Friday, November 4, 2011

Book 80, Eritrea: "My Fathers' Daughter" by Hannah Pool

Woo woo! I'm at the 80th book! And it's one that you guys helped me choose, too!

Granted, Pool isn't a very literary writer: she's mostly a fashion and lifestyle columnist at the Guardian, Eritrean by birth but adopted by a British academic as an infant. The memoir's about her first visit to her birth family at the age of 29, and it's actually annoying at certain junctures - she gets so damn weepy, she cries all over the place, she spends chapters agonising about the tortured moments before she dares to walk through a door to meet these people who abandoned her (did she even really confront them with this in the end?).

But you know what? She's honest. She's being Bridget Jones-ish because she IS Bridget Jones-ish, and she's painfully aware of the ironies in her reactions, the excruciating dumbness of the fact that she's actually jealous of the half-malnourished Eritrean kids she sees in her home village, just because they grew up in their own families, without the cultural angst of displacement. She leaves in the bits about how she doesn't fit in, how she makes unexpected alliances and experiences unforeseen alienation; how she has diarrhoea and nausea and crying fits all the time, because her normally cast iron stomach can't deal with the emotional shock and the different enzymes in the goat meat.

And it's so damn informative about the cultural quandary of being an orphan (never believe an orphan who says she doesn't long to trace her birth roots, she says), and about Eritrea itself - not just the folksy villages but also the rather beautiful Italianate capital of Asmara, full of the peeling works of Mussolini's architects, full of the returnees whose families fled during the war with Ethiopia, who speak Arabic or German or Amharic or English instead of Tigrinya: the forever displaced people with whom Pool feels most at home.

A quibble, though: given that Pool has made the book's title about both her fathers (look at where the apostrophe lies! Clever, innit? And so English), we've barely any description about her father, David Pool, the great Friend of Eritrea. I'd like to know a little more about this man, to hear his voice, hear how he tried to teach her about her roots (he did, but the teenage Pool would just tell him, "I'm not Eritrean, I'm just black,") and make him more than just a flat character, being benevolent and understanding in the background. Ditto for her white stepmother, brother and sister, who say they want to join her on a visit to the country in the future. (Have they gone yet? Maybe it says in her TEDx talk. Nah, watched it, and the only cool thing it supplies is the photos.)

Good read, anyhow. Nice to reach the 80-mark on a positive note - a tale about an outsider on a journey to discover who she is.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Every few moments I think how wonderfully different I will feel whenever I see the word Keren in my own passport from now on. I will be able to picture the mountains and the colours, instead of having a black hole where an image should be. I will be able to describe the haze of sunset and the smell of the market. I might even start adopting a wistful tone and a slight air of mystery as I look into the middle distance and say, 'Ah, Keren, it means mountain, you know. Beautiful place, beautiful people.' That'll put an end to those pitying looks I get when I give my usual response of, 'I don't know what it looks like: I left when I was a baby.'

Next book: "The United States of Africa" by Abdourahman A. Waberi, from Djibouti.

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