Coming of age in the 60’s: The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns

Small town South Africa. The 1960’s. Rules govern social engagement. Black and white, Afrikaner and English, richer and poorer. Even in the smallest of towns a hierarchy of social stratification evolves and is reinforced with a blend of gossip and charity. And then there are those most ineffable mysteries of life: love, sex and death.

childrensSuch is the context of The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns. At the heart of this Bildungsroman is Simon, a sensitive, intelligent boy charting his way through the machinations of childhood in the dusty environs of Verkeerdespruit. He is keenly aware that he is living in the heart of nowhere. But the books that are such a vital companion to this only child cannot even begin to answer the questions that his interactions with classmates and the curious behaviour of the adults around him continually raise. Simon is left with the impression that he is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.

The novel opens in the modest, relatively speaking, metropolis of Bloemfontein, where Simon, now 15, is attending Wesley College, a “second-rate” Methodist private school. The occasion of a tennis match between the boys of Wesley College and a nearby technical high school on a stifling hot December day in 1968 unspools a series of flashbacks that reach six years into the past and gradually move forward. Simon’s reflections are triggered by the unexpected, unwelcome appearance of a former classmate on the visiting school’s team – the awkward, epilectic Afrikaner Fanie van den Bergh.

From the time he first arrives in Verkeerdespruit, Fanie is a curiousity. His fits alarm his classmates and teachers, while his inarticulate, easy-going nature sets Simon off balance. He regards Fanie with a measure of contempt to which the latter appears oblivious. Yet  Fanie is a constant source of surprise. When Steve, in his tight jeans and white t-shirt, roars into town astride the magnificent Matchless G8 bringing a touch of heroic glamour to streets of the sleepy village, attracting the adoration of the boys,and the fluttering of female hearts, it is Fanie who disappears on the back of his bike. The fallout resulting from Steve’s arrival marks the advent of Simon’s awareness that the world is full of joys and dangers that the adults around him allude to with the most cryptic references. Frustratingly alert to the innuendos around him, Simon is delightfully naive as only a child of the pre-internet era can be. I remember it well myself. As Simon admits:

“Though I was probably quicker than my contemporaries at fitting together apparently unrelated observations, I was hampered in my deductions by an almost complete ignorance of sexual matters. I had arrived, for instance, at the conclusion that kissing was both a much sought-after pleasure for oneself and a much-ridiculed weakness in others, and that adults were too old for it and children too young.”

By observing the parade of adults that passes through his home town, Simon’s glimpses of the outside world become broader, if not necessarily clearer. A teacher who takes harsh discipline in the classroom a step too far is sent away, a pretty young girl he assumes is a special friend abandons him for the school jock, a woman with a shocking past appears and breaks the heart of one of his favourite teachers. And then there is Trevor with his dyed hair and pink shirts who shocks everyone by shaking up the life of the stuttering shy bachelor postmaster and his mother, briefly redesigning the beehived heads of the local women before being run out of town once speculations about the true nature of his friendship with the postmaster spread. Again Simon is perplexed, though it is Trevor who first implies that he sees in the boy a likely kindred spirit. The only outlet he has for the really “big” questions that trouble him are his Saturday afternoons at the local soda fountain with Betty “The Exchange”. The cynical, unfortunately chinless, telephone operator entertains Simon’s queries but confuses him as much as she informs him – children, after all, are only allowed so much enlightenment in this era.

It is Fanie who, in the end, stands to call attention to the missing puzzle piece that Simon has been holding in his hand all along.

I have an affection for strong coming of age/coming out stories. This is one. Sexually Simon is a slow learner, a boy who is less in touch with his body than the more viscerally grounded if intellectually dimmer Fanie. He over thinks the world even though he encounters more than one adult male who recognizes in him an inclination that he has, at an early age, no context for. Today with the ubiquity of queer conversation, imagery, access to internet, resources and young adult novels that explore queer themes, it may be hard to imagine how isolated a child could be growing up in earlier decades. Some claim this is an argument for censorship or against realistic sex education in the school system. But that is a spurious argument. One could still grow up LGBT in a vacuum. Or worse in denial. Many of us did.

