A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar. Penguin Books (2009), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A novel both funny and moving by a Middle Eastern woman about a girl growing up in an eccentric family in Kuwait who became refugees when their country was attacked and who eventually come to Texas.
The narrator of A Map of Home is Nidali, a young woman struggling to come of age at the same time she is uprooted from her home by war and forced to become a refugee in a foreign country.
Nidali’s father was from Palestine and he is an architect who wanted to be a poet. Her mother is from the Greek community in Alexandria, Egypt, and she gave up a career as a concert pianist when she married. Although both are loving, the two fight fiercely and frequently, as Nidali describes with her dry humor. She herself is often torn by her own “half and half” legacy even while growing up in Kuwait. When she was thirteen, Kuwait was attacked by Iraq. Nidali’s world was turned upside down. Most of the book follows her through these years as she struggles to free herself from her parent’s claustrophobic rules and their unrealistic expectations at the same time she seeks to find stability in an ever-changing world.
As a young child, Nidali’s father had made her draw and memorize the boundaries of Palestine. He called it “a map of home.” Later he told her that his country’s boundaries had changed from year to year. She erased the lines and focused on the blank paper. Maps become a symbol in the book, and Nidali never again has a clear sense of home. In some ways school, which had always been a refuge from her chaotic home, becomes the only constant force in her life.
Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and later came to the United States, but I don’t know how much of the book was truly autobiographical. The details of what was being seen and felt are so telling and so revealing that I suspect that Jarrar knows well the situations she describes. I had to keep reminding myself that her book was actually fiction. She is a wonderful storyteller with the ability to draw readers into the lives of those whose lives have been different from her characters.
I strongly recommend A Map of Home to many readers. Those who want to experience what life has been like in the Middle East in recent decades and those who are interested in what it means to lose one’s home and country will be especially attracted to this book. And it is simply a delightful novel.
The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke. Harper Perennial (2013), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 384 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A suspense-filled mystery, a tender account of mother-daughter relations, and a “meditation” on how we deal with our personal and societal past—all by an African American woman from Louisiana.
Attica Locke is an exceptional writer rooted in her own Louisiana history. She displayed this in her excellent first mystery, Black Water Rising, set in New Orleans. For her new book, she moved up the Mississippi River to the sugar country just south of Baton Rouge and to a restored plantation steeped in gracious living and almost-forgotten crime.
Caren is an African American single mother, managing the plantation where her family once worked as slaves and where she grew up as the daughter of plantation owner’s cook. She and her nine-year-old daughter live on the plantation, and when a dead body is found there, she begins to fear for their safety. As investigation of the murder proceeds, Caren is confronted with people from her own past as well as echoes from her ancestors’ lives. When her daughter’s father arrives to help, she must choose what is best for her cherished child. Knowing that the murderer is close and staking her, she must battle the plantation’s current owner who was once a childhood friend.
What Locke has accomplished is to write a well-constructed mystery that also deals with real personal issues, with unresolved issues grounded in her character’s past actions. The drama of Caren’s relation with her daughter has all the painful ambiguity many of us have felt trying to raise a child. She needs to protect the girl, but to do so will mean releasing and possibly losing their closeness, the only closeness Caren has in her life.
Possibilities for romance appear; reunion with the girl’s father or a new relation with a white reporter from New Orleans. Locke, however, never lets these possible romances become central to her book. She is too good a writer to provide a male protector as a glib conclusion for her multi-faceted book.
Race is another issue that is present but never becomes central. Certainly race has structured the lives Caren and the other characters have lived. Yet people move back and forth across color lines, and problems are never defined as primarily racial. Caren has found a measure of success and a job with authority, but that is not the case for other blacks or for the illegal immigrants who work the cane fields in “cutting season.” Power and injustice may be enhanced by race, but the responsibility for what has happened in the past and is happening in the present is primarily personal.
Locke is at her best in creating the setting for her novel, a restored plantation in the midst of fields of sugar cane, worked by illegal Mexican immigrants. The plantation is a beautiful place, maintained in part by lavish weddings, dinners, and other social events that allow visitors to imagine themselves as part of aristocratic tradition of the American south. Yet for a time it is also a refuge for Caren, a cherished place where she grew up feeling that she belonged. A young black man, employed on the plantation, begins to unwrap some of the myths the plantation embodies. He, and the movie he creates about the actual history of the plantation, are seen as threatening and thus become entangled in the murder investigation. Caren begins to see the irony of her employment working to preserve the plantation mythology.
On her own webpage, Locke relates the swirling mix of feelings that led her to write The Cutting Season. Attending a wedding at a plantation like the one in her book, she experienced “a whole cocktail of conflicting emotions: rage and revulsion over what the antebellum scene represented, but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time.” Returning after Obama was elected president, she began to formulate what she wanted to write and why.
