Category Archives: fiction
America continues to find itself in the midst of social and political upheaval. The era of Jim Crow and racial persecution are reminders of a not too distant past. The young generation of today will have their own causes to fight and believe in and some of them will resemble the monumental effort behind the push for racial equality that culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. James Baldwin (1924-1987) served as an unofficial historian, transforming what he witnessed into the books he left us with that examine the ills of society and human nature. Race and sexuality have been the focus of several of his works based in part of his own ethnic makeup and homosexuality. In the classic Giovanni’s Room, he addressed the inner conflict faced by those who struggle with bisexuality. In this book, he once again touches on that topic and love in general while supplementing the main topics with the complicated and tragic concept of human nature.
The story begins in Harlem, New York as we are introduced to a musician named Rufus Scott. He has just met a recent transplant to New York City from Georgia named Leona. Sparks fly between the two and Rufus invites her to an after party at the apartment of a friend. It is there that they come intimate and that encounter sets into motion a chain of events that affects nearly every single character in the book. Rufus’ best friend in Vivaldo, a young Italian from Brooklyn. He is involved with an older woman named Jane, who has a drinking problem but somehow manages to function and continue painting. At first, Rufus and Leona are on the path to love but reality quickly sets in. You see, Rufus is a Black American and Leona, a white woman from the South. And this is before laws against interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Their trials and tribulations are heartbreaking and Rufus struggles with Leona and himself all the way to the end. Incredibly, the two of them only take up a third of book, the rest is devoted to Rufus’ friends and former flame, who all converge to add unexpected twist and turns to each other’s lives.
Readers beware, this book is not for the faint at heart. The language at times is crass and the speech blunt. But Baldwin did not write this for an afternoon special, this is an unfiltered look into the relationships between friends and lovers of both sexes. Rufus’ younger sister Ida, eventually falls for his friend Vivaldo and in some way, they become a reincarnation of Rufus and Leona with a few notable exceptions. Ida becomes part of the inner circle of Richard and Clarissa “Cass” Silenski, Steve Ellis, and Eric Jones, the wildcard of the group who will remind readers of the character David in Giovanni’s Room. Those familiar with Baldwin’s life will recall that he not only died in France but spent a considerable amount of time in his life there and in Istanbul, Turkey. Paris is a part of the book and the place in which we learn more about Eric Jones, the “prodigal son” who returns to the United States even more uncertain of his understanding of what love truly is. His partner in France, Yves, is scheduled to arrive in the United States a few weeks after he arrives but before he does, Eric impacts the story in a major way which will never be forgotten by any of the characters. Incredibly, despite all that happens in the book, the story still belongs to Rufus who none of us can forget for too long as we make it through the book. And I do believe that at some parts of the book are based off of Baldwin’s life experiences or at the least, the characters composites of people he did know.
Where the book truly shines is in its examination of infidelity and the struggle that plagued interracial couples. Monogamy proves to be difficult for the characters in the book but we are reminded that they are human beings and humans do fail and make mistakes. But if we look past the shocking revelations, we can see the characters making a valiant effort to show us how and why we sometimes do the things that we do. And for those readers who have a spouse of love interest of a different background, the story of Rufus and Leona followed by Ida and Vivaldo will touch you directly as you find yourself able to relate to some of the challenges they face. Times have certainly changed since Baldwin finished this classic in 1961, but what is paramount, is that it takes a large amount of courage, sacrifice and understanding when one is involved in an interracial relationship. But love can and does prevail, and Baldwin does a great job of showing us the complicated ways in which we are able to make it last. I have always understood that it is far easier to hate someone than it is to love them. Loving another person is truly one of the hardest things we ever have to in life. But the reward is both fulfilling and to those who are the recipients of our affection.
Baldwin truly shines here, and the book is one of his greats. This is New York City and the story of a group of friends, bonded by tragedy and nearly separated by love, sex and the demons that come with all parts of life. And when you have finished this incredible story, you will have more of an appreciation for one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.
James Baldwin once remarked that the story of Black America was America’s story and believe that it was impossible to separate the two. Nearly all of this nation’s major events are in some way related to the plight of America’s minorities. The country that is the land of immigrants becomes more of a melting pot with each passing week. The recent documentary “13th” highlighted the system of mass incarceration that has resulted in America having the largest prison population of anywhere in the world and millions of young Black and Hispanic men and women being placed behind bars for extended sentences based on convictions for trivial crimes. At the heart of the African-American experience is the precarious state of the immediate family structure and the constant discord that exist.
