A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

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Decolonising the Mind- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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“Education, far from giving people the confidence in their ability and capacities to overcome obstacles or to become masters of the laws governing external nature as human beings, tends to make them feel their inadequacies, their weaknesses and their incapacities in the face of reality; and their inability to do anything about the conditions governing their lives.”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind

I’ve never seen colonialism described as succinctly as in the following passage:

“The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

I read this book with my experiences in Africa, conversations with my relatives and friends, and my education at the back of my mind. Trying to make sense of history and my place in it made this book invaluable to me, and helped clarify and reiterate a lot of things. The more I  read books on Africa, be they about art, language, history, or politics, the more I’m amazed how the continent is seen, in many people’s minds, as a homogeneous  country. This passive thinking really masks the  complexity of issues in the continent. Even without colonialism Africa would have been quite intricate but  colonialism has truly caused mayhem in the entire continent. And in many ways, language is one of the biggest weapons the colonialists used to do so.

I like wa Thiong’o a lot. Not only is he a great writer, but it’s also clear he is a very passionate person with a lot of  love for his country, his continent and his language, and a great advocate for the traditional arts. He is very blunt and I admire that a lot. Nobody is safe from his criticism,  even a few of my personal favourites such as Achebe, Soyinka, Cesaire. In a sense he thinks they were brainwashed for putting the language of the colonizers on a pedestal. I think it’s an interesting argument to be had but it’s hard for me to pick a side because I’m admittedly colonized myself and English-dominant, although it’s not my first language. I found it useful to read wa Thiong’o’s perspective regardless.

And wa Thiongo’s perspective is important. He grew up during colonialism after all, so he, unlike me, had the opportunity to study in his native language and unfortunately had to endure being forced to assimilate into the English language.He details how the British tried to suppress local languages in Kenya, how they arrested those who tried to encourage cultural proliferation, and controlled the gathering of people in places.  He sees the differences in himself and his society before and after English language education was forced on him, and his explanations and insights are very precise and often personal.

wa Thiong’o is very thorough in how he discusses the role of language as a carrier and transmitter of culture, and what happens when that language is taken away from people. This is such a common story, not just in Africa but even here in Canada, and I think we’re beginning to understand just how damaging it is to suppress and devalue language. In what planet does it make sense that a Kenyan student in colonial Kenya would be punished for speaking Gikuyu or Swahili instead of English? Personally I remember how I was often treated better than my cousins just because I could speak English and they couldn’t; I learned early on how language can be elitist:

“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages– that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya– were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment.”

Another great thing about wa Thing’o is how he respects the peasantry (his choice of word). The other day I was reading about the Third Estate in France during the 19th Century revolution and this reminded me of how in Africa the peasantry are the majority, and that’s where the culture comes from. Who makes the oral stories, who upholds the culture? It’s nice to see the peasantry being accredited with maintaining culture and tradition:

“These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa on the whole.”

I was struck  by the violence caused by colonialism. Colonialism was celebrated, and that’s the world I grew up in: gratitude to the colonialists for “rescuing” us. But what we know now is that it was very very violent and the wounds are still there. If, like wa Thiong’o said, in 1984 the president of the West German Federal Council visited Togo in order to celebrate the centennial of Germany establishing Togo as a German colony,”to commemorate not the resistance to colonisation but the glory of colonisation,” then clearly we haven’t learned much and dialogue still needs to be had.

The constant unlearning, the decolonizing, that needs to be done because we were lied to, is something that I thought of throughout this book. And it’s only now that I’m realizing in more detail just how horrific colonialism was, just how much we’ve lost. What I aim to do myself, how I aim to decolonize my own mind, is by reading more of my history. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve been influenced by other cultures so I wonder how far I can be decolonized. This got me thinking about globalization and how that has affected us, I would be interested to hear Thiong’o’s thoughts on this. This is definitely a must-read for everyone, there is so much we don’t know or realize about the impact of the actions of those who came before us, and this is a great start.

Book Launch- Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation

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I attend quite a few talks and discussions and I’d never really thought about sharing my thoughts on them. After tweeting about my most recent event attendance, a few of the people I follow on Twitter suggested I put the information on my blog so that they could have easy access to my tweets on the subject, and I thought that would be a great idea.

