Sunday, June 25, 2017

June Reads Part Three

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I thought Binti was really good, but not great, so it was a surprise for me to find the second book in this trilogy (the third comes out in January of next year!) was better in almost all aspects. Okorafor has jettisoned much of the violence and spectacle of the previous volume for an increased focus on the protagonist's emotional state: her experience with PTSD and her increased feelings of alienation when returning home. Everything I said in the previous review holds true, if not more true: Okorafor's novella is an excellent examination of what it means to be the Other through a science fictional lens. I don't entirely love the series so far—there's such a major focus on the Bildungsroman element over the aforementioned PTSD aspect—but I'm suitably impressed. As with many bits of Adam Roberts' work, I can't quite shake his essay on YA and the Neo-Victorian (here). In an long and wide-ranging post (he touches on Moorcock, Lewis, Tolkien, The Hunger Games, and countless other texts), Roberts tries to grapple with YA's fascination with Victorianism and fantasy. His argument is wonderfully summed in the elegant final paragraph:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it.
Likewise, Binti and its sequel (and probably its third entry) grapple with the classic tropes of coming-of-age using as its distant backdrop the "public school" like Harry Potter and countless other YA books. The titular Binti spends her first adventure on the way to the school while the second novel has her leaving the school. Her literal and figurative journey to the school changes her identity through what is essentially magic (tentacle aliens reshape her DNA). Again, it's not mimesis as Roberts points out which is the driving force for the poetics of her growing emotional maturity—it's magic handwaved as science. While Roberts' argument doesn't fully apply to Binti, as Okorafor's novella is not rooted in Jameson's diagnosis of postmodernism as the "replacement of history as lived experience with history as a pastiche of empty visual styles." Instead, Binti mobilizes Afrofuturism (the aesthetic movement) in its depiction of Binti's development and her grappling with the spectre of the past. Binti's family, mathematically and practically inclined, disapprove of her escape to the stars. A recurring theme in the second novella is the exhaustion of Binti's possibilities for marriage; her trip to space, her flight from her people marks her as unfit for wedlock. Likewise, she comes face-to-face with a doubled Othering: her abandonment of traditional ways and her reshaped DNA code her as Other even to her own people, while simultaneously, Othered by non-Himba people for being black. Binti: Home brings all this to force along with the standard second-entry-in-a-trilogy revelation that "everything you know is wrong" via a secret history with which Binti was hitherto unaware. Where Okorafor takes the novel can't be too much of a surprise; Binti: Home ends on a cliffhanger: the strained peace between humanity and the Meduse collapses in violence, leading Binti to charge into danger, on a quest to unite people, an extension of her internal quest for "atonement" (at-one-ment), to reconcile the Othered parts of her identity, to coalesce into who she really is, while donning the mantle of humanity's saviour.

All the above makes it sound as if I was uninterested or apathetic about Okorafor's project and Binti's journey. While I confess Bildungsromans don't really tickle my fancy, I still adored this second entry, more than the first, and hope the third also jettisons the classic excess of violence which mark conclusions.

An aside about trilogies: probably my favourite moment in any third entry in trilogies occurs in Return of the Jedi, which so wisely anchors its climax on two emotional arcs (Vader's and Luke's). After departing Dagobah, Luke surrenders to Imperial forces and enjoys a moment of quiet with Lord Vader. There's no need for violence or even confrontation. Their mutual respect is palpable and speaks to the emotional maturity of the sequence: Lucas and his crew trusts the audience gets both characters know the conflict is now spiritual, not physical. Other than the Tatooine sequence at the beginning, this is the only bit in Return of the Jedi I find interesting and of course, it's the least violent or showy of any.

