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Black Lives Matter Manchester, UK, Summer 2020 Photo Gallery

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Black Rain Falling by Jacob Ross – a writerly review by Pete Kalu

  Black Rain Falling is a cracking crime novel by Jacob Ross, the second in his ‘Digger’ Digson series, set in the fictional Caribbean island of Camaho. Crime writers occupying the highest plinths of the crime fiction pantheon – Mosley, Neely, Hammett, Highsmith and Chandler – might give Ross a nod for his achievement: he has a consummate talent for balancing the various energies needed for a contemporary crime story – action, suspense, sustained multi-faceted evolution of major characters – all the while weaving a yarn that engrosses. It helps that Ross has an indecent raft of sheer writing verve. This writerly review looks at some elements of what Ross does. Setting, Modernity, the crime novel and Black Rain Falling The term modernity was coined by Baudelaire in his essay, The Painter of Modern Life. He saw it as inextricably bound up with the city and the shock of the new: ‘the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis’. One of crime fiction’s earliest pioneers was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s short story Murder at the Rue Morgue is often advanced as the very first detective story, and is set in the city. Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes stories lifted many ideas intrinsic to our understanding of ‘the city’ from Poe and from the French pioneer, Gaboriau. So it came to be that detective fiction and the city became linked in the popular imagination. When this genre history is hooked to black presence, which in the UK and in USA has often been clustered around cities, then it is no surprise that the major black practitioners of crime fiction – Barbara Neely, Walter Mosley, Attica Locke in the USA; in the UK, Dreda Say Mitchell, Courttia Newland and Mike Phillips, among others, have invariably set their novels in a fictitious or actual city. Ross’s ‘Digger’ series is different. The action takes place on the fictitious Caribbean island of Camaho (pop. 100,000). Ross himself was born in Grenada, and his love of the Caribbean permeates Black Rain Falling. His Camaho world is a particularly Caribbean mix of the urban town/city, and the village. Ross’s other works (particularly his novel Pynter Bender, but also many of his short stories), evidence a keen poetic sensibility and, in venturing into crime fiction, Ross has not abandoned this gift: a sense of poetry infuses his crime novels. Nowhere does Ross’s lyricism ride higher than when he describes the Camaho natural environment. There are sentences other writers would die for in the descriptions. Here are a few examples: ‘All month it had been like this: dry, dusting, sapping; the air filled with the lament of suffering livestock that were hugging the shadows of he forest receding all the way to the hilltops. With all that dryness a pusson felt afraid to strike a match.’ ‘The slope of a hill, the type and thickness of the vegetation made a sound when the wind ran over it, that a pusson heard nowhere else in the world. Up here, among the ferns and bamboo and ancient thick-headed trees, the Belvedere mountains sobbed and mourned.’ (Shades of Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) ‘Old Hope village spread out across the hillside on which we lived. Directly ahead were the foothills, pulling my gaze all the way up to the Mardi Gras mountains – purple-dark in the early light.’   Western rationality, African Cosmology and Black Rain Falling Western rationalism has often been the go-to default for crime fiction, indeed there are aspects of the  crime genre, especially its centring of science, rationality and logic, that make crime fiction in many of its iterations a paean to Western Progress and rationalism. However, there are other cosmologies in existence, and black writers have often explored the literary potential of giving the narrative breath of life to non-Western ways of seeing the world (egs: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Bluebird; many of the short stories of Leone Ross and Ironesen Okojie). Black crime writers do this while still maintaining some of the genre’s standard detective tropes of logic and rationalism. Where is Black Rain Falling positioned in this Western materialism – Africanist cosmology dialectic? Early on in the novel, a glimmer of non-Western cosmology is given. Digson tells of how his grandmother, who raised him, described the world to him: ‘Olokun is the god-woman of the Dark waters. She rule the bottom of the ocean, yunno. The only one who know what happen to all them African who never reach this side of the Atlantic.’  As with Digson’s grandmother, the Camaho rural women are the major repositories of knowledge based on an alternative cosmology. They carry a spiritual connection with the land and the history of the people within their customs, manners and oral stories. When Digson sees a group of women gathering urgently: ‘They brought to mind my grandmother, who had mothered me, muttering in a closed room with other women that she’d gathered around her. I remembered the secrecy of their ritual cleansing – women, preparing one of their own for the trouble to come.’ ‘These elders would be carrying in their heads the family tree of every person on Kara Island and their connections to each other. They still named their children...

