Tag Archives: race

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go Went Gone Title: Go Went Gone
Author: Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Publisher: Portobello Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846276200
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Go Went Gone” is an unusual book. Also, it isn’t an easy read. At least, it wasn’t for me. It took me a while to get into the book and understand its nuances. However, once I was say three chapters in, I started enjoying this read a lot, actually to a point that I felt sad when the book ended. Erpenbeck has always taken on issues so huge in her books and actually delivered. I remember reading “The End of Days” and “Visitation” and being awestruck by the writing. And just like those books, “Go Went Gone” is a book that talks of the impact of the political on personal and what place does the past and present have in history after all.

Richard has spent his life as a university professor, immersed in books and ideas and has now retired with nothing to do. He steps into the streets of Berlin and discovers a new community on Alexanderplatz – a tent city of sorts, established by African asylum seekers. He is confused. On one hand, he wants to get to know these new people and on the other he hesitates.

I loved the simplicity with which the plot is unravelled and yet there is so much going on – the complex layers of race, class, community and prejudice. What struck me the most was Richard’s ageing and his reluctance to change and at the same time his curiosity toward it as well. The writing is subtle enough to give readers signs and cues as the story moves along, which makes Jenny Erpenbeck truly one of the best European writers there is. She slices the book scene by scene – so much so that isolated situations and scenes come together so beautifully – even if at a later stage. She also at the same time, takes no sides. She doesn’t want Richard to be a caricature and also understands his point of view.

The political angles in the book are real – the Western ideologies and stance toward the European refugee crisis and how it can be solved for. More than anything else though, it is the story of one man who has more in common with people he doesn’t know than he realizes.“Go Went Gone” is the kind of read that cannot be gulped in one go. It must be savoured. And yes please pay attention to the silences in scenes as well – that say so much and yet can be missed if you look the other way.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Anchor Books, Vintage
ISBN: 978-0307455925
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 588
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I did not know what took me this long to reread this book. I remember reading it in 2013, when it was published and I promised a friend that I would get back to it soon – reread it that is. I reread it this month, after three years and was stunned yet again, just as I was when I first read it.

How do you describe a flawless novel such as “Americanah”? How do you review it? How do you describe your feelings to people as you read it, with a hunger and also knowing that you must starve yourself for it, should it get over too soon? While this book is about race at the heart and core of it, it is also a lot more than just that. May be this will be a good start to letting you know more about the book. I for one was riveted. My mind is still reeling from the characters, their lives, their perceptions, opinions, views and how it feels when you are almost an alien in another country.

“Americanah” is fodder for the mind, heart and soul. It may sound cliché when I say this, but that’s what it was for me. It is the story of two Nigerians, each trying to find their place in the world – from school to college to working in countries that they have experienced only in movies, comics, books or TV shows. There is certain neatness to the writing – it is neither convoluted, nor simple at the same time. It deals with issues; it feels personal at the same time and an all-encompassing read.

“Americanah” – the title is a Nigerian word used to describe someone who has lived abroad for so long, maybe particularly in America that they no longer understand the nuances of being Nigerian. They speak American and eat that cuisine. They are alien to their people once they are back and somehow that is the case with Adichie’s characters as well.

Ifemelu – a bright and sharp observant girl, lives her life in Nigeria, goes to America and is in for a rude shock – where race, hair and the way she is plays a major role than she thought it would. The story of Ifemelu is about her trying to fit in and then realizing that America was never for her. She sees America through her journey and life in Nigeria and is constantly on the lookout for more. Her relationships in America are not as fulfilling as they were back home with Obinze (her former boyfriend). He was the love of Ifemelu’s life before America seeped into her bones and flesh. We see love being central to the story and yet it is so distant for the two of them – things change drastically in the course of this book.

Adichie makes her characters like you and I. There is so much of everyday reality that it is heartwarmingly overwhelming. The legacy of slavery and black people and non-black people issues are at the core of this fantastic book. We see how Obinze’s life carries out in London which is very different from that of Ifem’s in America. The common thread is that of feeling like an outsider – like you will never belong.

The secondary characters in the book are not just props – they do, say and add so much gravitas to the entire narrative. From Ifem’s boyfriends and friends to Obinze’s mom and then the reaction of friends and family when Ifem is back from America – to a Nigeria that is very different from what it was when she left it a long time ago.

