Monthly Archives: July 2020

The Book of Negroes #BookReview

Book: The Book of Negroes
Author: Lawrence Hill

After a bit of break, I’m back to reading African American history.

Most of us have a vague idea of how scores of Africans were sold in European and American markets. We are familiar with slavery through books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, in a more glorified form, in Gone with the Wind. We read these books, ‘It was terrible’, we say, we shake our heads and then we get on with life.

It’s not until a book like The Book of Negroes comes along, that the horror of it all sinks in. In its entirety. It’s then that we truly begin to understand, just a little bit, what it would have been like.

For that, this book, is a must read.

Set in the 18th-19th century, we hear the story in flashback through Aminata Diallo, daughter of a talented midwife and a jeweller.

While on her way home from a neighbouring village, 11-year-old Aminata is kidnapped. Then on begins a long and arduous journey for her. Along with a group of other village folk, she is yoked by the neck and made to walk.

Aminata befriends a young boy Chekura who is helping the kidnappers. He is sympathetic towards her, bringing her food and water.

After months of walking, goaded along with whip-lashes from their captors they reach the sea. They are then loaded onto ships that sail to Carolina. Ironically, Chekura is also put in along with other Africans, becoming a prisoner himself.

Aminata survives the harrowing ship voyage as also a slave rebellion and lands on the shores of Carolina. She is sold off to Appleby, a ranch owner. She’s a smart young girl, quick to pick up skills, eager to learn new ways and new languages. She has picked up midwifery from her mother and that renders her invaluable.

However, not her intellect, nor any of her skills can protect her from her fate as a slave. She’s beaten and raped and separated from her husband; her child sold off. She moves from Carolina to Nova Scotia and she survives, as does her dream of going back to her village in Africa.

What I thought of it

The Book of Negroes lays bare the cruel practice of Slavery in all detail. It talks about how people from Africa were kidnapped, coerced, shipped, treated worse than animals and bought and sold across America.

The writing is lucid and flows easily. It’s simple and it kept me turning the pages. It is the story that remains the hero of the book. Aminata’s journey is execptional and yet hundreds of millions of blacks faced the same fate, cheated over and over again of their right to exist as humans. Despite its heart-breaking subject, the book manages to maintain an underlying upbeat spirit, perhaps due to it’s protagonist.

Aminata’s character embues the book with optimism, rendering it readable

Right from the beginning it is clear that Aminata is a gifted child. She grows up to be smart and intelligent. Her skill at mid-wifery, her mother’s gift to her, and then later, the gift of education put her in a league above the other black people. It ensures for her, a better life than most others. Which is why the book doesn’t turn into a weep-fest. It did however make me wonder how much worse it would have been for the vast majority of other slaves who were illiterate, uneducated and barely skilled. Would they have had any bright spots in their lives at all? That was a frightening thought.

The African Diversity

We often make the mistake of clubbing the entire African continent as one entity. The book brought home its diversity. It was good to be reminded that there were multiple tribes with multiple languages, dialects and religions. Not every slave could even understand what another one was saying. Also, it was Africans who were capturing other Africans. So to think that all of them were victims would be wrong.

In the end the book is about humanity

On the surface of it, this is a story of the white man against the black, and yet in the end it is about respecting another human, no matter his race or colour. Also, to lay the blame solely at the door of Europeans or Americans would be wrong. Almost every race, at some point, has people trying to prove their supremacy and to undermine others for power or money. Like I pointed out earlier, a lot of Africans were involved in the slave trade too. Closer home in India, the caste system was just a variation of slavery as were practices like bonded labour. None of us are truly exempt from blame.

The book is a reminder that every human deserves to be respected.

Last thought: Read this for a glimpse of African history.

Lessons from Anne with an E #BookBytes

It’s time for Book Bytes and today I am making a departure from my usual format of sharing a single quote from a book. In fact I was reminded of these quotes, not from a book, but from a series based on a book.

It’s Anne of the Green Gables/Anne with an E.

I read the first of this book series (yeah it is a book series with 6 books and then some more based on Anne’s children) long ago but then I was reminded of it recently when I read an excerpt in my children’s text book (again!). And then when I saw the series I absolutely adored it.

The series veered away from the original book. And that made me want to dislike it. However when I relaxed my rigid bookish mind I found I quite liked the changes; Mathew not dying was my favourite one, Aunt Josephine’s and Cole came a close second and also that Diana ends up going to college (she doesn’t in the original book).

I found this new version more in keeping with the times. It did take away from the authenticity but well.. like I said, I didn’t mind.

Sharing some quotes that are my absolute favourites. 

On Tough Times

“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy something if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make up your mind firmly. I’ve made up my mind to enjoy this drive”

Sometimes life hides gifts in the darkest of places.

— Anne Shirley

On Self Worth

“I’m loved now, but when I wasn’t, it didn’t mean I wasn’t worthy of it.”

