Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

 Cereus Blooms at Night is the partially told story of one woman’s life, beginning when she is admitted to an alms house, suspected of having murdered her father and slowly unravelling back to the turning points, the highs and lows which brought her to be in the state she is in on arrival.

cereusIt is a novel narrated in parts, each part focusing on a character(s) who were influential in her life, including the young man who never knew her until this day, the one who became her confidant, perhaps the first man she ever trusted, after all that had passed beforehand. Much of it is told as Mala slips into memories of herself as child, reliving it.

It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, in a town called Paradise, the Ramchandin patriarch arriving there from India, trading a life of indentured servitude for little more than the promise of a karmic upgrade for his son, Chandin, who would be taken under the wing of the Reverend in the hope of improving the family prospects.

The young male nurse, Tyler accepted his first job in the alms house and although well-trained and qualified, his employers had yet to extend their generosity towards giving him actual nursing duties. The arrival of the controversial patient Mala Ramchandin, provided him with the first opportunity to exercise his skills.

I hardly had opened my mouth to explain that Miss Ramchandin was too frail to inflict even a bad thought when Sister screamed at me for being insolent and blatantly disregarding her authority.

No one else wanted to go near her, she was bound and believed to be mad and dangerous. Tyler was delighted to be given the opportunity and responsibility and treated his patient with the same compassion he might have offered any patient given the chance. Sensing her distress, he acted to alleviate it regardless of instructions to do otherwise.

cereusAs Tyler gained her trust, Mala’s story is revealed to us through him and through the two visitors she received, who on her first day there, unable to see her, left a pot with a cutting of the fragrant night-blooming cereus plant, a gift that clearly delighted her, a symbol of fragrant, nurturing oblivion.

The novel is full of contrasts, moments of delight and anticipation alongside the growing recognition of impending horrors, abuse and neglect. It taunts the reader into a state of hope, as the potential for things to have been otherwise is so close at times, only for the illusion of escape to become shattered by the reality of a situation that holds tight to those who are caught in its web.

The novel is unique in its portrayal of characters whose sexual identity is unclear, exploring hybridity and sexual minorities within a cultural context, in an intriguing, accepting way.

By the time Ambrosia was five, her parents were embroiled in their marital problems to the exclusion of all else, including their child. They hardly noticed that their daughter was slowly transforming herself into their son.  Ambrose slept right through the month, undisturbed until the first Saturday of the next, and Elsie, hungry for a male in the house, went along with his (her) strong belief that he (she) was really and truly meant to be a boy. Else fully expected that he (she) would outgrow the foolishness soon enough.  But the child walked and ran and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy that Elsie soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl. And the father, in his few waking episodes, seemed not to remember that he had once fathered one.

Despite the harrowing nature of Mala’s experiences, the luminous storytelling and unique characters bring light to otherwise dark places, and show that perseverance and allowing space for love, can overcome all manner of tragedy.

I came across the author Shani Mootoo in my search for other women authors, writing in the Caribbean tradition, authors who may have lived and been educated elsewhere, but whose writing evokes a clear connection to roots from elsewhere. Mootoo was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad and moved to Canada as a young adult.

Trinidad and Tobago literature is rooted in the oral storytelling of African slaves, the European literary roots of the French creoles and the religious and folk tales of the Indian indentured immigrants.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Buddha in the AtticBuddha in the Attic is a unique novella told in the first person plural “we”,  narrating the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.

In eight chapters, that read like a rhythmical chant, it traces the brides’ lives, beginning at the point of departure after leaving their predictable village lives, to the much-anticipated, though often frightening, boat journey and their arrival in San Francisco.

Some of us were so dizzy we could not even walk, and lay in our berths in a dull stupor, unable to remember our own names, not to mention those of our new husbands. Remind me one more time, I am Mrs. Who?

It recounts their first nights as new wives, the hard manual labour in new fields, cleaning house for white women, their struggles to master the language and understand the culture, to experiences in childbirth, as mothers, raising children who will lose their heritage and history, though continue to be marked by it, with the terrifying arrival of war and it damning label of them as the enemy.

At night we sat in our kitchens with our husbands as they pored over the day’s papers, scrutinizing every line, every word, for clues to our fate. We discussed the latest rumours. I hear they’re putting us into work camps to grow food for the troops.

Julie Otsuka has created a unique and original way to narrate the collective story of these Japanese mail order brides and their many experiences around common themes, we imagine the narrator as one of them, though we do not know which of the experiences are hers, as she balances them equally, one beside the other, in repetitive, elegiac prose.