Ifemelu is more than just an interesting character. To me she embodied a lot of issues, confusion, heartache and more. Obinze on the other hand has so much to say and just doesn’t. Adichie has him restrained to some extent. The blog by Ifemelu on racism called “Raceteenth” and the posts in the book are insightful and brilliantly written. Maybe at some point, being a minority group, we all go through the same kind of racism (or do we?) and that’s why I could relate more to it being a gay man.

“Americanah” is a read not to be missed out on. At any cost.

Book Review: The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist by Azad Essa

Title: The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist
Author: Azad Essa
Publisher: Harper Collins India
ISBN: 9789350294390
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I picked up, “The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist” when I was in a different state of mind, actually the right state of mind to read a book of this sort. I was questioning religion and how much of a part does it play in our lives.

Let me tell you something about the book. “The Moslems are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist” is a collection of pieces written by a young Muslim South African blogger of Indian origin, Azad Essa. It started off individually as articles for various publications which have now been compiled into a book by Harper Collins India.
What I liked about the book? A lot of things. The book deals more so with a mix of religion and identity in modern times. About what it is to be a Muslim in today’s times and how are you viewed or looked at, more specifically as a modern Muslim Youth. That is the core of the essays in the book. While on the surface, the pieces seem tinged with humour and sarcasm, there is a lot more to them than what meets the eye.

For instance, the way Azad has spoken about the so-called Kashmir Issue and its impact on both sides – the Kashmiri Pandits and the Muslims, who have continued to stay on in the valley and the impact of violence on them. I liked his point of view, the fact that some Hindus are living in the valley, safe, sheltered by the Muslims and yet there is an unseen divide, always hovering above them.

The book also looks at another country, whose citizens face the issue of identity on a daily basis that is South Africa. Azad’s experiences are raw, vivid, and contain a lot of cultural references, which attempt to almost appeal to a larger audience.

You will be surprised with the book as you read along, that it isn’t all about Muslims. It is about humanity at the end of it all. Azad Essa writes bluntly and does not refrain from using swear words when necessary. He covers almost every terrain of topics that we normally shrug aside. His views on world politics and cultural issues are stark and often laced with wit and black humour.

The questions that were raised in my head, while reading the book were of an intense nature. I could not tear myself from the book once I started reading it. This book is real, honest, without any inhibitions, and stays true to what the author observes and wishes to document. The Moslems are Coming is a strong reflection of the times we live in and how maybe we can change some parts of it.

You can buy the book from Home Shop 18 here

Here is a book trailer:

Book Review: The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prize Winning Essays: Edited by Tara L. Masih

Title: The Chalk Circle: Intellectual Prize Winning Essays
Editor: Tara L. Masih
Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing
ISBN: 978-1936214716
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 224
Rating: 5/5

I never thought I would enjoy a collection of essays that much. I had read Tara’s collection of short stories earlier and was immensely impressed by it. The collection was varied and simply written and that’s what I have loved about her essays as well. Though the essays since written on multi-cultures and races; tend to get a little intense, however they are brilliantly penned by various writers.

Global communities need to be understood more today than ever. The need is not to be tolerant but to be aware of differences and may be at some level embrace them than shunning without a thought.

“The Chalk Circle” by Tara L. Masih (editor) is one such attempt to bring communities together and work on understanding them. The essays are prize-winning pieces and written by various people from various backgrounds to be able to build the barrier between races and thought processes. This collection is a result of a call, the editor put out in 2007, for Intercultural Essays dealing with subjects of “culture, race, and a sense of place”.

The sense of place is very strong in the book – for instance when I read, “Finding Center” and “Connections”, I could not help but wonder about Home and what does it take to call it that. What makes culture? What is the spirit behind it? Is there anything more to it than people? Identity plays a major role in these essays.

The book is divided into the following sections: The Chalk Circle: Identity, Home and Borderlands, As I Am: Letters of Identity, The Tongue of War: A Clash of Cultures, The Tragedy of the Color Line, Eyewitness: As seen by another, The Other and the Culture of Self and Spirit. Each essay is written with a lot of life and magnanimity. It is the emotions lying at the surface – what if things had been different, what if circumstances were to change, and what if identity was as clear as most things in life.

