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
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Powell’s

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
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On My Radar: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

Over on bookshy, I found out that Chinua Achebe will soon be releasing his memoir.

Penguin Books has more details:

The defining experience of Chinua Achebe’s life was the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War,  of 1967–1970. The conflict was infamous for its savage impact on the Biafran people, Chinua Achebe’s people, many of whom were starved to death after the Nigerian government blockaded their borders. By then, Chinua Achebe was already a world-renowned novelist, with a young family to protect. He took the Biafran side in the conflict and served his government as a roving cultural ambassador, from which vantage he absorbed the war’s full horror. Immediately after, Achebe took refuge in an academic post in the United States, and for more than forty years he has maintained a considered silence on the events of those terrible years, addressing them only obliquely through his poetry. Now, decades in the making, comes a towering reckoning with one of modern Africa’s most fateful events, from a writer whose words and courage have left an enduring stamp on world literature.

Achebe masterfully relates his experience, both as he lived it and how he has come to understand it. He begins his story with Nigeria’s birth pangs and the story of his own upbringing as a man and as a writer so that we might come to understand the country’s promise, which turned to horror when the hot winds of hatred began to stir. To read There Was a Country is to be powerfully reminded that artists have a particular obligation, especially during a time of war. All writers, Achebe argues, should be committed writers—they should speak for their history, their beliefs, and their people. Marrying history and memoir, poetry and prose, There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid firsthand observation and forty years of research and reflection. Wise, humane, and authoritative, it will stand as definitive and reinforce Achebe’s place as one of the most vital literary and moral voices of our age.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a popular first African literature read for many.  I remember first picking up the book when I was around 12 then reading it again in high school.  I’m looking forward to this release.

Willful Creatures

Another detour from my summer of African literature.

I stan for Miranda July and according to Feminist Texican, If you like Aimee Bender then you may like Miranda July.  Banking on the converse also being true, I requested Bender’s Willful Creatures from the library.   A collection of 15 stories in 3 parts, Willful Creatures is a perfect mix of reflections on life and humor.  When I first started the collection, I wasn’t getting it, the first story, “Death Watch” was too weird for me.  By the third story, “Off”, I was a fan.  My favorites in the collection:

Off
An awkwardly arrogant woman attends a party.  She has one goal for the night: to kiss 3 men (one with blond hair, one with red hair, and one with black hair).  The shenanigans that occur in her pursuit are hilarious and pitiful.

The Meeting starts:

The woman he met. He met a woman. This woman was the woman he met. She was not the woman he expected to meet or planned to meet or had carved into his head in full dress with a particular nose and eyes and lips and a very particular brain.

*sigh*  When we meet someone who is unlike the image of our perfect partner and we decide to give it a try, are we settling or being more open?  “The Meeting” is not ambivalent in its response but I’m not convinced by the answer it leans towards.

Motherfucker
This is the story of a man who literally fucks mother.  Yeah, sounds crass I know but I loved how this story developed. He travels by train from the Midwest to Los Angeles, meeting women along the way.  When he lands in L.A., he meets a mother who is also a well-known actress.  She is so good at her profession, she sometimes doesn’t know when to not act.  And this is where the magic happens, he gets her to open up in a way that has nothing to do with sex.  I absolutely loved this story!

You can read excerpts here and you can purchase Willful Creatures at
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Powell’s
IndieBound
Amazon

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

I’ve been reading a lot of history and heavy fiction so I was looking for something light to read when I picked up Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).  Prior to reading the book, I was completely unaware of Kaling’s talent beyond acting.  As an uncommitted fan of The Office, I had no idea that she has writing, directing, and producing credits on the show.  She is incredibly talented and hilariously funny — I was laughing out loud from page one (and even used the book as a pick-me-up the night that I spent too much time on social media concluding that I wasn’t doing enough to be as cool and accomplished as everyone else).  In the book, which is a series of essays, she shares:

– advice to teenaged girls who want to know how they can get a career like hers:

…please don’t worry about being super popular in high school, or being the best actress in high school, or the best athlete.  Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing else going on in her current life.  What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also big star later in life.  For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair.

