#Chicago: The Black Ink Book Exchange

A project I’m very excited about:

Black Ink Book Exchange is a pop up library open for the exchange of books by black authors, and about black culture. The project aims to create a space around books as a cultural currency, and consists of creative workshops, a reading lounge and book barter. The project will begin at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park this spring, and with support, will continue through the end of the summer in other South Side Chicago locations.

Contribute to the IndieGoGo. Like the Black Ink Book Exchange on Facebook.

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Writing an Immigrant Narrative

BeautifulThingsI have these three works-in-progress — melancholic short stories of people in search of something and hoping that some place (other than where they are) will give them that thing. The protagonists are all Africans, they are all displaced (away from home), and two have become immigrants in the United States. I recently workshopped one of these pieces at a two-week creative writing program. One of the workshop instructors suggested that I read Dinaw Menegestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears as a way to see how a narrative about Africans living in the U.S. could be constructed.

I was a bit hesitant at first, given the book’s low rating on GoodReads, but browsing the reviews gave some insight as to why it only averaged 3.5/5. Quite a few people have very specific expectations of what an immigrant narrative should be. One reviewer stated that the first person narration didn’t work because it was too insightful for someone who was a shopkeeper. Another reviewer didn’t like how downbeat the novel was. There was another reader who was frustrated that the protagonist could not help himself enough, that it was his own mind holding him back, not his environment. You get the picture. These people want the ultimate immigrant narrative. The escape of death in a dark country, the commitment to work hard regardless of circumstance in the new country, then the humble yet exciting rise to success or some other type of fulfillment. They want something insightful and evocative, but not in the voice of the actual man who has become an immigrant.

Mengestu disrupts these expectations with his debut novel. His style of writing is both uncomplicated and unassuming but his characters are in no way as simple. They are navigating displacement on multiple levels. The protagonist, Sepha Stephanos was forced to leave Ethiopia during the revolution. Nearly two decades later, he plays a Name That African Coup Leader game with two of his other friends who are also navigating displacement. Joseph, who is from the Congo, works as a waiter at a restaurant called The Colonial Grill. Kenneth, originally from Kenya, works as an Engineer. The three men met while working at the Capitol Hotel. Now, they often gather in the shop that Stephanos owns — a convenience store located in the gentrifying Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Mengestu idealizes nothing in the narrative. Even Sepha’s attempts at romance are far from any romanticized notions of love. Judith is a single mother and professor of American history currently on sabbatical. She and her daughter have moved into a large, reconstructed home in the Logan Circle. Sepha and Judith are near opposite ends of the economic class spectrum, yet equally matched in their loneliness. Together they are awkward and uncomfortable. As a reader you may want them to win, just as you may want your own unsuitable relationships to win. You know it’s not a good thing for anyone involved. Not to spoil the story, but the narrative around the romance is as real as every other aspect of the novel.

I don’t know that this novel has directly impacted my work, other than to reaffirm that “immigrant” is a label that doesn’t characterize one’s identity in any universal way (or maybe not at all). If I were to put (black) immigrant narratives on a (non hierarchical) scale of 1 to 5, 1 being a novel like Teju Cole’s Open City and 5 being like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. I think The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears lingers around a 2. If you like quiet stories with many layers of subtext, you’d appreciate the narrative that Mengestu has created.

I picked up this copy from my local library. You can purchase a copy from
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound
Powell’s

Revisiting Bessie Head’s ‘A Question of Power’ for #WPGhBookClub

In my initial review of A Question of Power, I was quite ambivalent about the book — I had questions about Bessie Head’s stance on issues of race and sexuality and I was mostly confused by the parts of the story that cover the protagonist’s mental breakdown. I considered reading it again but pushed that thought aside as I made my way through my other planned readings. The thought resurfaced when I saw that the Writer’s Project of Ghana was hosting a discussion of the book on Twitter. I didn’t get to re-read the novel in full prior to the discussion, but revisiting it and discussing it with others has made a full re-read seem well worth it.

To read some highlights of the Twitter discussion, please click here.

My response to that closing questions comes from one of my favorite statements made in the book:

“It seemed to be a makeshift replacement for love, absenting oneself from stifling atmospheres, because love basically was a torrential storm of feeling; it thrived only in partnership with laughing generosity and truthfulness.”

This statement and also Elizabeth’s relationships with others who work the garden in Motabeng are what have stuck with me most since my first reading. In some ways this book is also a guide to navigating the world for marginalized folks. Elizabeth’s mental breakdown is brutal (Head was uninhibited in her descriptions of Elizabeth’s torture) but the story is not completely hopeless; one clear message from the novel–influenced by Head’s interest in Buddhism–is that God is in everyone and that good and evil are both a part of each individual.

