La Tresse (The Braid) by Laetitia Colombani (France)

This novel La Tresse by Laetitia Colombani was a birthday gift from a friend, at the time I was given it, it wasn’t available in English, however it has since been translated and published in 2019, available under the title The Braid.

It tells the stories of three women living different lives in three countries, each facing a monumental change, each determined to confront that change in their own way, once they overcome the obstacle that stands in their way, and the discrimination that exists in their society, that causes some not to support their efforts.

It’s written in simple language and has the air of a story being told, almost one I can imagine listening to, or watching on film, rather than being lived in the moment.

There is little description, little of the mundane, there is a superficiality to it – almost fable-like, they don’t seem like real lives, there’s an element of cliché in what they each represent. There is a symmetry to the stories, a correlation that creeps up on the reader as we become aware of the pattern that makes these three situations similar and the ‘tresse’ that will create a connection between them.

India – we meet Smita, a young mother from the lowest caste, who is determined that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps, in the disgusting job she and her mother before her have had to do, she has a plan to enable her daughter to obtain an education, that confronts the expectations of her caste.

Sicilie – Guilia left school at 16 to work in her father’s atelier, as he lies unconscious in hospital she discovers he was hiding something from them and it is she who must save the day – through an arranged marriage as her mother suggests – or by stepping up and being courageous, helped by an outsider the community doesn’t accept.

Canada – Sarah is an ambitious lawyer and mother, her private life exists behind a wall of her own making, one she attributes her success to, a wall that comes crumbling down when an illness breaks through it and exposes her.

All three women take on their respective challenges despite the discrimination and obstacles and each will find solace in something unexpected.

I hesitated to read this for some time, just because it was in French, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to read and how little I had to look up new vocabulary. I enjoyed it when I did as I discovered new words and scribbled them in pencil in the margins. And then how I come across those words in the external world, resulting in me thinking I really would enjoy to read more of these works that are available in French but not yet in English.

Despite the satisfactory linguistic journey, I’m not sure it is a book I would have picked up normally. It touches on subjects that warrant further exploration, that are a little too conveniently side-stepped or imagined to be easily resolved, which left a quiet discomfort in accepting the outcomes proposed. The author chooses not to delve into the significant issues raised and instead provides this three pronged tale that ties things up a little too neatly at the end.

Any one of these stories could have been developed, their issues explored to raise awareness and encourage discussion; ignoring them feels like a mild form of cultural appropriation. I tried to find out whether the author had a personal connection to any one of the cultures she uses in the novel, but apart from visiting the countries, there doesn’t appear to be.

Yesterday I was in Marseille and visited a number of fabulous exhibitions in the MuCem (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) and was inspired by what I encountered there to wish to read more French books, like Frères Migrants by Patrick Chamoiseau, La pesanteur et la grâce by Simone Weil though they may challenge my comprehension. It is a city with a rich history and a wonderful cultural offering that I shall explore more. Perhaps I may try to share some of that here.

Buy a Copy of Laetitia Colombani’s book in French or English

 

Crooked Grow the Trees by Carmel Hanes

Crooked Grow the Trees is an engaging, insightful and well-informed read that I remain in awe of since I finished reading it. I bought it not long after an online group conversation on Goodreads with Carmel Hanes about Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies.

Since our connection is a little story in itself, I will share the comments that lead to my discovery that she had written a book and my desire to read it.

My comment on Praise Song for the Butterflies read:

Without resorting to a happy ever after cliche, I enjoyed the possibility that the experience of trauma didn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that one’s personal narrative does not have to continue to be that which happened in the past, that it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

to which Carmel replied:

What an eloquent and delightful summary of what happiness might be. “Hope” being the magnet that pulls one through life’s bitter shavings. Thanks for sharing that perspective….I love it.

What a beautiful, illustrative metaphor of hope being the magnet, pulling one through life’s shavings. I was enamoured by the ease with which her turn of phrase became a metaphor and wondered what else she had been reading, only to learn she was a published author, described as follows:

She hid among the likeable misfit toys she worked with in public schools and detention centers during a thirty year career as a school psychologist. The indelible imprint they left on her insisted on expression in this debut novel, exposing the struggles we all have to overcome early influences.

Well that combination of the spontaneous metaphor, a career of working with misfits and the promise of insights into dealing with young people who had been the victim of trauma was enough to make me curious. And what a find it was!

