Book Review, The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are,  we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them…

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a profound book that ponders race relations between black Americans and people of caucasian descent in America. James Baldwin also examines the role of the Negro in western society and touches on black identity and the importance of understanding and maintaining this ‘black identity’ in a transnational space that can be both confusing and potentially overwhelming.

Capture d_écran 2017-11-12 à 12.05.47 PM

Why I Love this Book

While very direct and fast-paced, the narration feels like a conversation. He uses the first person and leaves the narration with an overabundance of commas. These commas give the impression of hurried speech that continues without the general literary pause that manifests itself in a full stop. He candidly talks about his experience and observations on life and living it ‘black’, so to speak in a particular western society which is America. He makes references to societal structures which are designed to keep one race atop the other and also critiques religion and its role in the nigger’s depraved condition.

The Nigger’s Social Condition

Through the use of double negative structures, James Baldwin reveals the hopelessness surrounding the black man’s condition. He paints a picture of his childhood where ‘you were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity’. He makes it more than clear that the societal structure built to keep niggers at the bottom was not only oppressive but restrictive. One in which mere effort could not suffice to deliver niggers…..that ‘the social treatment accorded even the most successful negroes//something more than a bank account// to be free// (because) it was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it…’  (Happens police brutality against isn’t a reality of the 60’s only…)

Religion,…the bane maybe?

One can not miss the overt presence of Biblical allusions in the book. Words like ‘Sin’,’Pharoah’, ‘Church’, dot the book which makes it hard to not conclude that the author is likely trying to explore certain issues in that respect. James became a preacher and soon grew uncomfortable with the extortive world of Christendom. Basically how money is taken from congregations in the name of God. In addition, James notes that the reality of most churches is ‘blindness, loneliness, and terror’ instead of faith, hope, and charity’. He satirizes the church saying that ‘ there is ‘no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing and all voices coming together and crying‘ yet in all this purging of emotion and the expression of genuine love for God, why did the white God ensure to let the blacks be ‘cast down so far?’ Needless to say, the Bible was written by white men. These contrasting ideas can help draw a subtle link with the manner in which colonialism was presented in Africa. Was it not with the Bible and was it not tagged mission work?

Finally, James mentions working as a preacher and compares being in the pulpit to being in the theatre. He was both behind and on the scene and knew ‘how the illusion worked’  including how to work on a congregation until ‘the last dime was surrendered‘ and knowledge of where the money for ‘the Lord’s work‘ went.

Conclusion

This book isn’t one of those books you read once. I think everyone should own a copy and refer to it as it is still very politically and socially relevant. I would say it is one of those books whose biting truth will occur and reoccur to you. Most importantly, it is okay to read a book and not fully grasp the depth of all it has to offer. Some books make sense only after years of reading them.

Book Review – Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

 

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.40.14 PMYaa Gyasi’s Homegoing assures me more than ever of the importance of storytelling! Outside being Fante and being more than able to relate to a lot of occurrences in the book including the refreshing use of Fante diction, I am happy that through this story a lot more people will be exposed to the immensely rich aspects of Ghanaian culture. The story is set in southern Ghana, Gold Coast in the narrative, and highlights not only the peculiarities of the group of people called Akan, (Fante and Asante encompassed) but also thoroughly educates readers on the dynamics of the slave trade and other equally important historical events that happened concurrently in the West and Africa, specifically the Gold Coast at the time of the slave trade. This post’s main aim is to highlight parts of the narrative that unravel the parts of Ghanaian culture that lie subtle yet remain pivotal aspects of who we are as a people and how these parts add to the wealth of cultural information this novel holds.

