The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhutto. Penguin Press (2015). Hardcover, 240 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A powerful and beautiful novel by a Pakistani woman about three brothers—and the women they love—caught between military tyranny and terrorism and forced to make hard choices.
Pakistan is a fractured country today, as anyone who keeps up with the news realizes. Fatima Bhutto brings its tragedy to life, revealing how the chaos impacts the individuals living through it. Born in 1982, Bhutto is part of the “cursed” political dynasty of Pakistan. Her grandfather was president of the country, but he was executed for his actions shortly before her birth. Her father was also a politician, shot down by the police when she was 14. Her aunt, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed when she returned to the country seeking to regain power in 2007. This novel, however, is set far from the center of power that her relatives occupied. Fatima Bhutto graduated from Columbia University in the United States and has a M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a journalist for a major newspaper in Pakistan and published several books including a memoir about her father, an account of the 2007 earthquake, and poetry. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is her first novel.
Bhutto is an exceptional writer, not only in handling her fast-moving plot well but also in choosing the right words to carry her meaning and to jolt her readers. Her writing brings beauty and meaning to is basically a tragic story. She shares her perception that in turbulent regions like Pakistan, the burden of the past shapes the present. Her account is full of violence and destruction, but she handles its pain with grace, never allowing her story to become grim. At key moments, characters focus on details, such as the army man fidgeting with his wedding ring instead of the atrocities.
The novel is set in Mir Ali, a city in Waziristan, part of the tribal region of northern Pakistan. Its central characters are three brothers, the sons of a man, now dead, who resisted the domination of the central Pakistani government for many years. Each of his sons is different in personality and goals. The eldest brother is primarily interested in gaining wealth and the other advantages that are available in “the west.” The middle son wants to be a doctor and avoid the religious and cultural conflicts around him. Only the youngest son is receptive to his father’s stories and their call to push back on the power of the state. Although the novel is structured around the men, Bhutto told an interviewer for The Guardian that “In my mind, it was this story of three brothers and then these women took over, just like Pakistani women do.”
As their city celebrates Eid, each is involved in critical decisions. The action of the novel takes place on a single morning, with flashbacks of memories interrupting what is taking place. The story moves quickly between brother and brother and between past and present, often shifting at moments of high drama. Bhutto slowly and skillfully feeds information to readers building tension and suspense. For me, the book’s final revelations were a surprise, but one that made perfect sense.
This is a stunning book. I hope it is widely read.
I received this as a pre-publication ebook, thanks to Edelweiss and Penguin Press. I am grateful for receiving a copy.
Esperanza Street, by Niyati Keni. And Other Stories (2015), Paperback, 320 pages.
A coming of age novel about a boy in a seaside town in the Philippines threatened with new developments.
Esperanza Street is a street in a small town in the Philippines. It runs from the big houses on the hill down to the jetty where poor people live and work. The central character of the novel is Joseph, a teenager from a family near the jetty who becomes a houseboy for a widow who runs a boardinghouse up on the hill. She has two sons, one Joseph’s age and the other older, and Joseph gets involved in both their problems. At the same time, a distrusted land speculator is planning to build a massive new development of malls and other buildings that will require the destruction of the homes of many poor residents. For Joseph, as for his father before him, coming of age is less about love or adventure than about resignation and the acceptance of duty.
Niyati Keni was born in London, the child of parents who had migrated there from India. A physician as well as a writer, she has traveled widely in Asia, including in the Philippines. This is her first novel; a good book but not an excellent one. Keni is best at describing the people up and down Esperanza Street whom Joseph encounters. I had trouble relating to the characters, however, and sometimes found their choices implausible. The rhythm and the plot of the book seemed awkward with suspense building but not being resolved. I also found the book depressing. It lacked the lyrical beauty that balanced the pain in Claire of the Sea Light , a similar book by Ewidge Danticat about a town in Haiti.
Esperanza Street was published by And Other Stories, an innovative British publishing company that includes direct, advance subscriptions in its business model. Many of their publications are translations from a variety of languages. See their website for information about them.
Waiting, by Ha Jin. Vintage (2000), Paperback, 308 pages.
An unusual novel by a man from China about people caught in uneven social changes in his country and forced to wait so long that their dreams have faded.
Lin is a doctor, originally from a village, who married a woman there to insure that his parents would be cared for in their old age. His parents both die, and he falls in love with and wants to marry Manna, a woman he met at the hospital in the small city where he works. For eighteen years, he returns to the village to divorce his wife so he can marry Manna, but she thwarts his attempts. Meanwhile Lin and Manna must wait until enough time has passed that her refusal to divorce is no longer relevant. Living in dormitory conditions with strict rules, the couple remains chaste for the years of waiting. Although the book’s ending holds out a ray of hope, their long frustration has a cost.
Ha Jin was born and raised in Communist China and came to the United States almost thirty years ago to attend college. He has remained here teaching in college and writing award-winning poetry and prose. Waiting earned the National Book Award in 1999.
