A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. London, Heinemann, 1967.
A brilliant novel set in rural Kenya as the country formally achieves its independence from British rule and people remember the complexity of their struggle. A novel which challenges conventional narratives about war.
For centuries stories about war have followed a predicable pattern. They are adventure stories played out with the highest stakes of life and death. They are about the sharply defined struggle between good and evil, us and them. Honor and sacrifice for those we love are the supreme values. Belief in such stories undergirds our willingness to go to war. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o subverts such narratives with their neat dichotomies. In his hands, the line between homefront and battlefront blurs. We go inside the minds of hero and traitor alike. Women as well as men are changed by the war. Even the British who have treated the Kenyans with extreme cruelty are depicted sympathetically. Ngugi leaves us wondering if victory will be enough to heal the wounds left by the violence.
In A Grain of Wheat, the bloody fight for Kenyan freedom from British colonial control has been won, and a village near the Great Rift prepares to enjoy of self-rule. Celebration of “Uhuru” or “Freedom” from the British is complicated by the remembrance of the violence and pain people have known within themselves and at the hands of each other. Mugo is a hermit-like man, viewed as a hero by others but he is a man riddled by guilt and shame over what he has done. Gikonyo and Mumbi were a loving couple until he is taken into detention. When he returns, he has to face that she is not the vision which sustained him in captivity. She is woman with needs of her own struggling to survive in a hopeless situation. Karanja, Gikonyo’s rival for Mumbi, allied himself with the British during the war and gained power over the other villagers. He believed that each person had to survive alone rather than by uniting to struggle against oppression. Acting aggressively against other Africans has earned him their hatred. John Thompson came to Kenya as a British official with dreams of forcing order and progress on the Africans. He was willing to use the utmost cruelty to achieve those dreams, but now he was reluctantly returning to England along with his wife, Margery, whom he has alienated. All of these and a variety of others are struggling to reconcile themselves to what had happened to them and how they had acted under the duress of war. As they interact with each other, they are reaching toward new beginnings. Their struggles make the book guardedly positive rather than depressing.
Growing up under British rule in Kenya, Ngugi lived through the Mau Mau wars that led to Kenya’s independence in 1963. A Grain of Wheat and his other early writings center on the events surrounding his nation’s creation. As Kenya moved into dictatorship in the 1970s, Ngugi changed both his writing and politics. He strongly opposed the dictatorship and was imprisoned for his stance. After threats on his life, he was forced into exile. While teaching in the United States, he has continued to write. Ngugi has been a strong advocate for African writing and African languages. His later novels and plays are originally written in his own native language, Gikuyu.
A superb writer, Ngugi is capable of taking readers inside characters whose experiences are radically unlike that of most western readers. Most of the major characters are male, but he shows real empathy for the women. The scope of the novel is only a few days, but people remember and discuss what happened during the years of fighting. Ngugi tells people’s individual stories while blending them into a larger narrative. As the novel ends, he shifts his writing from third person to a communal “we,” turning the individuals’ stories into the communal stories of the village and nation.
Often when I read books by Indigenous writers I wonder how people can turn their own painful experiences into meaningful literature. Perhaps creating fine book like A Grain of Sand is a means of dealing with the pain. Perhaps reading such works can help us all understand that pain and empathize with others rather than blindly condemning them. Perhaps we can learn from books like this that victories present their own new sets of problems.
I highly recommend this book to all readers for its insight, its excellent writing, and its depiction of war that fits the violence of the post-colonial world.
The meaning of the title and the cover of this book are unclear to me. Anyone out there who can explain them for me?
A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs.
A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs. University of Nebraska Press (2014), Hardcover, 400 pages.
An important history of Indigenous children removed from their families in the settler nations of the United States, Canada and Australia after World War II, when governments turned their responsibility for Indigenous children over to private adoptive parents. Jacob‘s new book contributes to our understanding of each of these societies and of shifting conceptions of diversity and government responsibility.
