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.

Amazon review: Moth Smoke

16 Apr

“When the uncertain future becomes the past, the past in turn becomes uncertain.”
― Mohsin Hamid, Moth Smoke

Moth Smoke opens with a court room scene, which is ironically quite a popular setting in vernacular soap operas produced in both India and Pakistan. Early on in the book, we are introduced to the defendant, Darashikoh Shezad (Dara for short), who is accused of killing a boy in a road accident, a crime that we are given to understand he might be wrongly accused of as the novel progresses. Hamid uses multiple narrative voices to move the plot of this crime novel, including those of his best friend Ozi (Aurangzeb), who is the son of Dara’s benefactor, and Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife who has an affair with Dara, and who stands for all that is glittering, upper class, air-conditioned Lahore, a particular echelon of the city that is painted as a center of light in the midst of poverty, sweat and toil. Mumtaz (and her undeniable portrayal as a personification of the city) is symbolized as a candle to Dara as moth—Hence the title of this book.
Dara is shown to us as a middle class man fallen from grace—he is painfully aware that the only reason he had a cushy bank job (as perceived from a lower middle class perspective) was because of the strings pulled on his behalf by Ozi’s father. A tortured conscience prevents him from fully engaging with the corrupt Nepotism that is part of the inflexible reality of Lahore at the time. This is not to say that Dara is without fault: an anti-hero in the Modernist tradition, he is characterized by his listlessness, ennui and general dissatisfaction with life. However, this characterization is a telling choice on the part of the author, considering the time (within the novel) is the summer of 1998, the year of nuclear testing in Pakistan, and a flexing of South Asian geo-political force between India and Pakistan.
Moth Smoke is a narrative set against the backdrop of the tension and ennui experienced by liberal Lahori society at a time when political and military forces pushed the economy into a downturn. The utilization of shifting points of narrative and multiple voices enhances this tension successfully. In addition, having access to the points of view of Mumtaz, Ozi and Murad Badshah enhances our understanding of the world Dara is forced to circle, as the proverbial moth to a flame.
Hamid does a remarkable job of setting up what goes on behind closed doors in Lahore high society. He also informs us how these secret activities affect the law and economy of the city, and the aspirations of the have-nots who live around the Pajero-driving, cordless phone-toting have’s. In this vein, Dara and Ozi are set up for comparison from the start; Dara was always more intelligent than Ozi, but it’s always been Ozi who has been more successful due to his family’s connections. They are old friends with an almost sibling rivalry, a fact highlighted by Hamid’s allusion to the historical Aurangzeb and Dara, brothers and sons of Shah Jahan, a Mughal Emperor whose dynasty’s contribution to South Asian cultural and political identity still echoes in the minds of Indians and Pakistanis who grew up within the British system of education.
This same allusion is actually what fascinates me the most about Moth Smoke as one of the early forerunners of the modern South Asian novel: Hamid very consciously chooses historical names and references to frame this very modern tale (relevant to the entire 2000’s, so far) within the confines of factual history that took place during the time of the nascent East India Company of the 1700s in Mughal-ruled India. This historical period is often considered one of the golden phases of South Asian history, and is discussed widely with a sense of pride across India and Pakistan. In an interview published in Duke University’s Chronicle (2000), Hamid stated that the reason why he chose this particular story line is because he wanted to pull from a moment in history that “bypasses the colonial experience”, which allows the author to direct the reader’s attention away from British Raj themes (ubiquitous in many South Asian narratives) and instead, towards the far more sinister and interesting forces of economic growth & stagnation, capitalist market tendencies and identity crises brought on by class systems in modern South Asia.
Ultimately, Moth Smoke is an ill-fated love story, as well as a Bildungsroman gone wrong in a way that insightfully captures the dysfunction and loss of self-hood experienced by Dara. In doing so, this novel speaks to the anxieties and disparities of a very specific time in the history of urban Pakistan, specifically Lahore, in a manner that many South Asians of my generation can identify with.


