Cardyn Brooks introduces her new regular book feature with two reviews on the theme of Homeland Insecurities: Land for Fatimah and Most Precious Blood
Literary Canon Fodder
literary – adj. relating to literature, writing or the study of literature, especially the kind valued for quality of form
canon – n. 1. a general rule, principle or standard 2. a set of artistic works established as genuine and complete
fodder – n. hay, straw, and similar feed for livestock 2. people, ideas or images that are useful in stimulating a creative or critical response 3. people or things regarded as the necessary but expendable ingredient that makes a system or scheme work
Serious literature is big business. And similar to many large industries, a relatively small group of influential people define the terms of engagement, benchmarks for legitimacy and excellence, and criteria for inclusion. Literary Canon Fodder seeks to examine, deconstruct, and digest these elements when applied to strong works written by gifted authors from marginalized populations whose ideas and artistry are worthy of being discussed.
My parents are artists who got me hooked on books from birth, first as a listener, then as a reader. If there were no non-Anglo people depicted in a story, they used coloured pencils or crayons to make at least one character’s hair and skin black and brown. They taught me to expect to see myself reflected in books about people who are smart, curious, kind, adventurous, brave, loved, silly, friendly, shy, insecure, imperfect… human.
It wasn’t until my pre-teen years that the lack of variety and volume of stories about black people and families that resonated as familiar to me based on the assorted experiences and expectations of my parents, grandparents, extended family, wide circle of friends, and neighbors led me to question consciously why the characters on book covers almost never resembled me, and the storylines for black characters almost never felt relatable to me—until I read The Wedding by Dorothy West and other works by Harlem Renaissance authors.
These stories about multifaceted black characters who hadn’t internalized racism as they struggled to overcome its challenges while they moved through life felt familiar. They inspired me to write my own stories.
As a reviewer of books my intention is to contribute to an expansion in the conversation about literature to include every kind of person.
These Literary Canon Fodder reviews focus on ideas and imagery, theories and implications, mechanics, who’s included—how and why. Starred ratings, numbered rankings, thumbs up or down are not factors here, neither are detailed story synopses. These reviews are about texture, tone, and context. The intention is to entice readers to consider adding provocative fiction written by talented authors (also published by independent and small publishers) who move through the world as members of one or more groups whose existence is considered to hover on the margins of mainstream society to their ‘to read’ lists.
February 2018: Homeland Insecurities
Both of the titles being reviewed for this inaugural post of a regular book review column address issues of navigating the physical and emotional geography of home.
Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale
Guernica Editions 1 March 2018
contemporary (ca. 1970s & 1991) women’s fiction
With dynamic prose evocative of turbulent times, the prologue and beginning chapters of Land for Fatimah jump start this tale about the enduring legacies of colonial imperialism in previously occupied countries. Veena Gokhale’s skillful way of conveying an immersive sense of the 1990s in the geopolitical and socioeconomic landscapes in the fictional East African nation of Kamorga as a cultural amalgam, and actual locations in India in relation to Canada, the U.N. and philanthropic organizations run by Westerners generate expectations for a depth of exploration that’s never fully realized.
Vishnu presides over the opening scene, which sets the stage for exploring variations on recurring themes of imminent domain, manifest destiny, oppression, and identity. Combined with baobab tree and Christian church imagery, a new globalized triad of creation, preservation, and destruction is formed.
The list of the cast of characters and of chapter titles are reminiscent of a Playbill®, which is consistent with the theatrical tone that infuses much of Land for Fatimah. Each chapter reads more like one frame of a story board about related characters rather than as one fully integrated story. Maybe the author intended for this effect to mimic the featured characters’ bumpy personal journeys.
If Land for Fatimah were rendered on the pages of an old-school animation flip book, disjointed gaps in the continuity of movement in the story progression would interrupt the reader’s focus. That loss of focus is magnified by the choice of Anjali as the featured character rather than the titular Fatimah.
This passage from page 37 sums up why the choice of Anjali as the main narrator dilutes this story’s potency:
She was like a plantation slave owner, with his privileges, and his duties and obligations. She had not realized back in Canada that privilege could be a trap, tying her down with responsibilities.
Anjali’s Eyes Are Opened would make a more accurate title because Anjali’s trials, tribulations, defeats, and victories as the well-intentioned, indignant, outraged do-gooder dominate the narrative.
Despite her good intentions Anjali’s narration suffers from the attitude she chides herself about on page 6, “This was not AFRICA. There was no such thing, really, except that it loomed large in the minds of foreigners.”
Anjali’s consciousness of that tendency for the continent of Africa with it’s 50+ culturally distinct countries to be treated as a monolith still doesn’t prevent her (or the author) from relegating Fatimah into the position of supporting character in the story named for her. That points to a fundamental challenge in art and in life when it comes to discussions, strategies, and policies planned and implemented by privileged organizations and countries to HELP (an organization in the story) disadvantaged people and countries.
