Ghana: a new conquest

November 19, 2012

As a friend reminded me when I put a call out for Ghanaian suggestions on Facebook, Ghanaian literature has been part of my life almost since the beginning. I can still remember the Anansi tales being read to me in my first years of school, as we all sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the teacher at story time.

As an adult, however, I’ve not kept up with literature from the country, so when I found details of Journey by Dr Gheysika Adombire Agambila on the Writers Project of Ghana website, I had no means of knowing whether the novel was likely to be any good. I couldn’t help being a bit put off by the rather lack-lustre design of the book jacket, which features footprints going across sand under a weirdly beige sky. Alright, so we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when you haven’t got much else to go on, it’s hard not to look for clues somewhere. On the strength of what I could see in front of me, I was tempted to stick with the first suggestion on my list, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which, the internet told me, was likely to be good and, by the way, has a fabulous cover.

But Armah’s classic was published in 1968. Surely I should try to read something a little more contemporary if I could?

Then I noticed that Journey was championed by the African Books Collective, which has delivered a series of good reads to this project throughout the year. Maybe there was more to this 2006 novel than met the eye?

Journey recounts the coming of age of Amoah, a teenage school leaver keen to make his mark on the world. Sex and girls are high on the adolescent’s list, as are going to live with his uncle and getting a job in Accra, far away from his grandfather’s traditional village. But as reality bites, Amoah begins to lose his prefect’s swagger and realise there is more to life in contemporary Ghana than his neo-colonialist boarding school could hope to prepare him for.

This is a book that thrives on oppositions. Whether he’s pitting old against young, educated against illiterate, rich against poor, Christian against Muslim, male against female, or science against superstition, Agambila delights in testing the boundaries of ideologies and cultural mores by letting them fight it out in the arena of his narrative.

Humour is the biggest weapon in his arsenal. From sharp, language-based jokes, such as the unfortunate Schola’s letter to Amoah at ‘sukool’, in which she tries to make him see that they are ‘swimming in the same boat’, to killer one-liners – the observation, for example, that ‘if acne affected older people, they would have found a cure for it by now’ – Agambila makes great comic capital out of his material. Amoah is at the heart of this. Filled with the arrogance of youth and yet touchingly naive, he is forever coming a cropper in his desire to ‘take advantage of promising situations’: drinking himself silly instead of intoxicating the girl he hopes to seduce, lending money to a friend who will not pay it back, and finding his plans scuppered by the systems of a society he has not yet taken the time to understand.

This vulnerability makes Amoah very likeable and gives Agambila leverage to tackle some of the book’s more challenging themes, such as the long shadow that British rule has cast upon the country. Many of these struggles play out in Amoah’s mind as we see him scorning the ‘hopeless bush students’ at his school and reflecting that a porter is ‘so strong he would have fetched enough money to build a house and marry several wives in the days when humans were bought and sold’, but becoming furious at his grandfather’s nostalgia for colonial rule. Similarly, while he sneers at the traditions and beliefs of the villagers in Tinga, Amoah is unable to help superstitions about witches creeping into his mind when he walks out late at night. Educated to be disdainful and distrustful of the culture he is rooted in, he struggles to find a way to assimilate the contradictions within him, playing out a national drama on a personal level.

At times the pacing can be problematic. Agambila has a tendency to put us in scenes and keep us there in real time. While this works brilliantly with comic set pieces such as the dance Amoah attends at the hotel near his school, it becomes less compelling when it comes to descriptions of the hero’s bathing rituals. In addition, the latter half of the narrative could do with some tightening to keep the momentum up right to the end.

On the whole, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Sharp, funny and insightful, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read – a worthy successor to the crown of Anansi in the kingdom of my imagination.

Journey by Gheysika Adombire Agambila (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2006)

Tuvalu: how to make it rain

November 17, 2012

There’s tough and then there’s Tuvalu. The number of messages I’ve sent about this place –the third least populous nation on Earth after Vatican City and Nauru – over the past year is probably nearing the 50 mark. And though many of the people I contacted were willing to help, there was no getting round the fact that there was simply very little to suggest.

