Monday, April 30, 2007

Culture Clash


The two books I read over the weekend both deal with clashing cultures - basically, racism (and England is the bad guy in both cases). Nehanda by Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe) is about the white invasion of Africa, and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (Trinidad) is the story ofWest Indian immigrants in the 1950s. I hadn't intended on reading these two together, by good chance they just happened to come off my library pile that way.

While searching for an image of the novel Nehanda, I accidentally discovered Nehanda herself was a real woman and is still revered as the most important person in Zimbabwe's history. During her lifetime (c1840-1898) she was a spirit medium of the Shona people. As one of the spiritual leaders of the Shona, she provided inspiration for their revolt against the Rhodesian colonization of Zimbabwe. The British spent some time hunting her down and when they eventually captured her they executed her as a warning to all those who refused to accept and embrace the supposedly superior English culture and religion.

Sam Selvon's novel is also a history of experience and Selvon himself was also a leader of a kind. Before he died, he was already being hailed as the 'father of black writing in Britain'. Although Selvon's situation is the inverse of Nehanda's - he chose to come and make a life in Britain - he didn't have an easy time in London. Londoners were racist and expected the West Indians to behave as though they were British while still assuming an inferior status. There was no mass persecution or executions, but it is still not exactly a comfortable read. Selvon's writing is incredibly atmospheric; he is one of those authors who can put you inside a character's head so that you absorb their feelings or personality traits while you are reading and it only occurs to you to think objectively about what just happened when you put the book down for a break and realise your feelings are something quite different to the main character's.

The themes of these two novels are themes that will never get tired and will never be resolved. Culture and society are like religion; almost everyone thinks theirs is best.

9 comments:

booklogged said...

Both sound like worthwhile reads. There is so much I don't know about world events. Reading helps some, but I want to fill my mind with these stories faster than I can read. Do you think that's a fairly common lament among the book blogosphere?

Imani said...

So the Selvon didn't send you to sleep? I admit I find that Penguin cover attractive, but after a horrible high school experience I'll still give it a pass.

The Traveller said...

Booklogged, that is definitely something experienced by all avid readers. So many books, so little time!

Imani, I actually found Selvon really absorbing. It ate up 40 minutes at a time without my realising. There are books I remember from school that I wouldn't want to revisit now though, so I know how you feel.

verbivore said...

As usual when I visit your site I come away with more titles to add to my to-be-read list. Both of these sound like books I would enjoy!

equiano said...

You always read such a wonderfully wide-ranging and eclectic selection!

May I also highly recommend NERVOUS CONDITIONS by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe) - I tried to say that a few weeks ago but I think my comment was munched by blogger.

Lotus Reads said...

I love coming here for book reviews and recommendations, you read some fascinating books. The only book I've read that highlighted racism against people of Jamaican descent in England was Andrea Levy's "Small Island", but I would like to get "The Lonely Londoners", it does look like a very moving read. I like what you said about Selvon's writing and how he has the ability to make you one with the character...I love when that happens to me!

Imani said...

Where are yooooooou?

J.S. Peyton said...

Well, I've certainly added a few things to my TBR list. I'm beginning to feel like Booklogged. And, when you get back from your travels...

Tag! You're it! I'm tagging you for the "8 Things Meme." The details are on my blog. No obligation if you don't feel like it!

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