The Chronicle (2000) “Mohsin Hamid” Retrieved April 14, 2013 from

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Amazon Review: Disgrace

16 Apr

*This review contains spoilers!*

 In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee artfully navigates the complicated liminal spaces that exist in a world structured by binaries: African/White, old/young, past/future, even living/dead. David Lurie, a shamed Professor of English at a Cape Town university finds himself in the consistently unsustainable position of attempting to live beyond these entrenched oppositions, and Disgrace traces the effects of his resistance. 

 David is an intensely unlikable protagonist – his utter lack of moral compass remains steadfast throughout the novel. When we meet him, he is perpetrating a scandal that will define the trajectory of the novel – at best, it might be called an inappropriate professor/teacher relationship, at worst a series of unapologetic date-rapes. He leaves his University after refusing to accept the terms of his punishment (therapy and perhaps more importantly, repentance) and retreats to the country to live with his daughter Lucy. There, he only gets to live a few weeks of country life before their household is violently disrupted by a break-in during which Lucy is raped by two men. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath – both Lucy’s reaction, and David’s resistance to it.

Certainly, a large chunk of the book deals intimately with the political landscape of South Africa, and in particular focuses on the complicated race relations between the white people and the native Africans. Though this takes place long after Apartheid has ended, Coetzee makes it strikingly clear that history has a way of resisting being laid to rest. The climax of this particular trajectory occurs when Lucy reveals that she has begun to view her rape as restitution: “What if that is the price one has to pay […]? They see me as owing something” (158). This moment in which Lucy allows herself to be subjugated, to submit to a side of oppositions, is the moment in which Coetzee fully realizes the inflexible nature of the system.

 In the last few pages of the novel, Coetzee writes of David’s reflections upon his volunteering job euthanizing dogs: “What the dog will not be able to work out […], what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone” (219). With this quote, Coetzee grasps the heart of the matter that he has spent a novel untangling. Life, or at least the life that he describes, takes place within that brief liminal period. Nothing is absolute, and the ostensible binaries that structure the world are proven to fall apart under scrutiny. And yet, though nobody is actually born to live within one side of these binaries, it is a structure imposed upon all humans from birth. We see resistance to this in every action David takes: from attempting to live without age, to refusing to accept or deny his charges, to vehemently chasing down Lucy’s rapists, to moving from country to city without finding wholeness in either. 

How do we resist this without falling apart? Coetzee doesn’t seem to propose an answer to that – as we watch David resist and still fail, resist and still become utterly subjugated, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that living beyond the inflexible structure of the world is absolutely unsustainable. Thus Coetzee doesn’t provide an answer, he is just here to give us the lay of the land.

However, just because he writes of an unlikable character dealing with unsolvable problems does not mean that Coetzee doesn’t speckle Disgrace with disarming moments of heart. Importantly, amongst the bigger issues that he grapples with, Coetzee also sets a narrative cadence that allows for moments of lovely reflection on particulars of life and relationships. One that is really perfect, I think, is a line describing a short car trip with Lucy: “He sits beside her, eating the sandwiches she has made. His nose drips; he hopes she does not notice” (71).  Here, Coetzee’s narrative power for developing character and relationships is palpable. We still might not feel tenderness for David, but his humanity is tangible.

Unlike many other novels that begin with a morally ambiguous character, Disgrace is not about redemption or recuperation. David remains unlikable, Lucy remains subjugated, her rapists remain at large. In this way, Coetzee is able to reveal the thrust of a complicated issue without offering a solution. Thus, Disgrace becomes much more than a political statement about race relations in South Africa – it is also a portrait of the shared human condition itself. By blurring binaries that exist in absolutes almost everywhere in the world, Coetzee powerfully reveals the heart of problem everybody must learn to live around. People here can call him a misogynist, a rape-apologist, or any other number of words ending in “-ist,” but I do not think that is the case. Coetzee writes David Lurie not as an emblem, but as a warning – this is what happens when a society makes human nature itself an unsustainable condition.  

