[REVIEW] Human Acts by Han Kang

hang

Hogarth Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT LEWIS

Can something be called a war crime, if there was no war? If a government truly wishes to obliterate the occurrence of a despicable act they committed, can they do so with only a well-placed bullet or torture or destruction of physical evidence? Or do they accidentally create something immortal – a memory of a person that is lodged in the minds of family and witnesses forever, like shrapnel that burrows into the body and aches in cold weather? These are the kinds of questions asked by the people in Han Kang’s newly translated book, Human Acts, which focuses on the connection between multiple people surrounding the death of a teenage boy during the South Korean “Gwangju Uprising” of 1980. It was during this time that a South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, was installed in power via a coup d’etat, declared martial law, and used lethal force against unarmed civilians and unspeakable torture on those deemed to be enemies of the state. Kang uses several perspectives in her writing to capture this snapshot in time, this all-too-recent authoritarian massacre, and the lasting effects on the people that survived it. Best known for her bestselling book, The Vegetarian, which examines the brutality in which gender roles can be enforced, Human Acts looks at another aspect in which humanity reveals its ugly, violent, primal nature – when those in power seek control, by any means necessary.

The books starts with a teenage boy, Dong-ho, searching for his friend in a gymnasium converted into a morgue. He is soon conscripted into service in the task of recording data about the corpses of those killed in the protests. In this way Kang begins a conversation repeated throughout the novel, the question of when exactly a soul leaves a body, what separates a human being from a rotting corpse, and how one can grapple with a person you once knew putrefying in front of you. During the course of his work, the banality of Dong-ho’s work – cataloging things like the height, gender, clothes, and shoe brand on the corpse – demonstrates the parallel with the banality of the evil that put them there, the indiscriminate and merciless killing of unarmed protesters, whose only crime was to intellectually oppose a government run by brutal thugs. Dong-ho hopes to find Jeong-dae and his disappeared sister, Jeong-mi, alive, despite the fact that he watched a bullet cut down Jeong-dae at the beginning of the protest. Without the confirmation of the physical body of his friend, he continues to engage in magical thinking, a way of coping with such a brutal loss at such a young age. As if in response to this, Kang begins the next section with the narrative of Jeong-dae’s spirit, still stuck to his rotting body as soldiers dump him and others in a field to be burned. Jeong-dae’s spirit mourns for the loss of his potential life, and seethes with the anger of his mindless execution. He meditates on the lives of the soldiers that killed him:

“I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.”

It’s not just the dead who ask these questions, but the living as well. One of the women working at the gymnasium, Eun-sook, sees things in Gwangju that attempt to normalize the landscape of the town. Specifically, the water fountain at the center square is turned back on again, which is the government’s subtle way of disregarding the sacrifice of the protesters. Instead of going along with this underhanded legitimization of the corrupt ruler, she complains to her town provincial office: “What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal. How can that be possible?” Eun-sook soon learns that in times of martial law and authoritarian control, even such benign protests can have serious repercussions. When working as an editor, she witnesses mass censorship of texts that disagree with the government, and she herself is viciously questioned and beaten in her connection to it. Kang finds beautiful ways in which to respond to these fascist tactics, such as when Eun-sook attends a play with the censored language that she worked on, only to find that the actors soundlessly mouth the forbidden words instead of actually speaking them. It is in this dialogue that a quote is made that reverberates for nearly every character in the book, a kind of elegy for those who survived this horror: “After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral.”

Human Acts has moments when it gorgeously exemplifies the spirit of dissent, and the characters who choose to stand, even when faced with death and torture. The mothers of children killed in the protest risk their own life to demonstrate at the president’s parade through Gwangju, thrown in jail again and again for the crime of their morning. The account of a prisoner who, though savaged by the guards and conditions of his political imprisonment, looks at his actions with pride rather than regret.

“I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.”

While such a triumph of hope is possible in the face of this dark time, the core focus of Human Acts is the remembrance of the pain of loss, which in itself is an act of dissonance against fascist revisionism. The last part of the book is Kang’s own account of her experience during the uprising, and of the later discovery of the story of Dong-ho, which moved her to write the book. After pouring over stacks of documents relating to the uprising and interviewing those that knew him, Kang finds herself haunted by what she has learned – she becomes plagued by nightmares of being bayoneted by soldiers, finding herself in dreamlike recreations of the situations these people had faced. Even at a friend’s wedding, surrounded by happy, well-dressed peers, she finds herself plagued by the survivor’s guilt that the research has inflicted on her. “How was such a scene possible, when so many people had died?” she asks herself, still shaken by the connection of the horrors her research has to reality. But she finds solace in the fact that “Human Acts” accomplishes the goal of any account of a crime against humanity seeks to achieve – the fact that these events, these people, these names are not forgotten or lost to history. To do so disrespects the memory of their sacrifice and the eternal ache of loss felt by their loved ones. Perhaps most timely is the lesson that the threat of fascism is not a distant nightmare, but a very real threat, waiting only for an ideal series of events to wedge its way into our lives and cause havoc once again. As such, we as readers must absorb the stories of these people and their lives, allowing their sacrifice to embolden our vigilance and our resolve.

 

[REVIEW] Super Extra Grande by Yoss

 

Restless Books
June 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Gabino Iglesias

Science fiction is a place where minority authors have brilliantly mixed the possibilities of the future with the sociopolitical problems of their time. Everything from politics and sexism to racism and the silence of the subaltern (the one Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote about) have been explored within the context of a narrative that takes place in a fictional future. Cuban science fiction author Yoss’ Super Extra Grande does all these things, but he wraps his sociopolitical arguments in so much humor, adventure, and raunchiness, that it is easy to miss it. Yoss, the pen name taken by José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in 1988 after winning the Premio David in the science fiction category, marries hard science with wild invention and throws that mix into a hilarious, politically and sexually charged universe where all alien races have stopped being unknown to each other. The result is a witty narrative that proves that, when done right, science fiction can be the most entertaining genre even when delivering a message.

 

Super Extra Grande takes place in a distant future in which Latin Americans have invented a way of travelling that’s faster than the speed of light and which has put the members of all seven intelligent species in the universe in contact with each other. Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a veterinarian who works with the largest creatures in the universe. At the beginning of the novel, Jan Amos is deep in the bowels of a gigantic sea creature on a mission to recover a piece of jewelry for some very important people. The mission is dangerous and messy, but the mess he’s thrown in after makes it look like a walk in the park. When a colonial conflict threatens to make war explode between the seven intelligent species, Jan Amos is forced to embark on a perilous rescue mission that will make him go inside the most gigantic creature in the universe to find two swallowed ambassadors and bring them back. Unfortunately, the two ambassadors he must rescue also happen to have a shared past with him, and the nature of their relationship could complicate things quite a bit.

