February 17, 2014

Taiye Selasi Explores the Afropolitan Identity in "Ghana Must Go"

Taiye Selasi’s novel “Ghana Must Go” tells an engrossing story, but one that is complexly told. The characters are delectable, and grow on the reader, even those that make some out of character choices.  The setting shifts from Accra to Lagos to Boston, and it is distracting at times, but each one is beautifully nuanced by the lyrical quality of Selasi’s writing. The plot is so compactly woven between the unexpected death and the funeral of a family member.  It is between these two events that the story unfolds as Selasi takes the reader across continents to experience an emotional roller coaster that leaves the reader in complete awe of what the characters in the story have undergone.

A writer of mixed heritage, Ghanian and Nigerian, Selasi calls several places ‘home’, and in this debut novel of hers, she explores her hybridized Afropolitan identity through the Sai family saga of separation. Like Selasi herself, the Sais straddle between cultures, Nigerian, Ghanian, American, and while they appear to maintain a fair balance, they are unable to delineate one culture from the other. Like in Isabel Allende’s biography ‘My Invented Country’, the Sais carry their ‘home’ in their immigrant hearts, and manage to put down roots in new places, though at a cost, one that is not visible to an outsider. Their immigrant experience is about being able to reinvent a home far away from home. However, as depicted in the novel, this reinvention, could likely become an overused phenomenon that allows an immigrant to pack up and leave, just like that, even the most involved of lives, only to begin another.  However, there is an interesting distinction Ms. Selasi makes between first generation immigrants and their progenies.  The first generation immigrant has acquired an ease with which he can leave and walk out of a setting. He ‘knows how to leave’; his immigrant identity has made him embrace his rootlessness, a trait he’s acquired in order to survive the harrowing immigrant experience. However, his progeny do not share this trait, and they do not understand it either. Consequently, when a family member, or a dear one, abandons them, as is in the novel, they struggle to come to terms with this illogical and near apathetic behavior.

In an interview, when Selasi was asked about what drives her to write, she claimed, History and Geography have oversimplified and made generic the African experience, and that she wanted to undo that by lending subjectivity and individuality to the challenges and accomplishments of each of the characters in her novel. Which writer of fiction does not do that? History and Geography, by definition, require collective documenting of a people and of a region; whereas fiction, by nature, focuses on individuals pitted against unique circumstances and settings. For example, Sophocles’, the Greek playwright, presents a defiant young princess challenging a powerful monarch in the play Antigone, but Herodotus, a historian from the same time period as Sophocles, could not possibly have done that! What he did do was to document the fact that Sparta was a better City State for women than was Athens.  Sophocles’ work of fiction showcased the status of women of Ancient Greece through a defiant Antigone, just as Selasi's “Ghana Must Go” will illustrate the Afropolitan identity through members of the Sai family.  Selasi's claim, though ambitious, is noteworthy, and the African diaspora will be the richer if this young writer lives up to her claim.

The title of the novel is intriguing no doubt, and forces the reader to research Ghana Nigeria relations, and in some cases may get the reader to buy one of the “Ghana Must Go” bags, available online, that do NOT support a noble cause. Without a doubt, Ghana Must Go is making waves as a debut novel; it has won Taiye Selasi, of the African diaspora, the Best Young British Novelist award in 2013, and it appears to me there will be many more such.

Diaspora writings are gaining momentum speedily in a global world! Cheers to that!

February 14, 2014

A Poet and his Immortal Art

Penning what he feels passionately for,
or passionately penning what he feels.
Carried on a whirlwind of words,
his ideas may not always please.

As daggers in music painfully pleasing,
or caveat colors daintily defying
will myriad magical merengues churn
on a Tintern Abbey or perhaps a Grecian urn.
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
will art in posterity defend,
and on those very ‘spots of time’,
will many their lives amend.  
Legends, landforms, daffodils and dames, 
will take on a life their own, 
to live it out through you and me
with poetic words fore sown.

