segregation Posts

American writer Paul Beatty brings back slavery and segregation to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize

( My review of the Man Booker Prize 2016 winner The Sellout by Paul Beatty was published by Scroll on 26 Oct 2016, a day after the win was announced. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819961/american-writer-paul-beatty-brings-back-slavery-and-segregation-to-win-the-ps50000-man-booker-prize . I am also c&p the text below. )

‘The Sellout’ is a wicked satire on racism, and makes Beatty the first American to win the Man Booker.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store…But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.

~~~

That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life, and for the first time ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost while to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall. I was the “diversity” the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature, but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the world to get me to suck the gristle from a leg bone in front of the entire freshman class.

Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The Sellout is a magnificently absorbing story told by a nameless narrator who is referred to by his girlfriend as “Bonbon”. The novel opens with him in court not for a petty crime like stealing, but for encouraging racial segregation and slavery. The narrator has been born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a suburb of Los Angeles.

A work of contemporary fiction that revolves around histories of family,The Sellout comes with a twist. It covers only two generations – father and son, and what happens next. Among other things, this includes the reintroduction of slavery and segregation. The father of the narrator is a single parent and a sociologist, who turns his only son into an on-going social experiment in childrearing methodologies.

For instance, the father ties his four-year-old son’s right hand behind his back so that he can grow to be left-handed, right-brained, and well-centered. Or, he tests the “bystander effect” as it applies to the “Black community” on his eight-year-old son by beating the boy in front of a throng of bystanders who don’t stand around for too long. Sadly the father is killed in a police shoot out. The narrator is left bewildered.

You’re supposed to cry when your dad dies. Curse the system because your father has died at the hands of the police. Bemoan being lower-middle-class and coloured in a police state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, though I can’t think of any Asian-American ones. But I didn’t cry. I thought his death was a trick. Another one of his elaborate schemes to educate me on the plight of the black race and to inspire me to make something of myself, I half expected him to get up, brush himself off, and say, “See, nigger, if this could happen to the world’s smartest black man, just imagine what could happen to your dumb ass. Just because racism is dead don’t mean they don’t shoot niggers on sight.”

The inheritance is downright bizarre – the son, like his father, becomes a “nigger whisperer”. It is one of these men he “rescues”, Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals”, who becomes a devoted slave to the narrator. Curiously enough, just as he was his father’s little social experiment, the narrator turns his neighbourhood into a larger sociological study by promoting segregation to the extent of drawing a white boundary line around the space.

The Sellout maintains a mad pace of breathless storytelling that sometimes only works effectively if read out aloud. In an interview recorded in May 2015, Beatty, pokes fun at racial politics but insists that the novel is about a ton of other things too. ( (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4PYhbZvz_g ) He refers to his work as a metaphorical tale wherein he has been thinking about segregation and how it will be in modern times. Acknowledging it also changes one’s outlook. He adds, “I don’t try to be satirical but I think in my head and on paper and it takes a long, long time to be poetic and I have a little bit of agenda which is hard to pull off.”

The Man Booker winner says his approach involves humour and personal experience. “I am starting from myself.” With the American presidential elections due in less than a month, was the jury specially influenced by the issues raised in this novel? It is a stupendous decision by the Man Booker Prize judges in awarding the £50,000 award to Paul Beatty for The Sellout. It is the first time an American has won the prize. It is a doubly sweet win for independent publishers Oneworld who have probably made publishing history for their back-to-back win at the prestigious literary award. The Man Booker Prize 2015 awarded to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James was a Oneworld publication too. In the subcontinent Pan MacMillan India represents and distributes Oneworld.

As a poet, writer, and a trained psychologist, Beatty has brought his vast experience in writing and understanding human behaviour to produce a magnificently raw, hard-hitting, fantastically honest, take-your-breath-away work of dark humour. The Sellout is satire at its finest. At times it is hard to believe this is fiction and not excellent reportage.

Paul Beatty The Sellout Oneworld,London, 2016. Pb. pp. 288 Rs 399 

26 Oct 2016 

Pam Munzo Ryan “Echo: A Novel”

ECHO-medalYour fate is not yet sealed,

Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, 

A bell will chime, a path will be revealed. 

