Augustown by Kei Miller (2016) – Book Review

by Rae Parnell

augustown

Reading Augustown by Jamaican writer Kei Miller can at times be sensory decadence. This is not an action-packed novel, but is instead a profession of love and dedication to the history and legacy of a real town in Jamaica ‘coincidentally’ called “August Town.” Miller unfolds complex racial, generational, and cultural dynamics of his Augustown, and anchors his book with one simple question: why is young child Kaia running home from school crying, and who has cut off his dreadlocks?

This question brings forward the many characters that make up Augustown. Kaia’s immediate family is rooted by his great aunt Ma Taffy, who’s blindness has made her aware that something, although she does not understand what, is coming to the town. Although this is a tired stereotype, it is forgiven as Ma Taffy’s character is given a complexity and honestly that is rarely seen with older characters. Kaia also has his mother Gina, a brilliant young woman who is still coming to terms with her own past. Even though she is rarely seen in the beginning, her narrative arrives center stage as she grapples with issues of education, love, and community responsibility.

The rest of Augustown unfolds around this core family, each one offering central issues. The weasel-like schoolteacher Mr. Saint James brings forward questions of colorism, self hatred, and desire. The principal of Kaia’s school Mrs. G. moves issues of classism within Jamaica. And the larger character of “Babylon” (how the characters refer to the police that harass the citizens of Augustown), is a vessel for conversations around surveillance, racism, and resistance.

Miller also places these lives within the many generations that have lived in Augustown. When Ma Taffy wants to distract a mournful, dread-free Kaia, she tells the story of the grandfather of Rastafariani Alexander Bedward, who flew into the sky when she was just a little girl. And later, when Gina seeks justice for cultural violence inflicted on Kaia, the imagery of Bedward is called upon as she seems to carry the weight and pain of her community and history. In these moments, Miller seems to wonder if anyone can really move outside of their history.

The intricacies of Augustown are brought together with Kei Miller’s phenomenal writing style. Each chapter has poetic meditation on a situation or place. In the beginning of the book, the narrator describes Augustown: “notice the hills, how one of them carries on its face a scar – a section where bulldozers and tractors have sunk their rusty talons into its cheeks, scraped away the bush and the trees and left behind a white crater scar.” (p. 3). Miller consistently incorporates a descriptive style that masters the combining of poetry and narrative. And in a book that has so many different narratives, this becomes the glue that keeps it together.

While the writing style does help maintain the many stories in the book, the downside of Augustown is the many stories. If you decide to read Augustown (and you should!), I would suggest reading it over a few days. Because of the many narratives, it becomes difficult to keep up with the time period, who’s connected to who, and what has happened in the past. However, if read in a short period of time, the book becomes a living map, tracing a community that continues to resist and support each other.

There is a paragraph nestled in the middle of the book that captures the essence of Augustown. Miller says:

The great philosophical question goes: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? But this is a troubling question, exalting one kind of being above all others. What then of the ears of the snakes, or wood frogs, or mice, or bugs? Do they not count? What then of the grass, of stone, of earth? Does their witness not matter? If a man flies in Jamaica, and only the poor will admit to seeing it, has he flown? (p. 144).

Who then will bares witness to the stories of Augustown? Who believes their pain is real, their community is strong, and their sense of justice is true? With questions like these, Miller’s work is an invitation for all of us to hear the history and lives of Augustown.

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Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011) – a review

by Rae Parnell

akatawitchWhat happens when four children are put to the task of saving the world? Nnedi Okorafor explores this story and more in her book Akata Witch. The author breathes new life into this well known plot by placing the story in Nigeria, and introducing the readers to a society of West Africans with magical abilities called “Leopards.” Okorafor brings forward complex understandings of identity and personhood as we watch 12 year-old Sunny Nwazue learn about her Leopard abilities and the world around her.

Set within the backdrop of child murders by a mysterious character named Black Hat Otokoto, Sunny, along with friends Orlu, Sasha, and Chichi, learn about their abilities and friendship through a strict and humorous mentor, Anatov. We watch them build trust among each other through a range of silly and deadly magical lessons. One enjoyable aspect of the book is simply the children’s group dynamic as bickering 12 to 14 year olds placed in quite adult situations. As one character in the book observes, “they fight plenty…[and] they make up just as much.” The audience is fondly reminded of their own childhood, and I often found myself deep in nostalgia for my adolescent friendships.

