Radiance of Tomorrow- book review

Written by Ishmael Beah, the author of the child soldier memoir A Long Way Gone, Radiance of Tomorrow is a novel about a village in Sierra Leone trying to move on after a terrible civil war. This small West African nation experienced a savage civil war between 1991 and 2002 that resulted in 50,000 killed and perhaps more ghastly, the mass maimings of adults and children. The novel might be about the aftermath of this war and filled with terrible events, but its writing is lyrical and evocative, inspired by the oral storytelling tradition of Beah’s native Sierra Leone.

The village of Imperi comes back to life when years after the war, a trio of elders return and try to resume their life. Soon, other former residents make their way back including the son of one of the elders, who brings his big family. Bockarie becomes a teacher but soon sees a crisis envelop Imperi after rutile (a mineral used in road coatings and pigments for paint and plastics) deposits are found nearby, which lead to a foreign corporation coming in and opening a mine. Pollution, disorder and drunkenness afflict Imperi as the mining company ignores the concerns of the residents and its workers exploit their poverty. Soon, Bockarie is forced to take a job with the mining operation but problems still remain that eventually push him to consider a move to the capital Freetown.

While the events are not exactly uplifting, Radiance of Tomorrow is a pleasure to read. The book’s plot is heavy on reality, specifically the woes of a poor African nation struggling to take advantage of its mineral resources but still dependent on foreign expertise, while still unable to provide for its people. The one constant is the bond between individuals and family members, especially with Bockarie, his friend Benjamin and their families. There is no magic happy ending, but there is a slight sign of hope.

It’s good to see that with Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah is not a one-hit wonder.

Born a Crime- book review

By now, Trevor Noah has become a household name in the US. As the host of The Daily Show, having taken over from Jon Stewart in 2016, Noah has come a long way from growing up in a poor neighborhood in his native South Africa during apartheid. What makes his life story even more remarkable is that his birth was a result of a criminal act – his mother was a black South African while his father was a white Swiss, and miscegenation was illegal during apartheid. Hence, the name of his biography – Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood.

I got this book because a friend highly recommended it, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. As Noah is a well-known US celebrity, I thought his book would be tame and politically correct. Well, how wrong I was. From the start, he doesn’t pull any punches in talking about his life. He balances hard-hitting commentary with humour and bluntness as well as poignant recollections of painful memories. When he talks about how his devout Christian mother and him spent Sundays going to 3 different churches for the entire day, he says that “white church” was his favorite because of how comfortable it was and how brief the services were (just one hour). “Black church” was an ordeal, as services went on for 3 or 4 hours. “I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more,” he says, which struck me as both hilarious and sad. Then he complains about his mother’s old, beat-up car. Almost all bad experiences were a result of that old car, said Noah. Having to miss school, hitch-hiking, being late for work. And having to find a mechanic, who ended up marrying his mother, beating her, and eventually shooting her in the head. That escalated fast (Noah is not joking about that, it really happened). All this is just the first chapter.

South Africa is one of the world’s most fascinating countries because of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. I have great memories of visiting there in 2010. But under apartheid, this diversity was twisted so that it was completed corrupted and abused – blacks were forced to live separately; coloreds and Indians were treated as being inferior to whites but better than blacks; child siblings of different skin complexions could be classified separately. As the biracial, light-skinned son of a black woman, Noah is caught up in this. The remarkable thing is Noah isn’t bitter or sad, but filled with optimism as well as a resolve which stayed with him his whole life. As he says, his mother told him not to forget pain, but to also not let pain rule him.

Not surprisingly, Noah’s mother is a key figure in his life and in the book. She is a woman of great resilience and spirit, who worked and brought up young Trevor without any shame, and instilled in him a strong attitude towards life. But she is the victim of the greatest tragedy in Noah’s life, when she is shot in the head by her abusive ex-husband (not Noah’s father). She recovers, which goes to show how tough she is, and Noah’s love for her and vice versa are very apparent.

Noah fills the book with hilarious and harsh anecdotes, as well as commentary on racial and social issues. Sometimes, it sounds brutal such as when he talks about the Coloured people in South Africa – people of mixed ethnic origin. Now, you might wonder – isn’t Noah himself Coloured since his parents were black and white? No, because Coloureds were mixed going back several generations, as their ancestors were the early Dutch and European settlers and locals over two centuries ago. Noah’s point is that this is the Coloured’s tragedy because they don’t have a solid heritage. That isn’t a problem in itself (obviously there are lots of mixed people worldwide) but in South Africa, Coloureds were caught up in the middle of the country’s racial hierarchies, during apartheid and even now.

This book is a great example of this – it’s not dominated by pain and terror, but by humor and fond memories of growing up, getting in trouble, and hustling in the hood, whilst learning some hard lessons. Noah’s autobiography is a fantastic read for learning about South Africa, race, the hood, and basically how a boy from a South African ghetto grew up to become an international comedian and personality. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Interestingly, the last biography I read was also about a South African, Elon Musk, which was also good. The country might have some serious problems, but it produces some special people.

