Review: Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, by Drew Hayden Taylor (2016)

~ Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories, by Drew Hayden Taylor (Douglas & McIntyre, 2016). ~

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I picked this up as a palate cleanser during a break in reading a very long, very inaccurate and very tedious historical novel (which I might not return to). And… it was nearly the perfect antidote. Take Us to Your Chief
is a collection of nine short stories by the Native Canadian writer Drew Hayden Taylor, written mostly in reaction to the near-impossibility of bringing together an anthology of science fiction stories by different Native Canadian writers. A feasible, original, idea, though sadly not a very marketable one; so Taylor just wrote the stories on his own. This is the result.

The stories are, in essence, a catalogue of science fiction clichés. There’s an alien contact story; a post-apocalypse story; a sentient AI story; a superhero story. They’re all set, however, in Canada, against various backgrounds of Native/Aboriginal characters and contexts. It’s a very organic, very effective meshing, sensitive to the contemporary problems and preoccupations of Native communities but at the same time refracting them through the speculative lens of science fiction. What would a Native superhero actually look like? What would happen if an advanced alien species made first contact on reservation land, with only patchy knowledge of ‘Earth’ beliefs and customs? What would Native spaceflight look like? And so forth.

The pleasures are entirely cerebral – ‘speculative,’ in the proper sense of the word. A heavy undercurrent of irony runs through all the stories in Take Us to Your Chief: the stories are both darkly funny and chillingly realistic. The superhero wants to do superheroics, but instead gets embroiled in legal battles and unshakeable structural inertia and discrimination against his Native heritage. The alien species makes contact with three Native men rather too fond of beer… but who also share a kind of telepathic mutual understanding which the aliens find fascinating. These are not stories to immerse yourself in, but carefully conceived pieces exploring intersections of certain themes that aren’t often considered in parallel. I very much enjoyed them, and they should be great reading for any SF connoiseur who’s interested in alternate, diverse takes on staples of the genre.

Verdict: recommended.

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A Play by Walter Benjamin? (Review)

~ Radio Benjamin, by Walter Benjamin. Edited by Lecia Rosenthal. Translated by Jonathan Lutes, Lisa Harries Schumann and Diana Reese (Verso, 2014). ~

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I’m aping the title of this review from what I believe is Walter Benjamin’s only surviving “listening model” (Hörmodell), a genre of radio programming with the didactic goal of presenting to listeners useful responses to everyday life situations. The “model” in question (“A Pay Raise?! Whatever gave you that idea!”), which Benjamin co-wrote with Wolf Zucker, is essentially a miniature radio play in which two characters, one after the other, ask their boss for a pay raise. One meets with success; the other does not. It’s interesting to see how, in early 1930s Germany, this was conceived to be an effective way of engaging with and educating ordinary citizens through the new medium of radio – even if Benjamin’s own position on the Hörmodell is much more critical of its utility (there’s a short essay in the book that makes this quite clear). But I also think it’s an indicative element in a collection that shows the range of literary capacity that Benjamin possesses, quite apart from his more famous essays and critical / philosophical writings. And it, indeed, includes a few radio plays – on which more below.

Radio Benjamin sets out to collect all of Benjamin’s writings for, and on, radio. This makes the book slightly eclectic, as the material is quite varied. Apart from the “listening model” mentioned above, and four radio plays (two aimed at children, two at adults), it also includes a number of short essays and radio talks. The bulk of the book, however, is taken up by so-called “talks for children” – shorter pieces written by Benjamin on some topic or other for a twenty-minute “youth hour” slot, read and broadcast on radio stations in Berlin and Frankfurt. Despite the irony of reading material that was, originally, meant to be spoken and listened to, I actually found this by far the most engaging part of the book. The pieces are short, easily digestible, concern interesting topics – from the history of Berlin to natural disasters to reflections on literary figures such as Faust – and seem to be on the whole accurately researched (even if they sometimes, ahem, ‘quote’ material verbatim from other authors’ works). And there is a kind of narrative thread running through them – even if you need some readerly imagination to think about how they might have been heard and perceived as a broadcast series heard over a number of weeks, as opposed to days on the written page.

