Michael Donkor – Hold

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Michael Donkor – Hold

Belinda knows her place in the world, when her father cannot pay for her anymore, her mother sends her away to work in the household of people she calls Aunt and Uncle in accordance with Ghanaian customs. She is not the only maid there, also 11-year-old Mary works for them and quickly becomes something like a sister Belinda never had. When Belinda is sent to England to take care of Amma, a girl her own age, the two have to part which isn’t easy for either of them. Yet, they manage to stay in contact over the thousands of kilometres that now separate them. Mary wants to know everything about Belinda’s posh life in London, but the older sister cannot tell everything that she experiences in England. Her role is different now which is hard to get used to and people behave in a different way. She misses her home town, but also sees the chance that she is given since she can go back to school and study. When a tragic incident calls her back to Africa, Belinda realises that only a couple of months were enough to change her completely.

Michael Donkor was born in England to a Ghanaian household and trained as an English teacher and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing. He was selected as a “New Face in Fiction” by The Observer in January 2018. “Hold” is his debut novel in which also autobiographical elements can be found even though his protagonist is female and he has lived all his life in the UK.

What I liked about the novel were the different perspectives on life that you get and the difficulties that living between different cultures can mean for you personally but also for the people around you. First of all, I hardly know anything about Ghana so the beginning of the novel when we meet Mary and Belinda, young girls who work full time as maids, gives a short glance at what life in other parts of the world might be. They were not treated especially bad, quite the contrary, but the fact that the lack of money in their family leads to giving up education is something which is far away from our world in Europe.

Most interesting also Belinda’s arrival in London and her awareness of being different. She has brown skin, but this is different from the Asian brown of the Indians or the skin of the girls from Jamaica. It is those slight differences that are of course seen by the members of those groups at the margin but often neglected by the majority society. Even though she shares the same cultural background with Amma, the two girls could hardly be more distinct. The most obvious is their sexual orientation where Belinda sticks to a romantic understanding of love and where Amma has her coming-out as homosexual. Belinda can easily adapt to a lot of things, but this clearly transgresses a line that she will not cross. The girls’ friendship is nothing that comes easy for both of them, but it splendid how Donkor developed it throughout the novel.

Without a doubt, Michael Donkor is a great new voice among the British writers who themselves have made the experience of belonging – but not completely, of being trapped between cultures and having to find their identity while growing up.

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Akil Kumarasamy – Half Gods

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Akil Kumarasamy – Half Gods

What is decisive for your character: your upbringing? your parents? the place you grow up? your friends? your skin colour? Your ancestors? And can you ever overcome the lives that your fathers and grand-fathers lived, the experiences they have had? Akil Kumarasamy’ debut “Half Gods” is a collection of ten stories some of which are linked since we encounter the same characters at a different stage of their life, one time as the protagonist, next time as a minor character. What links them, too, is the characters pondering about who they are, where they belong, where they go to and who the people are they call family.

I really liked some of the stories, others were a bit more difficult for me. The situation of immigrants who want to fit in, make an effort, try to assimilate but never really get the same status as the natives, that’s something I found a lot more interesting than those war scenes in Sri Lanka. It is especially the grandfather, remembering his life in Asia and who had never really arrived in the USA that I could identify with and that I felt pity for.

Even though the short stories are wonderfully written, with many beautiful metaphors and many phrases that are perfectly to the point, they only party worked for me. I appreciated that some are connected and that characters reoccur, even if this wasn’t in chronological order, but then there are also stories that stand completely alone which make it all a bit strange for me. Also the fact that there wasn’t a clear red thread recognizable was something I did not especially appreciate.

Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)

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Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish)

Afua Hirsch, daughter of an Englishman of German-Jewish descent and a Ghanaian mother, grew up in Wimbledon in rather affluent and educated surroundings. Her skin colour did not really matter when she was a kid, but growing up, she became more and more aware of the fact that she does not really belong: she isn’t white as the others and she isn’t black either. Being “mixed” did not double her identity but create a gap. For years she has been searching for her identity, for a place of belonging. “Brit(ish)” is the result of this process and a sharp analysis of what “black” and “white” actually mean in Britain.