Award-winning writer Pam Munzo Ryan’s Echo is a stupendous book. It is four stories intertwined, much like a symphony coming together in the last movement and hence, “a novel”. The first three stories are about four children — Friedrich Schmidt ( Oct 1933, Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany), orphans Mike and Frankie Flannery ( June 1935, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA) and Ivy Maria Lopez ( December 1942, Southern California, USA). Each story focuses on their love of music, playing the harmonica, piano and flute exquisitely.  It is a beautiful space the children create with their talent at a time of grim reality — concentration camps, rise of Hitler, persecution of Jews and the marginalised, the Great Depression, state of orphanages, adoption, the captivity of American Japanese after Pearl Harbour by the government, segregation of Mexican children in schools, etc. There is a touch of magical realism which seems to be perfectly acceptable in young adult fiction (but would have been nitpicked about in adult trade literature such as Yann Martel and Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novels). The magical thread binding the stories has an extraordinary fairytale element to it. It is the harmonica presented to the craftsman Otto when he was a child by the three princesses Eins, Zwei and Drei upon whom a spell has been cast by a witch. Once Otto as an adult decides to donate the harmonica it is found by the other children — Friedrich when he worked as an apprentice at the local harmonica factory, Frankie who had dreams of playing in Alfred Hoxie’s then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards, and later Ivy Maria Lopez who uses it to perform in her school orchestra. In 1951 the young musicians perform Gershwin together at Carnegie Hall.

Ivy felt as if she’d been touched by magic. Her eyes caught the glances of other musicians. And it was clear they felt it, too. 

Who can explain it?

Who can tell you why?

Fools give you reasons,

Wise men never try.

Some enchanted evening. . .

Tonight there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars. . .

. . . and connected by the same silken thread. 

Here is a wonderful profile from Kirkus Reviews of Pam Munzo Ryan ( https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/pam-munoz-ryan/)

Echo is written for young adults but it is a magical book that will appeal across ages. Appreciate it for its inspired storytelling or read it as a conversation starter in classrooms but read it you must.

Pam Munzo Ryan Echo: A Novel Decorations by Dinara Mirtalipova. Scholastic Press, An imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2015. Hb. 

16 April 2016

Ayana Mathis, “Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

Ayana Mathis, “Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

Ayana Mathis, Twelve Tribes of HattieMy review of Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been published in the Hindu Literary Review. Online on 5 Oct 2013 and in print on 6 Oct 2013. Here is the link to the original url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/historys-brood/article5200369.ece?homepage=true . It was titled “History’s Brood”. I am c&p the full text of the review below.) 

Hattie was stronger than Bell could ever be. She didn’t know how to tend to her children’s souls, but she fought to keep them alive and to keep herself alive. (p.217) … Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given. (p.236)

The novel is about the “high yellow girl” Hattie Shepherd who began courting August when she was fifteen because he was a secret from her Mama and “because it thrilled her to go out with a country boy beneath her”.  They married when Hattie discovered she was pregnant with her twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. Unfortunately it is 1925, before penicillin has been discovered and the infants succumb to pneumonia before they turn one. “Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world, the empty space where her children’s lives should have been.” The nine other children she goes on to have consider their mother to be cold and frosty, yet she finally learns to (according to Willie, the witch doctor) wrestle down her “restless soul”. Hattie’s tribe of twelve consists of her children and one grandchild in particular, Sala.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is fiction but set across sixty crucial years of North American history.  The story starts during Prohibition, slavery and racial segregation existed in Georgia to conclude in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. Ayana Mathis sketches brilliantly the evangelical gatherings in the revival tents where Six delivers his first sermon, the blues-jazz music that Floyd plays, war in Vietnam that Franklin experiences firsthand, child sexual abuse that Billups keeps as a deep secret, Bell’s slide down the social ladder into deep poverty and her near brush with death due to consumption, and Cassie’s schizophrenia. Each chapter is told well. They are absorbing to read but what is disconcerting is that the stories remain like threads swirling around Hattie. This is where the Hagar myth that looms large in African-American literature resonates well. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, offered her Egyptian slave to her husband when she was barren. Hagar had Ishmael by Abraham. Later when Sarah had Isaiah, God promised Hagar that her son, Ishmael, would create a nation. Similarly Hattie’s children spread far and wide, across the nation and the social ladder to leave their mark.

It is not historical fiction but there are details in the novel that document history accurately – the revival tents for evangelical gatherings, discovery of Penicillin, the recognition that schizophrenia required medical treatment and not taking the patient to a religious gathering for the devil to be exorcised, the limitations of a witch doctor, the social acceptance of a black doctor as with Alice’s husband. Ayana Mathis is a powerful storyteller, ( the painful description of the dying twins or of Cassie’s schizophrenia or Bell’s tuberculosis slowly killing her) the chapters come together as a powerful novel and explains why Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club. Yet it is impossible to get away from the feeling that this is a brilliant product of a creative writing course. The sketches, the accuracy to detail, creation of atmosphere are powerful but the random use of minor character or even the sporadic appearance of the siblings does not make much sense.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie Knopf Publishing House, Random House, Great Britain, 2013. Pb. Pp. 245 Rs. 550

5 Oct 2013