The plays are a bit harder to get into, but still interesting – partly because of the sheer novelty, for me, of reading a radio play of any sort, though also because of the sharp awareness of the potentials and limitations of radio as a medium that they demonstrate. (This is one of my academic obsessions, as attested by my other blog.) Not only are there instructions for manipulating sound and voices for dramatic purposes – adding ‘chatting noises’ to give the effect of a large crowd, for example – but the plays (or at least their scripts) also include the nature of radio as part of the narrative itself. There is a lot of fourth-wall-breaking as various characters interact with the ‘radio announcer,’ complain of being taken into a world where they only exist as voices (and so have to leave their fancy costumes behind), and so on. As a historical artifact, I think these plays show quite well how acutely the nature of radio was felt and foregrounded by those who wrote for it at this early stage in its development – apart from, of course, demonstrating how unique the ‘radio play’ actually is as a genre.

Ultimately, though, for me reading Radio Benjamin was less about getting educated about the formal features of the medium, or the early history of radio in Germany, than plunging into the capabilities and talents of Benjamin as a writer. These are not literary-critical or philosophical essays; they are constructed and disciplined in different ways – and effectively, competently so, showing Benjamin’s much greater range than simply that of a cultural theorist. Again, though, there’s little consistency in content between the writings in the collection, apart from the fact that they were all written for (or on) radio. As mentioned, there is a kind of arc that can be discerned through the thirty-odd Youth Hour talks at the beginning; and there are worse ways of expanding your horizons with random trivia – I love random trivia, so I enjoyed them, though of course tastes may differ. (Interestingly, the “talks for adults” included in the collection seem much less organised and engaging; they might try to present more complex arguments, but they still feel considerably less polished than the Youth Hour stuff.) When the materials are all put together, though, it feels more like a collection of curiosities than a volume with any sort of consistency. Interesting, but perhaps not for everyone, and perhaps not to be read linearly or as a typical non-fiction work – and certainly not if you’re looking for more cerebral offerings.

Verdict: recommended… with reservations (and maybe only if you’re a fan of Benjamin’s).

Review: Ebola ’76, by Amir Tag Elsir (2012 / 2015)

~ Ebola ’76 (2012), by Amir Tag Elsir. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby (Darf Publishers, 2015). ~

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Ebola ’76 is a book by the Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir, and though written originally in Arabic it situates its narrative beyond the (often quite restrictive) confines of the “Arabophone” context. The story is primarily that of Lewis Nawa, a factory worker who returns from Zaire / Democratic Republic of the Congo to his hometown in southern Sudan carrying the Ebola virus after a visit to his (now-dead) mistress. An outbreak ensues, claiming the lives of many locals including Lewis’s somewhat-estranged wife, while others who find themselves in the area try to weather the disease as best they can, in a desperate panic to avoid infection and (likely) death – with no help (internal or external) evidently forthcoming.

The topic is grim, but the darkly satirical way in which Elsir deals with it makes for compelling – if morbid – reading. The cast of supporting characters is also fascinating, and includes a maverick magician, a hysterical blind guitar player who fancies himself an international star, and the owner of the factory in which Lewis is employed who does his best to squeeze out any advantage he can out of the situation. One technique I especially liked was assigning narrative agency to the virus – “Ebola did this, Ebola did that,” etc. – which one could make interesting comments about in the context of post-humanism and sociological theory that assigns agency to non-humans. It is also a riff on the largely depersonalized concept of a “disease vector”: Lewis is a fully realised, if not especially nuanced, character, with his own hopes and fears and relationships, and though these might not ultimately influence the course of the outbreak they still form important aspects of the story that made it happen.

It’s a short novel, though, and one gets the feeling there is a scope for more exploration of its ideas. Perhaps necessarily, it’s also without a firm conclusion: the situation becomes bad, and stays such, and the possible outcomes – the virus clearing out, or continued suffering, or something in between – are only hinted at hypothetically. Still, it’s an important book to read especially in translation, even if just for its picturing of transnational circuits and concerns that often fall off the radar of readers of English-language literature. Not a gripping yarn, but certainly one that makes you think.

Verdict: recommended.

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Review: African Titanics, by Abu Bakr Khaal (2008 / 2014)

~ African Titanics ( تيتانيكات أفريقية, Tiitaaniikaat afriqiyya; 2008), by Abu Bakr Khaal. Translated from Arabic by Charis Bredin (Darf Publishers, 2014). ~

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It’s difficult for me to put out an unequivocal judgment on African Titanics. On the one hand, it’s a pretty singular book: a dense, intense, often poetic narrative of an illegal migrant’s adventures, en route from Africa to Europe; a topic which arousing more and more social political interest with every overcrowded “Titanic” (as Titanics’ protagonist, like Khaal himself an emigrant from Eritrea, calls them) rescued in the Mediterranean. Still, its terseness didn’t really allow the ideas to be developed as fully as I might have wished. That there is a voice speaking on the subject is itself important; and Khaal’s is a singular, and very memorable, contribution – though probably not the definitive one (see below though for why I think this might ultimately be a good thing).