Kalu Bluebird music video: some background

        A nation is a set of stories. And the National Trust is a custodian of stories, set up by Act of Parliament tasked inter alia with keeping in good health those country houses which are of national significance – considered to contain within them   important stories about the nation.* The country houses owned by the National Trust are therefore clearly part of the narrative fabric of the nation.  What stories do these country houses tell?   The cultural theorist Paul Gilroy notes in his seminal text After Empire, how ‘Englishness’ is constructed. He points out that historical amnesia and postcolonial melancholia are persistent elements in conventional  ‘Englishness’ narratives (Gilroy After Empire 2004, 95-100, 116-120).   The National Trust, with its 1907  foundational purpose of ‘permanent preservation’ has such conventional narratives available to it and it uses them. So a September 2019 tweet (screenshot below) suggests as an activity: “Discover how top-secret map makers and allotments grown in the dig for victory played an important role in our wartime history.” This tweet shows admirable dexterity. It manages to combine several ‘Englishness’ tropes: ‘map making’ with its allusion to Empire;  the Home office sponsored slogan,  ‘Dig For Victory’ – a reference to England’s much narrated ‘victory’ in World War Two; and most imaginatively, the tweet also manages to squeeze in a reference to that quintessentially English phenomenon (and I have one!) of the allotment.      Yet there are other narratives available. And some artists, myself among them, want to unsettle this rather cosy version of Englishness. We are focused on putting forward narratives that acknowledge and move closer to the centre of meditations on Englishness, the depredations, cruelty, stereotyping  and symbolic violence which underpinned the British Empire and colonialism. Violence which still affects us today in all its symbolic, linguistic and conceptual shockwaves. More specifically, we seek, through our art, and by a re-examination of historical lands, buildings, artefacts and archives, to foster the rise of suppressed and hitherto unheard voices – including voices of the ‘Other’.  The Leicester University based Colonial Countryside project has gathered some such artists together – primarily writers. Twitter and Facebook abound with other organisations, artists and historians  seeking to  transform understandings of how Empire and its successor, colonialism, has affected national identity.    Poem – origins The poem which forms the lyrics of ‘Bluebird’ was inspired by the lock, stock and barrel of Penrhyn Castle, a National Trust property in North Wales. Penrhyn Castle itself is a marvellous trompe l’oeil – a stately home  built between 1820 and 1833 (just before the Victorian era)  but presenting itself as something more ancient: a Norman castle.  Thus, the issue of presentation, representation, reality and authenticity is mixed into every brick of the property.  It is a magnificent structure, not only in its architecture. It is decorated and furnished so as to proclaim its owner’s sophistication, civility, good taste, aristocratic roots, wealth, knowledge and power. Nobody who visits can be left uncertain that the primary story there is of the Pennant family’s importance in the world.  The poem is a counter-narrative. It refers allusively to the slave trade origins of the Pennants’ wealth, using imagery to indicate objects in the Penrhyn Castle display –  such as stuffed birds and paintings – where slave trade and colonial connections can be found.  I won’t spoil the poem by pointing out all these references.  But a visit to Penrhyn Castle with the song on your headphone’s playlist would be enough to reveal most if not all!  Song – development The basic musicality of the poem supplied the beginnings of the song.  From this, the song itself was developed, composed and arranged by my 15 yo daughter, Naomi Kalu.  We argued about whether the last, consolidating, note of the song should or should not be played (she won the argument – in the video it is not).    Video – development Jonny Ferryman shot all the video footage in two hours at Penrhyn Castle.  He then edited the video, adding some acoustic effects (the bird song, the sea waves).  Charlotte Maxwell assisted in the direction and with costume. The sound editing was done at HQ Recording Studio.          *The consolidating statute (National Trust Acts (1907-1971) puts it in glorious legalese : “The National Trust shall be established for the purposes of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.”   ...

