In memory of VS Naipaul, one of the world’s and Trinidad’s greatest writers

The world lost one of the greatest contemporary English-language writers last Saturday (11th) when VS Naipaul passed away at 85 in his home in London. The Nobel Literature laureate and Booker Prize-winner was a formidable and fearless writer who pulled no punches in his writing, which included both novels and non-fiction that mostly focused on the developing world. Africa, India, and the Caribbean, including his native Trinidad, were all harshly criticized by him in various books, which struck some people as racist and an apologist for colonialism. Naipaul was also open about the racism he experienced in England, where he went to university at 18 after graduating from high school in Trinidad on a scholarship and lived from then on. As great a writer as he was, as a person, he had some serious flaws such as a strong sense of arrogance, and cruelty towards his first wife and his mistress.

For me, it was his non-fiction books on India (India: A Million Mutinies Now) and the Islamic world that were the most memorable. Besides the scope of his books, it was the bluntness and validity of Naipaul’s critiques of those countries that struck me. Maybe partly because of the fact he was not white and was from a developing country himself, but Naipaul wrote things about the developing world that hardly any other Western writer would dare to. That he wrote a trilogy of non-fiction books about India, where his ancestors came from, that were unsympathetic and unsparing in their criticism of poverty, squalor, and disorder, was a testament to his fearlessness and lack of fear in expressing his thoughts and opinions.  Besides the Caribbean, Africa, and India, Naipaul also wrote about the Islamic world in his non-fiction book Beyond Belief, visiting countries like Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan, which he was, not surprisingly, critical of. While some people saw this as mocking and contemptuous of the third world, I feel that Naipaul’s blunt opinions were driven not by arrogance or a superiority complex, but a sense of disappointment and a desire for the developing world to improve.

As someone who is also from Trinidad, I know that Naipaul was not very well liked by many locals because they felt that he was out of hand in his criticisms. But I think he was right in a lot of his criticisms, such as how as a society Trinidad has failed to progress, and I think deep down, many of his critics probably agree with Naipaul.

Naipaul was involved in a few public feuds, including one with the poet Derek Walcott, another Caribbean literary giant and Nobel Literary Prize laureate that saw the latter write a very malicious poem about Naipaul. Another was with American writer Paul Theroux, who was wounded enough when Naipaul suddenly ended their decades-long friendship to write an entire book about his friendship and falling out with Naipaul called Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

A lot of testimonies have been written about Naipaul and none fail to mention both his greatness and his conflicting legacy. Whatever one thinks of his personality or work, it can’t be denied that there might never be another like Va Naipaul.

 

The Longest Way Home- book review

Former actor and writer Andrew McCarthy seemed to have the ideal life, combining a busy globe-trotting writing career with a relationship with a loving and patient partner as well as two children. But a decision to get married to his girlfriend and mother of his younger child sparks a sense of panic. As McCarthy struggles with whether he is doing the right thing, he takes off on a series of trips to come to terms with his personal issues.

From traveling on a cruise through the Amazon to a remote part of coastal Costa Rica to wandering Baltimore with his best friend, the writer slowly realizes what is holding him back. This involves McCarthy reflecting on his part, especially his relationship with his father, which at times was estranged but has improved. While this might all sound self-indulgent, the author is honest about his doubts and flaws, as well as the toll on his partner who has to look after their child while he is often away. It is over-reflective at times but this means McCarthy holds nothing back in examining himself.

The writer’s travels during this long period of pre-wedding reflection include a hike up the majestic Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and trekking in Patagonia in the southernmost part of Argentina. He describes the places well, bringing their remoteness and beauty to the fore. Despite his own penchant for solitude and continuous travel, McCarthy is surprising skeptical of some of the expats, including fellow Americans, he meets in remote places, especially in their motivations for live there.

Without giving away things too much by being too specific, I’ll just say the book comes to a happy conclusion in Ireland, where his girlfriend is from. The Longest Way Home is both a decent travel book and memoir that illustrates how travel can sometimes be a good way to know yourself more.

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.