Novella a Day in May #22

Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda (2011, trans. Adriana Hunter 2014) 104 pages

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda is published by Peirene Press who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. Under the Tripoli Sky (written in French by a Libyan author now living in Holland) is part of their Coming of Age series. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Hadachinou is a young boy living in Libya before the revolution of 1969. The novella details his experience growing up in Tripoli surrounded by women: his mother, her friends, their daughters. Through a series of sketches he builds up an evocative, affectionate but unsentimental view of the lives of women where men are either absent or a drunken threat:

“My father, a solitary man given to prayer, shut himself away in the small bedroom at the back of the house when he came home from his shop or from the mosque. … As for Uncle Hadi, he spent nights in the company of other drunkards. ‘If their young wives want some fun and relaxation, they have to search for it elsewhere,’ Aunt Nafissa often commented, with her usual bitterness towards the male gender.”

The women don’t really notice Hadachinou and so he is given extraordinary access to their lives and experience.

“The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real time and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace.”

He also moves across other boundaries in the city, attending mosque, synagogue and church. There is a sense of an exile looking back, and Tripoli with its heat, light, and bustling activity is beautifully realised. What also adds to a sense of Hadachinou recalling with longing, is the focus on food. This is not the story to read if you are on a diet. As homemakers, a great deal of the women’s lives are given over to preparing food, and Hadachinou describes the various meals in mouth-watering detail:

 “Signora Filomena would take us to the pizzeria, where each of us could salivate over his or her choice of either a pizza with tomatoes and oregano flavoured anchovies, or an ice-cream with a subtle vanilla taste set off by crunchy slivers of bitter chocolate. She herself preferred the bar opposite and its famous sandwiches: grilled sardines between two slices of crusty bread whose dough was impregnated with olive oil infused with garlic and red chillies.”

Peirene’s inclusion of this as a coming of age story is understandable. Hadachinou undergoes his circumcision early in the novella; he also experiences awakening sexual desire. But while he is moving towards adulthood, this is very much a portrait of a city and a community on the brink of enormous change. It is stunningly written, capturing a society about to be torn asunder.

“Another person’s eyes are your origins and your kingdom. But other people can’t see you if they’re blinded by their search for an illusion…”

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Novella a Day in May #3

Jamilia – Chingiz Aitmatov 96 pages (1957, tr. 2007 James Riordan although the publishers don’t say if this was from Kyrgyz or Russian – Aitmatov wrote in both)

This novella, less than 100 pages in my edition, is a simple tale, perfectly told. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Narrated by Seit, the brother-in-law of the beautiful titular protagonist, Jamilia is reminiscent of The Go-Between, in that it is told from the point of view of the young observer of an older person’s love affair, from a time in his life when he is looking back on his past.

Set during the war, Jamilia’s husband is away fighting. An injured soldier, Daniyar, returns to the village where he was born:

“ ‘We are content and so are the spirits of our ancestors. And now, God willing, we’ll finish off the Germans and live in peace and Daniyar will raise a family like the rest of us, his own smoke will rise from the hearth.’

By invoking Daniyar’s ancestors they were saying he was one of us. And that is how a new kinsman appeared in our village.”

Daniyar, Seit and Jamilia travel regularly by cart to take the grain from the harvest to the train station. Aitmatov writes with economy yet is able to evoke a vivid scene with few words. He captures the land of Kyrgyzstan with true sensitivity and the land is an integral part of the story:

“Eager to reach home, the horses trotted briskly, the stones scraping beneath their feet. The cool wind brought with it the bitter pollen of flowering wormwood, and the faint aroma of ripening wheat. Mingling with the smell of tar and horse sweat, it all made us faintly dizzy.”

During the journeys back and forth, the quiet, unassuming Daniyar is teased by the vivacious Jamilia and Seit. Then Daniyar starts to sing, and everything changes:

“If only I could recreate his song. It contained few words, yet even without words it revealed a great human soul. I have never heard such singing before or since. The tune was like Kirgiz or Kazakh, yet in it was something of both. His music combined the very best melodies of the two related peoples and had woven them into a single, unrepeatable song. It was a song of the mountains and the steppe, first soaring into the sky like the Kirgiz mountains, then rolling freely like the Kazakh steppe.”

What lifts this tale above the ordinary is Aitmatov’s beautiful writing, but also how the story expands a simple, almost fable-like, narrative into something broader. Jamilia is about romantic love, but told at a step removed by a man who grew up to become a painter; it also becomes about art, and the transcendental nature of love and art. Jamilia falls for Daniyar because of his voice. Seit becomes seized with a desire to create, and takes his first tentative steps towards his life’s vocation. Jamilia is about how love, in all its variety of forms and circumstance, unites us all:

“I felt it was not simply a love for another person, it was somehow an uncommon, expansive love for life and earth.”

“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?

“Adventure is just bad planning.” (Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole)

Happy New Year! My 2018 is rubbish so far but I’m hopeful of improvement – I’ve caught the horrible virus everyone is down with at the moment. According to fellow sufferer Rev. Richard Coles on twitter, it’s God’s way of telling you to watch a boxset.  My virus-addled brain can’t focus on the plot of a single episode of something at the moment, never mind a whole boxset (so this post may be even less coherent than usual). I’m fed up and bored and so I thought I’d look at people pushing themselves to physical extremes when I can’t even get off my sofa at the moment without a 5-point plan.  It will also be another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Off to Antarctica!

Firstly, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1991) which tells the story of Scott’s disastrous attempt to reach the South Pole. Five sections are narrated by different members of the party with Scott in the middle. It’s an effective approach, building a picture of the different personalities involved and the disintegration of their hopes.

Petty Officer Evans begins the tale, full of military loyalty to their leader.

“Being down a crevasse together is no excuse for stepping out of line. All I know is I’d die with the man, and for him, God help me, if the necessity arose.”

However, through Dr Wilson, Bainbridge articulates the changes taking place in society at the time of the expedition, just into the second decade of the twentieth century.

“All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under scrutiny of the magnifying glass as the parasites feeding off the Scottish grouse.”

The men are clinging onto ideas in the face of unstoppable forces, both societally at home, and environmentally in the Antarctic. They are doomed to failure.

Scott takes up the middle portion of the book and Bainbridge brilliantly captures all his contradictions. He is arrogant yet doubtful, single-minded yet insightful.

“justifying my actions would have been simply no good for morale. Like it or not, and God knows, half the time I don’t, someone has to take the decisions – along with the consequences.”

His motivations are mixed. He claims it as a scientific expedition for Empire, yet is furious when he is beaten to the Pole.

“I came to sanity under Bill’s tuition. He wisely said I must continue as if nothing happened, as if Amundsen didn’t exist. It was unthinkable that our scientific projects should be sacrificed in a vulgar scramble to reach the Pole.”

Yet Bainbridge never allows us to despise his hubris. To do so would mean we lose our empathy with the men who he led to their deaths, and the novel would lose its enormous emotional power. As Lieutenant Bowers observes:

“I think I know what ails the Owner. He’s absolutely sound as regards what’s right, but he lacks conviction. He simply isn’t stupid enough to be convinced his is the only way. In the circumstances, it’s a dangerous trait.”

That’s not say that by the time we get to sceptical, reticent Oates, I wasn’t pleased to hear someone expressing their anger and frustration at their leader.

“I’ve never known such a man for making mistakes and shifting the blame onto others.”

However, as the nearness of death, their body parts rotting, the tedium of days desperately clinging to life in an inhospitable landscape starts to send them all insane with desperation, even Oates admits:

“Truth to tell, I think he was the only one among us capable of making any decisions.”

Bainbridge is a wonderful writer and even though we know what happened, she still manages to create tension and drama from the men’s horrific situation. She is also able to capture the landscape as beautifully and evocatively as she does the men’s psychology.

“Those who envisage this place as nothing more than a godforsaken plateau of ice and snow are mistaken. For one there are outcrops of jet-black rock about which the wind blows so fiercely the snow can never settle; and for another, the ice, being subject to reflections of sun and sea, is never purely white but tinged with rose and cobalt-blue and every shade of violet, the whole set against skies, days or night, that run through all the colours of the spectrum.”

The Birthday Boys is a short novel (181 pages) but none the less for it. It is Bainbridge at the height of her powers and as such, it is immense.

