Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
“Black Girl in Paris” is the story of a young woman’s pilgrimage to the city that nurtured her literary gods, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Eden Daniel, the 26-year-old narrator, sets out from the American South to the French capital in search of love and language. She wants to be a writer and expects the metropolis that was muse to her creative forefathers to launch her in much the same way. In the first pages of the novel, she informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early 20s, Langston Hughes had $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40 to his name; and that when she landed in Paris in 1986, there was $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. “They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them,” she writes. “This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.”
The novel is at its best when it accentuates the contradictions Eden faces in Paris, the difference between the city’s romantic image as a promised land where “being black won’t hold me back” and “even the prisons … are beautiful” and its reality in 1986. That was a year of terrorist bombings, student demonstrations and the mass deportation of African immigrants.
At one point in Eden’s story, perhaps its most astute, she is strolling the square in front of the Church of the Sacre Coeur with her lover, Ving, a white musician from America, and Olu-Christophe, a Haitian exile who is seeking political asylum after fleeing the dictatorship of the Duvaliers. The setting, 100 steps above the city with a commanding view, captures all that is bewitching about Paris. Couples are huddled in the dark, candles burning from wine glasses and cigarette tips glowing. Artists are selling their paintings. Performers are singing, dancing, eating fire. And all this to the soundtrack of a Bob Dylan song.
Enter two policemen with their pistols poised at their hips. They demand to see passports. When Olu-Christophe has none to offer, they carry him off brusquely, shouting over their shoulders that they are taking him “a L’Afrique avec les autres singes” — to Africa with the other monkeys. “This was a bad night to be a black man without papers,” Ving observes.
The chapters of “Black Girl in Paris” each bear the name of one of the roles Eden assumes in Paris: Lover, Thief, English Teacher, Poet’s Helper. And most contain, quite literally, a how-to list on performing the part well. The narrative of Eden’s experience as an au pair, for instance, is broken by such admonitions as “Try not to lose the children” and “Don’t kill the dog.” The device draws attention away from the content of the story to its form, and for the most part it’s distracting rather than clever.
Shay Youngblood is a lyricist, the winner of a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, but there are pitfalls when writers decide to tell us the tale of their artistic awakening. We might not be as interested in the process of their finding a voice as we are in hearing it speak, especially if the way is as littered with clichéd bohemian characters as Eden Daniel’s is. What’s more, Eden’s blunt desire to emulate, to follow in the footsteps of greatness, gives her story an eager, somewhat breathless quality that makes her journey of discovery seem contrived.
Race is as much the backdrop for this book as Paris, and I couldn’t help thinking that Youngblood, whose prose has the rhythms and sensual detail of poetry, might have put her talents to better use by tackling this theme head-on. She might have skipped the account of Eden’s writerly, self-obsessed quest for a subject and gone straight to her subject instead.
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20 Questions with Jhumpa Lahiri
Interview by Gaiutra Bahadur
Philadelphia City Paper
September 16-23, 1999
In her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books), Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the attempts of married couples, adulterous lovers and immigrants to cross borders and, as E.M. Forster wrote, “only connect.” In “This Blessed House,” a recently married couple finds Christian bric-a-brac – a 30-pound bronze bust of Christ and a 3-D postcard of St. Francis of Assisi – in their Connecticut house and also discovers the jagged outlines of each other’s personalities. In “The Third and Final Continent,” set in 1969, an Indian immigrant takes up temporary lodging with a 103-year-old woman who clings to Victorian culture. Months later, when the immigrant’s wife arrives from Calcutta, it’s the woman who bridges the gaps of an arranged marriage. Lahiri’s work has received plenty of accolades. Three of the stories were published in The New Yorker last year, and the title story was selected for the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. Lahiri, 32, spoke from her home on the fringes of the East Village and Gramercy Park in Manhattan.
Q: You were born in London and raised in Rhode Island, and your parents are from Calcutta. Yet your stories are not preoccupied with issues of identity. Does identity interest you as a writer, or is it a cumbersome expectation to be “multicultural”?
A: It’s always a bad thing to try to answer people’s expectations. There hasn’t been a lot of writing from the perspective of Indian-American writers and some people will look to my writing to answer some of those questions. But I never think of self-consciously trying to answer issues of identity. I work from a character and a conflict in a character’s life.
Q: Two of your stories that are set in India, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” are not portraits of upper-middle-class life, but of servants and marginal figures. Why did you make that choice?
A: Both of those characters came out of observation, my own observations of people when I was there. What drew me to writing about them was partly a projection of my own feelings of being marginal when there. Of not being a part of the culture. Of feeling foreign even though this was a place my parents call home and refer to in their minds as home, even though they’ve been away for 30 years.
The reason I portrayed these characters out of the fray was because I felt that. I could imagine it more easily than assuming the role of a more “ordinary,” adjusted Indian character. I didn’t have very much mobility when I was there. As a young adult and an adult, I wasn’t really able to leave on my own. I felt not only sort of alienated, but trapped.
Q: Which story was the most difficult to write and why?
A: “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” was hard. It was the first time I began to write closer to my own experience, though it’s not an autobiographical story. It took several years to come to that point of view and to feel secure working from that point of view. “The Third and Final Continent” was difficult, because it was written from the point of view of a man and in the first person, which seemed like an extra step. There was the added challenge of writing something based in real life. It was based on my father’s past. There was the challenge of working with real facts and preserving truth, yet having to disguise them to make it fiction.
Q: Did being a second-generation American play a role in your aspiring to be a writer?
A: It didn’t make me want to be a writer so much as it made me want to write. To seek solace through observation and recording my impressions in a space that was very much my own, on the page. That’s the place where I answered only to myself, from a very young age.
One of the things I was always aware of growing up was conflicting expectations. I was expected to be Indian by Indians and American by Americans. I didn’t feel equipped even as a child to fully participate in things. In the act of writing, it was more justified to withdraw into myself and have that be a vital experience, rather than just feeling neglected or left out.
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The Professor of Light
by Marina Budhos
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Caught Between Worlds, Shadows and Light: The Professor of Light
by Marina Budhos
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
DON’T LOOK BACK, if you’re racing, pursued by the flames of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or you’ll be turned into a pillar of salt. Don’t look back, if you’re Orpheus on the threshold of escape, holding your Eurydice by the hand, leading her out from captivity in the Underworld. Steal a peek of your beloved, and the game will be up. She’ll fall back into the abyss. Whether it’s horror or longing that compels the glance, fight it, or the costs will be tragic.
The Western canon offers many examples of the dangers of looking back, and it is this anxiety about memory that animates “The Professor of Light,” Marina Budhos’ lyrical but schematic second novel. Her characters, immigrants to successful addresses in the First World, wrestle against the impulse to cultivate “home” and its habits, once permanently abroad.
For Warren Singh, a philosophy professor in New York City and the novel’s namesake, the claims of the past are psychological blocks to achieving his ambition: to write the definitive book about the dual nature of light, as both matter and energy.
The past asserts itself through ever more insistent letters from his mother and sisters in Guyana – the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere and a place that some might argue is its own Underworld of political burlesque and economic need, its own Sodom and Gomorrah of racial sins.
Warren’s relatives report, in blue aerograms “sliding through the mail slot with a scary hiss,” that the house is falling apart. That, in a country “that once shimmered with green paddy fields,” there is no rice to buy. That they never receive the money he sends to the village gas station. And that his brother Joseph (once upon a time, his partner in dissecting Descartes) is close to death.
If it were not for Sonia, his Jewish-American wife, the letters would pile up unanswered in the room where he paces, mulling over the paradox of light and wishing he could disentangle himself from his roots long enough for sustained flights of scientific inquiry.
Soon, the letters arrive with coaxing gifts: guavas wrapped in pink tissue, pillows embroidered by Singh’s sisters, glass bangles for his teenage daughter, Meggie, the book’s narrator.
The plot, or what there is of plot in this highly meditative novel, unfolds over several summer holidays in England with Warren’s favorite sister, Inez. Married to a dry Englishman, Inez has become a caricature of English propriety, “hushing the sunny vowels of her accent,” hating the way that Guyanese men wear their shirts to show their curly black hair and dismissing them as “rum-headed fellows” who “don’t know how to get on with their lives.”
“I didn’t come to England to listen to their stories and moan about the old country,” she declares. “I married a good man.”
In one of the novel’s most vivid scenes, two of those “rum-headed fellows,” childhood friends whom Warren rediscovers quite by accident at a cricket game, come like a cyclone into Inez’ home. Liquor cabinets fly open. Talk alive with old times and dialect flows like rum. Much that is English – the porcelain miniatures of Big Ben and the London Bridge and the meticulously kept flower beds – is ruined. And, in the end, as Inez had predicted, they demand money, leaving Warren to conclude: “The people from my past, they want so much. They want more than I can give.”
The reasons for the Singhs’ denial of the past, ironically, lie exactly there. Even before Warren, bound for the United States, says goodbye to his weeping mother on their veranda, “leaving” is central to his identity. He is a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in the former British colonies of the Caribbean. “They say,” Inez tells her young niece, “that every season when the old folks plant their seed cane in the fields, they remember their lost homes in India and weep tears of longing, which mingle in the earth. The rum they brew muddles their children’s heads and makes them slow-footed and melancholy, so they can never leave home.”
The ancestors conspire to keep their offspring close. The Singhs’ mother, in Budhos’ poetic idiom, ties red ribbons around her daughters’ waists. She sends letters that weigh like stones in the pockets of her son Joseph, then a government worker in Aruba, to force him home.
She buries an egg under the steps every time her daughter Didi, a beauty in love with the wrong man, looks wistfully beyond their yard. Those eggs hatch into “half-born bird-ghosts” that push through the earth, rising to “let out their fury on those of us who dare run away and live out our dreams.”
This image of the bird-ghost recurs throughout “The Professor of Light,” a book that gains its momentum not from character or plot, but from the progress of a series of ideas and symbols, chief among them: light.
It is held up as an ideal, both particle and wave, in a fictional world charged by many opposites (flesh and intellect, roots and flight, man and woman, superstition and reason). It is even able to serve as a metaphor for transnational identity.
As Meggie Singh, a young woman with multicultural credentials much like the author’s, says, summing up the novel’s overarching conceit: “It’s like this. My dad always taught me that we were in between. He’s Indian from the West Indies and my mother is not. We live in the States, but we come here every summer to be with Uncle Tom and Aunt Inez and George and Timmy. Light is like that. Here and there. In between.”
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