Those familiar with Baldwin’s story will recognize that his life serves as some of the basis for the book. In fact, for most authors, personal experiences sometimes provide the best material. In this story, we dive deep inside a blended family with a large closet of secrets and a son trying to figure out his place within this family. As the novel begins, we are introduced to the Grimes family who are making their way to the local storefront church for the day’s service. The parents are Elizabeth and Gabriel who have a family of four consisting of John the protagonist, Roy who takes after Gabriel and Sarah and Ruth, the two sisters who have strictly supporting roles in the story. In fact, Ruth is baby and has no dialogue. It is John’s fourteenth birthday and he finds himself at a crossroads in his life as he tries to understand the path which he will take as he continues to mature. As the story continues, we come to learn that Gabriel harbors an unusual resentment towards John and is frustrated over Roy’s increasingly rebel behavior and inability to accept the faith. Faced with four mouths to feed, Gabriel is absent most of the time working to provide for his family. He drinks heavy and is physically abusive. Elizabeth does not work and takes care of the children all day. Gabriel’s sister Florence stops by and after her arrival the once contained feelings of animosity between brother and sister come rising to the surface. One day, Roy is knifed in a fight on the west side of Manhattan. During the argument that ensues between the adults, Gabriel strikes Elizabeth and his actions set off a chain of events. And at that point, we are told the background stories on each of the major characters. What we learn is that many dark secrets surround the family, centering around Gabriel, the Reverend who is a man of the faith. The revelation about his true connection to John is the crux of the book and critical to understanding Gabriel’s tragic character.
The lives of Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth are further impacted by several deceased characters. Esther, Frank, Royal, Richard and Deborah fill in the blanks to the story and explain the present day situations that exist. Deborah and Esther in particular linger over the entire story and threaten Gabriel’s very existence. Their appearances in the book and the events that follow underscore the importance of a stable home and the presence of a father in the home. I firmly believe that Baldwin was making a very pointed statement about the issue. Gabriel’s position as a reverend also has a clear intention regarding the topic of religion which is a main theme in the book. As we read we are required to examine our own religions beliefs and how they influence our actions or non-actions. The African-American community remains strongly devout in Christianity and the Bible is viewed as the most important book to have in a household. In fact, in my own home, the Bible was openly displayed and any interference with it was subject to a tongue lashing or sometimes worse. Today in 2016, much is still the same in many homes and shows no signs of slowing down. But a critical question we have to ask is does religion help or sometimes hinder? And just how did it affect the characters in the book either positively or negatively?
The darker moments in the book give rise to a part of the story that could easily be overlooked. The era of Jim Crow and often violent racial discrimination forced millions of Black Americans to relocate throughout the country as they scattered to leave the south. However, even in the north and other parts of the union, poverty and hatred continued to haunt recent emigrants . The fears and uncertainty are displayed in Richard’s character and his fate. Baldwin pulls no punches in showcasing the disparity which plagued countless numbers of homes during that era and resulted in a system of dysfunction that permanently broke the Black family structure. And in the book we witness the characters struggle to keep the family together and in unison. But when it seems that all is lost, the protagonist John becomes the hope of the family and the light at the end of the tunnel. Elizabeth, Elisa and Florence serve as his guardian angels intent on preventing him from becoming another Gabriel and continuing the cycle that doomed prior generations. John realizes his potential, the truth about Gabriel and his demons and comes to terms with the fact that he will have to go tell it on the mountain.
The late James Baldwin (1924-1987), remains one of America’s most gifted authors. He is also remembered as an icon of the civil rights movement who was fiercely outspoken against the injustices committed against African-Americans. Similar to Bayard Rustin, his homosexuality resulted in a life long inner turmoil in a quest to find true love and happiness. When he died in France in December, 1987, he left this world as a bachelor and without children. It could be argued that his children are the writings he left behind that examined society, human nature and emotions. One of these stories is Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s masterpiece about the complexities of the human heart and the burden of living with repressed sexuality.