Secondly, a quick foray into Antarctica by Claire Keegan (1999) because I’ve got quite carried away with Beryl. This is Keegan’s first collection of short stories and it’s remarkably assured with a strong narrative voice. I actually found the titular story the weakest, but I suspect maybe it’s dated a wee bit. My favourite stories in the collection were those set in rural Ireland. The Ginger Rogers Sermon was devastating. The narrator is a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, living on her parents farm in a place where there’s not much to do.

Don’t ask me why we called him Slapper Jim. My mother stamped his image in my head, and I was at an age when pictures of a man precede the man himself. The posters verify: Thin Lizzie with a V of chest exposed, Pat Spillane’s legs racing across my bedroom wall…I was the girl with the sweet tooth and a taste for men.”

The taste for men is problematic when you have feelings and knowledge, but not a great deal of understanding. Adulthood is approaching rapidly but childhood also lingers:

“Now that I am thirteen I am sectioned off from men. It happens in school too, in gym class. I play basketball and jump over hurdles and come back all red-faced and sweaty and talk non-stop in class. Nobody sits beside me because I smell like an afterbirth. I wear the pads and Lily of the Valley and go dancing down the pub. Slapper Jim is always there with the bantam. I waltz around in the cigarette smoke with old men my father knows.”

This is the tone of The Ginger Rogers Sermon exactly: matter-of-fact, unsentimental, funny and sad. A tragedy occurs, arising from disturbing circumstances, yet the ending contains some hope. As in many of Keegan’s stories, things are unresolved and the story is stronger for it.

Keegan has spent time in the States and some of her stories are set there. The final one, Passport Soup, is one of these, a sad tale of the parents of a missing child. Keegan is brilliant at capturing deep feeling without melodrama, in beautiful but sparse prose:

“Frank Corso has lost his appetite. He pushes his plate aside and gets up and puts the milk carton with his daughter’s photograph back in the refrigerator and goes to bed. The sheets are cold. He hears a wedge of snow fall from the eaves of the roof onto the drift beneath the window. Snow falling, compounding cold. Daylight bleaches the walls before he finally sleeps.”

This is a powerful collection of stories, and if you’re not keen on short stories but want to give them a go, it’s a good place to start. Keegan absolutely understands the form, she doesn’t waste a word. Unfortunately, she seems to publish rarely: her second collection came 8 years later, followed after another 3 years by a stand-alone ‘long short story’. That’s not a criticism though – quality like this is worth waiting for.

To end, a tasteful video for once (clearly I really am ill), narrated by the insurpassable Sir David & full of arresting images (normal cheesy service will resume next week):

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?” (Alice Walker)

October is Black History Month in the UK, so here is a little contribution, two wonderful novels by black women that I want to gush about 😊

Firstly, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015), a remarkably accomplished debut novel, set in the years during & immediately after the Biafran civil war.

Ijeoma loses her beloved father in the war:

“Uzo. It was the kind of name I’d have liked to fold up and hold in the palm of my hand, if names could be folded and held that way. So that if I were ever lost, all I’d have to do would be to open up my palm and allow the name, like a torchlight, to show me the way.”

Her mother struggles to cope with her grief and so Ijeoma is sent away, and it is then that she meets Amina. The young women’s mutual attraction is problematic within their highly religious society (not only are they gay, but Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo while Amina is a Muslim Hausa), and so their secret romance is always tempered with the knowledge that they could be torn apart at any moment:

“When our lips finally met, she kissed me hungrily, as if she’d been waiting for this all along. I breathed in the scent of her, deeply, as if to take in an excess of it, as if to build a reserve for that one day when she would be gone.”

Ijeoma’s sexuality forces her to question much that forms the foundation of her life in Nigeria, not least the religion she has been brought up to and educated within.

“Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”

Being gay is a dangerous thing for Ijeoma and the threat is very real; at one point a club she is in is raided. The women hide in a bunker left over from the war, but one who doesn’t make it is brutally murdered. Okparanta captures the fallout from the war and the ongoing violence faced by gay Nigerians in a dramatic but never sensationalist way. Under these pressures, Ijeoma tries to lead a conventional life but it unsurprisingly leads to true misery for all those involved:

“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”

Under the Udala Trees is very much rooted in a particular country at a particular time, but it has something to say as well that is beyond the specific. It is most definitely about the continued criminalisation of gay people in Nigeria, and it is also about how all of us have to question the beliefs and structures we are raised within, and find our own way to be free:

“That tethering way in which the familiar manages to grab ahold of us and pin us down.”