Perhaps one of the strongest elements of Okorafor’s book is her exploration of dualism, best captured by the main character Sunny. Throughout the book, we watch as she is taunted by her classmates for being a Nigerian with albinism. We learn that she has spent her first nine years born and raised in the United States, returning to Nigeria three years before the book begins. This causes her African identity to be called into question, pointing to the title of the book: akata (usually referring to Black Americans or foreign born Blacks). And later, when Sunny learns about the Leopard society that she belongs to, we watch her balance two lives: one with her non magical family, and the other, with her new friends and mentors as “Leopards.”

This is not the only space that dualism is explored. Okorafor weaves in this theme equally powerfully through the central friendship group of the book. The first friend that Sunny makes, and the one that is most like her, is Orlu. Orlu is reserved, level-headed, and seems to be mature well beyond his years. Meanwhile, where Orlu can be found carefully planning his next steps, Sunny’s friend Chichi instead impulsively dives into whatever she does. Egotistical, silly, and mysteriously ageless, her energy is matched by the last individual in the friend group: Sasha. Sasha is a Black American from Chicago sent to Nigeria by his parents who understand him to be too questioning of authority to be safe in the US. We watch the four friends learn to trust each other’s strengths, as these strong differences are actually what balances the group.

Sunny’s friendship with the three other children continues to grow as she learns more about the society of Leopards that she now belongs to. In the beginning of the book, we see her constantly confronted with the belief that she is an outcast; in her family, in her school, and within the many facets of her Black community. However, we are able watch her slowly become enveloped into a support group of friends, mentors, and community members who celebrate her in more ways than she could have ever imagined.

These are just a few of the incredible ideas and stories that Okorafor places in her book. Akata Witch invites the reader into a story of adventure, trust, wonder, and growth. Although this book is meant for children (and how I wish I was able to read this as a child), individuals of all ages can find themselves reflected in this grappling story of multiple and sometimes contradictory identities. As so, many people of color in Europe are both a part of and alienated from the countries they reside in, much comfort can be found in the story of Sunny and the adventures she embarks upon. When we watch her navigate a complicated world of identity, we can’t help but cheer her (and perhaps ourselves) on as she embraces the type of self love that can only be revealed through the experience of finally finding a community and a home.

 

Awesome summer reads for teens!

anita and me aya de yopougon purple hibiscus

Hoping to find some books to keep your teen occupied this summer? Or are you a teacher looking for something new for your curriculum that offers a non-white perspective? See our list below, as previously featured in our Parent Teacher Resource Pack!

  • Vuurwerk in m’n Hoofd – Roland Colastica (Dutch)
  • Anita and Me – Meera Syal
  • The Long Song – Andrea Levy
  • Tropical fish – Doreen Baingana
  • The Other Side of Truth – Beverley Naidoo
  • Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Weep Not Child – Ngûgî Wa Thiong’o
  • Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
  • Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Wide Sargaso Sea – Jean Rys
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  • Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid
  • Possessing the Secret of Joy – Alice Walker
  • Aya de Yopougon – Marguerite Abouet and drawn by Clément Oubrerie
  • As a Black Woman – Maud Sulter
  • The Kane Chronicles – Rick Riordan
  • On Beauty – Zadie Smith
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  • Small Island – Andrea Levy

ALSO: Are your kids and/or students into comic books? If so, check out this awesome article from OkayAfrica on new Egyptian mythological comic series The PackThe author of the series, Paul Louise-Julie, will also released graphic novel Yohance this year. Another great author of comics for teens with diverse characters is Dani Dixon at Tumble Creek. You can check out her work here.

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Diverse Books & Comics

Looking for more diverse literature options for older kids in the form of comic books and novels? You should check out work by Dani Dixon for Tumble Creek Press. Via Dani’s website you can sample her work as well as order books. There are also blogs, videos and information about upcoming events and activities available via the website. If you’re a fan and have any of Dani’s work already, let us know what you thought in the comments below.