Daoud Hari is a Zaghawa tribesman from the region known as Darfur in west Sudan. In 2003 his peaceful village life is shattered when government helico...moreDaoud Hari is a Zaghawa tribesman from the region known as Darfur in west Sudan. In 2003 his peaceful village life is shattered when government helicopters arrive, gunning down the villagers where they stand, followed by government-backed Arab militia on horses who murder, rape and burn their homes. The desired effect is achieved: the tribespeople are driven from their lands. Some make the long trek into neighbouring Chad, also Darfur territory, while others relocate, becoming "internally displaced people". Daoud finds himself working as a translator for foreign journalists, helping them get into Darfur and document these destroyed village, the murdered tribespeople.
His story is a harrowing, violent and increasingly dangerous one. Even before the Muslim government of Sudan, led by Ahmad al-Bashir, decided to actively remove the settled Africans from the land, Daoud's life had been adventurous and more than a bit scary. He had moved to a large town to continue his education, then decided he wanted to see the world rather than go home and submit to an arranged marriage. He traveled through Chad to Libya to work, then went to Egypt for more work. When he heard of high-paying menial jobs in Israel, he tried to enter the country illegally but was arrested as soon as he got through the fence, and was extradited back to Egypt where he spent a long time in an over-crowded prison that would make our jails look like holiday resorts. With help, he was finally released into Chad - if he had been sent back to Sudan, the government would have executed him immediately (mostly for embarrassing them).
With fake Chad identification papers and a new name - Suleyman - Daoud used his linguistic skills and his many contacts with the various rebel groups in the region to ferry journalists safely through Darfur. Only "safety" is an illusion and there's no protection for anyone, and he very nearly loses his life many times.
Having already read a few books about South Sudan and the civil war, it was good to read a book about Darfur alongside them - interesting to see what they have in common, and how they differ. I came to these books knowing very little about Sudan, and having read four in a month, feel I've learnt a great deal. Like the south of Sudan, Darfur is a large territory (the size of France) inhabited by many different tribes:
Dar means land. The Fur are tribespeople farther south who are mostly farmers. One of the Fur leaders was king of the whole region in the 1500s. The region took its name from that time. [p.x]
Daoud's story is told like an oral story, but arranged non-chronologically to create a more interesting narrative flow. We gradually get the pieces we need to flesh out a nightmarish vision, told in Daoud's almost laconic voice, with a tone that displays unflagging optimism and humour while at the same time a sad acceptance. Life in Darfur - in all of Sudan, and Africa - is so vastly different from the western world. It would be easy to think that they hold life to be cheap, and certainly some of them do. I cannot even begin to put myself in their shoes to empathise with that kind of attitude - it's wholly alien and I don't understand enough. But reading Daoud's account, it's clear that they don't hold life to be cheap. It's just that there's nothing you can do, no laws or army to protect you. The African tribespeople of Sudan have only themselves and their long centuries of culture which has changed very little.
And the west has so very little real sympathy for people like this. I see it in how our own governments treat the Aborigines, for instance: we have a kind of disguised disdain for these people and their culture. We don't understand it and we don't value it, collectively and individually. We wish they'd just "get with the program" and join our consumeristic, salaried, car-driving, suit-wearing, depressed society. We look down on them because they're practically prehistoric, especially these African tribes. We can't see value or worth in them, only the resources they're sitting on, squandering. It's fucking tragic is what it is. As if we had the answers. Deep down, many people in the west have a secret voice that just wishes people like the Aborigines and Africans would just give up on their traditional way of life and assimilate. I don't just suspect this, I've heard it from those who actually say it.
This is a highly readable book and Daoud's voice leads us through the minefields with our hearts in our mouths. There's one particular story, not one that he witnessed but one that the father, almost mad with shock and grief, relates to him that had me sobbing. The story seems extreme at times, like it can't possibly be real, these things couldn't possibly have happened to him, it's way too over-the-top. But once you enter the world of Sudan, it all becomes possible, and probable. I had no trouble believing in his story.
Daoud is clearly a thoughtful, reflective and highly intelligent man, who touches on the political issues in succinct, hard-hitting lines, as well as other themes like what it means to be a man, and the shares the traditional way of life. Not all of it is perfect, he isn't deluded, but he recognises that all this trouble - like with the south of Sudan - arose partly out of colonialism and the mistakes of the British etc. They are also suffering from extreme Islamic fundamentalism, through Bashir, the dictator of Sudan, who invited Bin Laden to stay (Bin Laden's first bombings were within Africa, which I hadn't even heard about - no surprise there).
