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Lote, by Shola von Reinhold: a short review

Review of Lote by Shola von Reinhold   What to do if you are Born to be Beautiful but all the world around you insists on Ugliness?  How to escape the sartorial and existential drag of convention clogging your every brilliant pore?  How to Escape? Is it possible to effect a succession of Escapes from others’ constrictions, and blithely jitterbug to another persona, another self-incarnation of Beauty? Become someone else? This is Lote protagonist, Mathilda’s way of crossing through life. As she reincarnates, she looks at Beautiful people of the past, especially those of the late 19C and early 20C who were Bright Young Things – people of colour  such as Richard Bruce Nugent and Josephine Baker, but also Stephen Tennant and  Edith Sitwell –  those who embraced Beauty and fabulous living, whose way of living was itself a form of extravagant poetry. The era Mathilda is most focused on was also the time of peak Black Modernism, and many of modernism’s (and post-modernisms) concerns ripple through Lote. Lote is a great intellectual banquet. Black Modernism is one of the things it explores, particularly modernism’s rejection of neat endings, of consistency of character, its embrace of randomness and of a sense of an ordered world being unachievable.  Lote also exhibits many tropes of postmodernism: multiple registers, multiple tones, multiple stylistic references. Its embrace of these modernist and postmodernist devices renders conventional / realist concerns with plot and character development secondary within its text. Instead, the book as a whole shimmers with linguistic extravagance, rococo thought chains, esoteric research and methodological invention. Central to many of Lote’s themes and obsessions is one question. It is specifically mentioned on p209 and is a question bell hooks posed in her essay, Paris is Burning:  when womanness and femininity is constructed as having at its apex  Whiteness, are not any black folk who quest after such Beauty implicitly buying into that white construction and so maintaining and reinforcing white supremacist ideology?  Pages 267 to p280 of Lote reprise this question in essay form as “Hermia English-ish Eccentrcs (-ish) VII” – a passage which is a superb ride through many of the aesthetic cross-roads, transgressions and cul-de-sacs that the black quaintrelle, dandy or boulevardier might encounter in seeking to be Beautiful. Ultimately, Lote as a text resists categorisation.  It is fiction.  But there is no hard-driving plot. It does have a fictional main character, Mathilda. But many other figures are actual historical figures rather than inventions and there are significant sections of biography. The text can switch register easily from novel to art history to biography to news report to diary. For this reason, as well as the density of erudite references (the main character’s principal vocation is biographical research) it is not the kind of book that demands it be read in one sitting.  But it is a no lesser thing for that. To return to bell hooks’ question, Lote probably does not square off the bell hooks’ challenge: the instances of Beauty shown through its 460 pages seem primarily Euro-centric ones and there is no sustained exploration of any alternative aesthetics. Or perhaps it does square off that challenge. Its argument may be, that, like Othello, we must embrace and subvert for our own purposes, the available Western forms. Ultimately, qua literary text, the issue of polemics matters little here. The book is a triumph, a celebration of black oddity,  extravagance and flamboyance. The burden of representation is lifting for black writers. Publishers are more open to off-beat texts.  No need any more to write in that dutiful, realist, novel-of-representation way. Lote is a breath-taking and singular addition to the weltering multiplicity of black literary voices/texts: a sauntering, sparkling, deep-diving joy of a...

Book Review: The Lost Woman of Santacruz by VIjay Medtia

    The lost woman of Santacruz by Vijay Medtia. Short Review by Pete Kalu Police Inspector Ajay Shaktawat of the Mumbai police force is in dire straits with his personal life. The last thing he needs is a cop-killer case. That’s what lands on his desk. With politicians, press, Dehli Special Branch and others breathing down his neck, Shaktawat’s plan to ease off work in order to rescue his relationship with his wife, rekindle bonds with his children and generally become a nicer person, fades amidst a welter of what-might-have-beens and if-onlys. Meanwhile, out there in the big, brawling city, retired police officers keep getting murdered. A rambunctious, detective story, one of the best I’ve read this year, Medtia achieves that rare feat of simultaneously yoking  the broad existential question of how we achieve intimacy in the anonymising, dehumanising modern city, with the page-turning suspense and joy (yes, joy!) of a well-crafted, detective story.  The lost woman of Santacruz exhibits a masterful economy of description, and perfectly pitched dialogue; these are synched and filtered through the compelling internal voice of the main character through whose eyes we see the action.  It is this voice which – more than any other element  – carries the brilliance of Medtia as fiction writer: it elaborates a thoughtful, philosophical and generous soul – intellectually curious, pragmatic yet empathetic of human frailties, and a smarter psychologist than the other professionals around him.  I read The lost woman of Santacruz cover to cover. Police Inspector Ajay Shaktawat is a fascinating creation.  I suspect he is here to stay....