 

Super Extra Grande imagines a Latin-Anglo future in which Spanglish is the official language shared by the seven intelligent species. Besides the beautiful implications and the fact that Yoss is pointing at something that is plausible if looked at through the lens of the shifting linguistic dynamics in the United States and the growing use of both English and Spanish is schools and households in various countries across Latin America, the truth is that having Spanglish dialogue enriches the narrative and makes it crackle with authenticity. Here is an example of an admiral discussing the mission the galactic veterinarian will end up in:

 

“Probablemente it’s sad, pero it’s también very realístico. Besides, nosotros no somos rivales. Not ahora, anyway…Pero I insist in any case that Doctor Sangan should be given as little información as possible. Él es just un civilian. And the truth is, you’ve already told him demasiado.”

 

The way that Spanglish is constructed feels legitimate, and it helps those unfamiliar with Spanish to get the gist of it based on context. In this regard, kudos must be given to translator David Frye for his outstanding work.

 

Besides the space it creates to discuss alternate realities, the best science fiction is that which delivers on the promise of its name, and Yoss pulls it off with flying colors in part thanks to his degree in biology and in part thank to his fearless approach to creation. The variety of creatures he crafted for this relatively short novel is a testament to a powerful imagination, and the fact that he managed to flawlessly merge them with a larger narrative without bogging down the action is proof that he is a talented storyteller. Furthermore, Yoss’ work deserves attention because regardless of what he does in the story, he always keeps his focus on subverting the order of things:

 

“As it turns out, the large eels with six “nipples” are all males. And the few that swell with eggs to double their size, as well as the intelligent humanoid beings who build ships powered by the Arnrch-Morp-Gulch entailment (that is, the Tunnel Macroeffect or González drive) and who defend their space borders so aggressively, are all female.”
Yoss tackles science fiction with the attitude of a rock star, and he has the talent to make even his wildest ideas work. Super Extra Grande follows the parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction and treads new grounds in terms of the amount of imagined science and fauna found in its pages. This is a narrative in which anything is possible, love and desire are thrown into the tumultuous new territory of interspecies relationships, and Spanglish is the unifying language of the galaxy. In other words, this is science fiction at its best: wildly imaginative, revolutionary, full of strange creatures, and a lot of fun to read.
 

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books), HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

[REVIEW] Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow by Fabienne Josaphat

 

 

The Unnamed Press
256 pages
Released February 23, 2016

REVIEWED BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

Good historical fiction requires a subtle balance: enough research to animate the historical subject, but not so much emphasis on factual detail that character, action and other elements of story are sidelined. Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Fabienne Josaphat’s fast-paced debut about two brothers trying to survive the brutality of Haiti under François Duvalier, is the sort of historical novel that moves more like an action film than a costume drama. Josaphat expertly projects event after event onto a well-imagined historical backdrop which reflects, I suspect, an immense amount of time spent reading and interviewing. Still, her novel runs along at a breathless pace, its tight plot never appearing to labor under the weight of so much research.

Some of the book’s tension derives from the setting Josaphat has chosen for her tale: Port-au-Prince in 1965. This is the Haiti of François Duvalier, a.k.a. Papa Doc, who was responsible for murdering between 30,000 and 60,000 people with the help of his militia, the Tonton Macoute, as well as infusions of anti-Communist aid money from the United States. We never meet Duvalier directly in this novel, but the influence of this US-educated-medical-doctor-turned-dictator pervades every aspect of life in Port-au-Prince. There’s an undercurrent of dread in each scene, and even the workaday conversations early in the novel are colored with the possibility that the Tonton Macoute is watching.

Yet even amid all this rich historical and political background, Dancing in the Barons Shadow is a personal story at its heart: a tale of two brothers whose different personalities and life choices bring them into repeated conflict with each other. When we first meet Raymond L’Eveillé, we learn that he is a Port-au-Prince taxi driver who is simply not able to make enough money to keep his family from starving because a statewide curfew cuts into what would normally have been his prime earning time. He waits anxiously outside a brothel for a client while curfew looms, hoping to make just a bit more cash before heading home. We hit the ground running a moment later, though, as Raymond is presented with a choice: to use his knowledge of the winding streets of Port-au-Prince to rescue a young family of three fleeing from the Tonton Macoute, or to do nothing and live with the fact that he might have prevented whatever awful fate awaits the family. “What kind of man was he?” Raymond wonders as he tries to ignore the father’s knocking on the taxi window. Yet his conscience wins, and he risks what little he has to help — learning only later that he has, in fact, saved the lives of a popular radio journalist and his family. He has also most likely landed in trouble himself; his white Datsun taxi isn’t difficult to identify, he knows.

Enter his brother Nicolas L’Eveillé, a law professor whose arrogance and bourgeois values hamstring him in a myriad of ways. Nicolas has a history of living well while his brother’s family starves, but now stoops to a new low by refusing to help with the cost of disguising and repairing Raymond’s taxi. Though Raymond is sure the Tonton Macoute will find him in short order, he is unwilling to listen to a high-minded lecture on his flawed life choices. Yet Nicolas, true to form, wants to lecture but not actually help his brother. He also lectures his students on human rights abuses, for example, without thinking about potential consequences. Worse still, he has been recently at work on a book manuscript in which he proves the regime murdered writer Jacques Stephen Alexis. Nicolas imagines that his manuscript will be published in secret and distributed widely outside of Haiti, displaying for the world the repression of the Duvalier regime. He also imagines that he and his family will be able to quietly escape Haiti, and that his colleagues can be trusted to help. Yet Nicolas, trusting as he is, underestimates the power of fear and intimidation on even the most rational of people. Like many in that time and place, Nicolas disappears into the dreaded Fort Dimanche, where some of the novel’s most harrowing of scenes take place. I don’t want to reveal much beyond this point, except to say that Josaphat prompts the reader to ask Raymond’s question of every character and at every step: What kind of man was he? Can Raymond still think of himself as a decent man if he isn’t helping those who need it? What kind of man is Nicolas, underneath the education, money and prestige? What kind of person can anyone be under such dire circumstances?