The story begins with David, an American citizen living in France. In America remain his father who is a widower. He is a native of San Francisco but has made Paris his new home. His girlfriend Hella, is away on vacation in Spain to reevaluate her feelings toward him and contemplate their future together. David is free to spend his nights on the streets of Paris and often is accompanied by his closest friend Jacques. They frequent a local bar owned by a character named Guillaume. It is on one of their visits to the bar that David meets the young man who becomes the focal point of the story, Giovanni, a recent immigrant from Italy who is now employed as a bartender. A brief conversation between the two blossoms and before long the dynamics of their relationship change revealing the alternative lifestyle of all of the male characters at the bar. But what transpires between David, Giovanni and Hella, highlights the dangerous and infinitely complex nature of love.
Baldwin confronts the concept of sexuality examining it under a microscope which forces the reader to look in the mirror as we see the lives of David and Giovanni change profoundly throughout the novel. And Giovanni’s fate at the end of the novel shows the ability of love, hate and rage to possess a person equally at the same time. David’s predicament will seem incredulous to some and his actions deplorable. But as Hella and Giovanni both wonder about him, does he truly love anyone or even himself? And even as the book closes, we still don’t know for sure. But what we do know is that love has the ability to create lives, sustain them and ultimately tear them apart. It has often been said that it is better to have loved than to have never loved at all. Would Giovanni or Hella agree? Or would they say a life without love is more satisfactory? Baldwin leaves it up to the reader to debate.
The novel is set in 1956, a time in which homosexual relationships were not only highly taboo and also criminal in many countries. David struggles with himself and his role in the lives of Hella and Giovanni and his battle within is one that is waged by men and women throughout the world unsure of their own sexuality. His actions and the effects of his omissions upon those closest to him, bring the issue of truth to the surface. The truth often hurts regardless of how it is told. For David, Giovanni and Hella, it is beyond sobering. And as a result of the truth, none of their lives are ever the same again. And herein lies one of the most powerful effects of the feeling of true love.
The book is short, roughly around 168 pages, but contained within it, is a fascinating story revolving around everyday struggles of people from all walks of life. And the novel shows the seemingly never ending ingenious of Baldwin as a writer. And although the story is set in France (Baldwin’s favorite European destination), it could have easily taken place in other major cities across the world. The characters could be of any ethnicity but the feelings on display by the characters in the book are exemplified in all cultures. And once you have finished the book, you will see the importance of Giovanni’s room.
On August 16, 2003, Idi Amin Dada, the third President of Uganda from 1971-1979, died in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. The official cause of death is multiple organ failure. Amin ruled Uganda with an iron fist and is considered to be one of the worst dictators the world has ever seen. His policies and thirst for blood caused the people of the east African nation to live in daily fear of torture, murder and other atrocities. His reign is constantly used as an example of the unrestrained abuse of power that is typical of a malevolent tyrant. Amin’s life was adapted for the silver screen in the 2008 film, ‘The Last King of Scotland’ starring Forest Whitaker.
Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of Nigeria’s greatest writers and has written two books and multiple plays reflecting African culture. In 1984, he composed this masterpiece, a fictional play that looks into the psychology of homidical dictators and the surrealism that encompasses the world in which they live. The play is set at the fictional Bugaran Embassy opposite the United Nations in New York City. Life President Kamini, the main character, is a composite of the late Amin. He is surrounded by Benefacio Gunema (based on Macias Nguema), Emperor Kasco (based on Jean Baptiste-Bokassa) and General Barra Tuboum (based on Mobutu Sese Seko, formerly Joseph Mobutu), who serve as the African heads of state. The are supported by Gudrun, a Scandinavian journalist who soothes the ego of Kamini by re-enforcing his beliefs and statements. The additional supporting cast consists of the Chairman of the Bugara Central Bank, Bugaran Ambassador, Mayor of Hyacombe, Profesor Batey, a sculptor, Russian delegates, American, delegates, guards, task forces and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Kamini is at the United Nations with his delegation for financial assistance and global recognition as a world leader. He has instructed his chairman to approach the World Bank for a loan and even hired a sculptor by way of London to create a life-sized bust of himself to remain in New York. The loan is denied sending Kamini into a rage. The denial is the first in a series of events that leads to the destabilization of Kamini’s mind and regime. The genius in the play is the dialogue between the characters that is interspersed with references to authentic historical figures and the relationships between the Third-World nations and world superpowers. Gunema, Kasco and Tuboum are all tyrants and share the same ideology as Kamini. However, each is known to be evil in his own way and offers Kamini suggestions on how to deal with his problems. But what is tragic is that none are able to see the clearer picture, even as the Russian and American delegates enter after the news breaks of a coup in Bugara. The tyrants remain committed to their rule and Kamini, unable to grasp the severity of the situation as it develops. The play’s ending, while abrupt, showcases their naiveté and lust for blood that is typical of the worst dictators we have seen.
