Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning History Through Fiction

How many of you enjoyed history when you were in school? I have to tell you, I hated it! For one thing, I'm not keen on memorizing dates and names and secondly, I suspect that I didn't have the kind of professors who could make history come alive for me, make it relevant. The one exception to that was my Ancient History teacher in high school, Mr. Shedlock. He was a frustrated actor, you could tell, and he pranced around the room in such a way that had me in thrall to everything he had to say. To this day I'm drawn to Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Middle East.

I mentioned in passing last month that I had been introduced to a new author when I received a book from Library Journal called Crossbones. The writer, Nuruddin Farah, must be very well known to readers more astute than I because he's been short-listed for the Nobel in the past and some say it's just a matter of time before he wins. Now I'm one of his biggest fans.

The review for Crossbones has not been printed yet but I think I can say that it was very impressive. So much so that I decided to go back and read some of Farah's earlier work. I began with Links, the first of the trilogy that ended with Crossbones. I cared that much about the characters that I wanted to understand how they came to be "linked," if you will.

That brings me to learning about history through fiction. Farah is a Somalian immigrant, an English professor here in the United States, who holds onto his ties to Africa by also keeping a home in Cape Town. My knowledge of Africa has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years but I can tell, by some of the crazy comments made to me, even by family, when I tell them about my upcoming trip, that most Americans haven't a clue about this amazing continent.
Each country within Africa is as distinct as the United States is from any other country on our continent and Somalia is a land all its own.

Farah's love of his country comes through in every conversation he puts into the mouths of his characters, but it's a clear-eyed love, not a romantic one. He sees the troubles for what they are and is able to give readers an overview of the history of colonialism that plagues many countries in Africa. The Brits, the Italians and the Americans have all wanted something from Somalia, many countries have over fished the waters and taken the livelihood from the Somalian people. Civil War has plagued the country too, and various tribal regions fight against each other. The result, of course, is horrific for the regular citizens who only want the basics, to live in peace, have enough to eat, to love and raise their families.

Links is the story of two men, Jeebleh and Bile, who were raised together and spent years as political prisoners in Somalia. When released, Jeebleh fled to the United States where he married and is now raising a family. Bile stayed in Somalia with his sister and her daughter running a refuge for orphans. After Jeebleh's mother dies he returns to Somalia with trepidation, distrustful of everyone he interacts with yet anxious to reconnect with Bile and to build a small monument to his mother's memory.

Unfinished business meets Jeebleh at every turn. Youngsters armed with guns larger than they seem to be threatening on every street corner. Mysterious meetings with clan members stir up old resentments. Jeebleh is introduced to a young woman whose baby was torn from her arms by the up wash of an American helicopter during an attack on Mogadishu, a story that forces him to confront his mixed feelings of loyalty to country and family. Bile's niece has been kidnapped yet no one seems equipped to begin to try to find her. One gets the impression that Mogadishu's citizens are so beaten down by war and infighting that they are stuck in a depressed state of inertia and who can blame them?

I read this book in three nights and intend to continue with Farah's saga in the next novel, Knots, but first up I've gotten another treat from Library Journal. Yesterday I received the newest from David Guterson of Snow Falling on Cedars fame. Deadline is July 21st. I'm all over it!

No comments: