Thursday, 2 April 2020

Afropean – Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Johny Pitts was born in Sheffield, son of an African-American actor and singer and a white working class mother, and grew up “a Northern Soul baby.” But conscious that European was still being used as a synonym for ‘white’, one cold October morning, he set out in search of “a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large ... where being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.”

If David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History encompassed the long history of black People in Britain, going back to the Roman period, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe reaches out geographically, exploring the black Experience in Europe from Stockholm to Lisbon, Moscow to Marseilles.

“What about black Europe ... found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the streets up?”

Pitts finds communities often isolated from the cities of which they are nominally part – some vibrant but fragile, like the illegal favelas clinging to the fringes of Lisbon, others desperate and alienated, like those the semi-derelict remains of 60s brutalist high-rises in Clichy-sous-Bois in Paris. He finds himself mourning the deliberate undermining of working class solidarity, “spinning the presence of black people as a threat rather than in opportunity.”

“Very often, Europe’s black workforce inhabits the liminal terrain I’d just experienced, as cleaners, taxi drivers, porters, security guards, ticket sellers and nightclub bouncers; they are there and not there.”

Along the way, he draws on the experiences of earlier black writers such as James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Carol Phillips. He reminds us of figures from the past we often conveniently forget had a black heritage, such as Alexandre Dumas – grandson of an enslaved woman from Haiti – and Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather was kidnapped in Africa and sold to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And he finds differing attitudes to Blackness in different countries – from outright denial via historical amnesia and structural racism to naked bigotry.

“When a society has so convinced itself it isn’t racist, it feels vindicated and victimized when immigrants who are responding to very real racism raise their voices.”

He reveals the often buried histories that brought African people to Europe – from the earliest origins of the slave trade via 19th Century colonial empire building to the Cold War battle for ideological dominance. He has his illusions shattered in Stockholm, which he’d previously only seen through the lens of a comfortable middle class, and finds at last, in Marseilles, a place to which he knows he will return.

This is a Europe that many of us, as white, middle-class tourists, will never see. It challenges the comfortable  idea of Europe as a tolerant and open society and shines a light on how “the European superiority complex has found its way into your psyche ... transferred through a thousand intimate moments, planted in the fertile, innocent and happy memories of childhood.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved
: Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga; Stopping Places by Damian le Bas

Avoid If You Dislike:
Having your idea of a tolerant, post-racist society challenged (but read it anyway).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A fresh baked baguette and a glass of orange juice.

Non-Fiction, Travel Writing

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 30 March 2020

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s 1960. In post-colonial Ceylon, Mrs Bandaranaika, just been elected Prime Minister, making her the world’s first non-hereditary female head of government. Land reforms are coming – reforms that worry the landowning gentry as much as they disappoint others. And by making Sinhal the country’s official language and ignoring Tamil, the foundations are being laid for the sectarian divisions that will later tear the country apart.

But for twelve year old Kairo, out of school and at a loose end, the most exciting thing is the sudden appearance of the charismatic and daring Jay. Jay is a strange mixture of kindness and casual cruelty. His fondness for wild birds does not stop him catching and caging them. Likewise, he picks up friends, binds them to him, only to drop them with a casual disregard when they no longer fit his purposes.

Quite early on, I caught echoes of the Great Gatsby. It’s there in the names – Jay and Kairo – and in the trope of the new neighbour who dazzles with his comparative wealth and a recklessness that seems to court disaster. And it’s there in certain aspects of the unfolding plot too.

The way the story of the two boys interweaves with the politics of newly independent nation – glimpsed and half understood via adult arguments – gives the book the feel of an extended metaphor for post-colonial politics. As Kairo observes about when Jay moved his birds into a larger aviary:

“The whole thing was rocking me with contradictory emotions ... I could see this was not freedom for the birds; merely the exchange of one cage for a bigger one. The fundamental nature of their lives had not changed.”

Unlike, say, Deepa Anappara's Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,  the story, though told from Kairo’s point of view, is not seen through the eyes of a twelve year old. The voice is that of adult looking back on his life as he hovered on the brink of adolescence. The text is laced with the sadness of foreknowledge, with knowing how it will all end.

In many ways it almost feels as if the book could have been written in the 1960s. One thing that made me slightly uneasy were the casual references to things like ‘warpaint’, ‘teepees’ ‘braves’ and ‘tomahawks’ – commonplaces of many boys’ imaginary games of the period (and since) but which, used carelessly, can be offensive to indigenous people. It’s the familiar dilemma of balancing period accuracy of language with modern-day understanding of racist tropes. Yet it is clear that the choice to retain this language is not something Gunesekera took lightly. His acknowledgements include thanks given to “the Banff centre in the lands of Treaty 7 territory where the past, present and future generations of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Tauut’ina Nations and acknowledged and honoured.”

Like Priti Taneja's We That Are Young, Suncatcher is a novel that takes the framework of a English-language classic and transforms it into the means to interrogate the state of a South Asian nation.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: RK Narayan Swami and Friends, Priti Taneja We That Are Young

Avoid If You Dislike: stories of hunting and caged animals

Perfect Accompaniment: chocolate milkshake and a wild bike ride

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Coming of Age story

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Surge by Jay Bernard

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 2004, just as I was working on a book that revolved around events in Coventry and London in the first half of 1981, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire opened. One of the firms of lawyers representing families of some of the deceased posted transcripts every night of the day’s proceedings, and it became routine for me to come home from work, sit down at the computer, and read that day’s testimony. Bit by bit I absorbed the horror of the events of that night in January 1981, which led to the deaths of thirteen youngsters who had been attending a birthday party.

Jay Bernard’s research into those events was carried out another fifteen years later, at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Their poems reference original source documents “noted, dated, numbered, placed in acid-free Japanese boxes and lovingly (as is tradition) laid without a casket”. Yet some of the voices are achingly familiar. My breath caught in my throat as one of the poems (Clearing) recalled how a key found in a pocket was used as the only way to identify one of the victims – a never-forgotten fragment of a parent’s testimony to the coroner’s court.

Despite how well I thought I knew those events and their aftermath - especially the almost total lack of action or even empathy on behalf of the authorities – I had missed how close the parallels were with what happened with Grenfell Tower in 2017. But the latter part of Bernard’s collection makes those connections only too clear. Another line that made me gasp – bringing together in just five words, two ends of a long history – was from the poem Sentence, which ends: “Not rivers, towers of blood.”

An immensely powerful collection of poems that evokes events seared onto Black British consciousness, while making it abundantly clear why they should never be forgotten and how little has changes in the intervening forty years.

Finally, I must mention the cover design by Lily Jones. Its swirling black and white lines evoke both the smoke from a fire and the twisting lines of paint in Edvard Munch’s The Scream

You’ll Enjoy This If You Love: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roy McFarlane

Avoid If You Dislike: Mixing poetry and politics

Perfect Accompaniment: A visit to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton

Genre: Poetry

Buy This Book Here

Monday, 23 March 2020

Golden Child by Claire Adam

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“His mind goes round and round in circles, confused. He cannot understand how he got to this point. He is quite sure that back at the beginning, when the boys were born, he was determined, above all else, to be a good father. Now, somehow, he has ended up here, and there seems to be no going back.”

Peter and Paul are twins, born on the island of Trinidad. Peter, the elder, is the Golden Child – studious, bright beyond his years. Paul, the younger, suffered complications during birth, was a difficult baby, and is considered ‘slightly retarded’ by his family. A problem child.

So when thirteen year old Paul disappears from home, his father’s first reaction is anger. It’s just Paul, causing trouble, like he always does.

Yet the real trouble lies much deeper, in the secrets, lies and jealousies that twist through the fabric of their extended family. In the end, the father must decide just what he is willing to do to protect his family – and the future of his Golden Child.

This is rural Trinidad in the late twentieth century, a long way from the tourist trails. A place of gang leaders and drug lords, where break-ins and kidnappings are common and where even quite ordinary families keep guard dogs and burglar-proof their houses. But Clyde has kept himself away from all that. He has never bothered with a fancy car or a bigger house. Everything has been for his family, and for Peter.

The story of the Deyalsingh family unfolds slowly, our perspective shifting till, just as we have seen enough to form a full picture, the truth is revealed. We feel the dead weight on the father’s shoulders, the impossibility of shifting the whole direction of his life. And the knowledge that, whatever he chooses, he will have to live with it for the rest of his life.

If the golden child, Peter, remains a bit of a cypher, we slowly become privy to Paul's hopes and dreams. His frustration with the constant feeling of failure. With the way letters refuse to arrange themselves on the page when he tries to read, but instead "look like ants crawling around on the page." With Daddy always being mad. He wants to leave school and get a job, to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses and fluorescent short pants, and "hand Mummy a big wad of cash."

A disturbing, uncomfortable and absorbing first novel. Winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize 2019 and Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross, Disposable People by Ezekel Alan, What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories of missing children

Perfect Accompaniment: Macaroni pie and a glass of rum

Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“It’s 1910. It’s high time they stop killing our people. If we don’t stop them now, it won’t ever stop.”

It’s hard to read this sentence, at the end of the first chapter of Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered, without feeling the exhaustion and disillusionment of a struggle that is more than century old and still far from over.

The germ of Battle-Felton’s story is a handful of cuttings taken from Philadelphia newspapers at the time of the 1910 general strike. They concern a young black worker, Edward Freeman, mortally injured and lying in hospital, who is suspected of deliberately driving one of the city’s trolley cars into a “No Coloreds Allowed” store front, thereby killing several bystanders.

From there the author imagines his grieving mother, Spring, sitting at his bedside. Outside, a crowd bays for his blood, but inside Spring is compelled to Edward the story of his birth and antecedents, so that her sister’s ghost, Tempe, can guide the boy ‘home’.

It begins with Ella, the twelve year old daughter of free Black family, who in 1843 is snatched from the streets of Philadelphia and taken to a slave plantation in Maryland. The owner, Walker, intends to use her as a broodmare, to break the curse that means that nothing has grown and nothing has been born on his land for over a decade. But the old slave woman, Mama Skins, has other ideas.

Remembered is a story of ghosts and superstitions. Of lives and friendships grubbed out of the small spaces left within the endless strictures of a slave’s life. Of struggles in which, at times, the liberation of death can be a small and bitter victory.

It is also a story that shows how, when mothers and children are treated at commodities to be bought and sold at will, the nature of motherhood – of who is a mother and how she must act in the best interest of her children – is distorted.

Like Frannie in Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Spring has a rebuke for those who “ask to see the scars [they] imagined ran up and down my back, to ask how the whip felt o my skin. They want to be close up to pain, until they are.” She knows only too well that if she really reveals how she feels, she becomes the angry Black woman who ought to be grateful to be alive. She knows that these stories need to be kept alive, but that people only want to hear them when they conform to their own prejudices.

An incredibly assured debut novel, peopled with voices that ring across the centuries. Longlisted for both the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes, Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Avoid If You Dislike: Ghosts striding through the pages of a story

Perfect Accompaniment: A handful of blueberries.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Monday, 16 March 2020

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, illustrated by Anshika Khullar

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Who is the Black Flamingo? ... He is me, who I have been, who I am, who I hope to become. Someone fabulous, wild and strong.”

Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo is unlike anything else I have ever read - and I consumed it in two glorious gulps. A joyous celebratory prose poem, it follows the life of a mixed-race (Jamaican / Greek-Cypriot) gay man growing up in London – from a small boy longing for a Barbie to play with, through primary school and high school, to finding a home and family among the Drag Society at University.