The story carries a wealth of hope along with insight, and the appendices at the back are useful too in understanding more of the issues in Sudan. He also includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is telling. I'll end with a number of quotes that really struck me.
As for the future, the only way that the world can say no to genocide is to make sure that the people of Darfur are returned to their homes and given protection. If the world allows the people of Darfur to be removed forever from their land and their way of life, then genocide will happen elsewhere because it will be seen as something that works. It must not be allowed to work. The people of Darfur need to go home now. [p.x]
You have to be stronger than your fears if you want to get anything done in this life. [p.11]
"Shooting people doesn't make you a man, Daoud," [Ahmed] said. "Doing the right thing for who you are makes you a man." [p.17]
It says everything about this land to know that even the mountains are not to be trusted, and that the crunching sound under your camel's hooves is usually human bones hidden and revealed as the wind pleases. [p.20]
In Africa, our families are everything. We do all we can to help them, without question. [p.23]
Many men were joining resistance groups; you would see very young teenage boys jumping into the backs of trucks with a family weapon and that was it for them. No one in the boys' families would try to stop them. It was as if everybody had accepted that we were all going to die, and it was for each to decide how they wanted to go. It was like that. The end of the world was upon us. [p.46]
We came upon a lone tree not far from the Chad border where a woman and two of her three children were dead. The third child died in our arms. The skin of these little children was like delicate brown paper, so wrinkled. You have see pictures of children who are dying of hunger and thirst, their little bones showing and their heads so big against their withered bodies. You will think this takes a long time to happen to a child, but it takes only a few days. It breaks your heart to see, just as it breaks a mother's heart to see. This woman hanged herself from her shawl, tied in the tree. We gently took her down and buried her beside her children. This moment stays with me every day. [p.65]
...the world's charity seemed almost invisible here [at the refugee camp]. Perhaps the wealthy nations had finally blown themselves away and were no longer available to send their usual token remedies for the problems that their thirst for resources has always brought to such people as these. [pp.73-4]
At the edge of one village, in a thickly forested place, the village defenders had made their last stand by wedging themselves high in the trees with their rifles. They were all shot and killed. It had been three days or more since the men in the trees had died, and on this steamy spring afternoon, their bodies were coming to earth. We walked through a strange world of occasionally falling human limbs and heads. a leg fell near me. A head thumped to the ground farther away. Horrible smells filled the grove like poision gas that even hurts the eyes. And yet this was but the welcome to what we would eventually see: eighty-one men and boys fallen across one another, hacked and stabbed to death in that same attack.
Reporters are so very human, wonderfully so, and they weep sometimes as they walk through hard areas. There is no hiding their crying after a time. They sometimes kneel and put their heads in their hands near the ground. They pray aloud and will often find A handful of soil to lay on the body of a child, or they may find some cloth to cover the dead faces of a young family - faces frozen in terror with their eyes and mouths still open too wide. They will help bury bodies; we buried many on the British TV journey. But these eighty-one boys and men were too much for everyone. [p.112]
Ali speaking to the Zaghawa boy soldiers in the rebel-army-turned-government-force:
"Did you know that Darfur was a great country long ago, so great that it was both in Sudan and also in Chad? Did you know that the French, who later controlled Chad, and the British, who later controlled Sudan, drew a line, putting half of Darfur in each new nation? Did you know that? What do you care about this line if you are Darfur men? What business is it of yours if the British and the French draw lines on maps? What does it have to do with the fact that we are brothers?" [p.138]
With the mandate of the United Nations, the African Union troops were in Darfur - some barely a mile away - to monitor the peace agreement between the Sudan government and one of the rebel groups. If the government and this rebel group want to attack villages together, or the government and the Janjaweed want to attack a village, or just the Janjaweed or just the government, then that is not the A.U.'s business, though they might make a report about it. They have not been given the resources to do much more than give President Bashir the ability to say that peacekeeping troops are already in Darfur, so other nations can please stay away. Also, African troops have seen so much blood and so many killed that their sense of outrage has perhaps been damaged for this kind of situation. U.N. troops from safer parts of the world, where people still feel outrage, might be better. [pp.146-7]
The genocide in Darfur began in 2003. It is now been going on for 10 years, and still the world refuses to get involved. It is true what they say: we learned nothing from Rwanda. This is an important book and it is the saddest truth imaginable that it is still timely and relevant. For more information, start with the United Human Rights Council website and go from there.(less)
"Dear Sugar" is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and re...more"Dear Sugar" is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and responses from that column, as well as some new ones that hadn't been published before, all culled from a collection of thousands and thousands of letters and organised in five groups. You can read all the original letters and Sugar's replies on the site, though there have been no new Dear Sugar letters-and-replies since May 2012. I would imagine the wonderful woman behind the persona of Sugar, Cheryl Strayed, is much too busy for the unpaid job anymore - and with good reason.
I had never read The Rumpus or the Dear Sugar column before; hadn't, in fact, heard of it before learning of this book - no surprise there, I just don't have the time to read things online or even explore it that much (and what a shame that is!). I learned of Tiny Beautiful Things through the equally wonderful site, Brain Pickings, on a post featuring The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites, which included a quote from Steve Almond's incredibly quotable introduction to the book (he was the first "Sugar", before passing the baton on to Strayed) - and because it's what made me instantly order a copy, I want to include the same quote here:
The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.
But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it. [pp.4-5]
I have always found the questions asking for advice in magazines interesting to read, though the answers are always too short and too "professional" to be all that entertaining or educational: what I always wanted from such columns was to learn a little about someone else's life, to gain some perspective by seeing things from another perspective, and to, hopefully, pick up some useful advice that would either lend itself to my own life, or help me understand someone else's. I don't read self-help books - in fact, I detest them. The difference here is how deeply personal and private these letters - and Sugar's responses - are. There are no generalities. And the way Sugar writes her responses is so very, very different - and so much more hard-hitting - than the usual agony aunt replies, that you can't help but be effected when you read them.
Cheryl Strayed is a wonderful, unique writer. You can't help but read this book with tears in your eyes and a clenching in your gut. You can't read it in a detached way, or even in a "oh my life is so much better than this person's, thank God" way of feeling better about yourself. You are granted insight into fragile, vulnerable states of mind, including Sugar's. And she has a way of replying that makes everything relatable, regardless of the fact that you have never experienced the problem the letter-writer has.
What I admire most about the say Sugar gives advice, is how she forces the letter-writers to look for the answers within themselves. She presents the facts as she knows and understands them, and paints a picture, and walks the writer through it, and gets them to focus on the right questions, or to see where their thinking is clouded. The stories - they are letters, but they are stories too, because Sugar often tells stories from her own life, relates things to her own experiences, thus giving them weight and empathy - that I most connected with were the ones in response to a woman struggling to write and suffering from depression, and a woman who wanted to have a baby on her own, after her boyfriend went back to his ex-wife and her own biological clock is in its last ticks.
...you'll have a baby. An amazing little being who will blow your mind and expand your heart and make you think things you never thought and remember things you believed you forgot and heal things you imagined would never heal and forgive people you've begrudged for too long and understand things you didn't understand before you fell madly in love with a tiny tyrant who doesn't give a damn whether you need to pee. You will sing again if you stopped singing. You will dance again if you stopped dancing. You will crawl around on the floor and play chase and tickle and peek-a-boo. You'll make towers of teetering blocks and snakes and rabbits with clay.
It's an altogether cool thing.
And it will be lonely, too, doing all that without a partner. How lonely, I can't say. You will hold your baby and cry sometimes in frustration, in rage, in despair, in exhaustion and inexplicable sorrow. You will watch your baby with joy and laugh at the wonder so pure and the beauty so unconcealed that it will make you ache. These are the times when it's really nice to have a partner, M. What will you do? How will you fill the place where the man you've been holding out for would have been?
That is your hard question for me - the one I didn't ask myself when I decided to get pregnant and become a mother, though of course it was naïve for me to think I didn't have to. Not a single one of us knows what the future holds. The unexpected happens even when we've got everything mapped out. [...]
It works in reverse too. What you fear might not come to pass. You might decide to have your baby and find true love in the midst of that. You might search your soul and realize that you don't want a baby after all, not if it means going it without a man.