Amazon Review: Blending the Personal with the Historical in Pamuk’s Istanbul

16 Apr

Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul: Memories and the City” is a brilliant mixture of autobiography and memoir of the city. Told in the first person point of view, he blends his own past into Istanbul’s past to give his text a more personalized history of an “end-of-empire melancholy” that both surrounds his life and his city. He discusses Istanbul’s fate as his own fate and proves this through the linking and intertwining of constant doubles that he introduces, including: past with present, city with individual, other Turkish writers with himself, imagination with reality, and the positive and negative sides of melancholy (defined as Huzun). How he accomplishes this is best described through his childhood game which he admits to using in his novels; he explains this game as, “I would push the two wings of the mirror inward or outward until the two side mirrors were reflecting each other and I could see thousands of Orhans shimmering in the deep, cold, glass-colored infinity” (78). In a way, his novels contain multiple sides of himself that are represented through real or imagined doubles. In this case, the doubles are represented through Istanbul as an intriguing means to captivate the deep history of a fallen empire struggling between a modern and traditional identity.

The structure of Pamuk’s novel varies throughout the chapters. The reader is taken back and forth through time, and back and forth between his past and Istanbul’s history. One of the chapters titled “Don’t Walk Down the Street with Your Mouth Open,” is structured much like Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. We are given a random assortment of passages taken from various newspapers over the past 130 years. Pamuk experiments with different ways of presenting history in order to provide his readers with several angles to Istanbul’s identity and past. One constant element continued throughout the text is his use of photographs. In describing his house as a museum filled with old photographs, Pamuk explains, “it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so we could weave them into the present” (14). The framed memories of his “museum house” mirror the black and white photos that weave throughout his book. The reader is able to see images of his family, the city through time, and old paintings of Istanbul, which is paired with Pamuk’s written stories, descriptions and analyses. He is very clever in using so many structural elements to draw the reader into not only understanding Istanbul but also feeling a part of the process and the melancholy associated with the city.

Having traveled to Istanbul on several occasions, I find Pamuk’s novel surprisingly accurate. I say surprisingly only because it’s so difficult to paint a picture with words of a city so deeply ingrained in its past and yet struggling to move forward. It’s difficult for people to envision why a city holds so close to its past and how that past reflects on individual lives. Istanbul is modern and globalized culture in many aspects and yet its visible past keeps the city in a state of being in between—not quite traditional and not quite western. Pamuk is very prideful of his city, but also very truthful and not afraid on shedding light onto both the best and worst sides of Istanbul and his own life. It is a confession, a celebration, a labored struggle, an opening of self-consciousness and an effort for change. I would suggest this book to anyone interested in learning about Istanbul. Once you begin the journey through Pamuk’s Istanbul, you wont be able to put the book down.

Amazon Review:

Leila Aboulela’s Minaret

16 Apr

Leila Aboulela’s Minaret is the story of Najwa, a Sudanese woman who was raised in privilege in Khartoum, until a coup forces her to flee to London with her mother and her brother. The novel follows her life as she transitions from a Westernized teen in Sudan, to a devout Muslim woman working as a nanny/maid in London. This novel examines issues of class, religion, culture, and gender, all through one woman’s personal journey. Despite tackling all of these themes, the novel is an easy read, with a plot that jumps throughout Najwa’s life to demonstrate how she as an individual is able to handle her fall in class and loss of country by becoming more devout, and joining a religious community in London to replace her lost family.

It feels important to read this novel to gain a perspective on a culture and a background, with its own standards and ideals, that is different from my own. After initially reading the story, I felt disappointment for Najwa, because the life she is leading at the end of this novel, her goals for herself, and many other parts of her character are so different from what I would want for myself, or even what I would expect for this character from the beginning of the story. That said, just because I find it difficult to initially relate to this character does not mean that reading this story did not make me take the time to see that my own standards and ideas are not universal. Reading this story is a chance to experience a life completely different from my own.