Avoiding race and gender stereotypes and investigating representation issues: Silent Striker and Being Me

I was asked by Book Trust to write an article on my novels, Silent Striker and Being Me in the context of representation, race and gender stereotypes.  You can find it here: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2019/may/pete-kalu-on-stereotypes-i-do-not-represent-the-whole-of-the-deaf-or-black-experience/  PS. here are the covers of the new...

Baghdad Noir: short story collection – review by Pete Kalu

    Baghdad Noir (Akashic Books) contains fourteen new short stories penned by an impressive line-up of primarily Iraqi writers. Each story is set in a different part of Baghdad. The tales are a heterogenous bunch: in ‘I Killed Her Because I Loved Her’, a mother and her two daughters are working on different sides of the American forces v Insurgency divide, with tragic consequences. In ‘Doomsday Book’, a man is recruited to commit “divine, holy murder” until his distraught brother tracks down the recruiter. In ‘Baghdad on Borrowed Time’, a detective is hired by a killer with a bizarre proposition: the killer wants himself killed. In ‘The Apartment’, a sharp-eyed criminal investigator detects an old lady’s death was not by natural causes. In ‘Empty Bottles’, a young woman is murdered, her screams masked by the call to morning prayers, as an entire neighbourhood blocks its ears. In ‘Homecoming’ a father is attacked by an area thug, leaving his soldier son seething.  In ‘Baghdad House’, an accountant lands in a hotel with deadly goings-on. The overall effect of this gathering of stories is kaleidoscopic: shifting fragments that, coming together in the collection, create a sense of Baghdad’s uneasily beating heart. The stories are crisply edited. Most of the stories have been written in English. A few have been translated from Arabic, and where they have, the translations are smoothly done.  As a city, Baghdad presents a challenge for crime fiction.  Arguably, the genre is predicated on a functioning state apparatus imposing law (however cankered), and handing down some form of justice, (however partial or temporary), against a backdrop of a society in some form of order (however warped). Given all these anchors – law, justice, order – appear to have been pulled up by the maelstroms Iraq has experienced, the genre has to react. The Baghdad Noir response is to explore what justice might mean to citizens living in such a shattered landscape, how individuals either reconcile themselves to these disjunctions or else attempt to reconstitute justice and its associated concepts. The collection features a wide range of such troubled, burdened protagonists: nervous accountants, embittered relatives, laconic detectives, traumatised children and frightened students among them. There are touches of the phantasmagorical and the magical in the tales but, for the most part, the mode is realist, as if the absurdities of life in Baghdad need no extra gilding with fantasy….   (Full review is contained in Banipal Magazine, Edition 63 (The 100 Best Arabic Novels)...

Salvage II exhibition of Christopher Ankeli’s work at Chuck Gallery, Mcr, UK. A review by Pete Kalu