While the play was written in 1984, the characters and the events that take place are relevant even today. New dictators assume power in countries ravaged by imperialism after seizing control in the vacuum of instability created by political and military changes. We are reminded of how they come to power and the seduction of the throne that turns them into the monsters they become. They are never alone in their beliefs and actions and often rely on partnerships with other extremists to enforce their will and domination. Kamini and his associates are fictional characters, but they are based off real life individuals who brought their countries to the brink of ruin. Famine, corruption, poverty and violence became staples of their regimes fracturing society into many pieces. Some nations, have never fully recovered.
This masterpiece is an example to be used in discussions about dictators from any nation. Kamini could have easily been Rafael Trujillo, Josef Stalin or even Papa Doc Duvalier. The names and places are interchangeable. All dictators have common traits that are easily spotted and exploited. And when the time comes for the reign to end, the fallout is often dramatic and rapid resulting in the dictator resorting to extreme measures to retain power as we see through Kamini. Their lust for power serves to blind them from the reality of their environment and it is no wonder why they are often deposed of in the same manner in which they previously dispatched thousand and sometimes millions of people. Soyinka’s work is a timeless classic and after you have finished, you will see why it is a play of giants.
This gem for which I have written a review came as a recommendation by a close intimate in Argentina. And although short in its duration, the book contains powerful messages about our concepts of love, sex, race, class and justice. The story is of Ndi Sibiya, a young man from a town called Mzimba in the continent of Africa, who is condemned to death after being convicted of the rape of an English woman in the “whites only” section at the local beach. At the beginning, Sibiya informs that he is to die but at first we do not know the exact crime he has been charged with. As the pieces of the puzzle come together, we learn that each day for the past several weeks, he has had a wordless encounter with an English woman who sun bathes naked on the beach. She initially caught him watching her but did not report him and according to Sibiya, continues to show him her body. One day the tension proves to be too much and the two engage each other intimately. Sibiya is arrested and charged with violation of the Immorality Act and rape, both of which carry the death penalty.
The details of the encounters with the girl who is known as Veronica Slater, are relayed by Sibiya to his assigned therapist, Dr. Emile Dufre, originally from Switzerland. The doctor probes at Sibiya repeatedly asking questions about his childhood and any experiences that might have led to him being unable to control his sexual urges. The doctor is supported in his endeavor by the commander of the jail, C. Van Rooyen who sees the natives as nothing more than “savages”. Sibiya is represented by max Siegfried Muller, whose efforts in his client’s defense serve as one of the few logical parts of the subsequent trial. In the book, Sibiya remarks that the end often lies in the beginning. He began by telling us that he’s condemned to death and there is no last minute appeal to speak of. His conviction and sentence to death combine with the actions of the court, Rooyne and Dufre to reveal the barbaric nature of the system of Apartheid in South Africa and the irrational fear of “miscegenation” and defilement of white women. The English colonizers and their presence is eerily similar to the Belgium occupation of the Congo which resulted in the tragic death of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. The system of oppression reinforced by a belief of racial superiority, established a society in which the impossibility of reason becomes a domineering factor forming what could be for some, a hell on earth.
The novel makes an even bigger statement regarding the tragic history of the continent of Africa, the land ravaged by colonization. The beliefs, customs and traditions of the native populations were often ridiculed and in some case forbidden breeding a climate of mistrust by the local residents against their Anglo rulers. Suppression of pride, strength and in this case physical attraction, became facets of daily life and hallmarks of a system based on nefarious ideology.
White Veronica Slater is a fictional character, her actions in the novel have been played out over time repeatedly. Her actions and the rage the reader feels are the disastrous effects of a society constructed on racial division. Sibiya points out that there are no winners in the book, he accepts his fate and acknowledges his actions. His background and uncanny stoicism in the faith of death directly refute the perverse notion of unrestrained sexual aggression and violence by black males, myths that have been used to instill fear and suspicion. The judge, spectators and prosecution form a bloodthirsty commission encompassing the widespread rage at the very idea that such indignation could occur. Similar to lynchings of Black Americans in the southeastern United States, the quest for vengeance nearly erupts in the courtroom. The unfounded and perpetuated myths formed a nexus of a mob mentality determined to get their pound of flesh at all costs, even at the expense of a young man who is most likely innocent of his crime. These ideas are still being refuted today, almost thirty years since Nkosi wrote this masterpiece.
