Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book 74, Burundi: "Strength in What Remains" by Tracy Kidder

I've been trying to avoid books like this: non-fiction works by outsiders, i.e. histories, anthropologies, non-autobiography biographies. But there's no real danger of critical objectivity here: the Pullitzer Prizewinning Kidder intrudes upon the narrative constantly, registering his shock, acknowledging that he could not have survived the genocide in Burundi as his biographical subject has.

Also consider that Deogratias Niyizonkiza is a personal friend of Kidder's; that Kidder accompanies him on a trip back to the site of his refugee flight in Burundi and Rwanda (yes, this guy escaped the pogroms in his home country only to seek safety in Rwanda, just in time to watch the massacres breaking out all over again). Watches Deo wrestle with his demons, visiting the memorial sites of mass murder obsessively on a quest for catharsis which his own culture forbids - there's a saying in Kirindi that it's better to forget, that it's taboo to speak of the dead and things in the past, which means that healing is next to impossible.

Kidder really has a knack of getting under his subject's skin: having worked on biography I know how difficult it is to milk subjects for details about their lives, but he's mapped Deo's journey quite extensively, from his impoverished childhood in Butanza to his medical school years in Bujumbura to his survival of the genocide, his flight to Rwanda, his return to Bujumbura, his escape under false pretences to New York, where he somehow drew on the kindness of strangers to go from being a Gristedes delivery boy to a Dartmouth medical student, all the while haunted by horrible dreams which he could never tell himself weren't real, because that darkness and that blood, that baby he'd left starving as he crawled across the killing fields, well, they'd happened.

(The New York tale is particularly striking, and not just because I recognise the geography: the sheer effort of a few do-gooders to help him, versus his cultural pride and shame at having to accept charity, to the extent that he'd routinely sabotage their good works - god, how does good even make it in this world when there's so much room for misunderstanding?)

I'm tired and I'm not feeling particularly up for literary dissection, but yeah, this is a good book, just a little exhausting in its dedication to documenting the actual causes for the genocide (the fact that I'm reading Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree, set at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, really doesn't help my mood. Genocide everywhere.)

But a final point: why the hell doesn't Kidder mention Deo's surname? I mean, he's promoting his Village Health Works clinic out the wazoo, and a little googling makes it clear that this guy exists rather than being a fictional construct. So why keep this detail cloaked? Does it help to fictionalise this man? Does it render him more sensational, more literary?

Wanna sleep.

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Representative quote:

Deo remembered, from a previous trip, taking a walk here in Bujumbura with his beloved older brother, Antoine, and coming upon a corpse. This was back during the war. The body was laid out on top of a heap of garbage. Deo had yelled at the sight, frightened and appalled. His brother had looked at the corpse and said, "What's strange here?" Then he'd looked at Deo and said, "You've been away too long."

Next book: Paul Rusesabagina's An Ordinary Man, from Rwanda. Yeah, I'm keeping up with the genocide theme, curse your eyes.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Singapore Poetry Today

I've been terribly distracted by deadlines, so I've only made a teensy bit of progress with The Strength of What Remains. In the interim, enjoy my summary of the state of Singapore poetry today, published on the British Council's Writing the City blog.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CONTRADICTION 7, Sat 13 Aug, 7:30pm!

Though it's unrelated, I'm gonna plug this...

Some of you might know about IndigNation, Singapore's annual queer pride festival. It's on now, and the calendar's up here:

I'd just like to advertise my own little event, which is part of the festival: CONTRADICTION 7!!!

Our annual queer literary reading is back! Prepare for a sumptuous salon with Singapore’s most talented new GLBT writers, curated by Ng Yi-Sheng, Jasmine Seah and Amanda Lee.

Featured artists include singer/songwriters Iris Judotter and Roy Lim, poets Teng Qian Xi and Mika Yamaji, playwrights Joel Tan and Drayton Hiers, author/artist Tania de Rozario, slammers Stephanie Chan, Atiqah Lukman and Deborah Emmanuel, Golden Point Award winner Jeremy Tiang, and heterosexual guest star, accordionist Faizal Bochtiar. Hosted by drag queen Becca D'Bus.

Date: Sat 13 August (this weekend!)
Time: 7:30 onwards
Venue: 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road (TheatreWorks office)

Free entry! Refreshments provided!

Rated R-18 by MDA - we just got the licence. :D

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book 73, Tanzania: “Paradise” by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Y’know, I know this is a Booker Prize shortlistee and all, and Gurnah’s imagination and prose skills are pretty powerful. But I’m not really into this book – it’s all setting, all premise, all exposition, with barely any agency on the part of our handsome young hero Yusuf.

The back cover says it’s set in East Africa at the time of colonization – folks refer to Zanzibar and Kawa and Mombasa, but it’s not clear to my unschooled brain if the site of the main action’s in Tanzania or Kenya, or if the main characters are black or Arab (it’s mentioned that Yusuf is Mswahili, while the others speak Arabic – does that help?).

Historical markers oughta narrow it down: the Arabs are still trading amongst the local Sultans of the interior and taking on the kids of their indebted as rehanis; the Germans and English are invading with their askari armies and have ended the slave trade and are forcing the Sultans to cut back on their tribute; somehow there’s a train and an Indian mechanic who knows how to fix cars. Early 20th, very late 19th centuries? Beats me.