What's important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart. Pay no mind to the vision the [High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction] made up. It's up to you to make your life. Take what you have and stack it up like a tower of teetering blocks. Build your dream around that. [pp.122-123]
In response to the woman struggling to write while feeling envy towards friends who had secured a book deal, Sugar shares her experiences writing her first novel, Torch. She describes that book as a second heart, beating strongly in her chest but never materialising until, with her thirtieth birthday approaching, she realised that it wouldn't come at all unless she sat down and thought of "only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I meant work."
At the time, I believed that I'd wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn't have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with "intelligence and heart and lengthiness." But I'd finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn't have written my book before I did. I simply wasn't capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O'Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge's first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweat pea? [sic] To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That's where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn't get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn't know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn't care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I'd pulled one out with my bare hands. I'd suffered. I'd given it everything I had.
I'd finally been able to give it because I'd let go of all the grandiose ideas I'd once had about myself and my writing - so talented! so young! I'd stopped being grandiose. I'd lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I'd-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do. [pp.56-7]
I feel emotional, and very, very human, just reading these snippets again, here and now. There's something incredibly humbling - I choose that word deliberately - about the way Sugar writes and provides perspective. She avoids bullshit, she demolishes the neuroses and visions in people's heads, and reduces things to the key point.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough. Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm - all three of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it's particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn't exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn't mean you pack your bags the moment there's strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that. [pp.171-2]
There's so much quote-worthy material in this collection of letters around the themes of love and life. Strayed doesn't have the technical qualifications of other agony aunts, but what she has is life experience, and the ability to strip away the padding to reach the core of the matter, and then to discuss it in a way that is both a personal message of understanding and philosophical inquiry, as well as an ad hoc memoir. One of the stories from her life that hit me particularly hard is the time she worked with high school girls who were considered the most likely to drop out early - and later end up in jail. Over time they came to trust her, and would sit in an ugly chair in her office and tell her the horrifying stories of their home lives. She would report cases of abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities, but nothing was ever done. Finally, she asked them what they do with her reports, and was told that they record them, file them, and that's it. There's no funding for helping teenagers, Strayed is told over the phone. Better if they run away from home, there's money for helping them then. Have you ever heard anything more tragic and senseless and awful?
Whether Sugar is replying to someone whose grown-up sons (and girlfriends) have moved in and taken over her life without even asking, or someone who can't decide whether she should marry her fiance, or someone who overheard his best friends discussing him behind his back, or someone who is physically ugly and doesn't know if they should even try to find someone to love who will love them back - through all of Sugar's responses come heartwarming, frank, open, honest, open-minded, sincere, encouraging messages that carry their own recurring theme: take a leap, jump high and with intent, put all you've got into it, make space for yourself to breathe, and "when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don't look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don't hold it up and say it's longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn't say for the rest of your life. Say thank you." [pp.352-3](less)
When the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven year...moreWhen the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven years old who still spends most of his time with his mother, or playing on the floor of his father's general store. He did sometimes go out with the others boys, including his friends William K and Moses, to watch the cattle, but he is with his mother the day the government helicopters come, killing indiscriminately, which was only the beginning. When the villagers didn't leave, the government-backed murahaleen - Arabs on horses - come sweeping in to finish the job. It is the last time Achak sees his mother, and he has no idea what fate has befallen any of his siblings or stepmothers. He can only flee, running as far as he can.
He finally comes upon a large group of boys like him being led by his old teacher, a young man called Dut Majok, who has a tendency to lead them in circles but never stops looking out for the boys and sees them, after months of walking and encounters with lions, crocodiles and hostile villagers, to Ethiopia and the refugee camp called Pinyudo on the Gilo River. When a change in government comes to Ethiopia - otherwise known as a military coup - the refugees are violently driven out, many killed by soldiers and many others lost the river they are forced to cross, or the crocodiles that live there. It takes a year for the survivors - including thousands of "Lost Boys" like Achak, to reach Kenya, where a new refugee camp is constructed at Kakuma, which basically means nowhere - a hot, dry, dusty desert land that no one wants, no one except the local tribespeople that is.