Many of the issues I had with this novel revolve around the issue of gender. Much of Najwa’s identity as a woman, and how she is treated by those around her is defined by her clothing. Aboulela utilizes clothing to show Najwa’s transition from a Westernized teen to a devout Muslim woman. In Khartoum, Najwa wears tight pants, short skirts, and other clothing that brings attention to her body. Her first relationship with a man is with someone who disrespects her, her family, background, and ideas, but who was drawn to her because of her revealing clothing. The story seems to say that she was asking for this disrespect because of the type of clothing she wore (representative of larger cultural choices.) This relationship ends on the day she chooses to begin wearing a headscarf; this piece of clothing is shown to give her the confidence to end this relationship. It is only later in the novel, when she is wearing hijab and more shapeless clothing, that she feels comfortable, not so much because she is respected, but because she is hidden and anonymous. The only time her more devout and traditional clothing causes her a problem in the novel is when she is taunted and attacked by Londoners on a bus. Within her own community (Muslim ex-pats from a number of countries and cultures) her choice to wear a headscarf helps her fit in and feel accepted.

Najwa’s transition to a practicing Muslim (rather than the secular Islam of her youth) is reflected in the story through her relationships with two men- the first relationship which began in Khartoum and ended with her wearing the headscarf, to a relationship she begins with Tamer, the 19 year old son of her employer. He is much younger than her, yet he idealizes her as a devout, subservient woman. The fact that she is subservient because she is his employee does not change the fact that he views her as a better woman and Muslim because she is simple compared to his sister pursuing a PhD, or his successful mother who travels the world. Much as he idealizes Najwa, she pursues the relationship with him because she respects how devout he is at such a young age- she frequently compares Tamer’s desire to study Islamic history with her own youth in Khartoum spent in clubs, where she was only at college waiting to get married. Their differences in age, social standing, and family will prevent this relationship from lasting, but at the end of the novel we see Najwa preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She has no family or country left, her only community and identity is that of a Muslim.


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Amazon Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

16 Apr

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid tells the story of a Pakistani citizen named Changez, his move from an undergraduate degree at Princeton to an NYC-based valuation firm called Underwood Samson & Company, and his relationship with the WASP-ish Erica, pre- and post-9/11.  Changez narrates the entire novel—at times in first person, but often in second person as well, as Hamid frames the story as a conversation between Changez (now returned to Pakistan) and an un-named American man in the Old Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore.  Changez invites the American man to try a cup of tea, which turns into a full meal and then dessert.  What begins as a seemingly harmless conversation slowly darkens as the novel progresses.

Just as Changez’s politeness masks something perhaps more sinister, the novel’s apparent stream-lined simplicity masks its depth and richness.  The novel resounds with the theme of isolation v.s. openness and appearances v.s. reality.  Obsessed with her memories of Chris, a childhood friend-turned-lover who has passed away, Erica retreats further and further into herself, preferring to live in her own fantasies rather than in the real world.  Her inward movement mirrors America’s growing mistrust of “foreigners” and increasing isolationism post-9/11.   Changez, on the other hand, moves from an isolated focus on solely “getting the job done” and appraising companies to realizing that the reports he and his company makes affect the companies’ employees—real people trying to make a living.  He begins as well to view himself as a perpetual outsider, and to connect these companies to larger flows of capital—capital that is disproportionately held by people of Erica’s complexion rather than his own.

Another theme in the novel, connected to that of isolation and openness, is that of control.  Hamid’s novel is very much a novel of “talking back” (à la Edward Said)—of insisting that one’s voice be heard in a world that so frequently ignores or talks over it.  The only voice we truly hear in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Changez’s.  Changez holds his two layers of audience (the unnamed American and the reader holding the book) essentially captive.  While he includes dialogue between himself and other characters, one is always aware that this dialogue is filtered through Changez’s limited first-person report of the conversation.  As such, Hamid also conflates the reader with the uncomfortable American, who, twitchy and suspicious, views everyone around him as a potential threat.

Interestingly, however, the novel does not entirely reassure us that the figures of whom the American is suspicious aren’t, in fact, a threat to him.  The novel ends ambiguously.  Because we only receive the information Changez gives us, we will never know what actually happens on the dark road in front of the American’s hotel.  In other words, the novel itself is dangerously uni-vocal, warning us through its very structure against only listening to one side of any story.