I found Afua Hirsch’s book quite informative and interesting. She creates an easily readable mixture of a personal report, her feelings and experiences, combined with journalistic facts and figures which underline and support her theories. Thus the book gives you a deep insight in this highly complex and definitely neglected topic.

Afua Hirsch addresses several aspects which reflect the concept of “otherness” pretty well, amongst them origins, bodies and places. The simple question “where are you from” becomes highly difficult if you feel like being British but are perceived as being different and foreign. It becomes even more complicated when you go to another country, in Afua Hirsch’s case Senegal, where you are identified as absolutely British. The sense of not belonging to either group makes it especially hard to build an identity. Added to this a cultural attributions society makes to certain groups, e.g. the black being uneducated and criminals – which might run counter to one’s own perception. Afua Hirsch describes it as

“a permanent and constant consciousness of feeling at odds with my surroundings, of being defined by skin, hair, an unpronounceable name, and the vague fact of a murky background from a place that was synonymous with barbarity and wretchedness, I was that awkward, highly noticeable outsider (…), everywhere.”

The examples she provides of what happened to black people in Britain are stunning, we as Europeans like to believe that we are less prejudiced, more open-minded and “colourblind”, particularly in comparison to the USA, but reality tells a different story. In Britain, the concept of class adds to the racial differences and complicates the situation even more.

What I personally found most interesting was the contrast between the American blacks and the British. How they identify themselves, how they bond and develop a kind of group identity or sense of belonging overseas whereas the British never became a common group since they did not share an experience like segregation in the US.

Even though the book is neither journalistically neutral nor a pure personal report, it is absolutely worth reading to get an impression of the topic. I would absolutely agree that there is a white spot on black British history which needs to be filled.

Stefan Ferdinand Etgeton – Das Glück meines Bruders

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Stefan Ferdinand Etgeton – Das Glück meines Bruders

Ein letztes Mal wollen die Brüder Botho und Arno van Dijk in das belgische Dörfchen Doel fahren, wo einst ihre Großeltern lebten. Das Dorf wird bald nicht mehr sein, der Hafen wird ausgebaut und die Bewohner mussten weichen. Doch die Jungen haben noch ihre Kindheitserinnerungen dort, jeden Sommer haben sie an der Küste verbracht. Angekommen müssen sie jedoch feststellen, dass von ihrer Kindheit nicht mehr viel geblieben ist. Die Menschen sind weggezogen oder gestorben und auch ansonsten erkennen sie nicht mehr viel wieder. Doch dann werden Botho und Arno eingeholt, der eine spricht zum ersten Mal über das, was nie gesagt wurde und doch sein ganzes Leben bestimmt hat. Der andere macht sich auf das Mädchen nochmals zu treffen, die vielleicht seine Partnerin fürs Leben hätte werden können. Der Schritt nach vorne im Leben beginnt zunächst für beiden mit vielen Schritten zurück in die Vergangenheit.

Stefan Ferdinand Etgeton hat keinen leichten Roman geschrieben. Die beiden Brüder tragen ein schweres Erbe, das jedoch völlig verschieden ist, sie aber jeweils daran hindert, das Leben zu leben, das sie leben wollen. Mit Anfang 30 sind sie eigentlich erwachsen und doch verharren sie noch in der Jugend. Der Zeitpunkt, sich den Dämonen zu stellen, scheint gekommen und damit werden sie recht typische Vertreter ihrer Generation: immer geht es automatisch weiter und das Leben findet in einem so hohen Tempo statt, dass für Innehalten keine Zeit bleibt. Bis der Tag gekommen ist, an dem die essentiellen Fragen gestellt werden: wer bin ich? Wo komme ich her? Wer will ich sein?

Viele Themen werden fast nebenbei angerissen, sind aber für die zentrale Frage dessen, was die Persönlichkeit bestimmt, von wesentlichem Belang. Missbrauchserfahrungen aus der Kindheit, die nie verarbeitet wurden und nicht zwangsweise aber doch häufig in Suchtverhalten und einer gewissen Lebensunfähigkeit enden. Das Verhältnis von Eltern und Kindern, das dann problematisch wird, die Erwartungen der einen Seite und die Träume der anderen auseinanderklaffen. Das Verharren im was-hätte-sein-können, das lähmt und einem daran hindert das zu tun, was man eigentlich tun möchte.