There Achak spends many years until, finally, towards the end of 2001 his name if finally called to be one of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls being relocated to the United States. A new beginning and many hopes and dreams that he has barely dared to entertain before suddenly seem possible. After all this time of dodging bullets and starvation, Achak is sitting on the plane in Nairobi, along with a group of other young men like him, when the news comes through: no planes will be leaving. New York has been attacked, the Twin Towers are burning, get off the plane. If you can think of anything that could go wrong for Deng, it happened. But he does finally make it to the city of Atlanta where he meets his sponsors and starts working on his goal of getting a degree - which turns out to be much harder and more complicated (and costly) than he ever thought possible.
This is the first book by Eggers that I have read, even though I have three others already (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun and A Hologram for the King), so I was able to read this purely as Deng's story, in Deng's voice. Deng is a strong, vivid character, and his personal story comes truly alive in the creative hands of Eggers. Not being able to tell where Eggers' voice and writing style intrudes on what is, essentially, someone else's story, it read smoothly and convincingly. Full of details, historical context, explanations skilfully woven in, as well as philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings, and an intense emotional engagement and humour. This is a man - one of many - who was shat on by life and circumstance, who questioned his belief in his god many times, but who persevered and struggled on. For the Sudanese, his is just one story of thousands like it, indistinguishable most of the time, and certainly nothing special, but for us, it is a hero's story, and a bold, honest, brutal one at that.
It begins in the present day and is told in present tense, and introduces us to Valentino Achak Deng as he answers his door to a couple of black Americans who proceed to rob him at gunpoint. It is no coincidence that Eggers chose to start here and have Achak tell his story over the course of 24 hours as flashbacks to the past: contrasting the violence he experiences in America to that of Sudan is very telling. As the African part of the story unfolds, it casts a harsher and brighter light on the working poor and the criminally-minded of America, a critical eye and a disgusted shake of the head.
A recurring theme in the story of his past is one of inflated hope and disappointed expectations. The Lost Boys come from primitive villages and they know nothing about the world outside of Dinka land. They can't even conceptualise what Ethiopia is, the idea of another country, but they build up grand expectations in their heads, which are based on nothing more than wishful thinking in the face of extreme privation. Moving to America, the refugees are possessed of even more fanciful imaginings, the kind that are limited to your scope of experience but also take them to the heights: servants, bowls of oranges, palaces and so forth. It's not their fault they had no real ability to grasp what it would be like, or their lack of perspective. They learned quickly, but not all of them were successful in their new home.
By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand [that emigrated to America] are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters. [pp.475-6]
I rather think he's a bit hard on himself, or society is. Take a group of people from a primitive place with little to no creature comforts, who have endured things for years that we can barely fathom, and leave them more-or-less to their own devices in a strange new world full of new temptations - and let's face it, the United States is proud of the "freedoms" it offers - and you'll get instances of abuse in many forms. You can't fast-forward industrialisation, progress and change in all facets of life like that without some repercussions. That's a lot to take in. Even us westerners who grew up with the advanced technology and conveniences that we're used to, aren't dealing with it very well.
Deng's story is a long one, and it's by no means a quick read. Highly involved, reflective and introspective, it more-or-less flows chronologically but not always, and dates are fluid - not surprisingly, since they didn't keep calendars and don't use our system of months and days (they would know what season they were born in, and can count backwards to know how old they are, more or less, but couldn't tell you their date-of-birth by our calendars). His story fleshes out the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War more than any other book I've read, and makes a long-lasting impression on you intellectually and emotionally.
One of the philosophical musings is captured in the title, What is the What, which comes from a Dinka legend about God and the first man and woman. God offers the Dinka people a choice: they can have cattle, or the What. They choose the cattle, and consider them the blessed, favoured people, for their cattle are everything: milk, food, wealth, land. Meanwhile, God gives the What to their Arab neighbours. Whenever Achak had heard this story in the past, the What is simply why the Arabs are inferior. "The Dinka were given the cattle first, and the Arabs had tried to steal them. God had given the Dinka superior land, fertile and rich, and had given them cattle, and though it was unfair, that was how God had intended it and there was no changing it." [p.63] But when his father tells it to some visiting Arab merchants months before the war arrives, he leaves is open-ended, and leaves his young son thinking. Achak finds himself asking people on his long journey, what is the What? What did God give the Arabs that he didn't give the Dinka? The answer is never given but it is implied. The sense that I got is difficult to articulate but it goes something like this: the Dinka got a harmonious, largely peaceful way of life, left intact for millennia, with no ambition or curiosity about the world. The Arabs got the ambition and curiosity, a drive to better themselves and an unending sense of dissatisfaction. The What was the apple of knowledge in Genesis' garden of Eden.