It is a story of love and friendship, of acceptance and rejection. Of the complexities of identity. Of the intersections of racism and homophobia, and the strength it takes to overcome them and to be fully and freely yourself.

How to Come Out as Gay
Don’t come out unless you want to.
Don’t come out for anyone else’s sake
Don’t come out because you think society expects you to.
Come out for yourself.
Come out to yourself.

The simplicity of the language is deceptive. By allowing Michael/Michalis/Mikey/Mike to speak to us directly, in his own voice, whatever his age, Atta gives his words a heart-stopping immediacy, while at the same time exploring some profound ideas.

The text is dotted throughout with Anshika Khullar’s beautiful black and white illustrations, which seem to beckon you from page to page. There are WattsApp conversations and facsimiles of notebook pages. There are pages where the text is white on black.

An absolute joy to read – this is a book I’d like to put in the hands of every teenager and young person still trying to figure out who they are. It’s a celebration of acceptance, support and the pleasures of finding what Anna Madrigal would have called your logical family.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Perseverence by Raymond Antrobus, Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, Moonlight (film)

Avoid If You Dislike: Prose poetry. Explorations of gender and sexuality (but I’d say give it a try anyway – you may surprise yourself!)

Perfect Accompaniment: Back to Black by Beyoncé

Genre: Defies classification. Poetry. Lit Fic. YA. LGBTIAQ+

Buy this book here

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Hostile Environment by Maya Goodfellow

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Hostile Environment is the name given to a raft of measures initially implemented by Theresa May as Home Secretary under David Cameron, designed to deter so-called “illegal immigrants” from coming to the UK and to make life as difficult as possible for them if they did enter the country.

But as Maya Goodfellow’s meticulously researched book shows, these policies did not spring out of nothing, but are the culmination of decades of policies by governments from the right and from the left who, in one way or another, have sought to control and demonise those they choose to label as outsiders.

Exactly who is marked out in this way has varied over time. The ‘Other’ has been variously Irish, Jewish, Black, Brown – or from a country that is in some unspoken way considered ‘less than White’. At times, ‘economic migrants’ have been lauded as ‘coming here to work and contribute,’ while refugees have been suspect, presumed to be ‘bogus’ or ‘scroungers’. At other times, it is ‘genuine refugees’ who are said to be in need of our protection, while ‘economic migrants’ are accused of taking jobs and driving down wages while simultaneously scrounging off our benefit system.

What has been consistent, as Goodfellow shows only too clearly, is that migrants of one sort of another have been used as scapegoats by successive governments for their own failures to produce a more equal society, and who choose to ignore the historic and goppolitical reasons that bring people to our shores. A constant dripfeed of what Goodfellow calls xenoracism (the peculiarly toxic mixture of racism and xenophobia) has been fed to the general populace by politicians and the media, who then use people’s resulting ‘legitimate concerns about immigration’ as an excuse for further demonisation and even stricter immigration controls.

This is a book that left me shaking with fury. Not that there was much in it that I didn’t already know - but to see it all laid out so clearly in one place makes it clear how relentless it has all been. Seventy years after my father, as a young Masters student, began documenting the impact racism was having on the lives of Liverpool’s Black community, the public discourse is as toxic and institutionally divisive as it has been at any point in my lifetime. Goodfellow’s vision of a better , more open world, set out in her Conclusion, seems an impossible dream.

But as she also shows, that fear of the other is not as innate. There are plenty of examples of communities coming together in defence of those the authorities try to ‘other’ - for example to prevent deportations. Perhaps therein lies hope.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize, this is a book that lifts the veil on our immigration system and reveals the lies on which it is based and the human consequences of its controls.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Country of Refuge (ed Lucy Popescu) The Good Immigrant (ed Nikesh Shukla) Natives by Akala

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your preconceptions of immigrants and refugees challenged (but read it anyway!)

Perfect Accompaniment: A pot of tea made with leaves grown in India or Africa on plants brought from China by the merchants and soldiers of the British Empire

Genre: Non Fiction

Buy This Book Here: