Archive by Author

Amazon Review

22 Apr

Chris Abani’s GraceLand is the story of sixteen-year-old Elvis, a Nigerian teenager living in Lagos in 1983 who wants nothing more than to be an Elvis Presley impersonator. That summary alone is what got me to pick up Abani’s novel, but what is even more impressive than Elvis’s characterization is the cultural and worldly scope in which Abani crafts Elvis’s story. While the novel maintains a close third-person perspective on Elvis, Abani uses an omniscient narrative voice that can sneak its way into the minds of even the most peripheral characters. In this way, Abani tells the story of a country through the story of one of its children; even though his hopes and dreams may be out of the ordinary, they are – at their basest level – the hopes and dreams of a country.

The non-chronological story telling method Abani utilizes functions as a spiral. I like to picture a conch shell while thinking of the novel now, the winding walls becoming narrower and narrower as the story closes in on itself. The dramatic presence takes place in Lagos in 1983, after Elvis and his estranged father, Sunday, have moved from their small village into Maroko, a Lagos slum. Every alternating chapter brings us back into the past, starting with Elvis as a five-year-old little boy and moving all the way up to his present so that both times eventually meet, in an almost seamless fashion. Within these time shifts, Abani also includes excerpts from Elvis’s mother’s diary – recipes for traditional Nigerian dishes and identifications of different plants and roots that can be used to cure maladies. Along with these recipes is the history of the kola nut ritual, an ancient tradition rite that allows a family to see what kind of adults their children will become. By including both familial artifacts and cultural lore, Abani widens the scope of Elvis’s story so much so that Nigeria becomes more of the protagonist, rather than Elvis.

The wide cast of characters surrounding Elvis is a strong showing of both characterization and storytelling. The two most memorable are Sunday, and Elvis’s close friend, Redemption. Abani could have created Sunday in the clichéd vein of abusive fathers, but he does not; rather, Abani gives Sunday humanity, and in doing so, makes him all the more tragic. There is a quiet scene where Elvis realizes he has called Sunday “Dad” for the first time. This recognition is heartbreaking in both Elvis’s realization of this fact and in his father’s resignation to his failure as a parent. The end to Sunday’s story, then, carries even more weight than it would have without that small, little scene.
Redemption is a firecracker of a character, bringing energy into every scene he occupies. He is akin to those characters in movies or on certain television shows that, even though they may not be main characters, take over every scene that they are in. He is the force that pushes Elvis into new and dangerous situations, and he is also one of the only characters that never truly leaves Elvis behind. He is a stunning creation, and I greatly admire Abani’s drawing of him as a character.

I have two complaints regarding GraceLand. One is where the female characters are concerned. While Elvis is surrounded by strong women in his past – his mother, his grandmother, and his aunt, among others – they disappear as his journey progresses. I felt a bit cheated, like the male characters were more developed and the female characters functioned as sources of tragedy or of frustration. I would have liked to see Abani do more with them. The other complaint I have is the novel’s length. While it is a sweeping, dramatic story, I truly believe Abani could have told just as powerful a story in a novel that has a hundred less pages.

GraceLand is original, emotional, and visceral. It is a portrayal of a boy forced to grow up too fast, and of a country forced into turmoil, violence, and hope.

Abani, Chamoiseau, and the Shifting Point of View

12 Apr

I hope this is okay, but I’m going to continue on my “theme” of comparing Texaco and Chris Abani’s GraceLand. The stylistic and thematic similarities are too prevalent to ignore. In that vein, the point of view shifts that are disrupting in Texaco – appearing in the middle of a paragraph, or right after the thoughts of another character, say – these perspective shifts are less disrupting, but just as noticeable, in Abani’s novel. Even though the book mainly takes place from an omniscient third person perspective on the protagonist, Elvis, the point of view in which Abani writes the story suggests a more “universal” perspective.

What I mean by this – and I think it’s relevant where Texaco is concerned as well – is that Abani wants to tell the story of a people, rather than the single story of a teenage boy. He could have put the novel in first person, but he chose to use an omniscient third, suggesting that, even though the story may most closely follow Elvis’s journey, his story is not the only one that needs to be told.

