This year has seen a bonanza of worthy books, covering various genres. But while best-book lists in many newspapers have focused on fiction, we’d also like to highlight some of the critical work produced by scholars in 2014. Here we select a short list of books that we hope will be widely read in the coming months. We’ve found them to be incisive, superbly written, and extremely thought-provoking.
From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life, ed. by C. Oberon Garcia, V. Ashanti Young and C. Pimentel
This collection of essays is a timely examination of “racial ventriloquism” in the United States - that is “when white authors appropriate the history and stories of black life”.
Edited by Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charlise Pimentel, the book looks at how “white-authored narratives are consistently used to structure perceptions of American race relations”, infiltrating our consciousness and perpetuating the current hegemonic power.
The editors state that despite the success of contemporary American writers such as Toni Morrison, “the most influential and widely disseminated narratives of black life are created by white people through the institutions and discourses dominated by white money, decision-making, and interests”.
Focusing particularly on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, and the film it spawned, the book discusses the critical controversies around these works and investigates the divided opinions about them in the Black community itself: from Oprah Winfrey’s embracing of the story to writer Touré’s slamming the film as “the most loathsome movie” in America.
“The Help links us to questions that are not only literary or cinematic but also deeply social and political,” say Oberon and colleagues. Among these questions is: why does Hollywood constantly reward black actors and actresses “for playing subservient, violent, or hypersexual roles often created by whites”?
With the current racial crisis playing out in the United States, following the high-profile killings by police of African-American men and youngsters, these issues are more pertinent than ever. As the editors assert, “stories … create our realities”, and if we don’t question and challenge the sources of these stories, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
|Claire Oberon Garcia|
The editors realize that some people will disagree with their views and pose the question: “doesn’t every artist, writer, producer, or director have the right to tell stories as he or she sees fit?” The answer to that would be “yes”, of course, in a world where equality is the norm.
But sympathy and empathy are not the same as painful experience, and “racial ventriloquism” may be fundamentally doing more harm than good. Anyone who has doubts about this can skip directly to Chapter 4: “Taking Care a White Babies, That’s What I Do – The Help and Americans’ Obsession with the Mammy”, written by Katrina Dyonne Thompson.
Thompson was a doctoral student, sitting frequently in a café “armed with stacks of books” and her laptop, when one day “an older white gentleman” approached her and asked, “Are you here to interview for a nanny job?” As she says, she felt “the burden of hundreds of years of stereotypes in this one exchange”. Thompson’s essay goes on to illustrate how Stockett’s novel feeds these stereotypes. Like the other essays in the book, it may make some readers reconsider their take on the whole “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” genre.
But the editors aren’t necessarily recommending that these narratives not be written or read; what they are calling for is context. “Racial ventriloquism” should be given its appropriate framework, and should be taught alongside books by African American writers, in a comparative and critical space. The message here is that white-authored stories should not provide the prevailing and accepted view of black lives.
The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory
Shalini Puri’s elegantly written book comes 31 years after the United States’ invasion of Grenada and is the first scholarly work from the humanities on the subject of both the Grenada Revolution and the US “intervention”, according to the publishers. The author herself describes the book as “simultaneously a critique, tribute, and memorial”, and it fills all those roles in excellent fashion.
Puri, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, argues that the 1979-1983 revolution was a transnational event that had a great impact on the politics and culture across the Caribbean and on the region’s Diaspora, both during its short span and in the three decades since its fall. Her research includes interviews, landscape studies, literature, visual art, music, film, and newspaper accounts to give a gripping description and analysis of the revolution and its effects.
Her main premise is that the region has been participating in a kind of collective silence about the revolution, hence her subtitle “Operation Urgent Memory”, a play on the name of the American offensive - Operation Urgent Fury. “The degree to which Grenadian memories are silenced is especially striking in comparison to the loudness of pro-US narratives,” she writes, adding that on the Internet, “data on the US invasion, which lasted barely a week, far outweigh those on the Grenada Revolution, which lasted four and a half years”.
Puri makes it clear from the outset that this is not a history book, but a “meditation on memory, on its frailty and its survival, on the unexpected sites and manner of its surfacing”. As such, the book can be considered a literary work, fused with criticism and journalism. It even has photographs – some snapped by Puri and others taken from archives or provided by Grenadian sources.
Readers will gain new insights into the momentous events on the Caribbean island, from the overthrow of Prime Minister Eric Gairy in 1979 to the invasion by the United States in 1983. Puri delves into the charismatic personalities of revolutionary leaders such as Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard and recounts the tragedy of Bishop’s execution in October 1983, before the age of 40. She provides compelling answers to the question of: what is the significance of a revolution on a tiny island measuring 310 square kilometres, smaller than many US cities?
As she points out, the Grenada Revolution was the “first socialist-oriented revolution in the Anglophone Caribbean; the assassination of Maurice Bishop was the first assassination of a head of state in the Anglophone Caribbean; it was the first time the United States invaded the Anglophone Caribbean.” Even now, the events still generate political debate in the region and there is disagreement about the revolution’s legacy.
Puri also examines the long-held silence of some of the participants, including noted writers, but what is most striking about the book is the compassionate tone throughout. It’s as if the author is herself moved by the story she is telling, and touched by the cast of unforgettable characters.
Stylistic Approaches to Nigerian Fiction, by Daria Tunca
One doesn’t have to know anything about the field of “stylistics” (analysing and interpreting texts through an examination of language) to appreciate Daria Tunca’s enlightening work on Nigerian literature. The Belgium-based researcher, who teaches in the English Department of the University of Liège, asserts that the “analysis of style in Nigerian fiction needs to be broadened to account for the range of linguistic techniques deployed by contemporary writers”.
In a clear and engaging manner, Tunca addresses issues such as the links between style and characterization and between aesthetics and ideology. She also casts light on the use of language and folklore in selected texts but goes beyond studies of the writers’ mother tongues to explore form and content.
In all of this, the figure that looms large is that of Chinua Achebe, the late “grandfather” of “African” literature. “Ultimately, beyond all criteria of differentiation, second- and third-generation writers have at least one major thing in common: everyone, from Nigerian academics to American radio hosts, obsessively compares them to their illustrious compatriot, Chinua Achebe,” Tunca writes.
Achebe played a defining role in the debate on language, and Tunca’s book addresses his influence and that of others including Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Among the issues: to choose or not to choose English as the means of expression?
For those who are fans of the current generation of celebrated Nigerian writers - Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others - this books provides accompaniment to the reading of their work. One will learn the names for an array of concepts and techniques used by these authors, such as “underlexicalization”: which is “withholding the usual term for something that is being described”.
Tunca says that every magician (or writer) has a trick. To discover it, “onlookers must not simply allow themselves to be dazzled, but rather observe and analyse – meticulously, systematically, and with appropriate technique. This is the aim of stylistics.” Of course, one can choose to be dazzled without any deeper observation, but then one would miss out on stimulating books such as Tunca’s.
(The three books above were published by Palgrave Macmillan.)
FICTION – THE SHORT AND LONG OF IT
It’s sometimes difficult to cut through the hype surrounding works of fiction, especially with everyone and his grandma now using social media to push their publications. The promotional screams can be deafening, but every now and then, amid the noise, the sweet calls of beguiling stories break through. That may sound a bit over the top, but it reflects the thrill of discovering truly memorable books, two of which are described below.
Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go, by Sharon Leach
Sharon’s Leach’s stories are mesmerising, to put it in one word. The range of characters created by this Jamaican author and journalist stays in one’s head after one has finished the book, with bits of conversation or description recurring. From a particularly poignant story, “Lapdance”, comes this, for instance: “I’m here because I love lapdances. They’re my poison. Chillin’ in the champagne room, son. I figure people would say I’m addicted to them. That’s a hell of a thing to get addicted to.”
Leach’s protagonists are “people struggling for their place in the world, always anxious that their hold on security is precarious,” according to the blurb, but they’re more than that. They’re the products of an inventive imagination that gets to the soul of things, without sentimentality or judgment. They’re people with secrets, with heavy pasts and, in some cases, without a future.
Underpinning the skilful, fast-paced writing is a sly sense of humour, as Leach highlights the absurdities of various sexual situations. Whether readers are meant to take at face value certain improbable acts is a question that will linger, but this doesn’t necessarily detract from the strength of the collection. It makes it somehow more unforgettable. (Peepal Tree Press)
Ryad Assani-Razaki and La main d’Iman (The Imam’s Hand)
|Ryad Assani-Razaki (photo by A. McKenzie)|
Published in Canada in 2011, and in France a year later, La main d’Iman is a story of people caught up in a web of inequality in an African country, where the main characters include children sold by their parents into domestic servitude.
The book is told from several points of view, and pulls one in from the first few lines because of the beauty and sophistication of the writing. The author’s particular talent is in describing the unspeakable, not in crude terms, but in poetic prose - much like Toni Morrison, whom he cites as an influence.
We spoke with Assani-Razaki this year in Paris, when he attended the biennial Festival America literary event. We wanted to know more about this talented writer, who was born in Benin in 1981 and currently resides in Montreal, Canada, after studying in the United States.
SWAN: What was the inspiration for La main d'Iman?
A-R: Following a long period away from my home country, I eventually returned to Benin when I could afford the trip. Upon my arrival, one of my most puzzling impressions was the feeling people gave me that they all wanted to depart. At every level of society, the eagerness seemed the same. The question of why it was so important for people to leave was my inspiration. Some people are ready to go to the furthest extremes, to achieve that goal, even risking their lives. That was puzzling to me.
A-R: My influences are multiple. Having been educated in two languages, my influences are both French and English. But in any case, I always favor authors and works that focus on character development. My French influences would be such as Annie Ernaux for her treatment of language, Nathalie Sarraute for her thinking. The English-speaking writers that most influenced me are Toni Morrison for her courage to tackle the most disturbing themes, Jumpha Lahiri for the beauty of her words. I have also read Anchee Min, hanan al-shaykh, V.S. Naipaul. I like to travel with literature
SWAN: Do you think that francophone writers from Africa get the same attention as their English-speaking counterparts?
A-R: I think francophone writers from Africa get a lot of attention in the Francophone community. However, to cross over to the English-speaking word with translations is a bit of a challenge.
SWAN: Do you also write in English?
A-R: I do write in English.
SWAN: As someone who left his home country, is identity an issue as a writer?
A-R: I think identity is the central issue for every human being on the planet, whether they are writers or not, and even for those who haven't travelled. We spend our lives, constantly redefining ourselves. Which is why a book such as La main d'Iman that deals with the theme of improving one’s condition as a human being can resonate with anybody, regardless of their life experiences.
La Main d'Iman won the Prix Robert-Cliche, a Canadian award for first novels.