Obinna Udenwe micro story, ‘The Right Side of History’ and Pete Kalu poem-song, Breathing

  The Right Side of History By Obinna Udenwe   Every evening, Tolani Boroface took a walk down her street all by herself, ignoring greetings from neighbours and street folk who looked at her with disdain. She had killed her daughter, they believed, and nothing anyone said could change their minds. Tolani walked to clear her head. This had started four days after Grace was buried – the rumours filtered to her ears that it was because she took her daughter to the End SARS protest that she got shot. Who encourages their children to go to protests in Nigeria? the women who had come to condole with her asked themselves. They’d gathered in front of her apartment, offering tidbits to the story, clasping their arms on their breasts, tying and retying their wrappers while at it. The women had come the morning after Grace died at the protest in Ikeja. At first, they came in groups of threes and fours, chatting on about the protests across the country all the way, then throwing themselves on the floor once they got to Tolani’s door, weeping uncontrollably. When they stepped out, they cleaned their eyes and talked loudly, not caring if Tolani heard. So, when Tolani finally heard, she began to take the walks. She would walk to the end of the street – to the junction where she used to go with Grace to buy fruits and vegetables, then walk back home and lock herself in. The fact that her neighbours and friends, people who’d known her for years and knew how much she’d adored Grace could say such unheard-of things tore her heart apart. On the sixth day after Grace died, Tolani locked herself in. She took some of Grace’s photos and her clothes, especially the ones she remembered seeing Grace in few days before her death and believed still had her smell. She took them into Grace’s room, sniffing and sobbing. Not even the laughter coming from her neighbour’s children distracted her. She cut herself with the kitchen knife and felt the blood from her stomach spilling through her fingers as she lay numb on the floor. Then she noticed a photo pinned to Grace’s wall. It was of three young women carrying a placard. The photo was taken at a Black Lives Matter protest somewhere and Grace had printed it from the internet. The white girl in the centre of the photograph was dressed in a sleeveless gown and wore sunglasses. The placard with her had the inscription ‘I stand on the right side of history’. Tolani thought the girl was Grace. The photo held her gaze and the inscription played in her mind. Suddenly, her cell phone rang. The phone was on the bed, and if Tolani could reach it, she could somehow live, for she now knew that Grace died standing on the right side of history, protesting injustice and hate, doing what many young people like her did across the world.         Breathing  poem-song by Pete Kalu   Please don’t come sliding onto my bench whispering nirvana is a construct and you’re here for us to do the construction  play by play to reach high, because That don’t fly for me, I need somebody grounded   There are journeys we have to go on and it won’t be easy, – the way you talk – it will require us to walk through storms  There are journeys we have to go on and it won’t be easy – the way you talk – it will require us to walk through storms   Truth is I’m looking for a friendship, a comrade-in-arms and together we’ll be the voice for those who can’t breathe any more Then maybe at days’ end, I won’t have any qualms If we sit back-to-back on evening steps, and doodle  🖤s on my door.   There are journeys we have to go on and it won’t be easy, – the way you talk – it will require us to walk through storms  There are journeys we have to go on and it won’t be easy – the way you talk – it will require us to walk through storms   Both texts produced as part of a British Council International Digital Collaboration Project @LitBritish #wahalaconvo Photo credit: Naomi...

Letter to Obinna -BLM/endSARS

    Letter from Manchester, UK: Black Lives Matter It is snowing here in Manchester, England, the evening of 7th January 2021.  I’ve been watching across media astonishing images of the US Capitol building being invaded by an aggrieved white mob. My mind turns to the summer of 2020 when the Black Lives Matter movement landed here in England. It ignited much soul-searching among the majority white population of England.  While triggered by the USA George Floyd video, there had been in advance of the Floyd video a groundswell of unease at police action in England, an unease that competed with the cuddly images of British police that have prevailed for decades in England, promulgated by  TV series from Z Cars in the 60’s all the way through to Inspector Morse and  Lewis of 2015. The bedrock moral position of these British TV cop series was the fundamental decency of the British police force.  There were of course voices that dissented from this cosy view, many of them black. The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in his poetry/song collection Dread Beat and Blood (1975) in particular denounced the London police force’s Special Patrol Group (SPG: similar to Nigeria’s SARS). The SPG was disbanded in 1987. But police misconduct in England persisted. Most recently a documentary film called Ultra Violence (November 2020) held an unwavering gaze on continuing British police force brutality and state killing, particularly of black people, platforming the voices of numerous families who had lost members to brutal police hands and who have bravely campaigned at grassroots level against this ultra-violence. Something snapped here upon the release of the George Floyd video. Finally, abuse that had been hidden away, dismissed, denied or contested was caught on film in broad daylight and shown across the world. People in England were roused to righteous indignation. George Floyd, they were saying, is our experience too. Let me pause now to unpack the ‘our’ in the statement ‘our experience’.  Because it signals an important shift, and one that is observable in the photos taken of BLM events across England. There are black folk in the photos of protestors, yes, but also by many young white people: White people, especially the young ones, were owning their part in the problem. It is this shift that holds promise. Black power salutes being wielded by white youths in solidarity with their black friends. White privilege was finally being understood.  Of course, there is a backlash. The invasion of the US Capitol by White Supremacists is the most recent example. But no battle for justice is ever easy.  And in so far as the young people in England are on the side of fairness and prepared to stand up and be counted,  campaigning in public for an end to the brutality of the unjust use of force by police, in that measure, we can contemplate the future here with some confidence. Yes, it is a long game.  But this old head says that youth, mobilised in the cause of justice, is unstoppable and will bring about radical change. That’s my view from where I stand here in Manchester, England. How do you see it from where you are?   Sincerely,   Pete Kalu, Manchester, UK.   Photographer: Naomi Kalu A British Council  International Digital Collaboration Project @LitBritish...

