seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
[personal profile] seekingferret
24. NW by Zadie Smith

-So the thing about NW is that it is probably Smith's most personal novel since White Teeth. You really feel it in your gut, that this is Smith's life that she is bleeding onto the page. This is her agonies of childhood, her collegiate doubts, her romantic questionings, her maternal worries, distilled and represented as tightly as she can manage.

It is an uncomfortable experience. I will tell you that up front. It is a story about a London that is as multifariously multicultural as that shown in White Teeth or The Autograph Man, but it is not as joyously multicultural. For 22 year old Zadie Smith, intersections of cultures were sites of tension, but also opportunities for growth, causes for celebration. For 36 year old Zadie Smith, they are traps one is not sure they ought to try to wriggle out of. And that's not even the half of it. The true discomfort of NW is the intensity of the emotional connections that Smith forges between the reader and her four protagonists. There is no remove, no irony, no separation between these characters' deepest thoughts and the text that appears on the page.

Smith pulls out every trick she knows to achieve this effect. Modernist techniques like Woolfian or Joycian Stream of Consciousness share pages with scene descriptions that reminded me of Hardy's lush Post-Romanticism, while Post-Modern perspective shifts and documentary storytelling a la Pynchon or DeLillo sits next to conventionalized novel of manners narrations. I think in addition to being her most personal novel and her most uncomfortable novel, it is also her most baffling novel. I wrote of On Beauty that Smith was demanding your engagement, your participation. Smith demands something more of her readers here: She demands that you stay on your toes, keep your wits about you. This is her most suspenseful novel, the one with the most surprising plot twists. In a weird way, though it probably has the smallest amount of visible PLOT of any of her books, it might be the novel most dependent on plot.

-It's a story about Northwest London, the poor and working class and middle class districts full of immigrants and yearners, as seen through the eyes of four (well, three and a half. Smith goes as close as she can to the internal thoughts of three of the protags, then keeps a cautious distance from the fourth.) people who grew up in the Caldwell council estate (which I gather is British for 'housing project'). Leah is a white girl whose best friend from childhood is the black Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie at university to help pursue a career as a barrister. In addition to telling the stories of their sometimes intertwined lives in exacting detail, Smith tells the stories of their former classmate Nathan who has become homeless, a desperate wannabe 'player', and Felix, a working mechanic on a trajectory out of Caldwell when tragedy alters the course of his life.

Each story is told differently. Leah's narrative unfolds over weeks, Felix's over a couple of days, Natalie's over decades, Nathan's in an evening. I think Natalie's is probably the most successful, and others I've spoken to have agreed, but its success lies in an alignment between the empathy of the reader and the emotional state of the character- for a person whose empathy is aligned differently, I would expect a very different sensation. I know people who would like Leah's story best, and I know people who would like Felix's best. [If I compared the four protags to the four children from the Passover seder, Nathan would be the child who doesn't know how to ask. I know people whose empathy would be aligned with him, but they wouldn't read the book. This is one of the things Smith wrestles with in NW, as the overall metanarrative confronts the inequality of outcomes for these four strivers who came from the same beginning, more or less. Some people approach the world in different ways, and communicating those gaps is one of the tasks of the great novelist. But some people aren't even in the conversation, and the question becomes what responsibility, what moral obligation, the author has toward the child who doesn't even know how to ask.]

In sum, if you have admired or enjoyed Smith's other novels, you ought to give this one a try, but be aware that it is a more complicated and dangerous treat.
ext_939: Sheep wearing an eyepatch (skywardprodigal Cog Flowers)
[identity profile] spiralsheep.livejournal.com
13. The Young Inferno by John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura is a verse retelling of Dante's Inferno embedded in a picture book. I liked Kitamura's stark, black and white, art style but in the art-as-storytelling stakes it seemed to me to lack variety. It also clashed with one of the text's spelled out messages: "My teacher said, 'You've got a point. Quite right. / It just shows that neither beast nor man / can be divided into black and white.' " Except this is a black and white book in several senses. Agard's verse text didn't work for me as either narrative or poetry. (Note to self: don't read retellings of Christian morality stories unless they're specifically subversive in some way.) However, I'm probably about as far from the target audience of hoodie-clad schoolboys as it's possible to be so who cares about my opinion anyway? I just hope this isn't picked up from the teen, graphic novel, section of the library by a reluctant reader who is consequently discouraged further. Agard writes good poetry but this isn't it. Kitamura's first and second illustrations are both interesting as art, especially the way Our Hero is represented as a negative (in the photographic sense) of himself, but the only illustration which wholly won me over is the fossil landscape in illo 4.

14. Too Black, Too Strong by Benjamin Zephaniah is an extremely powerful collection of individually skillful and soulful poems. Ben is one of the most humane people I've met and it shows through in every word of his work. Most people know him as a Rastafarian lyricist who wrote that "funny" poem about turkeys and Christmas, and maybe as that political poet who refused to accept the Order of the British Empire he was awarded, or that black British man who was bereaved of a family member by police violence (although that describes too many people), but his work is so much more: witty, political, memorial, deeply spiritual, widely literary, and linguistically sophisticated. There are several example poems at my dw journal.

15. Fiere* by Jackie Kay is her latest, 2011, poetry collection. I've loved Kay's writing since the first time I encountered it, years ago. Amongst other forms, she's an extremely accomplished poet in both Scots** and English. Kay's poems aren't generally confessional (in the strictest literary sense of that word) but they do contain enough autobiography that I feel some minimum background aids understanding, and that's provided in the brief blurb on the back. Kay is multiracial, her mother was a Scottish Highlander and her father was a Nigerian Igbo. She was born in Edinburgh and raised by white Scottish adoptive parents. There are two example poems, the ecstasy and the agony of human relationships, at my dw journal.

* "fiere", Scots, meaning "companion/friend/equal"
** Scots, which is primarily related to English, not Scottish Gaelic which is a different language.

Tags: women writers, african-caribbean, black british, britain, british, british-african-caribbean, caribbean, black scottish, scottish, guyanese, poetry, japanese, biracial, multiracial, children's books, sf/fantasy, fiction, guyanese-british, igbo, young adult
ext_939: Sheep wearing an eyepatch (skywardprodigal Cog Flowers)
[identity profile] spiralsheep.livejournal.com
11. Selected Poems by Mimi Khalvati is a selection from three previous books, which I enjoyed cos, although her poetry tends to be allusive (and so I missed some of the meaning), Khalvati's use of language is like listening to music. Two example poems, which I found particularly pleasing for various reasons, at my dw journal.

Disclaimer (also for the tag wranglers): I have no idea whether Mimi Khalvati herself, whose online autobiography is sparse, would identify as non-white and/or Iranian (or how the word "Persian" might or might not be a label of choice for some ex-pat Iranians). She certainly writes about non-Eurocentric concerns.

12. Startling the Flying Fish by Grace Nichols is a sequence of poems about Caribbean life and history. For me every word was powerful. It's outstandingly the best contemporary poetry I've read for years. The blurb perfectly describes this work as "symphonic". I wasn't sure whether to post an example poem or not because, even though all these poems are excellent as stand-alones, they belong in the context of the whole, which is more than the sum of its parts (but I caved anyway and posted two examples on my dw journal). If you're interested in contemporary poetry or the Caribbean then you should read this book. I strongly recommend it. Nichols is an author with plenty of published work too so if you like this then there's plenty more (and she writes for children too).

Tags: women writers, poetry, iran, britain, british-iranian, iranian, guyanese, british, guyanese-british, african-caribbean, british-african-caribbean, black british, caribbean

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