Somewhere along the way, however, I got in touch with scholar, writer, photographer, restorer of antique radio equipment, and community volunteer Peter McQuarrie. Though based in New Zealand, McQuarrie is married to a Tuvaluan and has connections with the Tuvaluan community in Auckland. He promised to ask around and duly came back with the suggestion of Tuvalu: a history, a book written by 17 Tuvaluans and published in 1983, a few years after the nation declared its independence.

As I explained to McQuarrie, I have tended to disregard history books so far during this quest, regarding them as being some way out of the scope of literature. However, the collaborative nature of the work, and the fact that it chimed in with the genre of national-identity stories I’d already discovered in Pacific works like Luelen Bernart’s The Book of Luelen and Sethy John Regenvanu’s Laef Blong Mi, made me hesitate. In the end, I decided to give it a go.

Written by people drawn from all walks of life on the nation’s nine islands during a series of workshops run by the University of the South Pacific, this collection of essays and personal accounts paints a picture of Tuvaluan life stretching back as far as folklore, hearsay and patchy historical records allow and reaching up to the time of writing. The pieces are divided by subject, with the writers tackling different aspects of the country’s culture, such as creation, religion, land, singing and dancing, and independence, in an effort to tell the story of their newly minted nation.

As in several other Pacific Island works I’ve read this year, the writers often make little distinction between factual and symbolic truth. The accounts rove back and forth between myth and history, mingling tales about cannibals and magical eels with maps, diagrams, and explanations about the islands’ names, geography and politics. Indeed, the fantastic and the factual sometimes seem to blend together, with anecdotal accounts about chiefs who could charm fish and the story of the old woman who knew how to make it rain:

‘Taia Teuai, an old woman who died in 1982, was generally recognised as having inherited from her grandparents the power to make it rain. Shortly before her death she explained how she did it:

‘”If there is a long drought then I will make the rain fall. First I go to the bush to gather coconut leaves and flowers with which to weave myself a garland. Later, towards sunset, I put oil over my body and wearing a clean dress and with a garland on my head go down to the beach to meet a team of ‘rain-makers’. These are little clouds sailing towards the setting sun. I look at them and dance, and sing a song such as this one:

‘”Little clouds, little clouds!/Bring rain to me,/To moisten my body.

‘”In about three days time there would be heavy rain. This sort of rain can easily be recognised because the drops are much thicker than those of ordinary rain.”‘

This blending of anecdote and historical research gives rise to some wonderful insights into Tuvaluan life. We learn, for example, how to hitch a ride on a turtle’s back – apparently the trick is to hang on without getting your fingers jammed between the neck and the shell or too near the mouth – as well as the islanders’ rather alarming traditional methods of dealing with troublemakers, which involve a leaky canoe without a paddle. We also discover the toll that Western influences have taken on the nation, from the blackbirders who came to kidnap people to work in the Peruvian mines in the 19th century, through to the suppression of dancing and singing by the missionaries, and the ravages of world war two – during which the Americans destroyed 22,000 of Nanumea’s 54,000 coconut trees building their defensive airfield.

The subject matter may be varied, but through all the accounts runs a sense of the gravity of the task the writers are undertaking. This is established from the first page, with the foreword from prime minister Tomasi Puapua, who describes the book as being of ‘considerable significance in the history of the young nation of Tuvalu’ because the accounts are, for the first time, ‘written by Tuvaluans interpreting events as they themselves see them’. This is perhaps most movingly borne out in Enele Sapoago’s brief essay ‘Today and Tomorrow’ at the back of the book, which describes in fresh and passionate terms what independence means.

