7 great novels by African women writers

“In the stories we tell ourselves, we tell ourselves,” said Michael Martone rightly. We also read ourselves in the books we read, or at least in those books that we cherish. For this reason, one of my 2014 resolutions was to return to a favourite pastime, namely reading fiction. For some years my reading life has been dominated by non-fiction, which I’ve enjoyed, but reading novels can be a spiritual or at least a therapeutic act, opening valves of memory – lived and yet to be lived.

Below are short reviews of seven novels that I’ve recently re/read and which have indeed been both spiritual and therapeutic reads. There are others that I could have included, the choice is entirely unsystematic.

Americanah1 7 great novels by African women writers1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Even before reading Americanah, there were two things prone to make me love it. Firstly, that it is written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I am yet to read (or listen to or watch) anything of hers that I haven’t loved. Secondly, well, Americanah’s main protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian woman and blogger who writes about race, gender, “Nigerpolitanism” and stuff like that: you can bet your bottom dollar I was going to love this book. However, what bewitched me even more than meeting a fictional colleague, was the passionate, vivid and feminist (I’d say) love story between Ifemelu and her love, Obinzeh, transcending both time and geographical spaces. In fact, Ifemelu’s being such an opinionated blogger (wink) meant that I was unable to read the novel in the detached way I tend to read novels. Instead, I kept finding myself stopping to consider whether I related to her blogging experiences. Looking through my notes in the book I came across this highlight, “If they asked what she did, she would say vaguely, ‘I write a lifestyle blog,’ because saying ‘I write an anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black’ would make them uncomfortable.” I highlighted this sentence because it reminded me of how I used to say that I blog about women’s rights rather than feminism to not make people uncomfortable. Those were the kinds of “interruptions”, if welcome ones, that I experienced reading Americanah

 7 great novels by African women writers 2. Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta – I read Everything Good Will Come first in 2008 and didn’t love it. Obviously, something was incredibly wrong with me at the time (and by that I mean that the book must have introduced truths that I wasn’t yet willing to shake hands with) because having recently reread it for my book club, this is one of my favourite novels ever. Atta’s protagonist, Enitan, is an unapologetically feminist and proudly Nigerian character. However, she is not ideological, she does not intend to be any of these things, she simply loves herself and questions the ways her society denies women self fulfilment. In fact at one point, having been “accused” of being a feminist, Enitan wonders: “Was I? If a woman sneezed in my country, someone would call her a feminist. I’d never looked up the word before, but was there one word to describe how I felt from one day to the next? And should there be?” If Ifemelu in Americanah shares my passion for blogging the African zeitgeist, Enitan is my soul sister. Her coming of age story in Nigeria, Lagos to be precise, often felt like reading my own thoughts. I followed her fictional world often through an all too familiar lens, equally heartbreaking as funny.

 

sula one sheet 7 great novels by African women writers3. Sula by Toni Morrisson - Sticking to becoming a feminist, it was not until my early twenties that I started to think of myself as a feminist. To thank, or blame, depending on how you look at it, was a university professor (a white, male one, coincidentally) whose course, Gender Representations in Media, I was taking. His lectures on feminism left me eternally transformed. That sensation – a deep knowing that I was unlikely to ever settle agreeably into the gender roles that society encouraged – was one I’d felt years before when as a teenager I read Sula, only then I didn’t have the word ‘feminist’ readily available. Rereading it now has brought three insights: 1) That there is an essence at our core, our unique observation on humanity, that never changes. We simply (hopefully) become more aware of it with time. I say this because despite that it had been twenty years since I read Sula, much of it had stuck with me. Not just the story line and characters but their very memories, it felt almost like reading an old diary; 2) that to live life fully, especially as a woman, as I wrote in my last post, requires to not fear judgement. Sula’s fearlessness is coupled with her insight. But her life also serves as a warning, of what may happen when the heterosexual, patriarchal order is defied and a woman goes from sex object to sex subject, and; 3) that Toni Morrison is everything. E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.