The core of Titanics is composed from episodes taken from the experience of the narrator – the Eritrean Abdar – and other migrants as they cross the expanses of north-eastern Africa on their way to the promised land of Europe. This final goal is never questioned; we’re made to feel as if all the migrants are on some sort of quest, drawn into a larger, almost mythic narrative that sets countless trials and obstacles in their path. There are hellish desert journeys, in jeeps pursued by bandits, with not enough food and water; a thriller-like border crossing during a storm in Tunisia; holding on for dear life in a leaking fishing boat in the Mediterranean. People die, often in gruesome ways, and the narrator gives us just enough background on each to make the loss have an impact. Abdar himself never even makes it to the final, “Titanic” stage of the journey; after deportations in North Africa he returns, ostensibly, back to Eritrea, richer at the very least for the experience and – more importantly, for the novel’s themes and structure – the stories passed on to him by his various journey-mates and that are recounted in the book, often at some length.

A perverse version of the Hero’s Journey, perhaps. But towards the second part of the book, the path of the “hero” – the narrator, really, if we go by the supposed structure – comes to be drowned (as it were) by all the other narrations. There are so many tragic, and colorful, stories to tell that Abdar’s own experience simply can’t compare. By the end of the novel he retreats into the background, and no longer functions as a compelling character.

Part of this is of course the point: no single person can bear the weight of all the particular, personal stories of tragedy that trans-Saharan ‘refugee flight’ produces every day (and has been producing for decades). All we can manage is fragments, perhaps, as Titanics offers up, in its role as a “many-sided memorial” (as ArabLit in English put it) to all the unsung crossing heroes. There is a chance here for a deeper commentary on shared narratives, perhaps even the disappearance of “authorship” in such conditions; but Titanics’ conclusion isn’t managed with quite enough skill to effect that. I was left with the impression that, given a few more pages, there could have been a better chance for the narrator (who- or whatever he ultimately is) to be situated with respect to other stories. As it is, the ending just feels abrupt – as if Abdar was only being given a ‘formal’ conclusion to his storyline, without tying up the other threads.

Titanics is certainly not a neat novel. But it is gripping, often beautiful, deals with a burning sociopolitical issue, and packages it all in a literary format which does justice to a subjectivity in desperate need of a louder voice. There are passages where Khaal manages a properly mythical feeling to the experience, with powerful imagery and metaphor on par with that of the finest literary craftsmen. It tells us, and confidently so, that migration gives stories worth telling – which might make for great literature, too.

The danger here would be to start seeing Khaal’s work as the definitive “illegal migrant” experience. But the novel itself defies this sort of appropriation – not least because of its slippage between segments of explicit realism (Abdar’s narrative, basically: the desert journeys, border crossings, illicit stays in refugee ‘hostels’ and so on) and the parallel tales from other characters: experiences recounted in the same manner as Abdar’s, but also poetry and folk-tale-like narratives that refuse to be grounded in one particular context. One only wishes it could all have been tied up together a little tighter in the end.

Verdict: recommended.

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Review: The Bride of Amman, by Fadi Zaghmout (2012 / 2015)

The Bride of Amman (2012), by Fadi Zaghmout. Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Signal 8, 2015). ~

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(Disclaimer: This review is based on an ARC of the forthcoming translation, kindly provided by the publisher, though I had previously read the novel in the Arabic original as well. For my review of Zaghmout’s recently published second novel [on Arabic Literature (in English)], see here: LINK)

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Fadi Zaghmout’s The Bride of Amman (‘Arūs ‘ammān; Arabic original 2012, English translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp 2015) follows the personal trajectories of five young Jordanians – all of whom struggle with the mismatch between their own relationships and sexual preferences, and those imposed as an ideal model by the society around them. It demonstrates, through an intense, straightforward narrative, the struggles and paradoxes that come from trying to fulfill normative sexual and gender roles. For what it might lack in literary artistry, the novel makes up for with its themes, by touching upon issues that are acknowledged though rarely debated in the prevailing public discourse in Jordan (and perhaps the Arab Middle East more generally). For that reason alone, it deserves attention – though its narrow thematic focus and plain expository style might not be for everyone.