I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in conservative rural Alberta. My parents, like Simon’s were liberal, but, like my peers, there were so many facts of life we did not understand and would not have dared to ask. Especially if there was any inclination that our own sense of self was off the norm. Long before one could retreat to the wisdom of Wikipedia, our resources were limited. I will never forget when the word “faggot” started to appear on our radar, probably as 10 or 11 year-olds. We would scurry to our dictionaries to find only “A bundle of sticks or an unpleasant woman”. Somehow we knew that couldn’t be right!

With The Children’s Day Heyns captures all of the curious confusion of growing up smart, bookish and not quite fitting in. And he does so with a warm, understated humour. Through his perceptive, yet naive, narrator the wonder and mystification, shame and humiliation of adolescence are evoked with remarkable resonance. Like many coming of age tales this was also a debut novel. But first published in 2002 when the author was in his late 50s, this novel also marked the debut of second career as a writer and translator – one that is still going strong – an inspiration to the rest of us in mid-life with writerly aspirations.

In praise of small publishers

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my growing obsession for small publishers. Once you start to turn your attention to non-mainstream literature, follow literary journals and publications online, or seek out works in translation; the world of independent publishers invariably opens up. As readers we live in a global world, and we engage in discussions with fellow readers spread far and wide, so it seems natural that you will hear about intriguing works that are not available wherever you happen to live. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of time but years can separate releases in North America from those in the UK and Australia. Here in Canada we sometimes end up in between the two. Some small publishers do not yet have distribution on one side of the planet or the other, some may never manage it, but I would argue it is still worth trying to support independent publishers no matter where they are, whenever possible.

Why? Small publishers uncover challenging, interesting works, take chances, bring long ignored literature back into circulation, or into translation. Or both.

2015-04-23 13.08.58My two favourite books last year introduced me to two small publishers: CB Editions with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist and Istros Books with Selvedin Avdić’s Seven Terrors. Sadly both are publishers without North American distribution. That does not mean, of course that their books can’t be sourced, but the magic of a browsing reader happening to stumble across one of their titles on a bookstore shelf is lost. The joy of random discovery is denied.

After paying extra attention to the IFFP and BTBA longlists this year, I will now be watching out for titles from Pushkin, Open Letter, Deep Vellum, Archipelago among many others. Becoming more engaged as a book blogger and negotiating twitter has caused me to be distracted by some irresistible “shiny objects” – treasures like the stunning A Gothic Soul which arrived earlier this week, in a package covered in Czechoslovakian stamps, direct from Twisted Spoon Press. Oh yes, I could have downloaded it from Amazon for almost a third of what I paid but that would have been a pale substitute for what is truly a work of art and devotion from a small not-for-profit press.

2015-04-23 13.10.55And then there is And Other Stories. I don’t know how I was so late to the party but it was the release of The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé in January that put them on my radar. Dovetailing nicely with my interest in South African literature, their publication of this brilliant debut of stories translated from Afrikaans as well as their ongoing release of works by Ivan Vladislavić was an obvious draw. But as soon as I learned about their grassroots funding of initial releases with subscription support and their engagement of readers in the process of exploring potential writers from around the world… well, I was sold. I subscribed right away. My only regret is that temporary financial uncertainty led me to opt for a 4-book rather than a 6-book subscription. A number of other publishers utilize subscriber support models so I hope in the future to extend my support further and wider.

Today my biggest thrill comes from walking into one of our local indie bookstores and finding a gem on the shelves. Of course I still end up placing special orders, through the same stores or from overseas. And, when there seems to be no option I order e-books but my preference for paper copies has grown after an initial blush of affection for the digital. I am even the sort of person who, having truly fallen in love with a book read electronically or borrowed from the library, just has to own a hard copy.

