Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire. Delta (1997), Paperback, 194 pages.
An exquisite book, written as a series of letters by a mother in Zimbabwe to her daughter who is leaving to go to college in America. The book is full of African stories, histories, and cultural values.
J. Nozipo Maraire was born in Rhodesia in 1964, as the violence began that eventually led to the establishment of the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Like Zenzele, she came to the United States for college and has become a neurosurgeon. With precision and beauty, her words express her loyalty to traditional Africa and her effort to sustain her heritage in a very different world.
This book is written, not in Maraire’s voice, but that of her mother, Shiri, known traditionally as “Amai Zenzele” (the mother of Zenzele). Shiri is an impressive woman, no flat character naming specific traditions which must be observed. Instead, she is a woman who has lived a full life and is aware of aware of its frequent contradictions. She herself embodies both the old and the new. Growing up in a traditional village, she now lives in a city as the educated, well-traveled wife of a successful lawyer. Regular return visits to her village are part of how she balances her own life. She urges her daughter to work out her own version of living between”the old and new, urban and rural.” Sharing the stories of how she has developed her own balance is part of her responsibility as a mother.
Respecting and being loyal to her African roots is a major value that Shiri seeks to instill in Zenzele. She is critical of Africans of her own generation who have grabbed unthinkingly at the ways of white colonizers. Eager to insure that their children have the best of everything, she says too many have discarded their African past.
We simply rushed in to secure what the colonists had. We bought their homes, attended their schools, leased their offices, spoke their languages, played their sports, and courted their company. We denied our own culture, relieved to leave our primitive origins far away, in some forgotten village… We ceased to dream, to have our own vision of happiness and success… We have to acknowledge our dual citizenship.
She tells sad stories of those who no longer “remember their own language.” For her, those who go abroad to study owe a debt to their homeland. These negative stories are balanced by the story of young girl born in America who returns to her father’s African homeland to fight for the people there. Zenzele is expected to live, not just for herself, but for Africa which depends on her.
In going to the lands of others, Zenzele must understand how she will be viewed by them. Both father and mother tell of their own humiliating experiences with Europeans and Americans who view them only as uneducated potential servants.
Unfortunately few Europeans regard Africans as equals. They see us in the indistinct haze of a colonial hangover. Be prepared to meet many who still see Africa as one large amorphous mass: The Dark Continent, a primeval swamp, misty and steaming, inhabited by Neanderthal creatures and cheerful but primitive natives…
To counter these beliefs, Africans must define themselves by beginning to write their own history.
Do not be fooled by the whitewashed apparent objectivity of the ivory tower. Until the ivory turns to a rainbow with all countries represented, you would do well to be suspicious of the so-called facts.
Until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter. So it is with us, too. History is simply the events as seen be a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink.
Shiri has lived through the years of violence in which her people fought against the colonizers. She explains what changed when British Rhodesia became Zimbabwe by reminding her daughter of all the restrictions she had faced under British rule. Although the mother did not engage in fighting, her sister and close friend were among the rebels and tell her their stories. One woman, deeply engaged in the guerilla movement, explained that the final humiliation that drove her to rebel was simply that she wanted a dress – a dress she had admired and worked to buy – that the storekeeper refused to sell to an African. Summing up the difference independence has meant to her, she states “I inhabited Rhodesia, but in Zimbabwe I lived.”
The last chapters of the book seem to be written somewhat later. Zenzele has departed to America, and her mother is back at her home village, thinking about religion and death. She remembers an incident from Zenzele’s childhood when they had visited an unusual chapel where the paintings contained black angels and a black god. Delighted, Zenzele had pronounced, “This one looks like me! Look at her hair, Mama, even her eyes. I could be an angel, too.” Her mother was also moved to see “an image of God in her own image and not the image of my oppressors.” For the first time she had found the God she had sought, not “the Teutonic God” that the missionaries had insisted she worship.
In writing through the voice of a mother in Zimbabwe, Maraire articulates the horrors of the colonization of countries and of people. Her criticism is both scathing and gentle. She refuses to blame all of Africa’s problems on colonization, but she shows us the insidious ways colonizers tried to change people of other cultures. Sadly this practice continues today in the ways we continue to fit others into our own definitions of them. Maraire sees to the root of the problem in much the same way as Wole Soyinka does. She presents an alternative which combines loyalty to Africa with action in a modern, international world.
I cannot recommend Zenzele too strongly to readers from both Africa and from colonizing nations.
Metropolis: A Novel, by Elizabeth Gaffney. New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.
Enjoyable historical fiction about the people living in the underside of New York in the late 1800s.
A young man, recently arrived from Germany, quickly gets caught up in the chaos of a city as young and changeable as himself. Changing his name and identity frequently helps him survive until he settles into being Frank Harris, not a German but an Irishman complete with an authentic sounding accent. Unintentionally he becomes part of a highly unusual criminal gang, one that combines its criminal behavior with progressive ideas like profit-sharing and expanded options for women. Frank falls in love with Beatrice, a bright, attractive Irish woman from the gang, only to have her swept away. A stone mason by training, he works in the sewers underneath the city and on the Brooklyn Bridge which towers above it as he slowly makes a place for himself in New York.
Elizabeth Gaffney had fun researching and writing this historical novel, and her fun translates into enjoyment for her readers. She combed a variety of sources to collect the factual details which establish what New York and its inhabitants were like in the 1870s, and she has filled her story with delightful bits of information. As she explains in the interview included in the book, she sees her goal as a novelist is to explore the unseen places in our history, “looking in closets and under the counters and down the manhole covers, not eavesdropping on the conversations in the living rooms and parlors.” In doing so, she directs her attention to people not usually included in fiction. She has also created an imaginative, if implausible story, full of suspense and sensitivity. Written in the style of sweeping nineteenth-century novels, its characters face problems still with us today; inequality, discrimination and women’s inability to find adequate health care.
I gladly recommend this book to all readers who enjoy learning about the past through fiction.
Domestic Manners of Americans, by Frances Trollope. Reprint edition. HardPress Publishing (2014), Kindle Edition, 332 pages.
A reprinted classic by an English woman who visited America around 1830 and wrote a witty and sometimes critical account of what she saw, an account that reminds us of the blindness of priviledge.
Frances Trollope was the daughter of a clergyman and the wife of unsuccessful lawyer. She enjoyed the literary and reform circles of London, where she met Fanny Wright, a radical American who planned to open a school where white and black children would be educated together. Trollope and three of her children accompanied Wright on her return to America. The plan was for Trollope to observe the school in Tennessee, but upset by the conditions there, the Trollopes moved on to Cincinnati where they spent the next year.
Cincinnati had been founded only thirty years before. For Trollope, it was an example of the best and worst aspects of democratized living. The American West, as seen through Trollope’s eyes, was a place empty of the refinement and pleasant luxuries that she valued. Crudity and lack of respect were rampant problems in her eyes. Chewing tobacco and spitting were intolerable to her. People were working so hard to get ahead that they had no time or interests in culture and intelligent conversations. A poor person could probably obtain a more comfortable life in the city than in England, if only they could avoid the widespread vices of alcohol and tobacco. She was also deeply offended by those whom she considered “beneath her” refusing to show her any deference.
When Trollope and her group moved to eastern cities, she found more that pleased her, although spitting and lack of grace continued to annoy her. Staying at a plantation near Washington, D.C., she encountered slavery firsthand. She was quick to point out the unfairness of the institution even for domestic slaves who could be sold away from friends and family and who had no personal hope for freedom in their future. (She never, however, addressed what life was like for the majority of slaves beyond the few who served in their masters’ homes.) She also viewed slavery as contributing to the coarseness of their masters and mistresses. Trollope saw some advantages to be had from slavery, however. She believed that domestic slaves had better lives than the lower classes of whites, even of the whites who owned slaves themselves. In addition, when she was traveling, she found that slaves were more pleasant and more helpful servants than whites who thought themselves equal to those they assisted.
Women and home life were of particular interest to Trollope who made a point of visiting a variety of homes and writing about the practices she observed. Such topics, ignored by male travelers, added to the popularity of her book. At times she shows pity for the lives of the women she describes, but seldom any empathy. Even the women who were wealthy and well-dressed are depicted as sad and often helpless. Trollope believed that a major problem for the upper classes was that women and men were usually separated in their leisure time, leading both groups to stop trying to be pleasing. (She does not seem to notice that the work of women and men was also rigidly divided.)
Trollope was not totally negative about America. She made friends and tells of architecture and views that thrilled her. She found much to enjoy, particularly in the abundant natural beauty. She and her children were active explorers, hiking on a regular basis. For her,the Alleghenies viewed in the springtime with all their trees and flowering vines were the most wonderful place she had ever seen. It was the “excessive” democracy in people’s daily life that upset her.
Although Trollope had come to America as something of a radical or reformer, her observations here reveal her underlying conservatism. Her book was widely read, both in America and in England, in part because of how critical she was of how political democracy was affecting society. While her views are certainly biased, they remain important for understanding the sense of loss that some conservatives were experiencing. As she points out, praise of democracy is cheap. Actually encouraging others to claim equality has a cost for those who enjoyed privileges in the past. It we believe in equality, we must be willing to give up privileges.
This reprint of Trollope’s book includes an introduction by Sara Wheeler which provides useful background information for those unfamiliar with Trollope or conditions in the young American nation. Frances Trollope was the mother of Anthony Trollope. I am grateful to have received an ebook to review.
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Haine. Vintage (2013), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 256 pages.
A humorous, sensitive novel about a Christian woman from the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, who works in a failing hospital and becomes involved with a minor crook.
Mohammed Haine is a Pakistani who grew up in that country and now is an international journalist there. His writing is rowdy, irreverent, and comic as he describes the poverty stricken people of Karachi. His writing conveys a sense that we must laugh over the world he depicts, or we will cry.
Haine’s story centers around Alice Bhatti, a tough young woman with an angry temper and a caring heart. She has much going against her. A Roman Catholic of Hindu descent, she lives and works surrounded by Muslims. Her father is an untouchable who cleans sewers and cures stomach problems with an Islamic ritual. Much of the book revolves around her job at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a chaotic institution that tries to deny its Catholic identity. She works with a cluster of other unique and colorful individuals. When a baby given up as dead comes to life, she is viewed as a miracle worker. When a “police tout” falls madly in love with her, her life gets even more complicated and violent.
I read this book because I had read that Haine was a male writer able to write sensitively about women. Maybe. Neither his female nor male characters are fully developed, and they all provide comedy rather than depth. He is, however, sensitive to women’s problems and vulnerabilities. Alice’s experiences and those of other women she has seen at the hospital reveal an appreciation of the particular ways in which women suffer. Yet Haine is never grim even in describing the tragedies of their lives.
I recommend this book to readers with a high tolerance for violence and irreverence who like stories about the chaotic lives of slum dwellers. Those who can laugh at human foibles. This book was fun, but nowhere near as moving as Kathrine Boo’s depiction of similar people in Mumbai in her fine non-fiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. See my review.
The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar. Harper Perennial (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 400 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A powerful novel about an American couple, devastated by the death of their young son, who move to India in hope of a new beginning only to be confronted with the real world that others inhabit.
Thrity Umrigar grew up in India and now lives in the United States. She has a unique talent for probing into her characters’ inner conflicts. Significantly, the characters about whom she writes are often ones involved in bridging cultural and economic gaps: servants and their employers or people living outside their native lands. Like many of us, some are people who want to “do right” by those less fortunate than themselves only to discover the complex, unpleasant motivations underneath their efforts. And they must also deal with the fact that their efforts may do more harm than good to those they set out to help.
In The Weight of Heaven, Frank and Ellie Benford are shattered by the death of their seven-year-old son, Benny. Although they had previously been very close, their attempts to deal with their grief has driven them apart. For no rational reason, Frank blames Ellie for the loss of Benny.
…It was as if a beautiful blue bowl, no, it was as if the world itself had fallen and broken into two halves. Try as he might, Frank couldn’t help but feel toward Ellie how he imagined Adam had felt toward Eve after the Fall—hostile and compassionate. Sad doomed and resentful. Above all, lonely. Above all, unable to regain that lost broken thing.
Seeking to regain their closeness, the couple moves to India where Frank becomes manager of a factory belonging to an international corporation, located in a small town near Mumbai. Ellie had been hopeful about the move but she soon discovers that India itself is not simply a passive setting for them to work out their problems, but a force that would impact their lives.
India, she had found out, was a place of political intrigue and economic corruption, a place occupied with real people with their own incessantly human needs, desires, ambitions, and aspirations, and not the exotic, spiritual, mysterious entity that was a creation of the Western imagination.
Ellie is determined not to let her grief harden into bitterness. “She would not shrivel, not become a snail living in her shell.” She loves India and has a close India woman friend, Nadita, who is very much her peer. Their conversation allow Umrigar to explore cultural differences. For Nadita, the contrasts are not just culture or race, but about who has access to power. Both of their nations are to be blamed for the problems the poor of India face. Meanwhile Frank relates to Indians primarily as a recalcitrant work force he must direct and control. Some of his problems are personal, but his is a global company, taking resources valuable to the resentful people of the community. The only real joy that Frank finds is in his growing friendship with Ramesh, the bright, nine-year-old son of the couple who are live-in servants at the couple’s house. Ramesh’s father, however, jealously determines to keep his son for himself.
After introducing her characters and their plight, Umrigar goes back to tell the story of Ellie and Frank’s romance, of how Beeny’s birth had brought them closer, and of the period around Benny’s death. Then she returns us to India and Frank’s growing obsession with Ramesh. The couple briefly share loving moments such as the festival of Diwali where the dancing “celebrated the paradoxical of joy and restraint, of delirium within a structure.” They were not able to sustain their times of closeness, however. I found the book’s ending surprising and troubling, but given the story, I could not imagine an alternative. Her description of Bombay/Mumbai is particularly moving.
I love Umrigar’s sharp probing writing and her strong descriptions of places and people. I trust her complex descriptions of India and its contradictions.
Bombay. Such a deceptive word, so soft sounding like a sponge cake in your mouth. Even Mumbai, the new name for the city, carries that round softness, so a visitor is unprepared for this giant, bewildering city, which is an assault, a punch in the face.
I am even more impressed by her ability to depict her characters’ internal contradictions.
The Weight of Heaven is a fine book that I recommend heartily to a wide range of readers. This is a darker book than the others of hers that I have read, but I respect her knowledge that life sometimes shows its darker aspects. Like Frank and Ellie, we need to face the fact that bad things happen to good people. While I didn’t find this book as compelling as her two more recent ones, The Space Between Us and The Story Hour (See my reviews), I will continue to read as much of her writing as I can find.
HISTORICAL FICTION, MEMOIRS, HISTORIES, AND MYSTERIES BY PEOPLE OF COLOR
Aarti is again hosting a A More Diverse Universe at her blog Booklust from September 14 to 27. All you need to do is read one book by a person of color and list it at her blog. I am thrilled she is doing this again and want to be supportive. She offered suggestions in several genres that people might have trouble finding books by non-white authors. Here are more recommendations from my own reading and blogging. Links take you to my reviews.
Books like these are my favorite reading and you can find more on my blog, including lots of fiction by women and men of color. You can find them categorized by continent or by searching by country. American authors are categorized by ethnicity. For a time I hosted Global Women of Color. More suggestions and reviews are listed there as well as lists of the recommendations of others.
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami. A fine retelling of the story of Cabez de Vaca and three other survivors who explored the southwestern United States in the 1500s, as told by a Moroccan author from the perspective of Estaban/Mustafa, a slave.
Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samrasan. An intricate novel about a family of Indian descent in post-colonial Malaysia; a family, like their country, full of secrets, anger and long-held resentments.
That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott. A prize-winning novel about the initial interactions of whites and blacks on the southwestern coast of Australia around 1800 by an Indigenous writer.
The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan. Old-fashioned historical fiction set India during the rule of the Mughals around 1600 with lots of romance, intrigue, and violence.
Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See. Two related novels set in China and California from the 1930s to the 1950s as family members come to the USA and return to China. Or any of her other enjoyable books.
A Far Horizon, by Meira Chand. An historical novel set in Calcutta in 1756 about events in the British colony leading up to its conquest and destruction by a native ruler.
Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna. The interwoven stories of four wives of the same man in West Africa whose lives span the twentieth century.
Equal of the Sun, by Anita Amirrezvani. A sweeping historical novel set in Persia in the 1500s where the daughter of the Shah and the eunuch who serves her are caught in a struggle for power.
Near the Hope, by Jennifer Davis Carey. A gentle novel about a young woman leaving Barbados and coming to Brooklyn in the early 1900s, a true story recreated by her granddaughter.
The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. A Japanese classic telling the stories of four sisters of an aristocratic family trying to live up to their traditional roles as the country modernizes before World War II.
Gloryland: A Novel, by Shelton Johnson. A lyrical novel by an African American National Park Ranger about a man growing up in the Reconstruction South, becoming a Buffalo Soldier, and being assigned to patrol Yosemite where he is shaped by the beauty and the silence of the mountains.
Raj: A Novel, by Gita Mehta. Another traditional historical novel about a woman in India who was the daughter of one Raj, wife of another, and mother/regent for another during the last half century of British rule.
This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Set in the Dutch East Indies in the 1890s, and addressing the complex costs of colonization.
A Persian Requiem, by Simin Daneshvar. A moving Iranian novel set during World War II and centered on a wife and mother struggling with her competing loyalties.
The Garden of the Evening Mist, by Tan Twan Eng. A novel flowing around a mysterious Japanese garden in the highlands of Malaysia and narrated by a Chinese woman scarred by her experiences in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II.
Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa. A powerful novel by a Pakistani woman about people turning violently on each other during the Partition of India in 1947, told through the voice of a young girl who barely understands what is taking place.
Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo. An historical fantasy about a young Malaysian woman of Chinese descent in the 1890s pursued by ghosts and exploring the afterworld of Chinese folktales.
Carmelo, by Sandra Cisneros. Four generations of a family moving back and forth between Mexico and Chicago as a young girl grows into womanhood—and much more by a leading Latina writer.
The Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz. A novel about a family in Cairo at the time of World War I by the first Arab writer to win the Noble Prize in Literature.
Segu, by Maryse Conde. Impressive historical fiction set in 19th century West Africa where Islam and slave trading are changing people’s lives. Review to follow as soon as I finish it.
Each of these histories is enhanced by the fact they are written by individuals from within the groups they have described. If we are diligent and sensitive, we may all write the history of anybody, but as these books reveal, scholarship by “insiders” can be particularly insightful.
The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, by Afua Cooper. A wide-ranging history by a black Canadian woman focusing on a slave woman and the context of her life in colonial Montreal, slavery in Canada and the international Atlanta Slave Trade.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang. An enjoyable and informative biography of the woman who, as regent, was the virtual ruler of China for over 30 years, by the author of Wild Swans.
Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, by Judy Yung. An excellent history of Chinese American women in San Francisco from the 1902 to 1945, written by a scholar who grew up there.
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War, by Tera W. Hunter. Careful and readable history of black women in Atlanta, Georgia, based on an amazing diversity of sources.
A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Mahrani of Jaiper, by Gayatri Devi. A detailed autobiography by a woman who grew up as a princess in India in the early 20th century and was the wife of a Maharaja when India became independent.
A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, by Leila Ahmed. An autobiography by a feminist scholar who explores her own experience of colonization and her own identity as an Egyptian, a Muslim, an Arab woman.
First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood, by Thrity Umrigar. A vivid memoir by an Indian author of her childhood and adolescence in Bombay’s Parsi community.
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. A memoir by a well-known African author about growing up in rural Kenya and attending school during the 1950s violence there.
Borderlands, La Frontera, The New Mestiza, by Gloria Anzaldúa. An statement of identity and vision by a radical, Chicana, lesbian feminist.
Fault lines, by Meena Alexander. A memoir of growing up in southwest India and Sudan and then coming to the United States written by a poet who sharply feels the gulf between her past and present.
You Must Set Forth At Dawn, by Wole Soyinkra. A memoir of a Nigarian Noble Prize winner about his own involvement in the opposition to dictatorships. At the top of my TBR list.
The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke. A suspense-filled mystery, a tender account of mother-daughter relations, and a “meditation” on how we deal with our personal and societal past, even when it as painful as slavery, by an African American woman from Louisiana.
Black Star Nairobi, by Mukoma Wa Ngugi. A detective story set against the backdrop of violence in Kenya that raises political and moral questions about “doing good.”
A Beautiful Place to Die, Let the Dead Lie, Blessed are the Dead, Present Darkness, Malla Nunn‘s wonderful mysteries set in South Africa during the absurdities of apartheid. Listed in the order they should be read.