That said, it’s hard not to feel the hand of the non-Tuvaluan workshop leaders on the shoulders of the writers at points. The essay form becomes stilted and awkward at times, and the later chapters dealing with events leading up to independence feel very dutiful and dense, and are often hard to read. In addition, it is difficult to ignore the fact that most of the historical source material the writers have to work with necessarily comes from the jottings of Western visitors to the archipelago. I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly the writing – carried out in English – was intended for.

Nevertheless, there’s no question that this is an important book. As the first concerted effort of Tuvaluans to tell their story, it is informative, passionate and sometimes surprising. Nearly 30 years on from its publication, it’s surely time we had some more.

Tuvalu: A History by Simati Faaniu, Vinaka Ielemia, Taulu Isako, Tito Isala, Laumua Kofe (Rev), Nofoaiga Lafita, Pusineli Lafai, Kalaaki Laupepa (Dr), Nalu Nia, Talakatoa O’Brien, Sotaga Pape, Laloniu Samuelu, Enele Sapoaga, Pasoni Taafaki, Melei Telavi, Noatia Penitala Teo, Vaieli Tinilau, ed Hugh Laracy (Institute of Pacific Studies, 1983)

I had hoped this post would be on a book by Emin Milli. I found him on Twitter, describing himself as a ‘dissident writer living in Azerbaijan’ – rather brave from what I’ve heard about the strictness of the regime. In fact, according to his website, Milli is no stranger to this himself: he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in 2009 and was only released conditionally in November 2010.

Sadly, when I contacted Milli, it turned out that the book of short stories he is working on won’t be ready until next year. He offered to translate and send me a couple of pieces – he works as an interpreter as well as a writer – but as I was really looking for a complete book, I decided not to put him to the trouble of doing that.

In the meantime, a contact at Sheffield Hallam University had sent through a suggestion of Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This book presented another dilemma: although Azerbaijanis apparently consider it their national novel, at least according to Paul Theroux’s introduction in my edition, the identity of its author has been a mystery for many years. Several non-Azerbaijani writers have been in the frame since the book first appeared in Germany in 1937, alongside Baku-born Islam convert Mohammed Essad Bey (aka Lev Nussinbaum). He is the writer that journalist Tom Reiss concluded was behind the book – Reiss went on to write a biography of Bey, titled The Orientalist, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006. In addition, other scholars argue that Azerbaijani statesman Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli is the main author.

The odds were that the novel is by an Azerbaijani, but there was still room for doubt. Was this enough for me to justify making it my choice for the nation?

Faced with very little else available in translation, I finally decided to go for it when I discovered that the journal Azerbaijan International had dedicated an entire issue to the book. Whatever the truth about its author, it was clear that the novel had had a lasting impact on the nation. And so, at the risk that new evidence emerges that blows all this out of the water, I decided to give it a go.

The novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, during the turbulent run up to the declaration of a separate Azerbaijani state, and tells the story of a relationship between Christian beauty Nino and Muslim Ali. Caught between the conservative traditions of Asia and the liberal culture of Europe, and with the might of Russia bearing down on the region, the lovers find themselves forced to question their desires and identities. And, as the world plunges into war, they realise that events on battlefields hundreds of miles away will decide whether a society in which their love can thrive will continue to exist.

The conflict between East and West is at the heart of this book. From the very first chapter, in which a geography teacher explains that Baku sits on the cusp of two continents and tells Nino and his classmates that it is partly down to them ‘whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia’, questions of allegiance and identity are at the forefront of the narrative. This plays out on every level, from different ways of eating through to the design of houses – all of which are presented with much affection and wit. I particularly enjoyed Ali’s conservative uncle’s description of his visit to the opera in Berlin:

‘We were taken to an opera, called L’Africaine. On stage stood a very fat woman and sang dreadfully. We disliked the woman’s voice very much. Kaiser Wilhelm noticed this and punished the woman on the spot. In the last act many negroes came and erected a big pyre. The woman was bound hand and foot and slowly burnt to death. We were very pleased about that. Later somebody told us that the fire had been only symbolical. But we did not believe this, for the woman shrieked just as terribly as the heretic Hurriet ul Ain, whom the Shah had had burnt to death in Tehran just before we set out on our journey.’