There must be diagnosis for this illness. But I don’t want to be cured.

Behind the photographic impulse: Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013

“How can I say what these fragments mean to me? The awkward truths of my life take shape in their negative spaces. In the lengthening shadows of the official histories, looming like triumphal arches over every small messy life, these scraps saved from the onrush of the ordinary are the last signs I can bring myself to consult.”

When we first meet him, Neville Lister, the narrator of Double Negative, is a disaffected young man, uncertain and aimless in a fractured and troubled environment – apartheid South Africa. It is the early 1980s and he cannot quite find his footing, either in academic study, the political protestations of his friends, or the mixed allegiances of his parents’ generation. The stakes are high, but his ambivalence is a luxury well known to middle class youth. Being close in age to Neville and his creator, South African author Ivan Vladislavić, I could not help but chuckle at his repeated references to “Beerhunter”, (a party game we Canadians lay claim to, by the way) or recognize the insidiousness with which The Eagles’ Hotel California album seems to define our lives even if we never owned a copy of that recording. However, unlike our most reluctant hero, I did not have political unrest or the real threat of conscription bearing down on me.

Double NDouble Negative traces Neville’s evolution from long-haired, pipe smoking dropout to middle-aged late blooming artist, framed against the shifting political, cultural and socioeconomic backdrop of Johannesburg. In the first section, “Available Light”, his father arranges a meeting with a famed local photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hopes that the encounter might inspire his son to reach beyond his current employment assisting a man who spray paints lines on roadways. As Neville tags along, Auerbach and a journalist friend devise a game that will direct their photographic pursuit for the day. Standing on a hillside with a panoramic view of the city below, each man choses a roof top. They manage to visit two of the three selected homes where Auerbach charms his way in, and coaxes photographs out of the inhabitants – a poor black woman with her two surviving triplets living in a backyard shack and a white woman in a lounge suffocated with furniture and curios. But before they visit Neville’s choice, the photographer’s energy and his necessary light have faded and they head home.

When our narrator picks up the thread of his story in the second section, “Dead Letters”, he has been in London for ten years and the first free elections have just been held in South Africa. Swept up in a wave of nostalgic homesickness he flies home. By this time he is also making a living behind the lens, but as a commercial photographer. He returns to a city already morphing under new dynamics, post apartheid – street names changing, houses and entire city blocks replaced. Cities are, at the best of times, constantly re-inventing themselves, shedding their skins. The effects are more profound under the pressures that have been released and confronted in places like Johannesburg, where, by the time we catch up with Neville again for the final installment “Small Talk”, he has taken to photographing the ubiquitous walls that have arisen to close off and protect the city’s inhabitants from each other.

Upon his return to South Africa, he had experimented with trying to enter a home to photograph the resident, drawn, of course, to the house he had first chosen so many years earlier. The experience almost swallows him whole but does, in turn, offer the direction that will inform his own artistic photographic ventures. He no longer wants to see what lies behind the walls that have been erected. He draws the resident out but refuses to enter. It is now 2009 and our hero is being subjected to an interview by an eager, self-promoting young reporter and blogger who intersperses her blog posts with a litany of handy household tips that would make Oprah proud. She is of a entirely new breed, neither weighed down by nor fully appreciative of the reality of her nation’s history. By contrast, Neville Lister occupies the transitional space. As photography has moved from film to digital, a medium with remarkable capacity for storage and the editing and altering of images, so is his country altering and editing its own collective memories.

