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NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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I’d heard good things about this debut novel about a young couple from Cameroon living in New York, trying to become Americans, around the time the Great Recession starts. I like books that offer a perspective different from my everyday life, so I gave it a try.

It was an entertaining read. The main characters, Jende and Neni, are working hard, trying to reach their American dream. Jende came first, working and living in a cheap apartment with several other people in order to save enough money to bring Neni and their son, Liomi, to New York. Neni gets a student visa and enters community college, hoping to become a pharmacist. She works, too, as a health aide. Jende gets a job through his cousin, working as chauffeur to a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark, and his family.

But Jende’s visa has run out and his application for asylum doesn’t seem to be going well. The novel deals with how this family decides what to do — stay in New York illegally, continuing to struggle and try to avoid any potential legal issues, or return to Cameroon. Meanwhile Clark’s family, wealthy beyond Jende’s and Neni’s imaginations, suffers a number of “first world problems” which only get worse as the financial crisis begins.

This juxtaposition between Jende and Clark and their fates and families is interesting reading. Mbue allows her characters to be flawed and conflicted — no one in this book has a smooth path or impeccable morals. The story got bogged down a few times, maybe to reflect the slow, imperfect progress of the immigration system? The ending was a little bit of a letdown, but again, this may be more art than accident, because there is no clear end of the story for the characters, only more change.

Mbue writes very well, and Behold the Dreamers kept me reading. Worth an evening or two of your time, if only to imagine what life is like for someone whose life is very different than your own.

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I  ordered The Illegal by Lawrence Hill at a library patron’s request a few months ago even though it doesn’t come out until Jan. 25. So when the book’s publicist got in touch and asked if I’d like to review it, I decided to give it a read. It’s a good time of year for a fast-paced novel, and I finished it in a couple of nights.

Hill’s story centers on Keita Ali, a boy from Zantoroland, a tiny island nation separated by the South Ortiz Sea from Freedom State, a larger, richer, whiter island nation. Zantoroland consistently produces excellent marathoners, and Keita aspires to be one. In the early chapters of the book we hear about his childhood, a coup in Zantoroland, and his journalist father whose stories appear around the world. In the latter part of the novel, Keita escapes to Freedom State, fearing for his life and his family. In Freedom State we meet both the rich and powerful and the residents of Africtown, a slum ruled unofficially by larger than life Lula DiStefano. And we learn that Keita has a very limited time to win enough races to ransom  a member of his family held by the government of Zantoroland.

The book certainly addresses timely topics — racism, cultural misunderstanding, fear of refugees, illegal immigration, economic and opportunity inequality, exploitation of women and the poor, sex trafficking, organized crime, corruption and graft, gender discrimination, and mistreatment of the elderly. But that’s an awful lot to stuff into one novel. Some of the characters are interesting, like John, a mixed race teen making a documentary; Viola Hill, a wheelchair bound lesbian reporter with far more ability than her editor sees; and Ivernia Beech, a white woman in her eighties who funds the prize John wins, and whose son wants her ruled incapable of living independently. Even Lula, the “queen of Africtown” who runs a brothel and nightclub but also organizes protests and presses the government for electricity and plumbing for the district, is villainous but potentially intriguing.

But these and other characters, including Keita, face so many obstacles — illnesses, crimes, and the aforementioned laundry list of social ills — that it’s hard to get to know any of them as the story rushes to its dramatic, action-packed conclusion.  Some of the subplots didn’t enhance the story so much as further complicate it.

I don’t want to be a total humbug this Christmas Eve. The issues the novel raises make it a potential book club pick for groups who like wrestling with ideas, especially in light of the crazy remarks some of our politicians have made about refugees and immigration lately. Hill’s writing and eye for detail are both fine. I absolutely loved the way Ivernia quietly subverts the official stance on illegals by issuing library cards. I just couldn’t stop seeing the writer as a puppet master pulling the strings, and to me, a good book doesn’t show the author’s machinations.

The Illegal isn’t bad, it just has flaws it doesn’t need to have, given Hill’s skill and talent. I think his ambitions for this novel simply outstripped the structure he had to work with.

 

 

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