When it comes to the position of women in society, the contrast between the two cultures couldn’t be more stark. While Nino’s father advises Ali that marriage should be based on equality when he goes to ask for her hand, his own father tells him that ‘women are like children, only much more sly and vicious’ and his friends and other relatives advise him that wives have no souls and should be controlled with violence. And when Nino is kidnapped and Ali is forced to pursue her kidnapper’s car across the desert, the codes of honour by which he and his peers operate look set to have horrific consequences for his love.

It seems impossible that a relationship could bridge such a gulf, but the beauty of the book is that Said is able to reveal the coming together of two people in a way that is utterly believable and compelling. While recognising that culturally and historically they ‘ought to be blood enemies’, Ali and Nino are able to find ways of transcending their backgrounds while holding on to the truth of who they are. This does not come without great pain and sacrifice. In fact, much of the book is concerned with the struggles the lovers face to accommodate each other’s needs and desires – from the miserable months Nino spends walled up in a harem in Persia, to the indignation Ali has to swallow at hearing Europeans praise his beautiful, unveiled wife. However, according to the story at least, such reconciliation is possible, even if much is lost along the way.

As a metaphor for the dawning of the new Azerbaijani nation, which managed a few brave years before being swallowed into the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, the book is a powerful and memorable one. Written with great humour and beauty, it brims with affection for this nation of contrasts and contradictions. A wonderful read.

Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated from the German by Jenia Graman (Vintage 2000)

I’m a girl who likes a challenge. So when Nadine stopped by the blog to share her thoughts on what my NZ choice should be, I couldn’t help but be struck by what she had to say. One comment in particular caught my eye:

‘Of course many might say the New Zealand book to read is “Once Were Warriors” by Alan Duff. It was made into a chilling film in the mid-nineties that had a ripple effect on the country that we still feel today. And for all of that the film wasn’t a patch on the book, written in a kind of vernacular. But if you read Once Were Warriors, you would have to read “Tangi”, by Witi Ihimaera (of Whale Rider fame) lest you be left with a completely skewed impression of our indigenous heritage.’

Nadine’s words made me think of several things: she reminded me of the dilemmas I’ve had choosing books from countries that are home to several cultural communities and what this has taught me about the short-sightedness of thinking that one book can speak for an entire group, let alone a nation. She also made me curious: what was it about Once Were Warriors that might skew my perception of Maori culture? And why had this book and film had such a profound effect on New Zealand society? At the risk of permanently warping my perception of the nation’s heritage, I was going to have to take a look.

Set on the grim council estate of Pine Block, Once Were Warriors follows Beth and Jake Heke and their children as they lurch from crisis to crisis. Alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, unemployment and crime are all facts of life in their urban Maori community, where books are non-existent and most teenage boys’ highest aspirations are to be accepted into the brutal Brown Fists gang. Yet, as Beth discovers when overwhelming catastrophe strikes, the greatest enemy she and her peers are up against could be themselves.

Alan Duff is a master of the thousand ways we humans have of justifying our failings to ourselves. Writing in a roaming monologue, which flows in and out of the thoughts of each of the Heke family, he lays bare the contradictions, self-delusions and false promises by which the characters navigate through their days. We see Beth repeatedly touching her bruised face to reassure herself that she couldn’t have made it to her son’s court hearing and Jake telling himself that he is interested in far more things than sport and violence, ‘though he couldn’t name specifics’, while their eldest son Nig begins to learn the same process of compartmentalising emotions his parents have used for years so as to be able to present the steely front demanded of local gang members.

Each locked in the lonely labyrinth of his or her own narrative, the Heke family members grope desperately for something to allow them to connect with one another and the world. They and their neighbours seek it in the blur of alcohol, the rush of fighting – ‘the only taste of victory they get from life’ – and clumsy physical encounters.

Maori heritage presents a possibility for bonding too. Yet the urban group’s grasp of it is weak and slanted – fixated on the physical prowess of previous generations and devoid of the celebration of legends, rituals and culture that binds the community in the town where Beth grew up. Intimidated by the Maori language that they cannot speak and practices they do not understand, the Pine Blockers are a lost tribe, for whom cultural background is little more than a further justification for the cycle of abuse and disadvantage in which they remain – until Beth is forced to explore what it might take for this to change.

It’s easy to see why this book was made into a film: Duff is great at raising the stakes and racking up the tension, and the episodic style of the narrative already reads like a series of scenes. At times, this cutting in and out of events can feel a little abrupt, with certain key episodes glossed over or skipped out altogether, so that you have the disconcerting feeling of being in a lift whisking past the floor you expected to stop at. I also wasn’t convinced by the star-gazer who appears at a couple of key points in the narrative, presumably to put events into a sort of cosmic context.

But these are little things. On the whole, this is a powerful and thought-provoking book. Far from being a negative account of indigenous New Zealand cultural groups, it is a passionate argument for engaging with and cherishing that heritage. It is essentially a story about identity and the stagnation that sets in when people are cut off from their roots – a theme that resonates all over the world.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff (Vintage, 1995)

When it comes to literature from Caribbean nations, it tends to be feast or famine. Either you find yourself overwhelmed by a plethora of books from excellent and exciting writers, as in the case of countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, or you have to look hard to come up with even one work you can read in English.

All the same, few Caribbean nations have been as tricky to find stories from as the tiny archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. As writer Adam Lowe of Peepal Tree Press, which published my Grenadian pick, explained when I contacted him to ask for ideas, the literature scene on the smaller island nations is still in its infancy and there is very little support and guidance for aspiring authors. As such, while there are writers from these countries, few will have had the opportunity to develop and publish their work.

Adam might have thought he was delivering bad news, but in actual fact his email spurred me on. There were SVG writers out there, then. I just had to find them.

A bit of frantic googling (froogling, if you will) later, and I landed at the threshold of ‘Writing “D”‘, a blog by debraprovidence, a teacher with a self-confessed interest in exploring the literary landscape of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I left a message and held my breath.

Debraprovidence replied the very next day with the names of three writers, all of whom, as far as I could make out, emigrated from SVG at a fairly young age. Of these, Cecil Browne’s short story collection The Moon is Following Me caught my eye.

The book is full of tales of longing. Whether they are hankering after sweet coconuts, a secret love or the perfect line up for a local band, Browne’s characters are all driven by a desire to achieve, prove or change something – even if they have to adopt unconventional means to do it. There is the emancipated slave-turned-hawker who challenges a rival to an eating competition in order to defend his pitch, the young man who tries to win his sweetheart’s affections by buying her a wedding dress, and the school-leaver who risks his life for a taste of his favourite fruit.

Their author, too, seems to be unafraid of breaking with tradition. Indeed, when I opened the book and found myself confronting one of the most unusual forewords I have ever read – in which the author assures the reader of his stories’ ‘universal appeal’ – I was rather taken aback. It seemed as though Browne’s query letter to his agent or publisher had somehow got mixed up with the manuscript and published with the book, and I was apprehensive about what the collection had in store.

I quickly relaxed, however, helped by Browne’s quirky humour and delight in subverting expectations. From the moody schoolboy of the title story, who spends his time wishing disaster would strike to relieve his boredom, to the prudish Mrs Goodridge in ‘Action Action’, who is thrown into a panic by the news that her husband of 12 years is finally coming home from England to live with her, Browne delights in making his characters swim against the currents of their lives.

He couples this with a deft turn of phrase and an eye for detail that makes otherwise commonplace moments sparkle. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ‘cylindrical dress, about a metre in diameter’ that Mrs Goodridge fantasizes about making for herself to ward off physical contact. In addition, the stories initiate the reader into the altered sense of scale that comes with living in a small place through incidental details such as bandleader Sister’s ambition ‘to put Fitz-Hughes on the SVG map’ in ‘First, Second, First, Third’.