Obama’s presidency has necessarily interrupted a narrative about this country that had been virtually unchanged since its birth, a script about race in America that had been playing on a continuous loop for hundreds of years. And it has presented a unique emotional challenge: to hold, in both hands, the fundamental contradiction of where we’ve been in this country against the hope of where we’re going. It made returning to the plantation all the more surreal, raising deep questions about how we treat our history in the context of tremendous progress.
This is a wonderful book because it does explore, in living human terms, our contradictions around race. I strongly recommend it for sheer reading pleasure and for the questions it raises about how we live with the past we all share.
Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon. Bison Books (2013), Hardcover, 336 pages.
A FAVORITE BOOK
A wonderful, innovatively conceived history of a Native American woman who lived in a community of Indians and whites on the southern edge of Puget Sound in the northwestern United States in the late nineteenth century.
Llyn De Dannon is an Emeritus Professor at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. She herself lives just down Oyster Bay from where Katie Gale once lived. She has extensively researched and documented all she can find about Gale and those who touched her life. Her findings are well documented with footnotes, bibliography, and comments about her sources, especially the oral histories she conducted, but this book is not meant for other academicians. In the innovative tradition of the college where she taught, she has written an interdisciplinary history which takes in to account economic, political, and environmental changes that affected life on Oyster Bay. Even more unconventionally, she has woven into her account her own extensive speculations about her subject and her own memoir of living on the bay as she wrote about Gale.
Katie Gale was born near Puget Sound in 1856, just as violence ended between those who had long lived in the area and the European American intruders who were entering it. Because her mother became sick and died, Katie spend much of her childhood with relatives who lived on Oyster Bay, learning the traditional craft of minding the oyster beds and collecting oysters. James Gale was an ambitious white newcomer, aware of the value of oysters and eager to make his fortune. He and Katie lived together, had children, and married, all the while working the oysters together and gaining possession of more beds. In 1893, a national economic crisis reached Oyster Bay. At the same time, Katie’s marriages become abusive. Because she was defined as a U.S. citizen and had married legally, she was able to go to court to sue for divorce. James defended himself by accusing her of being an unfit mother and only a crude and lazy Indian, claims that were easy proven to be false. Before the court ruled, he and Katie worked out an economic agreement which gave her full possession of some of their oyster beds. They remained formally married but he spent most of his time in Seattle with his white mistress and his rapidly growing oyster business. Katie and her two children remained on the bay where she established her own successful oyster business. She died of tuberculosis in 1899. Her ex-husband went on to become an important figure economically and politically in the state.
Because Katie Gale could neither read nor write, her own thoughts and emotions can seldom be known. The only words we can trace to her are from the accounts others wrote. Court documents include her description of the violent abuse that James inflicted on her. The descendants of those who were her friends add a few choice stories, such as the time she tied James, probably drunk, to a tree with his beard. De Dannon uses her broad knowledge of the region to suggest what Katie might have been doing and saying. At first De Dannon’s images of the inside of Katie’s house and the trail behind it seemed to me to be sheer fabrications, but on reading her discussions at the end of the book, I learned at she had talked with those who had lived there and known the house and trail. De Dannon is careful to indicate when she has evidence for her account and when she moves beyond it. Using her imagination allows her to make figures from the past more real and human. But she never tries to tell an intimate story that only a novelist could write.
As Thomas King observes in his fine recent Native American history, most of us tend to assume that Indians were either fighting or invisible to white people. Katie Gale’s story makes real a transitional community when people of different racial groups lived alongside each other. They were not equal, but for a time they lived together, worked and played together with an openness that would later disappear. If we are to understand the full scope of our racial histories, we need to learn more about communities like these in which Katie Gale lived.
In an unusually long acknowledgement section at the end of the book, De Dannon writes about the people from whom she learned about nineteenth-century life on Oyster Bay. Many of these were the descendants of people who had known Katie Gale. She also credits her colleagues at Evergreen College for the shape which the book took. She notes the questions which both students and teachers were regularly asked when they finished a project. “What did you do? How did you do it? What did you learn? Why does it matter?” In writing this book, these were the underlying questions she sought to answer.
I strongly recommend this book to a wide variety of readers. It certainly should be read by anyone interested in Native American and Indigenous peoples, but also by those who simply enjoy well-researched biography or history and unconventional approaches to learning the “truth” of the past.
Thanks to Library Thing and to Bison Books at University of Nebraska Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.
Note on my language:
The English language has no adequate words for discussing Indigenous people, especially those in North America. Perhaps that fact relates to the ways in which such people have been thought about and treated. All the possibilities are problematic.
“Native Americans” is probably the best, but it ignores the fundamental unity of people who ignored the US borders with Mexico and Canada. And it is clumsy to use repeatedly in writing. I like the Canadian “First Nations,” but it never caught on in this country. “Indigenous” is the proper term to use globally, but it also sounds too foreign in an American context. One alternative is to use the names of particular tribes, especially since tribal membership carries benefits. The US government uses this designation, but this language is also problematic. People from different tribes who live off reservations have often been thrown together and inter-married, as happened in places like Oyster Bay. Their children are not registered as members of any tribe.
I have chosen to use “Indian” here and in my other reviews. I know full well that North American people are not the people of India as the Europeans here assumed and it is a term imposed by outsiders. It glosses over tribal differences, but it has the advantage of being how European Americans saw those who were here originally. And it can be used smoothly and repeatedly in writing. And I am willing to follow the lead of Thomas King in choosing “Indian.”
Because they considered themselves as superior to all those they encountered, European colonizers named those whom they saw as the other. Like many tribes, they saw themselves as the only real human beings. “Caucasian” is the closest they came to defining themselves racially. In writing about them, I have chosen to simply refer to them as “white.”
The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson. New York : Warner Books, 2003.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A powerful speculative novel about African people in different times and places living in hopeless situations finding ways to live with grace.
Nalo Hopkinson is one of my favorite authors, and The Salt Roads is the most ambitious and moving of her novels that I have read. In it, she brings together the suffering of peoples from Africa in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean in the mid-eighteenth century, the parlors of Paris in the nineteenth century and the deserts of the Middle East in the fourth century. Connecting them is Ezili, a timeless spirit with her own personality who can enter individuals and “ride them.” Hopkinson is at her most creative with this spirit. The spirit’s words and thoughts are printed in bold type, and they flow without the usual constrictions of grammar. Both the spirit and the individuals often find themselves facing hopelessness, but unknowingly they contribute to more freedom for the Ginen or Africans.
The Salt Roads is not a gentle or happy book. It probes the question of why bad things happen even to innocent people. It is very sensual book with physical descriptions of peoples working in the sugar fields and dancing in the forest, dying and giving birth. Readers feel the heat of the sun or the cold of the chilling winds. There is lots of explicit sexuality, sometimes between a man and a woman and sometimes between two women. It is not a book for those who can be easily shocked.
In writing a story of African peoples, Hopkinson focuses on three women. Jeanne is the mulatto mistress of a French poet in Paris in the nineteenth century. Thais is a prostitute in forth-century Alexandria who runs away to Palestine. After a series of misadventures, she is found by a monk in the desert and named St. Mary of Egypt. My favorite was Mer, a slave and doctress to the other slaves on a plantation in Santa Domingo in the mid-1700s years before the slave revolts that would create Haiti. Conditions there were so bad that few slaves survived more than ten years of working in the sugar cane. Hopkinson provides a gripping picture of the slave community, its unrest, and the brutality with which any hint of rebellion was put down. Hopkinson gives a particularly strong picture of slavery at its worst and the divisions and tensions among the slaves. I know too little about the circumstances other women on whom Hopkinson focuses to gage their accuracy, but her account of slavery is clearly borne out by scholarly research.
Hopkinson frequently uses Caribbean words and concepts. I usually found it easy to understand what was happening by the context, but her book sent me to learn more about the spirits and the history she includes. Catholic sources do name a St. Mary of Egypt who is portrayed as being dark skinned. Like Ezili, her images blend into that of a “dusky” Madonna. I suspect I would have liked this book even better if I had known more about Caribbean life and spirituality.
I strongly recommend this book to all who enjoy speculative fiction that is deep and full of meaning. Those not willing to grapple with physicality and suffering should read one of Hopkinson’s lighter books—such as her The New Moon’s Arms. (See my review )
This book was read as part of the More Diverse Universe hosted by Aarti @ Booklust featuring Speculative Fiction by People of Color.
Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor. Miami, Florida: Warner Brother, 2005. Hardback, pp. 308.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
An enjoyable fantasy by an African writer about a dark-skinned girl on another planet, her quest to save her friend’s life, and her own coming of age.
Zahrah is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in an insular world on a planet near Earth. She was born with strange hair, hair that other children teased her about unmercifully. As she reached adolescence, she discovered she had other strange powers as well. Her only real friend was the boy, Dari, who didn’t mind the ways she was different from others. He had a strong curiosity about the planet beyond their town and even about the mythical planet earth. Although Zahrah was shy and fearful, his desire for knowledge led them into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle near their home. When Dari was attacked there, Zahrah set out on a quest through the Forbidden Jungle to save his life. In the jungle, Zahrah encountered dangerous, fantastical creatures, who almost killed her. She found friends who helped her stay alive. Most importantly, she learned to value and trust herself and to honor the talents that made her different.
Okorafor’s fantasy is full of adventure and imaginative plants and animals. It is a place where plants have strange powers. Even within the “civilized” part of the planet, everything from computers to buildings is really plant-based. In the jungle, animals talk and live in comfortable villages. A few human beings have rare talents that are equally unimaginable. Okorafor does imagine them, however, and shares them with her readers. Her novel is well written and fun to read.
I thoroughly enjoyed this fantasy, although I suspect it was written primarily for a Young Adult Audience. Its themes deal with issues of particular concern for that age group; such as being true to one’s self and one’s friends even when they are different and learning to stand up to fear and remain calm in the face of danger. The book is never moralistic, however, and you don’t have to be a teenager to relate to issues like dealing with fear. Okorafor also offers a mild social comment about the need to explore the unknown rather than turn inward with fear. I especially appreciated Okorafor’s depiction of the relationship between Zahrah and Dari as deep friendship and loyalty rather than romance. She leaves their future open to become romantic, but doesn’t push them into premature sexually attraction.
I gladly recommend this novel to all those who enjoy fantasy—especially but not exclusively young adults.
This book was read for A More Diverse Universe Reading Tour, hosted by Aarti on Booklust and featuring fantasy by authors who are people of color.
Poppy’s Progress and Poppy’s Return, by Pat Rossier. North Melbourne : Spinifex, 2002 and 2004.
Two warm novels about a New Zealand woman who is nearing 50, and those she loves.
Lots of books focus on coming of age stories, but few deal with women moving through middle age and becoming old. Pat Rossier, a New Zealander, gives us a pair of novels about a woman moving on with her life in the second half of her life. Never glib or moralistic, Rossier shows us a woman finding ways to negotiate her challenges successfully and find happiness in unexpected places.
Poppy Sinclair thinks of herself as an ordinary woman, but she admits that maybe the fact she is a lesbian sets her apart. She has a job she loves teaching children. Her relationship with her parents and her brother’s family are good, and she has a supportive group of lesbian friends. But she is still lonely and grieving over the death of her beloved, long-time partner in a sailing accident ten years earlier. She and those around her are changing. A visitor in her home might turn into a lover, and she must nurse her dying father. She must make decisions about who she is and what she wants from life, some of the same choices many of us face as we age.
Rossier writes about the death of loved ones in Poppy’s life with dignity and grace. In the first book, Poppy’s partner’s sudden death left her reeling. In the second, death is even more prominent as Poppy goes to England to nurse her father in his lingering death at the same time she struggles with the rest of her life. Poppy walks the fine line between facing the realities of illness and death and finding paths for her own survival. Readers see her struggles and the small nuggets of love and joy she finds in caring for him. Whether or not we follow her example, the fact that she can find strength and joy makes her story hopeful, not depressing. The book helped me begin to see that being there for those who are dying need not be a totally grime endeavor.
The feminist movement plays only a minor role in Poppy’s life, despite Rossier’s long involvement in it. In the 70s, her housemates argued about feminist theory, but she preferred to do concrete tasks such as taking women to airport so they could get an abortion. She is most involved in feminism when New Zealand was considering removing homosexuality from the list of criminal offences, and she came face-to-face with the hatred of those who opposed the change. The passage of the law allowed Poppy and her friends to be more open about their sexual preference and to form a strong community. Rossier is able to bring readers into that lesbian community and shows us its interworkings. Such communities exist in many cities and are an important, seldom-recognized part of lesbian identity and life. Poppy has been alone for years, but she was still part of a lesbian community. When the possibility of sexuality reappears, she feels both attraction and the need to go slowly.
Poppy is also close to both her parents and to her brother’s family. Their stories are a critical part of hers. Rossier uses them to gently introduce ethnic diversity into her books. For a time Poppy’s mother, divorced from her father, lives with an Indigenous New Zealander. Her brother is married to a woman whose family had originally come from China, and their son is intent on learning more about that part of his heritage. Poppy ensures that he is able to do that with the support of his parents. One of Poppy’s challenges is helping her niece and nephew without alienating their parents.
Nature is important for Poppy, In good times and bad, she finds nurturance there. Rossier’s books are full of wonderful descriptions of both New Zealand and England, where Poppy goes to be with her father. I have been able to learn a little about Australia from my reading, but New Zealand was new for me. I spent much time on GoggleEarth, trying to find photographs of the marvelous locations which Rossier described.
I heartily recommend this book to readers, lesbian and straight, who want an enjoyable read that takes them into situations that may be new to them. And especiallyto readers who are women moving beyond middle age. Both books are better read together.
Thanks to Spinfex for sending me these books to review.
For a more literary portrayal of lesbian community life, see Finola Moorehead’s wonderful Remember the Tarantlla.