Fairytales for Lost Children- Diriye Osman

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I often dream of home. It is a place that exists only in my imagination: it is my Eden, my Janna. Sometimes I associate it with my father, my mother, my grandmother, my sister, all of whom have rejected me, all of whom I still love…Other times I regard Somalia, my birthplace, as home, as the land where my soul will eventually be laid to rest. Many times home is Kenya or London. But none of these places truly embody home for me. Home is in my hair, my lips, my arms, my thighs, my feet and hands. I am my own home.- Diriye Osman, Fairytales for Lost Children

2017 hasn’t been a great year for me writing review-wise. I’m embarrassed  to say that the last time I wrote a review on my blog was in December 2016. However, on that note, I’m happy to begin my reviewing of 2017 with a book that  encompasses so many of my interests, and also reminds me why we need diverse books, and why the representations of POC in the diaspora are going to have to be more complex.

In the short stories in Fairytales for Lost Children, Osman’ discusses the African (Somali) diaspora, sexuality, and tradition, among other themes ( at this point, if you haven’t already figured it out, it’s probably good to mention that these fairytales are not for children! There is plenty of sexual content in them). Other important themes include  love, breakup, tragedy, and family.

One of my favourite stories was the titular “Fairytales for Lost Children” which featured the kind of teacher I wish I’d had in primary school: Miss Mumbi:

 Even Story Time was political. Miss Mumbi infused each story with Kenyan flavour. She illustrated these remixes on the blackboard. ‘Rapunzel’ became ‘Rehema,’ a fly gabar imprisoned in Fort Jesus. Rehema had an Afro that grew and grew…Her Afro became so strong that it burst through the fort.

I really like reading about different diasporas, and this book gave me a lot of info about the Somali diaspora, particularly in Africa and the UK. A couple of the stories speak to living in limbo:

Every day I asked Hooyo, “When’re we heading home?”

“Soon,” she’d sigh, ‘Soon.”

The precariousness of life for groups in the diaspora was definitely very poignant, and it makes sense that the word “fairytale” is in the title, because fairytales can be an escape from the tough realities of life. One reality is not being wanted by the society one lives in:

My waalid may have reinvented themselves but to the booliis we were still refugee bastards who sucked on Nanny State’s iron teats until there was nothing left for her legitimate children.

Sexuality is definitely a huge theme, and all the protagonists in the story are gay. This allows Osman to explore their relationships with their more traditional and conservative environments.  There was one excerpt that talked about  how in Somalia being gay is likened to being possessed, mentally unstable, and there are stories were gay Somalis are disowned by their family. But the reality is there are gay Somalis, and those like Osman are working hard to share their stories and experiences:

The Prophet once said that dreams are a window into the unseen. I have been told many times by family, friends, colleagues and strangers that I, a black African Muslim lesbian, am not included in this vision; that my dreams are a reflection of my upbringing in a decadent, amoral Western society that has corrupted who I really am. But who am I, really? Am I allowed to speak for myself or must my desires form the battleground for causes I do not care about?

What I’ve found about being part of the African diaspora, and what Osman also managed to illustrate (focusing on queer characters) is how the diaspora is a tricky space to inhabit and navigate. There’s always the question of deciding how to create one’s identity when straddling two or more cultures. Definitely a great collection of short stories to give me a glimpse into how others in the diaspora live.

On a sidenote, I enjoyed looking at Osman’s artwork in his book; it’s wonderful:

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There is plenty of gorgeous photography on his website too:  http://www.diriyeosman.com/

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The Big Sea- Langston Hughes

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In Topeka, as a small child, my mother took me with her to the little vine-covered library on the grounds of the Capitol. There I first fell in love with the librarians, and I have been in love with them ever since–those very nice women who help you find wonderful books! The silence inside the library, the big chairs, and long tables, and the fact that the library was always there and didn’t seem to have a mortgage on it, or any sort of insecurity about it–all of that made me love it. And right then, even before I was six, books began to happen to me, so that after a while, there came a time when I believed in books more than in people–which, of course, was wrong. That was why, when I went to Africa, I threw all the books into the sea.- Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

I love Langston Hughes so much. He was the first poet I felt I could really relate to on an emotional level. As I have a habit of reading books out of order I accidentally read his second autobiography years ago first. So from meeting Hughes as a mature and established writer, poet, and traveller in I Wonder as I Wander, I went backwards and met him as a teenager starting off on his career. It was a fun read, a funny one at times. I always love to learn about how writers, poets, artists etc are made. Hughes, from his writing, seems like such a personable man and it was fun to read about his adventures: how will he survive in Paris with no money? What will happen to him after he gets mugged in Italy? Will he ever get into university?