Bride follows five different characters – the university students Leila, Rana, and Hayat, Leila’s sister Selma, and the (wealthy) Iraqi immigrant Ali – as they deal with issues of love, sex, and marriage during their lives in Amman, Jordan. All the characters are in their twenties – finishing their university studies, or just embarking on their professional and individual life paths after it. For all of them, the normative form of this path involves marriage; this they all achieve, by the end of the novel, though perhaps not in the way they initially expected (and with some very traumatic experiences along the way). Premarital sex, family sexual abuse, and non-heteronormative sexual preferences all enter into the mix, as factors detracting from the ideal image promoted by familial, social, and broader cultural expectations – especially (though not exclusively) on women.

These are all issues highly resonant with young Jordanians today, and it is easy to see how this might have contributed to the novel’s popularity. They also form the core of struggles against gender and sexual discrimination, something which Zaghmout (also an active blogger and activist) is himself deeply involved in.

The novel’s focus is rather narrow, centered on gender norms and relationship taboos. Zaghmout does not touch at all on economic, political, or other social issues. This is not necessarily a weakness – though with so much hinging on a single theme, there is always the risk of essentializing the Jordanian social context as one marked only by what are considered to be (by the author, as well as the novel’s characters) oppressive gender norms, and idealizing other contexts where this might not be the case. Zaghmout’s characters do, in fact, make judgments like this; and, knowing their stories, this is perfectly understandable – which also make such pronouncements sound less like authorial tracts than they might have under the pen of a less crafty writer.

While Zaghmout’s personal convictions certainly shine through – in choice of characters and narratives if nothing else – the novel does not offer any easy solutions to the issues it identifies. Though ‘happy,’ in an absolute or utilitarian sense, the novel’s ending is far from neat – which reflects the ‘messiness’ of real life experiences that Zaghmout’s characters speak towards, and contribute to the novel’s sense of societal realism.

The narrative feels fragmented at times, told as it is from five different viewpoints, and also reflects the novel’s genesis via series of blog posts. The language is straightforward, the style accessible; sometimes almost too much so – characters often make their thoughts or convictions completely explicit, leaving little room for reflection or ambiguity. Given the Arabic context of the original, though, this can be seen as at least in part a strategic choice on the writer’s part, orienting the novel away from wordy literary traditions (which are often obscurely formal / classical in their form and choice of vocabulary), and more towards a transparent style aimed also at a public that does not normally engage with ‘high literature.’ Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s translation is excellent; it inevitably loses some of the flavour of the original – most notably, the dialogue, written in distinctly Jordanian / Levantine colloquial Arabic whose particularities are impossible to replicate in English – thought it more than makes up for it in other respects. It’s smooth and idiomatic, and perfectly digestible as an English text.

The novel’s array of voices – four of which are female – could perhaps be turned to better use, and made more distinct in literary / narrative terms than only through their plot trajectories. (There are traces of distinct personalities – Leila’s self-centeredness, Hayat’s introversion – but they are more sketched outlines than proper impressions; character descriptions are for the most part stated explicitly, rather than shown.) Some of the characters also feel like a catalogue of ‘validated’ social identities in Jordanian – there are a number of Christian characters, a Circassian character, a wealthy Iraqi refugee – all of which are social groups that in political and economic terms in Jordan are relatively secure. Again, such issues fall outside of Zaghmout’s purview – though their absence, in a way, also reinforces the novel’s central theme: even young, wealthy Jordanians, of relatively good social standing, cannot escape the pressure of ideal gender relations, and dire consequences when such norms are not fulfilled.

In the end, though, the protagonists’ individuality shines through. it is via their own strength and inventiveness – as well as a handful of supportive others – they are able to endure. At its heart, Bride is a story of individuals battling for dignity, freedom, and respect, a way not to let their lives and convictions be choked under the judgments of others. In that, it should be seen as a novel specific to the Jordanian context, or more generally that of the Arab Middle East; and it speaks in particular to a generation that is more and more eager to discuss such issues – primarily, rights to gender equality and sexual freedom – as they struggle with them in their daily lives.

Bride is, in the end, a rather straightforward read – though not always a comfortable, or comforting, one. It provides a realistic portrayal of the problems and obstacle young people in Jordan face today when it comes to negotiating their social and sexual identities. Gender relations and the position of women are its primary concerns, and it does not stray far from them either narratively or thematically. Still, these are subjects worthy of discussion, and especially relevant for younger generations of Jordanians and Arabs to whom (and for whom) Zaghmout aims to speak.

Verdict: recommended.

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