Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Good Man In Africa, Part One

Any discussion that puts Africa and money in the same sentence must eventually lead to white people. A couple days ago an African friend and I were talking about Jay Z’s recent trip to Angola. I still cannot pinpoint when it happened, but the discussion led to white people in Africa. Put an occasionally angry black man from the Diaspora in the same room as an occasionally angry black man from the continent and something is bound to explode. And exploded it did, an argument whose increasing viciousness stunned me even as I spoke. I railed on against the insult of Europeans who dismiss reparation (and I don’t mean money— England couldn’t afford it anyway), he cursed that for all their supposed humanity, DeBeers still doesn’t care about where a diamond comes from once the blood is washed off. I mentioned that I’m still waiting for DeBeers’ black board member and an African nation on UN’s Security Council. He mentioned the Belgians in the Congo and made a furious moment even more furious. I riffed on about the ludicrous comparison of Romans enslaving Britain a thousand years ago— the last time I checked, Luigi wasn’t getting any money from a Roman settlement in Sheffield, but Liverpudlians were still working in buildings built from the death and dislocation of millions of Africans. I told him how incensed I get when white and black people tell me to get over slavery even though people are still benefiting from it, 174 years later.

This led to the white man in Africa. There’s a philosophy that if you’ve lived somewhere long enough eventually it won’t matter how you got there in the first place. Funnily enough no Native American or Aborigine I know shares that universal logic. After the discussion with my African friend, which ended right before we got into the incendiary (but not very well written) Confessions of an Economic Hitman, I went home surprised and a little ashamed of myself. Maybe I should get a black hood and call myself a reverse Klansman. Then I remembered Peter Godwin’s When the Crocodile Eats The Sun and how much I did not want to buy it. Godwin is of course a fine writer and journalist, whose work I have read before. It’s a perilous task for a white man to write about Africa and writing non-fiction or even the expectedly biased memoir is still a dangerous move, fraught with causing offence at the slightest insensitivity. As a recent review in the New York Times pointed out, the age of Graham Greene may be over now that we have Zakes Mda and Moses Iwegawa, to point out his bullshit. But that’s not why I hesitated buying Peter’s book.

It’s not that I didn’t want to know him. I didn’t want to like him. We love to demonize our humans but are not too keen on humanizing our demons. Hating white people comes easy when you pull a page from their forefathers’ books. Reduce them to an archetype or caricature, Joseph Conradize them if you will and then your stereotypes can remain intact. This is not far removed from the early days of my friendship with Bill where I often dismissed him as an American®, worse a white, redneck, meathead American who simply did not get world politics. But that all changed when I got to know him or rather when he challenged me in a series of not quite civil arguments. The fact is Bill demanded and deserved to be considered a person, praised and damned on his own merits. I’m just not sure if I wanted to extend the same privilege to Peter Godwin.

I still have mixed feelings about the white man in Africa. My African friend asked me what I thought about Mugabe and even on this topic I was ambivalent. On one hand the man is clearly insane and even Bob Marley on his tour to celebrate their independence knew (long before everybody else) that something was not quite right. But on the other hand, even as Mugabe plunders white owned farms, seizes the land and drives them into disuse so that he can fatten his corrupt soldiers and civil servants and starve his own people I still find myself asking what were white people doing on the land in the first place. Where’s the deed that says they bought it? Haven’t they taken enough from Africa and aren’t they taking still? When Afrikaaners, Brits and Belgians build monsters like Mugabe, Amin, Mobutu and a couple million hutus what should they expect but the monstrous? After all these years are they white Africans or merely white people in Africa?

That depends on whom you ask. Slavery and Colonialism are incendiary topics that have not and will not lose steam because at the heart of both, whites and blacks have a profoundly different sense of time and space. White people in Africa probably consider themselves citizens of the countries of the continent; Africans of the present who should not be held to the sins of the past. Men like Godwin were born in Africa, which gives him an immediate right to call himself African, but more than that he did not commit the atrocities in the past and should not be held accountable. This is a common argument, held not only in the continent but also throughout the Diaspora. But blacks, some of us anyway see things a little differently.

The Go Between’s sensational opening sentence, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is nevertheless the kind of sentence that could have only come from a certain kind of white man. In several African and Native American languages, there are no words for past or future. Time is liberated from its linear construct. So any point made to me by my white friend about forgetting the past is lost when he does so in the large, slavery built house that he still lives in. Where some may see past, present and future, others see continuum, where something done in 1806 has as much resonance as something done in 2007. I cannot separate myself from the past because I’m still living in it. I see it all around me. Less then twenty years ago a prominent high school in uptown Kingston had an organization called Delta that only white kids could join. The country is swarming with British, American a lately Irish people some of whom move in to jobs that seem to spring up hundredfold every week. In the Irish case, they have (allegedly) been hiring themselves, promoting themselves, and giving themselves better cars than the senior Jamaican managers working in the same company. And with these new Massas have come new house niggers, professional Jamaicans with little experience that they have hired and inculcated into their office culture before they could learn any other. And then there are the not so professional house niggers, women mostly who pretend they always loved U2 as they are getting fucked, pun intended by Irish men. Jamaican frogs swimming in a tub put to boil, with no idea that they are being cooked to death.

I find the idea of Godwin’s memoir strange because I have always thought the most convenient trait of the white man in Africa and the Diaspora is his short memory. We however, cannot forget: slavery, Liverpool, the Gold Coast, how the Maroons betrayed us, Toussaint, colonialism, blood diamonds, Sharpeville, the Congo Free State, King Leopold, King Solomon’s Mines, Sam Sharpe, Tacky and Boukman, Tarzan, Heart of Darkness, Mau Mau, Kwame Nkruma, Patrice Lumumba, the Mississippi three, the Little Rock nine, the four little black girls of Birmingham, Caribbean immigrants and black Americans who fought for the allies in two world wars only to be treated worse than people that lost, Percy Julian in heaven waiting on his Nobel Prize, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis and CIA station chief Larry Devlin. All these events have all happened, are happening and will happen again. They are like dead parents and unborn children, as real to us as the living.

I thought that maybe my anger would blind me to Peter’s humanity. The Godwins may have been after all, good people trying to live, making a home where they had hung their hat. But a part of me will always see them as interlopers and if they did not risk anything to make Africans’ lives better then they were silent participants in making it worse. Why should I care about another story that tries to make the white experience in Africa compelling? What kind of sons of bitches simply take over a country and then renames it Rhodesia? The idea of asking blacks to simply forget the past is as ludicrous as buying a Native American a beer, slapping him on the back and saying ‘no hard feelings, buddy.’

But that doesn’t make him racist of course. After all, back in Jamaica many of these newly arrived whites have black friends. It’s hard not to notice these Negroes at their parties and weddings, since there are only four of them. Well, two— the other two are merely dustbins for expatriate cock, whether that be the new commissioner of police or the latest dispatch to Digicel. I gaze out my window and my window to Africa and though I’m looking at 2007 I’m seeing 1807. So you can imagine the anger I carried with me when I bought Peter Godwin’s When A Crocodile Eats the Sun.

But then I read the book.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bedside Books

I’m beginning to understand what life must be like for people involved with writers. Readers may not be so bad because a book by the bedside may simply mean a chapter or two before sleep, sex or slex. But bedside books are a warning if your lover is a writer. Not only is he cheating on you with Collette, Miguel Cervantes and a pervert like Henry Miller, but he’s taking them to bed for an ink-stained orgy. He has already found the love of his life and she’s older than sin (or younger than a preteen), smells like dust and may have a horrible case of the bookworms.

Well rest easy potential future bedmates, for it turns out I can’t commit to books either. The problem is that ever since my first novel came out I’m rarely home more than five months a year so bed is wherever I’m crashing at the moment. Right now it’s in Harlem’s historic district, right across from the Morris Jumel Mansion, where George Washington lived, in a brownstone that Louis Armstrong or/and Malcolm X used to live in. With ghosts like these sharing my space I had to raise the standard of the books nearby.

At this bedside most of the books are new because well, I buy books like some people buy meth and even on this trip, an “I’m only here to teach, not buy” trip I’ve already racked up 27 books. Nearest to my bedside (shall I describe the bed?) is Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956-1998. I have never in my life heard of Zbigniew Herbert, nor have I ever in my life bought a book of poetry. But Herbert’s book was one of the most stunning covers I’ve seen in a long time and as an occasional practicing Graphic Designer, I do buy books based on the cover. Worse than that, I redesign covers I don’t like (Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Orham Pamuk’s Istanbul come to mind). I had no intention of actually reading the thing until I came upon this:

People ran to the shelters
He said his wife had hair
In whose depths one could hide

Now I can neither go to bed nor leave it without reading Herbert first.

Below Herbert and suffering from my unfair attention span is Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Michiko Kakutani loves it and she usually hates everything, so now I’m wondering if there’s something wrong with the novel. I believe that if you spend too much time looking for bad, you forget what’s good, but that’s just me. Below that, Andrew Hussey’s Paris the Secret History, the latest in my rather recent but still quite overpowering non-fiction fetish. My big dream literary project is, funnily enough a non-fiction book about the first 500 years of Kingston. Who knows when that’s going to happen. Below that, fire breathing novelist Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. Alarcon, easily the star of the recent PEN Conference has penned a novel that would have made Roberto Bolaño very jealous or very proud.

Speaking of Bolaño, that’s him at the foot of the bed with three of his best: By Night in Chile, A Distant Star, and his masterpiece, The Savage Detectives. I think I’ve finally cured my addiction to magical realism. No surprise, Bolano was a sworn enemy of M.R. to the point of eviscerating Marquez in the press, and combating Isabel Allénde to the point where she cursed his corpse. He and his friends also had the habit of interrupting establishment poets by screaming poetry of their own. Of course he’s near my bed, hell if it weren’t for potentially unsightly paper cuts, I’d sleep with the book.

As for the rest:

Rolling Stone’s 40th Anniversary issue. Interesting set of interviews about rock and roll past, present and future. And an uncanny past and present and future it is given that not a single interviewee is black. Granted this is the same magazine that recently joined the tired and easily unproven “Rock and Roll started with Elvis” bandwagon a few years back so this oversight, while unsurprising still sucks major ass.

A stack of New Yorkers, some of which I’ve read cover to cover! I’m proud of myself.

—Robertson Davies’, Deptford Trilogy, which my friend Bill raved about so much that I bought six of his books. Turns out the bastard never even finished one.

—Junot Diaz’s The Brief Life of Oscar Wao (Galley). Some people have been waiting for this novel like the second coming of Christ. I know, I know, it helps having really good friends, so don’t hate, haters.

—Don Delillo’s Falling Man, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Helen Schulman’s A Day At The Beach, Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar To The Country, Jess Walter’s The Zero, Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows On The World, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly close. This fall I’m teaching a lit course on 9/11 And The Novel so I’m surrounded by books on or inspired by this still surreal event. I have a feeling that Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist might be the best (Kakutani calls it “stunning”). Lord knows John Updike’s Terrorist is the worst. If you have a suggestion please leave a comment.

— Andre Aciman’s Call me by Your Name and Allan Hollinghurst’s The line of Beauty. I’m now convinced that unless the guy or girl is Latino, only gay guys can write sex that’s actually sexy. I don’t care who’s getting busy, as long as I never have to read another sex scene from Updike.

—Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale (!!!) in hardcover (!!!!!!!). Don’t hate, haters.

—Robert Fagles’ translation of The Aenid, which I might never actually read, but it does look rather fetching beside my translation of The Odyssey, which I have read.

—Don Delillo’s Libra, because I’m finishing an ‘interim’ novel about Jamaican politics and need to find a better way to structure it. This may be the most cleverly plotted novel about an actual event that I have ever read.

—Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain and The Professor of Desire. I’ve been hating on Roth for no other reason than the unconditional love he gets from critics. I dismissed him as one of those American artists, like Bruce Springsteen that only Americans understood. Or rather I’ve hated him for the sole reason that he’s loved and now I’d like to think that at 36 I’m finally shedding that last remnant of artistic immaturity that young people mistake for irony. You should see how many Roth novels are in my shopping cart. Maybe it’s time to give Darkness On The Edge Of Town a good listen.

—Richard Hawkins’ The God Delusion, as funny as the hell he’s clearly on his way to.

—Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, just because.

—Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million, a book about one man’s search for his family that perished in the holocaust that wins your heart then breaks it, over and over again.

—Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica. I’ll confess it, I don’t read many women novelists and those women tend to be Gaitskill, Susannah Moore, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Jeanette Winterson, Francine Prose or dead. I like novels on a grand scale and have very little use for books with a small, intimate focus. That means neither of the Annes, Tyler or Beattie. Ever. Gaitskill is fearless in a way the writers are just simply not, not anymore.

—Jeanette Winterson’s The Weight, Alexander McCall Smith’s Dream Angus and Victor Pelevin’s The Helmet of Horror. I’m fascinated by Canongates’s Myth’s Series. I’d love to write one but Canongate thought my first novel was slow and boring so I doubt that I’m on their wish list.

—Tony Judt’s remarkable Post War and Roger Osborne’s Civilization, which chronicles the history of the west in a remarkable 500 pages. Such a good read that I overlooked that this was yet another book insisting that western civilization was all the mattered, despite the fact that for a good 2000 years ‘western civilization’ was an oxymoron.

And yet this is only about half of the books I have strewn on, beside or within the periphery of my bed. This might also explain why there’s no other human sleeping in it.