Behold the Dreamers- book review

The American Dream has long been held up as the ultimate goal for people from all over the world, who brave all means to reach what they believe is the fabled land of hope and opportunity and try to make a good life for themselves and their families. Behold the Dreamers is about a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who try to accomplish this dream amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Having overstayed his temporary visa to remain in the US for several years, Jende has gotten a lucrative opportunity to become the personal chauffeur of a Wall Street high flyer while applying for refugee asylum. His wife Neni is studying for a nursing degree while looking after their young son. Author Imbolo Mbue has crafted a compelling novel that goes beyond sentimentality and fanciful hopes to provide a raw and poignant take on the contemporary American Dream.

Through Jende and Neni’s challenging lives, Mbue shows that the American Dream is not always so fantastic nor attainable. Despite being set in the bright lights of New York City, which Jende and Neni both love, Mbue doesn’t hold back in portraying the grimness and sacrifice they put into trying to build a life in America, having to carefully balance their budget and diet while having to be obsequious at work (Jende not only has to drive Clark, but his wife and children, each of whom Jende treats as a master).

However, Behold the Dreamers is not just an immigrant story. Mbue seamlessly intertwines Jende and Neni’s story with that of Clarke’s well-off American family. Jende’s boss, Clarke, is an executive at Lehman Brothers, which became the most well-known victim of the crisis as it basically collapsed, so we know things won’t go too well for him. His wife is not as happy as she looks, and his elder son has a worldview very much at odds with him and much of society in general. Clarke balances work problems with maintaining a facade of a good family, which also doesn’t go too well and in a very sad way, he actually suffers more than Jende. I don’t know if it’s deliberate but Mbue makes Clarke a more empathetic character than one would have thought. Clarke’s lack of resolve with his home issues also drags in Jende and Neni and the result is tragic.

The novel was highly acclaimed and chosen by Oprah as one of her 2017 book selections, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had thought I would. For one, the main characters didn’t interest me that much and I wasn’t too sympathetic to their personal circumstances. In the middle of the novel, Neni commits a blatant act of extortion on a vulnerable employer that basically eliminated any sympathy I had for her. The ending provides some redemption as Jende makes a courageous decision, which I almost though he would go back on, and goes through with it. The ending will surprise a lot of readers and raise some issues to think about, such as rethinking what exactly is the American Dream worth.

Homegoing- book review

One of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read, Homegoing follows the descendants of two West African half-sisters, separated by slavery and continents, over 200 years from the late 18th century to the modern era. A tragedy and painful family secret portend the fate of Effia and Essi, in their tribal homelands in what is now Ghana, during a time of growing interaction between Europeans and Africans, when slavery and Christianity came to the fore.

Slavery is what causes the stories of the two half-sisters, who never meet, to diverge, as Effia marries the European governor of the Cape Coast Castle, from where numerous African slaves were shipped to the US, while Essi is captured and transported as one such slave to America. One member of each ensuing generation of their respective descendants is featured in a chapter as their lives unfold in line with the historic development of the US and Ghana. While the Ghanaians cope with war against the British, colonialism and running their own country after independence, the Americans toil as slaves in the US South, then continue to cope with racism and discrimination.

Ghana is a fitting stage for a story focused on slavery, since it is where a lot of African slaves were bought, gathered and then shipped off to the New World, especially America. Cape Coast Castle is one of the more famous of numerous coastal forts built by Europeans to hold slaves, and was even visited by Barack Obama when he was US president in 2009. The author also makes clear the role of the local tribes, such as the powerful Asante and their Fante kin and rivals, in procuring and selling slaves to the Europeans, which illustrates the complexity of slavery in Africa. As such, this is not a one-sided polemic of whites neither a romanticized tale.

As its characters marched through history, there are heartbreaking chapters on captured slaves crammed into a filthy Cape Coast Castle dungeon, failed slave escapes from US plantations, and abductions. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean, I was familiar with slavery from school, given its key historic role in the region, but I still found the book to be stunning in its portrayal of the brutality of slavery in the US.

If Homegoing has one fault, it is that there are so many themes encompassing Africa-West relations, slavery, race relations, drug addiction, immigrants and diaspora which did not all get fully fleshed out. The conclusion also seemed a little too neat and contrived. Despite that, the author Yaa Gyasi does well to make most of the myriad characters people who you can care about and the novel remains compelling up until the end.

It is an epic tale that blends history and tragedy in both personal and societal forms. Homegoing is one of the best novels I’ve read recently and it is one book that I wished could have been longer.

Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

The Last Train to Zona Verde- book review

I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.

He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.

Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.

Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.

There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.

The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.

While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.