GMG 7 great novels by African women writers4. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi – ahh, AHH, WOW. Here is a book with beautiful, jazzy sentences that jump at all your senses. Selasi is a wordsmith but don’t let her craftiness mask the other hat she wears, namely that of a teacher. The hidden, confused demands that people nevertheless reveal and rationalise in relationship are difficult to capture but Selasi’s lyrical sentences -however short, and they often are – manage to do just that. Through the lives of The Sai family (Kweku, Fola, Olu, Kehinde, Taiwo, and Sade) we explore relationships, even the ugliness, especially the ugliness actually, but yet their stories carefully reveal that love is efficacious at smoothing out even the most unforgivable memories. This is not an easy process for the Sais, and it isn’t for the reader either. I found myself needing to pause: to listen to the pauses. As one of the characters says, “Between the way things were and when everything changed, a moment within which one notices nothing, about which one remembers all. Which is the point.”

 

imana 7 great novels by African women writers

5. The Shadow of Imana by Veronique Tadjo – “Rwanda is inside me, in you, in all of us,” Tadjo writes in The Shadow of Imana, referring by “Rwanda” to the ghastly pogrom whose aftermath she writes about. This quote summarises aptly the delicate search for universal humanness that seems to anchor Tadjo’s story forward. Through recounting stories of people, “ordinary” human beings who are farmers, project managers, teachers and lawyers, but also simultaneously war victims or war criminals, her writing hatches onto something profoundly true, namely that we all are capable of more than we know, both good and bad. Nothing reveals this binding trait of humanness more than the way mundanity exists alongside the atrocity of war. To live, and be determined to live despite having the odds against you, is both a mark of struggle and of victory. The Shadow of Imana is not fiction – unfortunately I might add – but I’ve included it nevertheless as it’s a creative non-fiction or as Tadjo herself says (pdf) about her decision to go to Rwanda to write the book, “We felt it was important to reflect on what had really happened. So we accepted to go there, with the only condition being that we should respond as writers – not like the many journalists or historians who dealt with the genocide, but in our capacity as pure writers.”

 7 great novels by African women writers6. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna – Let me start by confessing that I found The Memory of Love somewhat laborious to read. It was a slow, dream-like read, ushered not so much by the events and characters as by the language in it. However, the language is jerkingly lucid, and the novel is an odyssey of discovery of a country – Sierra Leone – in post-independence giddiness juxtaposed with post-war dystopia. The Memory of Love is, amongst other things, a story that arouses reflections on African independence, conflict and most of all the borders, both of nations as of love. I read it tempted to attempt to find similarities in all these terminologically diverse yet emotionally related spaces. What similarities exist between the fragmentation of our hearts as of our maps? However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that trying to place love in any theoretical frame can only result in imperfect conclusions. The ‘memory of love’ and the ‘politics of love’ might both be terrains of unity but they are not, necessarily, places or reconciliation.

 

68.Noviolet Bulawayo We Need New Names 7 great novels by African women writers7. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo – Admittedly, I’ve only just started reading We Need New Names. I am a promiscuous reader and We Need New Names is only one of the many books I’m now dating. I mean reading. So I have not got to the part of the book where the quote I want to end this blogpost with is located. However, it was posted on the pan-African Tumblr, Dynamic Africa, and coincidentally my mum who was reading the book said to me, “Mimmi!” (as she calls me) “you have to hear this,” and proceeded to read to me the following:

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

This first novel of Bulawayo’s has been a recipient of Nyong’oesque early career awards and honours and I have a feeling that I will reach the end of ‘New Names’, understanding precisely why this is.

 

OK, your turn. Have you read any of these books?

