Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy

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Nicole Dennis-Benn – Patsy

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.

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

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Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

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.

Maria Kuznetsova – Oksana, Behave!

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Maria Kuznetsova – OKsana, Behave!

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.

Abbas Khider – Deutsch für alle

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Abbas Khider – Deutsch für alle

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.

Fatima Farheen Mirza – A Place For Us

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Fatima Farheen Mirza  – A Place For Us

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.

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.

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.

Didier van Cauwelaert – Un aller simple

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Didier van Cauwelaert – Un aller simple

Aziz Kemal, durch und durch Marseillais, hat eine mysteriöse Vergangenheit. Seine Eltern sind tot, das weiß er, aber er kennt weder seinen echten Namen und die genauen Umstände. Er saß in einem Citroën Ami 6, daher sein Name „Aziz“, und wurde letztlich von Zigeunern adoptiert. So richtig hat er nie dazugehört, sich aber hervorragend an die Umstände angepasst. Er geht gerne zur Schule, aber irgendwo muss das Geld zum Leben ja herkommen, weshalb er schon in jungen Jahren zum Spezialisten für Autoradios wird und früh der staatlichen Bildung Adieu sagen muss. Viele Jahre geht das alles gut, doch plötzlich gerät er ins Visier der Behörden, die mit dem gutaussehenden Jugendlichen ein Exempel statuieren wollen: Aziz soll als illegaler Einwanderer in sein Heimatland zurückgeführt werden. Das Problem ist nur: weder war er jemals in Marokko noch spricht er Arabisch. Das ist aber kein Problem, der Attaché Jean-Pierre Schneider wird schon darauf achten, dass der Bursche dahin zurückkehrt, wo er herkam.

Die erste Hälfte von Didier van Cauwelaerts Roman ist nur so gespickt von Absurditäten, die dem elternlosen Aziz geschehen. Seine Kindheit unter Roma, das Arrangieren in einer Welt, die nach eigenen Gesetzen funktioniert und die des anderen Frankreichs geschickt umdeutet, entbehrt nicht einer gewissen Komik, was den Kleinkriminellen zu einer sympathischen Figur macht. So fühlt man auch mit ihm, wenn er zunächst selbst Opfer eines Betrugs wird und dann in die völlig absurde Abschiebesituation gerät. Diese offenbart aber überzeugend, wie im Staat nach Schema F verfahren wird und die reale Situation überhaupt nicht hinterfragt wird.

Im zweiten Teil rückt mehr und mehr der Attaché in den Vordergrund, dessen Lebensgeschichte durchaus Parallelen aufweist. Auch er ist in gewisser Weise elternlos, kann seine Träume nicht erfüllen und wird fremdbestimmt. Auch wenn er Aziz‘ Geschichte nicht verstehen kann, ist er doch menschlich, was die beiden immer näher zusammenbringt und den dritten Handlungsabschnitt einläutet, der Aziz zurück und in die Vergangenheit Jean-Pierres führt.

„Un aller simple“ wurde 1994 mit dem Prix Goncourt ausgezeichnet. Die Verbindung zwischen der Situations-Absurdität und der unterliegenden Ernsthaftigkeit macht ihn zu einem würdigen Preisträger. Die Tatsache, dass das Buch fast 25 Jahre nach dem Erscheinen nichts an Aktualität und Relevanz eingebüßt hat, unterstreicht dies nur noch. Ein kurzer Roman, den man nicht übersehen sollte. Die deutsche Ausgabe ist unter dem Titel „Das Findelkind“ erschienen, was leider nicht ansatzweise das auszudrücken vermag, was der französische Titel beinhaltet; bleibt nur zu hoffen, dass der Rest der Übersetzung dem Buch gerecht wird.

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.