Lagos, Nigeria is my favorite character in Blackass (Graywolf Press, 2016) by A. Igoni Barrett. The book explores the cultural, social and physical landscape of Nigeria’s largest city, rather Africa’s largest city. I found myself referring to maps and looking up foods like egusi soup and eba. Lagos plays host to an ever-rising population, as evident in the city’s impossibly congested roads; traffic feels like a living, breathing character in and of itself. Cars crawl forward as engines rev, horns blare, smoke spews, temperatures rise, and radios roar, a hazy stasis endured by drivers hour after hour, day after day. The wealthy corners of Lagos are Ikoyi, Victoria Island and the Lekki Peninsula, where one is likely to find an oyibo, a white person, which is the bizarre fate of our protagonist.
This is a story of a black man who wakes up “alabaster”, of Furo Wariboko who becomes Frank Whyte. On the morning of his Kafka-like metamorphosis, Furo leaves home for a job interview, never to return, choosing instead to forge a new life as a newly minted oyibo. Blackass reflects a world that is far from colorblind, in fact it is a world obsessed with race. All that Furo experiences – job offers, bureaucracy, women, meals, conversations – centers on his newfound whiteness. Of course, a white man named Furo Wariboko wandering Nigeria is sure to inspire an exaggerated response. But rather than a distortion of how we observe race, the book reads more like a parable of its pervasiveness:
“No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world” (111).
The book is light, often funny, while addressing issues of race, class, and Nigeria, even social media: “To make money off selling us to ourselves, that’s the business model of social media” (80). The story is free to explore the far reaches of such issues due to its outlandish setup. I am far too unfamiliar with the works of contemporary African authors, but after the reverie of Blackass, I plan to change that.
In the quest to read the books I missed last year, I prepared a list. On that list, The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander is listed third, and next to it in parentheses, “First Lady.” I unabashedly took note of her favorite book of 2015, and upon reading its first paragraph, I felt the familiar pleasure and anticipation of knowing there is so much left to read. “Poetry logic is my logic,” the author explains, and the book is as close to poetry as prose can be. Here is the first paragraph:
“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”
The Light of the World is a moving portrait of the author’s husband, an impressive man named Ficre Ghebreyesus, her coping with his sudden death, and of course, their love story. She discusses Africa, art, flowers and food (there are recipes); she annotates poems on death; she recalls dreams; she introduces an endless stream of family and friends; she shares the most intimate details of marriage. “We shared days I can only call divine,” she writes.
As I neared the book’s end, I prolonged the inevitable by flipping back through its pages, revisiting scenes here and there. “Memories are what you no longer want to remember,” Joan Didion writes in Blue Nights, her own memoir of loss. But perhaps in their very ability to awaken the past, memories alone are redemptive. Within his wife’s prose, there is still Ficre, his presence strong. Reflections on death, especially ones written so beautifully, can be tricky to process. As a reader, it can be tempting to romanticize heartache, to become lost in a kind of reverie. But in The Light of the World, there is no such luxury. Love and loss sit side-by-side to emphasize each other, to draw out each other’s extremes. “Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere,” she explains, and the magnitude of that is felt on every page.
As I continue to catch up on books missed in 2015, I recently finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, though the award ultimately went to, of course, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates was seemingly everywhere in 2015, and while I do agree that his book is important and deeply moving, I am always taken aback as to how quickly we amplify a single voice. The Soul of an Octopus explores questions like what is the soul, what is consciousness, and are we alone in those tremendous feats or are animals like the octopus in our company? The author is sensitive and soulful, as seen in tidbits like this:
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, and uplink to universal consciousness – the notion, first advanced by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in 480 BC, of sharing an intelligence that animates and organizes all life” (p. 90).
Much of the book takes place at the New England Aquarium, where the author forms bonds with people and octopuses alike. There are four octopuses – Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma – and each exhibits a wholly unique personality and “sparkling mind,” as do the octopuses encountered in the wild. Octopus facts are scattered throughout (it has a beak like a parrot, a remarkable curiosity, an ability to change color and texture instantly), as if the most useful parts of a National Geographic documentary are woven into a much more relatable, nuanced narrative. We are often skeptical of animal intelligence or consciousness, and this book serves as a fascinating and eloquent defense of octopuses being in possession of both. Every turn of the page forces you to think bigger, to push aside the idea that everything non-human is “the Other.” The Soul of an Octopus inspires you to breach the supposed boundary between humans and, well, everything else, and when you do, the beauty of life on Earth astounds all the more. We are left, as we inevitably are, with the staggering truth of how little we know, and that reminder should make us feel all the more human.