More than anything, this is a story that unfolds as a series of images, captured with Vladislavić’s poetic eye for detail. He translates scenes, the photographic and the interpersonal, with a language so effortlessly descriptive that I often stopped to re-read a paragraph for the sheer pleasure. Neville describes “gumption” as a “word that stuck to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter”. A character “moulted” his jacket. In navigating the city he talks of following “the simple arguments of avenues and squares”.
This ability to transform language into imagery is nowhere more apparent than in his descriptions of the scenes, immortalized by the lens of the camera under the direction of the photographer. One of the photographs resulting from the initial outing with Saul Auerbach is described in vivid detail:

“Mrs Ditton sat in the armchair beside the fireplace. The coffee table had been dragged away – there is no trace of it in the photograph – to expose the floorboards and a corner of the rug. Looming on the left is the largest of the cabinets, so imposing you would say it belongs in a department store. The chair has wooden arms with ledges for tea cups and on each side of these lies a pie-crust of crochet work and a coaster. The chair sprawls with its arms open wide and its fists clenched, and she wallows in its lap.”

I imagine that anyone with an SLR camera and a tripod has experimented with long exposures and the creation of ghost images. It seems to be a rite of passage. Double Negative is, in many respects, a book of ghosts. Visiting with the woman living in the house he had selected so many years earlier, Neville feels weighed down by the voices swirling around her lounge. In referring to the annotated cookbook passed down from his mother, he reflects that the food “tastes better when the ghosts adjust the seasonings.” And ghosts haunt a collection of dead letters that come into his possession and, it seems, may be destined to lead him into his next “artistic” endeavour. If growing older is a process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the ghosts we carry, our narrator is older and wiser but still working away to make sense of it all by the end of this book.

And so is his country.

Note: Originally published in South Africa in 2011, Double Negative was released to an international audience in 2013 (with an introduction by Teju Cole) through the amazing publisher And Other Stories. Supported by their unique subscription model, this release was followed by the publication of an earlier title, The Restless Supermarket in 2014, and his upcoming collection of stories, 101 Detectives, will be released this year. Ivan Vladslavić was recently named one of three recipients of the 2015 Windham Campbell Prize for fiction along with Teju Cole and Helon Habila.

Addressing injustice with the pen: Reflections on Rumours of Rain by André Brink

Earlier this month I attended an inaugural PEN Canada event in my city. The purpose of bringing such discussions to locales throughout the country is to turn the discussion about censorship and freedom of expression inward where, against the outrages we see in other parts of the world, we risk falling into a false sense of complacency. The empty chair at this debate was reserved for Raif Badawi, the Saudi man sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for the “outrageous” crime of blogging. His wife and children have been granted refugee status in Canada but the Canadian government is curiously reluctant to speak out. Why? I can’t help but wonder if their foot dragging around any international injustices that involve refugees or foreign born Canadians (the non-white ones, that is) reflects the persistent attitudes of the Conservative government’s core grass root supporters. Funny how soon we forget that all non-Aboriginal Canadians are immigrants in this colonial landscape if you go back far enough. The subjugation and treatment of our First Nations peoples is often seen as justifiable, built into our collective history. That is no excuse, but somehow racial concerns carry an entirely new intensity when the matter is much more black and white, so to speak.

Or when we see it elsewhere.

RainThe recent passing of South African novelist André Brink led me to a long overdue reading of one of his classic novels, Rumours of Rain, which dovetailed nicely with the issues that have been in my mind since attending the PEN event. Published in 1978 and addressed directly to the injustices of apartheid, the echoes of this, and his other controversial novels of this period, have long reverberations that continue to ring  close to the bone in this increasingly global new world.

The power of Rumours of Rain lies in the narrative voice. Martin Mynhardt, a successful Afrikaner businessman, has stolen a rare week of solitude in London to exercise his literary ambitions while attempting to exorcise any measure of guilt in the unfolding of a recent series of events that have torn apart the lives of some of the people who were once closest to him. Driven solely by his own over inflated sense of self worth and an endless internal cost-benefit analysis, Martin is a ruthlessly blind apologist for apartheid. He imagines himself sufficiently enlightened to know what is best for his country and his family. He focuses his attention on the events surrounding a weekend visit to the family farm with his son where his goal is to convince his mother to approve the sale of the land, an urgent deal to which he is already deeply committed. But nothing is simple. Violence not only intrudes on his visit to the farm, but back home in Johannesburg, a violent series of riots is about to erupt in Soweto.

