Book Reviews

Book Review: The Reactive

The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Tormented by past sin, an HIV-positive man in South Africa must choose drugs or redemption.

2014

Review By Leila Green

Leila Green

Leila Green

61 pages, Two Dollar Radio


“Telling too much about yourself can leave you feeling broken into, as if your head were a conquered city offered to the circle for pillaging”

In 2004, the South African government declared lifesaving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) free for all its HIV-infected citizens. Prior to this, many HIV-positive people subsisted in the shadows, scavenging for expensive treatments. The Reactive, Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, is set in this period. It focuses on Nathi, a delirious HIV-positive young man who struggles to reconcile with his past. Guilt overwhelms Nathi; literally and figuratively infecting his body and his choices. He narrates the story and spends most days in this early 2000s Cape Town getting high and he earns a living by selling excess ARVs on the blackmarket.

For Nathi, HIV is like a death sentence that seems more than welcomed. He drops out of school, quits his job, and becomes an avid drug user. He spends his days shuffling around the city with his equally lost friends in a daze; huffing glue and scrounging coins. Nathi doesn’t seem to care about his fate. At first, it seems his HIV diagnosis is the cause for his self-destructive ways. But harsh, conjured memories trace the origin of his ways to a single, unforgivable deed.

In The Reactive, guilt is the gravitational force that pulls everything down into ruin. In Nathi’s world of shame, he deems his body so worthless that he poisons it; ingesting and sniffing toxic chemicals. Nathi’s relentless quest to punish himself contradicts his line of “work”—selling lifesaving drugs. While others resist HIV’s probable death sentence, Nathi seems to embrace it. But even after Nathi resigns to fate, a strange series of events forces him to make a choice: be prisoner to his past or work toward forgiveness.

Ntshanga's frenetic, often unfocused story is colored by its narrator Nathi's drug-induced tendency to zoom in on strange details. Nathi lingers on certain moments or images just long enough to make them distorted. In this way, we see the world through his lens: twisted. From Nathi’s viewpoint, a standing, swaying man is like “a supporting character excerpted from a malfunctioning video game, now stranded in a different reality.” A dull sky looks like “the screen of a malfunctioning cell phone.” And an overcast sun spills out light that is “as gray as bath water." Jumps between thoughts and events aren't always logical, but Ntshanga handles the first person present narrative incredibly well. These little, woozy touches make The Reactive shimmer in refreshing light. Disturbing and visceral—yet tender and political—The Reactive achieves two impressive feats: it tells the heartbreaking story of a single man’s redemption and it draws from the palette of a fractured “rainbow nation” to paint an essential portrait of pre-ARV South Africa.

Click here to purchase The Reactive for $12

Book Review: The Secret of the Purple Lake

The Secret of the Purple Lake

Yaba Badoe

Review by Leila Green

Release Date: October 6th, 2017

An illustrated and interlinked collection of five globe-hopping stories that follow bold creatures from Ghana to Thailand.

secret of the purple lake.jpg

“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to tamper with your destiny?”

     In this enchanting collection of fables, Ghanaian filmmaker Yaba Badoe crafts a fabulous, eccentric world in which the sea is a hippopotamus and “rainbows drip honey.” The five tales are linked together; beginning in a Ghanaian fishing village and ending in ancient Thailand. Water is the force that Badoe uses to link these unlikely places together. Her characters use the ocean to traverse the planet and encounter mystical beings like fish-men, dancing octopuses, singing walruses, and mutated snakes. Badoe brings the animal kingdom to dazzling life; these stories practically dance with their assortments of colors, birdsongs, animal cries, fish, flowers, tastes, and scents. What results is a charming, whimsical collection that blurs the lines between the human, animal, and spiritual realms.

Book Review: autopsy

autopsy

Donte Collins

Review by Leila Green

Release Date: July 18th, 2017

A potent debut poetry collection from the 2016 winner of The Academy of American Poets's "Most Promising Young Poet Award" that excavates the many facets of grief, longing, and belonging.