Margaret Jacobs’ White Mothers to a Darker Race, a fine history of programs in both Australia and the United Stats countries to weaken Indigenous hold on land and power by removing children from their families and placing them in special schools. (See review) That program was designed to weaken tribal cultures and peaked around 1900. Until I read her new book, however, I had no idea that a similar program after World War II caused the removal and adoption by private families of large numbers of additional Indigenous children in several nations. A Generation Removed brings that story down into the 1970s, filling an important gap in the narrative of Indigenous history.
The initial reasoning behind the removal of Indigenous children from their families was to isolate them in boarding schools where they would be assimilated into the cultures of the settlers who had taken over their lands. Forbidding children to be raised in their own traditions would speed the destruction of their people, a destruction that many believed was “inevitable.” After 1900, however, the wide-spread failure of the boarding schools was all too evident in the United States. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, some schools closed while others continued as native people voluntarily enrolled their children in the hope they would have food and shelter. Conditions in the schools did not merit such trust.
After World War II, the US government decided to end its support of Native Americans on reservations and in schools. The federal government was seeking to save money by rejecting their traditional responsibility for Native Americans. Many groups had their tribal certification removed. For a time in the 1950s, a core of women in the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to strengthen Native American families with programs directed at helping them keep their children, but that idea was quickly pushed aside. The national government told the states that they were responsible for taking care of any Indians in need. Few states had the money or desire to do so. The national social programs supporting families, initiated in the New Deal for whites, were seldom available tor Indians.
In this context, American government officials instituted a new “solution” to the “Indian problem”: the fostering and adaptation of Native American children into the families of non-Indian families. Preferably, adoptive homes would be located far from their original families. In an early attempt at “privatization,” adoptive parents would conveniently absorb the cost of providing for Indian children instead of the government. Widespread propaganda encouraged white families to take in the children by demonizing traditional Indigenous pattern of child rearing. In a time of glorification of the nuclear family, horror stories were circulated about Indian mothers who were considered unfit because they had children out of wedlock. Even worse, children were frequently kidnapped and put out for adoption without any legal procedures.
Jacobs describes how the promotion of adopting Indian children in the 1950s and 1960s was embraced by many liberal Christian churches and families. People of good will heard the stories of the problems faced by Native Americans and wanted to help. The prevailing ideology stressed that America was a “melting pot,” into which all but African Americans could be absorbed. There was no thought that Indigenous traditions and communities were worth preserving, just that children could be “saved” by assimilation. Adoptive white parents honestly believed that the children would never face racial discrimination and were unprepared for the problems that emerged with their adolescence.
Starting at the local level, Native Americans fought back to regain control over what was happening to their children. Indigenous woman often lead attempts to end the permanent loss of children without their mothers’ informed consent. They also advocated that children who needed to be removed from birth parents be brought up by their extended family or others in their own communities. Their drive for “self-determination” allied them with more militant Native Americans. Because their communities had been weakened and excluded from federal assistance, they also sought help for tribes seeking to correct the economic and medical problems which were given as reasons to remove children. In the mid-1970s, Congress held extensive investigations of the abuse of power by police and social workers. Federal legislation was passed ensuring that tribes had some control over the fate of their children.
In addition to telling a critical piece of Indigenous history, Jacobs presents a devastating picture of American conformity in the 1950s and 1960s, and of a determination to eliminate deviation from the nuclear family ideal. I was growing up in a small southern town in those years and know all too well the accuracy of Jacobs’s observations. I was part of the “liberal Protestant community” that Jacob’s describes. Like most Americans, if I thought about Indians at all, I assumed they were to be pitied and assimilated. None of us were capable of imaging anything more radical than assimilation for Native or African Americans.
Long chapters about Canada and Australia reveal similar stories of the removal of Indigenous children and their forced adoption. Jacobs includes extensive stories about what Indigenous people in all three countries suffered. She chides Americans for never acknowledging what they had done to Indian families, as both Canada and Australia have done. Between her more scholarly chapters, Jacobs tells stories about her own experiences deciding on and researching this topic and about those who contributed to her understanding of it. In doing so, she has found a successful way of balancing her personal account with the demands of academia.
The conceptual framework which Jacobs uses is the pattern of “settler societies.” Those seeking to settle follow the same basic pattern. Because they wanted land from Indigenous people, they developed practices to get rid of those who owned that land by killing them, destroying their tribal communities, or assimilating them. I see the similarities she describes, but I have continued to have questions about the differences between what happened to Indigenous people in Australia and the United States. Reading about Australian Indigenous people has also left me wondering about the differences between the treatment of Native Americans and Africa Americans in my own country.
Jacob’s focus on settler societies has given me insight into possible answers to my questions. Almost two hundred years before they came to Australia, British settlers and other Europeans sought land from Native Americans. The destruction or removal of those of who owned the land made sense to them. As they began to grow profitable plants, however, like tobacco, rice, and later cotton, they also needed labor, more labor than was available from Native Americans. Right from the first they brought in people indigenous to another part of the world. Absolute control over the imported Africans, not their extinction, was what they needed. Intense prejudice and mistreatment existed toward both group of people of color, but what the Europeans wanted from each shaped their histories differently. That attitude remains today. Through the 1950s and 1960s there were efforts by all sides for assimilation, but there was never any talk of resolving the African American problem by adoption.
I would like to explore these questions in more depth. Does anyone have suggestions of authors or books that deal with these differences?
A Generation Removed is a significant book in the history of Indigenous treatment throughout settler societies in the recent past. I hope it is widely read everywhere.
The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, by Rafia Zakaria. Beacon Press (2015), Hardcover, 256 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
An important book weaving together the stories of three generations of a Karachi family and the troubled history of Pakistan.
Rafia Zakaria grew up in Karachi and later moved to the United States where she is a lawyer, a journalist, and an activist for peace and human rights. She writes a weekly columnist for Dawn, the major Pakistani newspaper in English, and her articles frequently appear in Aljazeera. Beacon Press, the publisher of The Upstairs Wife, calls the book a memoir, but I was unable to verify basic information such as when and where Zakaria was born and when she migrated to America. Whether or not the actual events in the book occurred to her family, her knowledge of Pakistan and of women in Islam is deep and valuable. She writes well in a style that is more journalistic than literary.
The Upstairs Wife is not a typical memoir. Although written in first person, the familiar inner struggles and development of the narrator are absent. Zakaria is an observer, and in the parts of the book, a child not fully aware of what is happening. Going back to the time before her birth, she tells of her grandparents living in Bombay. Hoping for a better life, her grandparents and their children migrated to Karachi in 1962 and prospered there. The extended family built an impressive house where the grandparents lived and dominated the first floor, and Zakaria’s parents and sibling lived upstairs.
The character at the center of the book is Zakaria’s Aunt Amina, the “upstairs wife.” Taking a second wife had long been acceptable within Islam, but seldom actually done among Amina’s family and friends. When her husband, Sohail, brought home another wife without consulting her, she was devastated by the scandal. After returning briefly to her parents’ home, she moved into the second story of her husband’s house while the new wife lived below. Meticulously following the Islamic rule that wives be treated equally, Sohail alternated weeks between the women. The situation continued to upset Amina, who grieved for the life she had expected with a husband that was hers alone.
Along with the story of her family, Zakaria relates the history of her nation. Personal stories are sprinkled with accounts of bombings and accidents caused by both terrorists and the national military. Pakistan‘s brief history is a complex one, and one that I had never understood. When Indian Muslims came to the new nation at the time of the Partition, they were not welcomed by the Islamic groups that already lived there. The refugees or “Muhajir” clustered together and prospered despite limitations on their advancement. Tension between the groups escalated, and what might have been minor incidents turned into ethnic riots. Simultaneously, those supporters of democracy and supporters of military rule struggled for control of the country. The rise of terrorism and the involvement of the United States in both Afghanistan and Pakistan further complicated the many-sided conflicts. Life is also interrupted by earthquakes, floods, and wars with India and for the independence of Bangladesh .
