Recent additions to the bookshelf

One of the advantages of this past year has been a commute from the south of London to the center of the city daily that meant I had between 1 1/2 and 2 hours sitting or standing while waiting to get where I was going. Sometimes that went to reading academic papers for my masters, but a lot of the time it went to recreational reading. Add that to the fact that I got a library card as soon as I could(making this the sixth city on the third continent where I have paid library fines) and I was able to get through quite a few books. Well, considering that I was in school at the time.

The highlight list includes:

That’s not a fully complete list, but those are most of the books I remember. Well, there’s also a bunch of classic science fiction books, but I’ll talk about those later


Book review: Elizabeth Ohene – “Thinking Aloud” & “Stand Up and Be Counted”

Thinking Allowed - Elizabeth Ohene Stand Up and Be Counted - Elizabeth Ohene

These books represent a very important point in recent Ghanaian history and therefore make for very interesting reading. Elizabeth Ohene, a current Minister of State and former BBC presenter, was a columnist and editor for the The Daily Graphic, one of Ghana’s longest running government owned newspapers during a really interesting period in Ghana’s history.

In 1979 Ghana was under the control of a military government led by General Akuffo. He was overthrown by another group of soldiers led(sort of ) by then Flight Leftenant Rawlings. He held elections and passed Ghana on to a democratic government, then returned a year later to overthrow that same government and establish himself as head of state again in 1981. This was the period for which she was editor and its the time period both of these books cover.

“Stand up and Be Counted” is made up of her editorials over this period and “Thinking Allowed” is a column she wrote before and after she was editor. In both books she made a habit out of challenging the motives and actions of the ruling governments of the time, which was really unusual for a high ranking member of the state owned media. And probably a large part of the reason she had to flee the country after Rawlings came back.

The books are therefore interesting on two levels. on one because they provide insight into a very interesting period in Ghanaian history (I was born in ’79 when all this was going on) and they are also a record of a great deal of personal courage. Opposing the ruling government at that point in Ghana’s history was not exactly the healthiest move on the planet. Especially since she was doing it from the paper they owned.

It was an act of extraordinary bravery which is especially impressive when held up to the extreme levels of mediocrity that a decent section of the Ghanaian media is aggressively pursuing.

Definitely worth the price if you can find it


Lets talk about books again

One of the most annoying things about being home remains how hard it is to get your hands on quality reading material. For several reasons the local publishing industry has been all but dead for a while, local bookstores have become basically stationary stores except for a small collection of religious books and textbooks and the library system is no better than it was in my childhood. To give you an idea of how bad the system was then, I had read my way through the Tema Public library before I was 10 years old.

That said, I managed to get my hands on a couple of books through a (woefully underattended) book fair and a used bookstore I found, Thus, sanity managed to prevail.

As to what I’ve been reading:

I’ll definitely do comprehensive reviews on a bunch of books from that list because they will allow me to talk about other stuff that has been on my mind. You can vote on what order you want reviews up if you want though.


Found it: Commentary on Steven Barnes’ “Lion’s Blood”

This was the last commentary essay I wrote on black science fiction in college. I posted the others up earlier but couldn’t find a copy of this one.

Luckily one of the advantages of liking to play around with linux distros as a hobby is the fact that I change and reinstall operating systems a lot. Which also means I try to keep backups of all my important stuff. Of course, I have to find them first, which was the cause of the original delay.

anyway, without further ado, here it is

With “Lion’s Blood”, Steven Barnes attempted to write an alternate history of alternate history of America that raises a lot of incredibly interesting questions. In his alternate world, Africans conquer Rome and are the ones who find America. Since they have all that land and require manpower to farm it, they begin to capture slaves from various parts of Europe. The central characters in this story are Kai, the son of a plantation owner and Aidan, a celtic slave who becomes Kai’s best friend. Using both of their perspectives. We are shown a view of slavery as it would have looked had it happened to white people. That premise alone makes this book worth reading. The way Barnes chooses to handle that premise only serves to make the book a more interesting read. It is definitely very disturbing in parts and there are creative decisions he took in constructing his history that I am not necessarily a huge fan of. I am also not especially happy with some of his decisions regarding Kai’s character. All of that aside, this is still a good read and a book which should be recommended to any white person claiming slavery was benign or a good thing for black people since Barnes pulls very few punches, especially in the earlier sections of the book.

