5 books, Book lists

5 books to read for Diverse December

5-books-200pixThanks to the power of social media and the efforts of two bloggers — Dan, who blogs at From Inside the Dog, and Naomi, who blogs at The Writes of Woman — this month has been designated #DiverseDecember. This encourages everyone to promote and read books by BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers in order to redress the balance, which tends to favour writers from white backgrounds (and usually from the US or UK).

Having read more about the initiative in this brilliant blog post by Naomi, I began to wonder whether I had an inherent bias against BAME writers, too. Though this blog tries to focus on Australian and Irish authors, I was surprised to see I do, actually, read writers from non-white backgrounds, too, though perhaps not as many as I should.

I thought I would highlight five of my favourites since I began book blogging in 2004. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Song-for-night ‘Song For Night’ by Chris Abani (2007)

This powerful novella is set in an unspecified African nation. The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, who is taught to detect unexploded land mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a knife. His vocal chords have been cut, “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine. Song for Night is not a pleasant read, but amid the terror and the brutality, there is a deep, underlying humanity here, about what it is like to have your childhood stolen from you, a world in which life is cheap and hate comes easily.

Yacobian-building ‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswan (2004)

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows Egyptian life in the late 20th century through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in a single apartment block. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s apartments. This allows the author to show the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

Half-blood-blues ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan (2011)

This novel about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War won the Giller Prize in 2011. It is narrated by Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s, looking back on his life half a century later. The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies, his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back. It’s a thrilling, adventure-filled read.

The-attack ‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (2007)

The Attack, set in Israel, is about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Dr Jaafie has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in fashionable circles, but now his whole life has been turned on its head. What was it about his wife that made her carry out this despicable act, and what clues did he miss? The book follows his quest to find answers to these questions…

Benang ‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

This story about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1999. It is narrated by Harvey, who comes to slowly understand his place in his family line — “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with aboriginal blood. This process has been overseen by his grandfather as part of a disturbing scientific experiment in which he has been trying to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in successive generations. His efforts mirror those of the settlements and missions in the early part of the 20th century in which Australia operated a crude system of apartheid designed to separate whites from blacks. This incredibly moving, often challenging, book left me with a giant lump in my throat…

For more inspiration, please do check out my BAME writers tag.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend others by BAME writers? Are you taking part in #DiverseDecember?

Africa, Akashic Books, Author, Book review, Chris Abani, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Song For Night’ by Chris Abani

Song-for-night

Fiction – paperback; Akashic Books; 168 pages; 2007.

Earlier this year I read a profoundly disturbing and confronting novel — Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali — about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Chris Abani’s novella, Song for Night, treads similar territory, but it is set in an unspecified West African nation at a time of war. (Given that the main character speaks Igbo, a language from south-eastern Nigeria, that is probably the likely location of the book.)

The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, a ghost who travels the countryside looking for the platoon from which he was separated. He is known as My Luck, an ironic name given he’s lead a short and rather unlucky life: his father, a Muslim cleric in a country of Roman Catholics, is murdered “before the hate began” and not long later his mother is killed in front of him.

When he is 12 he is recruited for a “special mission”, something that gives meaning to a life already in disarray:

I had been selected to be part of an elite team, a team of engineers highly trained in locating and eliminating the threat of clandestine enemy explosives. Even though I had no idea what clandestine enemy explosives were, I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be after three weeks of training and all the time marching for hours in the hot sun doing drills with a carved wooden gun while waiting for the real thing — either from the French who had promised weapons or from the front, where they had been liberated from the recently dead.

Under the wing of Major Essien, nicknamed John Wayne, My Luck is taught to detect unexploded mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a jungle knife, a dangerous occupation, made all the more cruel by having his vocal chords cut — “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine.

This is a horrific, hate-filled world that Abani presents here — and some of the scenes depicted are sickening in the extreme. But there’s a strange beauty at work — the prose is often poetic and dreamlike — as My Luck traverses the landscape, alone and unaided, and often under the cover of night, as he searches for the people who accidentally left him behind.

During this adrenalin trip across rebel territory littered with bloated corpses and mass graves, where one false move could end in death, My Luck recalls events which have lead him to this point in time. It is three years into a brutal civil war, so there is much to tell. There’s the looting, the rapes, the love affair with a platoon member — and the constant, overbearing tiredness of survival. You want to egg him on, to continue his quest, but then you wonder if there would be any point? Surely, My Luck is trapped in an endless cycle of death and destruction?

Song for Night is not a pleasant read, and if you’re troubled by scenes of violence and bloodshed it’s probably not for you. But this is an important book, one that feels “truthful” about a world few of us know anything about and, thankfully, have no experience in. Amid the terror and the brutality, there is a deep, underlying humanity here, about what it is like to have your childhood stolen from you, a world in which life is cheap and hate comes easily.