Land for Fatimah is populated with an assortment of strangers in strange lands: fictional Aanke people in conflict with real Kakwa people, Westerners in African nations, farmers in cities, and other Internally Displaced Persons in flux in geographical location and philosophical disposition. Naming the fictional ethnic group Aanke seems to play on the definition of the Hindi and Urdu word aankhen, which means eyes. That word is also the title of a 2002 film about getting revenge after being cast out by bureaucratic corporate protocols. Both references support this story’s major themes.
The variety in age, ethnicity, and social class reads as believable, except for the absence of any QUILTBAG (Queer, Questioning, Unisex, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, All, Gay) characters, which may reflect the author’s personal experiences drawn upon as inspiration rather than a deliberate exclusion. Their absence may also reflect an actual lack of openly QUILTBAG people in African countries during the 1990s due to safety risks.
Land for Fatimah contains only 2 or 3 profane words.
[Proofing note: incorrect/correct. On page 25, “… a few barebacked children run/ran up…”]
Most Precious Blood by Vince Sgambati
Guernica Editions 1 March 2018
Contemporary (ca. 2007-8) literary fiction, QUILTBAG
Most Precious Blood is a coming-of-age memoir about high school senior Frankie Lasante and his father, Lenny, whose loving relationship and genetic connections don’t translate into compatible beliefs about religion or their Italian neighbourhood in Queens, New York.
If “Blood will tell,” what exactly does it reveal about a person’s worthiness and potential or rank in society’s hierarchy? As a microcosm of the range of attitudes toward immigrants, immigration, and their challenges and contributions, the neighbourhood surrounding Lasante’s Grocery Store examines the friction between established traditions, cultural evolution, and assimilation. The internal and external pressures of family expectations dictated by gender and birth order get more complicated with the addition of teen hormones and issues related to sexual orientation.
What are the risks, rewards, and penalties for individuals who don’t conform to those family expectations? More than once throughout Most Precious Blood characters suggest that being accepted and respected based on an individual’s displayed merits of hard work and loyalty are “better than blood” in terms of worthiness. It’s a meritocracy—the cornerstone ideal of the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution—in theory antithetical to colonial imperialism. (Well, for free citizens and men.) Yet, when applied to policies and beliefs about immigration and immigrants, particularly in the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., xenophobia has exerted measurable influence since multiple generations before World War II to the present as reflected in a character’s revisionist nostalgia on page 41 about the good ol’ days when “We knew everybody back then. Now I look around and I don’t know half of the people. Too many strangers.”
Most Precious Blood approaches the concept of “being known” from different angles: physical appearance, surname, a family’s country of origin, home residence, occupation, gender, age, skin colour, ethnicity. The author reminds readers that most of these identifiers are manmade, arbitrary, and mutable.
On page 9: …Gennaro had very rigid rules about what boys liked and didn’t like.
On page 228: Yes, a lot of Italians were lynched back then. That was before we convinced the rest of America that we were white.
Although most of the events occur during 2007-8, the threads about desirable versus undesirable immigrants feels relevant to present-day politics in the aftermath of Brexit, the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the contentious campaign season for the 2017 presidential election in France.
Sgambati’s often lyrical writing style judiciously sprinkles bits of magical realism into his descriptions of secular activities that reinforce his usage of religious iconography. This passage from page 14, “… he joined Gennaro back in the bedroom where multiple Frankies and Gennaros appeared in a V of mirrored closet doors,” seems to offer a modern diptych about the multifaceted nature of identity.
In this tale, Most Precious Blood is also the name of a Catholic church; God’s home where everyone is supposed to be welcome, but are not, at least not at first. This suggests parallels with family homes where everyone is not welcome or at least doesn’t feel welcomed or happy about the entangled obligations of blood ties that signify home as a sanctuary.
Overall, familiar themes of tension between younger and older generations, traditions and progress, ambition and complacency, secrets and secret keepers are unveiled with as sense of waking dreams with alternating narration from Lennie and Frankie, morphing from present to past and back to the present. The first half of this tale is more fanciful in its imagery and language. The second half is more pragmatic.
All types of male characters are rendered with believably nuanced complexity. Unapologetically assertive female characters don’t fare as well, which isn’t surprising in this homage to fathers and sons; men, boys, and how masculinity is constructed.
The obligatory Good Negro is fully developed even though the hetero to QUILTBAG ratio for recurring black characters is 1:1. Brownie points to the author for resisting the temptation to make the mulatto character’s circumstances completely tragic. The few caricatures act as foils that brighten the contrasts between the traits of relatable human frailties and vulnerabilities in the more balanced characters.
There’s minor profanity, maybe a dozen occurrences of the f-word. A few homophobic and racial slurs—none of which read as gratuitous because they’re consistent with the established nature of the characters who are using them.
[Proofing note: On page 115 should register “draw” be “drawer” instead?]
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