Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Sometimes things fall apart"

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

(These remarks are in memory of Chinua Achebe, died 21 March 2013)

Several of my friends are reading Katherine Boo's fine work of reportage, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book that seemed to me as much a novel as a work of non-fiction.  Boo's is the story of  familes living atop a garbage dump in Mumbai--a story, in other words, of the world we live in, the poor surviving off of the effluvia of the rich, a story of fragile hopes in a hopeless world.  When I read Boo back in the fall I thought how touching it would be to turn this story into a novel, with all of the potential psychological richness of fiction filling in the inevitable gaps of reporting.  What would it feel like to live on less than a dollar a day, as a billion human beings do?  What is the look and feel and smell of poverty--its indignities, its daily grindings down?  Trolling my favorite independent bookseller--Alamosa Books of Albuquerque--I came upon a book that addressed my yearning for a great book about a subject that is nearly impossible for a writer from the wealthy West to engage--Christie Watson's Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away.

Watson was a pediatric nurse for twelve years, and the subject of healing is central to TSFA.  The story is set in Nigeria--first in Lagos and then in a small village near Warri in the Niger Delta.  The novel's narrator is another of those rare, insightful, wholly believable children who see the world with a clarity that adults never attain.  The child, aptly named Blessing, is precocious to be sure, but she is also thoughtful, impressionable, loving, and loyal, especially to her troubled older brother Ezikiel.  I don't like plot summaries since they diminish the pleasure of reading for oneself, but I will say this much: Blessing and her mother and brother are forced to leave a relatively comfortable life in Lagos and move in with Blessing's grandparents.  The family's world, already diminished by the constraints of life in contemporary Africa, becomes improverished; TSFA is the story of how Blessing, Ezikiel, their mother and vastly extended family adapt to the difficult circumstances of a world without electricity, running water, regular schooling, or the rule of law.  They live in a war zone where the police are called "Kill and Go" (not without reason), where school involves regular beatings, where the great Niger River is literally on fire.  In the midst of these dire circumstances, Blessing tries to hold her family together--through the power of her affection for her brother and of her complex and compromised loyalty to her mother. That this task proves impossible is not surprising, but Blessing's failure, if one can call it that, is ennobling, and the story of her family's travils and unraveling creates the art at the heart of this unpretentious novel.

Nigeria is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with enormous oil reserves. Shell Oil has been busy expropriating the natural resrouces of the region for decades.  Oil spills have been common; Niger Delta farmers have brought suit against the Dutch company for pipeline spills over the past decade, without success. 

This is from the New York Times:

[Shell's] Nigerian operations were its largest source of oil and gas with about 377,000 barrels per day of production in 2011, the most recent full year for which figures are available.
Much of the output comes from the swampy areas of the Niger Delta, a densely populated and impoverished region.  
Shell and other operators in the Delta have long clashed with some of the local population, who blame the companies for polluting their land and waterways and for not doing enough for people living around the oil facilities.
Among the many things to admire in Watson's first novel--aside from the deftness of the plotting, the convincing and utterly unironic voice of Blessing (none of the authorial persona leaks into her authentic thirteen-year-old narrator's voice), and the humane depiction of proud people living in poverty--is the subtle and indirect way in which she shows the destructive effects of a profit-seeking multinational company on the lives of people who have no recourse to law courts and only the most naive sense of the their own rights.  In one of the most touching scenes of the novel, the paterfamilias, Alhaji, decides to write a letter to the Prime Minister of England the President of the U.S. to plea for intervention in the civil war and police brutality that plagues Warri and the surrounding Delta.    Alhaji dictates the letter to Blessing, who "does not change any of the words":
Dear Sir,
I am sorry to write in such circumstance....I need justice to happen and your help to rectify problem of fighting between different area boys....Violence here is becoming worse. Please no longer send guns, or let local soldiers bring guns back from peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, or sell to our boys...Our government is killing local boys.  The are working with the oil companies. Please no longer allow your oil companies to fund a military regime. Your help is appreciated.
Alhaji, it comes as no surprise to learn, waits in vain for a reply to his letter.  "I need justice to happen..."  The world of Blessing is fraught with wishes that cannot come true.  And yet there is a way to live with dignity--again, I was reminded of the story of the residents of Annawadi in Katherine Boo's fine book.  Reading these two volumes together provides a refreshing dose of realism amidst the propaganda about a "flattened world" and the benefits of capitalism for the poor.  Neither book is overtly political, but the message is clear.  
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is a lovely, moving, and quite extraordinary novel by a young writer whose intelligence and compassion shine through every page.

Published by the good people at Other Press, whose list is enough to make any passionate reader wish for more free time in the day and perhaps a larger disposable income.  Take a look--

For Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, see her National Book Award remarks and citation.

George Ovitt (3/27/13)

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