Monday, September 10, 2018

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

I can’t remember ever having taken such a long time to read a novel! It has been so terrible that I cannot even recollect how long I took to read Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. I suspect I might have taken well over three months with long stretches away from the story. A busy schedule would be the easiest scape goat but I must admit I found the text rather a slow read especially the early pages. But please do not mistake me, the novel isn’t boring in the sense of the word!  
There has been an increase in stories of immigrants and Ghana Must Go adds to the statistics. I sincerely pray that African writers are not striving to whet the appetite of some Western fetish for a certain type of literature. Ghana Must Go is a story of Kweku Sai a Ghanaian married to Folasad√© Savage. Between them, they have four ‘talented’ children: Olu, Kehinde, Taiwo and Sadie. Olu takes after his father by becoming a distinguished surgeon whilst Kehinde is a famous artist. Taiwo and Sadie have their brilliant set of skills and the reader could easily mistake the writer for projecting near perfect children until the story unfolds and we unpack the various sets of character for each. In the pair of twins, Kehinde and Taiwo, the reader catches a glimpse of some African mythos but this is hardly explored any further.
In this story, it is tragic what befalls Kweku Sai at his place of work. The stark reality of subtle racism and him being a victim of capitalism in which he is sacrificed to appease a hospital benefactor speaks of the unfair treatment of immigrants of African descent. Having worked so hard to earn a reputation and honour, Kweku Sai is unable to reconcile himself with the job loss nor manage the patriarchal expectations and he results to putting up a face until the day his son, Kehinde, witnesses the father being ejected from the hospital in humiliatingly embarrassing circumstances. The event is devastating for both the son and father and Kweku Sai decides to abandon the family.
Kweku Sai’s job loss and his failure to confront the reality speaks of his tragic character. He spends a lot of money on his lawyer hoping to win but miserably fails to get reinstated. Having squandered his savings and with no energy to seek for a job elsewhere, he chooses to go back home – Ghana. The wife, Savage, is left with the difficult duty of bringing up the children single-handedly. One cannot fail to empathise with her especially being privy to the fact that she forsook an opportunity to pursue law at Yale in order to support Sai and to bring up their children. Sai’s loss of a lifetime career is catastrophic but not as devastating as Savage’s sense of betrayal when Sai walks out on her and their children. The formidable sense of kinship that has been established in their family teeters on the precipice of tumbling down overnight.
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Fola’s being left by Sai rekindles bitter memories of her childhood and the trauma of the loss of her mother and later father. The tropes of leaving and being left begin to manifest more emphatically in her life with the departure of Sai. Fola sends Kehinde and Taiwo to Nigeria hoping that they would attend a better school only to expose them to the destructive life of sexual abuse of children in the hands of their uncle. Although she had best intentions at heart, this act fractures her relationship with her daughter, Taiwo, irreparably since the latter blames the mother of negligence. Sai’s family bond disintegrates further and the siblings appear to have no human connection with each other. It is clear that the family is deeply wounded and traumatised but no one is willing to confront the reality.
When the death of Sai happens, the family has to confront its demons and travel back to Ghana to lay the father cum husband to rest: to seek to heal and hopefully rediscover the meaning in life as they reconnect severed bonds. Throughout the text, the reader feels that the writer glosses over character’s hurts, emotions and aspirations. There is a sense of shallowness in the way particular events, occurrences and experiences are handled. For instance, it is not clear whether Sai remarried or not. Fola’s emotions, dreams and achievements are masked throughout and overshadowed by those of the children and the husband alike. Indeed, Fola is not given an opportunity to deal with her tragic childhood and neither does she get a chance to be openly angry with her husband; to confront him in person and pour out her anger. The children too are not allowed to explore their lives deeply and one feels as though the writer barely attended to their individual reticence.
The novel’s title is borrowed from a historical political tiff between Nigeria and Ghana in which Ghanaians were expelled from Nigeria in 1983. However, I didn’t read anything much into this since there is more focus in the novel on the religious conflict and killings in Nigeria.
In any case, my thoughts about the story are all jumbled up. I cannot help it now that I spread my reading of the story far and wide. However, one thing is clear for me: immigrant literature symbolises for us tropes of leaving, being left – never ending acts of departure. In all this the reader is warned that nothing is permanent and although we might remain forever nostalgic about destinations or pasts that we have come from, futures we may never behold as ours, we cannot ever really feel at home in either of the places we depart from or arrive at since we are always on the move. In fact, one can argue that each one of us is an immigrant of sorts in our various spheres of life. This is a largely symbolic novel reflecting the tribulations of an immigrant family and their efforts to reconnect severed relationships in a bid to live normal lives. There is an intense sense of rootlessness, insecurity, pressure, yearning to belong yet at the same time severely alienated. However, is there really anything ‘normal’ and what in essence is ‘normal’ anyway? Ghana Must (just) Go!!

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.

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