Leila Green

Leila Green


"there are many ways to pull a weed

but only one will keep the garden

clean come the end of summer"

— "The Orphan Performs an Autopsy on the Garden"

Towards the end of Donte Collins’s debut poetry collection, autopsy, he offers a keen explanation for his approach to the project: "i mourn in metaphor." This mode of mourning anchors this powerful collection, which was written after the death of Collins’s mother. Beyond mourning, autopsy explores the very act of grief; depicting it as an undertaking of strenuous, body-breaking labor. Collins manages to spin this horrid labor into splendid metaphor, imagining and reimagining the grieving process in striking, totally inventive lines. For Collins, grief is “a paper cut at every bend in your body.” Grief is a separate, insidious entity; a thing that “shaves each bone down to a shriveled white flag.”

Collins’s picture of grief courageously includes the shame often left out of eulogies. He writes of forgiveness, (which is "a fertile thing—is what makes tomorrow grow") and interrogates absence in a candid, unflinching way. In “Five Stages of Grief,” he wonders what it means to confront tainted longing: “come back. even if it means your hug is a hand around my throat / even if your kiss is delivered with a fist." Collins’s version of an autopsy is honest; it reconciles the angelic, acceptable renderings of the dead with the sometimes harsh, yet honest memories we can’t seem to shake. This poem, in particular, invites a uniquely nuanced understanding of loss, resentment, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

Aside from astonishing meditations on death, family bonds, adoption, and whiteness, Collins, a 21-year-old queer black man, offers these gems:

     "they'll build the closet for you

     & spend the rest of their lives begging you to come out"

and

     “to be queer & black is to walk out of the closet

     into a casket.”

These lines, in particular share the similar, biting poignancy found in the work of Danez Smith and L. Lamar Wilson.

Standouts in this collection include the self-assured “New Country (after Safia Elhillo),” the wistful and stylistically epic “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Thirteen (after Patricia Smith),” the surprisingly haunting “Don’t Tell Your Uber Driver You’re Going to an Orgy,” and the goosebump-inducing “What the Dead Know By Heart,” the masterpiece that won Collins the Academy of American Poets’s “Most Promising Young Poet Award” in 2016.

Click here to purchase autopsy

Book Review: Blind Spot

Blind Spot

Teju Cole

Review by Leila Green

Release Date: June 13th, 2017

Armed with a camera, a pen, and the rare ability to see the unseen, Teju Cole points his looking glass around the world, resulting in a stunning, genre-defying blend of images, observations and revelations.  

352 pages, Random House, $40


"What is seen is greater than what the camera can capture of it."

In 2011, Teju Cole went blind. As he would soon find out, this blindness was temporary: the result of papillophlebitis, a retinal vein occlusion. After a corrective surgery, Cole, photography critic for the New York Times Magazine and author of the 2011 novel, Open City, and the 2016 essay collection, Known and Strange Things, said: “The photography changed after that. The looking changed.”

Blind Spot is, at its core, a genre-bending collection of images juxtaposed with text. The texts—illustrious captions—tend to be poetically brief and to generally unearth something unseen in the image. However, this is no hidden object puzzle; Cole is not telling us what to uncover. Leaning away from instruction, he invites us into his own, fascinating way of seeing and interrogating the world. Part travelogue, part theoretical text, part historical excavation, part memoir, part poetry, Blind Spot follows a deeply visual trio of releases concerned with sight. In Open City, the main character, Julius, roams New York City and comments gratuitously on what he sees. In Known and Strange Things, curiosity leads Cole around the globe to pen essays on the peculiar, the political, the seen, and the inevitably unseen. Blind Spot contains both the same kinds of revelations about the seemingly mundane that punctuated Open City and the boundless inquisitiveness found in Known and Strange Things. In Blind Spot, Cole, an avid traveler, criss-crosses the planet, making crisp, intricate photographs in locations both often seen and rarely noticed.

Cole’s preoccupation with the unseen drives him to a startling array of places. Some, like Brooklyn and Berlin, are well-known. Others, like McMinnville, Wannsee and Brienzersee warrant pinpointing on the book’s accompanying world map. Cities, in particular, invite a certain visual aloofness; an inability to engage intimately with images and others thanks to overstimulation. The conundrum of the city still entices Cole, who is fascinated by its endless intersections of life, space, and memory: “In the city, there is no shortage of stories, no scarcity of divulged secrets, only (it sometimes seems) a dearth of ears.” Aside from cityscapes, in Blind Spot Cole often points his flawless lens towards the periphery—the deliberately unseen—exposing ironies and meditating upon topics as varied as giraffes, longing, rage and dining.

