The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible (1998) which must be well known, my copy has ‘International Best Seller’ on the cover and elsewhere I see ‘Oprah Book Club’, has been sitting on my bedside cupboard for months, years even, but who gave it to me I do not remember. However, seeing it there every morning (every morning that I’m home, which is about half) at least prompted me to pick up the audio version when I saw it in the library.

The story is of a Southern Baptist preacher, Nathan Price, who takes his wife and four daughters to Kilanga, a village deep in the Congo jungle in 1959. No, that’s not quite right, the story is of the daughters, how they survive their father, how they survive the Congo, how the Congo becomes a part of them. Each section is introduced by Orleanna, the mother, back in Georgia in the present day, and then we hear, not in any order, the voices of the daughters – Rachel (15 in 1959), Leah (14), Adah (14) and Ruth May (5).

The girls all have slightly different voices, which made the book very easy to follow. Rachel is a Mrs Malaprop and Adah expresses her intelligence by thinking her sentences both forwards and backwards (it gets tedious after a while). Leah’s is the voice we hear most often. The author succeeds in making Ruth May sound young:

Mama needs her some Quick Energy. After Father went away with Leah in the plane, she went and got in her bed and won’t get up…

I told Rachel and Adah we needed some 7Up for Mama. Rachel does the radio advertisements from back home and that is one: ‘Bushed? Beat? Need ionizing? 7Up is the greatest discovery yet for getting new energy quick. In two to six minutes you’ll feel like a new you.’

We learn quite early from Orleanna that one of her daughters will die, so this is one source of tension during the first half of the book. The other source is family dynamics as the dysfunctional Nathan attempts to bring christianity to the ‘natives’ without any understanding of them at all, while Leah, Adah, Ruth May and to some extent Orleanna, become increasingly involved in community life. Rachel amusingly remains a southern belle, even in their early hand to mouth existence in Kilanga with all the dresses brought from Georgia turning to rags.

Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ) is a good woman, anti-war, pro-environment, an advocate of living close to nature (Wiki), and she has produced here a portrait of a man completely out of his depth, surviving only by the kindness of the locals, of which all the Prices are blithely unaware, and the desperate attempts of his wife and daughters to support him while living within the constraints of traditional village life.

Over the three or so years of producing this blog I have become increasingly interested in how literature reflects – and no doubt influences – black white relations. How books by white liberals, of which this is one, so often put modern white liberal protagonists into historical situations to yes, accept blame, but also to suggest how things might have been done better; and how the books of Indigenous Lit. and, in the US, African-American Lit., increasingly paint a completely different picture.

The Belgian Congo was a colony ruthlessly exploited by US and European businesses with the support of the Belgian government. In it’s early years as a colony, at the end of the C19th the Congo, 75 times larger than Belgium, was the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II: “along with the uncounted thousands who died of disease and famine, many Congolese were killed by Leopold’s agents for failing to meet production quotas for ivory and rubber, the territory’s principal sources of wealth before its diamonds, copper and zinc were discovered. Mr. Hochschild estimates the total death toll during the Leopold period [1885-1908] at 10 million.”*

By 1959 this was supposedly coming to an end, with the Belgians agreeing to withdraw, and in 1960 Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo. However within a few months the US, which has always preferred right wing dictatorships to protect its commercial interests, engineered a coup. Lumumba was deposed by the head of the army, Joseph Mobutu, imprisoned, beaten and shot. The CIA’s instigation of the coup was confirmed by US Congressional hearings in 1975 (the Church Committee) – which Kingsolver refers to. Mobutu’s increasingly despotic rule lasted until 1997.

The second half of the book, which I didn’t find as interesting as the first, deals with the girls as they become adults and live separate lives, in the US, in the Congo/Zaire and towards the end, in neighbouring Angola, itself fighting to stay independent with the support of Cuba in the face of US/South African sponsored rebels. We also follow Anatole Ngemba who, when the Prices arrive, is the village school teacher, and later a political activist in the anti-Mobutu movement.

A lot of the book, most of it even, concerns the day to day problems of subsistence living in a small and remote village, in which the Prices must take part, having only a small stipend as missionaries and that gone with the flight of most whites at Independence; and of the confusion arising from Nathan’s inability to master even the rudiments of the local language. Kingsolver spent a few months in the Congo as a child but is otherwise constructing her story from research. The scenes sound authentic but we have no way of knowing how close they are to reality.

Where she succeeds is in telling a story which is both interesting in itself and which acts seamlessly as a vehicle for her political purpose – to excoriate her government for the ongoing harm it has caused the people of the Congo.

 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, Faber & Faber, London, 1998. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 1998, read by Dean Robertson

see also:

*Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, cited in NY Times, 21 Sept. 2002 (here)

CIA report: CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968 (here)

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Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, Giuseppe Catozzella

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translated by Anne Milano Appel

I’ve complained – most recently to Lisa at ANZLitLovers – about the indifferent (literary) quality of the audio books I get from my local library, and I listen to more than 100 each year, but good ones do pop up from time to time and this is one of them. Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid (2016) might have been problematic in a number of ways, it is the ‘true story’ of a Somali woman, written in the first person, ie. in the woman’s voice, by a male Italian journalist. Unforgivably, the name of the translator, Anne Milano Appel, appears nowhere on the front or back covers of this Penguin Audio edition. The reader, Adjoa Andoh, who is good, creates her own problems as she is quite recognisably also the reader of McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (set in Botswana) and so we are asked to accept the same accents and intonations for characters from diagonally opposite corners of sub-Saharan Africa.

Unfortunately for this review I don’t have access to a paper version so I have only my memory, and guesswork, for names and spellings; and of course, no quotes.

This is the story of Samia Yusuf Omar born in 1991 into poverty in, to use an apt cliche, war-torn Mogadishu. Her parents and brothers and sisters live in a two room hut in a compound containing another couple of huts and a large eucalypt.”Don’t tell me you’re afraid” is the family mantra – if you don’t acknowledge fear then you won’t feel it, but they live in an environment where fear is often the only rational response.

We begin when Samia is eight years old, inseparable from her friend and blood-brother Ali, who is the same age, and who lives with his father and older brothers in another room in the same compound. The two fathers, who are friends but of different tribal backgrounds, support their families by selling fruit and clothing in the markets. Samia, underfed and skinny is already a very quick runner – we are asked to believe that over the next couple of years she competes on equal terms with adults – and dreams of being an Olympian. Ali gives up trying to beat her and instead makes himself her coach.

The war in Somalia is between the various clans who are all attempting to obtain/assert control over at least a part of the country, and the sound of gunfire is a constant background to everyday life. The fundamentalist Islamists Al-Shabaab are gaining in influence. Samia’s mother and sisters cover their heads in light, brightly coloured veils, and Samia herself understandably prefers to train dressed only in shorts and t-shirt, but with the rise of Al-Shabaab she, and all women, must eventually be covered at all times by the burqa, and Samia resorts to training at night, after curfew, in a deserted stadium with a tartan track pock-marked with bullet holes.

After victories in a couple of amateur races Samia is taken up by the Somali Olympic Committee and in 2008, ‘for experience’, is one of two Somali athletes selected to attend the Beijing Olympic Games. Here she is pitted in a heat of the 200m against one of the world’s great runners, Veronica Campbell-Brown; a skinny girl in a borrowed t-shirt up against tall, muscled women in lycra. Of course she finishes well adrift, but to tremendous cheers in a packed stadium (YouTube).

Samia returns home, having for the first time travelled by air, stayed in a luxury hotel, competed at the Olympics, and seen although not spoken to her hero British/Somali runner Mo Farah, and this is the end of the feel-good story. The other half of the novel is the story of impoverished people everywhere forced by conflict, religious oppression and yes, the wish for a better life, into making their way to countries of the ‘first world’ as refugees.

Ali, who has been increasingly withdrawn, leaves Mogadishu only to reappear briefly as a soldier with Al-Shabaab. Hodan, Samia’s favourite sister and a talented singer, is forbidden to practice and eventually leaves home to undertake ‘the Journey’, the perilous crossing of the Sahara to Tripoli and hence to Italy and safety. She succeeds and is accepted as a refugee by Finland. Abe, Samia’s father is caught up in a shooting at the market, is wounded, unable to work and eventually dies. Samia, who has sworn to stay in Somalia and fight for women’s rights, gives in to the inevitable. She is assisted to move to Ethiopia, but is unable to gain permission from the Somalis to be accepted into a coaching programme there.

In a last desperate attempt to get the coaching she needs to be competitive at the 2012 London Olympics, Samia too commences the Journey.

In an Afterword, Catozzella says he has spoken extensively to Hodan and to a woman who was with Samia for a time, after becoming aware of Samia’s story from a report in Al Jazeera. He makes a good fist of the story although he largely ignores aspects of Samia’s life which may have seemed more important to a woman writer (and to Samia) such as the onset of puberty and the ongoing threat of rape both in Mogadishu and on the Journey.

I prefer to concentrate in my reading generally, and in this blog more particularly, on books which are Australian or at least of relevance to Australian life or literature. In this case it seems to me the more we know of the personal stories of refugees the less likely we will be to put up with their indefinite confinement in concentration camps on reaching Australia. I know we are like-minded on this issue, but it fills me with anger and despair that Abbott and Dutton and their willing collaborator and poodle, Malcolm Turnbull, continue to speak and act so despicably in our names.

 

Giuseppe Catozzella, Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, Penguin Audio, 2016 (7 1/2 hours). Translated by Anne Milano Appel, read by Adjoa Andoh

Women’s SF, Nnedi Okorafor, Liz Williams

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I’ve made the generalization before that mainstream (guy’s) SF is ideas and action driven and that women’s SF is more character driven. Nevertheless, the three books I review here contain a lot of action. In my younger days I read extensively in the SF field before Fantasy started to take over and still do to some extent. Lots of SF circulates around my family, it’s still my son’s main field of reading and long-suffering x-Mrs Legend copped a Cixin Liu for her recent birthday, mostly so as I’d eventually get to read it.

