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ISBN: 978-0-9562401-2-5 | 224pp | Weight: 0.38kg | Paperback | Published 2010 | Rights:
Categories: African | Black Interest | Fiction | Literature | International |
The Other Crucifix is a unique third novel by Commonwealth Prize winning author Benjamin Kwakye. The novel deals with the African immigrant experience and the struggles of a Ghanaian student in the US. This genre also features in Ghanaian literature by Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy and Armah’s Fragments and Why Are We So Blest. But in The Other Crucifix, Kwakye presents a contemporary approach by engaging with American college life in all its ramifications in the transformation of a Ghanaian youth and shows how his protagonist’s immersion in that experience alienates him from home and memories of Ghana fade, until his Uncle Kusi’s death in a coup d'état. The narrator, sympathetic and yet provocative offers a hopeful vision in a world full of drama and intrigue.
(Ayebia, ISBN 9780956240125)
Benjamin Kwakye is a Ghanaian
author living in the US and his fine
novel The Other Crucifix addresses
the African diaspora and fundamental
questions of home and exile. The
book’s central character, Jojo Badu,
leaves Ghana in the 1960s for the US,
in search of an education and a better
life. We follow his progress through
university and work, family life and
the civil rights struggles, happiness
and adversity. As the years pass, Jojo
becomes increasingly alienated from his
homeland, and it is only the death of his
uncle in a coup d’état that forces him to
confront some uncomfortable realities
of the immigrant experience. This is
a moving and readable story in which
one individual’s choices and experiences
speak for wider and more universal
concerns, encompassing radical
upheaval and personal development;
crossing borders, crossing continents.
New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010
NOVEMBER 17, 2010
by Kinna Reads
Geosi Reads, my fellow countryman and blogger, is a big fan of the Ghanaian novelist Benjamin Kwakye. I have promised him that I will read Kwakye’s novels so that I can have an informed discussion with him. I had meant to read the books in their order of publication. But I picked up Kwakye’s third and latest novel, The Other Crucifix, just to thumb through, got hooked and ended up reading the entire novel.
The Other Crucifix (2010) is set in the 1960s. Jojo Badu, a young Ghanaian man, has been accepted into The University, a top college in the United States. He leaves his family and country but he has every intention of returning to Ghana, after his studies, to contribute his efforts to the development of the country. At The University, he grapples with race issues, culture shock and campus politics all while trying to come to terms with his new foreign student status in the Civil Rights era in America. His growing sense of disconnection with Ghana is made worse when the country suffers a coup d’etat in which he loses a beloved family member. Jojo will graduate from The University and move on to The Law School, where he will get embroiled in student protest. Jojo will overcome his struggles and “convinced that his future in American held much promise”, will settle into his new life.
Benjamin Kwakye attended Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School and his experiences at these educational institutions have informed the characters and the plot of this novel. The Other Crucifix details a unique immigrant experience, that of the African student in an American college. It is an experience that I’m familiar with, having arrived in the US as a foreign student in 1989. Like Jojo, most final legs of the foreign student’s initial journey to the school involve a bus. Most arrive alone, not with their parents. The foreign student will watch while his/her American cohorts bid farewell to their parents and loved ones. And it is on this first day that the feelings of isolation, alien-nation, a disconnection from, but also a longing for, Africa take root. In these first days, there are questions about one’s accent, the pronunciation of one’s name and even questions about Africa not intended to wound but which nonetheless do. Then comes the process of carving out a home and a space of one’s own that can nourish and sustain the student though the four years of study. Jojo, like most first-year African students, finds it difficult initially to connect with other African-American students. Being black, and of African descent, does not mean that he has the same understanding of race and racism as his fellow African-American students. Of an incident when he is called the n word, he says:
…not that I was devoid of race consciousness. I knew the word had negative connotations, but it is one thing to read and another to live and experience it. Without the context that gives words bone and flesh and form, without the torrid undercurrent that gives certain words meaning, it seemed like a bad joke rather than a malignant query. If I were asked that question years later, I would fully experience its flesh, its bones, its venoms and I would have my arms ready to counter.”
The majority of Africans who leave the continent to study at elite American colleges and universities will never return to Africa. Most parents and family members are not inclined to listen to any detailing of how hard life can get for the foreign student for fear that their child may announce a return back home. Therefore, Jojo’s tenure at The University represents the first stage of the loss of home and the slow erosion of his identification with Ghana. His experiences at The University and at The Law School form the foundation and the context of his engagement with his new home and the dis-engagement with his native homeland.
