We Need New Names

I came across this title by NoViolet Bulawayo when it made the long list for the Man Booker Prize 2013.  A new voice and it comes across as fresh, bold and unique. Though I was disappointed not to see Americanah on the list, I was curious to read this book, as it had been suggested it had a similar premise, narrated from a younger character’s point of view and a different country, the protagonist, Darling, is from a rural Zimbabwean village (Ifemulu came from the Nigerian city of Lagos in Adchie’s book).

NoVioletIf there are similarities, it is that they both describe a life before and after they traverse an ocean to live in the new land, however in Darling’s case, her overstaying means that unlike Ifemulu in Americanah, she will not return, for to return having broken the rules is to limit one’s future options – all this despite the grand sacrifices that will be made, in order to live in the land of dreams, they refer to as Paradise.

Their styles are very different though, the only similarity being that geographic shift and the associated perception of another culture as an outsider.  In terms of the reading experience, I find something more in common between the voices Donal Ryan channels in The Spinning Heart and NoViolet Bulawayo’s voice of Darling.  They both have a way of portraying their characters that invokes a feeling  like someone standing too close to your face, they make you feel like you need to step back to get a better view, somewhat difficult when reading for the first time.

We meet Darling with her friends as they are heading over to Budapest (a wealthier neighbourhood) to pick guavas, to relieve a few trees from the burden of their fruit, to steal.  The first half of the book follows this group of friends and their daily life in a small village, where they now live in much rougher conditions despite the promises of independence, due to the destruction of homes by a government set on destroying what is deemed unsightly or was it an act of revenge against the tide of discontent. Either way, their home is now one room, their father is absent but they have each other.

“If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”

Running alongside the events of the children’s’ lives are the undercurrents of a changing political situation, an increasing frustration with the democratic process, the heightened anger of communities and mobs; eventually Darling is sent to America to live with her Aunt.

“When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.”

zimbabwe mapAmerica isn’t what she expects, her cousin is not like her friends, the snow and coldness are not like the village, the sky is not like the sky, her thin Aunt pacing the room exercising in front of the TV is not like her mother and her Uncle who comes home, watches sport and shouts Touchdown, unlike her father or the men from the village either.

They are  invited to a wedding, a day that might be a metaphor for the entire immigrant and cultural experience, all the misunderstandings and reminders of a past life wrapped up in one anecdote after the other, they manifest in the drive there, the interactions with guests, and those unspoken rules of engagement in a foreign culture, which Darling will be reminded of before the night is over.

Darling misses her friends and family and wishes to visit them, a topic that her Aunt either avoids or addresses in a vague manner. She will come to understand what she couldn’t know when she left, that it is unlikely she will ever return home. She consoles herself by calling.

“Well, what is happening over here is that your mother is finishing cooking istshwala and macimbis, and Sbho is standing there watching her and eating a guava. When Chipo announces this, I get a strange ache in my heart. My throat goes dry; my tongue salivates. I am remembering the taste of all these things, but remembering is not tasting, and it is painful. I feel tears start to come to my eyes and I don’t wipe them off.”

BulawayoNoViolet Bulawayo creates an unforgettable voice in her protagonist, a lens through which we witness part of what feels like an at times frightening and yet exhilarating childhood, with a naive awareness of the greater political events that will affect their futures. The life they live is not an easy one, and it may never be as appreciated as it will become through the act of leaving it all behind, as so many do, believing they are heading towards Paradise.  But even in America, when there is a lack of guidance and care, something similar occurs, the only difference being the kinds of activities unsupervised teenagers get up to in a modern city compared to a rural town or village.

Raw and in your face, each chapter is like a scene playing out as you read from the branch of a tree,  just out of danger.  Bulawayo invokes fear and dread in the reader as we encounter each episode and in the end, we are unsure which is preferable, a half lived life in  Not Really Paradise or that volatile, explosive community, still trying to find itself in Zimbabwe.

Interview – NoViolet Bulawayo talks to Irenosen Okojie about being a writer in diaspora, her writer’s process and the importance of the Caine Prize.

Note:  This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Advertisements

Americanah

My big fat summer read and it was just what I like, to get lost within pages that will attempt to navigate the slightly messy lives of flawed characters that feel like they could be real. And most of them here come close to attaining that reality.

Americanah (2)Ifemula and Obinze are university sweethearts who slip into a relationship that seems to have it all, though they have yet to conquer the career survival path of their simple lives thus they are separated in Nigeria during their studies and then by the continents of  North America and Europe as they try to establish their careers. Hardship is the one thing they seem not able to share and it drives them apart like the distance of the ocean that separates them, spanning a distance they seem unable to traverse.