It is going to be hard for me to discuss themes in this book, not because it isn’t full of them but because my reaction to it left me with more than enough questions and issues with the book that, in this case, I thought taking a closer look at the reaction it caused in me might be more interesting. There are several things about the book I find worthy of comment. First is Barnes’ description of the middle passage and slavery through Aidan’s eyes, a section of the book I think a lot people need to read. Second is his choice of Islam as the religion most of the Africans adopted and some of the interesting turns he takes in exploring religion. There is also his portrayal of Kai and his father as almost benign slave masters in certain places, which I find myself not entirely comfortable with.

The book opens up with a look at Aidan’s life in a little village learning how to be a fisherman from his father. We are shown enough of his life and his community for us to realize that he has a good life here. Immediately we grasp that picture, his world is torn apart by vikings with guns who kill his father and several other members of the village before the rest of them, including his mother and sister, are carried off to a larger ship, bound in chains and stacked next to each other like sardines. During the trip, we watch through Aidan’s eyes as his friends die and are thrown overboard, his mother is raped and miscarries and the survivors begin to form into a larger family in order to keep each other alive. After arriving in America, his family is split up and sold. He ends up with his mother and his sister ends up by herself. The language in which all of this is described is chosen to be as disturbing as possible, perhaps so white readers of the book, who will already empathize with Aidan’s family, gain a clearer understanding of the pain that comes with being in his position.

Religiously, Barnes makes some very interesting decisions and asks some interesting questions. He chooses to have almost all of the Africans be Muslim, except for the Zulus, who are regarded as bloodthirsty savages for the most part. I fail to understand his choice of Islam as opposed to a more traditionally African religious system, even that of the Egyptians. It makes very little sense to create a grand African civilization and then make its religious base an imported religion. However, it is worth noting that the book critiques certain Islamic practices by choosing to make Kai become a sufi an then having him question several Islamic beliefs. Another interesting set of questions is raised by Aidan’s view of slaves who leave behind their religions and convert to Islam. In his eyes, it is almost unpardonable that slaves choose to adopt the religion of their oppressors, even though in a lot of cases, it is done to gain extra freedoms for them and their family. Still, it does raise very interesting questions. Since Barnes’ beliefs seem to be more in line with eastern religions than christianity, it is easy to see this also as a question about the large numbers of black people all over the world who adopted christianity from slavers and colonizers.

As I mentioned earlier, I have issues with the way Barnes writes about Kai and his father, Ali because he turns them into benevolent slave masters. Ali seemingly believes that his slaves are human beings. He treats them with respect and allows them to practice their beliefs and retain their names. However, they are still his property and several members of the house do seriously maltreat them so his benevolence is highly suspect. I suspect Barnes may have written him in to show the impossibility of the concept of a benevolent slave master who respects the people he considers his property. Kai is probably a lot closer to what a person would truly have to be like in order to be maintain his principles and treat his slaves like real people. In the beginnings if his friendship with Aidan, he sees him as less of a person, almost a pet or plaything. However, as they get older and wiser, he begins to realize that he owns fellow human beings. This leads him to free his slaves at the cost of his social standing. I felt that part of Barnes’ point with him was to show that a really benevolent man couldn’t own other people even at the cost of most of what he held dear. Although, technically, Kai doesn’t lose everything but he is willing to kill his uncle in order to save Aidan and his family. In doing so, he gives of himself a lot more than most people would in his situation and gains very little in return.

“Lion’s Blood” is a very interesting and intricate book. Barnes’ future history is incredibly well researched and his characters ask questions that I have a hard time answering. It is definitely something I would recommend to anyone interested in taking a look at slavery from a totally different perspective to open up their minds.


commentary on Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Skin Folk’

skin folk

“Skin Folk” is Nalo Hopkinson’s third published work of fiction. Unlike her other works though, it is a collection of short stories. Her stories are all extremely engaging and attempt to cover a large range of issues in a fairy small space. The one theme that is prevalent in all of her stories is the concept of facades and the people inside our skins, hence the title. Obviously in a work by a black female author dealing with appearances, there is a strong focus in a lot of stories on issues dealing with race. In dealing with race, she also takes a close look at self-loathing among black people when it comes to both appearance and culture. Specifically our tendency to idolize ‘white’ features and culture over our own natural appearances and heritage. She also spends a fair amount of time examining that heritage by writing modern stories inspired by Carribean (and, by extension, West African) myth and storytelling. Another theme fairly common in her writing is that of human sexuality in general, the stigma that we have been taught to associate with it and how unhealthy the level of and repression is. Overall, these stories are mostly about discovering and being comfortable with what is in our own skins.

