In Another Place, Not Here- Dionne Brand

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“They thought that the time would come when they would live, they would get a chance to be what they saw, that was part of the hope that kept them. But ghostly, ghostly this hope, sucking their jaws into lemon seed, kiwi heart, skeletons of pawpaw, green banana stalk.”– Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here

If a favourite poet writes a novel, I’m probably going to read it, especially when the poet is Dionne Brand. I’m writing this review very soon after reading  Brand’s non-fiction book, “A Map to the Door of No Return“, and I’m seeing her experiences and thoughts on immigration, identity, the diaspora, colonialism etc in that book, displayed in this book.  Prior to this I’d only read a few volumes of her poems; in prose form, she is just remarkable and this is a beautiful, intricate book. It did take me a while to get used to the language but once I got into the flow of things it was wonderful.

This book is set in Ontario, Canada and an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly Grenada?). The main stories are those of  Elizete and Verlia. Verlia immigrates to Canada as a teenager, becomes a member of the black power movement in 1970s Toronto, then goes back to her island to try to ignite a revolution there with the exploited sugarcane workers. She meets and becomes lovers with Elizete, who eventually moves to Canada herself. The women’s lives as  immigrants in Canada were very difficult and transformative. When Verlia moves to Sudbury, Ontario to live with her relatives, her observations of whiteness as a black immigrant to Canada were quite interesting. She witnesses and questions the assimilation approach of her aunt and uncle and how this is toxic and seems to result in their emotional death. As immigrants are we supposed to embrace whiteness? Verlia decided she didn’t want to:

“They are imaginary. They have come as far north as they could imagine. And they have imagined themselves into the white town’s imagining. They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them. Swell her uncle’s heart. Wrought the iron in Aunt Idrisse’s voice.”

This book made me think, and at times it touched on personal thoughts or the many stories I’ve heard about from fellow-immigrants:  immigration isn’t easy. The tough life of a single, black female immigrant in 1970s Canada must have been even tougher. Brand is honest with her portrayal of Canada, and how others often perceive it in a way that sugarcoats very real issues:

“Except that everyone is from someplace else but this city does not give them a chance to say this; it pushes their confusion underground, it wraps them in the same skin and slides them to the side like so much meat wrapped in brown paper.” 

In this Brexit era  when so many immigrants hear the phrase, “Go back home”, it’s a good time to understand why certain immigration patterns even happened. Often people rarely take into account history and how damaging and pervasive the ills of the Empire have been. There’s a realization by so many of us that there is no place where we can be truly free because of history and neocolonialism.

I appreciated this book for  highlighting the  traumatic experiences of immigration. There were several passages that were heartbreaking because they spoke to loneliness, depression, confusion, waiting…:

“She was working edges. If she could straighten out the seam she’d curled herself into, iron it out like a wrinkle, sprinkle some water on it and then iron it out, careful, careful not to burn…”

 “She has too much to tell. That’s the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe.”

“She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back from wherever the pieces had gone skittering. She had deserted herself she knew, given up a continent of voices she knew then for fragmented ones.”

This is definitely a book I think will appeal to many. It’s beautifully-written, very thoughtful, and gives a voice to Caribbean immigrant women in the big city in Canada.

 

 

 

 

Beauty is a Wound- Eka Kurniawan

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“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.”- Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

This book has one of the best, most memorable opening sentences I’ve ever read. And it definitely set the stage for one of the most compelling and engrossing stories I’ve read in a long time. Over 500 pages of prose and I enjoyed every page. Even without having any knowledge of the history of Indonesia, I loved it.

Indonesia seems to have had a turbulent history of colonization, first by the Dutch, then the Japanese. I find the same theme in a lot of novels that focus on colonized subjects who become involved in proxy wars:  confusion over what exactly is happening:

“Look,” she said to another woman next to her, “they must be confused by two foreign nations making war on their land.”

I’m always a fan of anyone who writes compelling, multi-dimensional women. This book traces the history of  Indonesian-Dutch prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their characters are written so well. It’s a complicated family history, complicated even further by wars, colonialism, communism, independence struggles, and love. In addition, fairy tales and legends are mixed in to this funny yet tragic story.

 

I like stories that focus on small communities like this. Imagine being part of a community that you were born and raised in, one where everyone knows you and makes room for you because they know they have no choice but to put up with you since migration isn’t a common practice. Something Elizabeth Alexander wrote in her “The Light of the World” has always stuck with me, something regarding African societies (told to her by her late husband) about how the village always makes room for everyone, including the mentally ill, and I saw that in this book; people adapting to each other.

