books, Historical Fiction, Immigration, People of Color, Reading

“Black Mamba Boy” by Nadifa Mohamed

“Life is just this, Jama thought, a long journey, with lightness and darkness falling over you, companions all around on their own journeys. Each person sitting passively or impatiently, wondering whether the tracks of their fate would take them on a clattering iron horse to their destination or would sweep them away on an invisible path to another world.”

9780312569235Nadifa Mohamed’s “Black Mamba Boy” is a sprawling, nomadic tale of Jama, a young Somali boy who goes on a quest to find his father and, ultimately, to find manhood. Our story begins when Jama is a preteen, living with his mother on the begrudged scraps of extended family.

“Jama was tired of always turning up a beggar at people’s doors, begging for someone’s leftover food, leftover attention, leftover love.”

Jama lives on the margins of society, alternately embraced and cursed by his mother, spending days running errands and perpetrating petty thefts among the microcosm of market boys.

“Market boys of all different hues, creeds, and languages gathered at the beach to play, bathe, and fight. They were a roll call of infectious diseases, mangled limbs, and deformities.”

Jama is accustomed to having to fend for himself; he is impossibly tough and yet surprisingly tender-hearted.

“Living on the streets intermittently from the age of six had furnished him with a wolfish instinct for self-preservation; he could sense danger through the small hairs on his lower back and taste it in the thick, dusty air.”

His is a story of constant heartache and loss. When his mother dies, Jama flees Aden in search of his estranged father; he is a boy on an epic and daunting journey, crossing unknown lands with little knowledge and less help. Nadifa Mohamed employs all of the heroic quest devices of ancient lore; there are famines and floods, conquerors and colonials, and daunting, expansive geography. Covering more than a decade (1930s-1940s), “Black Mamba Boy” stretches from Aden, Yemen through Hargeisa, Somaliland to Eritrea to Egypt to Palestine and beyond. The reader can’t help but struggle alongside Jama as he fights his way through one untenable situation after another. His will and his tenacity are all that stand between him and utter destruction.

Mohamed handles the base, dehumanizing white racism of colonials in Africa with unapologetic venom and explicit brutality. She also deals with both the communal loyalty and fidelity which come with tribalism, as well as the seemingly inevitable conflicts and oppression which stem from intertribal friction. In Mohamed’s capable hands, the reader sees clearly that while Jama sometimes benefits from his membership to clan, friends and compatriots are just as often subjugated because of their clan or familial affiliation.

Though the tropes of the hero’s journey are, at their barest form, familiar, Mohamed’s narrative is a refreshing perspective. “Black Mamba Boy” is a story of tribalism, of belonging, and of perseverance beyond all human understanding. It is expansive and enchanting.



books, Immigration, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers” by Xiaolu Guo

          “Is unbelievable, I arriving London, ‘Heathlow Airport’. Every single name very difficult remembering, because just not ‘London Airport’ simple way like we simply way call ‘Beijing Airport’. Everything very confuse way here, passengers is separating in two queues.
          Sign in front of queue say: ALIEN and NON ALIEN.
          I am alien, like Hollywood film Alien, I live in another planet, with funny looking and strange language.
          I standing in most longly and slowly queue with all aliens waiting for visa checking. I feel little criminal but I doing nothing wrong so far.”

unnamed-4As the title might lead you to believe, “A Concise-English Dictionary for Lovers” is intimate and personal. A Chinese woman, who calls herself Z, arrives in London to study English. As she struggles culturally and linguistically, she records her thoughts, her experiences, and her acquired language. Z soon meets and moves in with an English man twice her age, and these lovers enter an embroiled, intense, and often ill-matched relationship.

           “‘You’ve invaded my privacy! You can’t do that!’ First time, you shout to me, like a lion.
         ‘What privacy? But we living together! No privacy if we are lovers!’
          ‘Of course there is! Everybody has privacy!’
          But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son, and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart.”

“You look at me surprisely. You know I like to fight. I am woman warrior. I like to do everything through fighting. I fight for everything. Struggle for everything. We Chinese are used to struggle get everything: food, education, house, freedom, visa, and human rights. If no need struggle then we don’t know how to live anymore.”

“A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers” reads like a diary, forcing an intimacy between reader and narrator. Guo has written this novel in intentionally poor English and populated the story with intentionally awkward characters, characters whose literal struggle to communicate highlights the metaphorical struggle of all relationships. The theme was thoughtfully developed if not artfully developed, leaving me with the temporary satiety of a quickly eaten and soon forgotten meal.