Review: Achieving Superpersonhood

The following review has been posted on the Indie Reader website:

ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives

by William Peace

Verdict: With ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives, author William Peace delivers a beautiful, if sometimes gritty story, functioning as a contemporary and outstanding example of narrative form.

IR Rating   5.0  IR Rating

Three coming-of-age tales set against the dramatic backdrop of East Africa make up this compelling novel from William Peace. Each young person comes from a distinctly different background: Kamiri, a poor migrant from a tribal culture, Dorothy, an earnest college graduate, and Hassan, the youngest son of a wealthy Muslim family. Their lives intersect as they experience the real world and learn more about who they are and what they want to become.

Told by an observer narrator, each person’s story is in the present tense, so the reader will feel like an insider, experiencing stirring and sometimes sensational highs and lows. Peace paints a stunning picture of each character and what they endure, whether on the road with Kamiri as he makes his way from “Village” to “City”, or in the thick of a mining scandal with Dorothy, as she attempts to expose the truth and save poor diamond miners from an evil corporation. As for Hassan, his struggle with identity delivers him from university into the hands of an Islamic extremist group, whose violent practices repulse him. Readers will sense Kamiri’s sweet innocence, Dorothy’s sincerity, and Hassan’s confusion and self-doubt. Readers will root for these characters, none of which are unlikable, despite their flaws and naivete.

But perhaps what is most fascinating about this book’s narrative form is the interjections by the “One” and the “Other.” Both of these “characters” speak in the first person, commenting on Kamiri’s, Dorothy’s, and Hassan’s choices, as well as human nature in general. Readers can interpret these “characters” as God and the Devil, with the latter often dismissing the former, due to the deity’s disinterest in the seedier side of humanity. The One and the Other also occasionally drop in to influence the characters in various ways, some of which gets ignored, much to the Other’s disgust.

What could have been another loss of innocence story or journey of the spiritual self is a truly magnificent example of narrative form. As readers experience what happens to characters in between comments from the One and the Other, they will find themselves increasingly unable to wait to turn the page.

With ACHIEVING SUPERPERSONHOOD: Three East African Lives, author William Peace delivers a beautiful, if sometimes gritty story, functioning as a contemporary and outstanding example of narrative form.

~Kent Page McGroarty for IndieReader

Review: Washington Black

I went through the short list of candidates for this year’s Man Booker prize, and I selected Washington Black by Esi Edugyan as one I wanted to read.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 to immigrants from Ghana and raised in Calgary, Alberta.  She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.  Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published at the age of 24, and despite favourable reviews of it, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her second manuscript.  She was a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where she found inspiration for Half Blood Blues, which was published in 2011 and short listed for the Man Booker.  She has since written a book of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, and Washington Black, which was published in September 2018.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, the novelist and poet, Steven Price and their two children.

Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is set initially on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1830’s.  An eleven-year-old field slave, Washington Black, is selected by the younger brother of the plantation manager,, Erasmus Wilde, to be the younger man, Titch’s servant.  While Erasmus is the irascible slave driver, Titch is a scientist with abolitionist sentiments, and he needs Washington to help him launch a prototypical lighter than air ship, the Cloud-cutter.   While preparations for the launch are underway, the Wilde brothers’ cousin, Philip, arrives on the plantation.  Philip brings news that his cousins’ father has died, and that their mother requires Erasmus to return to England, while Titch should take over the plantation, an assignment which he definitely does not want.  Philip commits suicide in the presence of Washington, so that the boy becomes a suspect of murder.  Titch and Washington depart hastily in the Cloud-cutter, but the craft is downed in a storm at sea and they are rescued by a ship which takes them to Norfolk, Virginia, where they find passage into Hudson’s Bay, Canada, where Titch’s father, an arctic explorer is supposed to have died.  But he hasn’t died, until later.  Titch disappears and Washington travels to Nova Scotia where he finds work and a Mr Goff, a marine biologist and his daughter Tanna, who becomes his love interest.  Washington travels to London to help the Goffs set up a pioneering aquarium.  Washington has Titch on his mind and he tracks him down in Morocco.

There is something surreal about this tale of achieving adulthood in the midst of tenuous relationships while travelling through a strange and hostile world.  All of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Tanna, are lost souls: people who have no chance of realising their human potential.   It is not clear to me what Ms Edugyan is hoping I will take away from her novel, except that being black is a life handicap and a being a slave is intolerable.  While the story in intriguing, I found my credibility being stretched now and then.  For example, Washington is uneducated except for some reading lessons from Titch, yet he designs a grand, state of the art aquarium, and aspires to have his name mentioned by the Royal Academy. Ms Edugyan’s writing is interesting, but occasionally it slips away from her as when she describes one character: “His was a small, square face in which the bones sat high and prominent, and the gesture seemed to thrust his skull to the very surface of his brow.”  I had the impression that the skull is just below the surface of the brow in any case.

Washington Black will appeal to those who enjoy the rousing adventures of an ex-slave.

Judge’s Commentary

I have received the following email form Nicole with Writers Digest Competitions, in which I entered Seeking Father Khaliq.

A few quick notes~

  • Books are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “needs improvement” and 5 meaning “outstanding”.
  • The 1-5 scale is strictly to provide a point of reference; the scores are meant only to be a gauge, and are not a cumulative score, nor are they tallied or used in ranking. 

Entry Title: Seeking Father Khaliq

Author: William Peace

Judge Number: 33

Entry Category: Inspirational

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 5

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5

Production Quality and Cover Design: 5

Plot and Story Appeal: 5

Character Appeal and Development: 5

Voice and Writing Style: 5

Judge’s Commentary*:

Author has a gorgeous writing voice, varying in formality as needed by the narrative and establishing position for Professor al-Basiri with language and inner thought. We get fine characterization throughout, especially impressive given the long list of supporting characters. Author has done well to differentiate their speaking voices, and engage us with their movement styles (regal for Princess Basheera and cautious for those he encounters on his journey, etc.) Author consistently builds a fine sense of setting for each scene, with sensory details that enliven the action and allow us to feel present in the scenes. The story is finely structured with gripping intrigue moving the story forward, and author doesn’t shy away from gory moments. Well done. Very well-layered. Dialogue shines with natural language, movement, inner dialogue, gestures and physical contact. At many times during this book, the scenes were so visual and so richly realistic, I saw them as a movie playing out. Well done. That’s the essence of good narrative. Some gorgeous phrasing here, such as young people being caught up ‘in immediacy and perceived wisdom.’ There’s a lot to digest there. Author never misses an opportunity to allow us a scenic view, such as from the bus, especially serving to the reader since the journey and the land is a character in itself. The search is well-paced, and well-written transitions carry us from chapter to chapter. With his concern for his son, we get a very strong subplot that invites additional layers of his character. The telegram announcing the death of Naquib, and the cold manner of invitation to collect his body, feels like a kick to the reader’s gut in its delivery, and tears flow at the scene of the professor washing his son’s body. Devastating. Elizabeth and God existing, and being needed, are revelations that tie the book’s soul together for us at the end. Beautifully done.

“Don’t Call It ‘Chick Lit'”

There was an article in the 20th October issue of The Daily Telegraph, written by Camilla Tominey, titled: Don’t refer to women’s fiction as chic lit, says author’.  “Books should not be referred to as ‘chick lit’ because more women than men read novels – and it should be men’s fiction that is the ‘sub-category’, the author of Big Little Lies has said.  Liane Moriarty, who sold the rights to the book to Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for a blockbuster TV series, said women’s fiction should never be treated as a sub-genre because women read more than men.”

Ms Moriarty’s page on Goodreads says: “Liane Moriarty is the Australian author of six internationally best-selling novels, Three Wishes, The Last Anniversary, What Alice Forgot, The Hypnotist’s Love Story and the number 1 New York Times bestsellers, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.  Her breakout novel The Husband’s Secret sold over three million copies worldwide, was a number 1 UK bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of 2013 and has been translated into over 40 languages. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.  With the launch of Big Little Lies, Liane became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. An HBO series based on Big Little Lies is currently in production, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. . . . Liane lives in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. Her new novel, Truly Madly Guilty, will be released in July 2016.”