Just as many young people have been doing so and continue to today, they eventually return to their home country and their roots and will re encounter each other.  Although they find their way home, will  they be able to ignore those untravelled waters they did not share? This is one of the themes the book explores.

“Somewhere in a faraway part of her mind, she wanted to lose weight before she saw Obinze again. She had not called him; she would wait until she was back to her slender self.”

I loved the book for many reasons, firstly because I remember reading and enjoying her first book Purple Hibiscus, enhanced by seeing her speak in person at a Readers Festival in Auckland where she talked about the next book she was planning to write, about a subject few at the time seemed to want to talk about – the Biafran War – that research and effort to understand a chapter in Nigerian history manifested in her Orange prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which has since been made into a film (not yet released). Since then I have looked forward to reading her other work and interviews, as she is more than just a writer of stories.

Secondly, having a good friend from Nigeria, who made the move back after a similar number of years living abroad, who did so successfully and visiting there, participating in her marriage ceremony makes me even more curious to read the work of those who have attempted the same. There is something universal about the experience and yet unique at the same time.

Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie easily engages an audience with her observations, insights and view of the world and with Americanah it is as if she sends out another version of herself, Ifemulu, a young woman who grows up in urban Nigeria and through her studies has an opportunity to live, work and study in America.

Ifemulu’s disappointments distance her from her closest relationship because she doesn’t share them. In an effort to be heard she writes an anonymous blog and shares her experiences and observations both in America and again on her initial return to Nigeria. She tries to remain an impartial observer, though those who know she is the author challenge her and she discovers that life often finds a way to throw at us, that which we condemn in others. But therein the greatest lessons lie and Ifemulu will do much soul-searching on her journey to fulfillment. The blog posts are interesting to read and provocative and it is great to see the form being represented in a novel, and a WordPress blog at that.

In a Lagos cafe

In a Lagos cafe

For me, books whose characters cross cultures are always interesting, just as travelling in another country and witnessing the different ways people live and interact and perceive is interesting. Whilst I could never begin to know what it would be like for a young Nigerian woman to move to live in America, I enjoyed the experience of inhabiting Adichie’s imagination, viewing Ifemulu’s life and how she tries to interpret the foreign culture she and many others have long dreamed of. My own visit to Nigeria was too short to gain any real perspective about what it might be like to live there, but the challenges are undoubtedly equally great, though completely different in nature.

It doesn’t matter which country we grow up in to think of as our own, almost any other country we immigrate to or spend time living in will invoke a feeling of strangeness, of being an outsider.

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Twice whilst reading this novel, I felt tears well up, surprising myself at how deeply this character got under my skin, some of the burdens she carries, only gaining full recognition in the moment they are healed and those moments are powerful when they come off the page. Surprising and brilliant.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Reading Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is to wake up in the heart of a struggling suburban neighbourhood where overnight the fate of a significant proportion of its population has changed.

Spinning HeartLittle time elapses between the pages of the novel, sufficient to penetrate the perspective of 21 residents of this neighbourhood, a chapter each.  Rather than a plot, this one event is more of a turning point from which we survey each character from their own and multiple perspectives, gradually creating a picture of this community, where perceptions often outweigh and overrule reality.

That event is the discovery that Pokey Burke has disappeared after a dodgy property deal in Dubai halts all work on his property developments in this Irish suburb.  He has absconded from his responsibilities including all those in his employ (at least they thought they were in his employ), those who thought they were doing okay in these hard times find out that not only do they no longer have a job, they have never been registered as employees.

Donal Ryan unmasks his characters in the single chapter he gives them each to speak (ironically, no chapter is given to Pokey Burke), this is no slow build up to revealing a characters inner thoughts, they are not characters prone to thinking about various options, this is a neighbourhood in which its men rarely ponder anything, their thoughts are often aggressive, misogynistic and raw, many of them are of the act now, think later persuasion. They make for uncomfortable reading and have the reader yearning for a fictional reprieve; could we have one character to latch onto to get us through this discomfort please?

And if we find it partially, it is with Bobby, the foreman whom we meet in the first chapter, on his daily walk to check whether his father is dead yet, something he wishes for that we will come to know more about as threads of his story snake through other chapters, so that we do meet him again and are able to follow his destiny.