Zakaria clams that what was happening privately in her family was paralleled in the national story, but I found that claim overblown. Some parallels are present, such as her father’s birth and the birth of Pakistan and Aunt Amina’s dramatic return to her parent’s home with the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan in the 1990s. A few times family was directly affected by political events, like the military crackdown of opposition with curfews, restrictions of of movements, and killings of citizens in their section of Karachi. But Aunt Amina’s distress over her husband’s polygamy is not really connected to the rise of Islam extremism as Zakaria suggests. Neither is the rise of that extremism the only problem facing Pakistan, as Zakaria makes clear. The public chaos does not actually mirror family problems, but it pervades their story with the sheer terror of living with violence and uncertainty. Pakistani history becomes a backdrop for the family, a fear of uncertainty that what was happening to others could at any time happen to them. Although Zakaria does not provide the parallels she claims, her blending of private and public narratives works well because of her ability as a writer.
Defining herself as a feminist, Zakaria pays close attention to women, making this book an excellent addition to the literature on women and Islam. While critical of how women are treated in Islam, she objects to Western feminists who exhort Muslim women to reject their faith. Rather than rhetoric about women as victims, her book provides a detailed account of the limitations that Muslim women seldom challenge. Her accounts of women’s daily lives reveal their texture and rhythm. I was struck by little things — that women could not take part in funerals and had to enter dwellings by the back door. Zakaria’s focus on polygamy and the tension between the two wives is unique and valuable. In addition, Zakaria includes women in telling the history of her country. We learn of the women and children killed simply because of where they lived. She discusses Benazir Bhutto as a political power and also as a woman. Without dismissing the allegations of corruption by her and her husband, she also described the concerted campaign by religious leaders to preach about the heresy of allowing a woman to rule. She tracks the desire to “purify” the nation after Bhutto’s removal with increased enforcement of rules restricting and punishing women.
I strongly recommend this book to all who care about what life is like for various Muslim women and to those who care about understanding the recent history of the Middle East and South Asia. It is an enjoyable and accessible book as well as an informative one.
Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, by Diane Glancy. University of Nebraska Press (2014), Paperback, 136 pages.
A poetic imagining of what it meant for Native American warriors from the American Great Plains to be imprisoned on a stone fort on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and be educated in the culture of their captors.
The factual history of the prisoners at Fort Marion is well established. In 1875, seventy-two of Native Americans were captured on the Great Plains of the American Midwest. They were considered the most dangerous leaders of various tribes; Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, and Cheyenne and Caddo. One wife and one child accompanied the men. They were taken by train from Fort Sill in what is now Oklahoma to Fort Marion in St. Augustus, Florida. Over the next three years, they were taught to read and write English by Richard Pratt. After three years, twelve of the men had died and about 40 were allowed to return to the West. Others chose to continue their education at Hampton Institute, an institution which Pratt established to educate both Plains Indians and ex-slaves.
Diane Glancy is part Cherokee. She has spent her lifetime teaching in public schools and colleges about the tensions between Native American and European American cultures. She has published numerous books of poetry and prose relating to the topic. In this innovative book, she gives us details and perspectives we could not glean from reading traditional history–“the history that is not in history books.” She dares to explore a new way of understanding the past that is unlike the alleged objective methods of professional history. She does not claim that all history should be approached in this way, but that history is always assembling fragments. In her view, there are many valid stories to be told including many that have never been told.
For this book about the Plains Indians at Fort Marion, Glancy tells of learning all she could about her subjects from traditional historical sources. Using this information as an “anchor “or a “dock,” she has imagined what their inner landscapes could have been like. The result is not history or historical fiction as they are normally understood. Glancy moves fluidly, assembling the fragments of the stories to recreate her characters’ emotions and world view. Not bound by chronology, she often uses the pictorial language the Indians might have used as they encountered what was previously unimaginable for them. The men call the train that carries them east “a box that walks” and their steamboat “the talking village on the water.” She tells how for them the ocean appeared to be “at war with the land.” The fear that engulfs them on the train “covers them like brush fire.” Her language is not meant to be quaint or demeaning but an example of how foreign everything was to people literally from another world. Woven into their stories are her own journeys as a child alienated by her schooling and as an adult listening for Native American voices.
