On Cultural Appropriation: An Essay

So I wrote an essay for a course I did while studying for Masters in Children’s Lit. Now disclaimer: the following is not meant as an attack on the author whose book I am analyzing. It is, simply, an academic analysis of his work.

A Cultural Conundrum: Exploring Cultural Appropriation in Children’s Literature

We exist in a time when distance is losing its significance. People exist in different mediums: physically and virtually. The spaces we occupy are multicultural and diverse where the experiences of one can be shared by many through the various modalities made available by technology. As a result, there is a formation of a “global culture” that is constructed not by lived experiences but by observed experiences. There are two different ways in which one can interpret this nascent global culture: one, it is inclusive and perpetuates diversity and two, it reinstates the colonialist agenda. The former can be justified by the fact that technology makes different cultures accessible to different people. The latter can be seen as a result of this accessibility which, arguably, can lead to the appropriation of cultures and voices by people who will commodify these cultures for their own benefits. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a slippery subject that has no definitive answers ascribed to it. This paper will deal exclusively with issues of cultural appropriation in a work of young adult literature. It will discuss existing research on the topic and consider questions regarding the responsibility of an author where writing from the perspective of a person from a culture different from the author’s own is concerned. It will ask whether research on the subject and the intent of the author has any bearing on cultural appropriation. This paper will engage in post-colonial theory to frame the cultural appropriation debate and use that to analyze Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff.

To begin this discourse, cultural appropriation needs to be defined but as with every other aspect of this topic, the definition, too, is complicated and layered. Stephen Godfrey quotes Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, a First Nations writer, as defining appropriation as “‘taking something without permission and using it for profit.’” Keeshig-Tobias also adds that “[t]he issue of cultural appropriation has to be defined by racial minorities themselves, since [they] are the ones who suffer” (Godfrey). The Canada Council defines cultural appropriation as “the depiction of minorities or cultures other than one’s own, either in fiction or non-fiction” (Coombe 250). Clare Bradford specifies cultural appropriation in fiction as a “form of textual colonization in which the narratives of indigenous people are assimilated into a Western narrative schema” (200). There are those, however, who do not give credence to the idea that cultural appropriation can exist in literature. Neil Bissoondath proved this liberally when he said:

I reject the idea of cultural appropriation completely…I reject anything that limits the imagination. No one has the right to tell me who I should or should not write about, and telling me what or how I do that amounts to censorship. (Coombe 251)

While Bissoondath may not feel any compunction to limit himself in his creative work, certain minority groups, such as the First Nations people in Canada, are not hesitant about vocalizing their desire to retain their history, art and culture for themselves. Rosemary Coombe presents one way to understand the reluctance minorities have of having their stories retold by outsiders and their artifacts displayed (possibly out of context) in museums. According to Coombe, “modernism appropriates otherness, constitutes non-Western arts in its own image and thereby discovers universal ahistorical human capacities by denying particular histories, local contexts, indigenous meanings, and the very political conditions that enabled Western artists and authors to seize these goods for their own ends” (256). She also observes that “cultural manifestations that may signal creative life rather than death of societies are excluded as inauthentic, or, alternatively, denied cultural, social, or political specificity by becoming incorporated into the universalizing discourse of art” (258). Coombe’s observations are in the context of the First Nations debate about cultural appropriation but it can be applied to any minority group. Having tribal and cultural art displayed in museums does consign the people to whom these artifacts as belonging to the past – unable to represent themselves except through the art appropriated, and displayed, by the hegemonic group. Similarly, the appropriation of Native stories can be considered a theft of Native voices thus denying them their right to choose who they will share their art with and how much of it they want to make public.

