Colored People-Henry Louis Gates Jnr (A review)

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. His book Colored People is a splendid novel, and a classic memoir. It is a moving account about what it was to be ‘coloredin the United States of the 1950s. The stage for his novel is his native Piedmont, an immigrant town in West Virginia, which he describes in the most vivid and sentimental terms. Gates’ view of the world was of a child growing up in a colored neighbourhood-one which he depicts as ‘not so much of a neighbourhood as a condition of existence’. His neighbourhood’s themes are the book’s themes- the debasement, the villains and heroes, the names (both the derogatory and loving), the culture, the church, the friendships, the love, the vulnerability of his race and its disappointments, his family’s joys and sorrows. Marvellous is his account of his relationship with his mother, and the gradual evolution of young ‘skippy’ into the potent force and unceasing voice against injustice. In the margins of the story we see his rebelliousness and stubborn sense of justice which he inherited from his mother. In the main, the book is about colored life in Piedmont, when white people were not around. It is tempting to look at the book as only about race and prejudice, which it partially is. But it is also about human sentiments and existence written in human language. Its beauty and genius is in capturing what some have forgotten, and what is commonplace, in a language that many don’t possess. It is a human story that almost outleaps any contextualisation. It is a mirror of a lost time, and finding one’s roots. Its beauty lies not only in its engaging insights, but also in its characters and the aesthetic nature of the narrative. His language is never more sublime, grand and almost sailing beyond the known limits of great prose than in the book’s pen-ultimate paragraph: ‘The colored mill picnic would finish its run peaceably, then, if with an air of wistful resignation. All I know is that Nemo’s corn never taster saltier, his coffee never smelled fresher, than when these hundreds of Negros gather to say goodbye to themselves, their heritage, and their sole link to each other, wiped out of existence by the newly enforced anti-Jim Crow laws.Gates wrote the book for his daughters Maggie and Liza. But, it is also an Ode to his mother-the visionary woman with elegant beauty who shaped his life. The last chapters read like a son’s valediction to a departed parent-expressing love and regret: the inevitable emotions of the living when death takes a loved one away. Mostly, we read and acquire knowledge to know how things are. But, Gates’ passionate tale is about how things were. Yet, with the sweep and narrative of his life, we observe the unbreakable bonds that tie the past with the present. This is why Gates’ masterpiece, a graceful collection of tales and quest for lost history, is so important.

A Hill of Fools-Amazon review


A Hill of Fools
`The demon has turned into man, and man into a demon.’, August 17, 2014This review is from: A Hill of Fools (Kindle Edition)South African author Dr. Mtutuzeli Nyoka lives in Johannesburg, practices medicine in his specialty of Otolaryngology and served as the President of Cricket South Africa (CSA) from 2008 to 2011. A man of many talents and a writer of inordinate gifts, Dr. Nyoka is able to recreate the savagery of life in some African areas better than any living author. He knows the truth and is unafraid to share it. As he states, `We, as Africans, were at first mesmerized by the native leaders-thinking that they were the true keepers of some sacred revolutionary flame. However, with power assumed, and with the exception of a few, keeping promises made to their people suddenly became an inconvenience. The colonial bullies seem to have been replaced by native czars. Because of their roguery, our noble and sublime history of resistance has perhaps forever been sullied. We have now come to the painful conclusion that we are worshiping false gods- the bad seed of our revolutionary struggles whose tyranny and dishonesty may have been worse than anything our conquerors ever dreamt of in their quest for power. Other nations are living through endless technological marvels and miracles, but greed and corruption threatens to turn our tear-drenched continent of woe into hell. Unlike Dante’s Hell which was reserved for thieves and those of a vile character, ours is for the torment of the innocent.’ In the Prologue to this magisterial novel Nyoka describes the findings of a rape and murder with such detail that he causes a gasp in the reader’s throat. And it is the incident that drives the entire story, an insightful exploration of human kind’s fatal fascination with power. The murdered victim is Queen Aruba in the country called Doma, a country whose King Kutu is power hungry as well as an infamous lothario. The main character of the novel in Anday who is assigned by the king to find Queen Anuba’s murderer. In Anday’s mission to complete his work as a policeman he must turn a blind eye to the current conditions within his country until he realizes that in his position he has the opportunity to restore some of the order that will return Doma to a state safe for its people and to fight the oppression and cross borders into the neighboring Gijuya, seeking a life of stability and freedom form evil powers. Far more than simply a fine story well spun, A HILL OF FOOLS opens the windows of the travails in Africa for the world to see and comprehend. It is a very powerful indictment of the abuses of power and the endless suffering of the peoples whose lives are belittled by those in power. Nyoka writes with clarity and a brave heart. He is most assuredly an author – and a peacemaker – to watch. Grady Harp, August 14

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The New York Times aptly describes A Drinking Life as ‘a vivid report of a journey to the edge of self-destruction’.

In his novel, Pete Hamill, the son of Irish immigrants, takes us on an expert tour of his startling and intriguing life. He grew up in Brooklyn and was raised by a loving and caring mother. His father, Bill Hamill, was a drunk who sometimes took his young son along with him to the tavern. Young Pete Hamill got an early glimpse of what lay within these drinking dens. He listened to the insults and curses, and watched the men ‘smoking, singing, laughing and drinking’.

The tavern was where men went, and drinking was what men did in his neighbourhood. They drank when they were happy, and they drank when they were sad. When men weren’t talking about women, they were bragging about drink-and the many other adventures that went it. There were of course other benefits to Hamill and his mates that drinking offered-‘confidence to the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love.’

The streets that he grew up in were rough. Violence and death were pervasive. For most of his youth the Second World War raged. This was followed by the Korean War. Also, there were New York gangsters-the Irish, Italians, Blacks and the Jews, all adding not only to the anxieties of young Pete Hamill but also to the wretchedness of his life.

This senseless and apocalyptic power of war, both in Hamill’s neighbourhood and around the world makes the reader flinch. Hamill’s is not only born into it, but it continued into his adulthood without respite, right up until the Vietnam War-which Hamill covered as a reporter. Pete Hamill was also a child of the Great Depression. Thus violence, poverty and drink conspired to ensure that his childhood was prematurely curtailed. By the age of sixteen he is a seasoned drinker, had a part time job, a lover, and was ‘an opinionated angry young man raging at the world’.

With his father often drunk, his mother tried ‘to feed, clothe and civilise the whole brood’. Hamill dropped out of school, and soon left home. It is as if he spent most of the years that followed with a suicide wish. Drink led to rage and fights. As if to feed his anger he enlisted in the navy, and later ended up in a jail in Mexico.

Back in the states with a job as a reporter, he continued to drink. Even after he got married and had two daughters, he, like his father, spent most of the time away from his family-drinking. This went on for so long until the only common ground between him and his wife were the children. With the divorce, and the pain of loss urging him to heightened excesses, the drinking orgies worsened. For some of the incidents, Hamill candidly admits to have no recall, as events and the humiliation became a blur in his gin-sodden memory. Like many drunks he didn’t realise he was an alcoholic.

But Pete Hamill did finally escape his prison, and freed himself from the demons that prowled his spirit. His malignant habit, in some way, put him before the firing squad only for him to be reprieved in the end. He lived to give us an ‘exhilarating account of the conquest’ of a much dreaded affliction.  It is this triumph, and our sharing in his struggles, which allows ‘A Drinking Life’ to transcend depressing us.

Just as royalty demonstrate their majesty by inviting the mockery of their fools, Hamill mock-heroically, honestly, and movingly depicts the tragic human costs of ‘A Drinking Life’. He was in a way a witness against a culture that claimed the lives his friends and left great moral, physical and psychological scars in his own.

The novel is a wonderful achievement by Hamill-a vivid self-portrait and a remarkable reflection of human society. This is the genius, audacity, and immensity of this sublime book-it is not just about Hamill’s New York, but it is about life.