This collective storytelling in effect brings our perception of them together, creating a sense of community, despite the suffering. It s as if, through sharing their experiences in these paragraphs, they become stronger, better able to cope, the author bringing them together. The “we” narrative unites them, we read and feel for them as a group, as if they are together. Otsuka brings them together in a lyrical expression of tasks, sufferings, looks, sighs, memories.

Apart from the initial boat ride over the seas from Japan to the US, there is little joy, they discover they are the lowest of low in the pecking order, equivalent to slaves, seen as quiet and submissive, hard workers.  Some take it in their stride, others will fall by the wayside.

They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands/ Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat, which on summer days in the melon fields of Brawley could reach 120 degrees. They said that our short stature made us ideally suited for work that required stooping low to the ground. Wherever they put us they were pleased. We had all the virtues of the Chinese – we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite – but none of their vices – we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat. We were faster than the Filipinos and less arrogant than the Hindus. We were more disciplined than the Koreans. We were soberer than the Mexicans. We were cheaper to feed than the Okies ad Arkies, both the light and the dark. A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives.

041812_1115_HotelontheC2.gifAnd as if it couldn’t get any worse, war happens, and they discover they are the enemy, they are regarded suspiciously and in time sent away.

This part is narrated by “them”, the communities within which they have existed alongside, though never really been a part of, certainly not appreciated – at least not until the Orkies and Arkies move in, who are not quiet and hard-working like the Japanese.

It is a soulful lament, a long sad narrative of a life of toil and disappointment that is endured, a disappearance that is unwarranted, a tribute to those who dreamed of a better life, who travelled across an ocean believing they would find it only to be betrayed bitterly.

041812_1115_HotelontheC1.jpgIt reminded me, not in style, but in subject of Jamie Ford’s The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of childhood friends in Seattle, second generation immigrants caught up in the brutal reality of being perceived as untrustworthy, having the skin of an enemy.

Their plows weighed more than we did, and were difficult to use, and their horses were twice the size of our horses back home in Japan. We could not harness them without climbing up on orange crates, or standing on stools, and the first time we shouted out to them to move they just stood there snorting and pawing at the ground. Were they deaf? Were they dumb? Or were they just being stubborn? “These are American horse,” our husbands explained. “They don’t understand Japanese.” And so we learned our first words of horse English. “Giddyap” was what you said to make the horse go forward, and “Back” was what you said to make it back up. “Easy” was what you said to make it slow down, and “Whoa” was what you said to make it stop. And after fifty years in America these would be the only words of English some of us could still remember by heart.

Julie Otsuka speaks here (in English) about the inspiration behind Buddha in the Attic, which won the French Prix Femina Etranger 2012 translated as Certaines n’avaient jamais vu la mer for the French edition.

Lotusland by David Joiner

LotuslandLotusland starts out with the main protagonist Nathan, taking a long train journey from Saigon in the south of Vietnam where he lives, to Hanoi, the capital where he will visit his friend Anthony who he hasn’t been in touch with for some time.

Ironically, he reflects on the many things in his life that he perceives have always been a long wait for him. Ironic, because he is a character who has difficulty keeping a commitment, distracted too easily by the allure of the new and unknown, like the girl with the pink hair he meets on the train, or the attraction and undivided attention he gives to a new feature article he is asked to write, neglecting other commitments.

What follows is a well written story exploring the relationships between these two expatriate American men living in Vietnam, both their relationships to each other and the local women they marry/befriend and their contrasting attitudes to work.

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà Source: Wikipedia

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà
Source: Wikipedia

Nathan, a struggling writer, considers entering Anthony’s real estate business to make money, promising he is serious this time, though his word is rapidly thwarted by his developing relationship with the pink-haired woman, a traditional Vietnamese lacquer artist and gallery owner Le, in the weeks before he is supposed to leave Saigon and move to Hanoi.

“Somehow the mystery of the painting excited him even more than Anthony’s job offer. As he prepared to return to Saigon with the task of wrapping up his life there, the offer paled in importance to the chance he had of getting to know her.”

Anthony, now a successful business owner, husband and father of two small children he can’t communicate with, is barely in control of his rapid success or family life, unsure whether to rely on his friend, though it is clear he needs him for more than just work reasons.

The couples are like the escaped and the escapee, almost doomed from the beginning as they represent that often classic situation of the allure of a foreign culture, where the aims of the individuals are the opposite to each other despite their attraction.

Le has an interview at the American consulate for a visa and has made it clear to Nathan that that is the basis of her interest in him, a fact he seems intent on ignoring, preferring to pursue the illusion of a more intimate relationship.

“How’d it go?” He touched her hand, her arm, her cheek. “You’re still alive, and your body’s intact – all good signs.”

“It went okay,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “It’s hard to tell with Americans. They’re serious but also friendly. I don’t know what’s real. The worst part was dealing with the Vietnamese staff. They look down on people like me.”

