Friday, March 27, 2020

Liberia: She Would be King, Wayetu Moore

A while back I chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's memoir as my choice for Liberia. I'd rather read novels, though, so when Wayetu Moore's debut novel popped up in the library, I decided to add it to my reading list.

Wayetu Moore was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1985. When she was four years old, civil war broke out. At the time, her mother was studying in America. Her father fled with her and her sisters and hid in a village for six months before her mother was able to send someone to get them across the border. She now lives in America where she teaches at the City University of New York.

She Would be King is a retelling of Liberia's origins which incorporates magical and supernatural elements. It has been described as magical realism, however the author has explained that she is not attempting to fit it into this genre, but is using elements that are traditional to African story telling. It centres round three people who have supernatural powers. Gbessa is born into the Vai tribe, and is considered cursed and a witch because she was born on the day that an old woman died after beating her cat (cats were revered in the Vai culture). Gbessa has startling red hair, and an inability to die, although she feels pain.

Norman Aragon was born in Jamaica to an English father and a Maroon mother. He has the ability to become invisible. He escapes from his English father, and travels to Liberia, where he has heard there is a new colony for former slaves.

June Day is born on a southern plantation to a mother who is a ghost, a dead slave woman who does not know that she is dead. June has supernatural strength, a power which includes the ability to repel bullets and other wounds. He boards a ship for New York, but mistakenly ends up in Liberia.

Norman and June team up to rescue villagers from the predations of the slavers who still terrorize Africa, although slavery has been outlawed in the United States. They meet up with Gbessa, but she is carried off and then abandoned for dead by French slavers. She is rescued and taken into the household of an American settler in Monrovia, where she rises in society, marries and becomes a farmer's wife. Eventually, however, she meets up with Norman and June once more, as the colony is threatened by the outsiders who are still marauding and taking captives, seeing no difference between the villagers of the hinterland and the freed slaves who have settled on the coast.

This is a many layered novel with a powerful and interesting story line. I did feel the telling was a little stilted in places although I could not quite put my finger on why. And in places, the meeting and re-meeting of the three protagonists felt a little contrived. But overall, it is an original and powerful story, and an interesting take on the origins of Liberia.

The edition I read was published in the US by Graywolf Press in 2018. The book was also published in the UK by Pushkin Press in May 2019.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Zambia: The Wild Wind, by Sheena Kalayil

The author draws on her own family history for this story, although she has injected somewhat more drama and conflict into the fictionalised version. Sissy Olikara's parents are teachers seconded from the Indian state of Kerala to work in Zambia. They are living on a school campus outside Lusaka with other expatriate families, Malayalam and Americans. In is 1978, and trouble is brewing. An Air Rhodesia passenger plane is shot down by revolutionaries, bringing uncertainty to the family. In the meantime, Sissy's father has returned suddenly to India, launching a chain of events that has far-reaching consequences.

The book travels backwards and forward in time between Sissy as a child and the adult Sissy, now living in America. She revisits her past, and tries to find out what happened to her father.

I found the story very absorbing and well told. Besides learning more about Zambia, I also found it interesting to learn more about Malayalam society in Kerala, a southern state of India. The author is very good at creating suspense by revealing hints of what happened early on, during the passages narrated by Sissy as an adult, but withholding the detail until much later in the book. This drew me on chapter by chapter, and it is not until nearly the end of the book that all the threads come together in a satisfyingly complete way (although there is still some mystery as to the fate of Sissy's father).

Sheena Kalayil was born in Zambia in 1970 where her parents, like Sissy's in the story, were teachers seconded from Kerala. She attended university in the UK and worked all over the world. She now lives near Manchester with her husband and two daughters.

The Wild Wind was published in Great Britain in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Iran: To Keep the Sun Alive, by Rabeah Ghaffari

I'm beginning to realise that the books I enjoy most by authors from other countries are those where the author left and moved to the west at a fairly young age - say late teens - or at least has a considerable amount of education in the west. (America, Canada, the UK, Australia etc). And they are often female. This is not really surprising, but a bit disappointing - I would really like to enjoy books written by someone from a very different country, who has lived in that country their whole lives, and sometimes I do, but such books seem hard to find.

So we have the book in the previous post written by a Syrian male who lived there most of his life before leaving for political reasons - which I didn't enjoy all that much. (I wasn't alone in this. A review in the Irish Times described it as having "a tone between male porno fantasy and misogyny".)

And then there is the book that is the subject of this review. It is a powerful piece of storytelling that I found myself thoroughly immersed in. Set around 1979 with the Iranian Revolution just around the corner, it follows events in the lives of one extended family. Every week they gather for lunch at the home a retired judge and his wife, Bibi-Khanoom. The characters include their adopted son, Jafar, who never speaks, Bibi-Khanoom's grand-niece, Nasreen, and the judge's brother, a Mullah, Shazdehpoor, the son of his dead sister, and Shazdehpoor's son Madjid.

Madjid and Nasreen fall in love. But he is attracted by revolutionary ideals, and leaves for the city where he falls in with radical students, only to become disillusioned. Meanwhile back in his home town of Naishapur, things are coming to a head, when, on the day of a solar eclipse, an important Muslim holy day happens to fall on the same day as an ancient Persian festival. In this festival young men jump over a fire and chant, "to keep the sun alive". The conflict of the two festivals will prove disastrous for the judge's family.

Framing the chapters set at the time of the revolution are passages describing Shazdehpoor's life in Paris, many years later, when another solar eclipse prompts him to recall what happened so many years ago.

The story is richly layered and full of lyrical prose. The problems of belief are sympathetically described and none of the characters are in the least one dimensional - both the fundamentalist viewpoint, and that of the more liberal members of the family, are given a fair hearing.

Rabeah Ghaffari was born in Iran and now lives in New York City. To Keep the Sun Alive was published in 2019 by Catapult (New York).