Review | Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre : Short Story
Published : October 2, 2006 / June 1, 2010
Publisher : Granta / Anchor

When Emory and I came up with the idea to recommend a short story to each other for this week’s post, I was at a loss for a while. It was like every short story I had ever read and loved flew out of my mind. Then I started thinking back to the Advanced Fiction class I took during my final year of undergrad, and Jumping Monkey Hill stuck out in my memory. There’s so much to dissect in the story – colonialism, racism, sexism, family dynamics, and lastly, it’s a short story about writing short stories, and about how some people will try to dictate what a good, believable story is while diminishing other kinds of stories and experiences and deeming them unrealistic.

While I absolutely loved my fiction class and the writing workshops we had, this was a topic that always seemed to pop up, whether it was someone commenting on my story or someone else’s. “That just doesn’t seem believable” or “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen. This is what you should write instead”. And sure, the suggestions were part of the editing process, sometimes they were even good, but sometimes you were also left with the feeling of everyone just not understanding what your story was conveying, or feeling hurt that your peers deemed something that may have happened to you as “unrealistic.” Jumping Monkey Hill weaves this critique into the protagonist’s life, connecting it to themes of identity and creating a story that contains so much power. I can’t wait to read about what Emory thought of it!

-Sara

I’m so glad Sara recommended I check out Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! It’s been awhile since I’ve read a really impactful piece of realistic short fiction, and I’m so grateful I had the pleasure of reading this story for this week’s blog post.

Jumping Monkey Hill is about a young woman named Ujunwa who is invited to participate in the African Writers’ Workshop – a weeklong writing workshop founded and facilitated by Edward Campbell, an old white man from England. The workshop starts off harmless enough – though Ujunwa finds it odd that the workshop is taking place at a fancy, mostly white seaside resort in South Africa, she still begins to form small bonds with the other workshop members. But tensions soon rise as it becomes apparent that Edward does not have any of the workshop participants’ best interests at heart. Instead, he seeks to mold them into his colonialist vision of what an “African writer” is supposed to be.

The uneven power dynamic between Edward and the writers is established the moment Edward does the workshop introductions – he introduces each writer by the country they’re from, reducing them to mere representatives of “Africa.” We soon come to find, of course, that Edward’s understanding of “Africa” is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that he expects the stories the participants submit to fit into his colonial view of Africa. While some workshop participants write off his behavior as “harmless” because he is an old man, it soon becomes evident that Edward’s behavior is an extension of a violent and insidious racist colonial history.

In addition to reducing workshop participants to their race, Edward also begins to hypersexualize the women of the group. This, unfortunately, is nothing new for Ujunwa. For her workshop story, she writes about her experiences with sexual harassment while searching for a job. These moments in Ujunwa’s short story mirror the sexual harassment she experiences at the hands of Edward throughout the workshop. For me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in this story is when Ujunwa realizes that all of the other participants had noticed the ways in which Edward sexualized her, but none of them had done anything to stop him.

She should not have laughed when Edward said, ‘I’d rather like you to lie down for me.’ It had not been funny. It had not been funny at all. She had hated it, hated the grin on his face and the glimpse of greenish teeth and the way he always looked at her chest rather than at her face and yet she had made herself laugh like a deranged hyena.

The workshop participants silently accept Edward’s increasingly vile microaggressions because they are afraid that speaking up will lose them money or future opportunities as writers. Ujunwa herself takes Edward’s words and actions with a silent resentment until the very end of the story, when Ujunwa finally refuses to take anymore of his bullshit. (This moment made me want to cheer and scream and lift Ujunwa up on my shoulders).

One of my major takeaways from Jumping Monkey Hill was the mental toll writing workshops take on marginalized voices when white, cis, heterosexual male experiences are centralized. When Edward doesn’t like a story (because it didn’t fit into the neat, colonial box of what he understood “Africa” to be) he says the dreaded workshop phrase: “The story itself begged the question ‘So what?'” Jumping Monkey Hill almost seems to be a direct response to this question. The answer? Because marginalized voices demand to be heard and listened to. Just because a white man or a white woman doesn’t understand a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value – rather, it means white writers must work even harder to de-center whiteness as the “default” and continue to listen to and uplift marginalized voices without expecting a cookie in return.

I loved this story SO much and I can’t wait to buy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection! Read Jumping Monkey Hill online here !

My Rating:

10 Excruciating Writing Workshops out of 10

-Emory

Review | The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons

With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.

I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!

-Emory


The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!

We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”

“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”

The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.

Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.

There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.

The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/

My rating:

9 Random Owl Facts out of 10

-Sara