Sunday, January 31, 2021

BOOKS! (The Last Friend + Girl, Woman, Other)

I'm finally back writing on this blog for the first time this year! The way I see it, the entire month of January is fair game for saying "Happy New Year" to people, and I'm taking advantage of this final day of January to say Happy New Year to y'all! For my first book review of the year, I've got the last book I finished in 2020 (a French novel about male friendship that I found at a book warehouse) and the first book I finished in 2021 (A Booker Prize-winning story collection about Black British women's experiences, which I chanced upon at Target).

The Last Friend  by Tahar Ben Jelloun
(Translated from French by Kevin Michel Capé and Hazel Rowley)
 
If you've been keeping track, you might know that throughout 2020 I was steadily reading my way through a handful of discounted books I bought in Kentucky during the 2019 holiday season (see My First Five Husbands, The Perfect Nanny, Confessions, Moving to Higher Ground, and The Hole). And fittingly, The Last Friend is the last of those selections. I finished it in December 2020, which means I was able to read all six books within a year of buying them. And that's progress for me! Some books I fly through in hours or days, others take me months to finish, and others take me years to finish because I read them off and on while flitting around to other books at the same time. So finishing The Last Friend (
French title: Le dernier ami) feels like a mini milestone, an end of an era that was consequential to me and me only. It also feels like a full-circle moment, because Moroccan-French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun was the first author whose work I read in a college-level French class. Back when my dad and stepmom were still together and I was still in high school, I spent spring break 2010 with them in Arizona. My stepmom knew I wanted to study French in college, so she arranged for me to sit in on a French literature class at Arizona State. And in that class, we read passages from Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child (L'enfant de sable). Ten years later, I've been able to read another work of his, but in its entirety this time. And in English, haha.

Ali and Mamed are teenagers when they meet at school in late-1950s Tangier, during the Algerian War of Independence from France (which Morocco was also involved in). Ali is the new kid from Fez, Mamed defends him from bullies, and the two quickly become best friends. Over the next 30 years, from secret trysts with girlfriends and sex workers, to studying film in Canada (Ali) and medicine in France (Mamed), to returning to Morocco and reuniting in prison after being wrongfully arrested by the king's secret police, to growing apart when their wives question their friendship and Mamed relocates to Sweden for work, the two men remain extremely close. Arguments arise due to their penchant for intellectual debate, and Mamed can be particularly disagreeable sometimes, but they are able to weather each storm. Until one day when Mamed and his family are back visiting Tangiers, and he suddenly picks a fight with Ali claiming that Ali cheated him financially, and has taken advantage of him for the entire time they've known each other. He then declares that their friendship is over. Blindsided and confused, Ali writes Mamed a letter to figure out where Mamed's claims are coming from and hopefully reconcile, but Mamed's response is basically (and I paraphrase): Pay up, and piss off! And just like that, Ali never sees or hears from Mamed again. What Ali doesn't know is that Mamed has a secret that's making him behave this way, and with the help of one of their mutual friends, he makes sure that Ali never finds out.

Half of this novel is written from Ali's perspective and the other half is written from Mamed's. I was inclined to believe Ali's side of the story more because his version of events is presented first, and because he seems to be the more considerate and level-headed of the two friends. As is to be expected when dealing with people's subjective memories, Ali and Mamed's recollections both intersect and diverge. Some details differ, accounts of who did or said what are switched, Mamed mentions some things or people that Ali has left out, and vice versa. (Although now I think that that's quite clever on Ben Jelloun's part. Why rehash all the same scenes when you could just modify a few details and then insert new ones to add context and perspective?) They even put differing emphasis on certain events; for instance, Mamed spends notably more time discussing their imprisonment than Ali does. Such discrepancies are designed to raise the question of whether either of these two men are reliable narrators. Who is telling the truth, or at least the most complete version of the story? Furthermore, even though the book is about their friendship and allows both men to say their peace, the novel still feels like it's mostly about Mamed. Ali spends more time empathizing him, explaining his personality/behavior, and recounting events in Mamed's life than Mamed does for Ali. And Mamed's the one who breaks off their friendship, which makes everyone close to them (as well as the reader) focus even more on what's going on with him and what could've possessed him to act so erratically. I won't spoil the exact reason for why Mamed breaks up with his best friend, but if you've watched Korean dramas and are familiar with the "noble idiot" trope, well then... there you have it.