Blind Spot redefines travel photography, which tends to be concerned with capturing touristy landmarks, “exotic” peoples, and arresting landscapes. Shunning typical, obviously poignant photos of people or landmarks, Cole instead highlights ambiguous landscapes and peculiar structures; things you see everyday, but rarely notice. Committed to his unearthing of the earth, Cole opts to illuminate global “blind spots”—concentrating on detail, singularity, form, and memory. He photographs the quotidian: the pile of rubble, the obscured tip of a mountain, the ironic sign. These images, in their presumed plainness, do more work to connect us than a photo of the Statue of Liberty. They invite an ambiguity that suggests universality. There is no Arc de Triomphe in Selma, but like every place, there is wind, stone, and history. Cole has compiled a catalogue that evidences a startling sameness, splayed across borders, that undoes expectations of what we should see and know about ourselves, others, and the world.

Cole has a keen ability to distill meaning and conjure memory from images that are, at first sight, meaningless. His way of seeing fills in our own blindness. A vacant, graffitied road in Rome prompts a reflection on the intimacy of translation. A hodgepodge of light and darkness in Milan becomes a symbol for the trauma embedded in cities. A shadow of a ladder inevitably signals a pathway to heaven. A mangled bush of flowers rekindles the memory of an awkward bike collision. A photo of a drowned ship turns into a deeply felt cataloging of things left behind by the dead. These photos evoke physical and emotional memory for Cole, who traverses complex intellectual labyrinths and emerges with impressive philosophical quips. Often, these lines are so devastating that one can only close the book and set it down for a moment; let the blind spot bloom with gratuitous knowing.

This is a pseudo-theoretical text. Most notably, it requires a more complex understanding of literal darkness. Seeing into shadows, Cole breathes light into darkness, for “darkness is not empty, it is information at rest.” There are more stunning revelations about perception—“It is not only the leaves that grow. Shadows grow also.”—and the spectrum of light: “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.”

Despite the slightly dizzying array of topics, ideas and visual information contained by Blind Spot, there is a singular vein pulsing throughout; a sense of commonality, eternity, and—accordingly—hope. Blind Spot is a reckoning with presence and absence; a sturdy bridge between known and unknown, a fierce manifesto for a revolutionary way of encountering the world.

Preoccupied with the synthesis of meaning from form, and the serendipitous resemblances between supposedly dissimilar things, Cole stands poised and alert with his lens, finely tuned to the echoes in an empty valley, gleaning insight from the shadows. Cole claims that “resurrection is far too close to death.” But this proximity, as with most of his revelations, is no accident. At one point, he compares the reflection of a tree branch into a murky puddle to his own retina. This is either an allusion to his past ocular trauma, or a comment on the disorderly origins of sight. From hectically assorted nerves and veins emerge surprising visual sense: a sky, a field, a smiling face. Out of chaos comes sight, comes understanding, comes meaning and memory. How can we trust this chaos? In what tangled vein lies truth? Vision begins and ends with us—or does it? As Cole puts it: “The soul cries wolf often, or has wolf cried it.”


Book Review: Trinidad Noir

Trinidad Noir: The Classics

Edited by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni

Classic and contemporary authors from the Trinidadian canon offer haunting stories rooted in mythology, community, and tradition.

Akashic Books

Akashic Books

Anthology

248 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96


"One of the ways in which our literature has sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” — Earl Lovelace

     Between 1942 and 1977, a whopping 52 African nations gained independence from Europe. However, unlike the African decolonization boom, Caribbean decolonization was much more temporally scattered. Haiti gained independence from France in 1804. Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902. There was a only slight surge between 1962 and 1981, when 11 Caribbean nations became independent.

     Decolonization’s jarringly negative impact permeated the African literary imagination. Renowned works by Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and even the contemporary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explore themes either stemming from or directly related to colonialism. Considering the impact that the colonial moment has had on African literature, it would only make sense for the experience of being colonized to also impact the texts that emerge from formerly colonized nations like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominica and, of course, Trinidad and Tobago.