Then, too, there may be divergent meanings attached to art and stories for a Native group of people compared to the hegemonic society, in this case, the Western world. Art (including stories) in the Western world is created by “individual geniuses” (Coombe 257) arguably, though not solely, for recreational (and sometimes didactic) purposes. Art, again in the Western world, may be inspired by religious or holy artifacts but are not themselves considered sacred. On the other hand, stories and art in the culture they originate from may be more intimately entwined with spirituality and religious expressions. For instance, Clare Bradford discusses the importance of stories to Australian Aboriginal people. She observes that:

Stories are crucial to [sacred events], because they are not merely means of instruction or entertainment but themselves produce transformative and regenerative effects, so that tellings of ritual stories, like the singing of song-cycles, the performance of dances and the production of various artwork, achieve ends which relate to the [sacred events]: for instance, the telling of a story may ensure that seasonal rain fills desert waterholes; or that the ancestors will be reassured that their descents fulfill obligations to country. (Bradford 203)

Essentially, certain stories are “sacred texts” (203) to the Aboriginal people, occupying the same space and afforded the same reverence as the Bible or the Quran. Considering this, appropriation of these stories and the consequent retelling and consumption of these tales by people who do not understand their sacred nature is problematic. Furthermore, the appropriation commodifies and as such trivializes not just the texts but also the religion and spirituality of the people from whom these stories are taken.

The commodification of culture is one of the more turgid arguments against cultural appropriation. When artists, specifically authors in the context of this paper, assume voices that do not belong to them, they, intention notwithstanding, are claiming the experiences and culture of the native people for their own and implying that they have the right to speak for them. This is always problematic but becomes more so when the author is descended from the very people responsible for the colonization and oppression of the native group. Gayatri Spivak’s “critique of the Subaltern Studies Group” (Childs and Williams 162) can be applied to the protests against cultural appropriation. According to Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, “the Subaltern Studies Group focuses on an historical agency located in the Indian peasantry (the subalterns) who were…instrumental, but have been under-represented, in India’s history” (161). Spivak cautions critics to “resist the desire to retrieve the voices silenced by imperialism … because they are irretrievable” (163) and, because the subaltern is essentially voiceless, attempts to “return” the voice (represent) to the subaltern is another form of imperialism where the critic is projecting his/her opinions onto the subaltern. Linda Alcoff furthers this view in the conclusion of her article, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” by stressing that:

…[T]he practice of speaking for others is often born of a desire for mastery, to privilege oneself as the one who more correctly understands the truth about another’s situation or as one who can champion a just cause and thus achieve glory and praise. And the effect of the practice of speaking for others is often, though not always, erasure and a reinscription of sexual, national and other kinds of hierarchies. (29)

Coombe points out that “[i]n North American commercial culture, imagery of Indians and the aura of “Indianness” is pervasive, but living human peoples with Native ancestry are treated as dead, dying, vanished, and in need of others to speak on their behalf” (272).

For Bissoondath, cultural appropriation may be mythic but for many minority groups, the fight against cultural appropriation is also a fight for the right to construct their own identities. Michael F. Brown quotes Hawaiian nationalist, Haunani-Kay, as characterizing anthropologists and historians as “part of a colonizing horde because they seek to take away from us who and what we are, and how we should behave politically and culturally” (204). Though his views are pointed toward anthropologists and historians, they can be applied to fiction authors who, by trying to represent minorities, are, arguably, attempting to do the same. I would also argue that groups who have a history of being colonized and oppressed are far more sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation than those who have not. This sentiment is echoed by the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas who have undergone the “experience of having Native cultural identity extinguished, denied, suppressed, and/or classified, named, and designated by others” (Coombe 273). Their “decision to defend [their] culture, education, and religion as fundamental to [their] identity as Peoples” (272) is not an attempt to censor authors, as Bissoondath claims, but to reclaim the right to their heritage and identity that was long denied to them.

The other side of the cultural appropriation debate brings into question the evolving nature of culture and the impossibility of appropriating something that is constantly changing. Michael F. Brown argues that in the context of “globalization, transnational flows, and the creative mixing (“creolization”) or invention of traditions…culture is not a bounded, static entity but a dynamic, constantly renegotiated process” (196). Brown discusses whether it is possible to copyright culture, arguing that the implementation of severe intellectual property laws will come attached with issues that will serve to further complicate the matter. He asserts that allowing “native minorities” (199) to retain complete control over the reproduction and distribution of their culture will “[sequester] public-domain information” (199). Also worthy of consideration, in Brown’s opinion, is the reciprocity of potential laws against cultural appropriation; he asks whether, in a North American context, “Indigenous peoples would be subject to reciprocal fine or arrest if they manipulated Christian imagery for their own purposes” (199).

