“It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988)

My favorite passage from the American Book Review’s list of the 100 best last lines from novels.

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It’s mere happenstance that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day I am reading Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name, the fictional narrative of a slave in the eighteenth century. But it’s no surprise that I’m captivated by the absorbing story of Aminata Diallo, which Hill chronicles with a deft sensitivity I didn’t entirely expect from a middle-aged man.

The Times’ glowing review focuses on the power of language to undermine great social ills. But rather than being overtly political, the text strikes me as a testament to the importance of independent voices echoing in the night:

If I live long enough to finish this story, it will outlive me. Long after I have returned to the spirits of my ancestors, perhaps it will wait in the London Library. Sometimes I imagine the first reader to come upon my story. Could it be a girl? Perhaps a woman. A man. An Englishman. An African. One of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.

Much has been written on the place of witness and testimony in creating a case for change; what is so compelling about this book (and others like it) is that it asks for nothing directly, but rather allows the narrator’s voice to ring clear as a sounding bell, audible long after the the gong is initially struck.

A side note: Anyone have suggestions for similar narratives about non-African slaves? I’m particularly interested in reading something similar about the experience of indentured servants from India in the Caribbean. Looking into reading The Counting House (David Dabydeen), Maharani’s Misery (Verene A. Shepherd), The Last English Plantation (Jan Lo Shinebourne), or Bechu (Clem Seecharan). Tips or insight?

 

Just finished reading Foreign Babes in Beijing, a nice little memoir of Rachel DeWoskin’s time as an unlikely actress in the Chinese entertainment industry in the 1990s.

I’ve been batting around the idea of writing some creative nonfiction about my time in India (tentatively entitled Outsourcing Myself), but I’ve been having a hard time structuring my thoughts, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t really processed the whole experience. Writing used to be my way of getting through these things, but instead of chapters surging forth from my keyboard, I find only snippets of conversations, pungent tastes on the tip of my tongue, half-formed Hinglish crowded out by the everyday concerns of paying the rent, feeding myself, and trying not to get lost in New York’s seething mass of humanity.

If I do ever get past this writer’s block, I’ll be in good company. Here are some of my favorite books by foreigners trying to parse the subcontinent:

And, a bonus link to Kamat’s Potpourri, which has a compendium of links to historical accounts of foreigners in India (such as Chinese traveler Fa-Hien’s account of Buddhism from the fourth and fifth centuries AD).

 

 The International Herald Tribune offers a guide to New York’s libraries in “A Bookworm’s Holiday.” Unsurprisingly, the Rego Park branch of the Queens Library (which, by the way, is the No. 1 library system in the U.S. by circulation) was not highlighted; I go there every weekend, and though I appreciate the teeming hordes of library patrons, it can be quite annoying to fight with the unwashed masses (once, a woman even forcibly pushed me while I was browsing the CDs and loudly accused me — wrongly, I might add — of flatulating with abandon).

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Just happened upon an iiiiiinteresting new Web site that is experimenting with helping people get access to reprints of public domain books (those out of copyright that have been scanned, for example, and put on Google Books).

It’s not completely free — if you want a reprint, you purchase it through Lulu — but prices are reasonable, and where else are you going to find a copy of Early Woodcut Initials, freshly bound, for $16.99?

I just finished Dave Eggers’ latest, a fictionalized account of one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” Valentino Achak Deng.

(Aside: Does anyone want to go to a reading by Zadie Smith — with cameos by Vendela Vida and Maggie Gyllenhall — on Jan. 16? It’s a benefit for Eggers’ nonprofit, 826NYC, which offers writing support to kids and teens.)

And I loved it. For a lot of reasons; first and foremost, it’s just a compelling story with just about every dramatic element out there — war, violence, love, faith, politics, great evil and tremendous good. But it’s more than that, so much more. It challenged the way the mainstream media reported the story of the displaced. It captured the ambiguities surrounding international aid and its utility. It reflected the frustrating curse of relative wealth, the way in which every struggle abets a new struggle, and the universal difficulty of puzzling out an identity in a constantly changing world. Above all, it offered a bleak sense of hope and affirmed the power of connecting, simply connecting, to those around us, even when we’re hurt, even when we’re broken.

While I was reading it, my thoughts inevitably turned to the unrest in Kenya, the country in which many of the displaced Sudanese (and Somalis, and Burundians, and Ethiopians …) settled. I don’t even know how to begin unpacking my thoughts; what does the situation in what is considered one of Africa’s beacons of light mean for the continent? Is it fair to even pose that question, with my meager American knowledge of life there, societies there? What next? What now?

Oregon ceases to exist. Back to Met Supermarket and Key Food and our small impersonal bathroom, which doesn’t matter to the husband since he’s again working 16-hour days.

On the upside, I got some new books from the library: Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (Nadine Gordimer), What is the What (Dave Eggers), and The Abstinence Teacher (Tom Perrotta). Until the office reopens, I plan on painting, reading in the bathtub, and consuming mass quantities of food, like my patented sweet sweet potatoes (butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and mashed yams). Maybe I’ll come up with something else to do, or maybe I’ll just enjoy my bit of deserved sloth.