I would love to hear the story of how Achak Deng met Dave Eggers, how the plan for the book - the proceeds of which go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which builds schools in South Sudan - came about. When we leave Achak in Atlanta after his harrowing 24-hour ordeal, he has made some important decisions and revised his aims and also seems to be possessed of a new kind of conviction, but it sheds no light on what happened next. Clearly, or so it seems to me, it wasn't Deng's determination to get a degree that made things happen for him so much as the book, this book, and all the work he did to promote it. The job of starting a charitable foundation and getting things done is a daunting one to me, but I am full of admiration for the people who come from nothing and successfully do it (the subject of Linda Park-Sue's fictionalised memoir for children, A Long Walk to Water, Salva Dut, also began a foundation to bring water to South Sudanese villages).
This is a hard book to read and an equally hard one to talk about. There's a lot going on and I can see why there are so many reading guides floating around the web. I loved it on many levels, even though it's not an enjoyable novel - though there are moments of humour, it's so interwoven with tragedy that it's hard to crack a smile. It's a powerful novel for the way it tells the story, and for the story itself. It's a deeply human story, shedding light into the cracks and crevices of a part of Africa that we generally don't spend much time thinking about. Checking out Deng's foundation website, it stirred me nearly to tears to see the progress he's already made on the beautiful school in Marial Bai, to read about the school farm and so on. This is a life, and what a life! (less)
Based on the author's childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam during the war and arriving in Canada as a refugee, Ru is a scattering of memories, sho...moreBased on the author's childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam during the war and arriving in Canada as a refugee, Ru is a scattering of memories, short vignettes told by Nguyễn An Tịnh (An Tịnh being her first name, which is one punctuation mark different from her mother's). The word "ru" means "small stream" in French; in Vietnamese is means "lullaby" - both meanings capture both the meandering nature of the story, such as it is, as well as the soothing voice of a woman to her past self, the child of her memories, as well as her own children. The word, according to the blurb on the book, also signifies a flow - of tears, blood, money. This too resonates with the passage An Tịnh finds herself on with her once-affluent family, from luxury estate to destitute boat people to new immigrants in Canada, struggling to balance their cultural heritage with the world they find themselves in.
When I started reading this, I was struck by the beauty of the language. The very first page, the first vignette, reads like a spoken word poem and gave me a good feeling: this was going to be a book I would love. Alas, it was not to be. But let me share that first page with you, so you can see what I mean:
I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of houses exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns.
I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the two million soldiers deployed and scattered throughout the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two.
I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life's duty was to prolong that of my mother. [p.1]
It sets the scene well, introducing us to our narrator - now a mother of two boys living in Montreal in the present day - as well as to what life was like around the time of her birth. Fleeing as a refugee feels imminent, and in a way, it is: the vignettes aren't told - or shared - in chronological order; they jump around in time and location, and many are like snapshots, a scene, a memory, frozen in time and set on a loop, the only things left of a life, a world, long gone. I read this for a book club and one of the other people there mentioned that she had heard or read that Thúy jotted these down in her car while waiting at red lights, which helped her read it because that is the way our memories come to us, in bits, randomly, suddenly, a flash across the mind. But for me, it only added to the sense that this memoir disguised as a novel lacked structure and focus, and without some of both, I held in my hands just that: random scribblings, put together in a sloppy, lazy way, where the moments of poetry cannot make up for the unreliable narrator and the lack of cohesion.
It's not that I wanted this to conform to the standard structure of a novel, not at all. I'm all for the experimental novel, even the ones I'm not interested in reading like the Irvine Welsh book where the guy's tapeworm talks in the margins and, as it grows fatter, takes over from the man's narration altogether (I do, after all, find that I get the most enjoyment and meaning out of stories that use a more sturdy, reliable framework rather than some pretentious narrative structure that just distracts from the content - and perhaps tries to hide the vacuousness of the story itself). But sometimes you read a book where it feels like the author really didn't exercise enough control over their artistic, creative impulses. The art comes first, you could say, and then a good writer must shape it, give it form, and breathe life into it. With Ru, I felt like some random person had come across a draft, sketches, notes of a potential novel or pages from someone's diary, all torn up and scattered on the ground, and had picked them up and tried to sort them then given up, and published them just like that.
