Author: Joy Odera
Publisher: New Generation Publishing (2012)
Number of Pages: 594
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I bought this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
Like a Moth to a Flame
I have never been to Africa but I am fascinated by that vast, sunny continent. They say not to judge a book by its cover, but I was captivated by the colors of the African sky and the imagery in the wonderful tree and carpet of lilac-colored petals underneath. The cover, combined with the blurb about a “sweeping contemporary saga…conflicted past and family secrets” grabbed my interest.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “ ‘My dear, when you have lived in this country for as long as I have, been treated the way I have, and seen the things that I have, you become either defensive or offensive to protect yourself, but never indifferent. I choose to be obnoxious.’ ” (p.151)
4. “He had also changed his clothes to the more à la mode blue denim dungarees that displayed his crotch like a sack of potatoes on sale by the roadside.” (p.60)
3. “ ‘Doesn’t he know the number of Kenyans who went in pursuit of the American dream but are now disillusioned, cleaning toilets and stuck in old people’s homes cleaning the waste of people who despise them, despite their university degrees?’ ” (p.397)
2. “ ‘In this whole saga, Jerry, my utmost disappointment was not with the policemen or the prison guards, the poor men are just puppets dancing to the machinations of the puppeteer. The poor fellows are full of fear. They are equally victims. My definitive disillusionment was with the courts and the supposedly independent judicial system, our only hope and protection against injustice.’ ” (p.367)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “ ‘Sometimes love can be very trying when there is no food in the pantry!’ Mama laughed. ‘Oh CeCe, I have money and lots of it too, but it has never given me a single day of happiness!’ ” (p.129)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“This is a new author for me and I am daunted at first by the sheer size of the book—larger than most paperbacks, and almost 600 pages long. A glance at the fly-leaf quotes from Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mendela, however, and I can’t wait to get stuck in. I think I’m going to get more than I bargained for with, hopefully, some insights into the culture and politics of Africa.”
“Is it just me, or do all readers try to find common ground that connects them to a story? Having just spent some weeks in another country, away from my family and friends, I straightaway identify with the feelings of Serene, a Kenyan woman who’s taking a short break in Johannesburg, away from her home and family:
“She was free from the familiar, from faces that lit up in recognition.” (p.24)
“What a blessing to have had such an opportunity. I recommend it to every woman who needs to reconnect with herself. I sometimes find that ‘I’ as an individual can become lost in my various roles as ‘mother,’ ‘wife,’ ‘sister,’ ‘manager,’ etc. I feel the need, now and again, to resist the dependency that comes with the luxury of having a constant companion—wonderful and all as it is. Like Serene, my break away allowed me the freedom to be ‘far away from conformity, obligations and responsibilities.’ (op cit) I only had myself to take care of and I felt 30 years younger!”
“I’m struggling to keep track of location changes between different countries in the story. Despite Odera’s method of using italics (for reminiscences) and plain font for current narration, I’m confused about where is ‘home’ and why the narrator is so troubled. Matters are not helped by the frequent misprints, grammatical, and punctuation errors throughout. This is a book in need of good editing. I’m sticking with it, though, because we’ve just started to touch on tribal differences, aids orphans, and the impact of apartheid and colonization on the narrator’s family and on the region generally. I’m hoping to get an insider’s view of the transition from colony to independent statehood.”
“I know it has its problems, but South Africa to me is a miracle and Nelson Mandela a wonder. Perhaps because of our own colonial past, we Irish retain a soft spot for the down-trodden, wherever they are. I’m remembering my first ever ‘political’ act was attending an anti-apartheid rally, sometime in the 1970s. I must have been influenced by the freedom songs of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, because Ireland then had few immigrants and it was a rare event to see a black person anywhere. Nonetheless, the travesty of apartheid struck a chord amongst many of my contemporaries; a young Irish staff in a large supermarket chain even took a famous stand against handling South-African fruit. Mandela acknowledged this solidarity by making Ireland one of the first overseas countries he visited in 1990, following his release from prison.”
“Serene is part of a large, extended and interwoven family—with all the attendant internal politics and rivalries that go with it. She has two sisters, but the enmity between them is palpable and sad. Having sisters, for me, means never being lonely and always having a best friend—someone who will tell you the absolute truth when you ask ‘does my bum look big in this?’ I recognize a lot of Serene in myself: amongst my siblings I too am known as ‘the sensible one,’ the one most likely to ‘do the right thing’. Over the years, I’ve often enjoyed defying expectations and now and again kicking over the traces. Sibling rivalry and animosity is normal enough when we’re kids or teenagers, but it usually disappears by adulthood. These women Odera describes are now in their forties, so I presume that we will hear about deep-rooted and unresolved issues preventing them from being friends.”
“I am learning about the impact of tribal differences on family relationships. This is an issue that we in the West often struggle to understand. I realize, however, that most countries have within them some form of regional, religious, or ethnic differences. Learning to accept diversity is one indicator, I believe, of a developed society. I wonder, however, if it might sometime be politically expedient for ruling elites to maintain divisions within a society? The peaceful transition of South Africa to a so-called ‘rainbow’ nation, following years of oppression by the white minority, has been a shining example to the world. In my own country, Ireland, we are trying to follow their example of reconciliation in resolving our own legacy of colonialism in the Northern part of this country.”
“Odera’s very honest portrayal of relationships, how they evolve and sometimes inexplicably end, shows how similar people everywhere are in terms of our human pain and suffering. She does not shy away from asking the hard questions: the ethics of going out with a white guy; why Nigerians are so unpopular; the logistics of having three wives; the dilemma of well-to-do Africans having servants; black on black xenophobia. An account of a sexual assault portrays all the horror, disgust, guilt, and helplessness felt by the person assaulted.”
“Juxtaposed with the difficult intra-personal relations in the large family, is the turmoil within the country itself. Just like ex-colonized countries everywhere after Independence, Kenya struggled to unify internal divisions and divided loyalties and to undo the damage created during years of repression. Transition to Independence following colonization is never smooth and indeed often leaves greater problems and divisions than existed previously. Throughout history there are many examples of the oppressed becoming, in turn, the oppressors.
“These divisions are still felt to this day. As I read, we are hearing news (Saturday 20th September, 2013) of a terrible attack on a Shopping Centre in Nairobi—capital of Kenya and the central location of this story. I think about Odera and hope that she and her family are safe. Over sixty people (including small children) are feared dead—some because they were Christian or white, but even their own people have been shot, including the only son of the previous Kenyan ambassador to Ireland, with his fiancée.
“Now what do I mean by ‘even their own people’? Are white citizens, descendants of the colonialists, not also to be considered Kenyan? It’s very interesting for me reading this book now, just days after finishing a very different story, set also in Kenya, entitled Blood Sisters, by Barbara & Stephanie Keating (Vintage, 2012) written from the perspective of ousted colonials who feel saddened at the loss of what they regard as also their ‘homeland.’ “
“A discussion about the narrator’s experience of racism forces me to review my own feelings on the matter. As mentioned earlier, immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in my country. As a small island nation, the trend in Ireland has traditionally been towards emigration. We have a diaspora spread throughout every country in the world and our predecessors are to be found amongst successive Presidents of the United States (including the incumbent). During the economic boom between 1997 and 2007, however, there was a dramatic increase in net immigration, including numbers of non-Europeans seeking asylum. To my great shame, we have not handled this situation very well and our system for dealing with asylum-seekers, is far from humane. The process takes months and often years, during which applicants are obliged to stay in hostel-like accommodation and are denied work. Here Odera addresses the heartbreak of this scenario:
“ ‘VISA DECLINED.’ Two simple words, yet powerful enough to terrorize, shatter hopes and dreams and drive many into a state of shock and severe depression.” (p.403)
“I’ve observed that, particularly during an economic downturn with an increase in unemployment, migrants who are noticeably different are frequently the easiest targets for discrimination and racial abuse. For those of us working in the area of social inclusion, it’s an uphill struggle to convince people to see the hypocrisy of, on the one hand desiring the opportunity for migration for our own citizens, whilst on the other, denying ‘outsiders’ the opportunity to settle here. We are, I believe, the poorer as a society, if we remain apart and mono-cultural. Diversity is the spice of life and a multicultural society offers a fascinating array of foods, entertainment, and variety in every situation that serves to brighten our lives and make them more interesting.
“Providing access to people seeking a better life, whilst at the same time protecting population levels and safeguarding citizens from outsiders with ill intent is, of course, a world-wide problem. The recent tragedy of boats capsized off the coast of Italy, killing some 300 migrants attempting to flee the onslaught in North Africa will not, I fear, bring about a U.N. or EU resolution on this matter anytime soon.”
“This story has me thinking about the importance of place in my life. I’m reminded that from earliest times, my forebears have set out from this small island, often in perilous crafts, to seek adventure and find a better life elsewhere. It is said about us Irish that ‘all our wars are merry and all our songs are sad.’ Much of the sadness in our songs and poetry relates to loss and longing for home and homeland. Home, of course, is where the heart is, but there is great comfort to be found, I believe, living where you don’t have to explain yourself; where an unspoken glance and even a shared silence is understood; where repartee and sense of humor is shared and the familiar is everywhere; where we blend in and belong. I love to travel and learn about other cultures, but I can’t imagine having to leave my country long-term and live where I stand out immediately as ‘different.’ “
“Africa, in the end, is where home is for Serene. There, with the support of a good man and a loving family, she confronts her demons and discovers the unpleasant secret at the heart of her family.
“For me, books serve one of two functions: either a complete escape into a different, exotic world or a mirror or benchmark against which I am able to question how well or otherwise I am living my life. This brave work provided opportunity for both purposes. It’s a work of Tolstian ambition, which would have benefited greatly from good editing and perhaps sub-division into a trilogy.”
“Since reading Under The Jacaranda, the death has occurred of the incomparable Nelson Mandela. I would like to convey my condolences to the writer of this work, Joy Odera, and to her compatriots. I hope that his memory will continue to inspire us all. I feel privileged to have lived during his time. We shall not see his like again.”