That said, there are a few technical issues holding some of the early stories back. Several of them take a while to come into focus, as though Browne is casting about looking for his subject well into the second or third page. The prose is also occasionally a bit choppy, as though bits have been missed out, so that odd sentences jump from scene to scene like a scratched record. Perhaps most problematic of all is ‘Spanish Ladies’ – a story close to the author’s heart, judging by his remarks in the foreword – in which Browne seems to have allowed his emotional involvement with the events he describes to override his writing, making for an unusually flat and predictable end.

Overall, though, there is much to like here. The last two stories, ‘Action Action’ and ‘Taste for Freedom’, are particularly strong – my copy has ‘great’ and ‘nice’ scrawled in the margins throughout these. I’d be interested to see what Browne, who left SVG at the age of 13 and is now head of maths at a college in west London, writes next. And I wonder, if he’d stayed in SVG, whether he would have published these stories at all.

The Moon is Following Me by Cecil Browne (Matador, 2010)

Serbia: cultural exchange

October 8, 2012

Colleagues are wonderful things: you can have a casual conversation in passing one morning and suddenly discover that the person you catch sight of every so often in the canteen or say hello to on the stairs is an expert in a whole host of subjects you know nothing about. Over my time freelancing at newspaper and magazine offices in and around central London, I’ve shared water coolers with salsa dancers, filmmakers, fell runners, actors, poets, and many more besides.

In a place like London, colleagues can also be a great source of information about books from other countries. And so, when I discovered that Tijana who sat behind me for a time at the Guardian was Serbian and a booklover to boot, I lost no time in asking her for suggestions.

Tijana went one better than simply giving me a list of recommendations. On a trip home a few months later, she picked out a translation of a book she had enjoyed and posted it to me. And so it was that I found myself clutching a copy of Srđan Valjarević’s intriguingly titled Lake Como.

The novel follows a Serbian writer who takes up a Rockefeller scholarship for a month-long residency at the luxurious Villa Maranese by Lake Como in Italy. Surrounded by academics, thinkers and artists on similar bursaries, the protagonist, who is there on the pretext of writing a novel, spends his days sleeping, getting drunk, watching football and chatting up a waitress in a local bar. He seems destined to fritter his time away, yet as the weeks pass his observations and interactions with the people around him take on a meaning that in many ways transcends the work he might have done on his own.

Frank, irreverent and at ease with his shortcomings, Valjarević’s protagonist is an extremely likeable character. Whether he is describing his part in the application process for the scholarship – ‘I was drinking beer as I wrote a short outline of the novel, I made it all up, and my friend Vlada translated it into English and then corresponded with them for a while instead of me’ – or the fabrications he uses to get out of the centre’s dreary cultural evenings and concerts, the hero is refreshingly honest and often very funny.

Such humour is just the tool Valjarević needs to puncture the earnestness of the Villa Maranese and reveal the absurdity of much that goes on there. Whether he is dodging the fierce questions of the Kyrgyz literature expert determined to press-gang him into giving a lecture, sympathising with the Nigerian poet who has travelled all the way from Africa only to spend his residency laid up with back pain, or taking advantage of his peers’ simplistic assumptions about the horror of his life back in Belgrade, the hero’s interactions show up the surreal elements and contradictions that lie beneath the worthy veneer of life at the Villa Maranese. Perhaps most telling of all is the chapter where the writer invites the waitress and his other friends from the village to dinner at the house and discovers that, despite living next door to the fabulous grounds, they have never before been able to go inside.

Yet the novel is far from a hatchet job on pompous cultural schemes. Indeed, the paradox at the heart of the book is that, despite his ostensible abuse of the terms of his scholarship, the writer gains much of value during his residency: he makes meaningful connections, both with people in the village and with several fellow guests; he has moments of transcendent experience, from seeing a golden eagle to hearing the tune of bells in a town he can no longer visit played by another resident; and he begins to re-evaluate the way he lives.