His travels were really interesting, and reading about them and the influence he got for writing, was quite cool. He wrote his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while on the train looking out onto the Mississippi and thinking about what the river had meant to African-Americans, and that led him to think about other rivers in Africa.

Hughes visited Africa before the continent gained its independence and I liked reading the old names and spellings of the countries:

“Along the West Coast we visited some thirty-two ports, from Dakar in Senegal to Loanda in the South. The Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, Lagos, the Niger, the Bight of Benin, and the Slave Coast, Calabar, the Kamerun, Boma up the Congo, where we moored to a gigantic tree, and our last port, San Paolo de Loanda in Portuguese Angola.”

The black literati in in the 1920s is such a fascinating topic to me. Apart from accidentally reading books in order, I also have the gift of somehow knowing which books to read in tandem that will increase my knowledge. While reading this, I was also reading Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night”, and it struck me how differently the black and white Americans living in France lived. Fitzgerald’s Americans were privileged and knew it; Hughes’ Americans (and himself) seemed more real.

The Harlem Renaissance introduced us to Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurstom, Countee Cullen, among others. It was the time Hughes says “the Negro was in vogue”, when black books, plays, and music were in high demand:  

It was the period (God help us!) when Ethel Barrymore appeared in blackface in <Scarlet Sister Mary! It was the period when the Negro was in vogue

To end this review, here’s some great advice Hughes was given by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay:

Do not let any lionizers stampede you. Hide and write and study and think. I know what factions do. Beware of them. I know what flatterers do. Beware of them. I know what lionizers do. Beware of them.

 

My 2016 in Books 

I love books. I hope when I grow up to be able to have lots of them.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, aged 15

So the final figures for this year are 125 books read, considerably less than last year. I read 18 poetry collections, 30 non-fiction, and the rest were fiction.

This year was my year of reading Toni Morrison and I  read a Morrison every month in chronological order. I managed to keep up with writing a review a month until the autumn, but with my new job I’ve had less time and energy for reading. Next year I’ll write a more detailed post of my findings and experiences through this journey.

2016 was a tumultuous one for several reasons. It was hard to focus sometimes but poetry always comes through in hard times, and I read a lot of it. Some of my favourites were Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz’s New and Collected Poems,  Marge Piercy’s The Crooked Inheritance, and  Mahmoud Darwish’s Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? And for those who missed it, earlier on in the year I compiled a list of diverse poetry. You can find it here

I found some great diverse graphic novels, for example Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, the Aya series from Ivory Coast by Marguerite Abouet, and Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan series.

I usually read a lot of biographies , and although this year I only read a few, I managed to find some good ones. My favourites were both 5 star reads. Mohammed Ali’s The Soul of a Butterfly was a good one to read after his death and be reacquainted with his legacy. And Grace Jones’ I’ll Never Write my Memoirs  is one of the most fascinating reads I’ve ever come across.

Reading women’s literature is so essential and I’m glad I’ve made a conscious effort to read more of it over the past few years. Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Maryse Condé and Ntozake Shange are women I read a lot of this year and they gave me so much strength.

I also read some good Black satire from Nigeria: Igoni Barret’s Blackass and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; they are definitely worth reading.

I’m still finishing up a few reads that I’m really enjoying, for example, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor (RIP), So Long Been Dreaming (Eds. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan), Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K.  Le Guin.

Some of the great non-fiction I’ve read this year has included Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, The Media is the Message by Marshall McLuhan, and The Deep Zoo by Rikki Ducornet.

My ten favourite reads, in no particular order, are:

The Gathering of Waters– Bernice McFadden

The Sympathizer– Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Blue Castle– L. M. Montgomery

Dreams of Trespass– Fatima Mernissi

Beauty is a Wound– Eka Kurniawan

-The Big Sea- Langston Hughes

A Map to the Door of No Return– Dionne Brand

-A Small Place- Jamaica Kincaid

Sassafras, Cypress, & Indigo– Ntozake Shange

Woman at Point Zero– Nawal El Sadaawi

Next year I plan on continuing my theme of the last few years of reading more diversely and reading more women writers. I also plan on exploring  sci-fi more, and reading a lot of Lucy Maud Montgomery as I really enjoyed her this year. 