This novel has merit, and others may like it more than I did. While Jin never makes the Communist government as the villain, he does reveal it as arbitrary and full of graft.Jin provides rich detail into life in both towns and countryside; details that reveal how differently people are expected to behave from those in other countries. His descriptions contribute to the texture of book and to the tediousness and frustration of his characters’ long wait. Perhaps their situation is meant to say something about the wait of the Chinese people to see the fruit of their sacrifices and pain. Perhaps Jin is commenting on the situation of all of us who give up too much in the hope of future rewards.
Writing about the failure of hope can be depressing, however. I had trouble liking or identifying with Jin’s characters, especially as they and their relationship deteriorated over time. Their choices were too different than mine. I found the book grim, and fought to avoid absorbing its negativity. The last book I had read was Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light, a book which had at least as much pain and tragedy as Waiting. In it,however, Danticat and her characters transcend their pain in a way that Jin and his characters do not. While Waiting has merit, it does not offers the healing power of beautiful language.
I recommend this book primarily to those interested in daily life in Communist China.
Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II, by Farah Jasmine Griffin. Basic Civitas Books (2013). Hardcover, 264 pages.
An engaging account by an African American woman scholar about three black women who expanded their art and the politics in Harlem in the 1940s.
During World War II, New York City and Harlem drew African Americans into its artistic and political circles, and they, in turn, contributed their creativity in ways that reached beyond the neighborhood. Historian, Farah Jasmine Griffin, tells the stories of three women; Pearl Primus, a dancer, Ann Petry, an author, and Mary Lou Williams, a musician. Each found her place in Harlem during these years, a place where they could develop aesthetically and actively pursue their goals to improve the lives of African Americans.
Griffin is a respected historian with a Ph.D. from Yale now teaching at Columbia. Her book is obviously the result of diligent research and careful documentation. Unlike many academics, she writes with a grace and energy that belies her expertise. Rather than arguing the validity of her findings, she is foremost a storyteller, easy to read and comprehend.
While telling the story of individuals, Griffin relates how and why Harlem was a dynamic location for African American activists and artists in the 1940s. In doing so she adds to our understanding of how the war years laid the foundation for the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Possibilities of work in defense industries created a new wave of emigration of African Americans from southern states and from the Caribbean. Still facing discrimination, African Americans organized a “Double V” campaign against fascism abroad and racism with U.S. society. The movement aimed at affirming patriotism at the same time it spoke out against continuing discrimination, especially within the military. In addition, leftists of various descriptions were working together as a Popular Front bringing together activists and artists, some but not all of whom viewed the Communist Party as the best hope for addressing racial oppression in America. Such activity ended as the Cold War and McCarthyism led to the silencing of a wide range of people working for change.
The women on whom Griffin focuses were varied. Pearl Primus was born in Trinidad and had come to the United States with her parents. After studying biology in hope of becoming a doctor, she turned to dancing. In her dances she incorporated patterns she learned in the American South and in Africa. Ann Petry had grown up in New England and was the decendent of free Africans. Working as a journalist on a radical African American newspaper, she was in the middle of the activism of the time. She also wrote fiction which depicted the diversity of blacks on the streets of Harlem. In her best-known work, The Street, she reveals the vulnerability of African American women in the city. Mary Lou Williams wrote, arranged, and performed her music on the piano. She was an integral part of jazz and bebop popular at the time. Her attempts to assist those in need where more on an individual than an organizational basis. All three women made major contributions to American cultural and deserve to be more widely known.
Harlem Nocturne is a contribution to African American and US Women’s History. Enjoyable as well as informative, it is worth the time and attention of a wide range of readers. I recommend it heartily.
The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter. Hogarth (2015), Hardcover, 432 pages.
A complicated book about young British woman who is caught up in her own past and in events that happened more than a century earlier.
Aislinn Hunter has published in a variety of forms and venues; fiction, poetry, lyrical essays and academic articles. In addition to Fine Arts degrees from Canadian universities, she has studied “Writing and Cultural Politics” at the University of Edinburgh where she currently working on a Ph.D. in English Literature. Her academic articles reflect her interest in post-modernism, an interest reflected in The Worlds Before Us.
This novel centers on Jane, a single woman in her thirties who works as an archivist in a small museum in London. She is still haunted by the trauma she experienced over the disappearance of a child she was babysitting when she was 15. While a student, she researched records from the 1870s the manor house and the mental asylum near where the girl was lost. As her museum is closing due lack of funding, she returns to north England to explore what happened there in her own past and a century earlier, gradually making sense out of scattered clues and insights. In the process she begins to recreate herself.
The World Before Us moves back and forth in time and space and involves a large cast of characters. The most unique aspect of her writing is a cluster of undefined presences who provide some of narration of the book. Somehow dependent on Jane, they comment on present and past events as a collective “we.” They themselves do not know who they are or have been or why they see Jane as critical to their own survival. Like Jane, they gradually discover more about themselves as they explore the past, but much is never resolved.