I’d highly recommend these reviews of A Question of Power (as suggested to Twitter book discussants by the Writers Project):
13. A Question of Power by Bessie Head | ImageNation

A Question of Power by Bessie Head | Madness and Literature Network

The #WPGhBookClub discussion is a monthly event that happens online and offline; to participate, follow @writersPG. The next selection is Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Ghana Must Go: So Far, So Good

GMGI wasn’t too moved when I first read the synopsis for Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go:

Kweku Sai is dead. A renowned surgeon and failed husband, he succumbs suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of Kweku’s death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before… What is revealed in their coming together is the story of how they came apart: the hearts broken, the lies told, the crimes committed in the name of love.

I don’t know…something about it starting off with a death in Ghana didn’t sit right with me; but a lot of folks were cosigning the book, so I went ahead and added it to my to-reads list. My hesitance, then, resurfaced once I saw all of the press the novel was receiving from mainstream media. (I mean could I really trust them to recommend me a book set in Africa?) Still I placed a hold on the book at my local library. I got the email that it was ready for pick up several days ago but waited until yesterday to check it out. I started to read it while still in the library. Within a few pages, my concern that the book was over-hyped quickly faded. I mean if someone else’s writing gets me to put pen to paper, it’s got to be something special, right?

Well, I had an interesting encounter at the library and Taiye Selasi’s writing encouraged me to write a flash piece about it. Check it out:Read More »

In The Time of the Butterflies

MariposasAs was the case with other nations coming out of Western occupation or colonialism, the Dominican Republic during the 1960s was marked by political instability. Before the United States’ second occupation of the nation in 1965, Dominicans saw multiple changes of power initiated by assassination, election, and coup. Many who left their country during this period, did so for political reasons.

Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies, was 10 years old when her family left the Dominican Republic in 1960. Her father had been involved in underground political activities which sought to oust Rafael Trujillo (who at that point had been in power for 3 decades). Her father’s underground activities were led, in part, by 3 sisters: Patria Mercedes Mirabal, Minerva Mirabal, and Maria Teresa Mirabal. The 3 sisters were murdered months after Alvarez and her family fled to safety in the United States; because of the stark contrast of these similarly timed events, Alvarez says the story of the Mirabal sisters haunted her.

“A novel is not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.” – Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies (Postscript)

In the Time of the Butterflies tells the story of the four Mirabal sisters and their family during the Trujillo regime. Patria, the eldest, was very religious; she got involved with resistance efforts after she witnessed a massacre of revolutionaries while she was on a spiritual retreat. Dedé, the second-born, never became directly involved in the political activities of her sisters but to this day she is the one who keeps her family’s story alive. Minerva, the boldest of all the sisters, was the first to become involved in politics; even in her early political activities, she attracted the attention of Trujillo. While the first 3 daughters were born in succeeding years, Maria Teresa, the youngest was born 9 years after Minerva. She became political after seeing Minerva’s efforts and of the three politically active sisters, Minerva and Maria Teresa were the only to be imprisoned.Read More »

One Day I Will Write About This Place

I’ve been procrastinating like hell on writing up my thoughts on this book but I guess I should explain why I’m so sore about missing Binyavanga Wainaina  dj in NYC this week.  Wainaina has published several essays and short stories, including Discovering Home which won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 and How to Write About Africa which was turned into a video featuring Djimon Hounsou as the narrator.  Though Wainaina is well-established writer, I was largely unfamiliar with him and his work when I decided to read his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Using a sometimes-exhausting first person present point-of-view, Wainaina takes us along as he goes from a shy, imaginative boy raised in Kenya to a writer travelling the world.  But it’s not some romanticized journey of triumph.  Though interconnected with post-Independence East African politics and his own family life, Wainaina’s journey is largely about internal struggle.  When he moves to South Africa for university (because education is no longer being susbisdized by the Kenyan government), he shifts into a deep solitude and a depressive state: he rarely leaves his room which is littered with cigarettes, candy wrappers, and dirty dishes; his sister, who is also in S.A. for university, helps him out by sliding money under his door; and he spends most of his time and money on books.  (This all may sound familiar to some of you writers…)

Aside from his strange, wonderful creativity (from a young age he invents words to describe experiences he cannot label in the languages he knows), his experiences in S.A. are what endeared him to me the most.  I checked this book out from the library a couple of months ago and I keep renewing it, not because I’m re-reading it but because it provides a sense of comfort for me.  I keep it in my writing space (which also serves as my sister’s couch and my bed) as a reminder of what this writing life is sometimes about.

Even if you’re not a writer seeking consolation for the life we sometimes live, I’d still recommend this book based on the Wainaina’s style, knowledge and incredible stories.

You can purchase One Day I Will Write About This Place at:
IndieBound
Powell’s Books
Amazon
Barnes & Noble