Josaphat keeps her storytelling lens trained on the brothers. This makes for a novel that is both intimate and tightly plotted, though I wondered often about the stories of those outside of the main action. There’s a compelling cast of characters whose stories I was eager to follow even further. Eve and Yvonne, for example, are the wives of the L’Eveillé brothers, and their own choices propel them far afield. Each probably warrants her own novel, but I wanted more here: more flesh and detail, and more than a quick sketch provided in the epilogue. In addition, readers should be aware that this book covers some emotionally challenging ground, particularly in the torture and interrogation scenes. Still Josaphat makes it worth the reader’s while in the end. Given the decades of brutal repression under Papa Doc and his son, it wasn’t difficult to imagine an ending to the story that obliterated hope. It speaks to Josaphat’s skill, however, that this story leads to a place of hope and reconciliation.

During his self-appointed tenure as President for Life, Duvalier affected the dress, voice and mannerisms associated with Baron Samedi, the loa of Haitian Vodou associated with death, and the baron referred to in the book’s title. This Duvalier — the one with the flair for the theatrical, who insisted bullets couldn’t hurt him because he was already an immaterial being, and who ordered that every black dog be killed based on a rumor that his enemy could transform into one — garners much attention in conversations about Duvalier. While Duvalier’s reputation is explored in detail in Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Josaphat doesn’t let the baron steal the show. Instead, she offers her readers a tightly-plotted historical drama firmly situated in the realities of surviving under Duvalier.

 

Melissa Oliveira grew up in central Connecticut and holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

[INTERVIEW]: Yaa Gyasi on HOMEGOING

BY ASHLEY M. JONES

Yaa Gyasi’s explosive debut novel, Homegoing, has earned national acclaim, and for good reason–this book is masterful in its craft, powerful in its message, and maybe greater than all of that, it explores mostly every side of the African Diaspora from the slave trade (including African involvement in the acquisition and movement of slaves, which is something I don’t see often in literature on the subject, and Gyasi manages to do this without feeding into the warped narrative that because some Africans were involved in slavery, it is somehow made “okay” or above critique by modern Black thinkers), to wrongful imprisonment to funnel black workers into coal mines and other industries, to modern descendants of this family who finally return home, even if they don’t exactly know what that “home” really means.

I devoured this book greedily, and although this book has garnered comparison to Roots, it is a fresh story, a new voice, and another necessary genealogical journey that is taking its place in literary history.

I was lucky enough to talk to Yaa (YG) recently about her new book, the writing process, and the place of politics in literature. See the interview below:

 

AMJ: I’d like to start off by congratulating you on your success with HOMEGOING—a debut is a tricky thing, I know. Can you talk about the process of writing this book? Did you know it was a hit?

YG: I got a grant in 2009 from Stanford to travel to Ghana to conduct research for a novel, and I had kind of a different idea in mind. I wanted to write something about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to visit the area that my mother is from—the central region. But as soon as I got there, I kind of knew it wasn’t going to pan out. A friend and I decided to visit the Cape Coast Castle, and so I visited the castle, I took the tour, and the tour guide started to mention how there were soldiers who lived and worked in the castle who sometimes married the local women, which was something I had never heard before. And then they took us down into the dungeons. And that was really kind of the genesis of this project for me.

I kind of immediately felt haunted by the material, and I knew that I wanted to write about it. And I kind of took a circuitous route—in the beginning I’d wanted to write something that was set in the present, in present-day America, and then just flash back to Ghana in the 18th century, so you could kind of see what slavery had left us now, but then I realized that over time I was actually more interested in being able to watch things move as they changed kind of subtly over this long period of time. Once I realized that, I changed the structure to the one that you see now, one that would allow me to stop in as many decades along the way as possible. And so I wrote the first two chapters when I got to Iowa in 2012, and they’re pretty similar to the way they appear in the book now, so those felt like really urgent and different than anything I’d ever done before in a really good way. And from there, I made a family tree that I put up on my wall that looks a lot like the one at the beginning of the book, but mine also included the dates during which the bulk of the chapter would take place, and also one thing was going on in the background, politically or historically during the time period, so the Yaa Asantewaa War, the beginning of cocoa farming in Ghana, something like that. And then, I wrote chronologically, and I stopped at the beginning of each chapter to do a little research on whatever it was that I had written. So I would grab a book like Black Prisoners and Their World, before starting a chapter, and I read as much as I could, enough to make me feel like I was in the world. And after that, I closed the research book and let my imagination take over, because I didn’t want it to be all stifled by research.

And that’s kind of how I worked. And I wasn’t sure—I said before that I felt like it was different than anything I’d ever written, and it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to be objective about your work in that way. But I have a great reader, she’s been reading my work since my freshman year of college, and I remember sending her the first two chapters, like right after I had written them, and she emailed me back, “this is the best thing you’ve ever written, keep going.” So that was kind of my clue that I had landed on something that I wanted to explore further.

AMJ: You sort of answered this in the first response, but I’ll ask again: as far as your research, how many books did you have to read?  What was that process like?

YG: I read quite a few books—I listed a few of them in the back, and those are just the ones that I feel like I used pretty heavily. I was worried about—sometimes I read a historical novel and I feel like it was just an opportunity for the writer to tell you everything that they learned about the history in that time period, and you kind of lose the character and the story and those kinds of things that make me want to read fiction in the first place rather than reading a historical text. And so I didn’t want this book to feel that way, I felt like if I ever came to this crossroads where I have to decide between the plot and historical fact that I was going to choose plot—that was kind of how I approached this.

And so, again, my process was just that I would research at the very beginning of each chapter and then I would close the book and just write. If there were things that I came upon that I needed to do more research on then I would make a note of it, so that after I finished the first draft I could go back and look through my notes and try to research things a little more clearly than I had before to get simple answers. Like, what kind of mallet would he have been holding? Those are things that are less fun to research but still kind of necessary.

AMJ: Some people are calling Homegoing this generation’s Roots. Does that seem accurate to you? Do you welcome the comparison?

YG: I never read Roots and I never saw the miniseries. And I haven’t watched the re-make, either, though I’ve been meaning to. I kind of knew that was a comparison that was going to be made just because of the nature of this book kind of being a genealogical look at a black family. [Roots is] pretty much the original book that deals with that. I totally understand the comparison in that way, but I did want to be careful to not feel as though I was having to answer to Roots as I was writing, and so I kind of made the choice to not read it. So now I would love to—to sort of get in on that conversation because I haven’t had the best answer to that question after the book came out. But it is interesting to hear other people talk about it. And Roots came out in the 70s and there’s been a lot of changes since then. So it’s nice to have this book come out and see the ways in which the conversation has changed since Roots came out.

