The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.
Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.
It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.
The seasonal quartet comes to a conclusion with “Summer” which is set in the troubling spring of 2020. Teenagers Sacha and Robert know about the problems the planet faces, not just the virus which locks them down, but climate change, the refugee crisis, Brexit and the unreliability of media and the political class make them ponder about the times they are living in. But it is not only the big issues that trouble the siblings, also the typical quarrels of brother and sister and their parents’ separation occupy their minds. But other times, too, challenged people and nevertheless lead to great outcomes.
Once more, just like in her former novels, not only the ones belonging to the quartet, there is so much in it which makes it really difficult to review. Many aspects mentioned are worth commenting on, in the first place, Ali Smith’s writing, again, is simply marvellous, the way she uses language in this specific novel also moves to a metalevel discussing words and the ability to express oneself also without using oral language. In a times when words are misused to blind and mislead people – some doing this even quite overtly – you have to become even more careful with what you say and easily realise that maybe the language as we know and use it is not enough anymore.
I really adored her characters in this novel, first and foremost Robert, even though he also behaves, quite typical for his age, nasty at times. He is on the brink of losing his childish innocence, clever as he is, he asks questions and investigates and even though only 13 years old, can brilliantly analyse the politicians’ deceit. When investigating Einstein, a mastermind he admires for his scientific achievement, he also becomes aware of the fact that sometimes, people can have two sides at the same time which might be difficult to bring together.
Topics which were addressed in the former parts are now picked up again and thus, “Summer” forms a perfect conclusion. Even with the sheer mass of big problems, Smith’s novel provides hope, especially with the young generation portrayed here. They are heroes and have the capacity of making a change. For Sacha, climate activists, NHS workers and Black Lives Matter protesters are heroes according to her definition:
“I have a vision that the modern sense of being a hero is like shining a bright light on things that need to be seen. I guess that if someone does this it brings its own consequences.”
In her understanding, everybody can become a hero, we only have to start.
1928 verlässt Vicente Rosenberg seine Heimat Warschau Richtung Südamerika. In Buenos Aires gründet er mit Rosita eine Familie und eröffnet ein Möbelgeschäft. Sie bekommen drei Kinder und alles entwickelt sich prächtig in der lebendigen Stadt. Doch dann werden die Briefe der Mutter zunehmend besorgniserregend. Juden hatten es schon lange nicht mehr leicht, aber nun scheint sich die Lage doch zu verschlimmern. Während die Nazis in Europa die Endlösung vorbereiten, sitzt Vicente machtlos 12.000 Kilometer entfernt. Nachrichten erreichen ihn nur spärlich und verzögert, bald schon kann und will er diese nicht mehr ertragen und zieht sich zurück in sein inneres Ghetto. Wie die Mauer, die Warschau umschließt, verschließt er sich vor der Welt und seiner Familie. Fragen nach der Identität – was ist er: Pole, Argentinier, Jude? – und Schuld – hätte er mehr tun müssen, um seine Mutter zur Auswanderung zu bewegen, bevor es zu spät war? – plagen ihn bis er nur noch einen einzigen Ausweg für sich sieht.
Santiago Amigorena schildert die Geschichte seines Großvaters, seiner Familie, die Vertreibung auf beide Seiten des Atlantiks erlebt hat. Viele Sprachen fließen in seinen Adern, Vicente wächst mit dem Jiddischen auf, lernt dann Polnisch für die Schule, ist begeistert von der deutschen Sprache und Kultur und eigentlich sich dann das argentinische Spanisch an, sein Enkel muss später im französischen Exil erneut eine andere Sprache erlernen. Doch alle Sprachen der Welt können nicht das Entsetzen zum Ausdruck bringen, dass mit der Shoa verbunden ist und das am Beispiel Vicentes greifbar wird.
Es sind nur wenige Jahre, die Amigorena schildert, von Ende 1940 bis zum Waffenstillstand 1945, diese jedoch sind entscheidend für Vicente Rosenberg und machen aus dem lebendigen und energischen jungen Vater einen gebrochenen Mann. Der kurze Roman ist dicht und voller essentieller Fragen, die nachdenklich stimmen.
„Wie alle Juden hatte Vicente geglaubt, vieles zu sein, bis die Nazis ihm zeigten, dass ihn tatsächlich nur eines charakterisierte: sein Jüdischsein.“
Weder war er besonders religiös, noch war das Jiddische seine Alltagssprache, in verschiedenen Ländern und Sprachen zu Hause wurde plötzlich etwas zum Distinktionsmerkmal, das Hitler und seine Gefolgsleute brauchten, um sich selbst zu rechtfertigen. Die Definition des Ichs obliegt jetzt nicht mehr dem Individuum, sondern ihm wird zugeschrieben, was er/sie ist und trotz der Entfernung merkt auch Vicente, dass er sich zunehmend als Jude identifiziert und Mitglied der Leidensgemeinschaft wird, ohne jedoch unmittelbar selbst Leid zu erfahren.
Genau dieses treibt ihn in den emotionalen Ausnahmezustand. Er fühlt eine Schuld, fühlt sich als Verräter, denn er ist weit entfernt von der Gräuel, muss nicht erleben, was seine Familie und Freunde durchmachen müssen. Dabei verfügt er nur über wenig Belastbares, was das Ausmaß der Schandtaten angeht. Wie alle anderen ahnt er, dass unbegreifliche Dinge geschehen, aber erst nach der Befreiung wird die Welt begreifen und einen Begriff dafür finden, was die Nazis in Europa angerichtet haben. Doch das wenige Wissen reicht schon, um Vicente zur inneren Migration zu veranlassen und das Reden einzustellen. Nicht dass er nicht wollte, er kann nicht mehr. Das, was er durchlebt, ist sinnbildlich für das, was sich in den Lagern abspielte, und was nicht in Worte zu fassen ist.
Amigorenas Roman war nach Erscheinen 2019 für alle großen französischen Literaturpreise nominiert, was einem nach der Lektüre nicht verwundert. Die Geschichte ist intensiv, jedes Wort passt hier und lässt den Ausnahmezustand des Protagonisten greifbar werden. Der Aufbau in der Parallelität zwischen den inneren und äußeren Vorgängen ist schlicht genial. „Kein Ort ist fern genug“ ist eines dieser ganz wenigen Bücher, die man liest und denkt: so geht große Literatur.
Patricia Reynolds, called Patsy, has waited for years to fulfil her dream: going to the USA and leaving Jamaica behind. Even though she only got a visitor’s visa, she plans to never come back and instead make a career in the north just like her best friend Cicely. She abandons her daughter Tru who is too young to understand what happens and now has to cope with living with a new family while her mother seemingly enjoys her life in the Big Apple. However, it does not take too long for Patsy to understand that nobody waited for illegal immigrants and that she will have to take cleaning and nursing jobs to survive. The years pass and while Patsy slowly has to accept that her dream of a better life will never come true, her daughter struggles to find her place in a world that she simply does not fit in. She wants to play football like the boys and tries to ignore all signs that make her a girl.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel offers a broad variety of subjects ranging from the situation of undocumented immigrants and their lives in the shadows, dreams her characters have that simply do not come true, the concepts of being a man or a woman and behaving according to others’ expectations, what it means to be a mother and to stick to your ideas and goals in life nevertheless, love and abuse, unhealthy relationships and dishonest friendships.
The author wonderfully parallels the developments of mother and daughter under harsh circumstances in the two different countries. Albeit the fact that there is an age gap of 21 years, a lot of progress is analogous like adapting to a new situation, high hopes that increasingly have to be adjusted to reality and finally, finding love where they never would have expected it. Especially Patsy’s American Dream gone bad is very powerfully narrated, most of all the moments when darkness surrounds her are most compelling. While I found most of the plot very interesting and brilliantly narrated, the novel was a bit too long and thus lengthy at times for my liking.