The result is a moving and surprisingly searching consideration of nationality, art, identity, culture and human endeavour. It is at once one of the funniest books I’ve read this year and one of the most profound. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s well worth the effort.

Lake Como (Komo) by Srđan Valjarević, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić (Geopoetika Publishing, Belgrade, 2009)

This book was given to me by Jimena, a Mexican woman who attended the English PEN ‘Free Speech: found in translation’ night-class course I finished a few weeks back. She looked apologetic as she got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao out of her bag and handed it over.

‘I’m not sure if you’ll want to include it,’ she said. ‘You see, he writes in English.’

A discussion ensued about whether Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an acceptable Dominican Republic choice. My classmates wanted to know where he was born (Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic), where he lived now (the US), and how much of his childhood he’d spent in the country (four years plus holiday visits to relatives from what I can make out). It seemed each one of us had slightly different criteria for judging Diaz’s pedigree.

Personally, I wasn’t sure I would include Diaz. I had several other names in the frame for the Dominican Republic and, excellent though I was sure the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was, I was intrigued to find out about them.

Then two things happened: quite by chance, our course leader Sophie Mayer referred to Diaz’s novel during the session, a coincidence which appealed to my sense of serendipity, and I discovered that the prose work of the other Dominican Republic writers on the list, including Arambilet and Pedro Mir, was by no means readily available in English. Time being of the essence, I decided to give the Diaz a go. It would be a sort of test of where that mysterious boundary line of nationality goes in literature, I thought.

Roving back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic, the novel follows Oscar, a sci-fi and fantasy nerd and son of a Dominican mother, growing up in the eighties in a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey. Overweight, lonely and desperate for attention from girls, Oscar embarks on a series of excruciating attempts to win the favours of the local beauties, watched first by his rebellious sister Lola and later his college room-mate Yunior.

But it turns out that Oscar’s misery is by no means a one-off. As he unfolds his family’s backstory, Diaz reveals an intricate tale of torture, betrayal, murder and shattered dreams that stretches all the way up to the Dominican Republic’s erstwhile dictator Trujillo and will, quite literally, blow Oscar’s mind.

It’s interesting that a discussion of nationality nearly turned me off reading this book, because the relationship of the individual to cultural identity is one of its central themes. Right from its Derek Walcott epigraph, ending ‘either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’, the novel explores how heritage informs, shapes and constrains our choices. Everything from the family fear of being under an old Fuku (curse) and the fact that ‘in Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow’, through to Lola’s fraught relationship with her mother and Oscar’s relatives’ scorn at his failure with girls can be traced back to a sense of what Dominican life is or should be.

The threads weaving together the personal and national are further tightened by a series of zestful footnotes that run through the book, giving the narrator’s personal gloss on history. Describing aspects of Trujillo’s reign of terror, ‘one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating US-backed dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and the argentinos are still appealing)’, they present a furiously witty engagement with the way politics impacts on individual lives. Feisty, shocking and only occasionally annoying, they grab the predominantly American readers Diaz clearly has in mind by the scruff of the neck and make them acknowledge what has happened, often giving them a parting jab in the ribs – ‘You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either’.

Although Jimena was worried that the fact the  novel was written in English rather than Spanish might weaken its DR claims, the language of the book is shot through with a sense of Dominican heritage. Packed with Spanish slang and even complete sentences in the language, the narrative is raucous with the richness of its cultural references and the conflicts and contradictions these create.

The result is a powerful, irreverent and thoroughly engrossing exploration of identity and how the particular time and place we are born and grow up in shape who we are. If anything, Diaz’s exposure to both US and Dominican society sharpens his perception of the DR. It is as though for both him and his characters, the transition between the two cultures is only truly possible once they have immersed themselves in, understood and made peace with their Dominican heritage. As Lola puts it, ‘you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2009)

How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?

I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.

One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.

With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:

‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’

This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.

Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.

MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.

What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.

These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu's] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.

The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.

These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)

The internet has been a breeding ground for weird and wonderful literary ventures since it stretched its tentacles into most of our homes somewhere around the mid nineties. Whether you want to talk about, swap, write or analyse books – or even cut them up and make them into something else entirely – there is a site out there for you.

Few people, however, have been more dedicated to exploring the possibilities of marrying web and paper pages than Swiss networker and literary critic Beat Mazenauer. Having been involved with arts projects on the internet since the early days of the information superhighway, he is the driving force behind such collaborations as the literature platform Readme.cc and the recent Imaginary Museum of Migration, which collects and displays the migration stories of its users. He is also General Secretary of the Swiss Ministry of Culture, a daring project that capitalises on the fact Switzerland has no official ministry of culture (as its government members are known as federal councillors instead) to highlight the power of domain names.

Mazenauer gave me a fascinating list of Swiss titles I could read for this project. Several of the books on it were so tempting that I had to ask a colleague to help me choose. In the end, what made us decide on Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta was the intriguing and tragic life story of its author, Aglaja Veteranyi.

Born into a family of Romanian circus performers, Veteranyi spent her childhood travelling Europe performing tricks until she and her relatives were granted asylum in Switzerland, the country she came to adopt as her home. Illiterate because of her nomadic life, the teenage Veteranyi taught herself to read and write German before embarking on a career as a freelance writer in 1982. However, the abuse and exploitation of her early years had taken a lasting toll and the author drowned herself in Lake Zurich in 2002.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is an autobiographical novel in which a child narrator describes the life of her itinerant circus family. In addition to walking the tightrope of childhood and adolescence, she must also negotiate the nightly fear that her mother, ‘THE WOMAN WITH THE STEEL HAIR,’ will fall from the winch from which she hangs in the big top, as well as the violence and sexual menace of her father and the risk that the family may be identified and sent back to Romania to be executed. She and her sister do this by masking one horror with another, creating a gruesome story about a child cooking alive in a vat of polenta, which they tell themselves for comfort when the world becomes too frightening.

The subject matter sounds grim, yet the narrative voice is light-hearted and even funny for much of the book. Filled with quirky insights and descriptions that capture the cadences and preoccupations of childhood to a tee, the novel fizzes with life. There is the car trip that ‘lasted several years’ and musings on knotty problems such as whether God speaks other languages, all of which make the succinct expressions of suffering all the more telling when they come: ‘I don’t scream. I’ve thrown my mouth away,’ says the narrator at one point, expressing more in eight words than pages of description could do.

The narrator’s striking perspective on the world is enhanced by the bold structural and formatting choices that run through the book. There are phrases picked out in capital letters, lists of repeated words, one-sentence chapters and even blank pages, which make the work feel more like a baggy poem at points and underline perfectly the disconcerting nature of a childhood where nothing can be relied upon and the most basic of rules do not apply.

At the root of this unease is the search for home and identity. To the narrator, ‘every country is in a foreign country’, and the family’s history and allegiances shift depending on who they are speaking to:

‘OUR STORY SOUNDS DIFFERENT EVERY TIME MY MOTHER TELLS IT.

‘We’re Orthodox, we’re Jewish, we’re international!

‘My grandfather owned a circus arena, he was a salesman, a captain, traveled from country to country, never left his own village and was a locomotive engineer. He was a Greek, a Romanian, a farmer, a Turk, a Jew, an aristocrat, a Gypsy, an Orthodox believer.

‘My mother was appearing in circuses even as a child so she could feed her whole family.

‘Another time she runs away to the circus with my father against her parents’ wishes.’

Out of this melting pot of conflicting accounts, Veteranyi concocts a rich and subtle meditation on childhood, belonging, nationality and truth. Wistful, tart and witty, the book achieves that fine balance of pathos and humour that only the very best childhood narratives share. It left me wanting more.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta (Warum das Kind in der Polenta kocht) by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from the German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

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