AMJ: I definitely see the reason for the comparison, too—although I didn’t think about Roots while I read Homegoing, I definitely think they’re doing something similar for the world. Roots was important to past generations (and present, as most Black kids I know were forced to watch with their parents), and Homegoing, I think, can do something similar for this generation.

The form of the book is particularly striking to me—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book (and this could be because I’m just not reading enough novels) whose story is told entirely through different characters the whole way through without compromising a single plot point. How did you decide to use this form, and was it hard to keep it all so chronological and tight?

YG: I was thinking about ways to do it. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and I adore that book, I think [Marquez] is a genius and I also kind of quickly knew that I wasn’t going to be able to write a book like that. It just seems too hard. And I thought that the structure would allow me to keep things as simple as possible while letting everything else be big and messy.

I think I’d read other books that kind of have this multiple points of view or long period of time and a lot of those books cover far fewer years than this book does. Or, if it’s about family, there are fewer members of the family, just ways to allow you to come back to a central character. And so I was nervous about trying this, because I knew that it was going to cover too many years to allow me to do that in a realism way. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things—I wouldn’t’ know if it was going to work until I finished the first draft. Not the best position to be in as a writer—working on something that might not gel, but I felt like, in terms of things I didn’t want to compromise on, I thought, the length of time that this book covers was one of them. I really wanted to go from 18th century Ghana to present-day America and how I was going to get there—I wasn’t quite sure, but I was going to try this structure, finish the first draft, read it over, and see if it made any sense.

AMJ: I think Homegoing has some political aspects, even if it might not be immediately apparent, that work is at play in the novel. Some have said that literature and politics don’t mix, others say that artists are the true “reporters” of the times in which they live.  Maybe this is mostly said about poetry, but I’m wondering, even as a fiction writer, do you think the writer/artist has a political responsibility? Can/should politics and art coexist?

YG: So many of the writers that I admire are writers who very overtly talk about politics or history. Writers like Toni Morrison or James Baldwin. It’s a part of who they are and it’s a part of their literature and I couldn’t ever have imagined being the kind of writer who didn’t write about anything. And I also don’t believe that that kind of writer exists.

I think a lot of white male writers get to believe that they are writing these neutral stories, but when I read them I feel the politics in them. The politics of exclusion, or the politics of white supremacy or whatever it is. So I just don’t believe that we’re capable of writing something that is divorced from history or divorced from politics.

The fact that this book feels overtly political, I think that’s something about the place that we are in. But, I think that it is something that I knew that I had to do and wanted to do and I didn’t want to shy away from including that. And, a lot of the books that I love don’t shy away from including that.

AMJ: We’re both raised in Alabama—I’m born and raised in Birmingham, and you grew up in Huntsville (by way of Ghana). Did your experience as a southerner impact your decision to write this book? Do you feel like you’re putting Alabama on the literary map in a new way?

YG: I don’t know if I identify as a southerner. I was born in Ghana, then I lived in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, and then Alabama. I kind of moved around a lot, and in a lot of ways, I think that this book reflects that kind of restlessness of place that I tend to have.

But, at the same time, Alabama was the most formative place in my life. It’s still the place that I think of as home, it’s where my family is, it’s where my little brother spent all of his life, and so my relationship to Alabama is really important to me, and I don’t think that I could have written a book like this if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama.

I came from a country that had involvement in the slave trade, then I end up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt, and it’s something that wasn’t lost on me, and it’s something that I was sort of unconsciously navigating my entire childhood, going home to Ghanaian parents and being told all the ways that I wasn’t African American, then leaving my house and being African American to the rest of the world, and trying to figure out what that meant for me ,and what that meant for my brothers. And all of that is in this book—questions of identity, questions of identity as it pertains to ethnicity and race and country and all of those things are in here. I think if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama, I don’t know that I would have had the same kinds of questions.

AMJ: What new projects are you working on?

YG: I started another novel. I like to have something that I’m working on when another thing that I’m working on frustrates me, so I started it kind of a long time ago. But it’s still in the very early stages. It’s set in the present, it feels pretty different than this one. But, I think I’m starting to realize that with every project it’s going to be really different and I’m going to have to relearn how to do this work every time, and that’s where I am with it.

 

 

 

Yaa Gyasi is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, AL. Homegoing (Knopf) is available for purchase now.

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA from Florida International University. She was a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award Recipient. Her debut collection, Magic City Gospel, is forthcoming from Hub City Press.

[REVIEW] Dahlia Cassandra by Nathaniel Kressen

Dahlia Cassandra by Nathaniel Kressen

Second Skin Books
June 2016

REVIEWED BY DALLAS ATHENT

We know Nathaniel Kressen after his debut novel, Concrete Fever was released in 2011. Concrete Fever followed two deranged kids around New York City, looking for fantasy in teenage angst.

Kressen’s new novel, Dahlia Cassandra was released in June, and is not what you might expect. The novel enters the lives of two teens who have been abandoned by their parents on a farm in Idaho where nothing will grow. A predatory author who does “method writing” comes to the town with this younger girlfriend and turns their lives around–and not in a good way. Once again, we have two youths as our main character, but Y.A. this book is not! It holds some of the qualities we know Kressen for: fast dialogue and an entertaining and dark vibe, for example.

Dahlia Cassandra relies on ambiguities and instead illustrates the soul of the characters through their simple actions. Many of the descriptions are cinematic. You can picture the moonlight the landscape. Here’s an example of such a passage:

“He heard panting nearby. There in the baking sun was an old dog, its tongue hanging out. He approached with caution. He scratched its head. Bugs had already found the poor thing and some jumped onto Junior’s arms. He cupped fresh water from the spigot but the dog refused to drink. It rested its head on the ground, felt the heat, picked it back up. Junio tried again with the water. He poured a handful over the dog’s head. The wet fur dried within minutes. He watched the animal struggle to breathe.”

The most wonderful thing about the way Kressen writes is that he’s direct–digestible to many while still remaining literary. He has the classic skill of Salinger in this way. In his simplicity he calls on us to question our motives–are we good or evil? And he does so while keeping us entertained. Dahlia Cassandra explores the wrongdoing of predatory men in creative power and how they use that power to abuse others since their work will always allow them to be loved by the public despite their horrific acts. It forces us to question the media we consume and its intentions–what do we do to fill the holes within ourselves and the evil we forgive in doing so? While it manages to do all this, it does have its flaws.