Hunter’s writing is definitely clever, but for me it is too clever. Some readers and book critics will like this book, I am sure. To them, her postmodern attention to time, memory, and varying perspectives may seem sophisticated and contemporary. For me, this book, like too many other recent books, simply failed to draw me into the story. All the shifting characters and plots left me unable to care about any of them. The second-person-plural narration contributed to the confusion. The book wasn’t difficult to read, but I kept thinking why bother. I like books that are thought-provoking, but his book failed even that test. Technique can’t replace good storytelling.
I read this book courtesy of Library Thing’s Early Reader program.
Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat. Vintage (2014). Paperback, 256 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A web of the lives of the individuals of a seaside village in Haiti, told with intense precision and beauty.
Edwidge Danticat writes about her beloved Haitians with clear awareness of their pain and a unique ability to transcend it. At the same time she opens us to their suffering and tragedy, she reveals the love and resilience that allow them to survive. Both she and her characters seem to be walking a tight rope between despair and happiness. Her elegant words create the fragile balance.
At first Claire of the Sea Light seems to be a cluster of separate stories about of village people, rich and poor, and their conflicting emotions as they face the realities of their lives. A poor fisherman is ready to give away his seven-year-old-daughter, Claire to a woman who may offer her a better future. Claire herself has never known a mother, only “a string of mothering acts performed by different hands.” The son of a wealthy family goes to Miami, escaping from the death of his friend and the woman he made pregnant. An aging radio host is “floating through her life, looking for notion of who she was” in those she interviewed. A woman with a beauty shop believes that “even the poorest and unhappiest of women could fight heartache with beauty.” As we read, however, the stories overlap and we see the same events from different perspectives. We also see the parallels between the stories as different characters run away and return home.
Although the plot lines show diverse characters in all their humanity, it is the sheer power of Danticat’s prose that makes this book unforgettable. Sharp and poetic, she makes us feel both suffering and healing.
As a young child, Danticat was raised by relatives in Haiti. When she was 12, she joined her parents who had migrated to the United States, but her close ties to Haiti continued. She was particularly influenced by the Haitian tradition of storytellers. She continues to be closely connected to Haiti through her relatives there, and her award-winning books depict the people there.
I strongly recommend Claire of the Sea Light to all readers who love powerful writing, especially those who share Danticat’s belief that beauty can relieve pain.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen. Viking Adult (2007), 272 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A gentle, insightful memoir of childhood by a Vietnamese woman who grew up as a refugee in Michigan in the 1980s.
Bich Minh Nguyen left Viet Nam as in infant in 1975, one of the many refugees who fled the country as the Americans retreated. She came with her father, her sister, her grandmother, and several uncles. Her mother was left behind and never discussed by the family. They settled in Michigan where initially she and her sister were indulged by their uncles and cared for by their grandmother. Their father soon married Rosa, a woman from Mexico who brought her own daughter into the household. Rosa was a strong practical woman. Under her direction, family life was both functional and chaotic, but Nguyen often felt pushed aside in her family and, as the only Vietnamese, at school. She remained a loner, happiest when she was hidden away reading and dreaming of living like the white heroines she admired.
Nguyen had no memories of what life had been like in Viet Nam, but as a child she was acutely aware of how her family differed from those of her classmates. When she visited the homes of other children, she saw just how different they were from her own. Their mothers baked cookies and cleaned house, unlike hard-working Rosa or her birthmother about whom she knew nothing. Like her siblings, Nguyen quickly picked up American snack food and slang, but unlike some immigrants she did little to assimilate into American-style life. She did not reject or rebel against her family or her culture. She argued back when a white Evangelical classmate tried to convert her to Christianity.
At the core of this book is Grandmother Noi, a devoted Buddhist. After Rosa took over the household, Noi retreated to her room where she meditated and offered fruit to her statue of Buddha. In the evening, she and the children had a ritual of cutting and eating the fruit. Her room was where Nguyen found the calm and peacefulness to survive the contradictions of her daily life. While she craved the whiteness around her, she held onto her Vietmanese core. While touching on some common themes of immigrant writing, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is uniquely refreshing. Nguyen writes with sharpness, carefully describing the pop culture of 1970s mid-America as experienced by an outsider. Focusing on the kinds of food, she ate as a child, she brings into sharp detail just how fractured her life was. We do not need to be refugees ourselves to empathize with her confusion and frustration. Despite her family’s quirky behavior, she is grateful to them.
Nguyen writes of what it meant to write and focus on the tensions and conflicts of her childhood. She makes no claim to speak for other Vietmanese or even the rest of her family. Her words are a fine statement of her writing and of why reading memoirs can be so rewarding.
If memory is a shifting mirror, then writing is an effort to keep it stilled, at least for a while to try to find a point of focus, some sense of understanding. This book is my articulation of memories and experiences as I believe them—call it one person’s perspective on being Vietnamese and American, on being a kid in America, growing up with all the wants, frustrations and bright-colored packaging that made up the landscape of childhood.
I strongly recommend this book to readers who like childhood memoirs and those who care about those who have come to the United States in recent decades.