At the fort the prisoners were arranged in regimented rows and taught to speak, read and write in English. Some refused to learn the language of their captors, and Glancy explores the gains and losses of any one’s education. When the men were captured the only language they shared was sign language. Learning English could became a means of talking to each other; a tool for their survival. The prisoners were given ledger books and colored drawing pencils with which they created pictures of the events taking place around them and events from their remembered homelands. Remembering the plains through pictures was a means of survival. The pictures were sold to the tourists who came to view the Indians. Examples of their drawings appear on the book’s cover and within its text. In addition, a sculptor came to the fort and made plaster life casts of prisoners’ heads and shoulders. As Glancy writes the process was terrible for them. Photographs to the casts are also included, adding spooky images for current readers.
The Nebraska University Press, which published this book is to be praised for promoting history written in a variety of innovative ways. Glancy’s book is the fifth such book that I have read and reviewed in the past year and the one furthest from traditional histories that scholars have long written primarily for each other. Some of the new books contain traditionally-documented description and analysis alongside more personal accounts of the author’s interaction with material and people being studied. Others focus on an individual as a prism for understanding larger historical phenomena. Not all are written by people who are professional historians. All focus away from what leaders do and onto those invisible to traditional historians. Such books are important in sharing what we know of the past with a wide, non-academic audience.
I strongly recommend this book to everyone, not simply those curious about its subject. Also check out my reviews of other innovative histories that the University of Nebraska Press has recently published
Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon.
A Lenape among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman, by Dawn Marsh.
A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs. (Review coming soon.)
Segu, by Maryse Conde. New York, N.Y. : Penguin, 1996.
A sweeping family epic set in central West Africa in the early 1800s as slavery and Islam bring conflicts and changes to traditional life.
Segu, or Segou, is a town of Bambara people in present-day Mali. Located on the upper reaches of the Niger River, it was the center of its own empire. Around 1800, when this novel begins, it was a relatively prosperous region where nobles used large numbers of slaves to farm the rich river land. Wealthy men had numerous wives and concubines living in their large compounds. Fetish worship, as it was called, is practiced, but as the book progresses, it is increasingly challenged by Islam. Tensions rise between the new religion and family and tribal loyalties. Slave trade with Europeans also rages, even after it is legally abolished. Reading Segu, we are immersed in the conflicts occurring throughout West Africa.
The novel centers on the Traores, a noble family of Segu. The patriarch of the family is removed from court, and his sons leave voluntarily or involuntarily. His eldest son converts to Islam and goes to study in Timbuktu, a city past its prime but still more cosmopolitan than Segu. Another of his sons accompanies him and makes a life for himself as a trader in fine goods in Morocco. Still another is captured and taken away as a slave going first to Goree Island and then Brazil. A younger son joins the Ashanti army as a mercenary and then travels along the coast of the Blight of Benin. All retain a sense of Segu as home. They or their sons return to Segu, a place changed by the increased availability of imported goods and the presence of more Muslims. Those within the family compound are divided by religious faith as well as by sibling rivalries. Conde follows each of the sons and grandsons, as they venture away from Segu and as they interact with each other. It is the story of the sons that dominates the book.
Conde’s genius is her ability to describe the variety of life in West Africa in the nineteenth century, rather than in the development of her charters or plot. While some of the characters are strong and praiseworthy, Conde never idealizes Africans or their lives in the past. The book is about an Africa where Africans are fighting each other for domination, including the right to define religion for others. They struggle with each other and even in peace, are sharply dismissive of those of different ethnicities or religions. While some characters are pious Muslims, others are disillusioned by the greed and narrow-mindedness of other Muslims. Religion comes to be about political power, and some Muslims do not follow the religion’s teaching about the equality of races. Christianity is no better, but plays a less important role in the book. Some whites, and “half-castes” appear in the later part of the book, but they are incidental to a variety of African characters. This is a book about Africans, not their colonizers.
Romance is a minor factor in the stories told in Segu, and sexual desire is seen through the eyes of the male characters. Women are important, especially as mothers, but they tend to be passive figures yielding to the demands of the men. I did not appreciate the rape scenes in which the men are driven by allegedly uncontrollable desire for the women they eventually love and marry. Probably Conde has accurately described the gender roles understood by both men and women of that time and place, but I wish she had distanced herself from these attitudes, as she does when dealing with religious extremism.