Each essay is a story that opens to the life of the writer, the theme being the same – sometimes displacement, and sometimes loss of a voice. The writing is varied, after all as the case normally is in a collection.

It isn’t easy compiling a collection of this nature. Tara L. Masih as an editor has done a fantastic job using keen insight and not being biased while selecting the essays from a lot of them that appeared for the contest. After finishing, The Chalk Circle, I could make sense of culture, race and a sense of place, in a way evolved manner than I did earlier.

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Book Review: Open City by Teju Cole

Title: Open City
Author: Teju Cole
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9781400068098
Genre: Literary Fiction
PP: 259 Pages
Price: $25.00
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

If there is to be a new literature born from the influential shadow of the great W.G. Sebald (who died tragically in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57) then Teju Cole and his enigmatic, sparkling first novel, Open City, occupies the place of inevitable heir by reaching back through the past while firmly, concretely settling itself in the present. The young Cole (he is in his mid 30s, and is also a photographer and an art historian) achieves this by eschewing traditional plot and using a preternaturally crystalline prose that both invites and calms the reader while shattering expectations of resolution and remapping and redesigning the terrain for that over-used phrase: the Great American Novel. Open City is a novel concerned with questions, not answers, and it is this questioning nature that permeates throughout, stopping to digress on such disparate topics as consumer society (ruminating on the disappearance of a Blockbuster video store), politics, classical music, relationships, books, movies, medical school, and academia.

Julius is in his early 30s and in the final year of a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian. He was born in Lagos to a German mother (who he is now estranged from) and a Nigerian father (who died when Julius was fourteen) and has always felt like an outsider. Being light-skinned he was always aware, while in a Nigerian military school, of not being as black as the others, and in America he feels what it’s like not to be white. In the U.S. Julius is the perpetual “other,” belonging to neither group. A friendly glance between him and a group of young black males carries sufficient weight, though it is fleeting when they pass again:

There had earlier been, it occurred to me, only the most tenuous of connections between us, looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; in other words, on our being “brothers.” These glances were exchanged between black men all over the city every minute of the day, a quick solidarity worked into the weave of each man’s mundane pursuits, a nod or smile or quick greeting. It was a little way of saying, I know something of what life is like for you out here. They had passed by me now, and were for some reason reluctant to repeat that fleeting gesture. (212)

Another example portrays Julius interacting with his neighbor, not knowing that his wife had passed away a number of weeks ago. This scene illustrates how the people who live close to us can, in reality, remain forever distant:

A woman had died in the room next to mine, she had died on the other side of the wall I was leaning against, and I had known nothing of it. I had known nothing in the weeks when her husband mourned, nothing when I had nodded to him in greeting with headphones in my ears, or when I had folded clothes in the laundry room while he used the washer. I hadn’t known him well enough to routinely ask how Carla was, and I had not noticed neither her absence nor the change–there must have been a change–in his spirit. It was not possible, even then, to go knock on his door and embrace him, or to speak with him at length. It would have been false intimacy. (21)

Hovering in the background of the novel is 9/11, and Julius meditates while wandering the streets of New York thinking about the losses surrounding this event as well. Memory is both a blessing and a curse in this world; we wade through our day to day activities until the detritus of the past reaches out, strikes us cold, and leaves us wondering where we are and why we are here. Julius then decides to fly to Brussels in hopes of locating his aging German grandmother, and while there he meets a woman and, in an internet café, an angry Moroccan student; they eventually have lunch and discuss politics. Various other events accumulate: Julius visits an older former profesor of his; he takes in both a movie and a concert; there are digressions surronding his patients and talks with friends. What this aggregate of “fragments” does is give the reader both a veritable glimpse of Julius’s life and interactions while also portraying the city and the world as a living, breathing essence.

What Teju Cole has done with Open City is usher in a new idea of the American novel. Now, it is no longer strictly “American” but a composite of “others,” populated by the remembered and the forgotten, or like Primo Levi’s, the “drowned and the saved.” This wandering, meditative literature encapsulates a new aesthetic that best exemplifies the new American and new American novel: it asks questions without expecting answers, it is both in awe of, comfortable in, and frightened by the world; it is not loud, sprawling, or in your face, but solitary, enigmatic, and eerily prescient for the strange times we are currently living in.