That wasn't actually my problem with reading this. Chiefly, I never managed to connect or relate to the narrator, An Tịnh - a fictionalised version of Thúy. Part of the problem was the simple fact that I just don't know enough about the Vietnam war or what Canada was like in the 70s to be able to fill in the gaps in context, because there's no historical or political context provided, no background details. I have only a vague understanding of the Vietnam war based on a few classic American movies (and some not-so-classic) and the fact - little known in North America - that Australia fought for the U.S. in that war. Even though I grew up with kids whose dads had been there and had various side-effects, no one talked about that war, no one taught it or studied it. We did have a draft but nothing like the American one, and the men had a choice: go or be in the Reserves. When my dad's birthday was called, he chose the Reserves and has many hilarious stories to tell of what he and these other young men got up to on those weekends. As to the politics behind the war, my understanding is as thinly sketched out as this novel.
There are some details about the Vietnam War, but they only served to confuse me most of the time. I couldn't follow the narrative all the time. Even though I read this almost in one sitting, it seemed like one minute the narrator said one thing and the next she contradicted herself. Lines like this: "The police were ordered to allow all boats carrying Vietnamese of Chinese background to leave 'in secret'. The Chinese were capitalists, hence anti-Communist, because of their ethnic background and their accent." [p.44] just left me feeling bewildered. Often within a scene you couldn't tell who she was talking about, as the use of pronouns would follow a proper noun and yet she'd be talking about someone else. It's the kind of book you would need to read at least three times to get to the point of following it better.
After some time - a year? - in a refugee camp in Malaysia, An Tịnh and her family - once so affluent with wealth and a large estate - arrive in Canada as destitute boat people and, as part of a government policy at the time, are settled into the small rural town of Granby, Quebec. An Tịnh is still a child and one whose life has been uprooted; she latches onto new friends and small kindnesses in a pitiful way, a lost child in a new place, struggling to make a home. Again, my lack of contextual knowledge of Canada at the time made these memories, these scenes, decidedly lacking in a deeper meaning so that they read as superficial - a kind of wishful thinking rather than reality (many people in my book club had personal immigrant experiences to share, that this book made them think of. I'm an immigrant to Canada as well, but as a white English-speaking, Anglo-ethnic woman migrating from Australia to Canada, I don't feel like I had a "true" immigrant experience). Everyone in Quebec was so kind and welcoming and helpful to these refugees, these aliens in their midst. In the 1970s. To one who wasn't here to witness it (I wasn't even alive at the time), who didn't have knowledge of this policy or what people were like back then, it was disconcerting and unreal. And you still don't get a sense for An Tịnh anymore than you do in the scenes of her as a mother in the present, even though small details about her life are so vivid.
Speaking of motherhood reminds me to mention that there are some recurring themes and elements in the book, some of them better executed than others. In the beginning she talks about the ties between her and her own mother, something culturally Other and hard to grasp in a way I could even picture; I had expected some more meaningful parallel between this relationship and the one she has with her own two boys (another confusing detail is her relationship status - at one point I was sure she mentioned a husband or father to her children, while later she talks about all her flings, her seeking of pleasure which implies she's a single mother. Frankly I've no idea what the truth is). One parallel that worked well (it wasn't subtle) was the one between north and south Vietnam, and English- and French-speaking Canada.
Around that time, my employer, who was based in Quebec, clipped an article from a Montreal paper reiterating that the "Quebecois nation" was Caucasian, that my slanting eyes automatically placed me in a separate category, even though Quebec had given me my American dream, even though it had cradled me for thirty years. Whom to like, then? No one or everyone? I chose to like the gentleman from Saint-Felicien who asked me in English to grant him a dance. "Follow the guy," he told me. I also like the rickshaw driver in Da Nang who asked me how much I was paid as an escort for my "white" husband. And I often think about the woman who sold cakes of tofu for five cents each, sitting on the ground in a hidden corner of the market in Hanoi, who told her neighbours that I was from Japan, that I was making good progress with my Vietnamese.
