15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is Jessica Cobb’s review of Francois Begaudeau’s The Class, which is one of the few examples I can think of where the movie has been getting much more praise than the novel. (See this Complete Review review.)

The Class is a novel about the everyday life of a Paris public school literature teacher who thinks that his current position is a bit useless. The teacher who narrates this book paints not only a picture of his depressing life but of those other educators who are in the same position. Through weighty dialogue, Begaudeau also highlights the struggles that come along with placing a mixture of cultural backgrounds in a single room to learn basic concepts of French literature. The outcome of this situation and overall message of the book seems to be that sometimes teaching can be less than rewarding when you are placed with a rowdy crowd of kids.

The middle-aged narrator comes across as angry, impatient man unwilling to go out of his way to capture the much needed attention of these adolescent teens. His interaction with these ninth graders is less than intolerable and seems more of an obligation than a passion to inspire. At times his behavior even comes into question.

Click here for the full review.

15 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Class is a novel about the everyday life of a Paris public school literature teacher who thinks that his current position is a bit useless. The teacher who narrates this book paints not only a picture of his depressing life but of those other educators who are in the same position. Through weighty dialogue, Begaudeau also highlights the struggles that come along with placing a mixture of cultural backgrounds in a single room to learn basic concepts of French literature. The outcome of this situation and overall message of the book seems to be that sometimes teaching can be less than rewarding when you are placed with a rowdy crowd of kids.

The middle-aged narrator comes across as angry, impatient man unwilling to go out of his way to capture the much needed attention of these adolescent teens. His interaction with these ninth graders is less than intolerable and seems more of an obligation than a passion to inspire. At times his behavior even comes into question.

“M’sieur you see how he shoved me?”

“I don’t care.”

The novel is one long string of fight after fight from the students and complaint after complaint from the faculty. The chapters are interchangeable, going from classroom scene to faculty lounge and back. This setup flows, but sometimes it can take a few paragraphs to understand what the complaint or complication (because it has to be one of the two) is for a particular chapter.

Begaudeau does a remarkable job getting the point across that the life of a teacher can be very hectic and unruly at times. However, there is a lack of characterization among both the faculty and the students, which causes everyone to blend together into a huge blob of chaos. Begaudeau might have done this on purpose to help further the point that the narrator has no passion for teaching “The Class” and no sympathy for the whiny staff. This lack of character description makes it very difficult to identify with the teacher, who is just a blurred vision of annoyance. And on the other side of the equation, it’s hard to understand the struggles of these teenagers without being able to connect with them in some way. Or even identify them—oftentimes the focus is more on a clothing detail than anything substantive or permanent about the students:

Frida now had long hair and red letters spelling GLAMOUR appliquéd on her black T-shirt.

Which goes to show how little the narrator cares about his students.

The so-named sat down, a glaring welt in the middle of his forehead.

The ending, possibly the most “happening” scene from the book, is a bit confusing for a couple reasons. There is a soccer game going on outside and one of the literature teacher’s “9-A’s” comes to tell him that they have been disqualified from the game. The teacher’s attention automatically zero’s in on the soccer game, with a play by play description, and just when you think that this is the point where he will defend these kids and let down his guard; the end. You leave the novel the same way you entered it; confused1.

1 This novel was put on the big screen in 2008 and even played at the opening night of the New York Film Festival. It was the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee and seems to fill the it the gaping holes in the novel. Michael Dargis from the New York Times says that it’s “an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and attempts to transform those bodies into citizens . . .” The struggle that comes about when you place so many characters into one book is learning how to express identities and knowing how to connect the reader with the characters. The movie makes those connections and allows the audience to paint the whole picture, furthering their understanding of The Class.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jessica Cobb (whose internship at Open Letter just ended) has added a review of Iqbal Al-Qazwini’s Zubaida’s Window, which came out last year from The Feminist Press, translated by Azza El Kholy and Amira Nowaira.

According to The Feminist Press, this novel the first in English by an Iraqi to focus on the 2003 invasion. Sounds like a very interesting book, in part because Al-Qazwini has led such an interesting life:

Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.

Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.

Click here for the full review.

