Secret by Philippe Grimbert (France) tr. Polly McLean

Twenty years after his parents jumped from the window of their Parisian apartment to their deaths, Philippe Grimbert decided to write about the secret that had overwhelmed their lives. “I had been in mourning for those 20 years,” says the French psychoanalyst, “which is a lot more than Freud suggests is normal. The Guardian, April 2007

Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, translated from French by Polly McLean, is a haunting story of a boy who senses something held back from him from those around him, it is post-war Paris, he is an only child who imagines he has a make-believe brother, seeing things from his perspective as well as his own, even going so far as to fight with him.

He is aware of his mother’s silences, his father’s sadness, without knowing the reason why, yet knowing not to ask. They are athletic, good-looking parents, but they birthed him, a delicate child they must keep from the jaws of death.

I survived, thanks to the care of doctors and the love of my mother. I would like to think my father loved me too – overcoming his disappointment and finding in care, worry and protectiveness enough to stoke his feelings. But his first look left its trace on me, and I regularly glimpsed that flash of bitterness in his eyes.

Full of fear at school, one day after watching a particularly disturbing documentary about the Holocaust, he is overcome by emotion at the insulting comment of a boy in the class and starts a fight, an act completely out of character for him and yet he had felt an inner rage that compelled him to react violently.

The incident left me with a patch above one eye that I wore around school with great pride. But the injury brought me much more than ephemeral glory – it was the sign for which Louise had been waiting.

The neighbour Louise is the only person he tells the truth about why he got in the fight.

Louise was always my favourite, even though she wasn’t actually part of the family. Perhaps I felt a deeper complicity with her than with my blood relatives. Affectionate as they were, my uncles, aunts and grandparents seemed surrounded by an intangible barrier forbidding questions and warding off confidences. A secret club, bound together by an impossible grief.

He is surprised at how upset she becomes, not at his behaviour, but something else, something greater, the burden of which overwhelms her, something she too has known all these years, and believes now she must reveal to him.

The day after my fifteenth birthday, I finally learnt what I had always known.

He fills in the gaps of the story, imagining the narrative himself, he knows nearly all the characters, except those that have haunted him, but he seems to have known them too. However, he too guards the secret, knowing makes it easier on him, but it can’t change his relationship with his family.

To overcome the final hurdle, he needs to fill in the gaps, to find out the facts.

There remained a gap in my story, a chapter whose contents were not known even to my parents. I knew a way to un-stick its pages: I had heard about a place in Paris where I could find the information I was missing.

The narrator shares the same name as the author, and though he never knew the exact details of what happened before he was born, except by anecdote, he used fiction to explore and build a narrative that hopefully might have let some of the ghosts he had lived with for many years to rest.

Why, I ask him, did he write a novel that would involve fictionalising real events? “Because I had no choice. For me, in reconstituting this story that was so brief in terms of what I had been told, reconstituting it in all its duration, was all I could do. My sole tool was the novel. Perhaps someone else could have made a film, done a painting. Somebody else could have written a history, but I couldn’t. The only way I could pay homage was to write this book.”

The Guardian, April 2007

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read and all the more so upon finishing when I realised there is indeed a strong link to the author’s own life. In addition to the secrets explored in the book, which I don’t want to give away as they are better left to explore in reading, they also let him grow up thinking he was Catholic, something that I think may have been quite common among survivors of WWII.

“I now think that what they did was an act of love rather than cowardice. They sought to protect themselves and me by doing these things. But discovering that I was really a Jew and not a Catholic made me into a neurotic and then into a shrink.”

The book has also been made into a dramatic French film.

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If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk is the first work by James Baldwin that I have read. It was the first work he wrote after he moved to St Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he would pass the last 17 years of his life.

He also wrote his first two novels at the beginning of his literary career, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, along with his best-known collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son during a nine-year period he lived in Paris.

When Jordan Elgrably of The Paris Review asked why he left the United States said:

I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

He found it increasingly difficult to be a witness to life in America so perhaps France provided him the distance from which to write. With Beale Street he was able to immerse in a love story, bringing out the emotional bonds that keep a family together, that give them something extra, to not just survive, but overcome the harsh, unjust realities of everyday life in America for black people.

The novel revolves around childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny. We meet them as she visits him in prison.