The system of apartheid is now gone but the remnants remain and still affect South African society. Africa continues to go through a rejuvenation, transforming itself from the continent populated by third-world nations to a land of economical and technical development. Sadly, the issues we examine in the book are still believed by many today. But if we are to continue to break down the walls that divide us and refute the myths that continue desecrate our values, then it necessary that we embrace stories such as Sibiya’s so that we can truly move forward, living in harmony and embracing each other like mating birds.
A very dear friend in Buenos Aires recommended this book to me and although she knows I’m more of a non-fiction person, she felt that I would enjoy reading it. She has incredible foresight and as it turns out, I did enjoy the book and present my thoughts on it. Race is still a very tough subject here in the United States. Stemming from out dark history with the slave trade, Civil War, Jim Crow and violent racial conflicts, the past of this nation is often regrettable but at the same time unforgettable. The children of today are born into a much different country and while discrimination still exist, society has progressed a great deal since the era of segregation. But the stain of bias based on skin color continues to sting when applied and in this novel by Philip Roth, we see a sad and tragic story of the inner turmoil that plagued many African-Americans looking for a better quality of life in a time where almost everything worked against them.
We are introduced to the story of Coleman Silk, a dean at the fictional Athena College, who has found himself at the center of controversy over an alleged racial comment made towards to absent students. Relinquishing his title and removing himself from public life after the fallout, Silk becomes a recluse but decides to seek out an acquaintance, Nathan Zuckerman, to have his side of the story recorded. The retired dean has lost his way after the death of his wife Iris and having to leave the institution he loved and helped transform into the place it is today. Find solace in the arms of a woman almost 40 years his junior and still legally married, he finds a small amount of peace in a life that isn’t the same. But Coleman has bigger secret that almost no one close to him, outside of his family knows. And one that if it got out, could possibly change the way almost everyone he’s eve known will view him. And his secret, coupled with his family background, is the crucial part of the book for it explains the surrounding parts of Coleman’s life story. We love him, we may hate him and even despise him, but Coleman, no matter how jaded or shameful he may have been at times, leaves a battered soul who has done much in his life, both good and bad. But his past deeds and actions, are not enough to condemn him eternally and him we also see a part of ourselves.
In the spring of 1833, Hugh Glass and several companions died after being ambushed by members of the Arikara tribe native to the Midwestern United States. Glass, a former member of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, is best remembered for being attacked and mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823. The story of the attack and his survival serves as the basis of this fictional work by Michael Punke and the inspiration for the 2015 masterpiece film ‘The Revenant’, which earned Leonardo DiCaprio a Golden Globe and Academy Award under the direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu.
On a recent flight back from Atlanta, I saw this on the newsstand and decided to give it a read. The book begins very similar to the film and throughout the novel, viewers of the film will undoubtedly revel in the very accurate casting during the making of the film. Punke, admittedly took several liberties with the book and in the film itself, several others were taken most notably the sub-story of Glass’ relationship with his son, also a worker for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Nonetheless, the book is an engaging story that keeps the reader pulled in from beginning to end.
Like its film counterpart, the beauty in the book is not the level of violence or graphic descriptions of wounds and conditions, but the window provided for the reader to step back into time to an era where law was non-existent in many parts of the United States and the plains were home to traders, soldier, mercenaries, rebels and dozens of Native American tribes. It reminds us of a time long gone from which society has greatly advanced. In the midst of our modern-day conveniences, it is fairly easy to forget that less that 200 years ago, many parts of this nation lay uninhabited and in the control of no formal government. Survival skills, instinct and knowledge were critical assets that often meant the difference between life and death. Some of Glass’ story is disputed but what appears to be clear is that he did work for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and as in fact mauled by a grizzly bear. The pursuit of Fitzgerald and his revenge or non-revenge, will be the subject of debate for an eternity. Regardless of person opinion regarding the veracity of the story, Glass led an interesting life changed in an instant by one grizzly bear and sheer determination to live of a noted frontiersman.