This is an accomplished first novel, and Okparanta is a wise writer. She creates beautiful prose, compelling characters and a well-paced story, and she has important things to say about the world and those of us in it.

“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”

I’m excited to see what she does next.

Secondly, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972, trans. Barbara Bray 2015), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I wanted to read this after seeing Claire’s wonderful review at Word by Word (over a year ago – I get there in the end…) My copy is the New York Review of Books edition, which I recommend for a sensitive, enthusiastic introduction by Jamaica Kincaid.

Narrated by Telumee, it tells the story of her life on the island of Guadeloupe, and the women she is descended from. The opening paragraph is just beautiful:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept, mosquito-ridden island.  But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, til death comes and takes me as I dream. Me and all my joy.”

Part One tells the story of her mother Victory, and her grandmother, Queen With No Name, who raises Telumee. Her great-grandmother was a freed slave and her descendants have lives which are hard and with more than their fair share of grief, but also with moments of love and joy.  After her father is stabbed, Telumee’s mother is swamped in grief, until she falls in love again. She doesn’t want her young daughter living with them, and so Telumee goes to live with Queen Without Name:

“Grandmother was past the age for bending over the white man’s earth binding canes, weeding and hoeing, withstanding the wind, and pickling her body in the sun as she had done all her life. It was her turn to be an elder; the level of her life had fallen; it was now a thin trickle flowing slowly among the rocks, just a little stirring every day, a little effort and a little reward.”

Telumee grows up in the loving home of her grandmother but Queen Without Name cannot protect her from making a disastrous marriage. Telumee survives though, and The Bridge of Beyond is a tale of overcoming adversity, of finding strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had, and of drawing on the strength of other women to help you endure.

“Through all her last days Grandmother was whistling up a wind for me, to fill my sails so that I could resume my voyage.”

Schwarz-Bart is a beautiful writer who captures an individual voice compassionately without descending into cliché. I’ll definitely be looking to read more of her work.

 

“That’s why I have a lot of love and good energy in me – that universal energy is a Ghanaian thing.” (Stormzy)

6 March this year was the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from British rule.

Celebrations are going on throughout the year and those of you who follow Darkowaa’s excellent blog African Book Addict! will have seen her 3-part series GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books which looked at 75 Ghanaian writers and certainly caused my TBR to reach even more astronomical heights. As an attempt to reduce the mountain by at least 2, this week I’m looking at 2 novels by writers of Ghanaian heritage. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Happy Anniversary Ghana!

Firstly, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize (as it then was) and the Booker, and won the Giller Prize. Narrated by jazz musician Sid Griffiths, it tells the story of jazz prodigy Hieronymous Falk, a 19 year old ‘Mischling’ (half white European, half black African) and the band he plays in, trying to carry on working in Europe under threat from the Nazis during the Second World War. The narrative shifts between 1939-40 in the build up to when Hiero is arrested and sent to a concentration camp; and 1992, where Sid and his frenemy Chip attend a documentary about Hiero and then undertake a journey to Poland.

“See, Half Blood Blues, 3 min 33 secs, is almost all I got out of that time. I ain’t sore about it. Ain’t no glory made from being dependable. But it started Chip’s career a second time. Jolted the man awake again. And, well, it made Hiero one of them most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.”

The documentary and journey force Sid to look back on probably the most complex, confusing time of his life. He was a young man, there was sexual jealousy and musical rivalry, and there is survivors’ guilt. Sid could pass for white and had fake papers, but at what price?

“So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed like we’d passed right out of own skins.”

Edugyan captures the terror of living under Nazi occupation while the band await papers to get them out of France:

“I was crying soundlessly. I dragged my damn face against my sleeve, feeling ashamed. I ain’t never thought fear had a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it.”

She also writes evocatively about the music of the band, something which is essentially impossible to capture in words:

“Wasn’t like nothing I ever heard before. The kid came in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal.”

