Wednesday, November 16, 2011

118. The Other Crucifix by Benjamin Kwakye

Title: The Other Crucifix
Author: Benjamin Kwakye
Genre: Fiction/Identity/Immigration
Publishers: Ayebia-Clarke
Pages: 218
Year of First Publication: 2010
Country: Ghana


My first encounter with Benjamin Kwakye was through his first novel The Cloth of Nakedness. In that novel Kwakye used a proverb and a character to metaphorise the humorous nature and hierarchical structure of our existence or specifically of our way of living. Using tools within the society, he told of how manipulative the rich could be. 

Kwakye's third novel - I am yet to see a copy of his second book, The Sun by Night, on book stands - The Other Crucifix is a different kind of literary delight. It deals with identity, home, and freedom in an immigrant's life. He explores and expands every minutiae of life in an alien country. In doing so things that had always been taken for granted are held onto by such immigrants that letting go is tantamount to betrayal of the motherland: memories are held onto, or they are lost, together with the inner self. The setting of this book also provides contrasting feelings of identity and the characters and their background employed by the author also brought the issues he was tackling to the fore: are you an African because you are black? Is home where you choose or where you can identify with? Or is home where people look at you and see themselves in you? But what if you cannot speak the way they do?

Set in the early part of the 60s - after Ghana gained its independence from the British and African-Americans are still segregated against and women still had no remarkable rights and when the Civil Right movements were at their all-time peak - and into the 70s, The Other Crucifix tells the story of Jojo Badu and the struggles he went through as he left the borders of his country, Ghana, to seek higher education in the US. The story tells of his struggles against the established culture of racism, of negro-chanting, of severe discrimination, of alienation, of not-belonging and the culture shock he went through. Here Kwakye, through his exquisite and mature use and handling of language coupled with the first-person narrative form he chose, projected to the reader the internal struggles, the mental debate, the emotional dipoles Jojo Badu went through. He was able to make those emotions flow off the page into the reader.

Forgive the cliche, but the reader would love and hate Jojo in equal measure. He is unaware of what he wants and for most of the time he was selfish in his quest or betrayed a common cause. Specifically, one would say that he wanted to be accepted in unacceptable situations. He could not stand against the current but would also was also not eager to go with it. And as the writer intimated, Jojo Badu died several deaths; except, that he was always born anew with a different soul.

His first death was when the International Student Association voted to change the name of its house from Brewer to Castro because the former had owned slave. This caused a problem whose proportions went beyond the borders of the university for Castro stood for everything anti-American. After such grand problem, including the burning of a cross, the President of the University tasked the International Students Adviser, William Redford, to cause the International Students Association to change the name and issue an apology. Redford, himself eyeing the Dean of Students position, had early on courted the friendship of Jojo Badu by inviting him to his house. Thus, Jojo Badu was to become the perfect pawn to be used to effect the necessary changes after he was reminded that he was in the school
... because The University has been generous with its financial aid. Can The University continue to maintain such aid if the screws begin to tighten from Washington? And believe me, it will if nothing happens and this thing stands'. [61] 
Jojo's mind was made up after this. He would apply diplomacy to reverse this decision to continue to be a member of the university. He would later become the president of the said association after the voluntary resignation of its president, who afterwards lost all his initial verve to fight the cause of injustice. This kind of 'betrayal' was seen throughout Jojo's stay on campus and at several points he seemed ignorant or oblivious of the racial entanglement he was winding around himself. And this part of the story mirrors the several aids that developing countries receive with conditions attached to them be it social, cultural or political adjustment; the recent of such conditions being Cameron's threat to cut aid from African countries that do not accept homosexuality.

While Jojo responded to all these socio-political whirlwinds in his life, morphing gradually into an American, considering Marjorie - his girlfriend he left in Ghana - as a 'fat ass' something that is supposed to be disgusting, it was one major event, several thousands of miles away, that would define Jojo and make him seek refuge in an alien country where his skin colour makes him a second class citizen, deserving only the sloughs left behind by the first citizens of the land. Back in Ghana, his benefactor, whom he planned of working with should he come back to Ghana, had been killed. Uncle Kusi had been implicated for funding a group of individuals who had planned to overthrow Nkrumah's government. The coup failed and organisers were rounded up. He was said to have resisted arrest and was killed during the melee that ensued. This singular event completed the transformation process with Ghana sounding like the last echoes of a clanging metal.

Later, after school and without a diploma to show because he has financial obligations to settle with the university, he would go on to struggle for work but without the 'proper' colour a college degree amounts to nothing. Thus, Jojo Badu, irrespective of the fact that he completed among the top students in his class, settled for hay-stacking. He would marry to Fiona - a woman with as much history behind her as Jojo himself before proceeding to Law School with the intentions that Law School begets successful life. But the old demons would come revisiting: mounting debts from student loans plus student politics.

Perhaps to atone for his years of not standing up for anything at college, Jojo in Law School had spontaneously become emboldened after listening to: first, a lecture on racial discrimination in which the victim was described as a property and therefore having no right to sue his master and then, a first-hand account of the life of South African politician exiled in the US after the Sharpeville incident and of black South Africans in general. These two events turned Jojo into advocate of sorts and a tempestuous one at that. Here he was unfortunate to have assaulted the Dean of Students after he and three of his colleagues decided to submit a petition to the Law School to remove their investments from a government that did not uphold freedom and justice to all its citizens, after a hugely-attended demonstration. After the case was heard and his fear of expulsion did not materialise, Jojo and his friends were banned from any such activities on campus. And again, he was defeated.

This is a book of jaw-dropping analogies, of stupendous theories - Mechanic Instinct versus Earth Instinct - of inversions and parallelisms, and of humongous themes. Through his characters, Kwakye explored several levels on racialism apart from the usual black on white discrimination. He entered into the muddy waters of African-Americans and Africans and how an African whose speech leans away from his country of birth is considered a 'white man' and treated as such. He also treated the illusion of independence and how the verve suddenly died off. However, above all, Kwakye has written a book that seeps beautiful language. One cannot but appreciate his high acuity in the use of words. His tackling and description of human emotions, its evolution, eventual eruption, and devolution is superb. He takes the reader's heart through all the roller-coaster emotions the characters go through.

I purchased this book on November 25, 2010 and promised to read it for this year's Ghana Literature Week. I am happy to have gone by my word. Had I known what it entails, I might have read it earlier. It is worth it, especially if one has not read enough of an immigrant's story, as I have not. For those who have there is still much to be appreciated in Kwakye's delivery. His is a book of not just emotions but one that captures the politics of the world; of how at a time that Ghana had attained its independence, blacks in America, the land of liberty were still segregated and discriminated against at all levels, most especially in job search, of how women were still not part of the whole even though they were voting in Ghana. One thing I took from this book is that a deracialised American society is still in its infancy though greater achievements have been made.
_____________________
About the author: Click here to read about the author. Kwakye's forthcoming book is The Legacy of Phantoms (Africa World Press, 2011).

10 comments:

  1. I have become familiar with this author's work over the years and he is amazing. Use of language and the substance of his topics captures the imagination. A great writer indeed

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  2. You speak true, Anon. Language and substance is his focus.

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  3. Congrats on having kept your bookish word to read this one this week, after it having lingered so long awaiting your attentions (I can say nothing about this as I am terribly neglectful of the books on my shelves, always turning to those with duedates first ::sigh::); it sounds like it was definitely worth the wait, and that another of his might make its way onto your 2012 list...

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  4. @BIP, thanks. I hope I'm able to keep up with all these promises, because I intend to focus solely on books on my challenge list in December as things are catching up with me.

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  5. Great review Nana. I've just finished writing my review for tomorrow and so came to read yours - such a well written and complete review. Like you I really found the politics of the time interesting to read about, both in Ghana and the US.

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  6. thanks Amy. It is the politics that drive the story. Would be reading your review tomorrow.

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  7. Well, you certainly kept this review a long time before posting it. I really do appreciate your commitment to Ghana Lit Week. I liked this book too. I agree with your assessment of Jojo's character. He can be very both annoyingly clueless and perceptive. his story is one that I;m familiar having attended college in the US and I;d liked seeing some of our experiences on paper.
    I need to read Kwakye's Cloth of Nakedness.

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  8. @Kinna, when we promote Ghanaian literature we promote ourselves so that when someone ask what you're doing to help the country, I can boldly tell him/her that I have promoted Ghanaian literature for a long time. What about that?

    I believe Kwakye himself had gone through such a similar experience after entering Dartmouth College and later Harvard Law School.

    It's an interesting story.

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  9. What a wondefrul review Nana! You captured the essence of the book in your post. I really feel like reading it a second time -). It was my first time reading a Ghanaian author.

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