Proverbs

Each page in the book somehow reminds me of my childhood and events witnessed as a child such as eating with one’s fingers, lounging in the courtyard making small talk and listening to inconsequential neighborhood or family gossip or using terms of endearment such as ‘odo’. In the opening of the novel is a proverb that basically talks about the difference between the stark truth and impressions, facades or appearances. The fact that every family looks like a dense united front (forest) yet a close exploration of this ‘forest’ shows the reality of separation since each ‘tree’ (family member) is literally standing alone and apart from the other trees. So, in essence, each family has its own problems that divide them no matter how good or unified they look in the public eye. I dare say this reality of family differences gets more chaotic with extended families. What makes these family troubles more dramatic is the fact that the more traditional the setup, the more the fire is stoked since the partakers in the snags live literally next door to each other usually in a huge enclosed compound. Therefore, this pettiness continues until someone decides to begin thinking differently. I have witnessed my extended family go through these valleys and some of the occasions have been funny and others not so funny.

Anecdotes

In some Ghanaian homes, certain didactic anecdotes are told and passed on to children to serve as deterrents mostly with the general aim of preventing accidents or discouraging some actions. The moral of these stories help us understand why those actions need not be done hence these stories have a cause and effect structure which is meant to directly influence the listeners’ choices. In the novel, there is a brief story of a woman that carried hot oil around her home and ended up scalding her husband who lay in the woman’s path; the woman was banished as a result and later became known as a witch etc. Growing up, I heard stories of losing good luck if one swept at night. This anecdote and Yaa’s anecdote of the hot oil form part of the culture of telling didactic stories with the aim of keeping children safe. The truth behind the discouragement of carrying hot oil around over distances in your home is to avoid accidents. Sweeping at night, on the other hand, is also discouraged to avoid the sweeping away of precious possessions because the logic is that at night visibility is low as compared to the day.

Belief systems

I didn’t even know that the Fante and Twi languages and tribes are branches from one and the same Akan tree! It only made sense then to me in a huge eureka moment that this is the reason behind both languages sounding so similar with only vocabulary variations. How shameful that as Ghanaian, I thought I was very informed about my culture and pride. Happens there’s only so much I  know. I also liked the way a whole page of writing was dedicated to explaining the essence of matrilineal dominance in both Asante and Fante lines. A man is more interested in his sister’s children and considers them more his priority than his own children because his sister is born of his mother but his wife is not; so interest in nieces and nephews guarantee the maintenance of property in the ‘mother’s house’ versus wealth being lost to ‘outsiders’.

Adulterated expressions

Obroni is a term anyone who grew up Ghanaian would know otherwise you probably grew up under a rock . However, this word which originally read as ‘Abro ni’ has gone through stages that have finally brought it to the way we say it now. ‘Abro’ translates to wickedness or malice or the act of knowingly doing what is wrong. ‘Abro ni’ then goes directly to mean a wicked person. This two-word expression gradually becomes the one word we use today; ‘Obroni’.

In addition, I never really understood the full meaning of the pronounced gesticulations of the Adowa dance, I mean we definitely can’t understand everything right? sometimes you just gotta appreciate and leave everything at that but then Aunty Yaa Gyasi gives that insight into one of the meanings of the hand gestures in the Adowa dance. In the novel, a character did the Adowa and hands were brought up and over ‘as though ready to receive and give back to the earth.’ In that particular scenario in the story, the people had gone through a long phase of famine and the ground/Asaase Yaa had finally been able to bless them with abundant food and harvest, therefore, the little hand movement repeated severally in the dance became a direct symbol of appreciation or acknowledgment of everything they owned as a people having come from Asaase Yaa. In the Adowa dance, every dancer has a unique message they use their body to communicate,  one of which is this special hand movement which is a gesture of thanksgiving.

Reinforcement of traditional Practices

The story ends with two people who are attracted to each other. The interesting twist to this is that the two are related. Yaa ends the story with their returning to Ghana and taking a dip in the deep blue sea. Yet the reality of these two people being related hangs on the reader’s neck and we itch to see how this knot will be unwound. Like the proverbial two halves of one fruit, these two characters are from the same family, lost over years and decades and reunited by some random working of fate. Though Yaa leaves us in need of a sequel to satisfy our curiosity about what would happen between these two characters, the part of the book where we are left shows us the potential for love between these two characters.

The reinforcement of traditional practices is highlighted at this point and gives us food for thought because up until this point, Yaa’s character’s have married with no background checks whatsoever. One of the things that make Ghanaian marriages different is the exhaustive background checks done to ensure that incestuous relationships are not allowed to happen. The novel’s end forces a particular line of thought which encourages a renewed appreciation of some of our traditional practices.

Final thoughts

Yaa Gyasi’s book is a wealth of information about slavery and the aspects of history that are not too easy to talk about today. It is insightful material for anyone who wishes to learn more about slavery, Africa, Ghana and an intimate narrative that brings the reader into the story, allowing for active participation and not a dormant reception of information.  We are on a journey with the characters, feel their pain and relive moments from the slave trade.

Most importantly, the story removes readers from the impersonal and mostly detached and factitious way that our schools teach slavery. Slavery is reduced to a narration of facts and dates and fails to show the cultural-emotional extent to which this bit of history meant to many groups of people over long periods of time and even until today.

***

As a lover of the literary arts, I keep piling up reasons that ground my deep interest in this art. Below are a number of reasons;

Literature becomes a vehicle through which many topics can be discussed in a not too rigid way helping for the flexible accumulation of knowledge outside technical material

Literature exposes a people, their thought processes/social consciousness/belief systems, and culture….. this thought aligns with the first point…

We learn about own selves through literature, some works can emphasize what we already know and enhance our understanding of self.

Also, check out the post on Willie Lynch’s How to make a Slave as it aligns with several aspects of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

 

 

Letters to a YOUNG NOVELIST I Mario Vargas LLosa

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.49.49 PMNote from the blurb ;- “he (the writer) lays bare the inner workings of fiction, all the while urging young novelists not to lose touch with the elemental urge to create.”

One of the truest reasons for my huge attraction to fiction is my recognition of the existence of inspiration all around us. There are stories all around! The story of your neighbor, your own life, the events that unfolded between you and the random man or woman you met! Or the dramatic break up of your friend who never listened to your words of wisdom on that waste relationship. Seriously, there are countless reasons to create! Having this in mind, I was happy to read about not losing the urge to create in the blurb of this book and discover a narration of how to grow the spark for writing.

The book is a collection of short stories, each crafted with a specific message to be delivered. I smiled as I read the parts of the book that addressed my fears/secret wishes and maybe uncertainties. How revealing it all felt! Without even going over my head with excitement and a stark fascination at how piercing its truths were, I had to remind myself that of course, this was more or less a manual of some sort created with aspiring writers in mind. One of these truths that pummeled through me addressed the aim of being a best-selling writer. Was my aim selfish or legitimate?

“I venture to suggest that you not expect quite so much and that you not count too much on success. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you’ll soon discover that prizes, public acclaim, book sales, the social standing of a writer all have a sui generis appeal;  they are extraordinarily arbitrary, sometimes stubbornly evading those who most deserve them while besieging and overwhelming those who merit them least. Which means that those who see success as their main goal will probably never realize their dreams; they are confusing literary ambition with a hunger for glory and for the financial gains that literature affords certain writers (very few of them ). There is a difference.” 

This right here is an answer to the thought that has long gnawed at me. I wondered constantly how best selling authors ‘did it’. Was there a special formula to becoming a best seller? Did it have anything to do with how the material was sold or marketed? Did it have anything to do with the title of the book in question? Who decided if a story was worth the hype or not? Did the story have to be overly intellectual and loaded with lofty allusions or was I going to be fine writing about mundane things? How about the countless writers already on the scene? How do I ’emerge’ from the lot? I actually told a boy manfriend about my dreams of being a writer and he replied asking me if I knew the number of books that had already been published and if I really thought I could stand out? Did this remark ruffle my feathers? I kept my composure on the outside but on the inside, I crumbled and hated him immediately.  However, this quotation just allayed the ‘fears’ I had created for myself. Reading this quotation though, I found the answer! Consistency and a focus on the desire to create versus a fixation on the thought of success whether in the shape of fame or monetary were not the more important question. What mattered was wanting to write and keeping at it regardless of all the odds.