There's a huge theme of jealousy here; you can't miss it since it's mentioned frequently in Mamed's half of the book, and he even admits to being an insecure person. But believe it or not, his motivation for ending the friendship is actually quite tender, thoughtful, and could even be seen as self-sacrificial (or self-indulgent, depending on if you as a reader have come to like Mamed or not). There's this paradox of destroying a friendship in an attempt to protect it, to preserve it the way it was. And to preserve Mamed's pride, sure. But who truly wants to make someone they love
their oldest and dearest companionwitness them suffer? Mamed believes that that would be too much, and decides for himself and Ali that throwing away 30 years of life together is the lesser evil compared to the alternative of telling his friend, his brother, the truth. If you're interested in reading about enduring friendship (especially between men who aren't too macho to express love and care for each other), how recollections of the same events can diverge among the people who lived them (à la Rashōmon), Moroccan political history in the 1950s and '60s, and how French colonialism penetrated North African societies, thought, and ways of life, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"These exchanges were supposed to keep our minds active so we wouldn't fall into the lethargy most people in Tangier suffered from. Especially in those days, when everybody lived in wariness and fear. A diffuse fear, without name or shape" (50).

"Some people hold up Britain as an example, but a country that colonized other countries can never be an example for others" (169).

"Ali spent three years pondering the cause of this inexplicable breakup... He clung to the image of his friend as a man of his word, a faithful friend, but decided that Mamed had taken another path in life, discovered new horizons, and didn't want to be bound by a relationship that reminded him of his youth and adolescence. Maybe he thought of their friendship as a book he had read too many times. Now it was time to start a new one" (172). 

"Night entered his room, never to leave it" (174).

 Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
 
I first heard about this book back in 2019 when it was decided that Bernardine Evaristo would have to "share" that year's Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. Many people online expressed how confused and disappointed they were by the judges seemingly choosing fame and familiarity over throwing their full weight behind the originality that is Girl Woman Other. And that's not to discredit Margaret Atwood; I enjoyed reading The Handmaid's Tale, and her renown as an author is deserved. But she already won the Booker Prize back in 2000, and in 2019 she won for her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale—meaning it wasn't even something completely new! Meanwhile, Bernardine Evaristo is the first Black woman to ever win what's considered Britain's most prestigious literary award, and I maintain that she shouldn't have had to share it with anyone. But I digress. That was in 2019, and it wasn't until a random trip to Target in 2020 that I spotted the paperback for GWO on one of the bookshelves.
 
Consisting of five chapters and an epilogue, Girl, Woman Other presents the stories of 12 Black British women, whose life experiences range from the present day all the way back to the 1890s. Most of them live in London, nearly all of them are African or Caribbean immigrants or the children of such, and a few of their stories are set in northern England. We meet each of them in chapters one through four, with each chapter containing three individual stories. Each of these 12 characters are connected, though some of the connections are revealed more gradually than others. I had to break it down by chapter in order to remember everything and keep the connections straight in my mind, so I'm sharing my breakdown with you (some spoilers to follow):
 
One: Amma is a 50-something lesbian and playwright whose hard-won big break finally arrives with the opening of her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, at the National Theatre. Yazz is Amma's daughter, an outspoken and trend-conscious student with a diverse array of college friends. Dominique is Amma's close friend and former theatre company co-owner, who experiences domestic abuse after moving to the United States to live with her girlfriend.

Two: Carole is sexually assaulted as a teenager but keeps it a secret, and later uses her math prowess to secure a career in finance and a place in more elite social circles. Bummi is Carole's mom, a Nigerian immigrant and fellow math whiz, who has her own cleaning business an unconventional romantic history prompted by grief. LaTisha is a single mom, supermarket supervisor, and Carole's former friend/classmate, whose father abandoned her when she was younger.

Three: Shirley is a history teacher at the school Carole and Latisha (from chapter two) attended, and has also been friends with Amma (from chapter one) since childhood. Winsome is Shirley's mom who's moved back to Barbados from Britain, and who previously had an affair with someone close to Shirley. Penelope is Shirley's racist and miserable white co-worker (a biology teacher at Carole and Latisha's school), and also Bummi's (Carole's mom's) first cleaning client.

Four: Morgan is a gender-free, half-Malawian social media influencer who attends and reviews Amma's play, and also crosses paths with Yazz at the after-party after having previously met her at a university event. Hattie (a.k.a. GG) is Morgan's great-grandma, a mixed/light-skinned woman who lives on a farm her entire life, marries a Black American man, and has a loss that nobody knows about (hint: it involves Penelope). Grace (Hattie/GG's mother) is an orphan consumed with her mom's memory and her Ethiopian father's mystery identity, who eventually marries a wealthy farmer (GG's father).
 
In case you're wondering, my favorite stories are Dominique's, Bummi's, and Winsome's. This is partly due to their salaciousness, but mostly due to how much their grief and longing resonated with me.
 
I started reading GWO in August 2020, which happened to be a very personally tumultuous month for me, and that plus the very strange year that 2020 continued to be meant that I didn't finish it until a few days ago. If I'm being honest, I did feel like the book started dragging after the halfway point (especially during the third and forth chapters), but that's probably because I was personally less invested in most of the characters in those chapters. For all the insight that the two teachers provide about the British education system, I found Shirley to be kind of boring—which makes sense since she's written to be very uptight and insecureand I was profoundly confused as to why Evaristo was having me read an entire story about this bitter white woman (Penelope) in a book that is meant to prioritize Black women's experiences. And then Hattie just.... she's aware of being mixed but is also frustratingly ambivalent about it. She fails to instill Black pride in her children, only to then express disappointment that her kids don't identify as Black and that her descendants intentionally procreated with white people so as to erase Blackness from the family. How can you be surprised or disappointed when you yourself didn't set a strong precedent for embracing Blackness, and even your pro-Black husband was color-struck and chose you precisely because you're light-skinned? Honestly, how else did you expect future generations of your family to turn out, Hattie?
 
Furthermore, Penelope, Morgan, Hattie, and Grace being mixed meant delving into their parentage, which also meant me having to read significantly more about white people than I'd expected to when first cracking this book open. This also added to the slight dragging feeling I had when reading those parts of GWO. I know that in a colonialist country like England, especially given that a considerable amount of the Black women in it are mixed, one perhaps can't fully examine Black experiences without acknowledging the moments where whiteness has infiltrated or otherwise affected them... but it still felt like too much for me. Almost like the book had shifted ever so slightly off course. Although a handful of the other main characters reappear at Amma's after-party in chapter five, the book ultimately ends with an epilogue focusing on Penelope, and I didn't appreciate that. She's the character I liked the least, and is only Black according to one drop rule logic, not her lived experience, phenotype, how society treats her, or how she identifies herself. Am I to believe she's been redeemed? She's lived her whole entire life as a racist (and especially anti-Black) white woman, but because she learns she's 13% African and decides her mom's (Hattie's) brown skin doesn't matter to her, she's supposed to be included in Black womanhood? No ma'am. I understand that Evaristo means for all of these stories to be nuanced and complicated, and it's a worthwhile decision on her part to use mixed characters to examine who counts as "Black". And maybe I'm being too emotionally affected by this one particular fictional character. Nonetheless, I maintain that Penelope is no sista of mine.
 
Despite how much I've just ranted, I do believe that Girl, Woman, Other is absolutely brilliant and worth all the time it took me to finish it. If you're interested in story collections, Black women in Britain, or unconventional structure and punctuation choices (some passages are written in poem form, and there's not a single period or quotation mark to be found anywhere), then read this book! Or this "polyphonic social novel", as the back cover describes it!
 
Favorite quotes: 
"they were two halves of a circle moving towards completion" (165).
 
"Bummi lost her Faith the minute she walked into the Chapel of Rest and saw her beloved Augustine lying there in body only... she decided there was no great spiritual being watching over her, protecting her and the people she loved... the space once occupied by God was now hollow, and with no god to promise everlasting salvation, it hit her hard how much she was on her own" (169-70).
 
"Winsome wished he hadn't awakened a longing in her that he wouldn't satisfy
he'd given her a taste of himself and then withdrawn it
she didn't hate him for it, she wanted him more because of it
he became fantasy material... in a fantasy anything was possible
even now, so many decades later, she feels the old attraction stir when he arrives for the summer, and when she catches him in a certain light" (274). 

"Megan already knew it was time to grow up, the whole point of leaving home was to find out where she began and her parents ended" (320). 

"what matters most to me, is that I know how I feel, and the rest of the world might catch up one day, even if it'll be a quiet revolution over longer than my lifetime, if it happens at all" (328).