Review

Crooked Grow the Trees is an intriguing title, one I imagine refers to the impact traumatic events have on the growth and development of young minds, some children are unable metaphorically to grow as straight and tall as they ought to, depending on their influences and experiences during childhood.

The novel is a dual narrative between Sophia’s professional life dealing with the boys in the detention centre and her personal life, which has brought her siblings together as their father awaits death, awakening a past she has long buried.

The brilliant cover art depicts the main protagonist Sophia and her brother Marcus, whose way of being in the world has been significantly affected by memories and perspectives of childhood, in particular in relation to their father, the dark element seen in the base of the trunk. Nevertheless, they are survivors, they have used their experience to forge their way ahead (even if they face opposite directions), each attempting to consciously eradicate while subconsciously using to good effect, that which left a mark on them.

Navigating the complex relationship with her father had been like walking through an emotional minefield.  Explosion after explosion had blown so many parts off the relationship there was nothing recognizable left but a spongy mass of raw nerves and charred intentions.

Unfortunately that resulted in them having opposite views in many areas of life, a source of friction that kept them apart, rarely seeing each other, until now circumstances force them to be together again.

They had little in common other than shared ancestry. Marcus held strong opinions that bordered on bigotry, while Sophia was inclined to see people as complex and multi-dimensional, not categorizing as quickly as her brother. They were on different sides of the political divide and rarely agreed on how to solve the social and financial issues the country faced.

What seems like an irredeemable divide proves challenging when it comes to dealing with their father’s affairs, Marcus is inconsolable and Sophia wants to understand why he acted the way he did. Hanes cleverly puts the siblings in a room where unknown elements of their parents lives are revealed, they are able to talk about, clarify and recalibrate events from the past, in a way that helps them understand each other better, healing some of the latent trauma.

A foundational brick in her self-view had been flawed. Years of experience wrapped around this inner core, tendrils of assumptions and beliefs, unraveled as the core foundered. How do you reframe a lifetime of feelings? How do you rewrite decades of misunderstanding?

Similarly in the workplace, when there is disruption, she comes into conflict with the position of staff who take a more punitive approach to dealing with the young. Uninterested in investigating what happened, or any extenuating circumstances, some advocate for severe punishment.

I don’t care what the excuses might be; they simply have to follow the rules regardless of what is happening. WE are in charge not them. The more they get away with these take-it-in-my-own-hands decisions the more at risk we are, not to mention their families and the community when they finally do make it out of here.

Sophia and her colleague appeal for a different approach:

“I think it’s important to understand what led to their decisions and reactions in order to best support them and teach them,” countered Dr Blain. “One cannot separate their actions from their histories, and change only happens when we understand what drives them so we can help them understand that as well. That is our mission, not simply to punish them for wrong actions. We can only gain that understanding through investigating all angles and hear what each person has to say.”

It’s a captivating read, enriched by experience that succeeds in presenting multiple moral viewpoints, forcing the reader to indulge and reflect on all perspectives and attitudes in the various conflicts. The conversations with each of the boys and the situations they respond to are brilliantly depicted, the dilemma feels real, the reader desperately wants them to succeed in being transformed.

Crooked Grow the Trees shows relationships healing through understanding and how those with opposite views can find common ground and forgiveness when memories and events that formed them are shared and discusses. Sadly, it is often not the case that the cause is known or shared or that people have the chance to heal from those traumas that damage them.

I find myself rereading my comment above, seeing how it resonates here too.

Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

Buy a Copy of Crooked Grow the Trees via BookDepository

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden

Last year my favourite read Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Nakumbi was published by OneWorld Publications. This year, I enjoyed another of their award winning titles The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi (Iraq) (tr. Luke Leafgren) and now I am adding to that list, this wonderful historical fiction epic, Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) translated by Lisa Hayden.

The Russian Gulag – Labour Camps

April 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulags in Russia. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, they were a system of forced labour camp, a kind of re-education in a prison-like environment.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion.

At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion— others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

Kulaks and Dekulakization

The first people to be interned in these camps were known as kulaks (literal translation – fist, as in tight-fisted) meaning affluent peasants – originally the term referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy, but the definition broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to authorities and under Joseph Stalin’s leadership it came to refer to peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors and eventually any intellectual who offended him.