A typical patchwork family: mother with daughter and father with son form a new unit after the parents got to know each other through work. For a new professional project of the father, they leave New York and their cosy home for the southern states close to the Mexican border. A very unique road trip of a family which is educating for their young children, but also brings them closer to the hot political topic: thousands of children are on their way to the border to come to the USA. As the family gets closer, the radio news become more and more a part of their life, too.
Valeria Luiselli’s novel was nominated on the long list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and you can quickly understand why it definitely earned a place there: the author masterly combines fact and fiction, mixes different types of materials to for something new and she has an outstanding capacity of using language.
There is so much one could say about the novel which makes it difficult to make a selection for a short review. The largest part is narrated from the mother’s point of view, a character who is highly poetic in describing especially her family relationships and who thoroughly analyses not only how the dynamics within the family shift but also how they interact with the outside world. I also liked this idea of having boxes in which each of the characters collects things with a certain meaning for them. Then, you have the American history – the past with the stories of the Native Americans which is contrasted with the present and its train of children moving towards the country.
The characters are not given any names, they are just mother and father, son and daughter. They could be anybody. They are you and me confronted with the real world and forced to understand that we live in a kind of multi-layered reality in which you repeatedly have to adjust yourself and your opinion depending on your current point of view and knowledge and experiences. The novel does not provide definitive answers, but it provides you with masses of questions to ponder about.
Ukraine is not what it was anymore and therefore, Oksana’s family decides to leave the country for America. Yet, life is not easy there. The father, a former physicist, does not find an adequate job and therefore delivers pizza; the mother is depressed after having lost another child early in her pregnancy; for the eccentric grandmother things are even worse. And Oksana? She is the strange kid in school. Due to her frequent misunderstandings, she gets herself constantly in trouble and behaves in a very bizarre way in her classmates’ opinion. However, while growing up, life in this strange country gets easier for her, but there is a Ukrainian part in Oksana that still lings for another side of per personality and in Roman, also of Russian decent, she finds a man with whom she can share the undefined longing.
Maria Kuznetsova herself knows what Oksana goes through when being moved from an eastern European country to the US, since she herself had to leave Kiev as a child to emigrate. Her debut is hard to sum up in just a couple of words: it is hilariously funny at the beginning when the family arrives in Florida, throughout the plot, however, they superficial amusement turns into a more thoughtful narrative that focuses on the sincerer aspects of migration and its impact on the development of a young person.
Oksana surely is a very unique character, very naive and trusting at first, she quite naturally falls prey to masses of misunderstandings and is bullied by the other children. Throughout the novel, it is not the relationships with the outside world that are interesting, but first and foremost, those within the family. Especially between Oksana and her father who is fighting hard to succeed and offer the best to his family. As a young girl, Oksana cannot really understand her mother, it takes some years until she finally realises what makes her depressed and cry so much. However, it is especially the grandmother who has a big impact on her, even though the full extent of their love and commitment will only show at the very end.
“Oksana, Behave!” is an exceptional novel in several respects. What I appreciated most is the comical tone with which the story is told and the way in which Maria Kuznetsova showed the girl’s growing up as a process which does not go without trouble but is also heart-warming.
Deutsche Sprache – schwere Sprache. Den Spruch kennen wir alle, als Muttersprachler kann man zwar nachvollziehen, aber wie komplex unsere Sprache als Fremdsprache zu erlernen ist, darüber macht man sich im Allgemeinen kaum Gedanken. Abbas Khider lässt anlässlich der vielen Geflüchteten der letzten Jahre seinen eigenen Lernprozess Revue passieren. Seit 20 Jahren lebt er bereits in Deutschland, hat Literatur und Philosophie studiert und beherrscht die deutsche Sprache ohne Frage. Aber es gibt nach wie vor Aspekte, die ihn in den Wahnsinn treiben und von denen er fürchtet, dass er sie nie wirklich beherrschen wird. Was ist zu tun? Ein einfacheres Deutsch muss her, ein Deutsch, das alle lernen können.