She was right. I had to relearn my mother tongue, which I'd given up too soon. In any case, I hadn't really mastered it completely because the country was divided in two when I was born. I come from the South, so I had never heard people from the North until I went back to Vietnam. Similarly, people in the North had never heard people from the South before reunification. Like Canada, Vietnam had its own two solitudes. [p.79]
Other recurring themes include walls or barriers, especially between people - or peoples - sharing a space, and about being unable to speak. There were several references to shadows which I barely noticed at the time so I have no opinion on that. The novel is very tactile, very engaging of the senses - one of things I did like. In small details sights, smells, tastes, textures are described which does give the narrative a richness, in the way that memories can sometimes be accompanied by a single overriding sense, making the two inseparable.
And there were moments of humour, like the young soldiers auditing the contents of their mansion who find their grandmother's dresser drawer full of bras - which they'd never seen before so they decide they're coffee filters (the new puzzle: why are there two of them joined together? After some thought they decide it's because you don't drink coffee alone), alongside moments of tragedy, like her aunt who's mentally handicapped in some way (undiagnosed, this being in Vietnam in the 60s) who used to escape the house and run wild through the alleys until one time she comes home pregnant. The little glimpses of life during the war are poignant and precious.
Most of those children of GIs became orphans, homeless, ostracized not only because of their mothers' profession but also because of their fathers'. They were the hidden side of the war. Thirty years after the last GI had left, the United States went back to Vietnam in place of their soldiers to rehabilitate those damaged children. The government granted them a whole new identity to erase the one that had been tarnished. A number of those children now had, for the first time, an address, a residence, a full life. Some, though, were unable to adapt to such wealth.
Once, when I was working as an interpreter for the New York police, I met one of those children, now adult. She was illiterate, wandering the streets of the Bronx. She'd come to Manhattan on a bus from a place she couldn't name. She hoped that the bus would take her back to her bed made of cardboard boxes, just outside the post office in Saigon. She declared insistently that she was Vietnamese. Even though she had cafe au lait skin, thick wavy hair, African blood, deep scars, she was Vietnamese, only Vietnamese, she repeated incessantly. She begged me to translate for the policeman her desire to go back to her own jungle. But the policeman could only release her into the jungle of the Bronx. Had I been able to, I would have asked her to curl up against me. Had I been able to, I'd have erased every trace of dirty hands from her body. I was the same age as her. No, I don't have the right to say that I was the same age as her; her age was measured in the number of stars she saw when she was being beaten and not in years, months, days. [pp.82-3]
In a way, reading individual vignettes like that is more satisfying and engaging than reading the whole as a novel. I got much more out of that particular vignette, for instance, as I read it again just now than I did as I was reading it for the first time, when I had trouble following it even. It makes so much more sense the second time, and I'm sure the book as a whole would too if I were to re-read it. It would also make more sense to those who have the knowledge, the context, the history to understand what's really going on here. Lacking that, it wouldn't matter how many times I read it, there are parts that just won't make sense to me without the necessary context - some of it cultural and unlearnable. And no matter how many times I could read this, I don't think I would ever find the narrator to be anything other than a vague voice on a page, not a living, breathing woman with a rich and varied past.
It's not that Thúy didn't accomplish what she set out to do: tracing a young girl's journey from her war-torn homeland, across the ocean in perilous circumstances to a new home where everything is so vastly different and having to find her place in it. It's that I didn't find she was fully successful in her control of her own writing. Writing takes a lot of work and practice, and authors take a long time - and a lot of drafts and scrapped stories - developing their own style.
I am torn in two by Ru: there were elements to it that I greatly admire and even loved, and there is a lyrical, almost magical quality to it that appeals to me no less than the story of a refugee trying to reconcile her past with her new life. But if I can't relate to the narrator, if I can't even follow what's going on half the time, then I just feel alienated rather than engaged, frustrated rather than empathetic. It doesn't matter that this was the point, that, as others have pointed out, her story is fragmented and confused as a true reflection of her life.
By the time I got to the end I was just glad it was so short and I didn't have to fight my headache anymore. For a book so beautifully written and with such potential (and trust me, I can see why so many people loved this), it was deeply disappointing for me and the only thing that makes it stand out at all (or makes it memorable at all) is the way it is written, which is not altogether successful. (less)