Apart from the great Ursula Le Guin, non-fantasy women’s SF has been hard to come by. Ann McCaffery is ok in small doses, and I have some good books from The Women’s Press Science Fiction series. They “hope that the series will encourage more women both to read and to write science fiction, and give the traditional science fiction readership a new and stimulating perspective.” I think they did, but that was 30 years ago.

As it happens, I’ve read/listened to some excellent  women’s SF over the past month, and although my original intention was just escapism, I thought I would knock up a review. Interestingly, some recent Australian women’s writing, even apart from Sue Parritt (here) who writes straight SF, has had an SF feel to it too. In the last year I’ve reviewed Jane Rawson’s  A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (here), Georgia Blain’s Special (here), Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (here) and Ellen van Neerven’s story Water (here).

Nnedi Okorafor (1974-) is US born of Nigerian parents, did a lot of her growing up in Nigeria, and going by the many prizes she has been awarded, is readily accepted as both an American and an African writer. I listened to Who Fears Death (2010) while I was working and then, when I couldn’t find a paper copy for this review, borrowed The Book of Phoenix (2015) which is billed as a prequel.

It seems, on my limited reading, that Nigerian Lit. contains a great deal of spiritualism (not magic realism!) and particularly in SF, this flows along quite naturally. The story of Who Fears Death is an allegory for the war in the Sudan, between the Muslim/Arabic north and the sub-Saharan African (‘Igbo’) south. It is set in a post-apocalyptic desert where the light-skinned and more technologically advanced Nuru from the north are encroaching on the lands of the darker Okeke. Najeeba, an Okeke woman is raped by a Nuru man who turns out to be the sorcerer Daib, and bears a mixed race daughter, Onyesonwu, who will be the victim of prejudice from both the Nuru and the Okeke. After 6 years living in the desert Najeeba and Onyesonwu settle in an Okeke town where Onyesonwu is educated, initiated (by genital mutilation) with 3 other girls who become her friends, becomes accepted, despite being female, as an apprentice sorcerer with considerable powers, and then takes her friends and her boyfriend on a quest across the desert to defeat Daib. This is a powerful and well written story and I highly recommend it.

Despite having listened to Who Fears Death both before and after reading The Book of Phoenix, I was unable to see any but the most tenuous connection. Nevertheless, it is a powerful work of SF in its own right. Okorafor blogged (here):

These two novels are sisters. Close sisters. But not twins…  Similar, but different. How do the stories connect? Who is Phoenix to Onyesownu and Onyesonwu to Phoenix? You’ll have to read them to find out. Don’t bother going in with expectations; you’ll probably be wrong. ;-).

The setting is a near future, in the USA, where the genetic engineering of humans has been commercialized and militarized. Phoenix Okore is a two-year old but mature “accelerated woman” living in Tower 7, LifeGen’s laboratory complex in New York. At first content just to consume data, Phoenix begins to interact with her fellow ‘speciMen’, aquires a lover, then, when he is killed, breaks out, destroying Tower 7 in the process. Becoming ever more powerful, she rampages across the USA and Africa, bringing the Apocalypse:

Not just New York. I scorch the earth, Yes, I can do that. I am that. Phoenix Okore blew across the earth. She burned the cities. Turned the oceans to steam. She was the reaper come to reap what was sown…. Let them die. Let everything die.

It is true that some of the ‘science’ verges on magic, as well as calling on the African god, Ani, but really, the only weak part of the book is the framing narrative, of an African nomad, discovering a trove of ancient, but somehow still working, computers in a cave. He fires one up and listens to Phoenix’s story.

Another blogger (here) writes, “Phoenix’s voice is so powerful in narrating her own tale that not only the anger but the dignity and determination of an entire oppressed people comes through.”

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Liz Williams (1965-) is a British SF writer with a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. Bloodmind (2007) apparently follows on from Darkland (2006) but is easily read on its own. Despite the fact that SF publishers love a series, I couldn’t find any mention that Williams had gone on to #3 (though she has written other series).

Bloodmind is set in a distant future where humans have colonized many planets and have engaged in genetic engineering to facilitate this. The story switches between the points of view of three women, each on separate planets, until they eventually come together. Vali is a young woman, a soldier whose people are on the losing side of a war on the planet Muspell. Hunan is an older woman, leading a colony of women who have escaped from a city where they had been genetically engineered to be subservient to their husbands. And Sedra, also an older woman, is a hunter at the end of her useful life who is leaving her community to return to the wilds where she will die.

Each woman is well drawn and we care what happens to them. Vali is recruited to go to Sedra’s planet to capture a powerful renegade who turns out to be the daughter of Sedra’s long-lost sister. Although there is inter-planetary travel and some fancy weaponry, most of the science turns on men genetically engineering women for their own benefit (or protection!). As with the Okorafor novels, there are some guys, but they definitely take second place. All three books provide an interesting take on the Independent Woman as super-hero.

 

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death, Brilliance Audio (15 hours), 2010. Read by Anne Flosnik

Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix, Daw Books, New York, 2015

Liz Williams, Bloodmind, Tor, London, 2007

Re super heroes, Helen Razer is at her scathing best in this article on the appointment of Wonder Woman as UN Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.