And how do you know you are cut out for writing? Here you go; “deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life,..” 

But of course, I more than agree that writing is “a mysterious business, of course, veiled in doubt and subjectivity” DOUBT! Doubt and subjectivity! How many times have I done and undone lines because I felt I didn’t sound smart enough?

How does it all start? “a man or a woman develops precociously in childhood or early in his or her teenage years a penchant for dreaming up people, situations, anecdotes, worlds different from the world in which he or she lives, and that inclination is the first sign of what may later be termed literary vocation”. These lines explained the constant pang in me to write. I do have a penchant for dreaming up people and situations. Whenever I meet a person, I try to get to know them as much as possible and listen to all of their stories. I also allow different perspectives to air and will only cut in if I feel what I am hearing is absolute nonsense I can not deal! Yet even with all of that, there really is a drop of truth in some kinds of trash talk. So I still listen just to be able to bring all these together in a rich melange for stories.

But why do I like literature though? Answer – Because my age old mantra has reminded me that literature mirrors life and that it is a way through which life’s events can be reflected.  Yet for some reason, an interesting truth about fiction that I know I knew subconsciously but never happened to consider forthrightly was the fact that we write to alter reality! We do! Well I do! ; ‘The secret raison d’etre of literature / what they (writers) were (are) obliged to fabricate because they weren’t (aren’t) able to live it in reality and, as a result, resigned themselves to live it only in the indirect and subjective way it could be lived: in dreams and in fiction. Fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth: it is life as it wasn’t, life as the men and women of a certain age wanted to live it and didn’t and thus had to invent.

Bam!

Book Review – Lifted by the Great Nothing, Karim Dimechkie

‘Then there was the checkout lady who had dry yellow hair that sat like a triangle of foam on her head and the kind of heavy glasses that seemed responsible for her nasal voice as she commented on the items she scanned with superlative enthusiasm: “these are just the best ever…..isn’t this the most amazing….oh my God, these are my favorite in the entire universe.” She leaned in close to thank Max before handing him his receipt. her breath smelled of a mixture of white wine, rot, and babies’ heads.’

General Plot

After literally battling with a book whose author I think is trying too hard to sound sophisticated, I chance upon this impressive story whose mundane yet thought-provoking plot excited me. This is a story of the strong relationship between a single father and his teenage son. The depth of their togetherness is highlighted in the funny conclusion that ‘no woman or beard trimmer could ever pull them apart’. The story unfolds from the son’s perspective and touches on culture, immigration, the protagonist’s (the son) search for himself and his roots drawing from snatches of information given him by his father about both their untold pasts. Through a character that wants to avoid his past by doing such things as changing his name from Rasheed to Reed, the author succeeds in blending humor with important topics such as the question of identity in a country where diversity is much celebrated.  Rasheed’s (the father ) story is much comparable to the tale of the ostrich that conceals its head in sand in a bid to disappear forgetting that its whole body is still exposed. Reed (Rasheed) is a Lebanese man whose features; dark, thick and smooth hairy body, as well as accent, all allude to his origin without the need for further confirmation. He chooses to mask these strong statements with a name that is as light as a veil. How ironic. He also tries to imitate American lingua by using the words ‘folks’ and ‘howdy’. The saying of which results in catastrophic outcomes as they always come out sounding as ‘Audi’ (Howdy) and ‘fucks’ (Folks)!Capture d_écran 2017-06-02 à 6.13.05 PM