Hamid’s novel thus utilizes a technique—oral storytelling—often explored in post-colonial novels, and with, I think, the intent of “talking back” against the dominant, hegemonic voices, and it explores post-colonial themes of fractured identity, diaspora, and flows of global capital.  But it does this so subtly, one might barely register the way it very faintly echoes sprawling epics like Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  Hamid’s novel is like its narrator—intelligent, well-mannered, deeper than it may appear, focused, controlled, and sinister.  While giving a 3D portrayal of a (mostly) sympathetic man and telling what appears at first to be primarily a love story, it also raises questions that it doesn’t fully answer—not just about the text itself, but also about how to live ethically, fully, and also safely as an American, as a Pakistani, and as a global citizen post-9/11.

Amazon Review: ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie

16 Apr

Midnight’s Children, which has finally been adapted as a film, is as tumultuous and unwieldy as the history that it provides. It uses creative, nonlinear storytelling, humor, and the supernatural to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of providing a personal story that also tells the story of India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh). Rushdie’s book is a monumental achievement that has become the gold standard of tying personal narrative to a larger sort of metanarrative that captures history and culture born out of myriad cultures, beliefs, and peoples.

For those unfamiliar with Rushdie beyond the fatwa stories or going by the back-of-the-book summary, the humor may come as a surprise (I think it will be a welcome one). Character’s in Midnight’s Children are often stylized and border on farcical. There are also subtle and clever bits like naming an impotent character “Nadir Khan.” The humor here helps the reader with a lengthy and weighty work that often deals with serious subject matter ranging from massacres to personal tragedy.

This novel is by no means a quick read. This is due in equal parts to Rushdie’s adjective heavy prose and the nonlinear structure. Accounts of past events are interrupted by the narrator’s present life at regular intervals and the accounts do not always come in chronological order. The prose, at least, is a delight, making up for the plot’s lack of profluence.

Because the story is never out-and-out allegory and provides a fair amount of exposition, knowledge of Indian history is not completely necessary, but absolutely enriches the story and allows the reader to appreciate the ways that Rushdie toys with the idea of “truth” and creates a narrative which weaves together the zeitgeist of his native land from periods ranging from the 1910s through the later part of the 20th century (the book was published in 1981).

The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai, born at midnight of August 15, 1947, the precise moment of India’s independence from Britain. For these reasons, Saleem is a self-styled, walking representation of the whole of India, tied to his country’s fate for life. The story, written down by an older Saleem for his children, also includes the story of his parents and grandparents, and so stretches back to the early days of Gandhi’s activism, before home rule seemed truly realistic.

Notable is the tie between Saleem’s family and major world events. Sometimes the personal events coincide with the historical, as when Saleem’s grandfather, Aadam Aziz sees his future wife’s face for the first time as World War I ends, and sometimes the characters are thrown directly into the historical events. In Aadam’s story, the Amritsar massacre, where British soldiers opened fire on a congregation of Indians, figures large. Jawaharlal Nehru and other real-life factor into the story but the novel focuses on fictional creations such as Mian Abdullah, who creates an organization to counter Jinnah’s Muslim League.

A major theme for the novel, as well as Indian history, is partition. The British Raj created a country out of what had been a collection of disparate societies that coexisted on the subcontinent. Some academic work has been done linking the British census with the creation or, at least, crystallization of the caste system in India, a social norm that Westerners tend to focus on. Before the British left, they slighted the subcontinent one more time by partitioning the land into Pakistan and India (modern Bangladesh was originally a part of Pakistan, although not contiguous). Although this pleased some leaders (Jinnah), it would result in widespread sectarian violence, especially between Hindus and Muslims, and armed conflict surrounding Bangladesh’s independence and between India and Pakistan, particularly in Kashmir, all of which are featured in Midnight’s Children.