I did not find one of the lead characters, Stoli, who plays the girlfriend of the writer, well developed enough to praise. Stoli is a beautiful alcoholic who follows the older writer around making him her purpose and disregards his predatory nature for her own sake while turning into a predator herself. If you’re thinking you’ve heard of this character before, it’s because you have. I don’t need all of my characters to be deep, perfect or even politically correct, powerfully written women, but I do need them to be fresh and real, and Stoli offered no new or honest characteristics for me as a reader. Luckily, she is only one of three main characters so her presence is only a minor thorn in what is otherwise a stunning novel’s side.

The real delight in Dahlia Cassandra is Tike, who starts out as the most banal and uninteresting character, but evolves into a fierce, unexpected being. At the start you almost want to skim through her parts, which is almost characteristic of how she is meant to exist in real life; forgotten. We see Tike grow in the way only adolescents can–rapidly and free. She shows Kressen still has strength in depicting teenagers, both in their angst and will. Tike also demonstrates Kressen’s abilities to write strong female characters–a contradiction to the outcome of Stoli. I’d go as far to say I’d like to see Tike resurface in her later years in a future novel of his.

Overall, I would recommend Dahlia Cassandra, especially to those who are annoyed with the necessary obscurity of modern literary fiction but also wish to reject the cheap thrills of a lot of commercial work. While it may not be a perfect novel, Dahlia Cassandra is a thrilling read full of thought provoking dialogue and beautiful images.

 

 

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist whose work has been profiled in Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine, Brooklyn Based and more. Her visual work has shows in Governor’s Island, Storefront Ten Eyck and to benefit the Rema Hort Mann Foundation. She lives in The Bronx with her hamster, Shelby.

[REVIEW] French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir

Brooklyn: Antibookclub
2014

REVIEWED BY ERIC NOONAN

Amir Tag Elsir is a Sudanese gynecologist living in Qatar; in an interview with Arabic Literature (in English), he says he plans to return to the Sudan when he retires.  An exilic quality in Elsir’s vision, together with a stripped-down style, recently prompted a Guardian reviewer to claim that his novel Ebola ’76 – also published in English translation last year, by Darf – lacks empathy, and that this author writes his characters with “apparent disdain.”  If this is true, then we might be excused for stating that such antipathy is an attractive feature (albeit a demanding one) of Elsir’s oeuvre, because he replaces humanist values and psychological realism with an unflattering critical perspective.  French Perfume is Elsir’s fifth book to come out in English.

When Katia Cadolet, a beautiful Parisian nurse working for a relief campaign in Zimbabwe, accidentally discovers that a foreign pharmaceutical firm has been manufacturing bogus malaria pills for export to Africa, she becomes an international celebrity and embarks on a publicity tour of the continent.  As Katia’s arrival in the Sudan approaches, a local administrator delegates responsibility for her visit to a retired railroad maintenance supervisor named Ali Jarjar, tasking him with securing suitable accommodations for Katia in the district where he resides, a working-class neighborhood called Gha‘ib (literally, “Occluded”).  Ali, a “tall, plump, and almost bald” bachelor with a trail of jilted spinsters in his wake, quickly grows obsessed with “the Frenchwoman:” he trolls her online; paints his house blue – her favorite color – inside and out, along with all his possessions; downloads, photoshops and prints pictures of her; spends funds earmarked for her fête on bridegroom attire; exchanges wedding vows with his pictures of Katia in a secret ceremony; and finally escorts the photos into the city and introduces them as his wife, who, he says, is expecting a child.  Utterly deranged, Ali is about to claim that spousal jealousy brought on his eruption into violence, accusing his victims of causing Katia to be unfaithful, characterizing himself as a cuckold (he reenacts a scene from a movie he saw in youth) – a role onto which, in his insanity, he projects the collective rage whose repository he has become, as he murders a “male jinn” in the street with a kitchen knife and stabs a photo of Katia, then gets arrested, just in time to watch the nurse herself descend from her car while he’s being driven to jail.

Ali’s running commentary on the ills of his society is the reasonable discourse of a man whose actions pierce the curtain of normalcy and expose the insane reality beyond it: “My cell phone rang briefly with what the screen termed a dropped call.”  Loneliness gets the better of Ali and infects his mind, and yet he’s lucid: “Being a madman who mates with a female jinn was much better than being a madman who weds no one at all.”  Ali’s plunge into homicide reflects the decline of his world, taking place along with the death of a community leader (“it was hard to fit him into the grave”), the battery of a legendary beauty (“‘I will kill myself before he touches me again’”), the forced conversion to Islam of a Coptic Christian (“he told them he was going off ‘to die’”), the indenture into the Luxembourg porn industry of a young emigrant (“he realized the size of the dunghill awaiting him”), and the fraudulent appointment to government office of a candidate whose only qualification for the post is a friendship with his predecessor (“‘I’m only a former combatant’”).  William M. Hutchins has translated the Arabic text into a blend of tech jargon, social satire, translatorese (Ali sometimes speaks like a clumsy English version of an Arabic poem), braggadocio, and storytelling that captures the dramatic and cosmic ironies at work.  With its quasi-folkloric antihero, French Perfume is a shaky video of a society in disorder, and one hopes that more of this excellent writer’s work will appear in English soon.

 

[REVIEW] The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Viking/Penguin
March 2016

REVIEWED BY ERIC FARWELL

Small, painful changes abound in Karan Mahajan’s debut novel, The Association of Small Bombs. Revolving around two families and two market bombings, the work examines the ways people change, drift, and act out in an effort to stave off loss. Despite some passages involving discussions of India’s political divide, it would be quite a stretch to consider this a political novel. Mahajan’s focus is on the aftermath of a terroristic attack, and how the event opens up doors to either grow closer and celebrate life, or isolate oneself and build walls to keep life out. As the characters all struggle to accept the doors they’ve opened, the focus moves away from the big picture concerns, and tries to account for ways one can negotiate being true to oneself in their growth and still do right by others.

By this measure, the characters are divided into two groups: those who extend their hands and those who are recklessly selfish. Vikas and Deepa Khuranas, who lose their two sons at the start of the book, grow in distinctly different directions. Vikas, a documentarian, begins visiting the market where the boys died, speaking with police officials, and generally trying to make sense of it all via the detachment his camera lens allows. Deepa opts to throw herself into her cooking business, slowing down only to dote and obsess over their daughter, Anusha, a sort of miracle baby that brings the family together while pushing them apart. Vikas, absorbed by his work, hates his daughter, who serves as a reminder of what he lost. Deepa continues to try and reach Vikas through his grief, but ultimately there’s too much between them to sustain. Mahajan navigates their emotional separation by focusing on them as separate, isolated individuals. In plain, unbusied language, Vikas and Deepa find the poetry within their misery and slowly make their way back to themselves. Without the drama and pretense of a typical “literary fiction” couple, the Khuranas are able to be fully real, due to Mahajan’s writing and the small, stumbling steps he gives his characters permission to take.

