A beautiful first book by Dinaw Mengestu, about America through the eyes of an Ethiopian immigrant and his two African friends, a Zairean and a Kenyan…Their interactions and comments are so authentically African, I’m enjoying it immensely. It correlates the American experience by Africans, ties into details of their lives. The small prides, the meaningful accomplishments, the struggles. Peppered with connections back to their former lives, statements that are amusing and profound, like this one, where Sepha talks about Joseph the Zairean and his Kinshasa chess-playing days:
“Clusters, and in some cases, surrogate families of young men formed around the game. Some were illiterate and had spent years fighting from the bush; others, like Joseph, were born into affluent families who had paid for French and English tutors before losing everything to Mobutu and his corrupt, bloated government. They had a religious devotion to the game, a respect for its handful of rules and almost infinite variations born, as Joseph said, out of a shared sense of gratitude for having at least one space where their decisions mattered. “Nobody,” he said once, “understand chess like an African.”
Am not done with it, but here’s a lovely passage, about one of the sweet moments of the book, the main character, a shopkeeper named Sepha Stephanos befriends a twelve year old force of nature, named Naomi who just moved into the poor DC neighborhood with her intellectual mom, on a sabbatical from her teaching position. It’s really a detail, a funny slightly wild passage about almost nothing, but the writing is beautiful.
“When I finally rang the doorbell, Naomi answered. Her mother had tried to braid her hair into a row of plaits, but it had come out as a half-dozen uneven, lopsided braids that erupted into a tuft in the back. It gave Naomi an oddly menacing look that somehow seemed intended. She stood in the dorrway looking like a lunatic and stared at me as if I were the man responsible for all the world’s frustrated desires, a fool who accidentally gave bad directions to people on their honeymoons, contemptuous but good-natured.”
I think what I like most about it, is that because it is written by a real African, it rings true, for once, in small dignified and subtle ways. It’s all in the details. I’m so grateful for that I could tear up. I never find solace in the portrayal of Africa in the media, and especially the recent blockbuster movies, like “Constant Gardner” “Blood Diamond” or “Last King of Scotland.” Even when they are profound and incredibly well done (“Gardner”), or even superbly well acted and authentic (particularly Forest Whitaker in “Last King”) there is always that untruth, that compromise that takes it awyay from its potential, and put at the forefront a love story of whites to make it palatable for the audiences.
The subtlety of African life is always missing, and that is what this book has in great quantities. In its quiet, understated way, it is a sort of “Lives of Others” of Africans and something I’d been looking for, for a long time.