Friday, December 22, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I have finished reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and it has left me with a myriad of unresolved issues at the back of my mind. Why should we suffer so much in life? Are the things we yearn for worth the sacrifices we make in life? Probably, I should not have listened to the varied voices of friends and colleagues who saw me reading the text and commented on the same. A good number said it was a good read, a good number said they disliked it! What does one do in such a conflicted situation?
You read! That is it! Just read.
Despite the many years of involvement in the reading of literary works and many warnings not to judge a book by its cover, I just did that with Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. Though, I don’t mind since it probably behoves the beautiful story within since I liked the narrative despite having some misgivings about a few standpoints the author takes. For starters, I loved Mbue’s choice of migrants as her main characters and delving into their day to day struggles to highlight the predicament that most migrants find themselves in when they arrive in America. On the contrary, I disliked the marital conflict between Jende and Neni, it appears undeveloped.
Jende Jonga is due for an interview with a Wall Street Executive, Clark Edwards who works for the Lehman Brothers and requires a chauffeur. The economic disparity is at once visible as Jende feels uncomfortable in a cheap suit when he encounters his future to be boss. The reader is immediately aware of Clark’s busy schedules when he hurriedly takes Jende through the interview. We are also able to take note that if it was not for a good recommendation Jende would probably not have had this opportunity in the first place. This is especially so owing to his lack of valid papers to be in the USA.
Like other stories most of us hear about the USA, Behold the Dreamers satiates our hunger for juicy stories about how migrants survive in America and how they are treated by those who wield power and are in control of the means of production. Jende is a Cameroonian migrant married to Neni and living with their son Liomi. Much later in the story they are lucky to have a daughter, Timba. What the reader discovers is that neither the citizens nor the migrants have an easy time in America. The American dream appears elusive for everyone even those we would assume have everything like the Edwards family.
Jende is plagued by the fear of deportation. The power play in the American society has usurped his African machismo and as he answers sir to his boss, Jende comes across as socially conflicted. His African socialisation would have him comfortably provide for his family but the geographical displacement positions him in a precarious situation where he has to forfeit traditional authoritarianism if he has to fit within the new world order fate has placed him into. Although Neni, his wife, is supportive, the reader can attest to the tension, the frustration and the fear many migrants have to live with. When the Lehman empire collapses and people begin losing their jobs because of the economic recession, the tension in the story becomes palpable.
As a reader, I started fearing for Jende especially because it does not look like he would get permit to stay in the USA and also because his lawyer comes across as unreliable. However, the most important aspect that becomes his turning point is the death of his father. It comes at a time when Jende is at the end of his wits. He has despaired obtaining a better paying job since the Edwards relieved him from his chauffeur job. Juggling between two poorly paying jobs of washing dishes, suffering from excruciating pain owed to fatigue, stress, and staring at imminent deportation is enough to break Jende’s will.
Although Jende and his family have tried their best to sustain relationships with friends and some relatives both in America and back home, the void of being away from home – Africa – cannot be filled by quick visits to or by friends, occasional parties or telephone conversations. When Jende receives the sad news of the demise of his father, he resolutely decides to end his struggle to obtain papers to legally stay in America. He makes up his mind abut going back to Limbe, his home town in Cameroon. This is the one time that Jende comes across as being sure of where his destiny lies.
Neni’s pursuit for education hits a dead end since she cannot get a good recommendation for a scholarship opportunity. Unlike Jende, she appears determined to stay in America irrespective of the odds against them. It is in her passion for America and the dream it beholds that she badly clashes with Jende. Their different opinions threaten to break their marriage and for the first-time gender issues play out when Jende violently beats Neni and almost gets into trouble when a concerned neighbour comes to check in on them. Also, the church is unable to sooth Neni’s disturbed spirit but at least she discovers some respite from sharing with Natasha the pastor in the church.
One can argue that Mbue falls victim of stereotypes and retelling a story that is overtold. But the ability to enable the reader to connect with the emotional turmoil of the characters makes it possible to read the story from a different perspective and to appreciate it for what it is: a story of unfulfilled dreams. These dreams need not necessarily be unfulfilled in the American context; it could be a metaphor of the tenuous things in life that we endlessly chase only to be crushed and destroyed in the process. Jende is ‘lucky’ to realise that: “I don’t like what my life has become in this country. I don’t know how long I can continue living like this, Neni. The suffering in Limbe was bad, but this one here, right now…it’s more than I can take.” (306) A few lines further Jende argues that there is only so much suffering that a man can take and for that he throws in the towel to the greatest dismay of his wife.
In this story, the reader perceives a balanced view of the characters. The Edwardses have their own set of problems since Clark is sucked up into the cutthroat business thereby neglecting his family. Indeed, his wife Cindy ends up dying presumably because of alcohol abuse and the frustration of trying too much to belong. Mbue seems to suggest that the grass might not necessarily be greener on the other side. It is with mixed emotions that the reader witnesses Jende’s sojourn back to his home country and hopefully yearns for the family to rediscover its roots and be able to settle and re-establish a different set of rhythm with which to enjoy life in Africa as opposed to one in America.
Please read Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers: you might just discover what all the fuss about America is!!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

This is a biography done by a daughter as a tribute to her father. In an ironic twist, the novel revels in a relationship between a father and the son; it hardly dwells on fathers and daughters. One might be tempted to argue that this is occasioned by the patriarchal context of its setting. However, this is a story of an epic journey of self-discovery, an odyssey to re-discover meaning in life, a quest to chart a way forward into a future of hope after a past of grotesque disillusionment.
Black Mamba Boy is a coming of age story of Jama Guure who, abandoned by the father a romantic Somali man, determines right at a tender age to search for his father – thirsting for affirmation and a sense of identity. Jama is especially pained by the suffering occasioned by the father’s absence both on himself and worse still his mother. The journey starts around the 1930s when Jama’s mother dies. He is lonely, hungry, angry and destitute. The country at large, the continent and the world has gone into war. The young man has to wade the waters of a war-torn country, traverse the continent on foot and confront all manner of danger in pursuit of his father. Ironically, when he is about to meet his father, he receives news of his demise further shattering his nascent hopes of a better future.
Using the knowledge he has from recollections of conversations with his late mother, Jama is determined to overcome all odds and make of himself a better man. Although he is most times discouraged, he appears stubbornly persistent sometimes relying on his naivety as a child to sail through some of the turbulent moments. In one instance, he asks a fellow traveler how far Eritrea is only to be told that it is three years walking distance away. It is only way after that Jama consciously confronts the restless spirit of his adventure when he encounters Musa who lives in Palestine helping Somali pilgrims find their way to other parts of the world. Jama is concerned that such an intelligent person is getting wasted through drunkenness and desperation. Musa’s precarious misery jolts Jama to the realisation that not even a mad man could abandon what he had on the advice of a ghost as he had himself done.
I believe that this story is deeply embedded in African myth. Jama is named after a totem – his mother had an encounter with a black mamba snake and she opined this to be a lucky charm for Jama. Indeed, Jama’s life appears peppered by luck. He overcomes the streets, joins the Italians in the war, is traumatised by a near encounter with death, sees his closest friends die in the process, but Jama still emerges resilient. At one moment, Shidane, a childhood friend is gruesomely tortured to death by the Italian police and disposed like garbage to rot and be feasted on by the hyenas. The novel vivifies the dehumanising nature of war and the permanent scars we have to live with.
In his endeavour to become a better father than his biological father had been, Jama has to confront his rite of passage in a most confounding way. He encounters a beautiful girl, Bethlehem, whom he falls in love with. In fact, Bethlehem, Jama’s mother and other female characters in this story, point out that women are strongly-willed and not weaklings as some might assume. They make decisions and come across as principled individuals who do not shy away from their life’s pursuits. In the case of Bethlehem, she proposes to Jama and when he appears hesitant she prevails on him to marry her. It is only much later that Jama discovers he has become a father. The overwhelming guilt compels him to abandon his pursuit of wealth in the high seas and foreign continents to sojourn back home to become a better father than his father had been.

Black Mamba Boy is an incredible story. Picture the journey on foot of teenagers traversing from Palestine through the Red Sea into Egypt. However, the story speaks volumes about those who live in the margins of the society. A lot of communal help is demonstrated in the story as those that are poor help each other to overcome the odds and live another day to tell the story of their life. The narrative highlights the migratory nature of the Somali community over the years; it underscores the motivation behind their restlessness. According to Jibreel, “Everywhere I go I meet Somalis,” he says, “always from the north, standing at a crossroads, looking up to the sky for direction; the poor souls never know where they are going. They all say the same thing; there is nothing in our country, I’ll go back when I can afford some camels.” Their country has over the times been afflicted not just by human conflict, but also heavily by the devastating nature of the environment: unending drought, famine, incorrigible poverty etc.
One would be persuaded to read this story as the ultimate narrative on the quest for a home. It brings forth the debate on whether home is a physical geographical place or whether it is in our psychology. In the wanderings of Jama, we are confronted with this ultimate dilemma as Jama has to reject an adoptive father in Idea, be rejected in Egypt but adamantly make a detour back there and obtain a British passport, sail across the world but ultimately yearn to go back to the arms of his young family. Jama’s rejection of Idea as a father is premised on his argument that “He knew that he could not bear the betrayal of exchanging his real father for another.” This is a story of a fractured society, one that has splintered the lives of its people and scattered them in an almost irreparable nature.
I am amazed by how Nadifa Mohamed succeeds to paint the picture of resilience in her father, a spirit of optimism that survives all manner of devastation and discovers the beauty of family re-union. This is a tale of hope against all of odds. The narrative is musical, it is revealing; it is moving, it is traumatising; it is disturbing, it is appealing. At the end of it all, the reader finds that there is something uniquely appealing irrespective of the social background one comes from. I personally found that I could connect with the text and hope that this is possible for other readers too.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Life’s Possibilities amidst Apartheid’s Trauma - Rossouw's What Will People Say

Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say was shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature. It is a story of contradictions: pitting excitement vis-à-vis violence as unleashed through the Apartheid regime and especially in the agitation for independence in South Africa. But with the attainment of independence there is a glimmer of hope lurking in the shadows of the trail of trauma as unleashed through colour segregation.
The novel vividly portrays the trauma meted out on the blacks and the coloureds. The effects of segregation are particularly unnerving when the reader observes the lives of certain communities and how discrimination has messed up their day to day activities. The story explores the various ways through which trauma is manifested especially in the lives of Cape Town inhabitants – in the infamous Cape Flats. It lays bare white peoples privileges and in the process shows how the wounds of segregation fester and eventually burst open in the form of repressed anger, violence, dehumanisation and alienation among others.
Without an opportunity to express their troubles, coupled with the impotent knowledge of their inability to singlehandedly confront the white oppressor, both the blacks and coloureds turn against each other with a vengeance that is self-destructive. The cruelty and savagery in their actions is a demonstration of what years of oppression have nurtured and nourished – a spirit of self-loathing and an inbuilt anathema for humanity.
Indeed, the novel’s themes are hinged on this triple axis of oppression, alienation and retribution. The insanity of the prevailing atmosphere is aptly captured in the family of the Fouries. Magda Fourie, the wife and mother, escapes into church and its dogma of waiting for a better after-life. In fact, the title of the novel is conceived from her pretence when she lives a life of lies and denies the family from being true to their feelings because she is afraid about “what will people say”. One can argue that the title is based on the coloured’s stereotype of being obsessed with societal expectations at the expense of individual freedom. Thus, Magda pretends that all is well with her family even when she knows that things have taken a turn for the worst. In her fear, we read the human folly of vanity, pride and an obsession with material things which eventually blinds us to the more immediate human need for acceptance, love, understanding, and appreciation.
When the Fourie family begins to disintegrate, slowly but surely, the reader is acutely aware that the inevitable will happen – there shall be death in the family and this is not a romantic novel after all! Anthony, the only son in the family, is coerced into a gang through a traumatising initiation rite in which he is forced to partake of the gang raping of his sister’s best friend Shirley. Although the father musters courage to take him for therapy sessions when the trauma makes him mute, it is a bit too late to salvage him. He is eventually murdered in cold blood by fellow gang members when he reneges on the gang expectations bestowed upon him.
Nicky Fourie, the middle child, the bright one and the hope of the family is disturbed by the immense responsibility and expectations that the rest of the family have on her. Her father believes that she can become a lawyer and her mother has an overwhelming trust that Nicky is the moral superintendent of the family. However, when things go wrong, everyone is forced to confront their worst fears. Nicky finally ends up being a social worker, the parents split and she has to stay with the mother since her boyfriend Kevin departs for Jorburg to attend to bigger nationalistic problems. Indeed, it is in Nicky, Suzette, her mother and other female characters that the strong gender agenda is embedded.
The father, Neville, who has always believed himself to be a hen-pecked man, constantly nagged by the wife to become more active in church finds solace in the arms of their neighbour, Moira – the very woman who has been perceived to epitomise immorality since she has five children from five different fathers. The eldest daughter Suzette, drops from school pre-maturely but somehow through her individual fortitude discovers success in the world of beauty and modelling. On the flipside, her success is marred by the revelation that part of the success comes from white privilege connections!
It is in Ougat and his gang of teenagers – drug addicted zombies, that we visualise the palpable anger, frustration and overall disillusionment in the text. Indeed, the very rape of Shirley is symbolic of a society that is demented. We also discover that even the whites suffer from addiction when Suzette’ white boyfriend Neville has to be taken into rehab. It appears that discrimination is a double-edged sword since when the blacks and coloureds suffer from it, the whites also suffer from insecurity and other related forms of violence as unleashed in retaliation by those discriminated against. This is a society on the verge of self-destruction!
The novel asks a fundamental question: do black parents care more about their reputation as opposed to the well-being of their children? It is clear from this text that when people lose the very essence of their humanity then it is right to conclude that “people got a democratic right to fuck up their lives” since as Kevin says the people have “got used to their oppression, they don’t know any other way” (307). However, there is a glimmer of hope when the individuals become conscious of the need to change the status quo. They begin to look for possibilities, strife to obtain their rights and also agitate for a better society. It is possible to rebuild the society but a concerted effort towards healing is a must. It is possible not to worry about what people will say but the reader has to engage the text in order to agree or disagree with this!

Popular Posts