On the other hand, Coombe maintains that “[t]he West has created categories of property – intellectual property, cultural property, and real property – that divide peoples and things according to the same colonizing discourses of possessive individualism that historically disentitled and disenfranchised Native peoples in North America” (249). She argues that art is defined in European colonialist terms, adding that though copyright laws protect the rights of the individual creators, intellectual property laws that ideally would protect Native culture and art fail because these laws “rip asunder what First Nations people view as integrally related, freezing into categories what Native peoples find flowing in relationships” (269). Art, in a European context, is separated from the everyday; it occupies an often rarified space distinct from the normal and the domestic. For Native peoples, on the other hand, art is irrevocably woven into their daily lifestyles and landscapes, and therefore, protecting their culture is protecting their art.

Even though the cultural appropriation debate continues heatedly among writers of adult literature, children’s literature remains strangely silent on the topic. According to Clare Bradford, rather than provoking an awareness of cultural appropriation (in a post-colonial context), “critical discourses in children’s literature generally mobilize humanist principals that emphasize what humans have in common across time and space; and Jungian frameworks which interpret religious beliefs, ritual practices and narratives in terms of ‘the primordial images’ of the collective unconscious” (200). Bradford goes on further to suggest that rather than attention on the accuracy of what she terms “indigenous retellings,” more pertinent questions, such as the functions of narratives in indigenous cultures; how they relate to religious beliefs and rituals; the extent to which narratives refer to and depend on particular sites and kinship groups and how one narrative is connected to another, are obfuscated. The following analysis of Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff will consider these questions when evaluating the problematic aspects of the novel.

Jay Kristoff, according to his biography on Goodreads, is a white Australian male. His debut novel, Stormdancer, released in 2012 by St. Martin’s Press in North America, is set on a “Japan-inspired” island called “Shima” and tells the story of Yukiko and her friendship with a griffin she calls “Buruu” (Blue) in a world populated by power hungry feudal overlords, demons and a dying land. The average rating for this book on Goodreads is 3.93 stars with 45% of all ratings being 5 stars and 4% being 1 star. The next section will go into detail about the author’s intent, research and justification of his work. Following that, the paper will consider the arguments made against the novel by readers who, though not professional reviewers, are familiar with Japanese language and customs.

In an interview on The Swashbuckler, a book blog, Jay Kristoff, in response to a question asking why he had set his novel in Japan, replies that “European-based steampunk seemed like it had been done a lot” and he wanted to write something novel. When asked about the research he did “with regards to authenticity,” Kristoff, rather flippantly, answers that though he has had people ask him if he has a degree in Japanese studies, his research consisted of Wikipedia, six volumes of Manga, and a “friend who lives in Japan.” In another interview, this time on a blog called Book Probe, Kristoff opines that “the cool thing about writing a setting that’s inspired by Japan, but not actually Japan, is that you can take what you want from history and mythology and leave the rest.” Perhaps the most polemic of all his words and opinions, however, is the defense he makes (on his website) against accusations of misappropriation:

I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible with my use of Japanese terminology and honorifics, and recruited a dirty posse of badass Japanese speaking folks to help me with my translations. But I did co-opt a few terms for my own nefarious reasons, and I am gaijin at the end of the day. Hopefully no offense is caused. If you’re the kind of person who thinks George R. R. Martin was doing it wrong when he spelled “sir” as “ser”, you might be in for an aneurism because I do a lot worse than that.

But this is fantasy folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.

A fierce rebuttal from Renay, a feminist blogger on Lady Business, states that “another culture is not a box of tricks for white people to reach into for the entertainment of white masses who swallow it without any critical commentary.”