February 03, 2014

Dalrymple's "Return of a King" The Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - 1842" - Lesson in History for Future Statesmen?

How many of us living in the western world knew about Afghanistan before 9/11 happened? Afghanistan entered the world map of the western world only after Osama Bin Laden chose to make the Tora Bora caves his hideout in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. Clearly Osama knew history better than most statesmen around the world, and hence chose Afghanistan to hide from the Americans, and he made a good call; Osama Bin Laden could not be tracked in Afghanistan even with the most advanced satellite technology prevalent at the time. Afghanistan has proved invincible to the mightiest of invaders, and history cites several examples of the indomitable spirit of this land and of its people. William Dalrymple, a British historian and writer has focused on Afghanistan as the subject for many of his recent writings.  Recently, a relative who attended the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, of which Dalrymple was a co host, presented me with a signed copy of Dalrymple's latest book on Afghanistan, and what a read it was!
 Dalrymple’s Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan1839-1842 was a very engrossing read.  It is a well written, evenly paced, and thoughtfully scaffolded piece of nonfiction. Apart from the structural efficacy of his writing, Dalrymple has also put forth historical narrative that is timely, relevant, and well spun.  Interestingly the author ends the narrative with an ominous quote from an Afghani elder saying,” These are the last days of the Americans.  Next it will be China.”

The book captures the history of Britain’s disastrous attempt to get control of Afghanistan in the mid to late 1800s, summarized by an army chaplain of the time, Rev. G.R.Gleig, as ‘a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to close after suffering and disaster…not one benefit, political or military acquired…Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” Dalrymple’s book highlights the similarities between what happened to the British then, in the 1800s, to the latest American invasion of Afghanistan in 2006, the West’s fourth war in that country! Given that Afghani topography, economy, religious zeal, and social fabric is still as it was 170 years ago, will the outcome of any invasion of Afghanistan be different from what happened with the British back then? The Afghani terrain is unforgiving to foreigners, a maze of mountains and caves that house a people unfathomable in their alliances and their loyalty.  Dalrymple’s book asks some hard hitting questions such as: Why do we not learn from History?  Why do leaders make ill informed decision that have potential for widespread disaster and suffering?  

Dalrymple’s book is revisionist in some ways as it documents an event in History using sources that have not been used in the past.  Apparently, the author did extensive research in old forgotten libraries of Kabul where he bought personal libraries of book and journals written in the local language ‘Dari’. He procured this authentic and local piece of Afghani history at throwaway costs, and spent months and years getting it translated in order to re document the “Return of a King”, Shah Shuja, from a non-British point-of-view.  According to Dalrymple’s sources, Britain in 1839 waged a completely unnecessary war based on “doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat” of a Russian invasion, a rumor mongered by a Russophobe British ambassador. British colonialism, which had already established itself in India, perceived a threat from the Russians, and decided to act upon it with a naiveté according to Afghani sources. Some instances of this being: they walked into the unknown mountainous terrain of Afghanistan hoping to reestablish Shah Shuja, a king who even until 2001 was regarded as a symbol of treachery in Afghanistan, and who had earlier been deposed; they marched into a country without any real plans of how they’d get out of it.; as invaders they wanted to challenge and change age old traditions of a people on pretext of ‘promoting interest of humanity’!!  They even attempted to introduce western political systems in a country reputed for its tribal governance.

Dalrymple’s riveting account of the First Afghan War is a comprehensive account about “The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul…a warning to the statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruits in 1839 -1842.” Unfortunately, Afghanistan did get invaded again and the same mistakes were repeated; clearly, our statesmen either do not read history, or else the history they read is biased and inaccurate.  Dalrymple’s novel makes a case for revisionist history, that which is based on documentation from both sides, the winners and the losers.  The days of writing history from the winner’s point of view are gone; there is too much at stake to base future political action on a one sided history.