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After reading Conditional Citizens and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, I checked out her most recent novel, The Other Americans. It opens with a tragic event in the lives of the the Guerraoui family, longtime residents of a small desert town in California near Joshua Tree National Park, originally from Morocco. Through different characters’ perspectives, a technique she also used in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami introduces the family, especially the younger daughter, Nora, who comes home from the Bay area where she is a classical and jazz composer. A few days after she arrives, she encounters Jeremy, a former high school classmate who served in the Marine Corps and is back in town working as a police officer and trying to help an angry fellow Iraq war veteran. Jeremy, we quickly learn, had a lonely childhood and found solace in Nora’s friendship when they were kids.

Nora struggles with not being the model daughter — her older sister both became and married a dentist — and with understanding her parents’ marriage, her mother’s constant critiques, and the expectations placed on her. She’s also dealing with anger and grief, and feels driven to help the police get the bottom of what has happened to her family. She tries to understand whether her growing feelings for Jeremy are a reaction to the pain they both feel or something more. And to understand not only her difficult family dynamics, but also her own sense of self.

As the story unfolds we also meet Coleman, a detective working on the Guerraoui case and trying to understand what is going on with her teenaged son who is also an outsider in the small desert town, Jeremy’s angry friend, Nora’s family members, Anderson, another classmate of Nora’s and Jeremy’s, and Efrain, an undocumented immigrant who struggles with whether to go to the police with his account of what happened the night of the tragedy. From all of these stories weaving in and out of Nora and Jeremy’s story we get a sense of what it was like to grow up in this small town, what it’s like to be an immigrant – legal or not — in a country where people whose heritage is non-white are othered, no matter who they are and what they do.

There is no thriller-level tension; rather than any dramatic twists and turns, the investigation is marked by plodding progress and a little luck. The family dramas happen in bursts followed by lulls. Same with the conflicts between friends. The pace seems very realistic, as each character mostly lives with whatever is bothering them held just under the surface as they move through the ordinary activities of life, just trying to do their best.

But even with the tragedy and the social undercurrents — and there are so many in this book as Lalami touches on displacement, war, PTSD, alcoholism, homophobia, xenophobia, racism — Lalami also spins a love story. Not only between Jeremy and Nora, but between parents and their children, and for places that hold painful memories but continue to draw people home. In fact the meaning of home, the sense of home, permeates the story and the characters’ lives as they leave, return, or long for home.

Late in the book, Nora’s mother is in the place where Nora has been staying: “As I cleared out the rest of her things from the cabin, I murmured a prayer for her, as I had so many times in the past, only this time I prayed for more than her health, more than her safety, more than her happiness. I prayed for her greedily, for the thing I had given up years ago and never found again. Home.”

Ultimately, The Other Americans is about people trying to be at home somewhere they don’t expect to be, don’t want to be, or can’t be. Although that sounds sad, some of them manage, and there’s the hope. A lovely read.

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After reading Laila Lalami‘s recent nonfiction book, Conditional Citizens, I wanted to read more of her writing, so I downloaded her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits from my public library. Lalami tells the story we see in the news as “illegal immigration” from the point of view of four very different people, Moroccans who try to reach Europe from Tangiers by paying a smuggler to take them in a small boat at night. The novel opens with the crossing — which ends badly. Then Lalami shifts the perspective back and forth. In part one of the novel, “Before,” she introduces us to Murad, who is unemployed and feels disrespected in his family; Faten, a young woman radicalized in her faith whose comments about the king put her in danger; Aziz, who wants the opportunities available in Spain so badly that he leaves his wife and mother behind, waiting for his return; and Halima, mother of three young children trying to escape her abusive ex-husband who risks everything so she and her kids can have a better life. In part two, “After” we find out what happens after the botched crossing, and learn more about the lives of Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima and their families and friends.

Each of them balances their hopes with the reality of having to live, to put food on the table, to navigate the challenges of their circumstances and find joy where they can. Lalami captures the tensions of relationships between spouses, grown children and their parents, and friends. Her characters are whole people, prone to the same kinds of small missteps and small right actions, small meanness and small kindness that all people make. It’s this ordinariness that gives their lives fullness and dignity. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a book about the way all the moments of our lives make up the bigger themes of our stories, and how those themes are common to people whose lives on the surface seem very different. Men and women, educated or not, working or not, religious or not, these characters all hope for a life that will be free of oppression and want, for themselves and their families, and in each case, they give something up in pursuit of that hope. And when their hopes come to fruition, in each case it’s not what they thought it would be like. But they each feel a kind of gratitude for the imperfect flowering of their hope.

For example, Faten, the formerly ultra-religious teen whose new life is predicated on lying all the time (including to herself), decides to make a meal for Eid for her roommate, Betoul, a rather judgemental woman who doesn’t really approve of Faten. Lalami writes:

“Betoul looked as though she wanted to sleep rather than eat, but she said thanks, went to wash up, then sat at the table. Faten served her a generous portion of the lamb. Betoul had a taste. ‘A bit salty, dear,’ she said.

Faten smiled, grateful for the truth.”

It’s this kind of moment, this sanctifying of the ordinary, that makes Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a book that is not only a good story, but a penetrating one. These characters will stay with me, icons of the millions of people who are trying to live freely in this world.

This would be a good choice for book clubs, and I enjoyed it so much I am now reading her most recent novel, The Other Americans.

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I broke my “read only Europa Editions ’til the end of the year” streak this week, because my local bookstore, Gibson’s, hosted Abdi Nor Iftin on Friday, so I wanted to read his book and hear him speak. Call Me American is the story of his growing up in Somalia, living through years of war and violence, and coming to America. Things are definitely not ideal in America right now, but if you want a fuller appreciation for why people around the world still look to us as a place to come and live in peace and freedom, you should read this book. If he’s touring near you, go hear him speak, too; there is nothing like hearing someone’s story in person.

I cannot imagine, nor can anyone I know imagine, what it was like for Iftin growing up in Mogadishu. Between the expectation that even as a small child, he must get water and food for his family, the requirement that he attend a madrassa where he was beaten when he didn’t do well enough or had done something considered evil (like watch American movies) out of a belief that this would make him a good Muslim, and the fact that he could not get an education (beyond memorizing the Koran) or a job and had to create his own, I was amazed with each chapter. Iftin didn’t even just survive, he survived with faith, hope and compassion intact. He still supports the imam who beat him, because he feels grateful that he knows the Koran and he understands the man sincerely believed he was doing right by the children he beat. Incredible!

So I have no doubt that Iftin is an extraordinary person, not to mention a very good storyteller, and that is part of what makes this memoir appealing. But in the back of my mind as I read, I thought about the grave injustice that our world flocks to the Iftins and abandons those who don’t have the charisma, grace, and strength he does. In fact, the only reason he is where he is today is because he made opportunities for himself at every turn — teaching himself English, introducing himself to a white man he saw on a balcony who turned out to be a reporter, and then working for both NPR and the BBC telling the story of life under warlords and Islamic fundamentalists. And it is right that people who heard his story through their speakers thousands of miles and a culture away rallied to help him and get him out.

But so many others are still living with the danger, fear, and deprivation that he grew up with and on the whole, Americans are fairly happy feeling good about stories like Iftin’s and then going back to our comfortable lives. We may give to charity and write to Congress when things seem really bad, but how often do we do any more than that? And what more can and should we do? In many regards, there is literally nothing we can do because the power systems in the world are completely aligned against the powerless and most governments adhere to a fear-based immigration system.

Maybe it’s a small thing, but one thing we can do is learn people’s stories. Learn about the systems that are hurting people and ironically building up the very extremism they are meant to protect against. I had no idea that Somalis in Kenya can’t work — I thought that the international refugee resettlement system was fairly consistent everywhere, and that if you are recognized as a refugee, you can start a resettled life. Iftin’s brother has been living in limbo for fifteen years in Nairobi, officially a refugee but not allowed to legally live there, or anywhere. That is the situation for Somalis — and there are refugees from dozens of other places, so it’s likely there are millions more who are not on the smooth path to resettlement. Especially now that the U.S. has decided to take thousands fewer refugees each year.

What can I do with this knowledge? I’m not sure. For starters I can keep contacting my elected officials and telling them I want America to remain a welcoming place for those who need a new home. I can learn about the places they come from, beyond the headlines. I can also make sure that beyond just saying hello when I hear someone whose accent reveals they are from somewhere else, I can tell them I’m glad they are here, and ask how things are going. That doesn’t seem like enough though. I don’t have answers. I just know this book made the world smaller for me. One thing I can do is write about how powerful it is and ask you to do read it. You’ll be glad you did and your view of the world will not be the same.

 

 

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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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