On October 7, 2015 Simon Fraser University hosted Yves Engler’s book launch for “Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation.” The mention of Patrice Lumumba in the synopsis completely sold me and I’m glad I attended. I’ve noticed that I’ve always lived in countries whose history and culture has been dwarfed by their more powerful and better-known neighbours; the history of these countries is often not really well-known. This is definitely the case with Canada, a country that is rarely thought of as an offender.  This talk brought to the fore Canada’s involvement in Africa, both in historic and modern terms, and it was quite horrific for someone like me: an African who lives in Canada.

Here is a link to the Storify I made from my Tweets, and also screenshots of the tweets are below:

Y.E. part 1 Y.E. part 2 Y.E. part 3 Y.E. part 4

And a link to @dtseghay’s great, personal book review: Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation

China Men- Maxine Hong Kingston

 

“You fix yourself in the present, but I want to hear the stories about the rest of your life, the Chinese stories. I want to know what makes you scream and curse, and what you’re thinking when you say nothing, and why when you do talk, you talk differently from Mother.”– Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men

Maxine Hong Kingston is a great storyteller and this was like no other book I’ve ever read before. It’s a patchwork of fiction, non-fiction, myths and legends, and historical artifacts that helped to shape the story of what it must have been like for her male Chinese ancestors in North America.

This book is about the immigrant experience and how the Chinese leaving their homes in China in hopes of a better financial future, found ways to make their new land their own. As most of us have read so many immigrant stories we can often guess what these stories will bring: frustration, hardships, racism, homesickness, and so on. I think the history of the Chinese in North America is quite unique because of the sex ratio disparity which meant that in many places there were very few Chinese women. It was interesting to see how the men were creative in their own lives, upholding cultures and traditions, far away from home and from their wives, children, and other relatives.

The way the Chinese were treated in the States wasn’t new to me, and they experienced similar treatment in Canada. It was interesting to compare and contrast the experiences.

The language factor definitely contributed to how poorly the Chinese workers were treated, and the frustration was evident in this book:

“How was he to marvel adequately, voiceless? He needed to cast his voice out to catch ideas.”

The frustration also came about to their being exploited by the overseers. The Chinese workers were treated terribly; hard work, dangerous work, the slowest being sent home without pay as an “incentive” for the others to work hard.

I enjoyed how myth was used in the book, how stories from China were transported and taken to another land, to a land that wasn’t theirs initially, but was soon stained with their blood. Myths were also used by the writer to fill in parts of her ancestors’ stories that were missing

One thing that’s similar between the Chinese history in America and in Canada was the building of the railroads:

“They lost count of the number dead; there is no record of how many died building the railroad. Or maybe it was demons doing the counting and Chinamen not worth counting.”

In Canada, they say for every mile of the railroad, one Chinese man died. I visited the Last Spike of the Canadian railroad (Revelstoke, BC) on a Rocky Mountain tour a few years ago. The tour guide, who was Chinese-Canadian, told us a bit about the history  and then directed our attention to the painting commemorating the opening of the railway. We searched in vain for a Chinese face. This is one of the reasons I feel our cultural history has to be taught, to show us we belong in a place that might still look at us as unwelcome strangers. The following line must surely be powerful to a Chinese child:

“Once in a while an adult said, ‘Your grandfather built the railroad.’ (Or ‘Your grandfathers built the railroad.’)”

 

The Last Spike of the Canadian Railroad in Revelstoke, BC
The Last Spike of the Canadian Railroad in Revelstoke, BC
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A picture commemorating the Last Spike

I loved this book so much. It’s one that definitely warrants a re-read.

 

 

 

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down- Alice Walker

The more I learn about black-, especially African-American history and culture, the more I understand how great Walker’s writing is and how well she uses her fiction to impart knowledge. Sure, stories are meant to entertain but in Walker’s case they are also clearly written to educate. Every single one of these stories taught me something. For that reason I think of Walker’s short stories as essays, in a sense.

Walker discusses lots of topics, including difficult ones such as interracial relationships, abortion, and pornography. Perhaps some of those topics aren’t for everyone (and a few of the stories were quite explicit) but if there’s anyone who can handle such topics, it’s Walker. I get the feeling that Walker weaves in some of her own experiences in her stories because quite a few of them did seem to have a semi-autobiographical feel.