5 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Iqbal Al-Qazwini, author of Zubaida’s Window, writes a story that reflects a life of her own. She now lives in East Berlin and is an Iraqi Exile herself, which brings a heightened creditability to the first novel that she has written. As an active member of the Iraqi Women’s League, the largest Arabic Women’s Rights Organization, she was sent to East Berlin as a representative and found herself unable to return to her homeland when Saddam Hussein became President in 1979. She is acclaimed on her writing that mostly revolves around women and gender issues, human rights, child labor and intercultural exchanges. In 1993, Al-Qazwini was elected to the International PEN World Association of Writers, followed by the publishing of her first novel, Zubaida’s Window.

Al-Qazwini’s novel is a dramatic account of a young woman, Zubaida, who has fled her country and is currently residing in East Berlin where she finds it nearly impossible to discover anything comparable to her own land. Every smell, every sight, every noise seems to separate German culture from her own. Her decision to flee her country was based not only on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but on the war that she claims began “tens of years ago”. Zubaida claims that the downfall of Iraq began when King Faisal II was assassinated back in the days of the Monarchy. It was in the year of 1958 that Iraq overthrew the Monarchy and converted to a Republic. Zubaida reflects on “the good old days” and often times, on her feeling of belonging to a united family that she left at home in Al-Adhamiya, the area of Baghdad where she grew up. She now struggles to communicate with her family and has become obsessive over the location of her brother, an Iraqi soldier. Through madness and rage, we see images of the first Ba’thi Coup in 1963, which deposed of Republican President Adbel Qassem, the second Ba’thi Coup, named the “White Revolution,” which started 35 years of oppressive Ba’thi rule, and most central, the war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988. Throughout the novel, Zubaida, the main character, fights her history, physically, mentally and emotionally, to figure out why it has come to what it is; destructed and chaotic.

The imagery found in this novel is quite remarkable. As Zubaida, the main character, is continuously haunted on a daily basis, through daydreams, flashbacks and asides, she always snaps back to reality with the intoxication she receives from the images through the screen of her television set.

The country is burning in front of her now, and she doesn’t know the extent of the invisible flames. The screen exposes a limited blaze, but she knows that the fire outside the frame of the screen is greater. These are flames beyond Baghdad, extending to her room, kitchen, balcony, and moving on to the world.

Along with the intensified, singled out imagery, the explosiveness of the past and present recollections that Zubaida experiences, closely connects to the explosiveness and tragedy of every event that has led Iraq to its current situation. A downfall of this novel is that it is too descriptive with the mellow dramatic accounts of Zubaida’s present conditions. The stereotypical female is one who over dramatizes her feelings and is over emotional, which further limits her strength because reality is too hard for her to handle. Without a doubt, this novel demands expression and feeling, just not so overbearing.

It’s no surprise that Zubaida’s Window is part of the Feminist Press’s prestigious series of “Women Writing in the Middle East.” Joining Al-Qazwini on this list are some heavy hitters, including Assia Djebar, Huda Shaarawi, Alia Mamdouh and Shahrnush Parsipur. Zubaida’s Window is a notable addition to this series, a series that is one of the best sources for information about Middle Eastern women novelists avialable to English readers.

10 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a look at Gods and Soldiers, an anthology of contemporary African writing edited by Rob Spillman.

Jessica Cobb—a current intern at Open Letter—wrote this review, which begins:

This anthology of both fiction and non-fiction features thirty pieces from a wide variety of African writers from across the continent—from the West, Sub-Saharan, North, East, and ending in the Southern Regions. Editor Rob Spillman (the editor of Tin House) claims in his introduction that “this anthology is intended as a snapshot of recent writing as seen through the lens of one editor, after consulting with many, many editors, writers, scholars, critics, and everyday passionate readers.” He also speaks to the point that this anthology covers themes reflected in recent history, including anti-colonialism, the struggle of Western influences, the rise of women’s voices, the personal and national influence of domestic and imported religions and lastly, what it means to be an independent-minded African in a globalized world. This literary spider web offers not just a perception of African culture, it opens the gate to the concepts of heritage, history and the continuing struggle of a prideful people. Which is quite unique considering how few African works are published in America.

Click here for the rest.

