Title:Too Asian, not Asian enough,
Ed. by Kavita Bhanot,
Publisher: Tindal Street Press
This anthology, designed to repel the artistic confinement synonymous with the term ‘British Asian,’ succeeds in presenting stories which are first and foremost about individual expression. Encased by the poignancy of NSR Khan’s Familiar Skin and Rohan Kar’s Sepulchre, the collection transforms ‘British Asian’ from a stultifying expectation to a broad sensibility, imbuing the writers’ narratives as heavily or indeed as lightly as they see fit.
Suhayl Saadi’s Mosaic is an aesthetic response to Bhanot’s introductory gauntlet – to create a space ‘to sidestep the suffocation of the British Asian label’ – and his talent is to write of a different era and culture whilst eliciting the elements which prompted the departure. As a British Asian myself, I noticed the similarities between the two cultures: husband and wife are betrothed under favourable auguries and her bathing ‘in amber light’ before the ceremony parallels the Asian bridal custom of cleansing the skin with turmeric before marriage. Stylistically it is the most distinct story, (and a contrast to the vicious satire of Gautam Malkani’s Asian of the Month), but that is not to detract from the achievement of Madhvi Ramani’s Windows, a hilarious take on the later years of one’s life.
It tells of Mrs Sharma, who after ‘Years of lifting babies, rolling chapattis and scrubbing surfaces’ finally finds her vocation as the local snoop. Whereas many of the stories deal with youthful attempts at self-definition, including Nikesh Shukla’s Iron Nose and Harpreet Singh Soorae’s Bubbly Kaur, Ramani finds that same energy at the polar end of the spectrum, in the parent that conventionally – (in the context of ‘British Asian’ writing the anthology is reacting against) – provides the counterbalance to the supposed excesses of the new generation.
Posterity is shown to be unreliable – ‘If she hadn’t made plans for herself, they would have eventually chucked her into a nursing home’. Mrs Sharma’s experiences as an emigrant and immigrant, moving ‘from Porbandar to Mombasa then by coach to Kisumu’ before coming to England, allow her to entertain the thought of breaking with traditional expectations. She knows that ‘sometimes, we all get trapped in lives we don’t really choose,’ a phrase encapsulating the anthology’s purpose. Framed by the politics of Bhanot’s introduction, the writers of Too Asian are exercising their agency of choice without bounds, creating narratives which may or may not speak ‘British Asian’ to the reader, but are distinct to them as artists.
That said, I found some tales to lack an overall coherence as short stories, often seeming to be the seeds for longer works, yet they all draw on a wealth of ‘British Asian’ experiences, because if there is one thing ‘British Asian’ can be defined as, it is surely everything. To be a ‘British Asian’ is to acknowledge one’s role as part of the worldwide Asian diaspora, and the many assimilations people like Mrs Sharma have made through emigrating from their native countries are part of the anthologised writers’ efforts to ‘challenge the label; broaden it; change it, make it new’.
Reviewer: Nikheel Gorolay
Title: AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers
Author: Ivor W. Hartmann (ed.)
Extent: 400 pages
Africa is not a continent that is traditionally part of the sci-fi canon: Tokyo and New York are much more recognisable ‘futuristic’ locations than Accra or Kampala. The Zimbabwean author Ivor W. Hartmann has compiled this anthology of short stories to try and prove to other Africans – and to the world – that African sci-fi is a strong emergent sub-genre. The anthology consists of 21 short stories and one novelette, providing a wide range of styles and ideas. Science fiction is a notoriously difficult genre to define and Hartmann is rightly generous in the breadth of content: the worlds evoked by the different storytellers focus on time travel, space exploration, dystopias and much more; each one is given its own separate universe to make its own.
As with most short story compilations on such a large scale, the quality varies, and it highlights the difficulty of drawing a reader into an original world in the very short space of time that the short story offers. AfroSF is at its best when it achieves this, like in the opening story, Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Moom!’, an aquatic, transmorphic world that submerges the reader in its originality. There is not much unnecessary detail or backstory and the story gains immediacy from the lack of it. The stories that stood out were usually not the ones most immersed in detail, but those that leave ambiguities, not entirely sure about the origins of the new technology or phenomena that they report. ‘Closing Time’ by Liam Kruger is a perfect example: it is the first person narrative of a chronic alcoholic who believes that drunkenness allows his soul to travel through time and space into the body of an older man. Statements like ‘I was about twenty-three when I noticed time was going backwards’ add a welcome surreal element; they turn a genre with a jaded reputation unexpectedly on its head.
The dystopian stories are also some of the best in the book, and they also give the writing a sharpened satirical edge. Sarah Lotz uses futuristic androids providing government services to explore the dark consequences of a bloated, faceless bureaucracy in ‘Home Affairs’. It explores the theme of corruption, both in public service bribery and corrupted language, showing that good science fiction does not have to be entirely detached from the present. Efe Ogoku’s novella ‘Proposition 23’ also creates a terrifying dystopia based on twenty-first century consumer culture, digital reliance and fear of terrorism.
For an anthology that is supposedly pan-African in its origins, it is odd that so much of the content originates from South Africa – around half of the stories. Aside from a few Nigerian writers, there is very little representation for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Hartmann is evidently drawing on a strong South African tradition, but it is perhaps better to consider this as a prelude to a true representation of African sci-fi. The book also has its weak points in terms of content: Mandisi Nkomo’s ‘Heresy’ strays into B-movie territory with its plot about the discovery of the edge of the universe and the ‘spiritual realm’ that lies beyond. ‘Angel Song’ by Dave de Burgh, despite combining the imagery of Christianity and hi-tech warfare in the second half of the story, also exemplifies a common over-reliance on sci-fi tropes and stereotypes in the battle scenes of the first half. But on the whole, there is more than enough innovation and nuance in AfroSF to make up for this. It is an anthology for those who wish to discover some excellent African writers who have chosen to innovate within a genre that is too often thought of as exclusively European and American.
Reviewer: Nick Edgeworth
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press
Lakshmi Persaud’s latest novel Daughters of Empire is a sprawling, big-hearted attempt to chart a Trinidadian Hindu family’s experiences across a thirty year period. The story begins by focusing on two sisters, Ishani and Amira. Ishani, the more confident of the two, remains in Trinidad, but Amira bravely crosses the Atlantic to join her husband Santosh in the unknown climate of London suburbia, where her neighbours are unsure whether or not they are ready to welcome such an outsider in their midst. The second half of the book moves its focus to the lives of the couple’s three daughters and their forays into adulthood. Anjali must find the strength to regain her peace of mind and ambition after a traumatic experience as a student; Satisha struggles to reconcile the moral outlook she has inherited with the reckless attitude of her City firm during the dotcom boom; and Vidya, the youngest and most free-willed, tries to break away from her family’s traditional views on what she should look for in a prospective husband.
The dual-setting of London and Trinidad is a reminder that this is not just a narrative of immigration; it is an undeniably positive study of family, permanent roots and the values of mutual dependence. There is little effort made to give any sort of universal perspective on either setting – there are very few black Trinidadian or working-class English characters – but this is not really the purpose of the story. Persaud sees the family, not the nation, as the exclusive centre of identity and belonging, and the slightly insular structure highlights the importance of the ties that keep the family together.
Persaud’s narrative style relies strongly on dialogue and free indirect speech, but when she does halt the exchanges for a moment to describe a scene, she does so in lists of sensual experiences that communicate the smells and sounds of a setting as much as its sights: for example, a cocktail party on Trinidad is “a gathering of flowing silk, polyester dresses, colourful and at times daring ties, light suits, colognes and perfumes; the aroma of rum, gin, wines and fruit juices wreathed the laughter and chatter.” (p. 119) These lists show us how Amira makes a place for herself in cold, uncertain London by conjuring the sight, smell and tastes of Indian cooking.
Her omniscient fast-paced changes of perspective during dialogue is always a dangerous tactic for authors, but the character depth is sufficient that it more often than not adds to our understanding of the story’s pivotal relationships (although one particular section, in which the thoughts of a group of squirrels who witness two characters kiss are reported veered a bit too far into cliché). The scattering of short first-person narratives from Amira and her daughters throughout the book also allows us to appreciate and reflect on the story from a more stable individual perspective. Persaud resists the urge to show everything, so by the end of the novel we are left with the feeling of having witnessed a series of snapshots of experience; the gaps in time can only be filled by speculation.
At times the reliance on marriage as a plot device can seem a bit repetitive: it dictates Amira’s arrival in Britain and the futures of the three daughters. Persaud portrays plenty of women who remain single, but apart from Ishani they are supportive, but largely peripheral and comic characters. It would have been more interesting, perhaps, to have at least one of the main characters whose story is structured (and concluded) with something more imaginative. Despite this one misgiving, it is almost impossible not to be won over by Daughters of Empire’s celebrations of familial love and reconciliation of past and present.
By Lola Shoneyin
Profile Books, London (2010)
ISBN: 978 1846687488
Reviewer: Tolita Alexander
If there is one thing you cannot accuse Lola Shoneyin of, author of proto-feminist novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, it is a lack of courage. The subject of polygamy in fiction in Nigeria is not new but Shoneyin approaches it with a sense of novelty. She examines the practice from the perspective of each of the wives involved, the point of view of the male characters little more than footnotes, albeit helpful ones.
The tale begins with Baba Segi – or father of Segi – taking on a fourth wife, the university-educated Bolanle, much to the resentment of his first and third wives, Iya Segi and Iya Femi. Second wife Iya Tope is a gentle soul with her head in the clouds and a heart of compassion for Bolanle. She steers clear when the other wives plot to rid the household of the newest arrival. Meanwhile Bolanle not only has to contend with the animosity from the other spouses but also concerns over her fertility as she and her shared-husband fail to conceive after nearly three years of marriage. When Bolanle and Baba Segi eschew his preferred mystical solutions to seek medical help, they unwittingly break open a Pandora’s Box of secrets and lies.
The Secret Lives… is a compulsive read, sympathetically written by Shoneyin. The narrative alternates between first and third person, giving the book a more holistic feel. This use of multiple viewpoints encourages the reader to reserve judgment and lends weight to the old maxim that there are two sides to every story. For instance it is at first baffling that an attractive, enlightened individual such as Bolanle could end up in a polygamous marriage. Nevertheless, as she recounts the events that put her on that path, her motives soon become understandable and clear.
Shoneyin’s writing is economical and direct; there’s little in the way of self-indulgent digressions with the exception of the ‘racy’ aspects of the book. Many of the sexual passages were laboured, veering towards sensationalism. However the author makes up for it with her painfully realistic depictions of beautifully complicated humanity. Even the most malicious characters have deep-seated reasons for behaving as they do. And as much as the reader’s sympathies go out to Bolanle, she’s not beyond human frailty herself. At the start of her marriage to Baba Segi for example, her youthful arrogance and naivety do her no favours as she sets about trying to show her husband and the members of his household the error of their unrefined ways.
This is above all a story of the choices women make to survive in a man’s world; a world where they are validated solely by childbearing and keeping their disloyal husband happy. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Bolanle who is yet to have children, the other wives are very rarely referred to by their own names and are simply addressed as ‘Iya’ –which means wife or mother in Yoruba – followed by the name of their firstborn, highlighting their otherwise faceless existence. Shoneyin also takes to task the common perception that the woman is always to ‘blame’ for a couple’s infertility. It is an assumption that begs to be challenged and it’s refreshing to actually see it being done.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a riotous but ultimately moving debut that breathes life into a scenario that is sadly familiar to some. There is little doubt that it will be one of 2010’s most important and discussed novels.