Ankeli’s paintings vary in size from A4 landscapes to metre x metre plus squares. They are predominantly acrylic on canvas, often incorporating lightweight ‘found objects’. The prices range from 150 pounds  to just under two thousand pounds. The exhibition runs till 2 Dec 2018. Townships and streetscapes have become a standard of the African painting market. Where are Ankeli’s located? Architectural and street life tropes in his works suggest the setting is more likely Lagos than the north Nigeria of Ankeli’s birthplace. I have a variation on the street life painting view – a narrow painting of yellow buses in traffic, by the artist, Sokanu, on my wall. They are popular subjects. What appeals in them?  I visited the district of Mushin in Lagos years ago. The roadside there is full of noise from a thousand sources, the air blows up with scents and smoke, there is a chaos of movement especially in rush hours.  Painting mutes all audio and movement and allows the mind to home in and contemplate the visual.  In Ankeli’s paintings, the housing assumes a more symmetrical aspect, boosting both the geometric patterns and the colour harmonies that you miss when in the thick of the scene. Ankeli’s ‘scapes have vibrancy and an upbeat symmetry. The colours: brightly lit old blue, strong orange, deep rust and traffic light yellow, all work in harmony; ultimately the painting feels like a panoramic vista that someone nostalgic for urban Nigeria might want to acquire.  Another painting in the exhibition – and there are variations of this type on display –  is the Couple painting. It is clearly mixed media: gauzes, ribbons, rope or string, tubing, threads, other small found materials applied to enhance, compliment or integrate with the basic acrylic paint marks. Found objects have a sympathy for lost people, the poor and downtrodden. Ankeli’s paintings of this type are not anarchic or full of revolutionary zeal  – he does not depict  politicians’ heads lopped off, there is no Basquiat sloganizing, no roughly framed, invocation of chaos. My thoughts drifted to Nigeria’s constitutional situation and history.  The police, the army, the judiciary, the press, the role of president. You can tilt at a society with established institutions more easily than one whose institutions are fragile.  And yet. If you take to Nigerian twitter, you can hear the healthy, democratic clamour of criticism and judgement of govenments and corporations alike. Ankeli’s intervention is more metaphysical or symbolic than political; his work suggests an essential dignity in all human beings no matter their status or circumstances.  And you can read that line (and the art) how you wish. None of the powers that be in Nigeria would have their hackles raised by seeing Ankeli’s mixed media art work on their walls: its political content is sufficiently ambiguous or latent to elude official opprobrium. One aspect I loved to this work was the elusiveness of the human narrative. Step too close and you don’t see the figures within this painting. Step back three metres and they suddenly become apparent, two faces outlined using an African figurative/symbolic language: the narrow line for the nose, the small o for the mouth. Zoom to extreme  close-up and you see what might be interpreted as scarifications, blisterings, markings, repairs; the Japanese  kintsugi  tradition (of broken pottery repaired by gold) came to my mind as I looked this way. There is an Africanity to the head shapes that reminds me in its silvery/bronze metallic sheen of female Ibo masks, of the wood masks of Kwele of Gabon,  and the masks of the  Guro of Ivory Coast. It got me thinking, as I looked, as to why my mind jumped to masks.  The answer arrived that maybe painting is not an ancestral African art: to chance a sweeping statement, masks and sculpture are predominant historically in (West) African societies. From there I wondered how this Western form (painting) is adapted to African conditions, where it finds its home(s). Painting as far as I know is not used/adopted   as part of ceremony or ritual nor has it become an aspect of court art, and it appears not to be present to any great extent as part of everyday life.   My mind drifted back. I was in Nigeria visiting relatives last year and, as you do, glanced at their walls as I went around.  Lots of framed photographs of their children( the older ones where fortune had smiled on them, in mortar board and graduation gowns), older frames holding the elders of the family, sometimes in the black and white prints of gone times. Going around Manchester, UK, visiting friends, I have a similar experience.  Photos of family adorn mantlepieces. Perhaps a few prints in Ikea frames make it up – New York, a lush tree, some Rothko-inspired blocks of colour. Occasionally there is  a rarer print on a feature wall; in Black British houses, it might be something showing positive, strong, elegant black women with a rootsy yet modern African feel; or if the home is that of a loved-up couple, then a black romantic pairing  under the wing of a swan or some other such gentle, protective, image, symbolically holding love in the house while the occupants go out to their nine to five. You get the gist. In both locations, no original art work. Why? An original painting is expensive compared with a print. And...