A recurring criticism leveled against Stormdancer is that the Japanese employed in it by Kristoff is incorrect, especially where the use of “-sama” (a suffix attached to a noun to denote respect) and “hai” (which has a variety of meanings according to the context in which it is used) is concerned. One example of the incorrect usage of both words in the book is: “Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai” (Kristoff 14)? While a lack of research was initially attributed as the reason behind the incorrect usage, Kristoff’s defense of his prose reveals that it was, in fact, intentional. Kristoff manipulated existing Japanese words and, regardless of their meaning, used them as substitutes for, one can argue, the words “sir” and “yes.” Additionally, as Syahira Sharif, a reviewer on Goodreads, explains, Kristoff’s use of “Shima” is problematic as the word “Shima is 島 [which itself means island]” so when Kristoff writes “The Isles of Shima” (Kristoff 1), he is in actuality saying, “The Isles of Island.” Kristoff does not just appropriate the language of the Japanese people; he denies the language the meaning inherent to it and gives it new meanings to further his expressions. In essence, he is, as Bradford theorized, “textually colonizing” (200) the Japanese people.

Another way in which Stormdancer is problematic is the way it amalgamates various Asian cultures under one umbrella thus denying them their individual histories and stories. There are “missing pandas,” (Kristoff 51) in the novel, a species indigenous to China and not Japan, and the usage of “aiya” as an expression of distress etc. Alexis Lee, a Malaysian Goodreads reviewer, notes that “aiya” (Kristoff 135 and 136) is “not a Japanese exclamation.” She goes on to say that the incorrect usage annoys her as “[it’s] what…Malaysians use…Singaporeans do, too – but [she] has never ever heard a Japanese say anything the least bit similar to ‘aiya!’” Alexis also comments on the disparity of the relationships represented in the novel compared to Japanese family dynamics in real life. Yukiko, the protagonist of the novel, is “outright rude and whiny to her father in public” without any consequence; this is, according to Alexis, culturally inaccurate. Not that this is the only instance of inaccuracy occurring in the novel. One of the more critical Goodreads reviewers, Nessa, observes that Yukiko, the protagonist, is dressed in a “junihitoe” (Kristoff 228) which is a “twelve-layered kimono that only ladies of the court wore.” There is also reference to a “thin kimono” (244) when “there is no such thing;” the correct name for such article of clothing could be “yukata.”

By far though, the most incendiary of all the problematic details found in Stormdancer is the inclusion of a green-eyed samurai.

Yukiko rose on trembling legs beneath the Iron Samurai’s gaze. She met his stare as he unclasped his oni mask and swung the faceplate aside. He was terribly young for a samurai; barely seventeen, if she had to guess. High cheekbones and a strong jaw, tipped with a small pointed goatee, smooth skin the colour of polished bronze. His eyes were a dazzling green, deep and sparkling like paintings of the great northern sea. (Kristoff 41)

It is obvious from this passage that the samurai in question is native to the land of Shima, in other words, he is Japanese. Thea, a book reviewer, takes umbrage at “taking a diverse character, who is made [all the more special beautiful] [sic] because s/he has blue/green/violet eyes…aka [sic] [taking a character of colour and giving them a Caucasian trait/symbol of beauty that makes them more beautiful than anyone else around them].” Linda, a reviewer of Taiwanese descent, wonders “why it is [okay] to take away this awesome opportunity to present Asian features as desirable and beautiful and turn it into an ode to green or light-coloured eyes that we already see all the time.” Kristoff’s choice to give green eyes to the much desired love interest may not have had the express intention of furthering Western ideals of beauty but there is no denying that it does exactly that. Green eyes are, predominantly, a European trait and its presence in a desired character (and the reiteration of the beauty of the green eyes throughout the narrative) restates European superiority and propagates neo-colonialism.