The first theme that really caught my attention was the continuous theme of the tendency in black people to reject our appearance and culture. The two stories which have this specific issue as their themes are “The Glass Bottle Trick” and “A Habit of Waste”. “The Glass Bottle Trick” is the story of a light skinned black woman who marries an extremely dark skinned man only to discover that he has a rather extreme color complex. The only reason he isn’t married to a white woman is the fact that all white people intimidate him. Therefore she is his closest replacement to a white woman among black people. He worships her skin and hates his own so much that he killed his two previous light skinned wives so they wouldn’t have dark shinned ‘monsters’ like him. At the end of the story, she discovers the bodies of his ex wives and accidentally releases their spirits to take their revenge on her husband and maybe her as well. “A Habit of Waste” is the story of a black woman with Carribean parents who trades in her body for that of a ‘more attractive’ white woman and attempts to live life as a white person only to end up missing what she left behind when she sees someone else proudly wearing what used to be her body. In the end, though, she returns to her roots and begins to embrace her culture and family again. In both of these stories, the color struck characters are driven by an intense self loathing to become as white as they can. He does it by marrying fair skinned women and living through them, she does it by actually becoming a white woman. Unfortunately, neither of them is any happier with themselves by the end of their stories.

A lot more stories in this book deal with the issue of sexuality. They examine both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in an attempt to look at and deal with the unhealthy stigma people tend to attach to human sexuality. In “Riding the Red”, “Slow Cold Chick”, “Fisherman” and “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” one of her central themes is sex. “Slow Cold Chick” and “Fisherman” her central female characters are unsure of themselves and their sexuality. Blaise, the female protagonist in the first story suppresses her desires because of her insecurity until they take physical form and begin to lash out at people, forcing her to learn how to take responsibility for what she wants, sexually and otherwise and to accept her bisexuality. The fisherman in her story is actually a woman who takes part in a traditionally male occupation, fishing. At at the end of the week, she accompanies the rest of the fishermen to a whorehouse where the story describes her first time with another woman. Again, it is mostly about her getting over her own insecurities over who she is attracted to and then other people getting over the fact that she doesn’t correspond to who they think she is. Both of these stories end with the women embracing their sexuality.

“Riding the Red” is an reinterpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which little red riding hood is a young woman, the wolf is a young man and the hunt is a mating dance. The grandmother in this story is a n old woman reminiscing on her youthful encounters and despairing her daughter’s prudishness. At the end of the story, she is waiting for the wolf to come by so she can dance for what may be the last time. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” is about a couple who only communicate through sex because they are too insecure about who they are and how they feel to communicate any other way. Because of this, they buy electronic ‘skins’ to make the sex more enjoyable but this pushes them further apart. In the end, the malfunctioning ‘skins’ lead to them breaking down and discussing the way they feel. This story, is more about the habit some people have of using sex as a replacement for communication,and how unhealthy this practice is.

Just like in her books, Hopkinson also tries to bring the tradition of myth and storytelling that she grew up with into a modern setting. In this book, that results in a series of modern fables in the form of “Tan- Tan and and Dry Bone”, “Greedy Choke Puppy” and “ Something to Hitch Meat To”. The first story is an addition to “Midnight Robber”, her previous book. In this story, Tan-Tan picks up trouble in the form of Dry Bone who, once he has been picked up, cant be put down. So she is forced to feed him while she starves until she figures out that she doesn’t have to carry him and lets him go. In the second story, a woman afraid of aging discovers that she is a succoyant, a person who can leave her skin at night and steal life from babies. In an attempt to remain young, she starts killing children around her until her grandmother is forced to kill her. The third story revolves around a young black man tired of the world in which he lives and the job he does. Finally at the peak of his frustration, he receives the gift of a magical adinkra symbol from Ananse that allows him to expose people’s true forms. In all of these fables, the central theme is again being comfortable with who you are. Tan-Tan feeds Dry Bone while she grows weaker because she is convinced she deserves the hardship of carrying him. Once she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve him, she figures out a way to get rid of him. In the succoyant’s case, she is so scared of growing old alone that she scares off the men who would be interested and resorts to killing children because she isn’t comfortable enough with herself to wait for her man to show up. In the third story, the man is being given the ability to look past and make other people see past appearances to what truly is.

In addition to being in incredibly well written set of science fiction stories, this is almost an inspirational self-help book to people on the importance of being comfortable with who you are in order that you can be more comfortable with who everyone else is Hopkinson succeeds really well in making me think and hopefully it will have the same effect on others who read it.


commentary on Jewel Gomez’s The Gilda stories

gilda

Jewelle Gomez describes herself as an activist for gay rights, womans rights, race and environmental issues.“The Gilda Stories”1 is the first full length novel that she has written. This book is a very difficult one to characterize. It follows the life of Gilda, A black, bisexual female vampire through two centuries of living from slavery in 1850 to environmental devastation in 2050. In the course of Gilda’s life, Gomez uses the settings she is placed in and the people she deals with to explore a variety of themes including race, sexuality, environmental destruction, power and its corrupting ability. What makes this book interesting is that, while the overall structure is definitely that of a novel, a majority of the chapters could conceivably be pulled out of the book and read as short stories by someone with no knowledge of the book. Each chapter is basically a snapshot of her life at a point the author thinks we will find interesting.