Another recurring element is the idea of truth and accuracy. Saleem’s misremembers dates but, at another juncture, points out that what is important is what people believe to be true, rather than empirical truth, which seems to be Rushdie making a case of the importance of the novel despite its status as a work of fiction. This is tied to the idea of Saleem as India. The narrator says “How, in what terms may the career of a single individual be said to impinge on the fate of a nation? I must answer in adverbs and hyphens: I was linked to history both literally and metaphorically, but actively and passively…” Here Rushdie explains the conceit of the novel, that Saleem (and his family) is not just allegory for India or a participant in its history (like a Forest Gump) but both those things. Despite the soaring, hilarious, masterful prose, this is the true value of the novel.

Midnight’s Children is perhaps the best known and most successful example of capturing the story of a diverse culture in a work of fiction. Recently, I have read Patrick Chamoisea’s Texaco, which does similar work in regards to a neighborhood in the Fort-de-France area of Martinique. Chamoiseau, like Rushdie, provides a protagonist who tells both her story and the story of her parents, weaving together the people and cultures that have come together to make up a place. In Texaco, the settlement and the story are described as a mosaic, which is applicable to Midnight’s Children. In addition to the comparable structure, Texaco also deals with the themes of one power replacing another and class divides sometimes lost in more conventional histories.

Midnight’s Children is staggering in scope. It covers postcolonial (in relation to Britain) and neocolonial ideas (America nudges its way in, of course) and covers most of the 20th century. It is intensely personal and a lesson in the complicated history of the Indian subcontinent from political movements to the India/Pakistan conflict to the war with China. It has magic, unrequited love, and shocking violence. In a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rushdie said that while the novel benefited from the exuberance of a twenty eight year-old author, that he has more technical command now. The technical aspects such as pacing and structure may fall short of perfect, but this is more than made up for by the innovations and the sheer magnitude of capturing the history and people of the most populous democracy in the world.

Amazon Book Review: An Ambiguous Quest for Identity in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s ‘The Sand Child’

15 Apr

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child is the story – or more accurately the legend – of Hajj Ahmed Suleyman’s eighth daughter, whom he raises as a man during Morocco’s French Protectorate period to circumvent Islam’s inheritance laws. Throughout the novel Hajj Ahmed’s daughter struggles with the issue of gender identity, oscillating between being the male Ahmed and female Zahra. This ambiguous and fluctuating identity coincides with a confusing and often difficult to follow narrative structure that resembles the oral narrative of the traditional Moroccan storyteller reciting the legend of the life of “our character” Ahmed/Zahra to a crowd of listeners in the square of Marrakech. But halfway through the novel, the storyteller suddenly dies, leaving the story of Ahmed/Zahra unfinished. In an attempt to finish the story, three of the storyteller’s most dedicated listeners `take turns completing’ Ahmed/Zahra’s legend. Each telling results in a different ending, undermining the possibility of one true ending, just as Ahmed/Zahra never attains one stable identity. Instead, our character, in all of the tellings of his/her life, confesses at the end of the novel, “`After all, I don’t even know who I am!'” (146). While the convoluted narrative structure and rapid cycling of narrators make The Sand Child overly complicated at times, these narrative strategies are indispensable in conveying Ahmed/Zahra’s tortuous journey for identity.

Ahmed/Zahra’s ambiguous status between male and female reflects Moroccan society on two levels. First, Ahmed/Zahra’s ability to function as a male in Morocco despite being born a woman critiques the patriarchal society of Ben Jelloun’s home country. Simultaneously, this confusion of gender reflects Morocco’ struggle to establish a fixed identity in relation to the European influences of the French Protectorate and post-independence period after 1956. One apparent shortcoming of The Sand Child is its lack of character depth, yet the difficulty, if not impossibility, of obtaining a solidified identity is precisely the point of Ahmed/Zahra’s legend.
Ben Jelloun further reflects Morocco’s identity crisis by brilliantly challenging the bildungsroman’s conventional coming of age story through Ahmed/Zahra’s unresolved quest for identity. The narrative invokes Morocco’s rich and often romanticized nomadic tradition, and ultimately mirrors the challenge many Moroccans face in rooting their identities in the midst of modernization. In one rendition of our character’s story, Ahmed/Zahra joins a circus troupe, which Abbas, the circus’s master of ceremonies, likens to a nomadic tribe: “`We are nomads… Everything is false, and that’s what we’re about. We don’t hide it'” (91). Like the circus, our character lacks a rooted identity, constantly wandering as a stranger, “Sometimes a man, sometimes a woman” (96). However, Ahmed/Zahra’s unresolved gender identity reveals the paradox of searching for identity – our character journeys to other places to “return to [him]self,” but by constantly wandering through other lands and other stories, Ahmed/Zahra never finds a place for identity to take root. Instead of a rooted identity, Ahmed/Zahra only finds more questions: “`Am I a human being or an image? A stone in a faded garden or a stout tree? Tell me, what am I?” (34).