I promised myself to catch up on the books that I missed in 2015, in whatever meager way that I could, and I’m using the first few weeks of the new year to do just that. 2016, please be patient. I have five books on my catch up list, and I recently finished the first, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, an impressive feat for a first-time author. My reading of The Turner House spanned countless locations, including the messy floor of an old apartment, the empty floor of a new home, on a plane flying south, under a weak light bulb in the early morning dark, and at Triste Cafe while drinking a $4 glass of red wine, where I was delighted to find the woman to my left engaged in similar activities (different book, same wine).
The Turner House is the story of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children, and continuously jumps between two eras. The first era stretches from 1944 to 1951, during which we learn of Francis and Viola’s Arkansas beginnings and their move to Detroit. The second era takes place in Spring 2008 and focuses on the children. While the eldest, Cha-Cha, is a baby in some pages of the book, in others he is 64 years old; the book stretches far and wide, in the way good ones do. At the center of the story is the house they grew up in, which now sits in a nearly abandoned East Side Detroit neighborhood. Francis is long dead and Viola is ill, so the children must debate what to do with the house. The book is described as “a major contribution to the literature on American families,” and it is a largely unromantic one, as in full of health problems and resentment and awkward moments and lost jobs. The book does not relieve readers of reality’s blemishes, but rather scatters them throughout its pages, creating a world that is recognizable, and thus meaningful beyond the dealings of one particular family.
The Turner House reminds me of the legacies that are behind each of us, of the infinitely nuanced lives that precede our own, yet how so much of it remains unknown; either forgotten or erroneously retold or simply never shared, sometimes with intention. I think of my own day-to-day, stories woven together from this and that, and I wonder if any of it will live on, how quickly details can lose their precision. And perhaps that is perfectly alright. But if that doesn’t sit well with you, The Turner House offers hope, as it suggests that in a myriad of ways, for better or for worse, the past is inherited by all of us, and even the details seem to work themselves in.
I finished In the Unlikely Event the day after I attended Judy Blume’s talk at the Bay Area Book Festival, which was over a week ago. I cannot help but think that how positively I feel about a book correlates with how inspired, rather how rushed, I feel to sit down and reflect on it. In the final quarter of this book, far more bombshells go off than I ever suspected. While most of the book progresses naturally if not slowly, its final pages are inexplicably heavy with new drama. By then, I found myself a bit tired of Miri Ammerman and company.
Sitting down to Judy Blume, I felt time tick backwards a few decades. The name dropping included R.L. Stine and Francine Pascal, and when Blume referred to an old interview, she noted that it could be watched on AOL. She did discuss one of the main ideas of the book; is an event like three planes crashing into the same city within two months sheer coincidence, or something else? How do average people interpret unlikely events that do indeed happen? Even the most rational of us try to connect the dots, to create some kind of meaning. In the book, Blume appears to credit coincidence, but during the talk she said that after recently returning to the crash sites, she has begun to believe otherwise.
Before In the Unlikely Event, my most recent encounter with Judy Blume was in Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year. In her memoir, Rakoff writes of working at Harold Ober Associates, a literary agency that in its heyday represented the likes of J.D. Salinger and Judy Blume:
“As she crossed the threshold into my domain, something caught her eye and she retreated back into the corner, crouching down in front of the obscure bookcase where I’d found Judy Blume’s books. Oh no, I thought, as a frown arranged itself on the woman’s face. No. No, that can’t be her. She didn’t look at all the way I’d pictured Judy Blume. How had I pictured her? More plump and smiley? I wasn’t sure. Regardless, this had to be her” (p. 118).
We learn that Blume soon leaves the agency because its president does not believe her latest book will sell, a book for adults. We know how that story ends. In the Unlikely Event is Blume’s fourth novel for adults, though I do not plan to explore its predecessors anytime soon. Instead, I hear another Miriam Toews calling my name.