Friday, May 31, 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize - Tope Folarin's "Miracle"

I am blogging The Caine Prize Shortlist with a coterie of bloggers. Check out the blog round-up for reactions to the stories on the shortlist over at ZunguZungu's. The first story we're reviewing is Tope Folarin's "Miracles" (pdf), which was first published in Transition Magazine.

Its probably not possible to a church service scene and not recall James Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. One thing about that book is how palpable the belief was, the very performance of belief, and how the certainty of that performance belied the roiling humanity just beneath the surface. Tope Folarin’s “Miracle” was full of the certitude of belief, but I got much less of the humanity of its main character and his family.

I did, however, get a good sense of who the Nigerians in the church were as a collective, and the helplessness that seems to embody their narrative. It was a nice contrast to focus on the church scene in the United States, and Texas seems a great setting in which to do this. It was subtle, but I like how this helplessness hung over them like a rain-cloud even in faraway America, where they – it does not say, but I’m sure – ran to for greener pastures. I would have liked to know why his family left America, why his mother left them. We got a good sense of what the Nigerians in the church wanted deliverance from, but not so much of what this main family wanted and needed. Yes, they are working hard to make ends meet in America, but I would have liked some more about how their poverty in America has affected them socially and emotionally.

Writing-wise, I think the piece well encapsulated the air that permeated the church and its many followers, and I could almost feel the anticipation in the church for a miracle. It was all so droll, watching these people hoodwinked by a pastor, the certainty with which the pastor performed these “miracles”, as though it were all some elaborate joke in which everyone were a part of. Droll, yes, but as a Nigerian living in Nigeria that feels like she is part of an elaborate joke every damn day, it was mostly very accurate and sad to read.

I’d have liked some imagery. I’d have loved to know what the church looked like, what the altar looked like, and some hints as to what the class of people in the church was. Were they just like the lead character in the family? Were people from different backgrounds, worked different kinds of jobs? Did they know the lead character well?

It has become quite the fashion to write stories about dissatisfaction with a life in the West, but I always would like some explanation. Not because I think this is impossible, but because the root of the dissatisfaction is almost always different and enriches the story. All in all, though, great story from Folarin, and I would definitely check out more of his work.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go and the Question of Magical Immigrants

I'm excited to be joining  a coterie of bloggers to review of Caine Prize shortlisted stories, just like I did last year, mostly because my mind has been primed for literature a fair amount lately. I just ordered A. Igoni Barrett's Love Is Power or Something Like That, am currently in the middle of Doreen Baingana's short story collection Tropical Fish. I also just finished reading Taiye Selasi’s much talked-about novel Ghana Must Go this weekend, and I can say right away that you need to do read it, too. 

As far as the writing goes, it does not get much better than Selasi's poetic prose that belies a deep emotional intelligence that makes her characters feel real. I came away thinking that I had met many Kwekus and Taiwos, and did not want to stop reading about their lives. From the very first page, there are some passages that you want to just scan and frame and mount on your wall for their lyricism and intelligence and honesty. her description is painstaking and detailed with a poetry and grit that reminds of Toni Morrison. She loves language, sometimes a bit too much, giving her this tendency to over-describe and launch into (albeit gorgeous) paragraphs that do very little to advance the story. Even so, I think you'd do yourself a great disservice for not reading because of that.

One thing that grated, though, is how Selasi missed some of the more Nigerian details. It is hard to get past her mixing up mainland and Lagos island (no, Ikeja is not on the island) and I don't know anyone that eats jollof rice and egusi (maybe some poeple do, but it's an unusual combination). Also, I don't remember a woman ever calling her son okunrin mi like Fola (I think) did; it is usually something like oko mi ("oko" can mean husband, so this means something like "my dear").

I know a book is memorable when it leaves me with more than just a story, but an idea that I am grappling with days after. It is hard to read Ghana Must Go without thinking about the burden that a lot of immigrants living in the Western world face to be great. The Harvard graduates, those with high-flying jobs, those that made good on the other side in the way that gets celebrated at dinner tables back in home countries, parents dropping nugget after exaggerated nugget of their sons’ and daughters’ success in classrooms or offices full of white people. I wonder if by focusing on the most successful among us we are not reinforcing the deeper minority problem of having to work twice as hard as anyone else to get anywhere, to achieve something, to be seen. Even among ourselves, we have internalized the notion that we must be extraordinary for our stories to count. The Western world teaches us what and who to celebrate, and because we must be extraordinary to get noticed, we in turn do not easily forgive ordinariness, and tacitly accept the idea that many of us need be ignored for the few -- and there are always too few -- stars who arguably do not see their due, their achievements often filtered through a racial lens.

Selasi may not have meant for this to be so, but I found her novel negotiating with the idea of the extraordinary. Kweku Sai was an extraordinary surgeon, but his life took a left turn and he fell from grace. Taiwo, the beautiful writer and lawyer, and her equally extraordinary artist twin Kehinde, are haunted by a horrific incident at the hands of an uncle in Lagos demonstrate in different ways a gift for self-destruction. Baby Sadie, a student at Yale, shares this gift with her siblings. Olu is the perfect son with anxiety issues that you can just tell will be the bane of his relationship with his long-term girlfriend-turned-wife Ling. None of the characters in her ambitious, well-done novel are insulated from life by their degrees and accomplishments. Even overachieving immigrants get in their own way sometimes. 

It was also very affirming to read a story of immigrants from a writer of African descent that deals with issues that many of us tend to see as Western. I grew up in a Lagos where want is laid bare: early morning strivers leave for work as early as four in the morning so as not to be late for a nine o’clock start at the office; the markets always teeming with people; the street children playing hopscotch between traffic jams and the police chasing them off the streets. The issues that are readily comprehensible, and therefore immediately deserving of sympathy, were those to which the matter of concern is not directly oneself; like being widowed, being arrested by corrupt police and without just cause, being battered by one’s husband, or being robbed of one’s possessions. It is not that too many of us are without human kindness, but many of us have trouble understanding more quiet afflictions that affect the self; issues of depression, bulimia, and suicide are often treated with a wave of the hand, a tired dismissal, more personal failings than real problems deserving of sympathy.

I don't read reviews of books that I plan to read, but I did go back and check out what some folk have been saying about the book. It has been amusing to see journalists marveling over her cheekbones and cosmopolitan upbringing, and bringing up her much-talked-about essay on Afropolitans. In a way, the hubbub made of her appearance and her background reinforces her depiction of the immigrant family in her novel, one that peels away the impressive armor and questions the humanity within.