There’s also a plot at the end that makes it clear that the whole is an analogy for the tale of Joseph in Genesis, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. Yusuf=Joseph (he doesn’t have a coat but he does have a whole lot of disturbing dreams and is very handsome), Uncle Aziz=Potiphar, Zuleikha=well, Zuleika, the Islamic name for Potiphar’s wife who falls for Joseph and tears his shirt as he flees. A lot of Islamic imagery throughout, in fact – blazing gates and hells and gardens: paradise itself.

But really, even though Yusuf’s a gorgeous innocent teenager who’s been torn from his family as a child, how can we have sympathy for him when he has no bloody volition? It’s like trying to get emotionally attached to a pet stone. (Possible, but still a stretch.)

Ahhh, maybe I’ve learned something about lush, descriptive, dreamlike writing. Maybe I’ve learned that you can get away without having a real ending, or much of a plot, and still get wild praise from the criterati.

But y’know, I could’ve read Shaaban Robert, father of Swahili poetry instead. I could’ve CS Forester’s The African Queen, y’know? Grump grump grump.

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Representative quote:
The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light has a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before. In the early morning the top of the mountain was hidden by clouds, but as the sun strengthened the clouds disappeared and the peak congealed into ice. On one side, the level plain stretched away. Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war was honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes. When they were not fighting, they adorned their bodies and hair with the dedication of brothel queens.

Next book: Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, from Burundi.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book 72, Seychelles: "Seychelles Global Citizen" by James R. Mancham

Just back from a three-day holiday with my boyfriend in Kuching, Sarawak! Picked up four collections of folktales, drawn from the Bidayuh, Melanau, Orang Ulu and Iban peoples – all for the price of RM 35 = S$14.24. Once again, SCORE.

In the meantime, I finished the autobiography of Seychelles’s first chief minister and president, which I purchased for US$12.69 = S$15.33, used, on a last-minute impulse via Amazon and had delivered via my little brother Yixian:

And honestly? It’s not that good a buy. Though Mancham isn’t a bad writer, per se, he’s in dire need of an editor. There’s the makings of a great story in his life, but his insistence on including every last detail of his experiences and impressions, causing anecdotes to be occasionally grouped by theme rather than sequence, his refusal to hold back on his condemnation of his usurper France-Albert René until the coup’s actually happened, and the way he falls back on his favourite damn quotations and clichés – winds of change, après moi le deluge, there is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed – ah, all this could have been solved with the use of a few hours and a stout red pen, but none of that happened here, nosiree.

Still, the book’s terribly good as a reference text (especially considering the dearth of info on this guy’s life on Wikipedia). Mancham starts with his Chinese-French background and his father’s enterprising history and his Oxford education; then the world of statecraft: how he developed the Seychelles as a tourist destination by bringing in an international airport and numberless celebrities (Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, Yul Brynner, the Shah of Iran), ensuring all the while that the image of the islands as an untouched paradise would not be spoiled, that the locals would not resent the outsiders since they, too, were allowed to enter the hotels and dance in the ballrooms.

And perhaps most interestingly, how impossible it was for the nation to point out that its citizens did not want independence: the majority voted for a closer relationship, even union with the UK every time (a situation like Réunion’s with France was what they had in mind), and yet the African lobby in the UN and the UK’s sheer exhaustion with keeping up an empire meant that the Crown was simply not prepared to maintain its colony. So, to Mancham’s chagrin, the nation was free.

Which would all have been very well except that he was pressured into forming a coalition government with René, who’d already been placed under suspicion since his Tanzanian-backed followers had been detonating bombs across the country. René of course repaid his kindness by overthrowing him in a bloody coup a few years later and exiling him and his family from the nation for 15 years. Under René, the nation pursued socialism, suppressed freedom of speech, operated as a one-party state, imprisoned dissenters (there had not been a single political prisoner before this period, not one) and imposed a brainwashing national service for both young men and women. (Wikipedia notes that infant mortality also went down during this administration, and attained several #1s for development in Africa, which might not actually be that hard to accomplish.)

Ugh. Pretty obvious who the good guy and bad guy is in this story, no matter how boring the good guy is at times. Mancham also mentions how big an admirer he is of Lee Kuan Yew, and how he was accosted in Takashimaya Shopping Centre recently by “three Chinese gentlemen” who wished him to play Santa Claus at an upcoming children’s party. (Mancham says he would’ve said yes, only he was flying out. A real bon-vivant sort of guy, the kind who understands what tourists value.)

I’m thinking of donating this book to the National Library – no use for me to keep it, since no-one else’ll read it, and currently the only book they’ve got on Seychelles is Christopher Lee's Seychelles: Political Castaways, dated 1976, just before the coup in 1977. Already tried to get them to stock it for me, but they claimed it was out of stock (evidently, buying from a second-hand dealer is beneath them.)

So how do I convince them to take it off my hands? Honestly, it belongs in the reference section, not the Book Crossings bin.

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Representative quote:
Far too often in life those close to me have accused me of being an unshakeable optimist. In the present doom and gloom, while anxiety makes common mortals sweat profusely, those still wearing a smile may be taken for cranks or provocateurs, yet as the poet pointed out, night is always followed by day and storms often herald rainbows.

Next book: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah, from Tanzania.