The National Trust and Napoleon’s Hat

The National Trust and Napoleon’s Hat I first met Napoleon at a sign language class. He wore a bulky black greatcoat, a two-cornered hat and apologised for his presence, explaining he was due to meet his troops later in the day at Bassano but had dropped by through a portal. We students all rolled with it and, as weeks became months it dawned on us the young man really thought he was Napoleon. Eyebrows were raised. Some would make the sign for madness but I felt there was nothing to see here – the man was happy as Napoleon, he was a perfectly civil guy, and, if somebody had to represent Napoleon in this world, he was doing a fine job of it. I confess, I kind of fell in love with him. He lit up the college and whenever he appeared suddenly your own real-world problems looked small-small. How else could you feel when faced with a guy worrying about the oncoming battle at Waterloo? Abhorrent to me then, was the idea that some mean-spirited puritanical psychiatrist might try to strip him of his delusion. What would it achieve? Who wanted to see him reduced to his prosaic birth name, rocking in a corner of the class, and all of us a little duller, no longer lit by his light? Some delusions are fine. Let them be. Nations like their delusions too. America: Sweet Land of Liberty! That the United States was arrived at by the genocide of the indigenous population, the subjection of enslaved Africans, and the brutal expansion of its core lands by war and subjugation is not a story many Americans want to hear. Indeed, the myth of America’s rise by moral exceptionalism holds such a strong grip on the American imagination they are offended when you raise such contrary facts.  So too France. Land of Rousseau. Of Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! But not for the enslaved who eked out an existence under the French whip across the Caribbean. And of course, England. England never had its Rousseau. The closest was Cromwell but he arrived a century too early. British belief in Enlightenment values was for a long period distinctly untroubled by any doubt around slavery or British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. In a neat bit of classificatory footwork, those enslaved by the English were relegated to the category of lesser humans, and the colonising, enslaving drive recast as a civilizing mission undertaken by the noble white man as part of the ‘white man’s burden’. It was a fine act of national sophistry.  And it was supplemented with myth, with monument as the answer to the question: How best can we chisel the story of our greatness, our graciousness, our nobility into history? The Egyptians were the primus inter pares chisellers. Their monuments did the all-time- greatest job of proclaiming the brilliance of their Pharaohs. The voice Shelley gave them, feels just right: Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! So, what about  the National Trust properties? They were often donated during a period of dynastic distress. Typically, the owners hit hard times after the Second World War and offered the crumbling mansion to the nation with an implied (or perhaps actual, legal) codicil that the Trust look after not only the bricks, but the family story too: the sentiment – if not the letter – a plea that the National Trust preserve not only the land and buildings but also the story of our family’s glory, our ancestors’ sagacity, nobility, generosity, vision etc.  The Egyptian’s chiselled, Pharaoh voice is the only voice that distinctly survives from that era, no one else could afford the chisels and chisellers. Some of the country homes have their dynastic story leaded into stained glass windows or imbued in leather-bound mahogany desks. But, unlike the pyramids, English country homes were built and furnished at a time when recording had become cheap and when cataloguing, archiving, keeping copious records had become de rigeur as part of the general colonising project. Naturally, historians – those crawlers over documents – have wormed their way into these archives  to gather contextual information, and in doing so have found themselves querying the story of unalloyed nobility and generosity that the country homes by their substance enact. Such scribblers as UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership project (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/), and the research of a body of treasonous academic folk such as Marian Gwynn, Corinne Fowler (@ColonialCountr1) and Katie Donington have followed on the heels of England-based slave trade historians, James Walvin and Alan Rice, in querying the country homes’ long-buffed, saintly image – with such evidential accuracy that their research is seen as an attack on the English national myth no less. Cue outrage. Alacrity is abroad and everywhere. America. France. England. Nations with deluded ideas of their past. Nations hugging their myths and unwilling to absorb information that runs counter to those myths. The archival diggers  are denounced as traitors. Unpatriotic. Yet do not all myths of Empire founder? Do not all monuments meant to fix myths and perpetuate stories of glory, go the way of Ozymandias, eroded by the slow truths that time brings to them? As Shelley has it of Ozymandias: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. Or does a nation find a way to allow...

Black Lives Matter Manchester, UK, Summer 2020 Photo Gallery

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