A descendent of the Bambara people, Conde was born and raised on the French island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. She studied in France, earning her Ph.D. in Caribbean literature at the Sorbonne. For a time she taught French in various West African countries. She has also taught at some the most prestigious universities in the United States. Segu is the best known of the many books she has written. It was originally written in French and translated by Barbara Bray. Maps and charts of family connections help readers follow what is happening. Unfamiliar words are explained in the text or at the bottom of the pages, and historical notes can be found at the end of the book.
I strongly encourage others interested in Africa to read this book, especially those interested in the African cultures and conflicts before the spread of colonialism. And I recommend it to all who enjoy historical fiction not set in Europe or the United States.
I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo. Nan A. Talese (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages.
A unique and moving novel by a Chinese woman about the lives and love of a contemporary Chinese couple alienated and exiled from their world and the Scottish woman who translates their letters and diaries.
Iona lives an empty and lonely life with no purpose other than for her work translating Chinese writings into English. When she is given a mysterious packet of letters and diary entries to translate, she becomes deeply involved in the stories of the couple who wrote them. As she assembles the couple’s stories, she becomes caught up intheir lives. Jian has been a punk rock star in China, but he has been exiled for his revolutionary views. As a refugee, he wanders through Europe. Mu is the woman whom he loves and who has shared his life for years. A poet herself, she remains in China trying to make a life for herself without him while nursing her dying father. The couple finds it difficult to remain in touch, much less be reunited. Much of the suspense of the novel involves figuring out who the couple are and what happens to them.
Xiaolu Guo established herself as a film producer and writer before leaving her home country and going to London in 2002. In addition to her film career, she has written ten novels, five in Chinese and five in English. Her new novel and her Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers reflect her awareness of the problems of translation and her frustration trying to get English versions of her earlier work. In I Am China, she weaves together the stories of three major characters, not always revealing events in a chronological order. Her writing flows easily giving readers a view of contemporary China which few of us in western countries seldom see. At times Iona and the Chinese couple seem very different, and I wondered why the author had included Iona. Yet the narrative is hers as much as it is the Chinese. All three of them are dislocated and troubled in a world where traditional ties have been broken and new ones difficult to establish. For each of them the future is vague and uncertain, as they love and lose, see parents die, and search for identity through writing.
I strong recommend this unusual book by a talented writer, who writes gracefully about people and situations she knows well.
Blood on the Waters, by Anne Perry. Ballantine Books (2014), 320 pages.
Another in a popular mystery series set in Victorian London and featuring William Monk and his friends and family.
Ann Perry is the widely recognized writer of historical mystery fiction. She has become an expert on the details of the high and low lives of Victorian Londoners with her novels about Thomas Pitt and the less aristocratic William Monk. This is another in the series featuring Monk, and it is a fine example of the genre in which Perry excels.
Monk is the head of the River Police. In previous novels he has suffered from amnesia about his childhood, worked as a detective for the Metropolitan police and, privately, married a woman who was formerly a nurse in the Crimean War. As this novel opens, he and an assistant are rowing on the Thames when a private cruise boat explodes nearby. It is a major tragedy with about 200 people killed. Instead of assigning Monk’s River Police to investigate, the case is turned over to the Metropolitan Police. A man is quickly accused and found guilty of the crime. But Monk is convinced that he is not the real criminal. Monk sets out to find the culprit and to determine why the justice system had decided to execute the wrong man.
As in many detective stories, the major focus of this book centers on figuring out who did the crime and why. For Perry, it also includes engaging portraits of a wide range of characters directly or indirectly involved. The underlying themes of the novel are subtle but meaningful. Monk and his wife have taken in a boy from the streets who is now a teenager. They struggle over how to teach him to respect traditional authorities at the same time they are proving those authorities are corrupt. Monk and others ponder how people decide if forced to choose between professional honor and beloved family members. In addition, some of the action concerns issues of evidence and truth, including the need to take seriously what the “invisible people” in a society have seen and experienced. These themes add an additional depth to the novel.
I recommend this book to all those who find enjoyment in this type of historical fiction.