I don’t know why people always look down when they talk through a telephone, but they always do. You have to remember to look up at the person you’re talking to.

I always remember now, because he’s in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. So I pick up the phone as soon as I’m there and I keep looking up at him.

Interspersed with the regular visits, are flash-backs to childhood and the moment their friendship evolved to something deeper. Fonny takes Tish to his basement pad where he has set up a woodwork studio, his deepest passion is sculpting wood and stone, he wants to show her and for her to understand its importance to him.

After asking her to marry him, they’d looked for loft space together, they were planning a future together, when suddenly robbed of it by a false accusation.  His alibi’s are discredited and he sinks into despair, but for her visits.

Though heartbroken, she is emboldened by her family, by the adamant support of her sister, who finds them a good lawyer, her mother, who travels to Porto Rico to confront the accuser, and her father, who works extra shifts to raise funds for Fonny’s bail.

It is the words, actions and support of the family that keep everyone from falling apart, they are a stalwart to Fonny especially, as his family crack under the pressure of a mother converted to a conservative faith prone to judgement and disappointment, more concerned about her own reputation than the innocence of her son.

It is interesting that Baldwin chose to narrate the novel from Tish’s perspective, and though it may have provoked criticism, it is perhaps one injustice that he sought to right – allowing the voice of a young black woman to rise and be heard.

Sharon, her mother, was a fabulous character. So in touch with her deepest roots, she is able to appease her daughter when she fearfully shares news of her pregnancy:

‘Tish’, she said, ‘when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies. And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t, wasn’t for that same damn white man. So let me tell you what you got to do. You got to think about that baby. You got to hold onto that baby, don’t care what else happens or doesn’t happen. You got to do that. Can’t nobody else do that for you. And the rest of us, well, we going to hold on to you. And we going to get Fonny out. Don’t you worry. I know it’s hard – but don’t you worry. And that baby be the best thing that ever happened to Fonny. He needs that baby. It going to give a whole lot of courage.’

Right there, the mother reinforces stability in their lives and I can’t help but be aware of the contrast, having just read the memoir An Affair With My Mother of a baby conceived within a culture that shame(s)d its daughters for pregnancy outside of wedlock, destroying lives, dividing families, creating unnecessary drama. This action and steadfast support by Sharon is a protest against the inherent culture and inherited religious beliefs, over which love and the family bond will prevail. It is a powerful matriarchal triumph, one that reaches far back in ancestral memory.

So the family encounter difficult circumstances and yet their ability to be there for each other sees them though and even Fonny is swept up in this wave of support, nourished by it, even though he has moments of sliding into darkness, as is human. By contrast, his family is fragmented, the mother and daughters reject the offer of unity offered by Joseph and Sharon, the father Frank gets it and tries to support them, to be part of this newly extended family, but without the strength of an unconditional bond within his own, he is left vulnerable.

James Baldwin in France

I think Baldwin succeeds if it was his intention to write about the powerful effect of love and family, in their ability to carry each other through difficult times, when they refuse to resort to blame (of themselves or others) or judgement, when they hold each other up and decide to be a force together and not give in to destructive tendencies.

I’ve just seen the film at our local cinema. It’s challenging to watch to a film you are still reflecting on reading.

In a recent interview, Director Barry Jenkins talked about Baldwin’s work:

I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.

I thought the movie was a beautiful and moving depiction of the story, although my big takeaways from the book about that family bond, (especially the mother to the daughter) weren’t as strong in the film. Some of the most important lines I’d noted (and went back to check) were taken from the mother and given to the father, which surprised me, as it shifted the dynamic and removed what for me had been a significant and empowering statement coming from the mother (supported by the father). Passing those lines to the father risked putting the mother back into a supporting role, and lessened the matriarchal force Baldwin imbued her with.

The other significant moment in the book for me, which I’m not sure comes across in the film with quite the same impact, is a moment near the end where there is a change in Fonny, observed here by Tish, which you’ll have to read to find out more:

“- something quite strange, altogether wonderful, happens in him…”

All the more reason, even if you’ve seen the film, to get a copy of the book! And all that said, I’d recommend both without hesitation.

Buy a Copy of Beale Street via Book Depository

Have you read James Baldwin? Do you have a favourite?

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

Buy Farewell, My Orange

via Book Depository (free shipping)

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.