Written in 1985, The Sand Child’s theme of uncertain identity remains as relevant as ever in post-Arab Spring Morocco. The revolutions of 2011 across the Middle East echo the continued struggle to find an identity in Morocco and across the Arab world, especially for those who do not fit in with modernity, like the storyteller of Ahmed/Zahra’s tale who was cleared away from the square in Marrakech for “a useless fountain” (104). Ben Jelloun’s novel is ultimately the story of wasted lives – those who have lost both their voice and a narrative to make sense their lives, either in Morocco’s patriarchal society or path to modernity.

Amazon Book Review Link:

I, Holding the Quill, Measured the Abyss

12 Apr

The final segment of Texaco seems to cement [I’m seeing the pun now I’m rereading this, but I’m going with it] how by committing stories, memories, and ideas to the written word, we force nebulous ideas to take shape. By preserving these concepts, we entomb them; it is a tradeoff between conserving our history and making it stagnant. The narrator acknowledges as she is writing that she is killing herself, her memories, and Texaco as she puts their stories down on paper. She and Texaco have not yet finished evolving (and Texaco never will) but they will be in a way trapped as they were when she chose to write them down. For Marie-Sophie, filling her notebooks with memories reflects the transformation of Texaco into a more permanent, accepted settlement; as her memories of Esternome and his stories become transformed as she gives them permanence by writing them down.

Language, and its connection to the personal vs. the universal, is a major theme reflecting the power of cities both to disconnect people from their roots, but to interconnect them to one another. When Ti-Cirique compares Marie-Sophie’s Creole and French writing, his hatred of Creole writing is profound, to the point that “a hiccup of disgust shook his body: My God, Madame Marie-Sophie, this tongue is dirty, it’s destroying Haiti and comforting its illiteracy…” Ti-Cirique is so focused on the universality of language, that he ignores its power to be relative. Ti-Cirique is a man obsessed with the power of words, not only in their current meanings, but he is obsessed with the shifting meanings and historical roots of these words. By tracing words in his memorized dictionary, he is trying to create permanence and a shared history in language.

Reading a translated version of this novel only drives home these ideas of language and universality, it is only because this story has been transformed into English (as even the best translations lose nuances and subtleties of the primary language) that I am able to access this story and its characters. This story had to be put into its most universal form to be approachable by a wide audience.

Parkour and De Gualle

12 Apr

When De Gualle comes to visit Martinique, Marie-Sophie runs after him through a stampede, foolishly thinking she’s going to invite him to her home for dinner.  She and a new acquaintance, Arcadius, end up chasing after De Gualle throughout the city:

We spend the day chasing De Gualle through City.  We went down long detours to cross his path…Arcadius rushed me down a strange shortcut to rejoin him at a so-called geometric point.  But each time he was elsewhere…at city hall…at the prefecture…at the cathedral…(331)

Although Marie-Sophie and Arcadius are not practicing parkour per se, they are certainly rushing through City as only they, as marginalized citizens, can, with their knowledge of City’s underpinnings and secret ways.  In “Light Reading: Public Utility, Urban Fiction, and Human Rights,” Michael D. Rubenstein connects the movement of parkour to the recognition of social existence in the bidonvilles of large francophone cities, as described in Texaco.  It’s an interesting connection–one I don’t think Rubenstein makes entirely convincingly–in part because Rubenstein describes parkour as movement of fleeing, rather than chasing:  “the traceur is generally running for his life, from authorities of some kind, often enough the police” (33).  In this scene in Texaco, however, Marie-Sophie and Arcadius are chasing something (as, in fact, the seekers of electricity Rubenstein discusses are as well).