The pace of the novel adjusts as needed, with sections slowing down or speeding up based on the emotional charge of the characters. For the younger characters, there is little inward-reflection done, nor is there any sense of scrutiny regarding the ways of the pedestrians in India. This appears at first blush to be a reaction to manuscript length and deadlines, but after further consideration it’s apparent that this is another subtle shade of reality that Mahajan is using to color his characters. Unlike their elders, the young men Mahajan focuses on are part of the volatile nature of India’s seemingly strained political culture. Unlike Deepa and Vikas, who have something real to lose in political upheaval, these young men look to involve themselves in whatever they think will change things for the better and keep them from ending up like the Khuranas when they’re middle-aged. This interior difference between the boys and their elders is what makes passages involving a deeper consideration so poignant, such as when Vikas looks out his window and considers the effects of reality on the artist. ““He couldn’t bring himself to do it, couldn’t tear himself from this window, which was like a portal into heat, death, futility, irritation – and also a stage. What had happened to him was so real, he couldn’t re-enter the world of make-believe – yes, that was the work of a documentary filmmaker too: make-believe” (75).

Maybe the greatest trick Mahajan pulls off is creating a fully vibrant India, even if it doesn’t extend beyond the few characters that populate the novel. Everything from the description of the Lajpat Nagar market:

“A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling carts and sloping beggars. It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot. When you got from one end of the market to the other, the wooden carts with their shiny aluminum wheels had so rearranged themselves that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered: a Heisenbergian nightmare of motion and ambiguity” (1)—to the use of words like “beta,” “auntie,” and “uncle,” which help to build a concrete world that rises off the page. The stilted, proper English of the characters imbues them with a vivid realness one wouldn’t expect, but Mahajan uses sensory details masterfully. When it comes to pain and violence, Mahajan provides detail sparingly, giving us enough to feel with the characters, but not so much that it breaks the spell of the book. Sparseness is the novel’s secret weapon, and because the world is detailed enough, the lack of information surrounding the political aspect of the work never seems cheap or undercooked. We take the journey because the world feels so real; and in real life, the whys and wherefores of an individual heart are rarely transparent.

Starting with Shockie, a radicalist bombmaker who sets of the explosion that sets the course of the book, we’re ushered into the unseemly world of political militants, exhaustive rhetoric, and racial and economic barriers that these cells feel need to be toppled. In Shockie, we also have the idea of the stock-character cliché. He’s dogmatic, seemingly violent for no reason, and committed to a dangerous cause without clear connections to its agenda. It isn’t until Ayub is introduced later in the story that we begin to see the nuances of Shockie’s psyche. Ayub comes to join the radicalist cause after feeling anger over losing his girlfriend and closest friend, and thus losing his power as pseudo-leader of the NGO, which looks to promote peace and understanding as a way of generating governmental change. Unlike Shockie, Ayub is a complex character that transitions from one extreme to the other without much difficulty, yet remains conflicted about his actions up until he sets off a bomb. His complexity imbues him with humanity, and in certain ways it is unclear whether or not he serves as an villain or yet another stock-character: the young man who turns to violence as a way to still his own pain. It is only in Ayub’s naivety that we’re able to see those aforementioned nuances to Shockie. Here, nearly seven years after he set off the bomb in Lajpat Nagor, Shockie is grizzled, broken, and strangely emotional, full of pain and regret over his actions, but unable to tear himself away from the cause that he originally believed in.

Bridging the two terrorists is Mansoor Ahmed, the childhood best friend of the Khuranas’ two sons. After surviving the first bombing, he begins to fear venturing too far away from home. When his father decides to send him to America for college, Mansoor’s nerdy and awkward shell begins to melt away, but after the onset of carpel tunnel nearly cripples him, he returns to India where he gets involved in the NGO and he engages in a fanatical observance of his Muslim duties. Oddly, the one bright spot in his life seems to be Ayub’s girlfriend, Tara, whom Mansoor covets and privately lusts after. If there’s a weak spot in the work, it’s Mahajan’s characterization of Tara, who never seems to lift very far off the page. Unlike Deepa, Tara is relegated to the role of tired girlfriend, seemingly conjured in order to help Ayub move on to setting off the bomb. Mahajan uses her to fill a void, and when she leaves for university in the states, both Mansoor and Ayub try to invent new roles for themselves in order to escape the bleakness of their lives.

Ayub ultimately goes on to betray his values while Mansoor embraces his. After he escapes the hospital, Ayub’s guilt leads him to confide in Mansoor, whose deep-seated fear of terrorism and strong Muslim selflessness leads him to taking the fall for Ayub. Inside the one place he knows is probably safe, Mansoor reflects on the whys and wherefores of his life, ultimately deciding to live a quiet life at home with his family. This hits upon what Mahajan seems to be after: if there’s anything one can depend on after a tragedy, it’s that life will continue on in strange ways, just as it would regardless. If our greatest feats of humanity are forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, then those are what we should look to develop when loss and worry crop up on our streets. Perhaps, if we can keep this in mind, when we clear off the shrapnel and dirt, we’ll see the NGO was right all along.

[REVIEW] The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

Salt Publishing
April 2015

REVIEW BY CATH BARTON

It is the late 1970s. Mickey Donnelly is 10 years old. He lives in Ardoyne in West Belfast. Mickey has passed his 11+ exam and has been offered a place at St Malachy’s Grammar School. But he is told that his family cannot afford to send him there.

In The Good Son, Belfast-born Paul McVeigh tells the story of the nine weeks of Mickey’s summer holidays before he goes to secondary school. He tells it through young Mickey’s eyes, conveying all the spark and wild dreams of a pre-pubescent boy. Ardoyne is a Roman Catholic area more or less surrounded by Protestant areas. It is not safe anywhere in Ardoyne, for this is the time of the Northern Irish “Troubles,” when sectarianism violence can erupt on the streets at any time. Mickey is quite matter-of-fact about the reality of this. He has grown up with it, although he’s only ever seen Protestants on TV.  On an errand to a shop by the iron barricades which mark a boundary between Catholic and Protestant areas he says:

“They’ve started calling them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.”

Mickey is innocent about the worst atrocities and we can laugh at his misunderstandings. When he is heard shouting in the streets about another child’s father being in prison for stealing sausages he gets a visit from one of the Ardoyne Hard Men to set him straight about the man having “fought hard for his country.. But Mickey is still confused:

“They wanted him to steal sausages? Why? Were they hungry? And could they not just buy them from the butcher’s like everyone else? There’s no way I’m ever going to join the IRA if that’s the kinda missions you get sent on.”

There are more immediate issues that concern Mickey day-to-day. As he dodges through forbidden streets, his pre-occupations are looking after his mother, the mysteries of sex, and the initiation torments which await him at St Gabriel’s secondary school. His dream is to go to America, where he plans to work in a diner. And one day, he tells his Ma, he will be President of Ireland, because he is a good boy. Like all small boys though, he does not differentiate between large and smaller ambitions. He is given a five pound note with which to go shopping and he knows it’s a lot of money:

“One day, when I grow up, I’m goin’ to have a five of my own and I’m goin’ to spend it all on sweets.”

Mickey Donnelly is truly, at heart, a good boy. The guile of adolescence has not yet infected him and he loves his Ma, his little sister Wee Maggie and his dog Killer—who makes him “as happy as a pig in poo”—with a protective ferocity. When he spies Ma through the fence, railing against a world in which she has married a drunken waster, he begs her to give him a job in the house so he can help her out.

In this family, a slap round the head is more common than a hug and sorry is not a word used very often, but there is laughter and underneath there is palpable love. Paul McVeigh navigates the choppy sea of Mickey’s shifting experiences and rapidly-changing emotions with skill and verisimilitude. Having lost food coupons which he had been given for shopping, the boy devises a way to repay his Ma by chopping up wood to sell round the houses, getting his hands full of painful splinters in the process. When she finds out she talks to him with uncommon tenderness:

“ ‘My son,’ she says, and her body sort of shudders. She shakes her head. ‘Your wee hands are destroyed.’ She traces the splinters and welts with her fingers.”

Next minute she’s wiping her eyes and flying at an accusing neighbour with the hatchet that Mickey uses to chop his wood.

Mickey may live during the Troubles with a capital ‘T,’ and he gets often into trouble with a small ‘t,’ but I don’t experience him as a troubled character. Yes, he is often confused, but aren’t we all confused as children? Yes, he suffers heartbreak, but is that not part of growing up? Mickey is an intelligent boy and he has a strategy for survival—he acts. He’s seen lots of films on TV. He knows how to look cool—he practices the Ardoyne Hard Man Dander, chest puffed and knees pointed out as he walks. Other boys may call him names because he’s a loner, but he’s plucky and resourceful and he cares about other people. When he sees a bunch of girls chanting insults at one who has been tarred and feathered he wants to rescue her:

“Even though she’s a Brit-lover, I don’t think it’s right. I mean, you can’t help who you fall in love with.”

At the end of the summer of this story, Mickey works out a way to help his Ma and possibly even get himself to America. Possibly. Whatever the difficulties of his life, it is not, at least at the point where this story ends, tragic. Though we are bound to wonder what will become of young Mickey.

In The Good Son Paul McVeigh traces the physical geography of Ardoyne with as much precision as he depicts the geography of the human heart.  As a reader you run up and down those streets with Mickey, onto the wastelands where kids sniff glue and bombs explode unpredictably. He navigates the tricky first person narrative style with assurance and peoples the story with vivid characters. Fartin’ Martin, Ma’s-a-Whore and Minnie the Tick Woman may sound like the names of caricatures, but they step off the page as realistically as young Mickey himself and as brightly as the characters in Mickey’s favourite film, The Wizard of Oz.

Mickey Donnelly deserves to take his place in the litany of boy literary heroes. Paul McVeigh’s prose sings from page one in the accents of the North Belfast streets, and is rich in detail. While The Good Son does not have the same breadth, it has something of the spirit of Dickens or Zola, transformed for our times. Gritty realism with a human face. Not only is it hugely enjoyable, but it also conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles than any number of factual accounts.

 

 

[REVIEW] Not a Self Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai

Shade Mountain Press
218 pages
Released May 6, 2016

REVIEW BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

As long as we suspect we’re falling short in some area of our lives, there’s really no end to the books we will buy to try to improve: a 2014 article I read stated that self-improvement was “a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone.” As it turns out, when it comes to solving the problem of ourselves, we have very deep pockets — and solving herself is exactly what Marty, the smart but hapless narrator of Yi Shun Lai’s wonderful new novel, Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, seems on a quest to do.

From the outside, twentysomething Marty Wu appears to be doing pretty well. She moved to New York from Taiwan when she was five, and when the novel opens she has a job in Manhattan working in advertising sales for a magazine. Unlike her previous job as an illustrator, advertising sales isn’t a line of work that particularly excites Marty. Still, she appears to be good at it: the early pages of the novel find her on the verge of closing a deal that promises a fat bonus check.

Yet Marty, whose story comes to us in the form of a diary she began on the advice of a self-help book, is someone we come to know intimately, and all is not perfect in Marty’s world. We know, for example, that her fascination with self-help books borders on an obsession born of insecurity. Each interpersonal interaction and emotional reaction is noted carefully in the pages of this diary and compared to an ideal version that she might have read, say, in The Language of Paying Attention to YOU or a similar user’s guide to life. We also know that advertising sales is a poor fit for this vibrant and creative young woman, and that the aforementioned bonus check is a potential way out of the gig. Alone at her desk, she listens to fashion and design podcasts, and daydreams about investing her windfall into a little storefront: the type of warm and intimate costume boutique that would, she hopes, allow clients to “slip into another skin” for a time.

But Marty is our heroine, and as she says herself, “I think somewhere in one of my books it says that I must be a Protagonist, like characters in novels. Protagging is hard. Characters in novels never have it easy.” Yi Shun Lai, for her part, pulls no punches with Marty. Rather, as Lai steers Marty into increasingly uncomfortable and painful situations, Lai writes with an incisive humor and a light, chatty tone that often had me laughing aloud as I read.

While this was one of the funniest books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while, though, it isn’t all laughs. Marty, we understand, has a serious longing to go after what really matters to her, but she is hobbled by variety of obstacles — the very challenges that made her such an avid consumer of self-help books in the first place. The promise of such books, after all, is one of hope — hope that Marty might finally learn how to be a better leader, colleague, saleswoman, daughter, person. Since there are no guides for learning simply to be a better, stronger Marty, our narrator flails. She searches relentlessly for advice from people and books that are so distant from the reality of her life and relationships.

This brings us to Marty’s relationship with her mother. Mama excels at cutting Marty down: thoroughly, efficiently, and often while switching in rapid succession between English and Taiwanese. “I double-step,” Marty writes when meet Mama for the first time, “trying to move quickly, and trip. ‘Sloppy,’ says my mother, only in Taiwanese it sounds like more than that, like you haven’t just tripped, but that you’re a tripping, drooling shadow of a functioning creature.” Watching Marty endure what she does is often heart-wrenching, and we aren’t entirely surprised that she will try anything to please and appease her mom — even resorting to lies in order to make herself seem like the Good Daughter she imagines would make Mama happy. After an epic career misfire in Las Vegas, however, Marty’s constructed self falls away in a hilarious and startling way. Marty, now forced to reevaluate and refocus, decides that the Old World might be a good place for a fresh start, so she accompanies Mama on a trip to the family home in southern Taiwan.

It all sounds very serious in the telling, but the writing is efficient and funny, with Marty’s voice making the whole thing really pop. Still, the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship and how Marty navigates its tremendous challenges charmed me more than I expected. Where another novel might make stronger use of a romance plot to keep us interested, Lai sidelines the romance a bit, giving the mother-daughter relationship enough room for serious exploration and nuance. This dynamic is where all that humor digs deep into the particular challenges of defining and asserting an artistic identity in the world — whether that world is the hectic atmosphere of New York City business, or the strong family landscape and rich tradition of small-town Taiwan, or even just within the heavy gravitational pull of a difficult parent. I don’t wish to spoil anything, so I will say only that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers for Marty, and it’s better that way. It’s a complicated journey to learn to help oneself, but it’s also a joy watching this fun and multidimensional character navigate it.

What blindsided me was the expert combination of humor and deep feeling that I found here. Where Not A Self Help Book initially engaged me with its light and enjoyable storytelling, I found that by the final pages I was impressed by the subtlety and the seriousness Lai treated the relationships between the women of the novel. Some, I think, will see parallels between this book and Bridget Joness Diary, as it shares some similarities with that book — epistolary storytelling, young female narrator, the preoccupation with self-help books. If, like me, you enjoyed Bridget Jones, you’ll probably delight in Marty Wu as well. My feeling, though, was that underneath the superficial similarities, Not A Self Help Book was an entirely different sort of novel. It’s one that cares deeply for its complicated female characters for their own sakes, and more than for their entertaining antics and romantic attachments. As I read, I felt keenly aware of real, lasting consequences for Marty Wu, as one who must become her own authority on bridging different cultures, ideals, geographies and life stages. A novel that can do all of this and still make me laugh out loud is one I can heartily recommend.

[REVIEW] Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

 

Curbside Splendor Press

REVIEW BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

Vanessa Blakeslee prefaces her remarkable debut novel, Juventud, with a quote by Gabriel García Márquez: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” It’s fitting, then, that memory casts such a long shadow over the events of this coming-of-age narrative that opens amid the turbulence and uncertainty of late-1990s Colombia. Memory and forgetting shape this narrative, however, and it is in in this tumultuous historical moment that we first meet our fifteen-year-old narrator, Mercedes: a Colombia after the takedown of Pablo Escobar, where regular citizens are caught between rivaling FARC, ELN and paramilitary forces, a deeply corrupt government, and a socially activist Church. Juventud covers all the usual trials of the coming-of-age story, but the expertly- rendered world and clever, strong-willed narrator make this novel snap with tension.

While hijackings, kidnappings, and desperate desplazados all belong to Juventud’s setting, Mercedes, the half-American only child of a sugarcane farmer named Diego, is largely protected from the violence at first. News reports babble in the background of her home, a bucolic hacienda near Cali de Santiago, and early in the novel she witnesses a bus hijacking while being driven home from her private day school in town. Yet Mercedes is a member of the small affluent class whose wealth is concentrated behind well-guarded gates. Diego would like to send his daughter away to boarding school in the United States, where her mother lives and where Mercedes will be safe.

Nevertheless, when Mercedes meets Manuel, a passionate social activist with a great talent for guitar, her country’s problems begin to take on a horrifying solidity around her despite her father’s efforts to keep her insulated from danger. Mercedes’s instinct is that Diego is also keeping her from some fundamental truths about the past, including the reason for her mother’s abandonment and Diego’s own place in Colombia’s recent history. Manuel offers a few answers about Diego and many opportunities to break out of the strictly defined role of obedient daughter. As Mercedes and Manuel begin to fall in love, Mercedes increases her own involvement with Manuel’s activist youth group, La Maria Juventud. Meanwhile, back on the farm, Diego decides to allow for some of the country’s many displaced people to camp on a plot of land. As Diego pushes her to leave Colombia, Mercedes digs in, reinvesting in her birth country by attending peace rallies in an environment that is increasingly hostile, if not deadly, to social activists.

Yet here, about halfway through the novel, Juventud expands beyond the scope of a romantic novel about youth. At its heart is a mystery story of sorts — a terrible personal tragedy that befalls Mercedes, whose solution is interwoven not only with her own family history, but with that of her country. Mercedes has a keen and curious mind, and one of the joys of this novel is seeing her investigative bent assert itself after the youthful naiveté falls away. Mercedes’s own family history, like that of Colombia, is patchy and marred by trauma, and even so both are confronted with the task of constructing an identity and a coherent story with what facts they do possess. From this point, the novel’s scope ranges widely as Mercedes immigrates to the United States, tries to connect with her mother, and makes her home among family members who are also strangers. The story brings us far and wide, to suburban Florida, academic Berkeley, Washington DC, and even an Israel that reminds her all too much of the Colombia she left. Through all of it, Mercedes excavates personal memory and official history, truth and lies and everything in between.

Juventud is a solid coming-of-age story with a refreshingly fleshed-out female narrator. Admittedly, the strongest parts are in the first two-thirds of the novel, but the somewhat sagging tension in the final act is forgivable in the face of such a well-rendered novel of memory and history in Latin America. Even through the most heavily plot-driven sections in the first half of the novel, I admired Blakeslee’s close eye for the little details of life and character: the sweet corn and hot grease of the street arepas Mercedes loves, the telling detail she notices on a knockoff designer handbag, the quiet way in which she notes when father has had a woman stay overnight. The novel is well done and wonderfully researched on the whole, and it makes for an enjoyable read. Readers who enjoy novels of Latin American history, engaging female leads and coming-of-age stories should all enjoy Juventud.