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Tayeb Salih

Black lives matter. These are among my favorite reads — novels, plays, poetry, nonfiction — about Black lives in America and overseas. Each is illuminating, infuriating, heartbreaking. 

Native Son, by Richard Wrignt (1940)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The Street, by Ann Petry (1946)  

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003) 

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (1976)

Harlem, by Langston Hughes (1951)

We Real Cool, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih (1966), which ends, “Help! Help!”

During this pandemic and rightful unrest, I read books that made me think about oppression, migration, motherhood and creativity, and showing up for those we love. I am so much at home, still. I read in my city garden, on my sunny deck, and in a favorite spot beside some open windows. 

Here’s what I can recommend: 

 

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a young Muslim woman on her way to a better life than her indigent parents. She is educated, speaks English, works retail. After hours she unwinds with a cigarette — such a luxury — in a Kolkata public square. There she witnesses a train bombing, which kills nearly 100. Police do nothing to help its victims, trapped by flames. Later that night, Jivan posts on Facebook the notion that government, in its inaction, is equal to the terrorists. 

Swiftly, Jivan is jailed, tried, convicted, sentenced to death. 

Hers is one of three stories in this quickly paced tale. PT Sir is a phys ed teacher at the school Jivan attended. He’s annoyed that she dropped out, after he’d been kind and encouraging. PT Sir, also upwardly mobile, does favors for a political party and rises in its ranks, eventually allowing him to leave teaching. In his new post, can he save Jivan?

There’s Lovely, a hijara, who dreams of a film career. Jivan had tutored Lovely in English, and Lovely — a man who presents as a woman — testifies on her behalf. As Lovely’s star rises, will she save Jivan?

This read took me deep into a world I barely knew. I loved the story, and admired its telling. 

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman

I admit to picking this up because a reviewer said it contained one of the best sex scenes ever written. Half way in — the story concerns sailors attached to a ship that’s not seaworthy, docked in a Brooklyn port — I thought, did I get this right? There’s a sex scene? And then our hero, Esteban, dreams of his dead novia, La Marta. Wowza. It’s only a page or two but rivals Joyce’s Molly soliloquy.

That said, this book is so much more than a great sex scene. Esteban and his mates, all from South America, are marooned. (The ship’s owners visit, bring food, assure them that once the ship is repaired, they’ll be on their way.) These seamen have no rights, they speak no English. When they venture off the boat, they are robbed and beaten. 

Interwoven stories of the ship’s owners — yes, you’ll want to strangle them — and a Ship’s Visitor liven the read. 

Eventually, Esteban dares to leave the boat alone, at night. In a neighborhood of immigrants, he finds kindness, love, friendship, hope. 

A great read, published in 1997. 

The Equivalents, by Maggie Doherty

Mid-career women artists, poets, writers, scholars were invited, in 1960, to apply for  paid fellowships at Radcliffe College at Harvard University. (A kind of “room of own’s own,” with others.) 

The Institute for Independent Study was the brainchild of Radcliffe president Mary Ingraham Bunting, who felt that the U.S. asked little of its women outside the home. It was “a climate of unexpectation,” at a time when women in the Soviet Union were 30 percent of its engineers and 75 percent of its doctors. The U.S., she declared, was wasting a precious resource: educated women.

With the Institute, Bunting sought to kick start the careers of scholars and artists who had been sidelined by motherhood. Most fellows had advanced degrees; if not, they were deigned “equivalent.” 

Among its first class was a group whose lives and work would thereafter be entwined: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olsen, artist Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda. 

Doherty captures the time and place, the personalities, the work, the place of women in society and education. She explores the competing desires of motherhood and creativity. This is nonfiction at its finest. Bravo, Maggie Doherty.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver.

I’m a fan of her work because no matter the subject, Shriver provides a fluid read, typically about intelligent people doing questionable and sometimes awful things. This book is not as searing as, say, We Need to Talk about Kevin, but this is still a Shriver.

Serenata (ugh, that name) is the book’s unsympathetic narrator. (That’s a skill, to get and keep a reader invested in an unlikeable person.) Her recently retired husband Remington decides to train for a marathon. Wait: extreme exercise has always been her thing! Remington hires a sexy trainer and joins a group with the same goal. With her bad knees, Serenata is sidelined, reduced to spectator and provider of snacks. Also in the mix: the couple’s newly evangelical daughter and her many children. Also their drug dealer son. 

This is delicious satire. It’s fun to see this couple fall apart and find each other again. It’s set in beautiful Duchess County, New York, an area I know and love. 

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Of course I’ve been reading. Newly published books left me frustrated — nicely written but tedious — so I turned to my daughter’s college humanities list and my own stacks of old books I haven’t read yet. Here goes:

Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. Did I want to be in the mind of a serial killer? Not especially, given our culture of mass slayings. But I’d read that Hughes’ 1947 novel was a noir masterpiece. It is. Set in post-war Los Angeles, we’re instantly absorbed in the doings of Dix Steele, a former fighter pilot, who is in the city to write a detective novel. He’s a prowler, but he’s also a dandy, dressing for dinner and reacquainting himself with a friend from the military, who has become an L.A. detective. In desolate places, at night, women are strangled: the killer is in their midst. A beautiful, suspenseful read about a flawed man made understandable.

Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter (also from 1947). I’d loved Larkin’s Jill so reading the poet’s only other novel was a natural; he’d conceived of them as a series. The story concerns a young foreign woman in provincial England; she works, unhappily, at a library. It is winter, during World War 2. Years earlier, she had come to England at the invitation of a pen pal. Most of the book is those few weeks in summer, when she and her teenage host tour the countryside and Oxford and sort of fall in love. Will they reunite? That is the book’s tension. I earmarked a dozen pages: this is how a character wakes up in a strange home, this is what it is to be a teenager in love, this is a city street on a winter day, this is the only way this can end.

From the Dartmouth College humanities reading list — the theme was the other, the outsider — I plucked a few classics I didn’t know.

Francoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman (1747) tells the story of an Inca Virgin of the Sun, kidnapped by the Spanish Conquistadors, rescued by a nobleman who brings her to France. Throughout, she longs to be reunited with her beloved, and it is her letters to him that form the novel. I loved this story for her descriptions of things she’d never seen: a carriage is a box on wheels drawn by horses, a ship is a floating house, her reflection in a mirror is a friend. All is alien in this new world. De Graffigny used this exotic tale to comment on French society, culture, and the role of women.

Another: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the the North is set in the 1960s, along the Nile, in Sudan. A scholar returns home, hoping to make a contribution to this postcolonial place. There he befriends a stranger who has also made the place his home. The stranger is Mustafa Sa’eed; the story within the story is Mustafa’s years in London, where he was an educated economist entangled with women who loved him for his exoticism, the color of his skin, the smell they decided was him. Those loves ended badly, in suicide and death. These men are not at home in Europe, they’re not at home along the Nile. “Help, help!” is the last line. This is a good one for understanding that part of the world.

And finally, Lazarillo de Tormes, a novella from 1552 anonymously published and banned for its mockery of Spanish clergy and aristocracy. It’s the story of a boy made to earn his living serving others: a blind man, a squire, a thief, a cardinal. He must steal to survive. It’s picaresque, a boy’s adventure; from him we get Huck Finn, we get Donna Tartt’s Theo Decker, we get the children in The Florida Project film, a sad must see..

I’m reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine (see above, mass slayings) on the advice of a journalist friend, and I’m advising all to see the movie Lady Bird, because it’s sweet and funny and its situation real, it’s beautifully filmed and performed, it was written and directed by a woman.

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