     Aside from sparking an entirely new literary genre—the “postcolonial novel”—colonization in Africa and especially in the Caribbean forged particularly hybridized societies. Like many other Caribbean nations, Trinidad and Tobago experienced a cultural hybridity—the exchange of language and customs—and a literal hybridity; the result of relations between European colonial powers, indigenous peoples, Africans, Chinese, Syrians and a large number of Indians who primarily came as indentured servants. This creolization rooted in colonialism is still firmly planted in Trinidad’s memory. It is also still brightly reflected in its modern society; independence was only gained from Britain in 1962. Today, Indians make up the largest group of Trinidadians, with blacks and whites trailing closely behind. This assortment of colonial history, languages, cultures and customs has shaped modern Trinidadian society and—as evidenced by Trinidad Noir: The Classics—greatly informed its literature.

     Trinidad Noir: The Classics is an expansive retrospect of some of the best literature to emerge from Trinidad in the last century. With a major focus on place and Trinidad's colonial history, renowned writers like Derek Walcott, Sharon Millar and V.S. Naipaul cast a bright light upon Trinidad's complex cultures, values and vernaculars. Greatly informed by the colonial moment, its 19 stories begin in 1927 and end in 2015. It features an assortment of writers either directly from Trinidad or with deep ties to the country who offer quirky and mysterious tales of family and community. In order to emphasize colonialism’s prominence within Trinidad’s literary imagination, Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni, the editors, separate the collection into four useful chronological sections: Leaving Colonialism, Facing Independence, Looking In and Losing Control.

     Standout stories include Earl Lovelace’s “Joebell and America” (1988) a lively and affectionate take on one man’s less-than-realistic goal of moving to America. V.S. Naipaul’s “Man-Man” is an eccentric character study from 1959 that echoes Robert Antoni’s introductory claim that Trinidadian literature has “sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” In fact, many of Trinidad Noir’s stories reflect a deep societal furrow between rich and poor and between city and rural. There is a clear division between the haves and the have nots, further evoking the nation’s recovery from and canon’s ties to colonialism’s devastating racial and class-based oppression. Sharon Millar’s “The Dragonfly’s Tale” (2013) is a sweeping contemporary narrative on violence and corruption that illuminates the more hidden, less colorful aspects of Trinidad’s vibrantly exported culture. In a way, Millar’s story, as well as Shani Mootoo’s haunting “The Bonnaire Silk Cotton Tree” (2015) exist in direct opposition to the jovial ding of Trinidad’s famed steel drums, embodying the collection’s eponymous “Noir.” Other highlights include Robert Antoni’s hilariously zany and vulgar “Hindsight” (1992) and Derek Walcott’s poetic masterpiece, “The Schooner Flight” (1979).

     One of this collection’s many highlights is the use of the local vernacular, known officially as Trinidadian English or Trinidadian Creole. This natural use of language helps transport us right to the island, into people’s homes and lives.

     With the assemblage of these stories on a timeline from pre to post colonial, Lovelace and Antoni have crafted a meaningful portrait of colonialism’s impact on the nation’s literature. From beginning to end, a palpable thread of division can be traced and seems to grow more urgent and profound; the final story features a young woman obsessed with fame and social ascension. Perhaps most importantly, this collection lays a solid foundation that establishes a glimmering hope for Trinidad’s literary future. With all its stunning history, variation, syncreticity and vibrant focus on humanity, Trinidad Noir: The Classics makes it clear that Trinidadian literature must be more globally examined and elevated.

     Trinidad Noir: The Classics is part of Akashic Books' popular Noir Series. This series features anthologies set in distinct places. Previously released titles include Barcelona NoirAddis Ababa Noir and Rio Noir.


Book Review: Bestiary

Bestiary: Poems

Written by Donika Kelly

Winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and long listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, poet-scholar Donika Kelly’s debut collection binds the human and animal worlds inextricably together.

Leila Green

Leila Green

Poetry

70 pages, Graywolf Press, $16.00


“A golden light hails me, pulls me like a worm from the earth.”

     Covering Donika Kelly’s debut poetry collection, Bestiary, is the mid-13th century artwork of an unknown painter titled: Adam Naming the Animals. In this painting, a chaotic assortment of watercolored animals inhabit the same, barren space. A leaping horse collides with a fox. A monkey squats atop a snail. A flamingo looks to be waltzing on top of an owl with its claws around a shriveled rat. This hodgepodge of animals reflects the same vivid assortment of animal life clawing its way out of Bestiary’s pages. 