In a long winded, self indulgent, but oddly engaging account, he chronicles his complicated relationships with his best friend, his wife, his son, and his mistress. He honestly feels personally affronted by the revolutionary political passions he is witness to, especially in his friend Bernard – after all, he does not want them to reflect badly on him.  But he is unable to acknowledge any responsibility for the role any of his own action or inaction may have played in the end results; he can justify every selfish choice he makes in marriage, love, sex, business and friendship. No matter the cost.

Yet, in committing his story to paper, Mynhardt inadvertently succeeds in giving an eloquent voice to the very views he claims to disdain. He manages this by including transcripts from Bernard’s trial for treason, his son’s bitter reflections on his recent experiences with the army in Angola and through passionate exchanges with Charlie Mofokong, an educated black South African and childhood friend of Bernard’s whom he reluctantly employs to assist him in managing his mine interests.

Throughout the novel two interwoven refrains recur: Martin’s grandfather’s favourite Biblical passage “And have not love”(1 Cor:13) and the anthemic Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

What we end up is with is the voice of a deeply flawed, myopic (literally and figuratively) anti-hero; not surprisingly one who must have made more than a few attentive readers shift uncomfortably in their armchairs. Literature is often at its most effective when it gives voice to the under dog, but in skillful hands, like Brink’s, turning the narrative over to the less sympathetic side of the equation can have a resounding impact. Especially when we feel a moment of empathy with a man we want to despise, catch a glimpse of him in ourselves.

Fittingly, a month that started with a local PEN event, has ended with Freedom to Read Week in Canada. The opportunity to honour an author who used his voice, together with many of his fellow writers, to raise a chorus to question and challenge apartheid, seems appropriate. Today the intrinsic messages against racism, classism and greed still need to be heard by a wide audience.

A love song for the loveless: Reflections on unrequited love – Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2012

Valentines Day. It has been many years since I have had a true object of romantic affection. This annual occasion tends to come and go without my notice. Even my children are too old to warrant the heart shaped candies and chocolates I used to purchase. And yet I have to stop and wonder why I do not feel the absence.

I am not sure it is coincidental, but romance does not seem to figure highly in the work I tend to read. Lost love, dysfunctional relationships, misplaced attempts to find affection, yes; but it tends to be the underlying elements of discord that create dramatic tension and literary interest for me. Tolstoy’s unhappy families and all that. So in thinking about today’s exaltation of romantic love I decided to turn to a book I read last year but did not review, a novel that holds, at its heart, the account of a deeply felt but unrequited love: Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

In this fictionalized biography of EM Forster, Galgut re-imagines the eleven years of frustrated creative blockage that spanned the time between Forster’s initial conception of his “Indian novel” and the final product, A Passage to India. Along the way we meet Syed Ross Masood, the Indian man with whom Forster will fall passionately in love – a love that will shape, define and haunt his romantic sensibilities – but which will remain one that the heterosexual Masood is unable to return in anything but platonic terms. During the World War I years in Alexandria, Forster finally loses his own virginity at the age of 37 but his meagre intimate relations will remain a sorry, even pathetic, attempt to achieve the emotional and physical comfort he longs to find in another man’s arms. Sexually repressed and closeted until his death, he is, nonetheless, able to channel his affections and experiences in India into one of the finest English novels of the early 20th century. It would be the last work of fiction Forster would produce though he would live and continue to write and engage actively in the literary world for another 45 years.

arctic summerIn my first encounter with Arctic Summer last fall my reactions were mixed. I was a great fan of Galgut’s more typical pared down, ambiguous and haunting novels and I was immediately struck by the more claustrophobic atmosphere he had created to evoke the sensibility of the world in which Forster lived and wrote. At times I felt it weighing on me as a reader. Having the good fortune to hear Damon speak in person and meet him when he passed through my home town with our writer’s festival while I was in the midst of my reading, I was aware that he had found the process of writing a historical novel rewarding but not one he would be anxious to repeat. That awareness may have been a factor but I suspect there was also something more at play. After all, as readers, we enter into any work with our own issues, histories and expectations.