—Anne Shirley

‘‘If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, but your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”

— Jane Eyre

I cannot begin to say how much I loved these two. The second one is quoted by Anne a number of times through the book.

On Change

“I reckon every new idea was modern once, until it wasn’t.” 

—Matthew Cuthbert

Mathew was one of my favourite characters. He was the perfect foil for Marilla’s short tempered personality and Anne’s ebulience. Kindred spirits need an anchor and Mathew was perfect.

On Love

I’ve never bought into that “You Just Know” notion. Love is a tricky thing. Sometimes it feels like an undeniable force that hits between the eyes and doesn’t let up. Other times, it’s malleable, questionable. It’s truth hidden in and amongst external obstacles and internal circumstances that’ve formed who you are, what you expect in the world, and how you can accept love. Oh, to say the least, it’s complicated. And if a mind’s abuzz with pressure and deadlines and “What if this and that,” I imagine love’s truth would be a near-impossible thing to feel. I wonder if, when all’s quiet in your mind, you’ll find your answer.

— Aunt Josephine

It’s a long one but it descriibes love so aptly.

So tell me, have you read/watched Anne? Do you have a favourite quote?

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If you stumble upon a quote, a line (or two) or even a passage from a book that leaps out at you demanding to be shared join in with #BookBytes.

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The Book of Fate #BookReview

Book: The Book of Fate
Author: Parinoush Saniee
Translated by: Sara Khalili

Young Massoumeh moves with her family to Tehran from the small conservative town of Qum. The older daughter from among five siblings (three brothers and two sisters), Massoumeh loves to study. Her father supports her, however her mysogynistic brothers and her mother are against it, only wanting her to get married. Insulting and hitting the girls of the family isn’t unusual.

Even with her limited freedom, modern Tehran, is exciting to Massoumeh. It’s here that she finds her best friend, Parvaneh, and also her first innocent crush.

Soon enough, her crush is discovered by her family. She’s beaten up mercilessly and married off to a man she hasn’t even seen.

Her luck turns when she finds that her husband is way more modern than her own family. He is a communist dissident struggling against the oppressive rule of the Shah of Iran.

He champions the equality of women and, to Massoumeh’s delight, he pushes her to further her studies. They have two sons and life seems good For a while but then her husband is found out by the Shah’s men and is caught and persecuted.

Left alone to care for her children Massoumeh soldiers along through the revolution. She finds a job to support her small family even as she continues to dream about finishing her University education. Even after her husband is released, life remains a struggle for her.

The Book of Fate is Massoumeh’s story as she navigates life in turbulent Iran.

My thoughts

Originally written in Persian, this book has been translated into a dozen languages. It was banned in Iran for a while.

The Book of Fate is as much a story of Iran as it is that of young Massoumeh.

The story of Iran

I was only vaguely aware of the history of Iran. The Book of Fate proved to be the perfect way to get to know it. Massoumeh’s fate is entwined with that of her country through her husband and her children.
There’s nothing poetic or romantic about the narrative. So if you’re expecting Shafakish descriptions you will be disappointed. The Book of Fate tells of life in Iran as it is without making it the focus of the book. Through Massoumeh we watch the Communists and the Conservative Islamic Leaders come together in the the revolution against the Shah of Iran. We watch as it becomes a success and Khomeini comes to power. And then we watch the crumbling of communist dreams and their terrible persecution under this new conservative rule. That is followed by the Iraq war.

Massoumeh’s character

I liked Massoumeh. She isn’t a revolutionary. She’d have been happy not having anything to do with the politics of the country. She doesn’t want her husband or her sons and daughter to become great rebels. She isn’t special or brave or heroic in a Joan-of-Arc kind of way. 

And yet she is. 

She is brave in an ‘every-day every-woman’ kind of way. She is modern in her thinking, in that she understands the importance of education, she understands the need for women to be independent. When her husband is taken prisoner she doesn’t mope around, she doesn’t reach out for help to either her family or her in-laws. She goes out and she finds work. She braves the jibes and barbs that come her way. And she takes care of her family. She is kind and thoughtful. And that is her strength. Her growth from a shy timid teenager to an independent woman was nothing short of miraculous.

She has flaws.

Of course she has flaws. Her upbringing and her years of conditioning hold her back. Like I said, she isn’t a revolutionary. She is conscious of what society thinks of her and expects of her, and she makes sure she remains a ‘good’ girl at all times.

To me, that made her relatable. I might not have agreed with her decisions (specially the ending of the book) but I could see where she was coming from.

This isn’t a book about the repression of women

A lot of reviews peg this one as a book on the repression of women in a patriarchal society. That would be true but only to a small extent. I like to think of it as a book about the triumphs of a woman in a patriarchal society. I’d like to see it more as an uplifting read than a heartbreaking one. Yeah there are heartbreaks, lots of them, and struggles too and yet I didn’t need to pity Massoumeh.

Last Thought: Read it for Massoumeh’s story and for a crash course in the history of Iran.