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

“The Parking Lot Attendant” by Nafkote Tamirat

          “During my second week on the island, I woke up in the witching hour between night and day and saw the sky divided into pink, orange, and gold. The lines between each were jagged but distinct, and I realized that this probably happened all the time, I’d just been sleeping through it. It made me hope that I would have something to look forward to.
           When I indulge in this crepuscular glory (the colors always differ, the patterns sometimes less defined) it’s easier to believe that I’m here by choice. It’s only when the sun comes out and my father silently rises from bed that I know I have once again been fooled. More infuriating is the knowledge that come the next dawn, I’ll be fooled once more.
            I’m beginning to feel old.”

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Our unnamed narrator is a high school aged girl who finds herself with her father in a secret island community established by representatives of the Ethiopian diaspora. We learn, over time, that their presence on the island isn’t completely unforeseen; over the past several years, she has ingratiated herself to a man named Ayale, virtually the king of the Ethiopian underworld of Boston, and the presumed leader of this island community.

Our narrator is now essentially held captive with her father, a man with whom she has a complicated relationship.

“It hasn’t escaped my notice that while the others persist in treating me like a plague victim, my father has only to tinker with an object for ten seconds before, hey presto, he’s the goddamn Messiah. I don’t like that people are gravitating toward him, asking him for counsel, blatantly fucking liking him. I’m sorry, but that’s not who we are and that’s not what we do: we’re supposed to be ignored and all the better for it. Nonetheless, he continues to betray me with his popularity. I don’t know why I expected otherwise. I don’t know how I could have forgotten and let myself love him so recklessly.”

The narrator embodies the spirit and essence of the novel – detachment. As a child of immigrants, as a precocious and rebellious teenager, as a member of a diaspora, she is set apart and always at a remove from the world around her.

“I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere ‘It’s so pretty!’ I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.”

The challenge of writing a novel about detachment, of course, is that it strains to engage the reader in a meaningful way. From the narrator’s tone to the shadowed ways in which the plot was revealed, this book was well-written certainly, but far from gripping. Where I had hoped for a searing peek at a subculture thriving in and around Boston, the book’s disorienting atmosphere left me a bit cold and disconnected.

Thank you to Henry Holt for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy
in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

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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.