Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It Could Be Much, Much Worse

Once the media told us what we already knew yesterday, that we've been in a recession for a year, and the stock market crashed yet again, I started looking for some things for which to be thankful. For example, I may be underemployed and underfinanced, but at least I didn't grow up in hell.

For a vivid description of growing up in hell, check out Chris Abani's Graceland, a coming-of-age tale set in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria in 1983. Elvis, our 16 year-old hero, has lost his mother to cancer and is slowly losing his father to palm wine. Set loose on Lagos' mean streets, he dreams of becoming a dancer while he begs for spare change from tourists while doing Presley impersonations. Along the way he encounters every type of violence and cruelty imaginable, all rendered as part of the commonplace and everyday.

In contrast to this living nightmare are passages from his mother's diary, which he carries with him at all times. Before dying she collected traditional recipes, which serve as a reminder of the village life and culture from which Elvis has been displaced. On the one hand Elvis has the impersonal and random viciousness of life in the city, a life deranged by the aftereffects of colonialism, and on the other hand he has a document of hearth, home, family, love, a powerful world but one that has been lost to him.

Will he give in to ghetto life, become a low-level drug trafficer or dealer in body parts for transplant? Or will he choose the one escape left him, to leave Nigeria behind entirely and head to America, where his aunt has already moved? I'll let you read the book and find out for yourself. It's at once completely depressing and moving, and a page-turner as well. And you'll never worry about the stock market again, I promise you.


tunsie said...

I studied medicine in a third world country.it amazed me how the childen would marvel over a ball.they would b so happy just 2 play with a ball.no video games down there.a very simple life,un complicated one at that.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

beths said...

Thanks for writing this, El. I have no critical distance on the book yet, so just: thanks.