Monday, August 16, 2010

Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy

Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy
Harper Collins, 2010

And it's a story that I think hasn't been told before": that’s how Nadifa Mohamed describes her first novel,
Black Mamba Boy in this video.

Maybe that’s a tall order for a novel in 2010. And, then again, maybe not.

Consider this. In 1990, the Columbian Ministry of Culture set up an itinerant library, whereby donkeys carted practical tomes on agricultural techniques, water filtration, veterinary medicine, and sewing patterns to serve distant rural populations. The books were made available centrally to villagers and, after a time, they were swapped out for new selections.

Each of these loaned books was returned properly when it was time for the exchange, until one village refused to return one book: The Iliad, which, eventually, was given to them to keep. “They explained that Homer’s story exactly reflected their own: it told of a wartorn country in which mad gods wilfully decide the fate of humans who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be killed.”*

Maybe the characters in Black Mamba Boy would believe Homer’s story exactly reflected their own. In fact, you can easily imagine Nadifa Mohamed’s characters in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan making the same claim that the Columbia villagers made. And certainly this debut novel tackles epic themes (although I haven’t read The Iliad straight through, so I can’t offer more direct parallels than the villagers’ comments).

Nadifa Mohamed tells her father’s story through Jama: “I am my father’s griot, this is a hymn to him.” A griot is a wandering poet and storyteller, who is considered a repository of oral tradition in African countries, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Mohamed’s tale begs to be read aloud from the first page.

The attention she pays to descriptions that encapsulate a scene, the scarce bits of direct dialogue, the long phrases that follow one another like bread crumbs through the woods: I read more than half of this novel aloud, which also slowed me down, and I think that’s a good thing because despite the swath of time this novel covers, this prose doesn’t want to be rushed.

You would want to take your time anyway if the setting was unfamiliar, and there’s a map at the novel’s opening to help you place the characters and the events of the story. (Actually, I would have found a glossary helpful too, but I realize it would have put off some readers, and I managed okay without it.) Here’s a sample of the way that Nadifa Mohamed brings the land to life:

Djibouti was low-down and hot, it looked even more barren and fearsome than Somaliland and the few trees that dared exist held up their arms in defeat. Rocks cracked open in fifty degree heat. The earth was bleached white and the few comforts that the Somali desert shyly held out, blossoming cacti, large matronly bushes, lush candelabra euphorbia, were here maliciously denied. The air had a corruption to it, a mingled scent of sleaze, sweat and goat droppings. (79)

In some ways, however, the novel’s themes traverse geographic and cultural boundaries. For instance, above all, Jama longs for his mother and father, for a place to belong.

“Jama looked up at the sky, beside the moon was a bright star he had never noticed before, it flickered and winked at him. As Jama squinted he saw a woman sitting on the star, her small feet swinging under her robe and her arm waving down at him. Jama waved to his mother and she smiled back, blowing shooting star kisses down on him.”

“All those promises his mother had made about him being the sweetheart of the stars looked to him as if they would finally come to pass. He was going to be a normal boy with a real father, he wanted his father above anything else in the world, he was becoming a man and needed a father to light the way. Jama had so many questions for Guure. Where did you go? What have you being doing in Sudan? Why did you not come back for me? Jama felt ready to explode; his sentence was finally over.” (99)

But Jama’s sentence is not over; one hundred pages — one third of the way — into the narrative and, really, his search is just beginning. And, although it is epic in nature, although the tale strikes universal chords, what Nadifa Mohamed says is true: Jama’s story has not been told before. She explains that experiences like her father’s are “often written about but very rarely have their perspective represented” and she has brought that to Black Mamba Boy.

* This anecdote is relayed in Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (230), based on a personal interview conducted in Bogotá May 25, 2001. If you have one (a library), and don’t have a copy of this one (Manguel’s book), you should get one (978-0-676-97588-8). Right now.

PS I originally posted this to Buried In Print.

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song
Hamish Hamilton, 2010

When I picked up my copy of The Long Song from the library, I hadn’t read any of Andrea Levy’s novels (this being her fifth), so I didn’t have any expectations.

That changed when I read the first paragraph, and almost immediately, because its first sentence is just the sort that I love: “The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.”

See, this reminds me of some of my longtime-favourite quotes. Like this from Dionne Brand: “Writing is an act of desire, as is reading.” And this, from Nicole Brossard: “Reading is food.” (There are more bookish quotes if you browse the tabs above.)

So that first sentence of The Long Song made me smile. Yes, it definitely did. But not in a comfortable way, because this could be the magic of a good first line. No, I was smiling, but in a nervous way, like I’ve just been introduced to someone that someone else thinks I’ll really like, but I’m not entirely sure yet and the pressure is on.

And then I read: “My mama had a story — a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son.”

Now, I realize that this conceit is not to everybody’s taste, but I love the Dear Reader convention. I love to be addressed, to have the space that is traditionally reserved for me be openly acknowledged. (Still quote-hungry? Here are some on that very subject.)