Further, the switches in point of view present in Chamoiseau’s novel abound in Abani’s novel as well. The reader will clearly be hearing Elvis’s thoughts, and will be following him on his tour with the King of the Beggars, say, or to his friend Redemption’s house; but suddenly, Abani will switch to what Elvis’s father is doing and thinking, or to what his stepmother is thinking. These switches are not only physical, but mental as well; Abani chooses to include descriptors such as, “she thought,” or “he was worried.” In doing this, Abani asserts that while Elvis may be his protagonist, the narrator is the main voice of the story, and his/her voice is able to tell the story of every character that populates Lagos.

Chamoiseau, Habila, and Structure

5 Apr

I keep going back to the way Patrick Chamoiseau structures Texaco – the inclusion of diary/journal pages, the subtitled sections, the altering points of view – and how this structure is both completely different but also similar to the way Helon Habila structures Oil on Water.  Both structures do work in authenticating the stories Chamoiseau and Habila are telling.

In Habila’s case, the narrator is a journalist; his journey both mirrors his own personal story, as well as his journalistic discoveries. We talked a lot in class about the use of fog, how both its physical presence and metaphoric presence conceal reality from the reader and the narrator. By telling Rufus’s story in a non-linear fashion, Habila emphasizes this inability to see clearly until one moves closer to the source; but even when Rufus delves further into the story he is pursuing, there remains mystery – a “fog” – that cannot be dissipated by the truth.

Chamoiseau’s structure does similar work. While Habila uses non-linearity to his advantage, Chamoiseau uses varying techniques in order to keep the reader guessing – and to keep the reader invested in his story. I’m most struck by the diary/manuscript/journal pages, and how they are not only included in the story, but are also archived in a way as to increase their authenticity. Chamoiseau does not just drop the excerpts into the story; he chooses to label them in a way that gives the reader an informative edge. For example, on page 148, there is an excerpt from the urban planner’s notes to the “word scratcher,” archived as “File No. 6. Sheet XVIII. 1987. Schelcher Library.” This level of detail stops the reader in the dramatic present of the story and makes him or her stop to consider where this piece of evidence fits in. It is a discovery and a journey, much in the way Rufus’s story is as well.

This structure is also of special interest to me in regards to the novel I’ve chosen for my Amazon book review. Chris Abani’s GraceLand includes recipes and proverb-like epigraphs that on the one hand, seem to have no decipherable purpose in the story, but on the other hand, seem to say more about the protagonist and his family. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, and it’s one I’m intrigued by moving forward for the final paper.

Oil on Water, the Nomad, and the First Person Point of View

26 Mar

Although her essay “Postcolonial Despotism from a Postmodern Standpoint: Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel” focuses on a different novel by Helon Habila, Ali Erritouni makes claims that I believe apply to Oil on Water. One of the things that most interests me regarding Oil on Water is how Habila chooses to write the novel from a first person point of view, even though the novel deals with an issue plaguing an entire country. Erritouni writes that Habila belongs to a third generation of Nigerian writers, the first and second generations being more concerned with political conditions in Africa, while these third generation writers focus on “nomadism, exile, displacement, and deracination.” Erritouni states that Habila shares traits from all three generations of Nigerian writers, claiming that Habila views revolutionary violence as just as futile and destructive as colonialism.

What I find interesting about Erritouni’s ideas in her essay compared to the point of view Habila uses in Oil on Water is that the narrator, Rufus, is a completely neutral character. Although he harbors anger over his sister’s severe burning due to an oil fire in his village, he does not voice approval over the rebels kidnapping the wife of a British oil executive. Rufus is a journalist – he is objective in his view of the world. Erritouni reveals that the main character of the Habila novel she focuses on (Waiting for an Angel), is a journalist as well. I discovered in an interview that Habila did with PBS that he also worked as a journalist for some time. The first person perspective becomes clearer to me: Habila wants to present objective views of the issues in Nigeria. He wants his readers to see both sides while still feeling the horror of these experiences through a narrator who has experienced them himself.