9 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

This anthology of both fiction and non-fiction features thirty pieces from a wide variety of African writers from across the continent—from the West, Sub-Saharan, North, East, and ending in the Southern Regions. Editor Rob Spillman (the editor of Tin House) claims in his introduction that “this anthology is intended as a snapshot of recent writing as seen through the lens of one editor, after consulting with many, many editors, writers, scholars, critics, and everyday passionate readers.” He also speaks to the point that this anthology covers themes reflected in recent history, including anti-colonialism, the struggle of Western influences, the rise of women’s voices, the personal and national influence of domestic and imported religions and lastly, what it means to be an independent-minded African in a globalized world. This literary spider web offers not just a perception of African culture, it opens the gate to the concepts of heritage, history and the continuing struggle of a prideful people. Which is quite unique considering how few African works are published in America

One of the best pieces in the collection is “Lomba,” the story of an imprisoned Nigerian man by the same name. Lomba is a journalist imprisoned because it’s believed that he took part in an anti-government demonstration against the military legal government. Even though Lomba was merely a reporter at this event, he was forced behind bars with no chance of winning the case against the government. While in prison, he begins to write a diary of his experiences, thoughts, fears and dreams, which lands him in solitary confinement after the prison guards catch him with his writings.

I express myself. I let my mind soar above these walls to bring distant, exotic bricks with which I seek to build a more endurable cell within this cell. Prison. Misprison. Dis. Un. Prisoner. See? I write of my state in words of derision, aiming thereby to reduce the weight of these shoulders, to rediscover my nullified individuality.

His “saving grace” becomes the superintendent, who makes him write poetry for his soon to be fiancée, Janice. While the superintendent believes that he is doing Lomba a favor by letting him write, he is slowly taking away Lomba’s dignity by stealing his words.

Another powerful piece in the book is “The Senghor Complex” by Patrice Nganang. This story was very complex and different from that of the more personalized “Lomba” in that it spoke to the literal meaning of a concept, Negritude “anti-racism racism,” which stemmed from a Black Nationalist movement struck up by the Harlem Renaissance. Spillman looks at this as an “anti-assimilationist philosophy . . . which is closely identified with Senghor, a Senegalese poet who became the first president of independent Senegal.” We venture into Cameroon, a Sub-Saharan area of Africa which tries to defy the same ongoing complexities that we face in our society. The struggle to defend and protect the roots of our existence is a world-wide acknowledgement. Nganang does an outstanding job of analyzing the logic, ethics and politics behind the indignity that was taken from her Africa, specifically Cameroon, and this teaches us that we, as interpreters, should not comply with the sort in which people pretentiously place us. She analyzes the Senghor Complex on “four axes,” logic, that of episteme, ethics and politics. The grave impact categorizing people into stereotypical groups can have on an individual’s self-perception is abundantly clear in this essay.

The excerpt from Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero is a short yet piercing story of an Egyptian woman who was raised to accept that she was not worthy of being anything more than a prostitute. The story opens up with this unnamed woman stabbing an aggressor who tells her that she could never have control over him. The aftermath of the situation brings her to the street where she holds the confidence of a princess walking tall and untouchable. She envisions people staring at her with no clues to the fact that she is, in fact, a prostitute. Her rage continues as she accepts the offer of an Arab Prince at the price of two thousand dollars. In the mist of their sexual encounter, she becomes enraged and tells him that she has strength that can kill. After she persuades him of this ability and sees the fear in his eyes, she reflects on all the men, referenced as criminals, who deserve the ultimate for their savage behaviors in her culture. This story took me by surprise, in that it gave me a little more perspective of how women are viewed in Egypt and the rage that lies within a woman who has been mistreated all her life. Although this is shown through pure violence, I believe that this was an effective strategy written by Saadawi to make a point about the vengeful soul of a woman.

Collectively, this anthology offers an abundance of viewpoints from a range of African traditions. As Rob Spillman states in the opening of his introduction, “African writing is ready for international spot line.” These African writers offer a standpoint that is clearly visible within their writing and the standpoint is this; the gap of remote understanding of Africa and its people has exceeded its boundaries to a vast multitude. The “palpable sense of urgency” that lies at the mercy of their pencil tips is indulgent and a plea for a greater understanding; which is rightly deserved.

....
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