It’s an often painful, uncomfortable read as David Joiner makes no excuses for his characters’ flaws and we witness that selfish aspect of humanity in which every person appears to want something from the other yet rarely puts the needs of the other before their own before acting or speaking.

Like a falling trail of dominoes, each person wants something from the next, though rarely is the desire reciprocated, individuals search for that thing just beyond their reach without appreciating what they have at hand. Blindness, illusion, disillusion, the impulse to escape.

It reminded me of a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay A Small Place, on her returning to the island of Antigua where she grew up, after many years of being away.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

David Joiner excels in evoking the sense of being in Hanoi, a city I visited 20 years ago and adored (see my photos above). I was quickly transported back there through his ability to develop a vivid sense of place and found those passages where the action is accompanied by this strong sense of the surroundings captivating.

“In Hanoi the French presence could still be felt, preserved in the architecture and layout, whereas in Saigon the atmosphere still harked back 30 or 40 years to the American era, the notion of aesthetics crowded out by the practicalities of war.”

I was shocked to find myself at the final page, an abrupt ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and likely to provoke discussion about the mix of post-war opportunity, life in foreign cultures, immigration, freedom and entrapment, capitalism and whether and or how it is possible to overcome the clash of cultures within a relationship.

Hanoi by Cheong Source: Wikipedia

Hanoi by Cheong
Source: Wikipedia

Just Like Tomorrow by Faïza Guène

How Can Life Be So Bad When You’re Living in PARADISE?

Kiffe kiffeI came across Faïza Guène’s  Kiffe kiffe demain translated as Just Like Tomorrow by Sarah Ardizzone, a french contemporary novel for young adults, via a wonderful blog A Year of Reading the World that is being turned into a book*.

Ann Morgan, inspired by the arrival of the multitude of athletes who came to London for the Olympics, decided to read a book from every one of 196 independent countries.

Each country presented a challenge, with only 3% of books in the UK being translated, she had to call on the help of her network and followers to find an English translation for many locations.

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène

Faïza Guène is a young screenwriter who, after being involved in a local community project, began directing her own films. Born in France of Algerian parents, and growing up in a northern suburb of Paris, she writes from the heart of a challenging suburb, in a part of the city that few from the outside know about and about which little is written in literature.

Fifteen-year-old Doria lives alone with her illiterate mother, abandoned by a father who is seeking a younger, more fertile wife in his birthplace, Morocco. The story follows Doria’s unadulterated thoughts, which for most of the narrative are quietly despondent yet noisy with attitude. She is not prone to drama, although she observes it around her, as if from within a bubble and provides a running commentary on everything in her mind,and on the page.

Peppered with teenage slang, suburban Franco-Arabic dialect, the voice is unique and easily conjures an image of what life must be like for Doria, as she waits to be thrown out of school and pushed into a career she has no desire for. Her low expectations of life make the small gains she and her mother make all the more pronounced and the humour all the funnier.

What Mum really likes watching on telly in the evenings is the weather forecast. Specially when it’s that presenter with brown hair, the one who tried out for the musical The Birdcage but didn’t get it because he was over the top…So there he was, talking about this huge cyclone in the Caribbean, and it was like oh my days, this crazy thing getting ready to do loads of damage. Franky, this hurricane was called. Mum said she thought the western obsession with giving names to natural disasters was totally stupid. I like it when Mum and me get a chance to have deep and meaningful conversations.

It is a slice of life, coming of age story, of a second generation teenage immigrant living her life far from the images of the city of Paris that come to mind for most of us. It is a book that has been widely translated into other languages and offers a unique insight into teenage life for those on the fringe and an excellent alternative to the more well-known French literature out there.

*Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.

A Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan’s Extraordinary Journey

Kunsang Dolma might have had a more ordinary life, if it hadn’t been her turn to be the family representative at the annual ten-day prayer session at their local village temple when she was 15 years old. An event peripheral to that obligation changed the path she was on, which would have been an arranged marriage to a local boy and raising children to help with the farm work. For those of us reading it however, this is no ordinary life, but an insight into an ancient culture and one courageous woman who survives its harshness, revels in its deep, spiritual wonders and travels outside all that she knows to become the wife of an American citizen.

A Hundred Thousand White StonesThe consequence of that event sets her on the path towards becoming a Buddhist nun, something she had previously considered but had been rejected by her parents, so she and a friend decided to run away from their village to ensure it happened, without parental consent.

While she doesn’t remain a nun all her life, ironically the second major turning point in her life that moved her away from being a nun towards marriage and a life in America was not dissimilar to that which motivated her action towards pursuing a monastic life in the beginning. This is a true story, however I am reminded of all those turning points in the life of the fictitious character Ursula’s in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the significant power that one event can have to alter the direction of a young woman’s life.

