Review: Jazz by Toni Morrison

“What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it?”

The early 20th century marked the growth of jazz music in America. In the 1920’s the music spread into parts such as New Orleans, and Harlem, the ‘City’ where we find the characters in Jazz. The music began way before it was labelled jazz, from the days of slavery when people would sing to pass time, to bleed away the sadness with their voices and to keep the African voice alive.

Louis Armstrong

What sets jazz music apart is the element of improvisation, which gives artists the ability to express themselves in any way they want, and still keep a soulful and enjoyable rhythm. This element is what I first noticed about the way this story mirrors the genre itself.

Middle-aged Joe Trace meets eighteen-year-old Dorcas when he’s selling cosmetics at her aunt’s place. Thereafter begins their affair and months later when Dorcas grows tired of him, he shoots her after following her to a party. Joe’s wife Violet arrives at the funeral and slashes the dead girl’s face with a knife. Some weeks after the funeral Violet starts visiting Dorcas’s aunt and the visits become regular. Meanwhile, Joe is lost in deep grief for this dead lover.     

Jazz music has travelled with black African-Americans, their experiences, struggles, pains, and joys, through song and dance. The narrator, whose identity we don’t know, tells the story and relates the scenes in the same change of notes, short and long, as in jazz music. We encounter the love triangle in many parts of the book, repeated in a way that reveals something new or reminds us of something we know.

Toni Morrison splits open the characters and feeds us the right pieces throughout the story, creating a sort of web that takes from their pasts and connects back to the present, to the love triangle and its tragedy. We discover pieces from these characters’ fractured identities and come to understand how they are connected without them knowing they are, and why they behave the way they do.

I read Sula before Jazz and whereas with the former I loved the story and the characters more, with the latter I absolutely loved the storytelling. It felt like I was reading a long beautiful poem. I do have to mention, however, that I had tried to read it about three times and couldn’t get past the first chapter and once I finally got into it I figured it was because you have to stay with the narrator and not get lost. For me, it required my full attention, unlike other books that I’ve read with less focus and could still follow.

Jazz is an unforgettable piece of art. It’s powerful literature that achieves the goal of leaving the reader moved and having learned something deep and valuable about the human condition, as good literature often does. The characters come to you in flesh and bone, and throughout the story, you taste their realness and hear their voices. Their individual stories, which the narrator reveals by travelling back and forth through time, become so palpable and make it possible for the reader to keep diving in for more and more.

Brilliant. Exquisite. Important.


Review: The Mourning Bird by Mubanga Kalimamukwento

“‘NEVER LET AN OWL STAY, mwanake,’ my father warned. ‘Why, Tate?’ I asked him. ‘Because,’ he replied, throwing a stone at the mango tree, ‘they are a bad omen. They mourn at night so that we mourn in the morning.'”

– The Mourning Bird, Mubanga Kalimamukwento

The 1990s in Zambia were a devastating period of a crumbling economy, election riots and an attempted coup. It is in this same period that we meet eleven-year-old Chimuka and her family, and the tragedies that befall them.

Chimuka’s father dies from the concealed hands of AIDS, leaving her behind with her two younger brothers, the toddler being born sick, her mother and the belligerence of his bitter family. Their lives undergo a devastating change, reducing them to savage circumstances.

When loss strikes the family again, Chimuka and her brother Ali are all they have and end up on the streets, where drugs, hunger, rape, prostitution and theft become their reality.

There are books that bombard the reader with one tragedy after the other, and end up creating a boring and predictable text. However, in The Mourning Bird, Mubanga Kamlimamukwento handles these events with such impressive literary decorum, resulting in a beautiful yet heart-wrenching story. It reminded me a bit of Boy, Interrupted by Saah Millimono (war, poverty and child soldiers) but with triple the trauma, the anguish and tear-jerking.

I have to say, this story is certainly not for the lily-livered. At some point I wanted to stop reading it, afraid of the rawness of the reality it mirrors. Kamlimamukwento perceptively penetrates hard issues such as infidelity, HIV/AIDS and the secrecy that accompanies it, suicide, family betrayal and neglect, rape and prostitution.

It is undeniably impressive how, instead of creating a theme that is lightly sprinkled onto a story, she merges the story and these issues into one raw flesh, which terrifies and at the same time never fails to astonish you.

I loved everything about the book, from the plot, the characters, to the language and evident talent in writing rich prose. The one small spot that I would criticise would be the ending of the story. Throughout the book, the pace has been steady while the end comes in with a quick resolution, which could have been stretched out a little more than it was done.

The Mourning Bird is definitely for the brave but I wouldn’t advise anyone against reading it. It will open your eye to the weight that a country’s failings, blemishes and turmoil has on people. It is sad but powerful and unforgettable.

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is a Zambian award-winning novelist, a mother of two and a criminal lawyer. She’s a fellow of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program and the Young African Leaders Initiative. The Mourning Bird won the 2019 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. She also won the Kalemba Short Story Prize, and was shortlisted for the SyncityNG Anthology and the Bristol Short Story Prize in the same year.

Review: Harriet Rubin Gives Us A Machiavelli For Women With ‘The Princessa’

PRINCESSA: She who takes first place.

There are books that have occupied a large space in the literary scene, in business, and in life, that have been written by men and mostly speak to men. I recently read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli and although I could dissect the book, understand what it’s about and the message it communicates, I didn’t feel that it was written with women as its audience. There are so many books like that and it shows how we still have to create space for ourselves if we want to teach and learn from each other.

In my search for books that are as powerful and as influential, I found this gem. Women have been excluded as an audience for literary texts that give advice on power, wealth, war and conflict, as though women are not meant to participate in them or in the conversation. The Princessa brings to attention how women have not had a language for the fight, be it personal, social or work-related and Harriet Rubin gives us a manual on how to face these battles. After reading this book I understood why she says women cannot rely on The Prince because it doesn’t speak to women.

What is so interesting about the book is that it brings to light how fighting men’s war and fighting by their rules don’t get women anywhere. She points out that playing by the rules of the game when the rules were not designed to enhance her strengths, will not bring us to victory.  

The Princessa is divided into three easy-to-read (I read it in one night) sections: the book of Strategy, of Tactics and of Subtle Weapons. Rubin shows us how women often fear conflict and also fear triumph because of the guilt of winning. She then gives advice on how to deal with these fears, how to fight strategically and how to win wars on our own terms.

Rubin also makes a good point when she talks about combining both the terror and the wonder of being female. She advises that women should learn to combine opposites and not use one while ashamed of the other. I absolutely agree with this because of how women are usually made to feel small or weak for things that are naturally built in us. In The Princessa we learn how to use these frowned upon qualities to our advantage when dealing with our enemies.

“Enlarge the space in which you can be strong.”

– Harriet Rubin, The Princessa

Unlike The Prince where ruthlessness and deception are mostly encouraged, The Princessa doesn’t cripple the enemy, she doesn’t fear the enemy’s strength but rather uses it, and she needs proximity to her enemy because an enemy today could be her ally tomorrow.

The last part talks about knowing your weapons and how the right weapons can turn the war in your favour. I found this so important because sometimes we don’t understand where to begin when faced with battles and conflict, and how to overcome those challenges. It could be with a lover, a friend, a boss or a business partner. With the right weapons and knowing how to use them, thriving follows.

There are a number of princessas that she mentions in the book such as Ayn Rand, Joan of Arc, Billie Holiday and Anna Akhmatova.

As a woman, I can tell you that after reading The Prince I was glad to find The Princessa. I could understand the language better. Unlike having to dissect The Prince and take from its male audience directed advice and re-piecing it together to create meaning for a woman, it spoke straight to me and I believe it’s a good manual for other women. It’s definitely for women and certainly offers good tactics and strategies that can be applied to the daily battles that we face.