Category: book reviews / recommendations

Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird

In The Locust and the Bird, the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh tells her mother’s life story, in her mother’s voice. Kamila, Hanan’s mother, is born to a destitute family in southern Lebanon in the late 1920s. They move to Beirut to live with an older half-sister, Manifa, though they are expected to earn their keep by selling wares door-to-door. In Beirut, Kamila discovers the world of music, fashion, and Egyptian movies. She also meets the love of her life, a cultivated man named Mohammed. When Manifa dies unexpectedly, the illiterate Kamila is married off, at the age of thirteen, to Manifa’s widower. They have two children (one of whom is the novelist) before Kamila manages to be reunited with Mohammed, whom she marries and to whom she bears several children.

Translated by Roger Allen, The Locust and the Bird is in some ways a tragic story, but it’s also an inspiring story, in which a woman manages to survive by her wits alone. Kamila is constantly trying to figure out ways to outsmart the men in her family. This is because, she tells us, “most of my friends were scared of every man in their family — even distant relatives — and this included the rich and the grand, like my glamorous cousin Mira.” Although Kamila’s struggles are occasionally rendered with minimal empathy and psychological depth, the story is engrossing. Reading this book, one comes to understand why Al-Shaykh has written so many novels with feisty heroines fighting back against male domination.

Photo credit: Al Ahram.

Abdourahman Waberi’s In The United States of Africa

I have an essay in The National about the work of the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, whose most recent novel is In The United States of Africa.

Most African fiction to which English-language readers are exposed seems to be exclusively concerned with the question of “what is?” The plight of child soldiers, the Aids pandemic, life under apartheid, the clash between traditions and modernity – these subjects make up the bulk of what English-language publishers translate. One plausible explanation for this is that too many British and American publishers view African literature through the prism of ethnology. And since their primary understanding of Africa comes from headlines about the continent’s troubles, it makes sense that novels exploring these subjects would attract their attention. Perhaps this is why writers such as the Congolese Wilfried N’Sondé or the Moroccan Fouad Laroui, whose work often addresses broad themes of love, friendship and betrayal, have never been translated into English.

Fortunately, the University of Nebraska Press has broken with this trend. It recently published In The United States of Africa, by the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, a novel that seems entirely concerned with the question of “what if?” What if Africa were the world’s locus of power? What if Europe and America were the third world? How would one perceive, think and speak about each continent? Which races and ethnicities would be described with specific and nuanced expressions – and which with vague and essentialist phrases?

You can read the full essay here.


Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones

My review of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones appeared this weekend in the Los Angeles Times. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: “Lolita’s” Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare’s Richard III and “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In “The Kindly Ones,” the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.

You can read the entire piece online here.

Salih Tributes

I have a small piece on the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih in this week’s issue of Time Magazine.  Here is the opening paragraph:

When I was in college, a friend of mine pressed with great urgency a copy of a slim little novel into my hands, as if he were aware it would satiate a hunger I didn’t know I had. That book was Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, who passed away in London on Feb. 18 at 80. I had been writing for some time by then, but Salih’s perceptive assessment of the relationship between East and West, his complex weaving of personal and political lives, and the beauty of his prose redefined fiction for me.

For those who are interested in the introduction I wrote for Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, an abridged version of the essay appears in this weekend’s National.


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