Thanks to everyone who reads my blog and engages with me on twitter and Goodreads, you are all very much appreciated<3 Wishing you all a great 2017. Happy reading!

The Sympathizer- Viet Thanh Nguyen

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I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

I attended a panel last year where Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Shilpi Somaya Gowda were discussing the theme of home in their writing. For immigrants home can be a touchy subject but clearly it can produce great literature.

And this one example: only a person who is from the culture, or who has a connection to the culture, could write something like this with such nuance and insight. I find it intriguing how satire and humour is used to tell tough stories and I am impressed by how well Nguyen does that in this book.We all know about the Vietnam war and have probably seen some horrific images from there, but Nguyen uses satire to tell us the story and it works really well in a way I can’t quite put into words right now. I laugh at Nguyen calling 1975 Vietnam a “jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States”, though I can see how awful that reality must have been.

Nguyen’s protagonist was interesting too, as a half-French half-Vietnamese communist agent, who was both an insider and an outsider. I appreciated the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite belong anywhere, who, because of his peripheral position in society, gives such insight to both Vietnamese and American culture.  It brought to mind the unique perspectives minority writers bring to their writing, the nuances they can pick up that others might not be able to:

“Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs! Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience, feeling the constant tug-of-war inside you and over you, between Orient and Occident. ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, as Kipling so accurately diagnosed”.

Nguyen picks out racial microaggressions and western hypocrisy without naming them as such, and then proceeds to show us how ridiculous they are. He makes observations that are incisive and hilarious:

When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job.

It’s really a fascinating novel that deserves all its accolades.

Something  I remember from the panel is that Nguyen was discussing censorship in Vietnam and how  a publisher in Vietnam wanted to translate the book into Vietnamese. As Nguyen said, “I’d be surprised to learn that I’d published a novella!” His great sense of humour was what led me to read this book and I’m so glad I did.

White is for Witching- Helen Oyeyemi

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 “I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read–I tell you where you are. Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look.”- The house in Helen Oyeyemi’s “White is For Witching”

Although I bought an Oyeyemi book a few years ago, this is actually the first book of hers that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it although reading the review from the Toronto Star that referred to Oyeyemi as a “kin of Morrison” really rubbed me the wrong way as very lazy and misleading because Oyeyemi’s writing is really not like Morrison’s at all and it’s clear to me that she’s carved her own niche and did so well.

This was a great story, one which I admittedly found it hard to follow at first. However, it’s a story I was rewarded for not giving up on. There is a very unusual stricture wherein a new character starts speaking IN THE MIDDLE OF A SENTENCE! I personally found this brilliant after I got over my initial confusion. Once I got used to that quirk and realized that more like it were coming, it was a fun read. It’s essentially a neo-gothic storyline featuring a demented house which is one of the characters in the book, a pair of strange twins, the spirit of a deceased mother, and a Nigerian housekeeper who watches Nollywood movies. It has some contemporary storylines that focus on refugees and immigration detention centres in England:

You come without papers because you have been unable to prove that you are useful to anyone, and then when you arrive they put you in prison, and if you are unable to prove that you have suffered, they send you home.

I’m really looking forward to reading more from Oyeyemi, i don’t think I’ve ever come across a writer like her, and as young as she is it will be great to see how her craft develops. Definitely recommended.

Tender is the Night- F. Scott Fitzgerald

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After lunch they were both overwhelmed by the sudden flatness that comes over American travellers in quiet foreign places. No stimuli worked upon them, no voices called them from without, no fragments of heir own thoughts came suddenly from the minds of others, and missing the clamour of Empire they felt that life was not continuing here.- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

Fitzgerald has an absolutely beautiful way with words. He uses very stylized language and writes down some profound thoughts. And that’s what tricked me at first into thinking this would be a profound story. Like in The Great Gatsby, his characters are not likeable and just seem so disconnected from the world. It’s quite interesting reading Fitzgerald writing about American life in France, including black riots, at the same time that I was reading Langston Hughes The Great Big Sea: the contrast between the lives of black and white Americans in France in this period is huge.