At the timel I was still struggling to break down the barriers that I had constructed over the preceding decade or so to keep those around me from getting close. By that point I was painfully aware that I had re-closeted myself in the world to avoid emotional risk and vulnerability. At one point, despairing of ever experiencing desire in the way he longs, Galgut’s Forster reflects:

“His own sterility was apparent to him and would soon, he felt sure, be visible to others. Curiously, he didn’t feel depressed at the prospect. He was almost intrigued by the idea of giving in to his oddness, turning into one of those remote, ineffectual creatures so warped by their solitude that they became distasteful to normal people.”

I was struck by that passage, I remember where I was when I read it and the page number in my paperback American edition is burned into my memory. Although I had been, oddly enough, a single male parent for years, through my determined unwillingness to express romantic interest or engagement with anyone, female or male, I had stubbornly sought to neuter myself in the world. Unpeeling those layers of defense and reclaiming an identity, especially one that falls outside the default mainstream, is not easy. Forster’s dilemma was hitting too close to home.

As I have since learned to re-embrace my identity and sexuality, I did briefly imagine that I was ready to open myself again to the possibility of falling in love. The result was in influx of a emptiness and longing. I began to feel the absence and did not like the void. So I have decided to turn my focus to building an emotional support network based on common interest and experience. It is, I realize, a much better place to start. If, somewhere along the way, the potential for romance arises I would not necessarily reject it, but it cannot be the grounds for meaning and value in my life.

Now, four months after I first finished Arctic Summer, I have occasioned to revisit A Passage to India, and have found myself dipping back in and out of Galgut’s novel simply to savour the restrained beauty and sensitive recreation of the writer’s inner personal and creative journey against the lush landscape of India. The work has simmered in my consciousness and increased in the power that it holds for me as a reader. I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Forster’s love for Masood had been reciprocated. I am not sure he would have ever been able to even crack open the closet doors and I suspect that he might have ended up even more deeply torn between his homosexuality and his attachment to his mother. For better or worse he was able to channel his energy into writing, friendship and a long life.

Well lived? For his sake I hope so.

Home is wherever you find yourself: The Alphabet of Birds by S.J. Naudé

birdsFor all my best intentions to read the stack of books I had planned to tackle with the new year, I keep getting side lined by new releases. And I am, it would seem, still caught in a South African vortex. This time I have been swept into the hypnotic landscape of words and images that is The Alphabet of Birds by S. J. Naudé. Originally published in Afrikaans, this debut collection of short stories has just been released in the UK and America in the author’s own English translation. A fascinating communication between Naudé and fellow countryman Ivan Vladislavic posted on the Granta website drew my attention to his work and I was not disappointed by a single story in this amazing collection.

Trained as a lawyer, Naudé spent many years working in New York and London before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in writing. As a result, most of the stories in The Alphabet of Birds explore the complicated existences of ex-pat South Africans who find themselves losing their footing abroad but are uncertain how to negotiate the emotional dynamics of family and the socio-economic realities of a new South Africa. Home is increasingly elusive, fleeting attempts to find meaning fall into emptiness. In one of my favourite stories, “A Master from Germany,” the desire to escape a soulless corporate existence leads to a fantastical hedonistic adventure that turns into an achingly sad domestic vigil at a parent’s bedside. There is a profound sense of alienation that runs through all of these tales: a husband unable to rescue his wife from herself, scattered siblings across the globe, men seeking solace with male lovers who are either too elusive or too intrusive.