Why I Love this Story

There’s a billion and one quotes I can relate to especially those ones that surround culture; ‘This is why culture is stupid, Maxie / People think it unites people, but the truth is, it separates even more. We have a good life. We don’t need culture or religion or things like this. / We are individuals, so why come together under a flag or something and say that because we like the same food or soccer team or politics or time of prayer that we are all the same?’  Being Ghanaian and meeting other Ghanaians outside of Ghana has brought me this genuine excitement at knowing that a complete stranger I meet is a Ghanaian too. I probably have felt more Ghanaian than ever outside Ghana yet I agree with this quotation only because sharing the same nationality with another human does not make us necessarily the same. I have felt same as persons from entirely different African nations and entirely different races. Same way I have met some Ghanaians I do not consider being same as only because our experiences are very opposite. Common interests can unite or separate people, in the end, it is a person’s spirit and your ability to coexist that matters. Though a common nationality can foster that togetherness, the same nationality can do more than ruin relationships, ask members of different tribes that belong to the same country for more on this.

Reading parts of the internal musings of the main character only reminded me of who I am! I think it is extremely pleasant to be so much in tune with a character that you wonder if you know them in real life or if you only met them in a book. So Max is out here disagreeing silently with the way his dad’s lady friend is cutting vegetables. ‘He silently disagreed with the way she chopped veggies and the order in which she pan-fried them.’ I disagree silently with a lot of people in my life over many things.

There’s also that part about Max feeling internally elated about his father Rasheed and his friend having a fight. Truth is that when we get territorial and possessive of another person and they, in turn, develop a friendship or attachment of some sort with another, though petty and very evil, we sometimes wish they would fight and separate. When they do though, human as we are, we act empathetic but smile inwardly.

To conclude, I love this book. The title is attractive, the events unfold naturally and it is an easy read whose account will excite you in the weirdest of ways…

Some good quotations

“If you were (are) unflinchingly convinced of yourself, then you were (are) equipped to be a leader”

Side Notes

Max’s relationship with Nadine is an extension of his need for maternal love.

“He yearned for her to draw him near so he could rest his head on her breasts a while…”

Dear Ijeawele, A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This small book is a simple write up where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advises a friend on how to raise her daughter to be feminist. In fifteen suggestions spanning marriage, identity and a subtle discussion on hair and sexual politics she basically prescribes a solution for parenting her friend’s girl child urging herself and her friend with a ‘determination to try’.

Capture d_écran 2017-03-12 à 10.54.27 PM

I was beyond moved to write a response to this piece for many reasons I’m about to go into; however, this read is one of those ones that make you gasp with utter amazement at the truth presented in such simple language. At some points, this read affirmed my firm stance that time spent reading good material is never a waste. This read jolts you awake not from sleep but from the uneventful monotonous continuity that we sometimes go through book pages with until we hit that point in the narrative where we literally wake due to a truth we agree so much with! In the subsequent piece, I will cite aspects of Chimamanda’s arguments and add my thoughts and perspectives.

Chimamanda has always commented on hair in a way that has held so much insight and refreshment and once again, she tells her friend not to be tempted to conform to society’s definition of ‘neat’ for her daughter’s hair. She urges her friend to redefine ‘neat’. ‘Part of the reason hair is about pain for many girls is that adults are determined to conform to a version of ‘neat’ that means too tight and scalp destroying and headache infusing.’ ‘Don’t use a tiny-toothed comb that wasn’t made with our hair texture in mind!’  Amen Chimamanda, Amen! That tiny toothed comb that hairdressers so love! They need to get that straight neat line no matter how painful it is. After all, no pain no gain and your braids need to be nice like they would last for eternity so you had better endure that piercing division to save your own damn life! The one thing that I disagree with in this part of the manifesto though is the part where the author criticizes the amount of time used on little girls’ hair. ‘Imagine if we had not spent so many Saturdays of our childhood doing our hair. What might we have learned? In what ways might we have grown? What did boys do on Saturdays?’ This quotation is perfect until the line about what little boys do on Saturdays. What’s the point of the comparison? Granted. Women and girls waste time on hair sometimes. Time that could be used in other ‘beneficial’ pursuits; but then time waste is relative and one can still spend time on their appearance and ‘grow’ in other respects of their life. No one cares what boys do on Saturdays. If men/boys want to waste/conserve their Saturdays that’s fine. It is none of our business and we shouldn’t feel we’re missing out on ‘growth’ opportunities because of our hair or because of what boys are doing at that specific point in time. It is unhealthy to constantly compare the sexes, we want to be women because we want to and not because of the existence of men. At the same time boys should be boys and let alone to do with their Saturdays what they deem fit. Finally, their decisions must not make me make or unmake our plans.

At this point, I think the perfect segue is the addition of the fact that growing up as a light skinned Ghanaian girl, I received comments about my beauty and attendant blessings/remarks I have not fully understood until now. As a ‘beautiful’ girl I should be able to get a man simply for the above reasons. This mentality makes ‘beautiful’ girls feel bad when they’re unable to ‘secure’ men. Another narrative that I find distasteful is when someone goes like ‘you must have a problem if this beauty has not landed you a man’ or ‘you’re too beautiful to be struggling like this.’ Comments like this are disheartening and render ‘beauty’ transactional. A ‘beautiful’ woman’s inability to acquire material things in life including a man, translates into her ‘wasting’ of her ‘beauty’. The ironical twist lies in the same society questioning ‘beautiful’ women who are successful simply because the twisted social consciousness adheres to the thought that most things in life are transactional. Hence, ‘beautiful’ successful women must’ve definitely sexed their way up the ranks, a situation that is not always true. A woman’s beauty is hers and hers alone. Beauty is a blessing and relative and transient. Women aren’t made beautiful for men, women are created beautiful for themselves and mustn’t be made to feel that ‘beauty’ is a means to an end. If some girls understand this, they will dress up to please themselves and not feel like failures if they are unmarried by a certain age or have not reached a certain pedestal in life. God made you beautiful for a reason so start finding out why. If you find a partner that is thrilled by your ‘beauty’ remind them it is only skin deep.

Till this day I hold my dualism on cultural issues a true asset, but then I have also constantly wondered if I sound logical enough (and if I’m courageous enough) saying I have selected the bits and pieces of my culture which I deem ‘right’ and done away with the ones I deem ‘inappropriate’. Who am I to decide what aspects of my African-ness I want to pick and choose from?! This stance makes me uncomfortable because I wonder who taught me what was right and wrong? Was it intrinsic or had I been influenced/schooled as an African by white supremacist ideas to think that certain aspects of my African-ness were wrong? What standard enables me say a certain aspect of my culture is wrong or right? What is the determiner of wrong or right? So for example (and this is only an example) if I decided that female genital mutilation was wrong and decided as an African female to look down upon that cultural practice; what would I use as a reason

to condemn this practice? Would it be because the white man told me it is wrong or because I feel it is wrong from a feminist view point (of disempowering women sexually) or would I say it is wrong for health reasons? I digress though; however, the main point here is to point out that discarding aspects of the culture you come from based off of white supremacist prescriptions is dangerous. We must be able to weigh and decide for us and not because of what someone said we should do. Moving on, it felt reassuring to read that I’m not the only one crazy enough to want to pick and choose aspects of culture. The ninth suggestion where Chimamanda advises her friend to allow her daughter embrace parts of Igbo culture and reject the parts that are not beautiful resonated so much with me! To go into detail, that part of the manifesto criticizes Igbo culture for it’s materialistic tendencies. The same chapter goes on to cite Igbo culture as beautiful because it upholds the communal way of life. So in this scenario, the author urges to uphold and do away with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts of culture.