     In Bestiary, Kelly—a current Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure University—summons the wilderness of self. Both in her own reflection and in the rendering of other bodies and functions, she writes poems that unite the unmistakably similar human world and animal kingdom. Kelly's exquisite rendering of each realm makes them seem totally indistinguishable from one another. Her father is “a tree in bloom.” In “Bower,” she compares herself to a hen. Her first cry? “A beating of wings.” She thinks herself “lion and serpent,” demonstrating how supposedly "savage" tendencies can inhabit, question and even corrupt our own “civility.” Bestiary is basically a literary zoo. Animals from each corner of the kingdom make appearances. Kelly summons imaginary animals too, like a minotaur and a centaur. But perhaps the most powerful poem is the brave, multi-paged “How to be alone”— an off-kilter kind of requiem for her dogs, her parents and, simply put, death. 

     Kelly’s animal-centric poetry contains a rawness that can be described as feral. Yet, her terse lines and sense of restraint contradict this rawness, forging a literal tension that mirrors that of the separate, yet highly fluid human and animal realms. Despite the frantic desire to be civilized, the threat of savagery looms directly under the skin of each poem, wherein lies, “The iron smell of blood,/ the sweet marrow, fields of grass and bone.” Bestiary sits at the intersection of our civility and our primal instincts; at the strange junction of forgiveness and rage. It humbly and beautifully reminds us that we are the ones that inhabit the animal kingdom—and vice versa.


Bestiary: Poems is available from the Graywolf Press website for $16.00. Click here to order.

Book Review: Dance of the Jakaranda

Dance of the Jakaranda

Peter Kimani

Release Date: February 7th, 2017

A mysterious nightclub kiss unravels an important account of Indian railway workers and English leaders in colonial Kenya.

Akashic Books

Akashic Books

Historical Fiction

342 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96


   “How could a man leave his own land to tame another’s? Did it not make more sense, and require much less energy, to simply conform and flow with nature?”

   When Rajan—an Indian man in the midst of Kenya’s burgeoning independence—kisses an unseen stranger, his quest to find her unlocks a complex wave of family revelations, racial politics and historical events. This far-reaching novel travels back in time to follow an English preacher, a colonial administrator and a rebellious Indian railroad worker as they navigate the complex systems of power, culture and resistance in colonial Kenya. Through lyrical, seductive prose, Peter Kimani weaves an impressively intricate tapestry of events and characters that give much-needed names and faces to an important facet of Kenya’s colonial history.

   A burgeoning railroad stands at the epicenter of the drama; a metaphor for the kinds of destruction and transformation brought on by the English colonial machine. Thousands of Indians were brought to Kenya to build this railroad, and they straddled the lines between immersing in African culture, fraternizing with English administrators and maintaining loyalty to their own Indian heritage. The Jakaranda—the novel’s namesake—is also an important monument in the characters’ lives. Once a failed gift to a colonial administrator’s wife, it turns into a nightclub where people of all races can interact—a rare feat in Kenya’s then-fragmented, highly racialized society. The Jakaranda stands as a metaphor for the kinds of conflicts and cultural tensions that Kenyans faced while trying to engender a new, unified nation.

    All at once a love story, a family tale and a balanced historical account. Dance of the Jakaranda is a lovely testament to history’s profound impact on the present. Kimani’s writing is steeped in the African oral storytelling tradition. Shirking a linear or more traditional plot, the story is filled with asides and flashbacks, reminders and metaphors. Despite some unnecessary meandering and a less-than-balanced portrayal of women, Kimani crafts an authentic and immersive geographic and cultural landscape.

     This book is perfect for anyone interested in learning about Kenyan history and culture. It is similar to other colonial/post-colonial novels, like Tierno Monénembo’s The King of Kahel and Ahmadou Kourouma’s The Suns of Independence. Specifically, Kimani’s unique focus on Indians adjusting to new lives in Africa is an excellent meditation on the grueling struggles of all immigrants and settlers into new worlds. Kimani waxes poetically about Indian-Kenyan’s tremendous contributions to the nation. Perhaps this is this novel’s greatest strength—its nuanced and compassionate portrayal of Indians in Kenya. In his American debut, Kimani has achieved a very important accomplishment: introducing a wider audience to Kenya’s lesser-known Indian population and to its strikingly elaborate colonial history.