These are not stories for those who prefer a traditional narrative arc. Naudé writes with a cinematic eye. The violent storms that stretch across the open South African skies in “The Van” are breathtaking, the slow and painful disintegration of a parent dying of cancer portrayed “A Master from Germany” and “War, Blossoms” are heartrending. Images and motifs recur. Illness and death. Sex and drugs. Love and loss. Music and birds. With a language that is poetic and precise, he focuses his attention on sounds and silences, brutality and fragility; opening wounds and blurring boundaries between identities. His characters tend to become increasingly opaque, mysterious even to themselves: “simultaneously armour-plated and flayed.”

I have been slow in coming to appreciate what can be done within the medium of the short story. In the Granta discussion Naudé explores his fascination with the processes at play in the work of W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, among others. As those two writers are a key focus for me as a critical reader this year, I was keen to see how such influences would play out in his work. In terms of possibilities for storytelling I find myself very excited by this collection. I simply did not want it to end.

The themes of borderlessness and alienation that drive these tales are very human and have far reaching relevance beyond the South African experience. Now that it is available to an English speaking audience, thanks to the subscription funded publisher And Other Stories (I just had to subscribe too), The Alphabet of Birds will hopefully reach a wider audience. I suspect it will likely be one of my favourite reads of the year too, and it’s only January.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2010

Dreams and determination: A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg

It is, of course, a harsh coincidence, perhaps no more than that, but the first two murders of the year in my city took the lives of two young members of our 5,000 strong Somali community. The first of the two unrelated incidents occurred just ten blocks from my home in the early hours of New Year’s Day, the second the following day. To many here in Canada, Somalis, if they are thought of at all, are conflated with pirates.

I have watched with dismay, the rise of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the increased visible ethnic diversity that has spread across the country, changing the face of a city that was, when I was young, predominately white. My city that is only 130 years old, most of us have come from elsewhere recently or within a few short generations. And those who were here before, our First Nations, still have to struggle to call attention to their circumstances. But we are lucky, this is a land of peace, a land of promise.

GoodhopeAgainst this context, a review in The Observer drew my attention to A Man of Good Hope, a new book by South African writer Jonny Steinberg. In my work I encountered and supported many young men from the troubled Horn of Africa, but the depth and complexity of the political and human realities that have been endured by many of the refugees who ultimately make their way to our shores are far beyond my imagining from my safe space. However, I was not quite prepared for just how difficult that journey can be.

The life of Asad Abdullahi, the young Somali man at the heart of this biography, is changed forever when his mother is shot by militiamen in Mogadishu when he is 8 years old. As he flees with relatives he begins a long, at times circular, journey of hopes and repeatedly dashed dreams. Lacking formal education he is gifted with determination, a proud sense of identity, an unflagging work ethic and an ability to assess any situation to determine where a living can be made. But at every turn there are losses, challenges and continued threats to life and limb that mount and threaten to drag him down. He is forced to grow up fast. Eventually he makes his way to South Africa seeking the wealth and security he hears fellow Somalis talk of only to find that even for the successful migrant, the end can be sudden and brutal.

Economic opportunities for newcomers like Asad, who are forced to live with temporary documents, are limited and often place them into the hostile and difficult environment of the townships where loyalties can turn on a dime. His beloved wife, unwilling to face the rising danger, heads home to family with his children. He stays, holding on to the dreams of America that have long called to him and endures the rising xenophobic violence perpetrated by black South Africans against the tide of incoming African migrants. His diligence will be rewarded, but not without great sacrifice.

Steinberg recounts, with care and compassion, a tale that has more breath taking twists than a thriller but exists on a plane on which dreams, hopes, memories and regrets blend to create a story that is at once deeply human and ultimately elusive. On a more immediate level, the view into the the ancestral dynamics of Somali history and culture that provides a background to Asad’s story has added, for me, extra poignancy to the recent New Year’s Day killing near my home. The victim shared the family name Abdullahi.