– her very pragmatic take on marriage (after expressing her frustrations with complaints from the married):

What happened to being pals? I’m not complaining about Romance Being Dead–I’ve just described a happy marriage as based on talking about plants and a canceled Ray Romano show and drinking milkshakes: not exactly rose petals and gazing into each other’s eyes at the top of the Empire State Building or whatever.  I’m pretty sure my parents have gazed into each other’s eyes maybe once, and that was so my mom could put eyedrops in my dad’s eyes.  And I’m not saying that marriage should always be easy.  But we seem to get so gloomily worked up about it these days.  In the Shakespearean comedies, the wedding is the end, and there isn’t much indication of what happily ever after will look like day to day.  In real life, shouldn’t a wedding be an awesome party you throw with your great pal, in the presence of a bunch of your other friends?  A great day, for sure, but not the beginning and certainly not the end of your friendship with a person you can’t wait to talk about gardening with for the next forty years.

– a set of instructions for her funeral:

None of my exes are allowed to attend.  Distracting. Weird. (Okay, the only way I would even consider an ex attending is if he were completely, horrifically devastated.  Like, when he heard I died, it made him take a good hard look at his life and his choices, and he turned Buddhist or something.)

No current wives or girlfriends of my exes are allowed to attend.  This part is really, for real, non-negotiable.  They’ll just use the opportunity to look all hot in black.

In many ways I think Mindy and I are kindred spirits.  Like Mindy, I’m a child of immigrant parents, raised in the U.S.; I got out of chores by reading books; I will never let go of the memories of being picked on as a kid; I’m awkward around strangers’ babies; and I’ve seriously considered an invite list for my funeral (but who hasn’t…).  I also used to wear thick framed glasses (long before hipsters made them hip).  Now if only I had her comedic talents!

You can purchase Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) at
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IndieBound
Powell’s

The Other Crucifix

It is in the American Centre at his secondary school that Jojo Badu first considers pursuing his postsecondary education in the United States.  His original plan was to attend the University of Ghana but with encouragement from the American Centre, he applies and is accepted to The University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. In the Summer of 1963 he leaves Ghana with the plan of obtaining an Economics degree and returning home to become a leader at a bank, another corporation or in the government as encouraged by his Uncle Kusi.
The novel starts with an older Jojo as he is reflecting on his life, more specifically his decision to come to and stay in America:

What if I’d stayed in Ghana, land of my birth, embodiment of my past?  What if I had gone to Ghana Law School, married a Ghanaian woman, bred children who spoke Asante and swam in the same waters as I, recognised the same landmarks as I did and my forebears before me?  What if I’d established my practice there; aged without the sense of abandonment rattling as chains on my heels and canvassed perhaps for a political office or two?

Within the first few pages, the tone is set for a pensive story about a Ghanaian man traveling to the U.S. in a time when no country seemed to be without some sort of political unrest. Ghana is 6 years out of British colonial rule but heading towards decades of political and economic instability and the U.S. is nearing the end of the official Jim Crow era and in the midst of the Vietnam War.  At The University Jojo meets 3 men who play a large role in his new life: Dwayne, a race-conscious and politically active black American student; Ed, Jojo’s first roommate is a rich kid who spends his college years fighting “the man” and trying to sleep with as many “chicks” as he can; and John, a racist white student who writes for an unsanctioned campus newspaper that has a conservative slant. Through his relationships with these three men (and other students) we see Jojo acclimate to U.S. racial tensions, experience foreign-ness amongst other black people, and deal with the basic realities of being a college student — studying, partying, dating.

As a child of two parents who both emigrated from Ghana to the United States for education in the same way that Jojo does, I appreciate this story.  However there were some chronological inconsistencies towards the end of the novel and I wish Jojo had shared more about his long distance interactions with his family.  Still yet, The Other Crucifix is a book I have already recommended to others.  

You can purchase The Other Crucifix at
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