The analysis presented above focuses on elements of cultural appropriation and neo-colonialism. There are issues of male gaze and gender constructions also present in Stormdancer but it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully investigate and analyze them. Though the articles reviewed in the first section of this paper considered cultural appropriation from a First Nations perspective, it is possible to apply the theories discussed to the cultural appropriation present in Stormdancer. Spivak’s caution about speaking for the “subaltern” was completely ignored in this novel as Kristoff constructs his protagonist in the shape of a young Japanese girl who would ostensibly have the qualities that growing up in Japan would give her. Kristoff, however, imbues her with the qualities (rebellious, irreverent and brash) more indigenous to a society in which women are far more liberated than they would be in a feudal society. Japanese history and myth are appropriated carelessly; traditions and mythical creatures are taken out of context and used without regard to their significance in the originating culture. Japanese people and their history are appropriated and reconstructed to suit the needs of the author. Japanese culture is commodified for the sake of entertainment and personal gain.

The global culture mentioned in the beginning of this paper may have shortened distances between people who speak different languages and live in different parts of the world but it has also exposed many cultures to exploitation by those who have the power to do so. Not all instances of authors using voices not belonging to them are called cultural appropriation (see Zoe Marriott’s Shadows on the Moon) but there certainly needs to be more of an awareness of cultural appropriation in children’s literature. As Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale verbalize it, “[c]hildren’s books are not merely ‘frivolous’ entertainment’ – [t]hey are part of the society’s general culture… [that] reflect our society” (Thompson 368). As such, it is very important that there is more critical engagement with texts meant for children. Critical engagement, not just from targeted readers but also from adult readers, will lead to critical discourse and awareness about pertinent issues such as appropriation.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Alcoff Linda. “‘The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique. 20 (1991-1992): 5-32.

Print.

Bradford, Clare. ““Oh How Different!”: Regimes of Knowledge in Aboriginal Texts for

Children.” The Lion and The Unicorn. 27.2 (2003): 199-217. Print.

Braiden. “Interview with Jay Kristoff and Stormdancer Giveaway.” Book Probe. WordPress.

Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Brown, Michael F. “‘Can Culture Be Copyrighted?” Current Anthropology. 39.2 (1998): 193-

  1. Print.

Childs, Peter and Patrick Williams. An introduction to Postcolonial Theory. Toronto: Simon &

Schuster, 1997. Print.

Coombe, Rosemary J. “The Properties of Culture and Politics of Possessing Identity: Native

Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy.” The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence. 6.2 (1993): 249-285. Print.

Dashcooray. “An Interview with Jay Kristoff – Stormdancer.” The Swashbuckler. WordPress.

Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Godfrey, Stephen. “Canada Council Asks Whose Voice Is It Anyway?” The Globe and Mail

            (Canada) 21 March 1992. Print.

Kristoff, Jay. Jay Kristoff. n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Kristoff, Jay. Stormdancer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Print.

Lee Alexis. “Alexis Lee’s Reviews > Stormdancer.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 2013. Web. 6

Apr. 2013.

Linda. “Part 3: Green-Eyed Asian Love Interest.” Wistfully Linda. Blogspot. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Nessa. “Nessa’s Reviews > Stormdancer.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Renay. “Calm Down! It’s Only Fantasy.” Lady Business. Dreamwidth. Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Sharif Syahira. “Syahira Sharif’s Reviews > Stormdancer.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 2013.

Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Thompson, Melissa K. “A Sea of Good Intentions: Native Americans in Books for Children.”

The Lion and The Unicorn. 25.3 (2001): 353-375. Print.

Yanagihara. “Krystle Yanagihara’s Reviews > Stormdancer.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 2013.

Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

The Reading Forecast

It’s a new week! Full of new possibilities and new books (and old favourites) to read and read. So I’ve been writing a lot which means I haven’t been reading too much. Of course when I say not reading, I’m still probably reading more than other people. Here at the books I did read last week:

  1. And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
    So wonderful. Her words, the feelings, everything. This was pretty much perfect for me.
  2. This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner
    A brilliant installment to the Starbound trilogy. The worldbuilding was particularly awesome.
  3. Deathmarked by Leah Cypess
    I have to admit, it took me a long while to warm up to the story. I didn’t like Ileni all that much and I’m not sure whether I’m going to continue with the series.
  4. The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi and Other Stories by Edgar Bayley
    This was translated from Spanish. I didn’t like the treatment of women in these stories.
  5. Bottle by Margaret Atwood
    I found this really wonderful. Short vignettes, writing exercises, dialogues, little spurts of prose. I loved them all.

Currently Reading

  1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
    I am only 44 pages in but I am not really liking it at the moment. I mean, the prose is wonderfully smooth and delicious but the pacing is so slooow. A GR friend told me it’d take 300 pages for me to get into and sigh. This means it will take me a long while to read it which is not necessarily a bad thing but I had wanted to finish it before the month ended. Oh well.
  2. Visions in Silver by Anne Bishop
    I just decided to read this alongside The Luminaries. This will be a faster read and will keep me reading. Plus, the library wants it back soon so I may as well make haste.

To Read in the Coming Week:

I am not at all sure whether I’ll get much reading in the coming week but I have to read Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynathia Hand and A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas as the library wants them back soon as well.

The Reading Forecast

This last reading week wasn’t too great reading wise because my friend Yash got me writing again and when I’m writing, I’m usually spending more time on my own story, in my own world even when I’m not actually writing. I basically sit quietly and plot. Haha. Plus, I’ve been having fun doing other things and not feeling like reading. I think it’s because I finished Dreams of Gods and Monsters which was just such a perfect book. I wanted to savour the experience, let it linger. But enough talk. Here’s what I read last week:

  1. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
    This was so perfect that everything Taylor writes from now on is going to be on auto-buy from me. Because seriously.
  2. Rat Queens vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe
    So funny. I really enjoyed this one.
  3. The Tapper Twins Go to War by Geoff Rodkey
    I enjoyed this quite a bit.
  4. Auto Focus vol. 1-5 by Aya Roppongi
    Roppongi has a way of making her characters come alive that I really envy. Her art is brilliant.
  5. Postcards from Ex-Lovers by Jo-Anne Elder
    This was okay. A lot of the time I wasn’t sure who she was addressing and whether each vignette was linked to the other. Not a huge fan.
  6. You Do Understand by Andrej Blatnik
    My first piece of Slovenian fiction and one I enjoyed very much. It was really fun to read these short, pithy vignettes that packed a punch.
  7. Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge
    I enjoyed this one very much. There shall be a review of it on The Book Wars soon.

I could have easily read one or two more titles but I just didn’t feel like it. Ah well.

Currently Reading:

  1. 420 Characters by Lou Beach
    This book is made of short stories that were initially Facebook statuses limited to 420 characters.
  2. And Still I Rise by Maya Angelous
    I just started this and of course read the titular poem first. It is just as good as her performance of it makes it sound.

To Read in the Coming Week

I’m not sure how many books I’ll get through but these are the ones I’m going to be aiming to read:

  1. The Last Time We Said Goodbye by Cynthia Hand
    It’s from the library and other people are waiting so I may as well read it fast.
  2. Death Marked by Leah Cypess
    Same reason as above.
  3. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
    This will be a reread as I want to do a post on it for The Book Wars.

Review: life.love.beauty by Keegan Allen

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Hardcover, 320 pages
Published February 3rd 2015 by St. Martin’s Press
Source: Publisher (but I actually read a finished copy out from the library)

You guys, I had no idea who Keegan Allen was (is) and the only reason I wanted to “read” this book was because I love photography books. I didn’t realize it contained his writings as well. I don’t have too much to say about the book, to be honest.

I enjoyed the pictures he took. They present an intriguing life into his life and personality. I enjoyed the evidence of the camaraderie that exists between his and his fellow actors. I liked the moods evoked by his pictures.

As for his writing, they were okay. I mean, they felt really personal and (don’t hate me) sometimes I felt like they were diary entries that should have remained as diary entries. Still, he has a turn of phrase that I sometimes liked. He clearly loves his craft and spends a lot of time honing it.

As someone who doesn’t watch the TV show or is not well acquainted with any of Allen’s works, I enjoyed the book for what it presented: a disarming look into his life and personality.