Erritouni writes, “For Habila, given its lack of restraint and the means of violence at its disposal, the masses cannot hope to prevail against the despotic state.” I find this claim to be true: Habila uses Rufus to show how what the rebels do is just as bad as what the “despotic state,” the oil companies, do to the Nigerian people. Erritouni sees Habila conceiving “the intellectual” as a nomad, rather than “the nerve-center of her society.” I also see Rufus fitting into this description. He has been a nomad for the majority of his life, leaving home to complete an apprenticeship, and then going off to journalism school. His career as a journalist inherently makes him a nomad, and his identification with Zaq increases these nomad-like tendencies, as Zaq is always on the move, roaming the world. Rufus is not the “nerve-center” of his society, as Erritouni claims, because Rufus is the one who must tell his society’s story. He is its eyes and ears, rather than its heart.

The Female Characters of Conrad and Salih

1 Mar

On Tuesday in class we talked a lot about the unreliability of the characters in Season of Migration to the North, as well as the novel’s connection to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While these connections are important, I think it is even more important to recognize the different ways in which both authors portray women. In Conrad’s case, women are either inconsequential to the reality of the world, or are portrayed as animalistic and barbaric. Kurtz’s “intended” is spared the truth of his fate by Marlowe, while his lover in the wilds of the Congo is merely described as a fearsome and awe-inspiring being – inhuman, in other words. But the traits applied to his white and “civilized” fiancée give her the same inhuman qualities as well. Because she is a woman, she is not important enough to hear the truth of what colonialism has done to Kurtz.

In the case of Salih’s novel,  women are given more agency, and are seemingly left in charge of their own fates, while still nevertheless remaining under the control of the male characters. While the narrator is uncomfortable making decisions for Hosna, Saeed’s widow, his own personal desires get in the way of allowing Hosna to make her own decisions. Hosna reminds me of Kurtz’s intended: she remains fiercely faithful to Saeed even though the evidence of his many affairs with English women is prevalent. This difference is important, though, because while Kurtz’s intended remains in the dark over the true nature of his demise, Hosna takes charge of her own fate and kills her new husband and herself because she swore never to remarry after Saeed’s death. Even though the female characters in both Conrad’s and Salih’s novels function more as points of antagonism rather than actual three-dimensional characters, Salih’s characterization of Hosna eventually leads the narrator to veer from his path of becoming a mirror image of Saeed. In this way, the narrator sees the truth through Hosna, whereas Marlowe hid the truth from Kurtz’s intended in order to preserve her original feelings for him.

Physical vs. Mental Aspects of Race

22 Feb


Fanon’s White Skin Black Mask draws some interesting connections between self-identification and race. I was especially intrigued by Fanon’s delineation of race as this sort of physical burden that one cannot get away from when it is so stigmatized. Fanon writes, “I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance.” Here, Fanon separates the mental from the physical; he claims that he is a “slave” because of the physical appearance he cannot change. The idea of him as a living, breathing individual is not so easy for others to oppress because there is nothing so different about him from them. Because of the color of his skin, the ideas of others can enslave him. I found this dichotomy fascinating because of how Fanon proves that certain “ideas” are respected because of the physical representation they come from.

Another passage I highlighted is, “Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness.” I’m not entirely sure I grasp the full meaning of Fanon’s words, but because of their complexity and the unusual idea they are getting at, I keep going back and re-reading them. What I think Fanon is trying to say is that our perception of our physical body negates the idea of thinking about our physical body in the first place. He says it is a “third-person consciousness,” which I take to mean as some sort of outer-body thinking that is not the same as consciously recognizing one’s own soul. These are deep ideas to get at, especially concerning what we’ve been discussing in class this week. I found it interesting to compare Fanon’s ideas with these lines from Cesaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”:

My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against

the clamor of the day

my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s

dead eye

my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral

it takes root in the red flesh of the soil

it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky

it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience.

Here, Cesaire defines his pride in his race not as a physical object in nature, but as an idea that takes root in nature and persists “with its upright patience.” Both Cesaire and Fanon see the mental image of race as persisting over the physicality of race. The physicality is what everyone sees, when what everyone needs to see is the way that people think.