Portrayed as class enemies of the USSR, the process of re-education was dekulakization the campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of prosperous peasants and their families. It is these people, decreed kulaks in the 1930’s, that are the subject of this novel.

Book Review – Zuleikha

As soon as I read premise of this novel, I wanted to get it, one of my favourite books The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was set in a Russian gulag, though these are very different books. And there is nothing quite like being swept away by those wonderful character-lead novels such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina and the provocative poetry of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that have entertained us and demonstrated important aspects of creating characters in literature, and who could forget one of the highest grossing films of all time, Doctor Zhivago.

While we may not quite reach the heights of the masters, we are offered a refreshing and unique perspective in this compelling novel about a Tartar Muslim woman named Zuleikha, whose independent farmer husband has been accused of not having collectivised his property, resulting in her being sent away to be dekulakized.

They encounter the Red Army and their leader Comrade Ignatov as they return from hiding provisions, a meeting that will forever be etched in the minds of both Zuleikha and Ignatov, the latter becoming an equally important protagonist in the novel, which charts the journey and evolution of both characters.

They travel the same paths in opposite roles, one of the ironies of the novel to see how imprisonment in many ways improves the life of Zuleika, and control of the camp significantly diminishes the life of her captor.  Effectively she is rescued from a tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, having been married off at the age of fifteen (he 30 years her senior) where she was little more than a slave in their household, having also given birth and lost all her babies in that period.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unlike some gulag stories, the people in this novel who are sent to be dekulakized are not sent to an existing facility. They spend months on a long train journey, where many will die, some escape, getting to know each other and then just as winter sets in they’re put on a barge, travel up a river and are dumped there. In order to survive, they must build shelter and find food, so their fate also extends to the leader who oversees them, Ignatov.

Although Zuleikha arrives in an emaciated state, she soon attains strong motivation to remain healthy, she finds solace in her role in the kitchen and ultimately strength in her eventual role as a hunter, venturing into the forest every day to set traps and capture wildlife to keep them all from starving.

Whereas Ignatov, who has enjoyed relative freedom and even privilege in his previous role, riding across the country rounding up suspected kulaks, is unhappy with orders to take on the role of Commandant to accompany these people to an unknown destination. His transformation is more of a decline from his lofty position of power, he loses faith and no longer commands the same respect he had, even for himself.

On the cover of the book and mentioned throughout the text, are Zuleikha’s intense green eyes, other versions of the novel are entitled “Zuleikha Opens her Eyes“, this transformation of character through having her eyes opened is one of the themes of the novel, she sees beauty as well as suffering, she will experience true love and profound heartbreak. It’s about a woman who comes out from having been defined and used by men, into finding new strength and her own role. It is a form of emancipation, albeit it a preliminary one.

Yusef runs away from Zulaikha

One aspect of the novel I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the significance of the names, Zuleikha and Yuzuf. I had a sense that those names somehow went together and I discovered an epic poem of the same name written in 1483 AD by the Sufi poet Jami.

It is an allegorical poem about the pursuit of love and of God, which also covers the allure and the suppression of love, the suffering of slavery and in aspects of this poem, I find aspects of three characters in the novel, Zuleikha, Ignatov and Yuzuf and I end my review with an ambiguous extract that may refer to a lover or a son, from the poem that reminds me of the closing pages of the novel.

The novel is unique in that it is written (and translated) by a woman who makes a young woman the centre of such an epic story, in part inspired by the actual memories of her own grandmother. She hasn’t set out to recreate the dire, conditions and cruelty of the camps, we witness a tale of survival, and through the eyes of a woman who already had a dire life, despite being the wife of an affluent peasant.

Guzel Yakhina’s grandmother was arrested in the 1930’s, taken by horseback to Kazan and then on a long railway journey (over 2,000 miles) to Siberia. She was exiled from the age of 7 until 17 years, returning to her native village in 1947. It was these formative childhood years that were in a large part responsible for her formidable character.

Upon her death at the age of 85 years, the author realised the importance of her early life and thus began her research and determination to understand how her grandmother operated, bringing her back in part through the inspired creation of the extraordinary character Zuleikha.

“I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

A thought-provoking, interesting story and reflection, not at all brutal or hard to read, the author writes with compassion for her characters and brings out something very different from what we have come to expect from stories set in prison-like environments.

Highly Recommended.

 Zuleikha and Yusuf – extract from the epic poem

“The one sole wish of my heart,” she replied,
“Is still to be near thee, to sit by thy side;
To have thee by day in my happy sight,
And to lay my cheek on thy foot at night;
To lie in the shade of the cypress and sip
The sugar that lies on thy ruby lip;
To my wounded heart this soft balm to lay;
For naught beyond this can I wish or pray.
The streams of thy love will new life bestow
On the dry thirsty field where its sweet waters flow.”

Jami, Sufi poet (tr. Charles Francis Horne)

Further Reading

Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers

Article, The Calvert Journal: “Learn to live with it, even forgive.” Guzel Yakhina on the traumas of Soviet history

Article, Peninsula, Qatar: Russian novel tells story of survival, love in Stalin’s camp

Buy a Copy of Zuleikha via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of this novel.

The Turquoise Ledge (2010) by Leslie Marmon Silko

I loved this book. I chose it because I wanted to visit the natural landscape of Tucson through the eyes and insights of a lyrical nature writer.  I was also looking for the perfect birthday present for someone who knows that landscape well, to transport them back there, reignite something without having to travel.

And of course, being curious I had to read it first, it was far too big a temptation and we are the kind of friends you can do that with, indulge the gift before giving it – and I know I give something of myself by doing this, the pages ear-marked where I was stopped, moved, given pause for thought. I know how those traces of the previous reader intrigue, they add mystery where usually there is none.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry.

She wanted to be a visual artist, but rebelled against perspective and realism, so pursued an English major initially,  published a bestselling novel Ceremony, and after a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, experienced a life-changing moment, leaving her old life, marriage, teaching behind and moved to Tucson in 1978 just two months after surgery.

In The Turquoise Ledge, she pieces together this colourful, magical yet natural, narrative of thirty years living in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park, in a ramshackle house, equally inhabited by creatures of the desert, a pandemonium of parrots and her pack of mastiffs, who like her, develop immunity to certain venomous dangers and survive the extreme climate. The desert terrain and all its wonderful beings, including the weather won her heart and it shows on every page.

The book is divided into five parts entitled Ancestors, Rattlesnakes, Star Beings, Turquoise and Lord Chapulin although there are elements of all those things throughout the text, as they are all integrated and woven into the life she lives, the habitat she dwells within and the landscape she walks over, studies and is a part of.

Though it is memoir, the author recognises that some aspects of memory are remembered vividly and others, even recent memories involve and invoke imagination. She has learned to tap into her subconscious, searching for truths not facts; she is a writer, a poet and an artist. Though she uses words, she is creating a self-portrait.

“We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister’s memory. We can’t be certain of anything.

Fortunately my subconscious remembers everything I need. Whatever I can’t recall, later comes back to me as I write fiction. I make myself a fictional character so I can write about myself.”

She recalls interactions with family members and elders from her childhood, those often defining moments when a child observes more than just an event but is absorbing a cultural influence, hearing a people’s myths and songs, observing family superstitions.

Though she never spoke the Laguna language after the age of five that her great-grandmother A’mooh had spoken and wonders why that was, her great Aunts would ensure she knew of the hummah-hah stories, traditional Laguna stories that reveal the Laguna spiritual outlook toward animals, plants and spirit beings, a viewpoint that had become at odds with her great grandmother’s staunch conversion to the Presbyterian church.

I never felt alone or afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older I realised the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.

In these now forty years that have passed since she came to live here, the effect of bulldozers and the urban sprawl of Tucson have destroyed acres and acres of pristine desert habitat and left some species in danger of extinction and others to seek refuge elsewhere.

The old ranch house and the sheds and outbuildings are home to pack rats and deer mice accompanied by gopher snakes, racer snakes and rattlesnakes that eat them. So in the beginning, I got to know the snakes and pack rats because we were neighbours. I began to keep notes on my encounters.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So many encounters, that by the time you finish reading this section, you too may be converted to considering if not accepting that we should all live in closer proximity to our reptilian brethren. Silko and the snakes become familiar, she learns how to be around them and they learn that she is not a danger. In one of the most symbiotic relationships I have ever read about, this woman and these creatures live in this space together, her in the house, them under it and many anecdotes of those fascinating encounters that she handles with such poise and reverence.

Over time the rattlesnakes will get to know you and your pets. They learn human and dog behaviour and seem to understand the timing of our daily routines; they try to avoid encounters with us at all cost. A few times I’ve been very early or very late with my outdoor chores and I’ve surprised snakes that didn’t expect me at that time of day.

And then there is the heat, I learn that as the heat expands the air molecules they are thinner and less buoyant, no longer able to carry the particles of dust. The seasons are rain and no rain. When the temperature exceeds 112°F/44°C, the air smells of wood and bark just before they burst into flame.

The heat boils the sky to a deep blue. No traces of clouds, only the deepening blue as the air becomes crystal clear. The angle of the Sun causes the light to have the luminescence of a blue flame. The Sun is seated in the north corner of Time.

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

We learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains that explains the formations, rocks and stones that appear on her walks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) her fascination with turquoise, with the Nahua people, the Nahuatl language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain, to whom she occasionally chants her own original rain prayer. And Lord Chapulin, who you’ll meet if you decide to read this, a living creature and the subject of one of her portrait paintings.

This book took me on a voyage to a place I’ve never been that seemed like another planet, Earth and yet not like the corners of Earth I’ve known. I wonder how someone can live in the heat of the desert like this (without air conditioning) and keep animals, or live alongside wildlife and observe them the way she does, in tune with the ancestors, the star beings, the rattlesnakes, rain chants and an ancient language she predicts is going to make a comeback.

I was enchanted by her endearing tales, her lyrical observations, nuggets of natural and peoples’ history, her love of the local environment and I hope the man with the machine desecrating the arroyo reads her book and stops being such an idiot.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Silko

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read, it describes an inner world, an occupied mind, from that inside. It puts the reader in a position of imagining, perhaps even to a certain degree understanding, what it might be like to have your subconscious and conscious mind occupied by other entities, entities with a voice, with personality, that from time to time take over the body, affect behaviour, talk to you and through you.

Reality is depicted from their perspective, giving full voice to the multiple entities, birthed (through traumas) at different times during the life of Ada (her name though her father told her just meant ‘precious’, in its truest form, meant, the egg of a python), who was born a girl (though doesn’t stay one) in Nigeria and educated in America, where much of the narrative takes place.

We become aware of their presence from the opening pages, before they are awakened within Ada, in a chapter that is utterly compelling as we come to realise who the ‘we‘ is that is narrating much of the story. And ‘we‘ is not the only non-human narrator.

These personalities inhabit a place (referred to in the text as the marble room) within the body/mind, they lie dormant until they are awakened, they keep each other company in that space, they co-habit this one body and constantly justify their existence and inclinations and sometimes act out on them, though they too seem capable of evolving, just as their human needs to and does. And just in case you think this is sounding like fantasy or science fiction, it’s not, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, much of it corresponds to the author’s experience and perceived reality of the world.

These multiple entities exist, they are not illusions or metaphors, they have names and characteristics that manifest into different behaviours through human ‘Ada’ who simultaneously suffers from them, is supported by them, at times is even dependent on them. They are one, but with many aspects that from the external perspective risk being judged as something labelled otherwise depending on the country/culture – such as personality disorder or schizophrenia due to our limited view in defining other states of being. When one entity is more present, Ada’s way of being in the world alternates between her human personality and that of the other presence, whether it’s we, Asughara, or Saint Vincent.

Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi

From the perspective of Nigerian ontology (philosophical study of the nature of being), Ada (as the author also self-identifies) may be perceived as ‘ogbanje‘, a child that usually doesn’t live long and is often reborn into the same family. It is believed that these children recognise the difficulty of living in this world and choose to leave it, only on arriving at the gates of heaven they’re denied entry, they’re judged as being lazy and indolent and are sent back to try again. When they are present in the world, they often have particular psychic abilities and/or an other-worldliness about them, they’re believed by some to be possessed, they don’t particularly enjoy the dense, limited human body and experience.

Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to ‘come and go’.

Only the child Ada is saved from a death that might have sent her back by her father, a modern Igbo man with medical training from the Soviet Union and years of living in London. He did not believe in anything superstitious that might have made him view the scene he rescued her from as anything other than death. In rescuing her, he prevents the entities from leaving.

He had no idea what he had done.

Akwaeke Emezi depicts these influences and describes being human as a temporary vessel for this other kind of presence which until Ada understands and accepts it, she will continue to suffer as if she is one and not all of them. The ability to make them so real to the reader, to create what feel like real characters from them, is astounding.

“All the madnesses, each and every blinding one, they can all be traced back to the gates. Those carved monstrosities, those clay and chalk portals, existing everywhere and nowhere and all at once. They open, things are born, they close. The opening is easy, a pushing out, an expansion, an inhalation: the dust of divinity released into the world. It has to be a temporary channel, though, a thing that is sealed afterward, because the gates stink of knowledge, they cannot be left swinging wide like a slack mouth, leaking mindlessly. That would contaminate the human world – bodies are not meant to remember things from the other side. There are rules. But these are gods and they move like heated water, so the rules are softened and stretched. The gods do not care. It is not them after all, that will pay the cost.”

At one point Ada seeks out a therapist and at first her entities don’t notice, they are not always present, but they’d told her to keep them inside her head, in the marble room, so no one could see them.

So when she started looking up her “symptoms”, it felt like a betrayal – like she thought we were abnormal. How can we be, when we were her and she was us? I watched her try to tell people about us and I smiled when they told her it was normal to have different parts of yourself.

The entities try to fulfill their destiny (to return to their spirit siblings) and thus sabotage Ada’s attempts to live a human life with minimal suffering. It’s a constant challenge to navigate life, until they learn to live in harmony and she understands her purpose after an encounter with a historian, who tells her what she needs to accept.

“The name that was given to you has many connotations, you hear?” He wore glasses and spoke in a rush of words. “The python’s egg means a precious child. A child of the gods, or the deity themself. The experiences you’ve had suggest that there is a spiritual connection, which you need to go and learn about. Your journey will not be complete until you do that.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “There is nothing more anybody can tell you. It’s important for you to understand your place on this earth.”

Truly an astounding, transparent work that takes an understanding of the being part of human into another dimension. The way it seamlessly moves from the material to the immaterial, combining human and spiritual aspects of selves, on a journey to assemble some way of living with them both, in a world where the majority live within and perceive only one aspect and dimension, a world indeed, where it can be dangerous to articulate this alternate reality.

I thought it was brilliant, definitely a 5 star read for me and truly deserving of being on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

A debut novel said to have an autobiographical slant, this is how Akwaeke Emezi brilliantly articulates what the writing of it meant to them in an interview with Ms. magazine:

I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through.

Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

New Yorker: A Startling Debut Novel Explores the Freedom of Being Multiple by Katy Waldman

Interview: The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and Finding Home by Taliah Mancini

N.B. Thank you to publisher Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy.

Buy a copy of Freshwater via Book Depository

The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar

I discovered this debut novel after seeing an article on Electric Lit by author R.O. Kwon 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019. I recognised many, but a new name that jumped out at me was debut author Devi S. Laskar.

Kwon added the book to her list based on a recommendation by writer, editor and professor Kiese Laymon, who said he’d “never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages,” and that the book is “as narratively beautiful as it is brutal.”

If that wasn’t enough, Nayomi Munaweera, author of the excellent Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and What Lies Between Us said:

“Devi S .Laskar has written a beautiful, harrowing fever dream of a novel. This is a book that insists on no uncertain terms and despite horrific institutional and everyday racism that South Asian Americans are indeed Americans. This is a book I have been waiting a very long time for. A monumental achievement.”

Before telling you about the novel, I’ll just share that I found it masterful. I hadn’t meant to read it too quickly, but I was so entranced and captivated by it, by the voice, by the structure, by its fierce intelligence and grasp of so many aspects, that I couldn’t help myself but read it in two sittings. However, I recommend you take your time, as it deserves close reading.

I’ve since looked at it again and tried to analyse what the author has done, how this novel, that is also an essay, a social commentary, a dual narrative of one characters perspective, past and present, works. It’s a stunning piece of literature, thoroughly deserved of the praise mentioned above. I would love to see it make tonight’s shortlist for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019.

Review

The Atlas of Reds and Blues takes place over the course of a morning. In the opening line, a woman we will come to know as The Mother has just been shot in her driveway:

Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly.

A working mother whose husband is often away on business moves her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, discovering not much has changed since her childhood in a small Southern town.