Half Blood Blues offers a well-researched, evocative portrayal of a time that has been well-documented but from a perspective that has been underrepresented: black experience in World War II. Hiero remains an enigma throughout the tale and so we don’t hear of black experience in the concentration camps but rather as artists declared enemies of the state. The novel never falters under the weight of its research however, and it is psychologically astute:

“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”

Sid does not behave well at times and his selfish actions have tragic ramifications. However, Edugyan is merciful to her characters and ultimately Half Blood Blues is about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance of ourselves and others. I found the end really moving which meant I got a little teary on the tube – but there’s usually someone having a cry on the Underground so it drew very little attention 😉

Secondly, Homegoing, the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi (2016). Recently I’ve found that contemporary novels garnering hype and rapturous reviews are leaving me distinctly underwhelmed so I approached Homegoing with some trepidation. But I will add to the hype surrounding this novel by suggesting I think it deserved #ALLTHEPLAUDITS. It was hugely ambitious, and I thought Gyasi totally pulled it off, which is just astonishing considering it’s her first novel.

It begins in the eighteenth century with separated sisters in the Gold Coast (part of modern day Ghana):

“in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia is taken to a fort, The Castle, to become the mistress of a British commander (ie slave trader):

“her whole life Baaba had beat her and made her feel small, and she had fought back with her beauty, a silent weapon, but a powerful one, which had led her to the feet of a chief.”

Her sister Esi meanwhile, is trapped in the dungeons of The Castle, to be exported as part of the slave trade.

“[He] had grown accustomed to the smell of shit, but fear was one smell that would stand out forever. It curled his nose and brought tears to his eyes, but he had learned long ago how to keep himself from crying.”

They don’t know about one another, and subsequent chapters alternate between the stories of their descendants, some in Ghana, some in the United States. Each generation is tracked through, and Gyasi demonstrates that just because slavery ends, the subjugation and marginalisation of people of colour does not.

“The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well.”

Gyasi’s ambition is huge: Homecoming tracks over 200 years of history to demonstrate how the legacy of slavery survives to this day.  That she does this through a compelling story with people you care about despite only being with them for a chapter marks her out as a formidable storyteller.

 “the need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad’, this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

At times I found Homecoming an almost unbearable read. The injustice, the violence, the depravity of what human beings can do to one another, turning a blind eye in the acquisition of money, made it an incredibly tough read in places. Gyasi does not dwell on violence, but nor does she shy away from the realities of what she is depicting.

 “The older Jo got, the more he understood…that sometimes staying free required unimaginable sacrifice.”

Gyasi is a huge talent, and a writer with something important to say. I’m really excited to see what she does next.

Happy 60th Birthday Ghana!

“Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 … Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely.” (Christian Dior)

On Saturday I had a BIG birthday.

Why thank you, Mr DiCaprio. Yes, ‘twas the big 4-0 for me so this week I’m looking at one book written in 1977 and one book set in 1977. What they’ve taught me about the year of my birth is that much as nostalgia-fest programmes will try and convince me I was born into a glittery glam-rock utopia:

In fact I was born into a post-colonial nightmare of racism and corruption. 1977 was rubbish.

1977: a year so bad even Christoph Waltz looked like this

Firstly, the novel written in 1977, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a damning indictment of the legacy of colonialism and political corruption. Set in Kenya not long after independence from the British in 1964, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. It tells the story of Munira, a teacher; his friend Abdulla, a shopkeeper; Wanja, a barmaid and object of Munira’s affection; and Karega, a young man who wants to know about Munira’s history of school strikes and acts as the voice of communist ideals in the novel. All have moved to the remote village of Ilmorog to try and come to terms with the fallout from the Mau Mau war and build a life for themselves in the new republic.  The title image recurs throughout the story. At its earliest point it is voiced by a child in Munira’s class:

“ ‘Look. A flower with petals of blood.’

It was a solitary red beanflower in a field dominated by white, blue and violet flowers. No matter how you looked at it, it gave you the impression of a flow of blood. Munira bent over it and with a trembling hand plucked it. It had probably been the light playing upon it, for now it was just a red flower.

‘There is no colour called blood. What you mean is that it is red.’ “

What emerges throughout the novel is that of course, there are literally petals of blood. Kenyans have fought and died on their land and their blood is in the earth. Stories of Munira’s school strikes show how indoctrination under empire was a mix of politics, religion and outright racism:

“We saluted the British flag every morning and every evening to the martial sound from the bugles and drums of our school band. Then we would all march in orderly military lines to the chapel to raise choral voices to the Maker: Wash me Redeemer, and I shall be whiter than snow. We would then pray for the continuation of the Empire that had defeated the satanic evil which had erupted in Europe to try the children of God.”