As the title suggests, the main topic of this book is women, in particular black women. One of the most interesting stories was “Nineteen Fifty-Five,”  which was about an older black woman who sold some of her songs to a white male singer. Walker managed to address so many things that I’ve been thinking about art and appropriation, and she also got me thinking about the disparity between group needs and what people from other groups (race, class, gender, etc.), think they want; this is something that she illustrates quite well without explicitly stating it as such.

I know a little about the history of black music in the States and of how it has often been appropriated. Yet, the whole point about art is that it’s supposed to come from within, from our experiences. But so much art has been appropriated anyway:

“Everybody still loves that song of yours. They ask me all the time what do I think it means, really. I mean, they want to know just what I want to know. Where out of your life did it come from?”

“They want what I got only it ain’t mine. That’s what makes ‘em so hungry for me when I sing. They getting the flavour of something but they ain’t getting the thing itself. They like a pack of hound dogs trying to gobble up a scent.”

The story “Coming Apart” was just a masterpiece. In it Walker uses excerpts of an essay I hadn’t heard of, by Tracey A. Gardner, about the racial aspects of pornography. I’ll let the following excerpts speak for themselves:

“For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave woman enjoyed. But, most telling of all, we need only study the old slave societies of the South to note the sadistic treatment — at the hands of white “gentlemen” — of “beautiful”, young quadroons and octoroons” who became increasingly (and were deliberately bred to become) indistinguishable  from white women, and were the more highly prized as slave mistresses because of this.”

“Because Tracey A. Gardner has thought about it all, not just presently but historically, and she is clear about all the abuse being done to herself as a black person and as a woman, and she is bold and she is cold—she is furious. The wife, given more to depression and self-abnegation than to fury, basks in the fire of Gardner’s high-spirited anger.”

I’m always interested by exotification being a rare minority where I live. In the story “A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring“, the female protagonist realizes that she is constantly being othered;  I could relate so much to that:

“How could they ever know her if they were not allowed to know Wright, she wondered. She was interesting, “beautiful,” only because they had no idea what made her, charming only because they had no idea from where she came. And were they came from, though she glimpsed it—in themselves and in F. Scott Fitzgerald—she was never to enter. She hadn’t the inclination or the proper ticket.”

Like I always say, Walker is one of the bravest and most honest writers I’ve ever come across.And she’s adept at creating multidimensional black women characters. She illustrates black women with agency, and with a (much often denied by society) inner life. For me, a black woman who not so long ago rarely read of black women’s experiences in literature, Alice Walker’s work is so important. Her brand of feminism, womanism, is something I can feel comfortable with as encompassing of the black woman’s experience, which is very often so different from those in mainstream feminism. Additionally, black feminist heroes are included in Walker’s writing and to me that seems like not only is she paying homage, she is also encouraging us to read up on these greats and learn from them. As I learned from doing my thesis, the main way that black women learn is from each other, and from reading black women’s literature as a way to understand their complex identities. Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…I’ll be reading you all soon.

 

 

Corregidora- Gayl Jones

“You asked me how did I get so beautiful. It wasn’t him. No, not Corregidora. And my spirit, you said, like knives dancing. My veins are centuries meeting.”

There are some books that are just so merciless you wonder how on earth the characters even manage to survive all that brutality. But they do and then you wonder how they deal with all that accumulated pain and whether they can live a “normal” life. This book deals with some difficult topics such as slavery, domestic violence, and rape. It also focuses on ancestral memory and orality as a way of passing on stories. Of course with oral culture we pick which stories we want passed on so it might be surprising to learn that the story that the protagonist’s grandmother chooses to tell her is one of rape: the rape of both her grandmother and mother by the same man, the Portuguese slavedriver, Corregidora. You can’t help but squirm when you read that Ursa has been listening to these stories while on her grandmother’s knee since she was 5 years old:

” Her hands had lines all over them. It was as if the words were helping her, as if the words repeated again and again could be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than the memory. As if it were only the words that kept her anger.”

This book focuses on Ursa, the daughter and great-grand-daughter. A blues singer at a local club, the book starts off with tragedy for her at the hands of her husband. The blues are prominent in the book and I’m reminded of Angela Davies and her research on black women, feminism and the blue. All Ursa has are the blues and her beautiful voice which changes after her tragedy:

“It sounds like you been through something. Before it was beautiful too, but you sound like you been through more now.”