This is a story about rich Americans in the French Riviera. The story revolves in part around Dr. Dick Diver, charming man, the ultimate host and object of adoration of teenager Rosemary, an upcoming actress, who Fitzgerald describes thus: “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood–she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.” Attraction between the two is immediate, despite the fact that Dick is married.

I was raving about this book at first. Fitzgerald is an amazing writer and I think that his writing style initially blinded me to the flatness of the plot. The last thing I want to read is a book about privileged shallow and selfish rich people who are not introspective and just do whatever they please, but when Fitzgerald writes passages like the following, it makes it a bit easier to stomach, and fills you with hope that the characters in the book will say things you actually want to hear:

“Following a walk marked by an intangible mist of bloom that followed the white border stones she came to a space overlooking the sea where there were lanterns asleep in the fig trees and a big table and wicker chairs and a great market umbrella from Sienna, all gathered about an enormous pine, the biggest tree in the garden. She paused there a moment, looking absently at a growth of nasturtiums and iris tangled at its foot, as though sprung from a careless handful of seeds, listening to the plaints and accusations of some nursery squabble in the house. When this died away on the summer air, she walked on, between kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve-stemmed roses, transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window — until, as if the scherzo of color could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid-air, and moist steps went down to a level five feet below.”

But they didn’t. And after part 1 of the book, which I quite liked, which at least promised more, parts 2 and 3 fell extremely flat; I was completely let down.

Part 1 of the book was basically rich people in Paris and the French Riviera, having parties and going shopping. Everything seems perfect but on the surface you are aware that some things are waiting to reveal themselves.

In part 2 we find out what’s wrong and there is discussion of mental illness which I thought was quite candid and progressive for that time. Diver is a psychiatrist who is an admirer of Freud, so there is an interesting dialogue about psychology in this book. When we learn about how Diver met his wife, I was slightly disturbing, to be honest. Diver’s character was the most complex and I’m still  not sure how I feel about him. He has a predilection towards young women and patients and although I felt this book was quite progressive seeing as it discussed mental health in the 1920s, I just couldn’t, in the end, get past the superficial and superfluous characters.

The Moon and Sixpence- W. Somerset Maugham

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“Art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand.”- W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

I’d only ever read one Maugham before this (“Of Human Bondage”) but even with just that one read I could tell Maugham was a very special writer and destined to be one of my favourites. I picked up this thin book thinking it would be a quick, simple read, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth and profundity in it. There is a lot going on in this little book, lots to think about.

Reading the back of the book you’ll know that the main character in this book, Charles Strickland, was modelled after Paul Gauguin. There’s no way I would have guessed that for most of the book, until Strickland/Gauguin moved to Tahiti. Even without knowing much about Gauguin’s life, this book was interesting as it took us on a tour of his life, done by a narrator who operates as an unofficial biographer, taking us through Strickland/Gauguin’s life from England to Paris, and finally Tahiti.

Strickland is an awful person and extremely misogynistic. It’s been a while since I’ve read such an odious character in literature. I despised him:

“He was a man without any conception of gratitude.  He had no compassion.  The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.”

It was surprising to witness how the passion in Strickland seemed to remain dormant for years but eventually caused him to act like a man possessed and completely re-evaluate his life as that passion needed an outlet:

“That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the pattern of life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of a placid rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures and shaded by pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vasty sea; but the sea is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, that you are troubled suddenly by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps it is only by a kink in my nature, strong in me even in those days, that I felt in such an existence, the share of the great majority, something amiss. I recognised its social values, I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously. I was not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals if I could only have change — change and the excitement of the unforeseen.”

Gauguin comes up a lot in discussions on primitivism and orientalism, and reading up on his time in Tahiti really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. The discussion on place and how we might be searching for a place where we are free to be really spoke to me, but Gauguin being himself meant taking child brides in the tropics, and that reminded me of the fact that Europeans had/have free reign in some parts of the world all due to their perceived power.. But still, the idea that we can be perceived differently in different areas, and therefore be more suited to one area than another, is interesting:

“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

It’s hard to summarize this book without bringing up the racist language. There were quite a few racial epithets which, I’m not sure spoke of Maugham’s insensitivity to different races, or just that he was reflecting the language and sentiments of the time. Either way, they were  shocking, and I could have done without them.