“But the things Dad said, and the way he said them, were so scarily unlike him, so cutting, so cruel. That’s just the way he was reared, Ger reckons. She says people’s thoughts, when their upbringing is mired in dogma, aren’t really their own. Their opinions are twisted, not reflective of what’s in their souls; their words are delivered obliquely, like light being refracted through water – you can’t see their real feelings, just as you can’t see the true position of an immersed object.”

So much of what we experience is illusion, many people and situations hide another reality, nothing is what it seems.  Deception is normal, no one wishes to dig too deep to understand, empathy is an unknown concept, we too often ignore instinct, judge quickly and crush the weak and sensitive.

A disturbing read, unputdownable at the same time as not wanting to pick it up, the anticipation that maybe there is some good that can come of the situation, keeps us reading on. These are tough times and perhaps the bad karma of a financial crisis brought about by those who practice greed, corruption and a lack of empathy brings out the worst at every layer of society. It is certainly difficult to navigate the mire and find the seeds of hope.

Booker Longlist

Man Booker Longlist 2013

Donal Ryan is one of three Irish authors longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 and a debut author, who is becoming as well-known for his perseverance (his manuscript was rejected 47 times) as he is for this contemporary work which digs under the skin of small town rural Ireland.

Note: This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Mussel Feast

Revolutionary Moments

Mussel FeastThe first novella of the Peirene Press 2013 collection is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a reference to an evening meal of a family for whom a mussel feast signifies a special celebration and provokes a familiar family ritual.

This evening however, is a an event (or a non-event) of angst-ridden anticipation, as the mother and her teenage son and daughter prepare the feast and wait for their father to return from work with news that was supposed to have been a given.

There is little action or plot, though much is revealed throughout the course of the evening via the reflections of those present, who, as the minutes and hours pass, become emboldened in their thoughts as they are allowed to run on unchecked and unchallenged by he who normally acts as judge.

Just observing how the words fill up entire pages of this novella, creating a seamless run of sentences without pause or paragraph is admirable and makes me pause in my reading to check if every page is formatted the same, And it is. The constant stream of words is synonymous with an outpouring of frustration, the way the words are presented on the page like a revolutionary act itself. No dialogue, no action, a stream of consciousness charting the psychological passage of a family through the familiar acts of a routine that will manifest in wilful rebellion.

The Mussel Feast should be a cause for celebration when the routine is adhered to. When a crack opens in the routine and the feast is spoiled, who knows what uncharacteristic behaviour may follow.

An original and thought provoking read, one I devoured easily, as promised by Peirene, it is unique in its ability to keep the reader engaged while using a narrative style that is less popular today and yet succeeds in captivating its audience.

The first of her 17 novels, I look forward to reading more of her work and would love to hear any recommendations from others who have read her work.

“I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” Birgit Vanderbeke

Next up in Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series is Mr Darwin’s Gardener  by Kristina Carlson, which from the reviews I have read, already sounds just like my kind of book…

CIMG4717

A Regular Fix of Contemporary European Literature

While no slave to social networking, I do appreciate those needle in a haystack gems of information that twitter occasionally throws out. It’s a little like a child knowing that there is a lolly scramble going on behind a door that opens once a day and if you stand in one spot with your hand out, you might just catch something. Much of it passes us by, but the one that lands in the hand, is appreciated all the more for the scant chance it had of being captured.

Which is what this little tweet I caught in late May did.

I remembered that when I wrote about Deborah Levy’s Booker short-listed novel Swimming Home and mentioned the subscription based publisher And Other Stories, that @MarinaSofa mentioned Pereine Press. I looked at their website and started following them on twitter.

CIMG4717Pereine Press publish contemporary European literature, in the form of novellas, a new book coming out every 3 months. So they provide an opportunity to introduce readers to new authors, outside what we might normally read in English and a book that doesn’t require a long time to read, each book can supposedly be read in an afternoon. No 400+ page tomes here.

So the tweet reminded me that I did want to read their books and there’s nothing like the threat of a price increase to motivate one to act. So now I am a Pereine Press subscriber and I have the first two books from this years series on the shelf.

Mussel FeastEach year has a theme, in 2013 it is Revolutionary Moments and the first book is the German classic The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke which I have now read and will tell you about very soon. Very well-known in Germany I am sure and a gripping read, I devoured as hungrily as I would moules frites.

Not only does this subscription mean there will be European literature arriving regularly, but subscribers are invited to participate and attend literary events with the authors whose books have been published, including the revival of a literary salon, which sounds intriguing. The events take place in London and I hope one day I might coincide a visit to be able to attend one. I love that this type of event is coming back into vogue.

So more contemporary European literature reviews coming here soon…