What they are chasing, however, is never accessible, because De Gualle, symbol to the characters in the novel of the benevolent motherland, potential savior (to Marie-Sophie) of Texaco, is always elsewhere.  And that elsewhere is always a building of the ruling hegemony, the power structure–the government or a house of religion.  Although Marie-Sophie may know everything about the underpinnings and secret ways of City, she knows nothing of and cannot access these institutions of power, just as De Gualle can only know those institutions.  

Interestingly, in the mob scene/ stampede before Marie-Sophie meets Arcadius, the way in which she fights through the crowd could be viewed as a kind of parkour as well, from the way in which it’s described:  “…I howled with despair, leaping like a goat, insulting, knocking, beating, jumping, landing on heads…I began to run on four legs underneath…I ran in every direction” (330).  Marie-Sophie goes over, under, and through the crowd, navigating the mass of people in the same way she navigates City with Arcadius.  

While none of this is particularly insightful, nor actually parkour, these scenes in Texaco helped me better appreciate Rubenstein’s connections between movement and the search for (electricity as) social acceptance.  Both describe alternative ways of moving through a constructed landscape and highlight both exclusion and creative, productive ways of  navigating socio-physical spaces.

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.

A New Kind of Survival Narrative

12 Apr

In Texaco, Chamoiseau spins a narrative of survival from a framework of death and destruction, and in the process proposes a new kind of survival of a people that is divorced from concepts of procreation and Judeo-Christian ideals.

 There are few ways in which he does this, but one that I find to be particularly interesting is the way in which he uses Biblical juxtaposition to turn Marie-Sophie into an activist for survival. Though the Biblical allegory is thick and convoluted throughout the novel, I think a direct case can be made that Esternome and Idomene are reminiscent of Sarah and Abraham, who had a child at 90 something and 100 (respectively). God promised them that this child, Isaac, would be the patriarch of all of Israel and populate the promised land. In this way, I think that Chamoiseau is aligning Marie-Sophie and Isaac so as to make her denial of procreative survival even more obvious.  

 Probably the most obvious way that Chamoiseau contrasts Marie-Sophie and Isaac is through her multiple abortions. While Isaac is literally the life-blood of Israel, basing his patriarchy purely the seed of his loins, Marie-Sophie violently denies herself the ability to have children. Even when she wishes to later in the novel it is clear that this is a non-starter – it is always for the sake of men who disappear or die fairly quickly thereafter. It is also interesting to note the violence that she perpetrates against men’s genitals. Though it happens quite frequently, the violent acts are very specifically focused not on the phallus but on the testicles. This again drives home Marie-Sophie’s directed violence against reproduction.

 By equating Marie-Sophie with Isaac but divorcing the concept of survival of a people from procreation, Chamoiseau is proposing a very different kind of survival narrative than that of the people of Israel. Though Marie-Sophie is Isaac by birth, she is more Moses in action. With Texaco, she proves that the survival of a people is based not in simply literal “survival” – procreation – but through the action of carving out a physical space in which those people can survive. We can see this manifested also in smaller details in the book, as almost as often as Marie-Sophie is forcibly divorced from the concept of reproduction, she is aligned with the concept of creating physical space. She is constantly being thrown into situations in which carving out her own space in which to live safely (for example, in Alcibiade’s home) is critical to her happiness, but also to her ability to continue the narrative.

 This aligns with many of the theories and literature that we have read thus far this semester – I am thinking especially right now of Oil on Water and Sweet Crude. There are persistent undertones throughout these works which show that creating a physical space in which to live is key to not just the prosperity, but the continued existence of a community. By very pointedly separating Marie-Sophie’s survival narrative from reproductive survival, Chamoiseau emphasizes the urgency of this mission to re-claim physical space as a means for existence of a people.