Seine Vorschläge zur Vereinfachung unserer Sprache sind nicht ganz ernstzunehmen, wenn auch nachvollziehbar. Drei Artikel, die ohne jegliche Logik verteilt und anzuwenden sind, der unsägliche Satzbau in Nebensätzen, der das Verb ans Ende schiebt oder gar auseinanderreißt, daneben die unterschiedlichen Fälle mit ihren spezifischen Deklinationen und die Umlaute erst: wie soll man zwischen Fee und Vieh oder Mönche und München denn wirklich so einfach unterscheiden kennen, wenn es nur Nuancen sind? – man will sich gar nicht vorstellen, wie lange es tatsächlich dauert all das zu beherrschen. Und tatsächlich bleibt der Sinn nachvollziehbar, wenn man so einiges wegstreicht. Die Sprache macht es aber auch nicht schöner, also ist es vielleicht doch keine so gute Idee.
Neben seinen Überlegungen zur Komplexität der deutschen Sprache lässt Khider auch viele seiner eigenen Erfahrungen einfließen, von absurd-komisch bis erschreckend sind die Begebenheiten, von denen er berichtet. Von Unterstützung und Hilfe schreibt er ebenso wie von offenem Rassismus, der ihm als Iraker entgegenschlug.
Für mich eine gelungene Mischung von linguistischer Betrachtung und Anekdoten und meines Erachtens auch ein wichtiger Beitrag in der unsäglichen Immigrationsdebatte, denn wie schwer es vielen gemacht wird, die sich hier ein Leben aufbauen wollen und hochmotiviert sind, wird leider oft vergessen und auf die Negativbeispiele fokussiert.
It’s Hadia’s wedding day and more than anything else she has wished for her brother Amar to show up and take part in it. She hasn’t seen him for quite some time and then he is there. However, things do not turn out so well, but they never have with Amar. Flashback to the times when the kids were still young and all five of them a family: Rafiq who left his home country in the Middle East when he was still a teenager to make a career in the US, mother Layla who came to the country when she married Rafiq, the two daughters Hadia and Huda and their younger brother Amar. Raising three kids in Muslim believe in a foreign country, handing on your convictions and traditions when they are daily endangered by a different set of believes and culture is never easy. Conflicts must arise and so they do until Amar leaves the family. But there are still things none of them knows and Hadia’s wedding might be the day to reveal some secrets.
There is no single word to describe Fatima Farheen Mirza’s novel. I was stunned, excited, angry, understanding, I felt pity for the characters, I loathed them, I could understand them and I just wondered about them. I guess there are few emotions that did not come up when reading it and certainly it never left me cold. Is there more you can expect when reading a book? I don’t think so.
There is so much in it that I hardly know where to begin: there are typical family relationships that are questioned when children grow up. We have the problem of immigrant parents who do not fully assimilate with the welcoming culture but want to hand on something from their native background which necessarily collides within the children. There is love, forbidden love and rules of how a partner is to be found. There are differences made between the daughters and the son, rivalry between the siblings and we have parents who have to question the way they interact with their children and sometimes do not know what to do at all.
It might stem from the fact that I am female, but I liked Hadia best and felt most sympathetic with her. Even though Rafiq explains that he only wanted to protect his daughters, the fact that he limited her in all respects: friends, personal freedom as a child or teenager, even her academic success wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm because the father wanted his daughter to become a mother a take care of a future husband. She had to fight so many wars and was always treated inferior solely because she was a girl, I absolutely fest sorry for her.
Rafiq never reaches the point where he can fully accept his daughters as equals and this is the point where I most detested him. He understood what he did wrong with his son, but he makes masses of excuses and justifies his parenting with his own experiences and upbringing. This is just pitiable because he is stuck in a view of the world which he could have overcome in all the years in a western society. I can follow his thoughts at the end of the novel and surely this is quite authentic, I know people in reality whose world view shares a lot of similarities and I surely would like to know how one can open their eyes and make them overcome the stubborn ideas of women being inferior and parents knowing everything best. I was actually pretty angry at the end when Rafiq finally gets a voice and can ultimately share his thoughts since there isn’t much I could agree with.
All in all, an outstanding novel which addresses so many of today’s issues and surely shouldn’t be missed.
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.
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.