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Apart from Chinua Achebe, which other African writers deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature?

img237c10 Apart from Chinua Achebe, which other African writers deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature?In the lead up to the short list announcement for the Nobel Prize in Literature on 30 May, headlines this week brought to the fore the problematic obsession that some people have with the Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to the late Chinua Achebe. For years, the pre-announcement period has seen speculations demands as to whether the Nigerian author would be nominated and now after his death, admirers continue to lobby for posthumous recognition.
In a candid interview with Sahara Reporters this week, Wole Soyinka laments that he has received pleas that he, as a former recipient of the award, use his nomination qualification to put Achebe forward. One of the “pontificators”, as Soyinka refers to them, writes him saying:

“I told these people, leave it to Wole Soyinka – he will do what is right. We hear Ben Okri, Nuruddin Farah, even Chimamanda Adichie are being nominated. This is mind-boggling. Who are they? Chinua can still be awarded the prize, even posthumously. We know you will intervene to put those upstarts in their place. I’ve assured people you will do what is right.”

This is troubling because while Achebe certainly is deserving of the prize, his not receiving it takes nothing away from his contributions to world literature. The insinuation that his ouevre is incomplete without the accolade is a distressing reminder of how “bigmanism” can cripple minds. To these people, the Nobel-laureate title rings synonymous to “Chief” or “Oga” or “President”.

On the other hand commentators remain utterly speechless on what, or rather who, really is neglected at the delightful smorgasbord that is the canon of literary Nobel laureates, namely women. Out of the 105 Nobel Prizes in Literature that have been awarded only twelve have been awarded to women, and, out of those twelve only one, Nadine Gordimer, is African. Furthermore, a black African woman is yet to be acknowledged in this category despite that there is enough writing by black African women which meets the requirements of the Academy. Where is the outrage over the absence of an Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Yvonne Vera, Nawal El Saadawi or a Buchi Emecheta in the Nobel Prize archive? Instead all the voices continue to fuel fire to the tired plea that Achebe, however meriting, receive the award.

I firmly believe that great literature has no gender, race, class or sexual preference, but there are nevertheless tendencies to categorize authors and their works by traits that have little to do with their achievements. Men’s centrality in the Nobel Prize in Literature award is an expression of how male dominance is systemically and culturally reinforced.
Of course, women’s absence from the award cannot be blamed on the jury panel alone. In fact their exclusion indicates gender discrimination in the nomination process as much as, if not more, than in the selection process. In either case, it has discouraging consequences, reinforcing notions that men’s writing is serious and important while women’s writing is of a less critical nature.

Given the increased sales and prestige that is afforded Nobel laureates, the disproportion of women writers and absence of black African women writers is conspicuous.  Alas, this fails to generate collective outrage.

 

Who would you wish to see on the candidate short list?

 

 

 

 

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Conversations with women who empower: Precious Williams

PRECIOUSPIC09 995x1024 Conversations with women who empower: Precious Williams

Precious Williams, image used with permission of interviewee

Conversations with women who empower is a quarterly interview series where women of African heritage share their views on work and life.
The series highlights women whose work empowers and inspires in its skilfulness, ethos, creativity and impact and who also are women that I can picture myself having a tête-à-tête with.

I’m delighted to feature Precious Williams, an author, journalist and writing teacher. Her first book, the memoir Precious (Bloomsbury, 2010) was described by USA Today as “a startlingly powerful memoir that upends every expectation about race, class, gender and ambition.” A former Contributing Editor at Elle, Precious’s essays, feature articles and celebrity interviews have also appeared in the Financial Times, Glamour, Marie Claire, New York magazine, the New York Post, Wallpaper, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph.  Her essay about hip-hop journalism, Two Dollars A Word, was anthologised in the book Sex and Sensibility (Simon & Schuster, 2004).  Precious read English Language & Literature at Oxford University and also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism from the London College of Printing. She is at work on her next book, a novel, and she is an Ambassador for the charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse.

Precious, who is also a real life friend, and I catch up on writing, life and the intersection of the two in a great conversation.

ME

Hi Precious, let’s jump right in. How would you describe your approach to life, what motivates you and what qualities do you strive to maintain in your life?

PRECIOUS

Hi Minna, thank you so much for inviting me to this virtual interview ☺. I am a big fan of the MsAfropolitan blog and the woman behind it.
There are three elements that are vitally important to me and which dominate and guide the course of my life: love, authenticity and communication. For me, the three are intertwined. The very second I learn something new (or new to me) that I feel is useful, necessary and/or profound in some way, I absolutely have to share it. It’s a compulsion I’ve had since I was at primary school, which is when I first began writing. At least once a week I have to jump out of the bathtub mid-shower to write down a fragment of truth or a new realization or thought that has dripped into my head. That’s why I write. I’m not only speaking of essays, articles, books and so on but also the many emails and text messages exchanged between me and my daughter, and other people I love, every day, sometimes long into the night.

ME

And how do your life views and your work views merge? Apart from your journalism, research and novels, I’m thinking especially of you as a memoirist. Your self-titled memoir, “Precious”, is among other things, a raw and honest account of your experiences in foster care. Does writing about yourself openly blur the lines between your professional and personal aspirations or does it make it easier to distinguish the two?

PRECIOUS

My life views and work views are as one. I spend the majority of my time reading, writing and communicating, whether I am at work or at play. Over the years I’ve had conversations with artists who’ve sometimes spoken about the moment they ‘became’ a writer or the day they finally dared call themselves a singer or dancer or painter. But I feel that writers (and other artists) are born not made. Obviously we can – and must – seek to polish our craft. Eventually becoming published (or produced, exhibited, etc) is a great accomplishment. But I do not believe it is external validation or the ability to make a living at it that makes one a writer (or painter, or singer, or dancer). I believe we are who we are at birth and that we know who we are if we dare to look.
As for writing about oneself in a very overt way (as opposed to simply drawing on one’s experiences and turning them into fiction)– I have found the process messy, terrifying, liberating and, most of all, necessary. As Chinua Achebe (may he rest in peace) said, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” I grew up feeling I didn’t even have the right to tell my own story. Happily, to even write that line, ‘I didn’t have the right to tell my own story’ feels absurd to me now, but as a girl, and as a younger woman, I felt silenced. To tell your story –or indeed any story – through your own specific lens, in your voice, suggests that you truly deserve to exist and to be heard. That feels gorgeously unapologetic. Growing up and growing into womanhood, I was fed so many erroneous, negative stories about women, about black women in particular, even about me as an individual. I had a voice and a story to tell but I felt choked by the condescending attitudes so many people I encountered had towards women and girls, towards people of colour, towards Africans, towards immigrants. I was raised to believe that 1) as an African, female, foster-child, daughter of immigrants, I didn’t have the right to voice my own story (instead I should shut up, keep my head down, and feel grateful I had a roof over my head and – unlike the children depicted in the Live Aid video – food in my stomach). And that 2) nobody had any interest in what I – and others like me – might have to say anyway.

ME

The Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo once said, “The heart has a way of going on its own way without listening to the head”. What does this quote bring to mind? Has your writing career been heart, head or both?

PRECIOUS

You simply won’t seriously pursue a career as a writer for all that long unless it’s your heart – not your logic – guiding you. Anyone ruled by their head would surely jump ship and go and get a so-called proper job with a pension, regular paycheck and the possibility of promotion and pay rises. Writing can feel unhealthily solitary – even for an introvert like me. There’s relatively little feedback (I suppose getting published at all is feedback in itself that you’re doing something right). It’s a career that calls for a logic-defying amount of self-belief. Probably, you will start to question whether you are writing for a living, or simply writing for a pittance. And yet for me, writing for a living (or for a pittance) is the most liberating, audacious, fulfilling act imaginable. It definitely fills my heart. And I am cheering on my daughter (aged 22) who always said she wanted a ‘sensible’ job but is now following her heart and pursuing a career as a writer herself, and excelling at it…

ME

What qualities would you encourage young African women aspiring to be writers to acquire and what has been your biggest challenge as a writer?

PRECIOUS

I’ve already touched on one of the most essential qualities a writer needs, in my experience, and that is intact self-belief in the face of indifference. Many/most (all?) writers are skilled observers, moving through life with their antennae up, soaking up snippets of conversation, trying to tune into the emotions and motivations and situations and thoughts of others, constantly. And yet to sustain a career as a writer you need to remain indifferent to the occasional (or frequent) indifference of publishing professionals and even readers, towards your work. How do you remain immune to rejection and indifference if you’re thin-skinned by nature? I’ll tell you when I find out J

My hope is that every African woman writer will enjoy the freedom of being judged by the quality of her work. The reality may be different and it’s possible that you will feel ‘othered’ in an industry (publishing) that tends to be quite monolithic in terms of class (middle-class) and race (white). It is up to you to decide who you are, as a writer and as a human being. If you let anybody else decide for you, you may feel frustrated, even suffocated.

So, I think the bottom line is to accept that a writing career can, and quite probably will, feel painful at times. To have the heart to continue with it, writing must simply be crucial to your existence. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, be a passionate, prolific reader.

ME

Who are the people that inspire you in your field and what have you learnt from their work? Can you share one of your favorite books of all time and what makes it that?

PRECIOUS

There are so, so many writers to whom I am so grateful and whose words have enriched my life in so many ways. A few of them are Buchi Emecheta, Chester Himes, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Hanif Kureishi, Martin Amis, Maya Angelou, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Some people have a particular song or album that captures certain life moments or relationships or challenges. I tend to equate particular life transitions and notable moments with certain books. One such book is ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ (Hanif Kureishi). The first time I read it was in 1990 and I’d just dropped out of my A Level course and become a teenage single mother. I do not remember how I came to acquire my copy of Kureish’s book, but when I read it, initially I could barely believe that such a book had come into existence. I felt it was the most audacious, satisfying text I had ever read. I believe it must have been the first book I’d read about the life experiences of a British-born young person of colour growing up in England, nursing ‘unrealistic’ dreams and ambitions, experiencing the same racist ignorance I’d experienced. ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ opened so many doors – literally, in the sense that so many British writers of colour, including Zadie Smith, credit Kureishi with paving the way for them as writers. But the book also opened doors for me on an emotional level. It showed me that the trials of adolescence can morph into something powerful and creative and it taught me that I have every right to exist, to speak up, and to write. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that within little more than a year of reading ‘The Buddha of Suburbia,’ I’d had my first article published, landed an internship at Vogue magazine and won a place at Oxford University.

ME

I have a feeling you would have landed there regardless. Thanks for a great interview and for your inspiring work icon smile Conversations with women who empower: Precious Williams

To find out more about Precious, visit her site or ask a question below.

 

 

 

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African women writers and stories that raise awareness

 African women writers and stories that raise awarenessWriting down some of my new year’s resolutions earlier this year inspired me so much I’ve been maintaining the practice by making ‘new month’s resolutions’. In March my goal was to sleep more and as a result feel more energetic and reconnected with mother and father earth but I failed miserably. Instead March was a month of work and exams, being scolded by the librarian @SOAS  for repeatedly not allowing him to lock up on time, and unhealthy eating and sleeping patterns.
Not much time for peaceful reflection, in other words.

Over the years, my NYE resolutions have become increasingly abstract, with concrete ‘sub-goals’. So for example, this year my journal entry on January 1st started, “My goal is for 2011 to be yet another space in time where I continue a journey towards the spirit, bearing in mind that spirituality and awareness are synonymous. To not neglect awareness, is to become more spiritual. But awareness in itself is a journey, you grasp it one moment and it slips from you the next, however, the residue of understanding which it leaves is what matters.”

Anyway, despite the non-accomplishment for March, I’m entering April with equally ambitious hopes. Next month, my grand task is to catch up with reading novels; I’ve missed reading fiction. The writings of Chris Cleave, Pettina Gappah, Teju Cole, Sofi Oksanen and Nii Parkes await promisingly.

Last October I co-hosted the African Writer’s Evening, the only reading that regularly features African Writers outside Africa. In fact, AWE is usually hosted by author Nii Parkes whose book Tail of the Blue Bird is on my reading list for April. Here I am in what looks like an empty room, but it was quite busy.

AWE1 African women writers and stories that raise awareness

We discussed the novel Bitter Leaf by Chioma Okereke. I enjoyed the book a lot. The love story, which it unfolded around was romantic rather than realistic, the latter being favourable in my opinion, but throughout I found myself taking pauses to chew and regurgitate thoughts on Okereke’s poetic form of writing. The book is set in a fictitious village called Mannobe, a bit like the Africa I have saudade, kaiho and longing for. The main characters, Allegory and Jericho, and all the many others you get to know are all distinctly entertaining and the language they occasionally speak is a seeming mix of Yoruba, Spanish and Portuguese. There’s a great interview with Okereke on Belinda Otas’ blog.

Okereke was on the ‘commonwealth prize for literature’ long list,  and other African women authors receiving well deserved recognition are Aminatta Forna, Lola Shoneyin and Leila Aboulela on the Orange Prize for Fiction long list. I’m folowing the Orange Prize awards with excitement, and I also have made the long list my reading list for the year.

Probably yet another ambitious plan.

How are you doing with your 2011 resolutions?

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‘Children of War’ Inspired by ‘Beasts of no Nation’ by Uzodinma Iweala

iweala uzodinma beasts Children of War Inspired by Beasts of no Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

I am remembering the night when the war is starting. Even before they are arriving to killing us the air is feeling sticky like okra and people are not happying.
I am sensing that something is wrong but my mother and father is saying that everything will be fine. But if everything will be fine then I am wondering why they are naming baby before she is seven days old. They are saying that sometimes it is OK to be naming baby very soon. I am thinking that I will not be calling baby, Agnes, until in two days time.

That same night, I am knowing something is wrong when I am not able to be sleeping and I am hearing father’s footsteps walking back and forwards in their room. I am hearing mother whispering loud to father and trying to stopping baby crying at the same time.

Then I am hearing father is walking outside and mother is coming into my room to waking me up and saying that we are having to go. Father is angrying, and telling us to going back inside but we are not stopping. We are seeing others too walking and I am thinking that we are walking towards Babalawo. We are all resembling ghosts and no star is shining in the sky and nobody is talking. Nobody is really knowing what is to be saying, so only baby is crying.

But we are not reaching Babalawo before the soldiers are coming and everybody is running back to their houses. Father is pushing us inside and shouting us where to be hiding when they are coming but there is no time to be hiding because they are already here and they are asking father what he is doing standing outside like big man. They are slapping father, but he is staying quiet, and mother is telling me to hiding under blanket and to be not saying anything. She is wrapping baby inside yam cloth and putting her inside cupboard.

I am hearing when soldier is coming inside and they are saying they are killing father and will be killing mother too if she is saying anything. They are telling her to bringing them food and they are walking into my room and lifting blanket and pulling me into kitchen to be bringing food.

They are telling mother they are wanting yam and I can see that mother is touching her cross pendant and praying that baby will not be crying when she is opening cupboard and taking out one yam.

I am bringing them water to be drinking when one of the soldiers is telling me to remove my dress. I am shaking my head and he is slapping me, and I am crying only because I am realising that father is dying, not because he is beating me. The soldier is holding gun in one hand and using the other to unzip his trouser and saying I should touch his soldier. I am not understanding what he is meaning and mother is saying that how can one child be telling another child to be doing nonsense. She is saying that she will kill them all if they are not leaving me alone. The other four soldier are laughing at mother but she is not laughing and she is coming to pulling me away. Baby is still not crying and I am wondering if she is dying because there is no air in cupboard. The soldiers are removing my dress and they are also removing mother’s dress and then they are doing some things to me and mother. I am not knowing what they are doing and I am paining but I am only thinking about baby and whether she is dying. Then somehow I am seeing mother taking gun from one soldier’s pocket and shooting him. KPWAM. I am hearing baby crying and the soldiers are shooting and mother is dying. I am running to cupboard and then I am running out of the door and then I am running and running until my legs are stopping to running.

I am not dead, I am thinking.
I am not dead, I am thinking.

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pixel Children of War Inspired by Beasts of no Nation by Uzodinma Iweala