As usual with my analysis of these books, I start by taking a look at the way race is portrayed in this book. First of all, the only two people Gilda ever kills are both white men attempting to molest and kill her. The first is when she is a young girl on a plantation in 1850 when a man attempts to rape her and she stabs him, which is why she ends up leaving the plantation and becoming a vampire. The second is when she is attacked by two white men looking for a black person to beat up and, in her case, rape. Gilds deals with overt racism in the days when it is overt and less overt racism in the days when its covert. In addition, Gilda’s stories mostly happen in predominantly black communities because that is the only place she will not be conspicuous. She works as a hairdresser, poet, and writer in black communities as one of the people. What this does is allow us to use her insights into her life and the people she lives with to gain a better understanding of the people in those communities and the lives they lead. Her black characters are people. Dancers, writers, poets, prostitutes, pimps, slaves etc. They are portrayed in a manner fitting the time period about which she is writing. However, she spends as much time examining issues within the black community as she does examining external racism. One of the biggest issues she mentions is what she considers to be the short-sightedness of a large part of the black liberation movement. Namely the fact that it failed to include the issues of other minority groups like women and homosexuals in the struggle for equality and, in doing so, hamstrung itself. This critique is made

Sexuality is another theme that receives a lot of attention in the book. This is not that surprising considering the fact that Gilda is bisexual. Throughout the book I never got the impression that Gilda was fully comfortable with her sexuality. There is one scene where she has sex with a woman and another one in which she is intimate with a man. For me, however, both of those scenes seemed very awkward as though Gilda could never fully accept herself sexually. In the one scene of lesbian sex in the book, Gilda is almost seduced. When she turns another woman into a vampire she is said to be feeling shame as well as desire. Its especially interesting because the book has a lot of prostitutes in it, from the whorehouse where Gilda lives for a while before her conversion to the prostitutes she services as a hairdresser. With few exceptions, the prostitutes are portrayed as sexually mature and confident women. They are shown as victims of manipulative people as well so its not as though she glamorizes them but they are definitely not written as helpless women but instead as mature women in control of their sexuality making the choices they need to in order to survive.

Another important topic that gets a lot of attention, especially at the end of the book, is the issue of the environment. It is also linked with a larger issue of power and its possibility for misuse. We become aware, the further we get into the future, that the world is slowly being destroyed by man to the point that it is almost unable to maintain human life. The reason this is happening, we re told, is human greed. Basically, the world’s issues have been ignored in favor of profit to the point that the human race can’t safely live on the planet. The poor must struggle to somehow afford passage to another planet where it is cleaner. The rich, on the other hand, employ Hunters, people trained and chemically enhanced to fight and kill vampires so their blood can be used to give immortality to the same rich, selfish people responsible for the state of the world in the first place. We already know Gilda is environmentally conscious because she leaves at the end of one of her stories to go work for a group of environmentalists but obviously they are unable to bring about the kind of change they are trying for. There are several other points in the book when the theme of the corrupting influence of power is fairly obvious. The book even makes us aware of the fact that there are vampires who, unlike Gilda, enjoy their power over people and use it to manipulate them and then shows us a couple of examples of power- mad vampires. One of whom , Eleanor, enjoys manipulating people and another, Fox, who enjoys inflicting pain because he can.

In the end, this book is really hard to characterize. Gilda is a very interesting, if greatly conflicted, character who serves to examine a wide range of social and personal issues for the character. In that sense it more than achieves its aim. However, it would have been nicer if Gilda hadn’t been written as being so unsure of her own nature. Taking the time to create a character like Gilda and then saddling her with guilt both over the fact that she is a vampire and the fact that she is bisexual seems counterproductive to me. Despite that, it is still a great story.


commentary on Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist”

intuitionist

“The Intuitionist”, Colson Whitehead’s first published book, is a very interesting blend of genres from ‘noir’ detective stories to science fiction. It has been compared by several reviewers to Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” for the way he looks at and writes about race, one of the main themes of this book. The others include gender, man’s reliance on machines and the battle of reason over instinct. While the book seems to be easily read, it contains layers and layers of subtext that address many different issues.