Maurice Broaddus and Tor.com offer us Buffalo Soldier, a steampunk adventure heavily influenced by Jamaica and their culture of storytelling. Like Kai Ashante Wilson's two novellas, this is a fantasy speckled with an awareness of code-switching and the utter specificity of the black experience. I'm very skeptical of steampunk, going so far as to dub it politically dangerous, but it feels like Broaddus has anticipated my reservations. Instead of the bland, implied celebration of Empire that usually characterizes the genre, Buffalo Soldier is explicit in its condemnations of imperialism. Its plot concerns rival nation-states in a fractured North America vying for political power. They seek this power through the manipulation of a clone, a resurrected Messiah with murkily-defined powers. The plot follows a mercenary with the young, naive clone under his wing as they escape the various competing powers. In terms of execution, the novel forgettable. Its details slip my memory immediately. But what sticks is Broaddus' interest in storytelling as oral history. The short novella finds time, three times, to arrest the forward momentum completely and have a character tell a story. The Jamaican protagonist tells one, an Indigenous character tells one, and a Southern Belle archetype antagonist tells a final story. They're more interesting than the plot of the novel and Broaddus executes these digressions with precision. Less attractive is the finale, a chaotic mess of noise and violence, which did nothing for me.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu was recommended to me by Aaron Bady, a Twitter acquaintance, and an expert (would he agree with such a compliment?) in African literature. He, in facts, introduces the novel in this edition. Touted to be the Great Ugandan Novel, Makumbi's text is fascinating and compelling. Starting with the historical figure of Kintu (pronounced "chin-tu"), the novel tracks the curse which befalls him and his many descendants in 21st century Uganda. Each section works as a standalone short story, detailing the fate suffered by the particular protagonist, but each section lacking an ending, leading to the climactic and final section, a huge family reunion and attempt at lifting the curse. Makumbi wrote the novel in English, but avoids translating any word in common usage not in English. Most words can be figured out through contextual clues, but sometimes, I just didn't know what they were talking about and that's okay. Kintu is, like Okorafor's Lagoon, not made for the Western gaze. Where the great Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart for Western audiences, a movement against colonization by using the tools of the colonists (read: the English language), Makumbi writes in English for her audience. Thus, the novel is multi-lingual and doesn't laboriously explain the history of Uganda. Readers are expected to be already familiar with Idi Amin, history, colonialism, and geography among other subjects, and of course, they would be: citizens of Uganda (I hesitate to say "Ugandans" as "Uganda" is an arbitrary border drawn by colonizers and not even the proper pronunciation of the word describing the ethnic group Bagandans) these citizens lived through this and wouldn't need the refresher. This made moments in the novel a smidge difficult for me, as I'm not terribly familiar with the specifics of Ugandan history.

Regardless of my own awareness of history, Kintu remains entertaining and productive throughout. One of the things I liked most about Okorafor's Lagoon and Adichie's Americanah, a major novel of Nigeria, was the reminder "Africa" isn't this monolith of poverty and AIDS and the rural. Instead, like any country, Nigeria is complicated, a tapestry of rural and urban spaces, of poverty and affluence, of criminality and bourgeoisie. Like Lagos, Uganda's Kampala (the setting for a good chunk of Kintu) is complex, a place of contradictions and synchronicities, a space for hustles and for families, for crime, poverty, AIDS, sex, affluence, love, etc etc etc. While Kampala doesn't figure into the novel as a character in the same way Lagos does in Lagoon, a portrait is quickly erected of a city wrestling with the legacy of colonialism while forging on its own.

Most affecting in Kintu was the widowed father, suspicious his wife died of AIDS he gave her, and utterly terrified of finding out if his only son has the virus as well. From interviews, Makumbi has stated her novel is "masculinist":
focusing on the fragile edifice of paternity, she emphasizes the toll that patriarchy takes on the people who happen to be men. For that same reason, it’s also one of the most feminist books one is likely to read.
(here). Paternity and patriarchy looms menacingly over Kintu. The father who suspects he has AIDS probably got from his unprotected sex with women from when he was a DJ. It is patriarchy which exhorts men to "sow their seeds," and it is patriarchy which demands men erect an impenetrable shell of strength around themselves. The father can't bear to learn whether or not he or his son have AIDS because he can't bear to lose anything more. The guilt eats at him, both the guilt of probably infecting his wife and thus killing her and the guilt of not knowing. His is a Schrödinger's Virus; he won't know until he looks but for the time being, he acts as if he doesn't and does have it. This man's whole section is harrowing, not just for the cruel reality of living in a world of AIDS, but for the ways in which patriarchy supports and even encourages his behaviour. At the funeral, men gather around the widowed husband, assuaging his guilt by offering milquetoast observations that all people must die, it's just a matter of time. They tell him what's done is done, and any further introspection or reflection on his behaviour isn't warranted. A chilling scene for the ways in which patriarchy extols the virtues of men forgiving men for their masculinist crimes.

I didn't love the final section, the reunion in which the curse is confronted. The section tried to juggle too many balls, leading to some confusion about who is where etc, and I wasn't terribly convinced by some of the happy endings afforded to the cast. Yet, the exorcism/exhumation sequence was utterly gripping. Like a lot of first novels, Makumbi tries to do everything and not all of it works, but I'm completely in thrall to her writerly powers; I eagerly await her next novel:
But when I asked her why she didn’t call it “feminist,” she laughed, and explained that I would have to wait and read what she was writing next. When I had, she said, I wouldn’t have to ask; that would be feminist.
(here again)

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