„Das Glück meines Bruders“ – man fragt sich am Ende, wer von den beiden das Glück gefunden hat und worin es besteht. Es scheint als würde die Ausgangskonstellation umgekehrt und der geerdete Botho mit dem bürgerlichen Job als Lehrer gerät in die Rolle des Verlorenen, des Suchenden, dem alle Bezüge zur Realität fehlen, während Arno sich in einer funktionierenden Beziehung mit geregelter Arbeit und einem offenbar hohen Maß an Zufriedenheit wiederfindet.

Wie fragil ist das Glück, das wir empfinden, wenn es durch einen Besuch an einem Ort der Vergangenheit zerbrechen kann? Und wie stabil ist unser Selbstbild – oder ist es doch nur eine gesellschaftliche Rolle, die wir annehmen und die uns gerade passt, vielleicht aber irgendwann zu eng wird? In einer Zeit, die von schnellem Wandel geprägt ist, in der von uns allen erwartet wird, dass wir flexibel und mobil sind, unsere Zelte hier ab und anderer Stelle wieder aufbauen und uns immer wieder auf Neues einstellen sollen, wird die Frage der Identität möglicherweise viele Menschen in einen ähnlichen Strudel stürzen wie Etgetons Protagonisten. Dies könnte tatsächlich eine der Hauptfragen unserer Gesellschaft werden. Bemerkenswert, wie man ein solches Thema doch in einem lockeren und oftmals unterhaltsamen Ton umsetzen kann.

Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

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Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

Reza Courdee is living the typical teenage life in California. He has got his friends with whom he likes to spend time surfing in the ocean and haging around at the beach and he also has his first crush and makes first sexual experiences. He plays soccer and he is highly achieving in school. Yet, with his new bunch of friends, he neglects his former interests and spends more time consuming drugs and doing nothing which does not really agree with his parents’ – immigrants from Iran – expectations for their son. However, one day, his life starts to change: Reza, born in the USA, is suddenly the immigrant, a terrorist and his friends start to question their friendship. He becomes more and more isolated and thus joins a group of Muslims who find relief and support in the local mosque. Most of all Fatima is attracted by the strong believers and the hip American girl, who easily shared her bed with Reza, starts not only wearing a hijab but also following the strict rules of Koran.

I really liked how Laleh Khadivi elaborates the topic of finding your identity on different levels. In the beginning, we seem to encounter the average teenager who does not share his parents’ beliefs and finds his ideas much more mirrored in his peer group. A slight disdain for the elder generation is not uncommon at this age. The fact that his Americanizes his name “Reza” into “Rez” also shows that it is this culture and not his familial background that he identifies with. I also found quite remarkable how the parents cope with their own immigration history and their culture. They eat in the old Iranian style, but try to integrate into the American culture since they are grateful for the lives they can lead there. They do not seem to convey that much of their past to their son. This only happens after Rez is identified as an immigrant, which he apparently is not since he was born in California. His interest in his family life is only born at the moment when he is excluded from the culture he always considered to be his own. His drifting away from the parents now leads to a new rapprochement in order to create the new self and to identify who he is and where he comes from. The most thought-provoking step in this development is definitely the encounter with Islam. As a reader you can effortlessly understand why this is attractive and how and why radicals do not have any problems winning over second or third generation immigrants for their ideas. It is absolutely convincing why Fatima and the others are magnetized and easy comply with the codes.

Yet, it is not only the immigrants’ perspective which is worth scrutinizing in this novel, it is also the behaviour of the “native” population which should be taken into account. When did we start seeing our friends and acquaintances not anymore as whom they are but as “Muslims” or “immigrants”? Which effects do global and local acts of terrorism have on our own life? And to what extent to be transfer personal pain due to the loss of a beloved person onto others who are not at all connected with the incident which caused our grief?

If you are open, as a reader, to question yourself, you will surely find food for thought in this novel.