Set in an alternate New York City, the story follows a young black woman, Lila May Watson, the first black woman in the prestigious elevator inspectors guild, as she investigates what she believes to be the sabotage of her most prestigious elevator assignment. This case is made more interesting by the fact that she is an Intuitionist, a member of a controversial faction of the guild who intuitively detect the faults with an elevator instead of manually examining the equipment. The Intuitionists have a higher success rate than the Empiricists, who do things the old way. In the guild, Empiricists are the conservative old guard while Intuitionists are the liberals. Therefore, the fact that the only black female guild member is an Intuitionist with a perfect record works in their favor. Since this is an election year in the guild, with Chancre, the current president and an Empiricist, in serious danger of losing, the Empiricists aren’t too sad about the failure of the elevator she inspected. In the process of her investigation, however she becomes aware of the existence of the ‘black box’, the perfect elevator designed by the founder of empiricism before his death and she becomes determined to find the plans for the black box before anyone else does.

The main characters in this world are all very complex and have several layers to their character and their actions. A good example of this is Pompey, the only other black person in the department and the first black elevator repairman ever. From the beginning we are made aware both of Pompey’s hostility towards Lila May and his subservience to his white coworkers and superiors. This makes it easy to simply see him as an ‘uncle tom’ and move on and this is what Lila May originally does, going as far as to make him the prime suspect in the sabotage of her elevator, thinking that the Empiricists would find it funny to have one of the only two black people in the guild sabotage the other. However, she realizes that in resenting him back, she just furthers the status quo. We also find out what his true motivation is for laughing at racist jokes and sitting through minstrel shows pretending to be amused. He considers it a worthwhile sacrifice to move his family into a better neighborhood away from the crime in his. His frustration with her is partially directed at himself. He feels she should be grateful to him for the sacrifices he made to allow more black people in and at the same time he hates her for not serving them the way he does and thus calling into question his life choices.

Lila May is herself a very complex character. Unlike Pompey, she does not become a ‘pet’ black person in order to advance. What she does instead is to make herself into an almost emotionless machine. Her work record is spotless, she is always immaculately dressed and she is polite to a fault but she does only what is required of her, socializing with only one other inspector and living in a spartan apartment with no luxuries. She suffers from the double disadvantage of being black and a woman in a highly conservative world. Most of the black people we are shown are menial labourers while most of the women are either working or entertaining men. In order to be neither of these, she is willing to settle for being an invisible, highly efficient worker.

Another character I enjoyed exploring was James Fulton, the deceased inventor of Intuitionism and the ‘black box’ which everyone seems to me looking for. Among Intuitionists and elevator inspectors in general, he is revered as a visionary however they remain unaware of the fact that Fulton was in fact a black man. Fulton’s mother was raped by a member of the white family whose house she cleaned and he grew up around black people before ‘passing’ in order to become an elevator inspector. His original idea in creating Intuitionism was as a joke that liberal members of the guild picked up as a truth. Later, it became a way to get people to think about looking beyond appearances at the soul of a person instead of at their skin. Unsurprisingly the first person to realize this is Lila May when she reads his books on Intuitionism after discovering that he was writing as a black person. What makes Fulton interesting is his way of fighting the system. Unlike Pompey who simply gives in or Lila May who accepts her role as an outsider, he chooses to poke fun at the system from within it and slowly change its ideology to one that is more racially tolerant.

Another interesting thing Whitehead does is contrast white liberal and conservative groups, as represented by the Intuitionists and Empiricists, in their treatment of black people. In his eyes, they all appear lacking. The Empiricists are generally more open in their dislike of black people. At several points in the book, they are open in their dislike of Lila May and call her and other black workers niggers to their faces. In a Party for Elevator inspectors organized by Chancre, a minstrel show receives the most enthusiastic response from the audience. The Intuitionists, on the other hand, seem more friendly to black people. They give Lila May an inspecting position in the most prominent new building in the city, which just happened to be named after a black actress and they appear to be very helpful in her search for the ‘black box’. However, they also use her shamelessly as part of their election campaign to show how liberal they are, as if the fact that the only black female elevator inspector is also an Intuitionist makes them better than the Empiricists. Their ‘help’ also turns out to be little more than manipulation because Fulton’s memoirs mention her name. In reality, they care about her about as much as the Empiricists but are more subtle about their prejudices. Ultimately, she has no one to depend on but herself.

Colson Whitehead’s book, is an incredible achievement, especially since it is one of his first written works. It it is easy to see how comparisons were made to Ralph Ellison and Tini Morrison’s masterpieces. It presents a series of incredibly interesting yet human characters with believable flaws and uses them to examine a whole myriad of issues in a very intelligent way. I will be very interested to see what he comes out with next.