Review: Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

I first came across Teju Cole when he wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times following the Paris massacre. I was impressed by his wit, intelligence and wordsmithery and decided that I must read something by him. When I got the chance to review Every Day is for the Thief I jumped at it because why not? The following will be less of a review and more of a think-out-loud that I indulge in.

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Paperback, 192 pages
Published March 3rd 2015 by Random House Trade Paperbacks
Source: Publisher

I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last year and I felt that she used fiction as a vehicle to air her views about colour, race, gender, and identity. Her protagonist, a Nigerian woman, who returns to Nigeria after spending a good portion of her life in the United States struggles to reconcile the changes that have been wrought in her through living abroad to the kind of woman and person she is expected to be in Nigeria.

Similarly, Cole’s unnamed protagonist returns to Nigeria for a visit and he experiences that same sense of wonderment and bewilderment that I reckon most immigrants experience when they first return home after being away for a long time. I am well acquainted with the feeling. When I returned to Fiji after spending nearly a decade away, I was taken aback by the squalor, the poverty, and the thick layer of oldness that pervaded the city that had once been so large and shiny in my memories. I had that curious experience of seeing one place in two ways simultaneously: I saw it as a visitor to a new place and then I saw it as a person returning home again. It was a pretty eerie experience.

Anyway, my point is, the narrator of the novel is struck by the corruption in the Nigerian people–a corruption that begins in the New York visa office and continues until he returns to the airport on his way back to the States. Corruption is a prominent theme and the primary focus of all the vignettes that compose the novel. While Adichie’s Americanah did have a solid story to serve as the microphone for the social issues under discussion, Every Day is for the Thief is unswerving in its goal to illuminate the many different kinds of corruption that sickens the Nigerian populace like a disease. There is no overarching story, no attempt of a fictional narrative that moves beyond glimpses of the ways the police, politicians and population of Nigerians are corrupted. There is no sense of the narrator as a person–his hopes, desires, personality are pale echoes of the mercenary nature of the people and country he calls his own.

I felt that this lack detracted from the novel. I was seeing through the narrator’s eyes and yet I remained untouched by what he was seeing. The bleakness in his observations were overwhelming and while I understand the importance of exposing corruption, I wish there had been more moments such as the one where the narrator stumbles on a side street where a group of men are busy making coffins. That scene is chilling and poignant and gives a greater glimpse of Nigeria than I felt I saw in the rest of the novel.

I feel that this book will mean a lot more to a person from Nigeria than to someone who hasn’t been there. The novel, if I can call it that, will probably resonate with people who are more invested in the country. I still want to read more Teju Cole but I admit that I found this expression of his talents a bit dry and not very engaging.

The Reading Forecast

Wah, I’m tired so this is going to be a short one. Last week I read:

  1. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
    I liked this well enough though I didn’t love it. I shall review it soon.
  2. Outstanding in the Rain by Frank Viva
    This was cute. Review soon on The Book Wars.
  3. The Tower of Ravens by Kate Forsyth
    I liked this well enough but it didn’t offer me anything new. Rather predictable and well, the romance was not something I liked. I like my romance with a lot more tension and subtlety.
  4. Valiant by Sarah McGuire
    This was cute. Review up on the book wars soon.
  5. A Cold Legacy by Megan Shepherd
    This lacked the intensity and fervent pacing of the second one. I didn’t like it as much.
  6. Absolute Witch vol. 1-12 by Kim Tae-Yeon
    This was really interesting. Spare on the details and the story was not very complex but the art was amazing and the worldbuilding really amazing.
  7. Once Upon a More Enlightened Time by James Finn Garner
    This was hilarious. A very short collection of stories hilariously told in a way that is politically correct.

Currently Reading:

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
I’m about 132 pages in and the story is just beginning to get interesting. It’s a beast at 613 pages so this may take me the greater part of the week to read. I’m okay with that.

To Read in the Coming Week:

  1. Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson
  2. The Tapper Twins Go To War by Geoff Rodkey
  3. Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge
  4. I also have some graphic novels out from the library that I may read providing I am in the mood to read.