So my smile eased into something more comfortable. And, then, a few pages later, I find: “Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.”

Yes, please.

“Go to any shelf that groans under a weight of books and there, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold, will be volumes whose contents will find you meandering through the puff and twaddle of some white lady’s mind.”

No twaddle, thanks. This here is just fine. And more, please.

But then, halfway through the novel.

“And this is why I can go no further. This is why my story is at an end. For I know that my reader does not wish to be told tales as ugly as these. And please believe your storyteller when she declares that she has no wish to pen them. It is only my son that desires it. For he believes his mama should suffer every little thing again.”

:: insert remembered moment of reader’s panic ::

Don’t worry: I told you, it’s halfway through the novel. She keeps on with her story and I’ll be keeping on with Andrea Levy. Terrific storytelling!

What do you think of the Dear Reader approach? Do you find it welcoming or irritating? Have you read any of the author’s other novels or do you mean to? Do you have a particular favourite?

PS I know I’ve hardly said anything about the story but I don’t believe that anybody could tell it better than she did. Andrea Levy’s website offers details and an extract if you need more.
SPS I originally posted this to BuriedInPrint.

Eleanor Catton`s The Rehearsal

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008)
McClelland & Stewart, 2010

I felt like a teenager when I started reading this novel. I’d switched purses seasonally and forgot to transfer my housekeys, so I ended up sitting on the front porch for a few hours waiting for Mr. BIP to come home.

I forgot my keys a lot when I was a kid, so if I hadn’t already been a reader, I probably would have become one from the need to fill time whilst waiting for someone to come home and let me in.

I often stopped at the school library or the local library on my way home from high school, and I always had reading material at hand, and I had luckily stopped at the public library that afternoon for The Rehearsal, so my porch-sit was actually quite enjoyable.

(Actually, it was all the more so because I couldn’t possibly feel guilty for reading because I really had no other choice, not being able to get in to do the myriad of chores that I’d actually planned to do when I got home). It was a beautiful near-summer day and I pulled a bag of pistachios from my purse and nestled into the cushioned chair to read more than 250 pages — before heading down the block for an iced americano and the use of a pay phone.

It was a comfortable set-up, but not a comfortable read: Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal captures adolescence and coming-of-age-ness with an unflinching honesty. The complexity of her characterization is almost overwhelming at times and, appropriate to her characters’ world-revolves-around-me lifestage, everyday events and exchanges are observed and analyzed with a peculiar intensity.

“It is a mark of the depth of their wounding that they are pretending they suspected it all along. Everything that they have seen and been told about love so far has been an inside perspective, and they are not prepared for the crashing weight of this exclusion. It dawns on them now how much they never saw and how little they were wanted, and with this dawning comes a painful reimagining of the self as peripheral, uninvited and utterly minor.” (59)

It’s spot-on, isn’t it. Belonging and alienation, identity and searching, importance and insignificance: these are contrary times. The varying perspectives, the constant shifts in focus that underscore the larger question of what is real and what is portrayed, what exists and what is performed: it’s disorienting.

But “…you must start with a thing itself, not with an idea of a thing. I can see what I am holding in my hand. I can see its weight, its shape and its texture. It doesn’t matter if you can see it yet or not: the important thing is that I can.”

The Head of Movement at the drama school explains this, but I’m pulling it out to demonstrate that the same is true of Eleanor Catton: it doesn’t matter if you can see it or not, she is up to something, right from the start.

The novel begins with alternating segments told from the perspective of schoolgirls (including Isolde, whose sister Victoria has been implicated in a scandal/crime/pantomime involving the jazz band teacher Mr. Saladin) and their saxophone teacher; the second chapter adds drama classes to the first’s music classes, fleshing out ::cough:: another layer to the performance theme. And this? This is the straightforward part.

If you enjoy literary fiction not just for a good story, but because you like to marvel at the way in which a good story can be constructed?

If you read literary fiction not just because it raises questions and gets your readerly-ness spinning, but because the degree of spin is sometimes so disturbing that you lose your reader’s centre and are forced to reset your own understanding of narrative truth?

If you like the idea of spending more time talking about a book than you’ve actually spent reading it, even though you might end up less sure about some aspects of it when you’re done talking than you did before you started?

Then I think you would enjoy The Rehearsal. (I do enjoy a good puzzle myself, and the layers in Catton’s novel are fascinating, but it was my interest in coming-of-age novels — and the number of years I spent in music classes as a kid — that sealed the bookish deal.)

Why else might you want to read Eleanor Catton’s debut novel? Well, as Stanley says “Because if somebody’s watching, you know you’re worth something.” And there are a lot of people watching Eleanor Catton. The reasons for that are twofold, I’d say. [Note: Rehearsal inside-joke.]

PS This was originally posted at BuriedInPrint and I just realized that I should have been cross-posting those reviews here too.