Friday, September 09, 2011

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

Publishers: Other Press
Genre:       Literary

After a long drought where the only books I read were about Paris, in preparation for our vacation in the City of Light, I was finally able to sink my teeth into a novel that gripped me right away and refused to let go.  I'm sure as readers we all go through a non-reading phase, but mine was particularly painful because I cannot remember going a day without reading a book since I was six years old!  At first, when I found myself having difficulty concentrating on a book, I didn't let it worry me too much, I thought my reading mojo would return in a few's been close to six months!  Phew!

Anyway, back to the book. I'm not attempting a review here, but I cannot let the book that saved my reading life go by without a mention.  "Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away" by Christie Watson is set in the Niger Delta, the oil-rich region of Nigeria.  Its protagonist is a 12-year old girl who has to move from the big city of Lagos to her grandparents' house in the Niger Delta after her parents got a divorce.  Not only was it difficult for her and her brother to come to terms with the change in their geographic status, but also, they went from being considerably well off to hovering just above the poverty line and from a Catholic household (their father was Catholic) to having to pray in the mosque as her mother's family were (Ijaw) Muslim.

Blessing, our protagonist, soon gets caught up in the politics of a big family: a polygamous and patriarchal grandfather; a grandmother who practises midwifery; a brother who gets involved with the Sibeye boys (young, misguided local boys who are given arms with which to sabotage an oil pipeline or to kidnap a foreigner working with one of the large oil companies.)  Central to the story is how oil (first discovered in 1956)  is ruining the lives of the people of the Delta.  Where it should have been a blessing, it is now a curse.  Read this article in the National Geographic for greater insights into the curse of the black gold.

This book has a lot to recommend it: not only is the storytelling spectacular but also, it's set in an area most of us rarely get to read about (sure, there is a lot of literature coming out of Nigeria these days but not too many stories are based in this volatile area of  the country which is rich in oil-deposits and yet its people are among the poorest in the land.  Casting Blessing's grandmother in the role of a midwife was a clever strategy because the reader gets to learn all about female circumcision, another evil that plagues Africa.  The medical details are interesting to read and let me tell you why:  Ms. Watson is a nurse by profession so she certainly knows how to keep it accurate and at the same time her lyrical storytelling ensures we are never bored.  All is not gloom and doom however. Her novel celebrates the happy and gregarious Nigerian spirit in a way few books have done was a delight to read.


Zibilee said...

Oh, so glad to see you back! It has been awhile, and I had wondered where you were! Reading slumps can be scary and horrible, especially when they go on for months! I am glad that this book got your seal of approval, as it's one that I bought not too long ago. It sounds like it's got a lot going on in it to recommend it, and I am eager to try it out for myself. Great review on this one, and once again, glad to see you back!

Bellezza said...

I, too, am glad you're back! I've missed you (just when you found me again). :)

Love a brief, but meaningful review, about a book that spoke to you.

Leela Soma said...

Hi Angie

Great to see your book blog is back on and in great form as always. I've not heard of this author or the book so doubly glad to see another book on Nigeria, a country I know so little of. Your review commends the book so that is good enough for me. I'll add it to my TBR list. I'm reading Alice Alibinia's 'Leela's Book' and enjoying it.
I look forward to your reviews.

Lotus Reads said...

Zibilee, how lovely to hear from you! Great to put a face to you too and such a pretty one it is! Yes, lots going on in this's filled with colour, smells and sounds...I find books like that irresistible! The author, Christie Watson, is not a Nigerian as far as I know, but she sure has the soul of one. If you like stories based in Nigeria, you will love Sunbirds!

Lotus Reads said...

Bellezza - Helloooo my friend! Just coming out of a horrible reading slump, ugh!!! Thank you for being here for me upon my return, really appreciate the note.

Lotus Reads said...

Helllloo Leela! So glad you're enjoying the book featuring your namesake. I will have to look into getting a copy. The protagonist in my current read is also a Leela, I wonder if you can guess which book I am reading? :)

Thank you for the kind words on my's been so long I've almost lost the hang of writing a review...scary!

karmic said...

Hiya Lotus! Welcome back!! Have sorely missed your book posts and reviews.
As someone who barely gets time to read book blogs
like yours are my window in to books, so thank you!
Intersting topic., enjoyed reading it.
Nigeria is the 4th largest oil producing nation yet most if it's people have not benefitted from the wealth.
When times are tough often it is the Nigerian spirit or the human spirit that keeps one going.
I wonder if Nigeria will ever change for the better?
Does the book touch upon the environmental harm that was done to the delta by the oil companies?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Sanj, sorry just saw this particular comment! Not an expert on Nigeria but it's plain to see from all the Nigeria fiction I have read that government corruption seems to be a HUGE player in the plight of its people. Sure, people can blame the big oil companies all they want and while Shell, Exxon etc, do have a responsibility towards the upkeep of the environment, they certainly cannot be held responsible for the poverty of the people as the oil profits do not trickle down from centre. If I remember correctly, the Nigerian government owns owns 55 to 60 percent of multinational oil operations onshore...and yet very very little of its massive profits ever goes to the towns from where the oil is being extracted. Very sad.

karmic said...

I think you misunderstood, more maybe I did not explain myself well. I am not saying the oil companies are the cause of anything except causing environmental problems. These are because of the corruption of the Nigerian government which you alluded to. This prevents any kind of sensible legislation or enforcement of the same in the delta.
Also wonder how many oil spills are caused by those trying to sabotage existing pipelines or while trying to steal oil.
Hope I explained myself better now. :-)