She embodies a second generation American experience, viewed through vivid snippets of her working and family life, looking back, recounting memories that have lead to this moment. It is told by one character but in a dual narrative, (1) the semi-conscious present moment, a stream-of-consciousness awareness of what she sees, hears, smells, feels and wonders, lying there unmoving and (2) short chapters of the past, both recent as The Mother and further back as the Real Thing, daughter of Bengali immigrants. All the characters are referred to with labels such as Baby Sister, Middle Daughter, her hero, man of the hour, similar to Anna Burns’s Milkman.

The present moment narrative arrives in short staccato-like bursts, sometimes a sentence, maybe two, a snatch of dialogue, an unbidden memory, a flash of blue sky, a moment of lucidity. This a more lengthy example:

“She closes her eyes and a kaleidoscope appears, the blue of the sky giving way to the red pulse of pain near her stomach…The pain is less when she doesn’t give in to the light show. But the light show is hard to ignore: every time she opens or closes her eyes, the blues and blood reds are reinvented; she is witnessing the continents shifting, the tectonic plates of years shifting and crashing into each other.”

It is a beautiful, bittersweet cornucopia of blues and reds, colours littered throughout the text alluding to a multitude of contrasts.

Though ostensibly a novel, on closer rereading, I wonder if it has elements of an essay, something I have a heightened awareness of at the moment, after attending a wonderful talk last week by writer Jennifer Delahunty entitled ‘The Art and Power of the Personal Essay, from Montaigne to Zadie Smith’.

Asked about the difference between the essay and an Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) she described the essay as posing a question the writer is able to explore without necessarily positing an opinion, the intention being to encourage engagement with the subject by the reader.

Our protagonist lying bleeding on her driveway, poses questions that the ensuing chapters serve to explore. She uses the symbol of the doll to illustrate the complexity of being non-white growing up in America and thus poses her question.

Like children, most dolls are made only to be seen, put on display. Real live dolls are taught to remain stoic, bear witness in silence, no matter how the consumer judges. The radio dispatcher squawks and a policeman’s voice describes her: Black hair. Brown skin. Gray sweatpants. Brown T-shirt. Flip-flops.

The dispatcher’s voice drawls.  “Is she Black?” A lawn mower sputters to life nearby and drowns out the policeman’s reply.

Third Monday of May 2010. When you put American clothes on a brown-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?

Fifty or so pages later, another reference:

The question can be stripped bare, a striped white line on the highway separating those stuck in traffic from those who are flying down the road: Has anything of significance changed in the last forty-three years?

There is a section entitled Inciting Incidents:

…in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no…

Fourteen potential inciting incidents follow, thought-provoking turning points in the Mother’s life, incidents that culminate over time, leading to resistance or acceptance. The first time they read as more experiences, the second time I read more closely looking for the incident, seeing the accumulation of “isms” she has encountered as a woman of colour in the workplace, a neighbour, wife, sister and mother to daughters in today’s America.

What does it mean truly, to be invisible? Her stillness, her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears. To pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness. Or her chameleon’s ability to blend in, a nondescript body in a dark blouse and black jeans leaning against the pay phone at the hospital waiting room, or standing outside the courtroom’s double doors or by the fire engine at the crime scene, yellow do not cross tape isolating one place from its larger context. To pretend the oak tree across the street’s steadfast patience, to pretend paralysis. To watch but pretend blindness. Never look anyone on the eye. Or maybe restraint. Knowing her lack of reaction is the only thing keeping her alive, over and again. Knowing the first time she hits back is the last time she’ll ever have the opportunity to do so.

Laskar is first and foremost a poet, so while it may have been described as harrowing, it also illuminates. Her captivating prose and lyrical repetition draw the reader in, creating a desire to unravel the mystery her many literary devices allude to, to step back from the pieces and see the whole. The book’s structure is inspired by one of her favorite poetry forms, the pantoum, a Malayan folk poem or verse form. In a pantoum, a phrase is repeated throughout, subtle changes in meaning occur due to different contexts.

 “This book is one giant pantoum because the beginning is the end, and she’s considering things over and over.” Devi S. Laskar

It was also partly inspired by a raid on her home, where a gun was pointed at her and she experienced her life flash in front of her eyes.

Almost impossible to review, it is a thought-provoking, unique novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about long after finishing it. Brilliant. Highly Recommended, likely to be one of my favourite reads of 2019.

Buy a Copy of The Atlas of Reds and Blues via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you kindly to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?