Lammy finalists ‘Dear Senthuran' and ‘Northern Light' make us look inwards and remind why personal stories matter

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Born to a Nigerian father and Tamilian mother, writer Akwaeke Emezi grew up in Abe, Nigeria; and the cover of ‘Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir’.

This year’s Lambda Literary Awards finalists, much like its history of over three decades, exhibit yet another mesmerising arsenal of queer writing. However, two books in particular, in the ‘LGBTQ Nonfiction’ category, stand out: Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi and Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water by Kazim Ali.

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Though they’re distinct in their own rights, cataloguing personal experiences that are a delight to read, they uniquely end up discussing the fundamental question about one’s identity. Here’s how these books address this question and more.

Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir (Faber & Faber) by Akwaeke Emezi

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Written in the form of letters, Dear Senthuran is a record of a writer’s most personal feelings told unabashedly, for a ‘godwriter’ isn’t supposed to be afraid or hide anything from anyone.

Emezi, born to a Nigerian father and Tamilian mother, not only takes the reader through the trajectory of their violence-ridden growing up years in Aba, Nigeria, but also documents themselves as being an ọgbanje—an Igbo spirit, breaking away from their human parents’ and others’ view of themselves as a ‘woman,’ noting that “the only self I feel at home with is one that doesn’t exist.”

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It is one of the most unique personal writings I’ve ever read, for it carefully documents the personal that has literary merits without being overindulgent. While it names names, addresses one’s own fear of accumulating tremendous power and money, confesses writing ground-breaking work, it refuses to be one of the works by a Black writer that seeks validation of a white person’s worldview of themselves.

In a way, Emezi is very much like their “elderspirit,” the Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who famously noted that she “stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central”, making the “rest of the world move over to where I was”. Like Morrison, their literary produce is world-altering, world-bending.

While the commonality between them is taking the written word seriously, putting their all—their faith and labour—in writing, Morrison’s work wasn’t a map Emezi could follow. They had to reinvest in constructing newer narratives. A reflection of this labour can be seen in this sentence, “Speaking to other people, though, requires channelling who or what I am into language they can understand. It requires folding.”

However, these efforts, no matter how laudable, render them both “hypervisible and unseen” at the same time, for the natural consequence of being exceptional is ostracization, which they faced in abundance.

Yet, it’s fascinating how they’re able to demonstrate resilience over and over again. Be it overcoming abusive relationships, jealousy of peers, or hegemony of certain narratives in publishing, Emezi negotiated their way throughout and didn’t let the “version of me they (others) store in their eyes” overpower theirs. Evidence of this is their extravagant house, Shiny, which they “carve(d) it the way I wanted, without human anxieties, fears, or limitations. I filled it with plants and art. It is more than a house, it’s an entire dimension; you can feel it when you walk in”.

Such inhibited yet controlled writing makes Dear Senthuran much more than a soul-baring record of betrayal its author has endured, otherization they’ve experienced, and the success they are now. Perhaps it’s a map for queers like me.

Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water (Milkweed Editions) by Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali’s book begins with this question that people ask matter-of-factly: “Where are you from?” For someone like Kazim, however, it’s a difficult question to answer, for his father’s from Vellore, Tamil Nadu, and his mother was born in Hyderabad, now part of Telangana. After the couple got married, they moved to Canada.

Writing about his family, Ali notes that the “political and military conflict between India and Pakistan… prevented my father (who was a Pakistani citizen) from attending his own wedding.”

Though the neighbouring countries were sceptical about ‘trusting’ people from either location, because of the “new Landed Immigrant cards from the Canadian government they were more officially documented in the new country than they ever had been in the old.” Ali’s family—“the only non-white family in the town”—lived in Winnipeg, where his father was an electrical engineer, working for Manitoba Hydro, “the province’s electrical power authority”.

The family stayed there for a few years, yet the region left an indelible mark on Ali’s memory, which is why he was pulled towards it to re-examine what the construction of the hydropower plant did to the surrounding region. The impact could be easily linked to the long history of erasure of indigenous peoples’ culture and language by the Canadian government under the Indian Act, but somehow it begged closure from Ali’s end.

#Akwaeke emezi, #and the memory of water (milkweed editions) by kazim ali, #book review, #books, #dear senthuran: a black spirit memoir, #gender, #lambda literary awards, #land, #lgbtq nonfiction, #lgbtqia, #northern light: power, #queer writing, march 15, 2022

Perhaps this is why he started reading about it. But the more he read, the more he couldn’t believe himself: Not only were the “Indigenous children between the ages of six and sixteen” made to compulsorily stay in residential schools, inflicting “trauma of family separation”, they were also denied speaking in their native languages. Also, failure to comply resulted in “corporal punishment and sexual abuse by (the) school staff”. What was even more disturbing for Ali was that a “community of six thousand people” witnessed “one hundred and fifty suicide attempts”.

Who could explain this madness? Was there something he could do by going north? Was he going to write a book on it? If he ended up doing that, would his documentation be of any help, as he is neither a representative nor an Indigenous person himself? What do the words of a poet amount to anyway? Crippled by these questions, but mildly encouraged by Lee Roy—one of the members of the executive council monitoring the Northern Flood Agreement, which in collaboration with other bodies was responsible for the construction of dams, Ali left for the north.

Ali’s inquisitiveness, if not his investigative nature, helped him document several findings. He notes how housing policies have neither kept up “with material conditions on the ground nor with the cultural practices of communities the authorities are intending to serve.” And that the widespread issue of internal displacement and job losses have broken families apart: “As of early 2020, approximately 314 families were still waiting for housing to be built so they could return home. Those who had already returned were still lacking jobs, healthcare facilities, and social services.” Above all, he registers how the Northern Flood Agreement, hasn’t helped the Cree people at all. Neither did it get them the promised subsidised power nor has the compensatory agreement (made after 2014) been abided by.

Besides other things, while interacting with the Cree people, he also learnt that Indigenous peoples celebrate Two-Spirited (masculine and feminine spirits) people unlike the queerphobic US. While Emezi’s book is mostly an inward narrative, Ali’s an adventurous ride. But they both amount to the same conclusion: “Places do not belong to us. We belong to them.” And these places can be our bodies or land and landscape that “shape us and accompany us.” These two books are a testimony to that.

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— Lambda Literary (@LambdaLiterary) March 15, 2022

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