This story resonated and struck a chord with me. It also stays true to the experiences of countless Africans who go to America in search of a good education and a bright future. But it is also Jojo’s journey. Kwakye’s protagonist is exasperating. His manners, his views on women, his hestitation when action is called for, and his many insecurities drove me nuts But it was also easy to sympathize with him as he valiantly tried to make sense of, and to improve upon, his situation. By the end of the novel, Jojo had matured and had shed his outsider-trying desperately-to belong attitude. He had developed into a young man capable of taking an administration to task for its treatment of black students. There were points in the novel that were decidedly weak, points that were not emotionally compelling. I feel that Kwakye shied away from fully depicting the suffering and torment that someone like Jojo would have experienced.
Nonetheless, I’m impressed by the book. It is among a select number of books that describes the African student’s journey as an American immigrant. It is a well-written story of story of struggle and survival. Benjamin Kwakye has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa twice with his two previous novels, The Clothes of Nakedness and The Sun by Night. I intend to read both of these novels. But for now,
I highly recommend The Other Crucifix.
Ben Kwakye’s latest novel, The Other Crucifix, is a captivating tale of double estrangement. Born and raised in Ghana by an indigent but affectionate family, Jojo Badu finds himself obligated to undertake a journey he describes as ‘the road not taken’ (p. 1) in pursuit of Western education. The metaphor of a leap into the dark, as it were, is the thread that holds the multiple facets of this exhilarating narrative intact. In hot pursuit of a decent education he couldn’t afford at home, the protagonist leaves behind not only his caring parents but also his beloved girlfriend and would-be wife, Marjorie, after a sacred pact signed in blood. Jojo’s journey to the United States of America is portrayed as a rite of passage: ‘It’s important for the beginner to take lessons from those who have played it before’ (p. 6). Most importantly, this self-imposed physical exile portends hope for the protagonist: ‘I figured America had a lot to offer me … I was in America and was sustained by my sense of arrival, that I’d achieved something worthwhile—and was in a land famed for freedom, opportunity, democracy and justice’ (p. 8). Interestingly, Jojo’s American dream turns out to be one of mixed blessings. Unable to understand the English spoken by Americans, he laments: ‘I soon realized that the English spoken here wasn’t my English. Accent aside, the quickness with which words were spoken and the slang that dotted expressions required patient decoding …’ (p. 8). Incidents like these often set Jojo’s mind in a whirlwind that plunged him into protracted moments of self-interrogation. His encounter with American immigration officials would be another painful eye-opener – a confrontation with brutal racism: ‘The official stared at me and asked matter-of-factly, “Where are you going, nigger?”’ (p. 7). The protagonist’s head-on collision with the contradictions inherent in black and white polarity in America is portrayed as psycho-pathology. This novel is an illustration of the American paradox of openness coupled with obscurantist racism. Psychological estrangement, a leitmotiv in the novel, is articulated in the form of racist slurs that haunt Jojo in good and bad times throughout his sojourn in the United States of America, causing him to rethink the admonition of his grandfather back in Ghana: ‘Do not stay too long in Amrika, you hear? You will never belong in the land of white people. The elders say that the foreigner never carries the head of the casket’ (p. 16). The old man’s aphorism is pregnant with meaning for his inexperienced grandson. The Other Crucifix is an insightful narrative couched in terms of the limitations of the colour bar and the ubiquitous feeling of otherness. As the protagonist puts it, ‘For the first time, I saw myself more sharply in terms of color as a contrast to others and became self-aware of it in a native way I’d never known before’ (p. 31). The narrative underscores the debilitating effect of the sentiment of inadequacy that comes with physical and psychological separation. Psychological estrangement manifests itself in the form of mutual distrust that puts Africans and African-Americans at daggers drawn, as the editor of The University Review insinuates: ‘I want to ask you about how you feel about relationships between Africans and Afro-Americans. I hear you two don’t like each other’ (p. 36). Kwakye’s text is a clarion call to continental and diasporic blacks to work in tandem for self-liberation and genuine freedom. He offers no foolproof solutions to the irksome African-American conundrum. Rather, he cautions Africans against the temptation to give outsiders the leeway to tell the story of Africans. This novel is as much a rap on black-on-black prejudice as it is a diatribe against white bigotry. Kwakye constantly draws attention to the dilemma of Africans in the United States of America, as this excerpt suggests: ‘Africans are frustrated because they do not quite fit in with white students. At the same time, they can find no sanctuary among American Negroes because the latter, for one reason or the other, tend to deprecate their African counterparts. A number of Africans feel that black Americans relegate them to second-class status’ (p. 38). Kwakye’s novel is an entertaining lampoon on the Manichaean stigmatisation of Africa. This becomes self-evident when an American university student directs the following question at Jojo: ‘I have heard a lot about Africa. Lots of myths and voodoo and crap. Is it true?’ (p. 29). Renowned Ghanaian creative writer Ayi Kwei Armah contends that Eurocentric racism is Manichaean in that it splits the world along racial lines and then assigns a negative, lower value to the world’s non-Western peoples. The assumption is that the rest of the world is primitive, savage, barbarian and underdeveloped, and that the West is civilised and developed (quoted in Olaniyan and Quayson 2007). Manichaean stigmatisation of Africa is seldom based on knowledge of non-Westerners; it often stems from ignorance reinforced by disingenuous denial disguised in misleading intellectual jargon. Its source is racial prejudice. Teleologically, stigmatisation cretinises non-Westerners, especially Africans. The result is that Africans start to doubt themselves. Worse still, they begin to buy into the fallacy that African history does not exist, and that therefore Africans have nothing to be proud of. This reasoning produces the stereotypical epithet of Africans as a ‘people without history’, to borrow from Eric Wolf (quoted in Booker, p. 25); it denies African peoples access to a usable past upon which they can rely in order to construct a viable future. In an attempt to debunk the myth of Africa as a tabula rasa, a clean slate devoid of history, Jojo Badu recounts the history of his people: ‘Ghana is named after a medieval West African empire renowned for its gold. The kings, reputedly full of splendour, were usually adorned with gold’ (p. 109). The protagonist underscores the valour of his predecessors by recounting the stiff opposition the Asante mounted against British colonialism: ‘From the beginning, the English faced stiff opposition from the Asantes, who fought and defeated the British in numerous wars … These events would catalyze the movement until the British had to cede power and eventually grant Ghana its independence on 6th March, 1957’ (p. 110). The all-important theme of the partition of Africa by European powers at the infamous Conference of Berlin in 1884 is broached in the following terms: ‘Many African countries crumbled to superior technology in the grab of their land by European powers that were bent on exploiting Africa’s resources and adding to their prestige’ (p. 193). Reference to South Africa’s famed freedom fighter Walter Sisulu and his vendetta against apartheid is thinly veiled when Kwakye writes: ‘My name is Walter Sithole, born and raised in South Africa, now exiled because of my membership in the African National Congress’ (p. 187). Walter Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist, member of the African National Congress and one of the foremost influences in South African politics. The Other Crucifix is captivating in several respects, but the quality that grips the reader’s attention is the writer’s continual recourse to documented history. He often resorts to historical cross-references in a bid to prove salient points, as this example illustrates: ‘Dwayne invited me to listen to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech in his dorm … “I too have a dream", Dwayne said after the speech. “I have a dream that someday the children of African-American blacks will hold hands with the children of Africans and proclaim free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last” (p. 40). Reference to Dr King’s speech is of critical importance in this novel, given the centrality of the theme of black-on-black prejudice, civil rights and self-determination in the narrative. Despite the serenity characteristic of the narrative tone in this great work of fiction, sex comes in as comic relief: ‘… we would talk and make love. Forget fucking and screwing … this was making love, to put it on its deserving sophisticated pedestal. “Je t’aime,” I would say to her’ (p. 136). Jojo’s sexual escapades are portrayed as monumental failures. Not initiated into the Western ways of courtship, he often fails to win the hearts of American girls. His relationship with Joan is telling: ‘I tried to plan every move of the coming seduction, yet I hadn’t a clue. I was on a terra nova … I left with a swollen penis’ (p. 43–4). Or there is this really funny one: ‘You want a woman, get the fat ones … These white guys don’t like them. But me, I don’t care. In fact, I like some steak on my women’ (p. 74). These sexual innuendos are not only humorous; they are didactic as well. They serve as veritable rites of initiation for Jojo who is ill-prepared for the exciting adventure. Kwakye makes ingenious use of language in his narrative in an attempt to adapt English to the worldview and imagination of his native tongue. Though writing in a European language, he manages to imprint his tale with the speech patterns of his people. By and large, he succeeds in doing so by having recourse to Africanisms – vernacular words and expressions that add local colour and flavour to the text, as seen in the following excerpt: ‘You see, it’s like the concept of Sankofa … reaching back and taking from the wealth of history’ (p. 6). Realising that the word ‘Sankofa’ would not make sense to his non-Asante readers, he comes to their rescue with a translation – the concept of reaching back and taking from the wealth of history. The presence of indigenous terms and expressions in the text shows that Kwakye strives to bridge the cultural gap between Asante and English. All too often, he resorts to the use of figurative language calqued on his mother tongue: ‘I was injured like a wounded warrior waiting in ambush, waiting for the opportune time to exact revenge, like a famished scavenger circling patiently, unnoticed, calm. Dangerous’ (p.127). In a nutshell, The Other Crucifix is the handiwork of a literary virtuoso, anchored in the themes of psychological and physical exile and the quest for self-identity. The pedagogical import of this novel resides in its suitability to the young and the old. The language is clear and free of sophistry. Students and teachers with an interest in African history, languages and cultures would find the text an invaluable resource.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
Benjamin Kwakye (2010) The Other Crucifix, Oxford: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited