in its grasp.”…Children of Blood and Bones
I did enjoy the book. In fact, I finished the 525 paged book in a record 5 days!!
But my love for the book wasn’t for the reason I set out to read it in the first place. It was thrilling to meet Zelie, Amari, Zain, Inan, mama Agba and of course King Saran and get immersed in their world of Majis, Kosidáns, Lionaires, and Chândomblés. But something about the book didn’t feel African.
What I set out to read was a book steeped in Yoruba mythology, expressed in a very Yoruba way. What do I mean by the Yoruba way? In this context, it refers to how the rhythm of a story informs its origins. Kubo and the Two Strings was a Japanese story about a guitar-playing eye-patched wearing boy, who starts off tending to his ill mother and would later be chased by his grandfather and two sisters for his other eye. The story had artifacts like the moon king, death rituals that involved lanterns, and origamis expressing a familiar Japanese storyline..or a Japanese way.
Beawolf is another example, where the artifacts were castles, drinking from horns, slaying creatures, and creatures from the sea, something that resonated with ideas of Northern Europe. Artifacts reference a particular culture and help frame a stereotype of a people. The value inherent in the stereotype might be completely alien to said people.. but ample literature from recent past exist to reinforce and convey to a reader that “this is a story about the (for example) Scandinavians”.
From my exposure particularly to Yoruba literature, this book isn’t even trying to tell a Yoruba story. For one the names and the locations weren’t particularly uniquely from Northern and Western Nigeria, with a name (Kwame) originating as far as Ghana. Zelie (the name of the protagonist) is even Latin. Orisha is actually a diety according to Yoruba mythology rather than a location. I would commend that the writer attempted to place West African artifacts (like mentioning Nigeria food), but all points of insertion were too obvious. A different type of warrior is eats jollof rice and fried plantain, and definitely not one about to ride on a lionaire or loosely use magic. I think it is wrong to claim the book has roots in West African mythology. Rather it is a regular European fantasy sprinkled with African labels.
To tell an African story, the story must speak the African truth. It must pay homage to African artifacts and ideas of its value. It must retain the relationships between living things and the elements while stretching the boundaries of possibilities. However distorted a version of reality it paints, it should never deny what makes the actors, Africans.