Ursa’s flashbacks are full of anger. Why did the grandmother want to keep that tragic story alive? She doesn’t want the story to die and she wants Ursa to “make generations” to carry on the story:

“I’m leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it comes time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up.”

It’s interesting about the body being memory that has been touched on in so many books, it’s even more interesting that Ursa’s memories of her mother and grandmother are perhaps just as strong as her own memories:

“It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”

The story relies mostly on dialogue, both internal and external. The language is often quite graphic and explicit. The language the men in her life use to describe and label Ursa is incredibly misogynistic and objectifying.

The story shows in several ways how our past can affect us. The history of slavery in particular; I can’t even begin to comprehend the pain the slaves experienced, though Gayl Jones did a good job of highlighting some examples.

For some reason I feel this is the sort of book that a lot will dislike but will keep going back to.

The Joys of Motherhood- Buchi Emecheta

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“Yes, life could at times be so brutal that the only things that made it livable were dreams.”– Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood

It’s been a while since I’ve read an African novel that has touched me this much. This is a story that had me transfixed from the start, a tale of heartache, hope, and change. The book’s structure is reminiscent of “Things Fall Apart” in that the early part of the book takes place in an African village that still followed its traditional ways, while the latter half has all the marks of colonialism and the struggle the locals went through to keep up with the changing society.

I’ve always felt that the most fascinating books about Africa are the ones about transitional periods because they offer so many contrasts. Emecheta uses her novel to look at colonialism, an important backdrop to the story of the female protagonist, Nnu Ego, with a critical eye. It was interesting to see the clashes between the African and the British ways; I couldn’t help but imagine what might had been had the colonialists been a little bit more culturally sensitive.

This book is rich with sociological detail. I enjoyed reading about how the migration of Nigerians from the villages into the cities created a complex society. Not only do neighbours speak different languages coming from different parts of the country, the inhabitants have to forget their village ways if they are to remain sane. The realization hits the newcomer (Nnu Ego) to the city that she has to change her ways:

“She had been trying to be traditional in a modern urban setting. It was because she wanted to be a woman of Ibuza in a town like Lagos that she lost her child. This time she was going to play according to the new rules.”

And the new rules are the British colonialist rules. I know colonialism did so much damage in Africa but it’s mainly books like this that help me understand to understand the extent to which the societies changed. Even simple things like the materials used to build a house, or the type of jobs men took to be considered “men” changed with colonialism, and these often had their repercussions:

“Things have changed a lot. This is the age of the white man. Nowadays every young man wants to cement his mud hut and cover it with corrugated-iron sheets instead of the palm leaves we are used to.”

I’m currently interested in the participation of African soldiers during WW2 so I read with interest the portions that described the Nigerian men being forcibly conscripted into the army. They went to Burma to fight yet they didn’t even know who they were fighting, why they were fighting, or where Burma was. That was one of the most upsetting parts of the book for me. When Nnu Ego said, “There is nothing we can do. The British own us, just like God does, and just like God they are free to take any of us when they wish”, I was stunned because the Nigerians, like all Africans at one time in their history, really had no power over their own country.

“It’s unbelievable…Why can’t they fight their own wars? Why drag us innocent Africans into it?”

Soon you realize the title of the book is very ironic. What are the joys of motherhood when your life is dependent on producing children, preferably sons; when you have to share your husband with another woman; when you can’t afford to feed or clothe your children, send them to school? Yet, motherhood was what made an African woman at that time a woman. No other choices were really available to her. She strived to be a complete women,” i.e. women with children.

This book was sad to read on so many levels. I was able to feel the repression Nnu Ego faced as she struggled to be “a full woman, full of children.” I felt frustrated with her at times, sometimes I just wanted to hug her when I could feel how much she was hurting and how few options she had. Emecheta showed the pressure and the strain that women were often under to be perfect, the effect that patriarchy has on women. Perhaps not much has changed.

“I wanted to die, because I failed to live up to the standard expected of me by the males in my family, my father and my husband—and now I have to include my sons. But who made the law that we should not hope in our daughters? We women subscribe to that law more than anyone. Until we change all this, it is still a man’s world, which women will always help to build.”

I definitely plan on reading more books by Emecheta this year.