Tibetan farmersKunsang shares her upbringing with a quiet, practical, honest voice and it is a childhood and adolescence we see as difficult, though in the context of where she lived, a small Tibetan village, it was quite like many other villagers and something she now looks back on with appreciation and an incessant longing, having left it all behind. It is in leaving a difficult way of life and family behind us, in making it no longer attainable that the deepest yearning for that which was willingly fled, is often felt.

Her parents married at 15 which is not uncommon, however they were unable to conceive until they were 28 years old, something that came as a relief as being farmers, children are essential to their survival as future workers. Kunsang was the youngest of 8 children and by the time she was born, there were sufficient children to manage the farm work; it was this fact that enabled her to have an education.

At the time, there was no birth control, so after thirteen years without a child, it looked like they definitely weren’t going be able to have any children, which are essential to help with work on the farm. My father’s sister already had two kids and felt sorry for my parents’ situation, so when she was pregnant a third time she told my father, “Look, this is my third child. I’m going to give him to you.” The baby was twenty-two days old when my parents took him home. After that, my mother started to have her own babies. My parents always thought that my adopted brother Yula had brought them good luck.

Tibet mapKunsang eventually makes a pilgrimage to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama and during her time here she meets her future husband, narrating the heart-breaking, tedious administrative process they must overcome to be together and the struggles she will face even when they succeed. It is a moving story of a life we can hardly imagine and a journey that crosses many boundaries most of us will never have to traverse, to hike over terrain while risking one’s life, to encounter a revered spiritual leader, create a way to support oneself financially in a foreign country alone and to raise your children in yet another country which will become their home, but never yours.

CIMG3772Reading stories like Kunsang’s is not just an eye-opener into another culture and way of life and another way of dealing with life’s issues, it invites us to practise empathy and patience in the way we interact with foreigners in our own country. Kindness and compassion are there in abundance if we choose to offer them to others and it is stories like Kunsang’s that motivate us to want to extend it.

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

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 Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Like many readers, having enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, I was looking forward to reading her next work. Rather than referencing Olive Kitteridge, which this book has very little in common with, The Burgess Boys arguably has more connections with Strout’s own life, growing up in small towns in Maine, studying law and moving to New York city.

The Burgess BoysJim and Bob Burgess also have little in common except that they both studied law and moved to New York, one achieving notoriety, the other not. Their younger sister Susan never left Shirley Falls, Maine; they are now all late middle age, the trajectory of their lives influenced early on in childhood when Bob(4) and Jim(8) witnessed the death of their father as the car they were in, with their younger sister in the back, rolled forward down the family driveway and killed him.

Two thirds of his family had not escaped, this is what Bob thought. He and Susan – which included her kid – were doomed from the day their father died.

The two boys leave their hometown to pursue careers in New York city and have little to do with their sister, until a thoughtless act by her teenage son Zach, lands him in trouble with the police and the law and looks set to incite racial tension among the citizens of Shirley Falls and their Somali immigrant community.

He thought of all the people in the world who felt they’d been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

Prior to the family drama Jim’s star was in the ascendant, he could do no wrong, however an indulged ego wins few favours long term and his good fortune risks changing course.

It is a story of family ties, separation, isolation, of fear and its consequence and the challenges of an evolving community, how newcomers don’t always bring out the best in their hosts, requiring as they do, new understanding and acceptance.

It was an uncomfortable start for me I admit, taking on a story that portrays a small town’s varying and little embracing of an immigrant community and the committing of a disrespectful act against it’s religious beliefs is fraught with danger in itself. Topical perhaps, but difficult to accurately or sufficiently portray balanced points of view.

Somali USStrout presents the family dilemma and while giving them an audible voice, keeps somewhat at a distance from the community Zach Burgess has upset, though at least she does not go so far as to incite the aggrieved community to inflame their response. But the story lacks something for having touched on a community in such an indignant way and failing to give them much of a voice,  the one exception stretching the imagination in authenticity a little too far.

Abdikarim, who had attended only because one of Haweeya’s sons came running to get him, saying his parents insisted he come to the park, had been puzzled by what he saw: so many people smiling at him. To look him straight in the face and smile felt to Abdikarim to display an intimacy he was not comfortable with. But he had been here long enough to know it was the way Americans were, like large children, and these large children in the park were very nice.

Not knowing much about Somali immigration to the US, I found these two articles helpful, particularly the former in it’s comparison between US and European immigrants.

What Makes Somali’s So Different? – an interesting article by Michael Scott Moore on the subject of Somali immigrants to the US.

A ray of hope – Somalia’s Future – an analysis by The Economist in Feb 2012 on the future within Somalia itself.

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