Finally, I was blown away by the introduction of the term ‘feminism lite!’ ‘Feminism lite is the idea of conditional female equality.’ ‘Feminism lite uses the language of ‘allowing’.’ The lines that explain this further are; ‘A husband is not a headmaster. A wife is not a schoolgirl. Permission and being allowed, when used one-sidedly-and it is nearly only used that way –should never be the language of an equal marriage’. If wives constantly ask permission from their husbands and the reverse isn’t the case, who needs to be told that is not a healthy relationship? If husbands need to ‘allow’ their wives to do things, that still aligns well with the language of marriage being about ‘ownership’ and not ‘partnership’. What then is the difference between leaving your father’s house to your husband’s house? You literally live with another dad if you constantly ask your husband permission to do stuff when the reverse is not necessarily the case.

I want every woman to read this manifesto, period!

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

This book has a rather long and annoying title, but then the part about dying makes you wonder why anyone would want to inform another person when they’re going to die. Well quite apparently this book is about the Rwandan genocide and gradually explains the famous Hutu Tutsi conflict that would cause the Rwandan genocide.

The Hutu being the group that rose after years of feeling unjustly treated mostly for their appearance (since some person dropped out of nowhere and decided to point out the fact that Hutu people had predominantly African traits, a rounded nose, a stronger set frame and the works and the fact that the Tutsi looked foreign, unAfrican, lighter skin, slender, smoother hair, slimmer nose etc) so this basically caused the issue that brought the division and strife.

Dany Laferrier, The Enigma of the Return

Dany Laferrier’s the enigma of the return is a novel that is intimate and captivating mainly because of the emotions that are clearly projected everywhere in the novel. First of all it is very difficult to not make out the mixture of poetic and prose structures consistent in the novel. The poetic structure dominates the narration though since a few aspects appear in prose. The poetic structure is more than justified because as we all know poetry conveys strong emotions with the help of diction and even the way that these words are arranged, presented and chosen. This is a story of a tree uprooted abruptly from its roots because of dictatorship that exists in Haiti at the time when Papa doc reigns. The writer is forced to leave his country out of fear of being killed. He settles in Canada and has to visit Port au Prince suddenly when that call that every middle aged adult has to expect at some point in their lives comes through. His father is dead and he must make his way back to Haiti immediately. The story describes this transition in detail and focusses on how the writer feels about being away for so long. He finds himself constantly comparing Canada and Haiti bringing out a mixture of pain at having stayed away for so long against his will and nostalgia at all the things that made Haiti his first love. He also clearly shows a preference for Haiti stating that Canada is a vast land of cold that only a native can find their way through. I love this book for many reasons one of which is the ability to relate to all it contains from beginning to end. After having lived in a country that is not your own, every single thing you see upon returning home reminds you of your experience before your exit. The writer speaks of eating mangoes while bare chested. He also remembers to add that each smell, taste and sound transports him back to his childhood. ‘My childhood cuts through me like a knife’ and that is the beauty of specific memories that cannot be laid off because they are ingrained in us and gnaw at us until we give way to them dominating our thoughts and taking a hold of our emotions.   He speaks of sending his mother expensive plates which she keeps under her bed while still eating from a beat down plastic plate. His mother does this not out of hatred but out of a special reverence for a token from her son who lives in a faraway place. She only eats in these plates on special occasions. Growing up I saw my grandmother treat items sent us from close relatives in the west with this same reverence. In the midst of all this happening, Dany Laferrier feels he missed out on special moments with his nephew, sister and mother because he feels he has been away for so long. He feels a disconnect from everything around him and even remarks that ‘speaking creole isn’t enough to become a Haitian.’ That ‘you can be Haitian only outside of Haiti’ because the irony is that once outside ‘home’ you can boldly claim a national identity but then you come back and realize you’re not quite enough of what you thought you were. The separation that comes from migration creates deep holes that nothing concrete can refill and that’s the irony because money or gifts are not always enough to fill the gaps our absence leaves. Much like Simone Schwarz Bart’s Ton Beau Capitaine, money sent ‘home’ regularly did very little to strengthen a weak and emotionally drained spouse from caving into the urges of adultery.