Afia Atakora’s debut novel, set in the rural South, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, is a complex exploration of the deeply held tensions and continual trials that infuse a small, isolated community of former slaves.
The story centres around Rue, who has inherited the position of midwife and healer from her mother, Miss May Belle. Practicing the kind of “practical magic” that keeps everyone healthy and sustains amicable relationships between members of the community, she is a solitary, stoic figure who quietly and unceremoniously binds this small group of families together.
After the death of their master, these formerly enslaved members of the plantation have continued to run things as as they’ve always been. But two events threaten to tear apart their relatively peaceful lifestyle.
When Lena Johnson is invited to participate in a research study that will pay all her bills and provide for a future that is beyond comfortable, it is an impossible offer to pass up. A college student whose grandmother passed away leaving a pile of medical bills, and whose mother, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious health condition that requires expensive care, Lena jumps at the chance to help contribute to the family’s survival.
But she quickly discovers that the experiments conducted at the research facility, located in a small midwestern town called Lakewood, are of a deeply strange and violent nature. Furthermore, all participants in the study are people of colour, whereas the researchers and observers are white.
In this deeply troubling novel, the treatment of marginalized peoples throughout American history is continually evoked, in particular, emphasizing the ways that black bodies have served, intangibly, as the site of exoticization and othering, and concretely, as subjects of violence.
The Great Lakes Shipping Company, the organization which operates the experiments, bestows a fake life upon Lena, to provide a front on those rare occasions that she is permitted to speak with her loved ones. Each day she receives a brief explanation of how she spent her time. In this fake life she learns Microsoft Excel, receives leadership training, and becomes involved in small office spats (who stole whose yogurt, and the like), while in her real everyday experiences, as a research subject, she undergoes various forms of torture, psychological and physical, while being forced to take round after round of mysterious pills. The most disquieting fact of all remains that no one who participates in these studies–not only its subjects but also a significant portion of those performing them–has any idea what the expected outcomes are, or what benefits they hope to provide.
I had the great pleasure of reviewing Jana Beňová’s award-winning novella Seeing People Offa couple of years ago, over at Necessary Fiction. It is an excellent, genre-defying, language-experimenting work with a compelling woman at its centre. So I was very excited to pick up Away! Away! Which is similarly genre-defying, language-experimenting, and also driven by a woman character sorting through a love-life-liberty mire in a thirties-ish kind of way.
As you might have gathered from the title, the book is about forms of escape, both large and small. If you enjoyed Seeing People Off, as I did, this book will be pleasantly familiar. But it also shows a stronger emphasis on the prose-poetry form, and pushes the boundaries of what this form can do, narrative-wise. All of which is to say that, comparatively, this book is more abstract in terms of what (“actually”) happens, but perhaps even more precise in describing the impressions and feelings that accompany what happens.
There’s no need to introduce Jane Yolen, writer of children’s and young adult books whose name was pretty much all over my childhood book shelves. She is most famous for writing folklore and fantasy, reinventing classic tales and often paired with illustrators whose work will look immediately familiar to any child of the 90’s. This latest collection is certainly composed of typical Yolen material, but, after reading “A Knot of Toads,” a story featuring a long dormant evil forces brought to life in a small Scottish town, I realized that The Emerald Circus is not for kids at all.(By which I mean kids who don’t have nightlights. Because I definitely needed one.)
The stories are hit-or-miss. Some follow a pattern that, for Yolen, is almost formulaic by now, taking a classic tale and subverting its original intent with adult themes or feminist reprisals. The story “Lost Girls,” about Wendy arriving in Neverland and then trying to unionize a collection of “lost girls” is a great example of this.
Any book prefacing itself with the claim that “to understand this novel, readers must listen to ‘Little Earthquakes’ [by Tori Amos] and ‘Pointant le nord’ [by Pierre LaPointe]” is a book that already has the deck stacked significantly in its favour for me. There is probably a lot to love about a book for whom “Both songs might just be the ideal preface.”
That said, knowing the oeuvre of Tori Amos and Pierre LaPointe is not absolutely necessary to enjoying the book, although the continual refrain of “Little Earthquakes” is certainly illuminating, for it is a book about the ways in which the little and large tragedies of childhood–most of which are not even visible to the surrounding adults–create a lifelong trembling in the soul. It is not a novel of childhood trauma per se, and because most of its sadnesses are of a relatively familiar nature, the reader is brought wholeheartedly into this world of coldness and cod, separation and separatism, firsts and forests. There is nothing so common in childhood as the feeling of loneliness, and it is because of this that even the reader boasting one of those so-called happy childhoods can so deeply identify with the young narrator’s deep hunger for affection.
I am not entirely sure of the truth claims here. Are we in the realm of autofiction? If a memoir, then the book certainly stretches the genre beyond its usual parameters. At times very reminiscent of the long tradition of stories about childhood in rural Quebec, and at other times verging on a comic, post-modern-ish, semi-magical realist tale of leave-taking, it’s a book that is irrevocably rooted in its surroundings and yet constantly reaching toward the outside world, with Romanian Olympic stars and Belgian songwriters taking up prime real estate in the cultural atmosphere.
The novel Taduno’s Song, a strong debut by Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun, centers around memory loss of a strange nature. After the famous and politically outspoken singer Taduno returns from exile in order to continue his fight against a military dictatorship and to save his girlfriend Lela from imprisonment, he discovers that the nation he left behind no longer holds any memory of him. While his former friends and enemies remain aware that a popular singer vehemently decried the government before fleeing for his life, and that the regime is looking high and low for this singer, no one is able to identify the stranger who appears among them one day, claiming to be Taduno. Even the name itself means nothing to them anymore.
This loss of memory, in Atogun’s careful crafting, represents more of a collective inner loss, a dramatic shift in the very character of Nigeria. As Lela writes in a letter that mysteriously makes its way to Taduno while still in exile:
“In time to come, should you yield to the pull of your roots, you may be returning home to unpleasant surprises Since you left, very strange things have been happening in Nigeria, and Lagos particularly has changed in a way I cannot describe in words. I must confess, I don’t know exactly what is going on – nobody knows; all I can say is that things are changing drastically here, and the city of Lagos is not the same as we used to know it.”
This paragraph of the letter extends beyond itself, seeming to speak out to exiles the world over and particularly those from the African continent. Something strange is happening, Lela claims. Something not quite identifiable but deeply felt by everyone. It is perhaps even possible to interpret these words as those of the author himself – who still lives in Lagos – to his compatriots who have migrated around the globe.
Set in the world of violent conflict arising from divisive attempts by sectarian splinter groups to define and put into practice a fundamentalist form of Islam, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (Grove Press) can feel all too familiar at times. It echoes the news of kidnapped schoolgirls and the profiles of young men who leave their homes to join in jihad. The political events it refers to – the rigged elections, the coups, the police state – hearken back to recent years when Africa’s terrorist groups were a focal point of the major media outlets, before they ceded their place to the devastating conflict in Syria. Yet this is not a piece of journalism, despite the author’s most famous role in Nigeria being that of scathing political satirist (most prominently with a column in the Daily Trust. In this novel, told through the eyes of a child (then teenager, then young man) who attends Quaranic school in the Northern region of Nigeria, John portrays the rising of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sokoto state, and frighteningly shows how religious idealism and sectarianism lead to violence.
While I have not seen a ton of press about it in the past months leading up to its publication, I do think that it will prove to be an important work. The few reviews I have seen compare it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and, indeed, it deserves this distinction perhaps more so than most books compared to the canonical text). Yet I found the characterization of Dantala and the tension and confusion of the rising conflict between forms of Islam much more similar in tone and content to Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé (2000)or Allah Is Not Obliged (2007). While Kourouma’s novel explores the plight of child soldiers in West Africa in stark detail, John’s novel very convincingly deals with the rise of religious sectarianism leading to violence. The effective use of multilingualism and of oral/written forms of communication is a particularly striking similarity between the two, as is the voice of a fearless but woeful young man who is swept along in a conflict over which he has no control. A notable difference, of course, is that Kourouma’s Birahima is forced to join the fighting, whereas John’s Dantala tries to stay away from it.
It is jarring to read violence that is so normalized in the eyes of a child. After he has left school, Dantala takes up with a local group of boys who smoke the ever-present “wee-wee” and work as thugs and promoters for the “Small Party” during election time. They also enforce a kind of street justice among their small community of Bayan Layi. When a boy in their community attempts to steal a jug of groundnut oil, he is severely punished by the group. Dantala recalls: “I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch.” It sounds like the observation of a psychopathic killer. Yet it is rather a raw personal detail in the life of a child whose only example is violence.