September 19, 2007

Book Club: A Long Way Gone and Graceland

According to the grandstanding of Vanity Fair, Ishmael Beah and Chris Abani are two of the African writers that “mean nothing less than a golden age of literature from the continent.”

That’s asking a lot of the authors of A Long Way Gone and Graceland, a rehabilitated child soldier and exiled saxophonist respectively, with only four published works between them. You could read their entire catalogue in the time it takes to figure out how to pronounce Chinua Achebe.

It’s clever of VF to say ‘from’ the continent instead of ‘on’ the continent: both Beah and Abani now live and work in the United States, where they’re undoubtedly more well-known than on their home continent. Unsurprisingly, it’s this familiarity with the West that makes both books so easy for us to consume.

Beah’s meandering through bucolic pre-war life in rural Sierra Leone is grounded by his love for American hip-hop artists like Eric B and Rakim and Public Enemy; they become symbols of his humanity in a world awash with African brutality. In a scene where Beah and his friends are about to be executed by villagers who presume they’re child soldiers, the boys perform their rap dancing routine to prove that, no, they’re just innocent kids. Symbolically, Beah’s rap tapes are burned by his commanders in the ceremony that anointed him as a child soldier.

Throughout the midst of his brown-brown-fueled killing spree and subsequent rehab, it’s these same kinds of moments – the boys imitating Rambo movies, having a Coca-Cola with his friends in Freetown – that give the book its Starbucks marketability.

Graceland is a similar proposition, though entirely more complicated. Abani’s tragicomic portrayal of Moroko, a swampy slum in Lagos, is anchored by the novel’s protagonist – an aspiring Elvis impersonator who sneaks out at night to watch American films. Disappointed with the diminishing returns of his career choice, he turns to the more 'African' pursuit of doing odd jobs for Nigeria’s ruthless military regime.

Alternating narratives between Elvis’ childhood in an Igbo village in the countryside and his adolescence in the sprawling capital city, Abani sprinkles recipes for traditional ethnic dishes in between chapters as the book flip-flops between the casual violence of the countryside and the political strife of the city.

The author’s turn is that as Elvis integrates into city life and experiences the West he longed for – the music, movies and Malboro cigarettes – the more he hates it and looks for meaning in his tribal upbringing. As a political exile living in Los Angeles, I wonder if Abani has gone though the same process.

Next up:
Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. There’s nothing like a little travelogue to inspire unattainable regional tourist aspirations.


Scott said...

Chin-ch-wa Ach-u-bay?

Emilie said...

I think A Long Way Gone's success is a result of a deeper kind of connectivity as well.

The Western influences on Beah's life act as a gateway to help us better understand his story. The references to rap music and Coca-Cola don't just make the book more marketable - they draw our attention to his determination to keep on living.

Beah's struggle to survive may seem far removed to us at times, but when paired with more Western elements, it becomes easier for the reader to make comparisons, and therefore relate to the characters in the book.

So I agree about the Western familiarity - but don't discount its deeper meaning.

I think another reason why Beah's memoir is so widespread is because it feels plot-heavy, and as a result I found it to be a quick, yet satisfying, read.

-Pretentious Porcine,
Book Club Member

Mike said...

Ah! I'm torn. Em embodies my English major drive to analyze symbols and stylistics, but B-rock so aptly displays my cynicism and general assumption that things that do well in North America aren't very true to life. Might have to actually read it to form a real opinion.

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