Following severe drought, the residents of Ilmorog travel to Nairobi to speak with their MP. They encounter indifference at best and outright hypocrisy and corruption at worst from businessmen, their MP, a reverend, which allows wa Thiong’o to explore what and who a new society is built on.

“And suddenly it was not her that he was looking at, seeing, but countless other faces in many other places all over the republic. You eat or you are eaten. You fatten on another, or you are fattened upon.”

If this sounds unremittingly bleak, the residents do also encounter a principled lawyer who helps them. If it sounds polemical and more of a treatise than a novel, it isn’t. wa Thiong’o is furious at the injustice and corruption he portrays, but the power of Petals of Blood is that it is never at the expense of believable characters. Munira, Abdulla, Wanja and Karega bring home the human cost of political decision-making and large-scale corruption.

“She had carried dreams in a broken vessel.”

Petals of Blood is an incredible novel. Angry and urgent, ultimately optimistic and with a belief that human beings can make better lives for themselves and for one another, but with a clear-sighted view of the damage we can wreak.

“It was really very beautiful. But at the end of the evening Karega felt very sad. It was like beholding a relic of beauty that had suddenly surfaced, or like listening to a solitary beautiful tune straying, for a time, from a dying world.”

Looking for the name of the translator of this novel, I was surprised to discover that wa Thiong’o wrote in the language of his country’s colonisers. Apparently Petals of Blood was the last time he did so, and he has since written in Gikuyu and Swahili.  He has led a fascinating life, including time as a prisoner of conscience, which you can get a taste of on Wiki.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Secondly, Jubilee by Shelley Harris (2011), set on the day of a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and also in 2007, where a 30 year reunion of the people captured in a famous photo of that day is planned. The photo featured Satish, the son of Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin, sat amidst his white neighbours:

“Here he was after all, an Asian boy happy in his white-majority Buckinghamshire village, and posing only a minimal threat to house prices.”

For reasons of his own, Satish has no desire to recreate that day. In 2007 he is married to a woman he loves, has two children and a successful career as a paediatric cardiologist. He also has an escalating addiction to diazepam.  We know something awful happened to him on the day of the Jubilee, and by moving back and forth in time, Harris is able to show how the celebration built to crisis, and the fallout thirty years later. This is handled deftly, and didn’t get tiresome. Similarly, the period details are in abundance but not too heavily rammed home, possibly because the author is drawing on her lived experience as the daughter of 1970s immigrants to Britain, fleeing apartheid in South Africa.

“mushy peas; scampi; egg-and-bacon sandwiches; chips and mash and roasties – every iteration of the glorious potato; faggots; fry-ups; fish and chips; jelly and rice pudding; apple pie and Artic roll….He wondered what might happen if these were the only things he ate. Would it build up Britishness in him, all this English food? Would it drain his colour, sharpen his soccer skills, send him rushing into church?”

Satish encounters both casual ignorance and outright racist prejudice from his neighbours, and this is not shied away from but also not dwelt on, as young Satish does not dwell on these things. As adult readers, we know where the hatred can lead and its enduring effect on Satish, which lends the novel an underlying sense of menace.

 “What were they exactly? Indian? Ugandan? He had never been clear. But this was neither their country nor their culture, and no matter how many Union Jacks they raised, they would always be waving someone else’s flag.”

Depressingly, these attitudes do  not make the novel a period piece. There is a still need anti-racism marches, with Stand Up to Racism taking place this Saturday, on UN Anti-Racism Day.

Jubilee builds carefully towards its denouement, and shows the long-term damage that blind prejudice can inflict. It also shows how an act of hatred does not define either the perpetrator or the victim, and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the events of our lives and the choices we make. I don’t know what it was about Jubilee that stopped me totally loving it, but it is a good read and effective evocation of a moment in time.

They look this happy because they’re yet to taste the Coronation chicken

To end, the cheesy earworm that was number one the week I was born. I’ve always thought my enduring love of sax solos came from Careless Whisper, but maybe this made an impact at a very impressionable age. All together now: ya-da-da-da-da….