Kurniawan is a great writer, really exceptional. I enjoyed the way he presented Indonesia’s history in a fictionalized account, making it accessible, as well as interesting and educational.. I had no idea, for example, that Indonesia had a history with communism:

“Comrade Salim admitted that he was not a good Marxist, that he didn’t understand all that class theory yet, but he was fairly certain that injustice had to be fought in any way possible. There are no Marxists in this country, he said, but there are plenty of starving masses, who work more than what they get for it in return, who have to bend their knees every time a big man appears, who know nothing expect that the only way to be free from all of that is to rebel.”

I already touched upon the compelling female characters in this book. Cynthia Enloe wrote a bit about brothels in Asia during World War 2 and the Vietnam war and it was something I’d never really thought about before but it was interesting to see that although war is often in the masculine domain , there is a lot about the involvement of women that isn’t considered or that is glossed over. We know women and children are always the biggest victims in war and this book at least lends some warmth and a richer narrative to the stories that aren’t often mentioned, those that are seen as peripheral to the war. This line, “The colonel came to believe that the brothel built up his men’s morale and was good for their fighting spirit…”,  reminds us of how women are used in times of war.

 

Indonesia as a locale for this story was interesting: the dichotomies of native Indonesian vs. Dutch, interspersed with some magical realism, myths, humour and wit, bawdiness, as well as great insights, made the story really come alive. Also, to me the history seemed to be very much like that of many countries where the needs of the people are quite basic, yet are still out of reach due to bad governance:

“Long ago he had heard an imam in the mosque talk about heaven, about rivers of milk that flowed at your feet, about beautiful ever-available virgins, nymphs, about everything being there for the taking and nothing forbidden. All of that seemed so beautiful, really too beautiful to be believed. He didn’t need anything as grandiose as all that–it would be enough for him if everyone got the same amount of rice. Or maybe that wish was really the most grandiose wish of all.”

Prepare to be shocked, outraged, and delighted.

The Woman Who Read Too Much- Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

“If one were to believe her highness, the whole country was on the verge of revolution, with women deploying an artillery of inflammatory prose, wielding books like bucklers, and taking up pens as if they were swords.” Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, The Woman Who Read Too Much

Most of my favourite fiction books have a strong feminist element. This is the kind of book I adore; stories of women refusing to accept traditional or patriarchal values and vowing to live the lives they wish to lead regardless of society. This account is of a woman in Iranian history, a woman who “read too much.” The title reminded me of the Stefan Bollman book, “Women Who Read Are Dangerous/ Les Femmes Qui Lisent Sont Dangereuses.” The woman who read too much was the poetess from Qazvin, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, who challenged the status quo so spectacularly, so much so that it made her seem dangerous to those in power, and she was eventually put on trial for heresy.

In this book reading too much was just reading, plain and simple. This is Iran in the 19th Century, and religion as well as patriarchy hid the roles and voices of women in historical events. This book presents voices of other women who were somehow involved in the poetess’ trial for heresy:

“But by the time she was arrested in the first winter of the young Shah’s reign, both her admirers and detractors were forced to agree that none of the traditional names of womankind could sum her up. She was admitted to be the calamity of the age.”

You can’t help but be reminded of how women have often been the scapegoats in history. In this time period, the Shah’s regime was experiencing famine, public executions, tortures, and treason trials. But a woman who reads and teaches other women to read will be the talk of the town instead of some of the more heinous events taking place.

In the end, reading meant more than just reading words in books; it also meant reading people, situations, and circumstances. And the more I learn about literacy being denied to certain groups over time, the more amazing it is for me to see how some people are so determined to share this gift because they know it’s a gift and can be so freeing. Literacy is seen as dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, as it always has been, but the people who withhold this knowledge are the ones who are dangerous to me:

“The prisoner in the Mayor’s house was teaching women how to read and write far more than poetry. She was showing them how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history, how to decipher motives, inscribe actions, interpret the world. She was giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.”

“They listened as she told them how languages and marriages were bridges, merely, between man and woman, tongue and ear; how they were the means by which to build, in which to house, on which to raise new meanings between human beings. When a marriage was faithful, it gave birth to poetry, she concluded. If not, it was a dead letter overnight.”

This is my second book by the author and she paints such a wonderful story of one woman who made a difference and left a lasting legacy that might not have been so obvious at the time. Highly recommended!

“If there were daughters, sisters, wives in these pages, it’s only because we cannot be read whole. We come to the last chapter split in parts, Beloved; we come scattered in fragments, torn. There is no such thing as a complete woman in this world.”

The Natural Order of Things- António Lobo Antunes

“A labyrinth, my friend, a veritable labyrinth, just think of all the surprises in a labyrinth, there were even tree roots in the tunnels, trees are even worse than teeth, which reach through our gums to our ears and neck, as we all know, but we look at a tree and never dream how far it goes in search of the deceased and the world’s silence that sprouts as fruit on its branches.”– António Lobo Antunes, The Natural Order of Things

“Labyrinth” is the perfect word to describe this book’s structure and storyline.  Antunes is an amazing writer and I’ve already made a vow to read more of his books. He’s not an easy read; he definitely requires your full attention but it’s so worth it.

I’m always excited to come across a writer who writes in a style that I’m not familiar with, and this book fit the bill. It has a dreamlike quality and it’s a story that reveals itself over time. It was definitely reminiscent of Proust due to its stream of consciousness style, and also its focus is on memory. Structurally, this book is very different; its very long sentences are further complicated by surrealism and sentences being divided up, the first half of the sentence being the thoughts of one person in one time and place, and the second one by another in another time and place, and you get an idea of how tricky this book might be to read.

The book’s focus is also on history: personal history and world history, communism in Portugal, mining in South Africa, things happening in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. There’s a lot of travelling back and forth between time and place,  and it’s very clear that for many, their past and present are intertwined:

“There are those who fly in the air and those who fly under the earth, although they’re not yet dead, and I, daughter, belong to the latter group, having flown at a depth of a thousand feet with a lamp on my forehead, surrounded by blacks, in the tunnels of the Johannesburg mines…”

I do wish I had some Portuguese history knowledge, at least as much as I do of Portuguese influence in Southern Africa. What I did pick up on was the discussion on colonialism, communism, war, migration, and how people in general are often pawns and never really were appreciated for their sacrifices:

“Look around and all you see is indifference and selfishness, the way people have treated me, for instance, assaulting me on the street, insulting me, calling me a murderer and a scoundrel, spitting in my face, kicking me out wherever I go, leaving me homeless, penniless, friendless…”

Beautiful writing and imagery throughout, interesting and unique characters, very melancholy too. Ironically, in this book “The natural order of things” doesn’t exist. Highly recommended!

Datura (Or a Delusion We All See) – Leena Krohn

“In the dark recesses of my chest, alveoli perish one by one. How many are there? How many do I need to be able to live and breathe? How little I know of the ceaseless workings of my insides—a space where thrombocytes float to the beat of my still-hot heart.”- Leena Krohn, Datura (Or a Delusion We All See)

I picked up this book because of the Tori Amos song and for not the first time I’m really pleased with one of my impulse reads. I can definitely say I was hooked from the first page.

This was an interesting about an asthmatic woman working for “The New Anomalist”, a magazine focusing on the esoteric and weird. Her job is to look for strange stories in her city, and it leads her to encounter the strangest people:

“Sometimes we got messages from “Otherkin,” people who didn’t think they were humans, but other forms of life.”

To add to the strangeness in her work life, she is given a datura plant for her birthday and starts experimenting with the seeds. Over the course of the story we have a case of an unreliable narrator who is possibly hallucinating, but we also an interesting look at reality.

“Datura” revolves around flowers and plants, and also the Voynich manuscript, a currently untranslated manuscript, which adds even more mystery to this book:

“The Voynich manuscript is an odd book, but then again, all books are odd…Many times I’ve found myself thinking of writing in general, books, their meaning, the way in which they exist. I ask myself what writing actually is. How the personal changes into the public, and why it must be so.”

There was so much  beautiful language in this book, I can only imagine how beautiful it must read in Finnish:

“There are moments when everything is new, as if seen or heard for the first time, even language, words that I’ve read a thousand times. People, landscapes, items, even books. Now and then I stop at a familiar word as I read, and all of a sudden it amazes me, and I savour it like a new taste. For a fraction of a second I hesitate: what does the word refer to, does it really signify anything at all?”

Additionally, there was the interesting discussion of plants, in particular the ever-present datura:

“I hope you understand that plants, too, are conscious. The consciousness of plants resembles human dreaming. That, too, is consciousness.”

The previous line interested me because in the book Braiding Sweetgrass,  the author explained how in Native American culture, it is widely known that plants do communicate and have consciousness. It seems to be a case of Western science (finally) catching up with indigenous knowledge.

“We don’t actually know what plants really are. We think they are passive, weak, harmless. What a delusion! The earth holds no greater power than the energy of the plant kingdom. Mankind’s clumsy dabbling on the earth cannot compare to such creativity.”

I would definitely recommend this book. Not only is it a quick read, it’s a very interesting one too.

Masks- Fumiko Enchi

“The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume.”– Fumiko Enchi, Masks

This is my first book by a female Japanese author. The ones that come after Enchi will have a lot to live up to. The book started off slowly but it soon held my interest and was quite surprising in some ways despite its subtle tone.

I don’t know much about Noh plays but it was clear that the use of masks was a metaphor for hiding one’s true self. In this case, the secrecy is evident in the bizarre relationship between the widowed Yasuko, and Mieko, her 50-something year old mother-in-law, who seems to be manipulating Yasuko, plus the two men who are in love with her. We spend the entire novel trying to get to know more about Mieko:

“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face of a No mask, wrapped in her own secrets.”

This book is shrouded in mystery which is made even more fascinating by discussion of spiritualism, and the love triangle between Yasuko and her two suitors. There is curiosity about whether Mieko is controlling Yasuko’s spirit, this fact even questioned by Yasuko herself:

“Not I, Mother. It’s you who like him—somehow, time and again, your feelings seem to take hold of me. This is not just some crazy excuse; so many times I’ve found myself doing things that don’t make a bit of sense—and every time, without fail, I feel you there in the background, manipulating me like a puppet.”

I enjoyed the literary critique of a section of “The Tale of the Genji”, which I’ve never read before, regarding female shamanism. I think the book can in part be seen as an analysis of the Japanese woman, both in more modern times and in the olden days. I’m not sure if much has changed, at least according to Enchi; women are seen as manipulative, jealous etc. At the same time, I think Enchi allowed us to see how multi-faceted her female characters were, which is something I always appreciate in literature. Not only are women multi-faceted, apparently they are sort of enigmas too, unknowable to the male characters:

“Children—think what endless trouble men have gone to over the ages to persuade themselves that the children their women bore belonged to them! Making adultery a crime, inventing chastity belts…but in the end they were unable to penetrate even one of women’s secrets.”

In the end all these ingredients leave us with is a story that is so compelling, interesting and shocking. I’m also left with the desire to read “The Tale of the Genji.” I’m sure with that book under my belt, and more knowledge of Noh plays, I’ll rate this book higher.

The Sabi- Diane Brown

This is an autobiographical work,a coming-of-age book of the author, Diane Brown, that depicts her struggles as a black woman trying to navigate a racist Apartheid society. This book includes a history lesson that is very important to know, especially to someone like me who had never really questioned how Apartheid came about.

Born in the 1960s, a decade of so much change in the world, the author stresses the importance of knowing one’s history:

“The winds of change were blowing over Africa too and over a period of eight years between 1960 and 1968, thirty two countries gained independence from their European colonisers.”
This book puts you in the skin of a black woman growing up in Apartheid South Africa. Not only that, it helps to show how the abuse children and women experience has its roots in the evil system. Brown did not shy away from discussing the violence and abuse. This is a story that makes you wonder of the immense number of stories on racism out there.

I so appreciated the honesty, the candour, the exploration of themes that are so important to discuss, themes that are often swept under a rug in Africa and in the rest of the world. Issues like colourism and hair texture are talked about. Some shocking things like the “Pencil Test” to test racial purity made me shake my head in disbelief, though I have heard about the “Paper Bag” test in some American sororities.

I enjoyed this book because instead of taking all the stuff that happens to her and all that she has to witness, the author tries to understand the reasons these things happen. The self-awareness seems to be something that is continuing until this day:

“But as I have grown I have come to realise that there are contradictions, dualities and surprises in us all. That each of us always and already has the ability to be both demon and angel, that we can have incredible strengths and display weaknesses in the most bizarre forms, that we can be dull and boring but also creative and intriguing. Mostly I have become aware that all or any of these abilities can be revealed at any time. It is like we are ticking time bombs waiting for life to present us with situations that allow each of these to be manifested.”

And I must say, for me personally this is one of the strongest quotes in the book, one I can relate to on a very personal level:

“What always first defined you was the colour of your skin. It didn’t matter that I loved to sing, had a good knack for languages, had an incredible memory for things I deemed important or that I loved being alone. All other characteristics both internal and external were secondary or, more precisely, invisible, always subject to what colour you are.”

The realities of race are something many of us cannot deny. I love books like this that don’t shy away from being honest about the struggles when many people want for us to believe that we live in a postracial world (the “I don’t see race” folk). Although Brown’s book is mainly about Apartheid, so many of the issues she detailed are very much with us today, just look at Ferguson, Missouri:

“The truth is that when you grow up being or feeling less than, you have to work so much harder at everything, just to get to par on the golf course of life. When you start at the first hole, you are already eighteen over par, and to make it, just to keep up, you have to sink birdies and eagles. To really win, even a par score on any one of the holes is just not good enough. You can try many courses, work very hard for very long, employ tremendous spells of concentration, practise hard for hours each day, endure hours in the blazing sun; and it is never good enough. And then one moment in your very tiring lifetime you realise that it requires too much effort, the decks are stacked too heavily against you. It is time to stop playing the game, or get busy changing the rules of the game.”

Not the easiest of subject matters to get through but very very important for us to acknowledge racist histories and the legacies they left behind.