The Colonizer as Zombie-Maker

8 Feb

Sandra Drake makes some really interesting observations regarding Caribbean culture and Antoinette’s “reanimation” at the end of Wide Sargasso Sea. She writes, “Antoinette’s ‘real’ death is not a demented suicide in the flames of Thornfield Hall…Her ‘real’ death is her subjugation by Rochester – by the colonizer – the long slow process of her reduction to the zombi state.” I find this fascinating, the idea that Jean Rhys not only creates an entire story for an admittedly minor but important character in Jane Eyre, but she also recreates her story so that even though she dies, Antoinette is, in fact, reborn. In class on Tuesday, we talked about what Rhys had changed about the original text in order to adapt her own; I think this may be one of the biggest changes, the idea that Antoinette may be better off in death than she was in a life that did not completely belong to her.

Drake also states that the “zombi” state, as it is known in Caribbean culture, is not permanent, but can be reversed. Drake compares being a “zombi” to being colonized – the person or group who is taken over becomes robotic and unemotional because their own culture has been taken away from them. When Antoinette sees her red dress in her prison-like room at Thornfield, then, she is reawakened to the idea that she does not have to live like that – like a prisoner in her own body.

Thinking about zombies in this way is totally different from any other type of zombie I have seen portrayed in movies or on television. The fact that the person who is “zombiefied” can still recognize aspects of his or her old self makes the whole state seem like something that can be prevented. If Antoinette had refused to be called by a name that is not hers, or if she had refused to travel to England, would she have lost her culture and, in doing so, lost herself?

Time and Civilization

1 Feb

Author’s note: I apologize if this sounds like nonsense!

Fabian’s concept of time and Said’s ideas behind imperialism fit together almost seamlessly. Also adding in Conrad’s claim in Heart of Darkness that the idea behind imperialism redeems it, these three men establish a cycle of time and conquest that seems to thrive on a vague perception of superiority. I was really struck by this particular statement in “Culture and Imperialism”: “How we formulate or represent the past shapes our understanding and views of the present.” In this quite simple idea, Said establishes that our own understanding of the past “shapes” our own view of the current time. What I find interesting about this is that all of this is cerebral, rather than physical. Looking at imperialism and colonialism, I immediately think of the physicality of such ideas. But then again, imperialism begins with an idea, so even though it requires the physical exertion of traveling to a place and enforcing new ways of life, it is nonetheless an “idealistic” pursuit.

So if I think about Kurtz in Conrad’s novel, and how his ideas have consumed him to the point that he has become something less than human, I start to wonder how Conrad meant this transformation to be perceived by his readers. Did Kurtz go insane because he got too close to the “native” way of life? Did imperialism itself cause him to lose his mind? Or maybe Fabian’s concept of time has something to do with it. Perhaps Kurtz lost himself in time because without anyone to “wake him up” or give him some sort of reality check, any ideas of civilization went out the window. Maybe time is what holds our “modern” way of life together; maybe without a logical way to count the seconds and minutes and hours, and without a way to label past, present, and future, we would all be floating in some kind of dark abyss.

I am rambling horribly.

Achebe, Conrad, and Language

25 Jan

I was really struck by Chinua Achebe’s observation that Joseph Conrad attributes little or no language to the African natives in Heart of Darkness. Rather, Achebe asserts, “Language is too grand for these chaps; let’s give them dialects!” It is true that the few lines uttered by African characters are heavy with dialect; however, I don’t necessarily agree with Achebe that this denotes some sort of inherent racism in Conrad. To me, this lack of language (or this imposed silence) represents another aspect of imperialism: those colonized were not given a voice and were not, therefore, considered to be human.

Achebe makes a great argument in attempting to prove the underlying racism of Conrad’s novel; all of his examples and observations enhance his point. But I again go back to this issue of language, which comes at the very end of Achebe’s essay, and I can’t help but wonder what Conrad meant by this lack of dialogue for the African characters. Is it purely a stylistic choice? Is it saying something about the lack of voice given to the people of the usurped countries? Or is it, as Achebe asserts, pure racism? I can’t see it as any of those things, but also don’t see this ambiguity as a partner in the bigotry Achebe sees in Heart of Darkness. Conrad is a product of the time he lived in, so his views and opinions would stem from the views and opinions of his lifetime. Maybe Conrad’s lean on dialect – and his lack of any other types of dialogue – is his way of characterizing imperialism, as well as his own ignorance.

The writer Roxane Gay recently wrote a blog post about writing difference. It’s really insightful, and I also think it’s something that pairs nicely with our readings for today. Take a look: