Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Exile of the Mind

On the outset, Links by Nuruddin Farah delves into the thoughts and emotions of the Somali exile arriving in Mogadiscio after 20 years. On a deeper level, the book depicts the sense of alienation and despair prevalent among resident Somalis in the land of their birth. A work of fiction, set against the background of actual events, the novel captures life at its rawest where warlords are “in the business not of building institutions but of demolishing them.” As readers we witness scenes, make attempts to assess people, and clutch at multiple realities through the eyes of Jeebleh, the protagonist. It is, therefore, fitting that no character (except perhaps that of Seamus) is easy to comprehend. We are left to wonder what is to become of the human persona caught in a never-ending siege of the land and the mind.

For this reader—an outsider somewhat introduced to Somalia through American narratives, specifically, Black Hawk Down—it was easy to visualize the frustrated trigger-happy youth killing, among other reasons, for fun; the zealous, territorial clan militia; the bizarrely efficient underground economies; and the elaborately set up organ cartels in a dysfunctional nation. However, grasping the significance of Raasta, the miracle child, to the decimated locals, was more of a challenge. That I didn’t warm up to the concept of “special children born to societies torn apart by internal conflict” itself goes to show that casual outsiders (like me), despite our best intentions to understand, may never recognize the tender longing of a conflict-ridden people to believe in the most innocent, precious and hopeful dream. This need to believe in something or someone good beyond the imagination may ultimately represent the desire of even the most wretched society to heal from within.

Farah’s narrative style is not consistent with respect to the craft of story-telling. There are passages where the book reads like a long, unedited interview. Yet there are other sections that are urgent and gripping and they let you live through Jeebleh’s horror or fear like they were your own. In the end, despite some weaknesses in plot and narration, the book stays with you, albeit sadly and heavily, and makes you look around your own somewhat-frayed society with newly wise eyes. For this reason the book is well worth the read for anyone who wishes to know more about a crumbling society from someone who is from that social world. No words can express my thoughts on this as well as Farah’s:

[Jeebleh] … saw a slim book in Italian written by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, a Somali of Persian origin. He recalled reading the book in New York, and thinking that it was no mean feat for a housewife to write about her life in Mogadiscio, and then her exile in Italy. He was pleased that Somalis were recording their ideas about themselves and their country, sometimes in their own language, sometimes in foreign tongues. These efforts, meager as they might seem, pointed to the gaps in the world’s knowledge about Somalia. Reading the slim volume had been salutary, because unlike many books by authors with clan-sharpened axes to grind, this was not a grievance-driven pamphlet. It was charming, in that you felt that the author was the first to write a book about the civil war from a Somali perspective.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young writer of note

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, the Thai-American writer, was featured in Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2. The first of his short stories I read, which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, was called At the Cafe Lovely. I thought it was powerful writing and it stayed on my mind for a few weeks. I later came to know that he was only 25 when that story was published. (He was born in 1979. Read an interesting interview here.) He has since published a collection of short stories called Sightseeing.

His stories Farangs and (an extract of) Valets brought out similar reactions in me, but Cafe Lovely remains my favorite.

To round out my post, though, here is a critic's viewpoint on Sightseeing.

Music to your ears, while your fingers your keyboard

If you would like to listen to a sampling of music, from the 1920s to the present, in different genres (jazz, popular, classical, opera, film scores, more) from Europe (and to a lesser extent from North America), while at the computer, Desmond Carrington's radio show 'The Music Goes Round' is a wonderful choice. Mr. Carrington's calm voice and knowledgeable introduction to his chosen artists, and their wonderful works, won't interfere with your ability to multitask--unless you count the time he played Petula Clark's rendition of 'The Little Shoemaker.' That day, my feet kept tapping under my desk and my heart felt like it would burst with the unexpected pleasure of finding an old favorite. Work just didn't seem important after that. Instead I hurried home (after hitting the replay button at least 10 times) and introduced the kids to an exhilarating song from their mother's childhood. Come to think of it, there were several more times like that, beautiful and haunting, but thankfully, none that distracting.

Mr. Carrington broadcasts his weekly BBC Radio 2 program live from his Scottish home (what a wonderful way to make a living!). Shows are not archived online; one show per week is available for online listening. Happy listening (and working)! [Link]

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Young, male, Clinton-supporting democrat = Loneliness

Alex Joseph is a student at Georgetown University. As an intern at, he reflected (with some humor) on how his political preference has made him the loneliest man on campus. He was on CBC's 'As it Happens' last night (February 6, 2008). You can hear him on the web (duration: 6 mins and 59 secs) or download a podcast from the site [Link]

Mr. Joseph writes on Slate:

...However counterintuitive it may seem, the confusion and distrust I've encountered when I reveal that I'm a Hillary supporter have actually allowed me to be a much better advocate for her than I expected, and they've made me much more thoughtful about my own political beliefs. As my friends and neighbors continually try to find reasons to explain why I would not join the Obama camp, I get to explain why I have chosen to support Hillary. I get to talk about her command of policy and her fierce political intellect. I get to explain why her plan for universal health care is superior and why I trust her more when it comes to foreign policy. In short, my experience as a college-aged man who supports Hillary Clinton has forced me to weigh the myriad reasons I have chosen her as my candidate...

You can read the article in its entirety here.

The image of youth as virtue

A family friend (more family than friend), who moved from India to the United States a year ago, was surprised to hear that I’m a supporter of Hillary Clinton in her bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination. "But why?" was all she could manage for the next two minutes of our telephone conversation, apparently quite stunned by my confession.

I tried to explain my choice, but being an observer of the political scene only from the periphery, I was not as articulate as I would have liked to be. I was not able to rattle off, at a moment's notice, Hillary Clinton's positions on specific issues, as opposed to Barack Obama's. But to articulate my feelings on the generalities surrounding her candidacy was slightly easier.

"She is sharp, to the point, and more experienced than Obama," I said.

"But she voted for the war," countered our family friend who knows me too well.

"True," I conceded. "And it came back to hurt her, didn't it?"

I know that one of my major discomforts with Obama is that he is so young. An acquaintance in her mid-forties, by remarking about Republican candidate John McCain's age (71) and rolling her eyes upward, forced me to admit my bias to myself. "What is wrong with being in your 70s?" I wanted to ask.

And alternatively, is being in the 40s the most important qualification one can bring to the table? If accomplished individuals in their 60s and 70s cannot make a bid for the position of the most powerful leader in the world without provoking derision, what roles can the rest of the gracefully aging members of the world population dare to fulfill in their later years?

In contemporary society, more people are living longer than ever before -- living physically healthier lives. It is believed that with age comes maturity, mellowness, wisdom, and compassion. Having lived (and worked) longer does not always make one boring, uninspiring, alien.

On an everyday basis, we are bombarded with images of youth and stories of young achievers, people who’ve become university graduates at 14, medical doctors at 17, millionaire entrepreneurs at 18, prize-winning authors at 22, and state governors at 36. When we achieve so much so early, what do we do with the rest of our lives? Where do we go from there?

And so to my family friend, I decided to be honest. I said that if most of the world wants to hold Obama up mainly because of his freshness and youth, then I want to hold those same qualities against him. He has time on his hands, he can prove himself, accomplish things and make mistakes in the process. And, if he has any substance, how can his day not come? Clinton (and McCain) have worked hard in their own ways and it would be a shame to toss them aside just because they have worked too long and survived.