Actually, the first series of Big Little Lies completed in April of last year, and a second series was announced in December. Ms Moriarty has since written Three Perfect Strangers.

Liane Moriarty

Most of the rest of the Telegraph article deals with Ms Moriarty’s excitement in meeting Nicole Kidman, reaching an agreement on the sale of rights, and of her creation a a character to be played by Meryl Streep, whose real name is Mary-Louise, we are informed.

But to return to the main point of the article, I certainly have some sympathy for the name given to what Wikipedia calls ‘genre fiction which consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists”, because ‘chick lit’ has become a somewhat pejorative term.  Wikipedia goes on to say, “While chick lit has been very popular with readers, critics largely disapproved of the genre. Reviewer Alex Kuczynski, writing for The New York Times condemned Helen Fielding’s novel, in particular, writing ‘Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused.’ Writer Doris Lessing deemed the genre “instantly forgettable” while Beryl Bainbridge called the genre ‘a froth sort of thing’.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are literary agencies which specialise in chick lit, though they don’t specifically say so; their focus is immediately clear from the covers and titles of their authors.  Chick lit is big business!

It seems to me that if Ms Moriarty doesn’t like her work to be called chick lit, she should change her subject matter and style or she should invent a new name for her genre – something like ‘Good Women’s’.   It certainly doesn’t classify at Literary Fiction.

To argue, in effect, that the chick lit genre should be deleted because women read more fiction than men – while it is true that women read more – doesn’t make sense.  How are we going to distinguish serious female writers like Kate Atkinson from writers like Helen Fielding?

London Literature Festival

My wife and I attended two events at the London Literature Festival: readings by Carol Ann Duffy (the Poet Laureate,) ‘and friends’; and an interview with Salman Rushdie, both at the Southbank Centre, London

Carol Ann Duffy was the last of four readers; the other three were Imtiaz Dharker, Keith Hutson and Mark Pajak.  Ms Duffy, born 1955, is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly gay to hold the position.  Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in an accessible language that has made them popular in schools.

Carol Ann Duffy

Of the four poets, I liked the readings of Mark Pajak best.  His poems were quite ordinary in their subjects – the one I liked best was about removing dead birds from a hen battery – but he has a way of expressing emotions with unique yet powerfully descriptive phrases.  This is a talent which I aspire to emulate.  Mr Pajak is quite a young poet, currently completing an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.   My wife’s preference was Imitiaz Dharker, a Pakistani-born, English poet in her mid-sixties.  Ms Duffy’s concluding poem was a bad-language rant against the corrupt elite using seven key words.  It was intended to be clever but for me, it came across as bombastic.

Salman Rushdie was interviewed by Erica Wagner, and American-born (1967) author and critic, who was literary editor of The Times from 1996 to 2013; she has written several books, including a novel, a collection of stories and a biography.  She has served twice as Booker Prize judge.

The discussion with Salman Rushdie began with Midnight’s Children, which he characterised as a history.   He made the point that one writes an historic novel, one must have a road map of places and events to be covered before one starts writing.  This road map makes the task of writing quite different than when one starts with a character-based novel, and lets the development of the characters control the flow of the novel.  He confessed to being very torn between Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight.  After writing both titles down repeatedly on a sheet of paper, he woke up the next morning and realised that Midnight’s Children is the better title.  He said that while in Italian and Spanish, there is a similar choice between the two constructions, in French there is only one, so one has to be attentive to the advice of translators.

He confessed to be a reader who is ‘not anxious to turn the page’, and this confession reminded me of my criticism of Rushdie’s writing: that it is sometimes too verbose.

The narrator of his latest novel is a young man called René, and he made the point that it is an important decision for an author to select the narrator: there have to be good reasons for the selection.  I agree.  He then spoke about the difficulty for a seventy-year-old writer in getting into the head of a hip young New Yorker – though he didn’t mention his technique for the transformation.

Much of the dialogue with Ms Wagner was about The Golden House, Rushdie’s most recent, which is a parable of American politics, written after the Obama inauguration.  There is a Trump-like character who likes to refer to himself as The Joker.  Rushdie said, “In a deck of cards, only two of them don’t behave properly: One is the trump and the other is a joker.”  He read from The Golden House: “It was the year of The Joker in Gotham and beyond, as America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe. . . Suddenly lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny.”

Suggesting that perhaps Donald Trump, The Joker is insane, Rushdie said, “people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.”

Most of The Golden House was  written before Trump was president, so it was prescient in predicting the outcome. “The book knew,” Rushdie joked.

Having met on several occasions, Rushdie and Trump are acquaintances, though there is some doubt that Trump has read the novel, not being much of a reader.  “I’m still waiting for that tweet.” Rushdie said.

Writing a Negative Review

Susan Violante, the Managing Editor, of Reader Views, places a post with this title on the Reader Views blog.  Since, as you know, I like to write reviews, and have occasionally been quite critical of what I have read, I was interested in what she had to say.

“Let’s face it, being a reviewer does not mean liking all books. There is a big chance that a book will not live up to the expectation of a reviewer, and thus result in a negative review. Other books simply do not even meet publishing standards in writing, editing, or production, in which case reviewers have trouble even completing the book. Being an author and a reviewer, I get both sides of the coin, and I have written many editorials from the author’s point of view about receiving a negative review of their title. This time, I want to focus on the reviewer’s end in hopes of helping reviewers write honest negative reviews, while remaining respectful and professional. Here are some tips on writing negative reviews:

“Do not let it get personal or be biased.  Actually, reviewers pretty much review only what they choose themselves. There is no need to take the author’s opinions personally and reflect that in the review. A review should be just an opinion of the storyline, the writer’s craft, and the book’s production.

“Being a reviewer is not all about reading; it has a lot to do with communication and the ability to express an opinion to an audience in writing. The success of a reviewer is actually measured on the size of their following audience, not on the number of reviews under their belt. This indicates the importance of the quality of their writing skills. If a reviewer communicates honestly and skilfully, the audience will look for that opinion before deciding to purchase a book. Readers want an impartial opinion about titles that will communicate to them the positive and negatives of the book as a product, so that they can decide whether to buy and read it.

“Enjoy reviewing. There are two kinds of reviewers. The ones that read because they love it, and get into reviewing; and the ones that won’t read unless they are reviewing. To the second type I say, please just stop. As a bookworm (writing and reading), I got into reviewing because I not only love to read, I also love to write, and even more, I love talking about what I read! Because I am having fun doing reviews, I will always find a positive and a negative in everything I read. Actually, sometimes I only find positives…but my point is that since I am reviewing only what I like to read, I will always be able to find a positive worth mentioning in my reviews, even when writing a negative review.

“Even if the book had flaws, or did not live up to the reviewer’s expectations, a reviewer needs to be respectful of the author’s efforts by choosing their words carefully when pointing out those flaws. There is no reason to be offensive when being honest, and reviewers who are passionate about books and reviewing will enjoy the process of writing a review that will be honest, yet respectful.”

I agree with what Ms Violante says.  I would add that keeping the format of the review professional can also keep a distance of professionalism between the author and the reviewer.  I usually start out with why I selected the book, and then give a summary of the story line in neutral language.  After the summary, I begin with what I liked about the book, followed by what I saw as its weaknesses.  It’s on the subject of weaknesses that tact needs to come into play: if in mentioning a weakness, I feel fairly certain that the author would understand and agree, I simply state the weakness using neutral language.  If I sense that it is just my opinion, or that the author might well disagree, I will say, “In my opinion . . .” or “It seems to me that . . .”

I usually end the review with a general positive recommendation, but if I don’t think that would be honest, I will say what kind of readers would like the book.  As far as I can remember, I’ve written only one one-star review, and that one ended without a recommendation.

 

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,

Achieving Superpersonhood

My latest novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, has just been released.  Three young, black East Africans, Kamiri, Dorothy and Hassan, of dissimilar backgrounds, struggle with hard times and become friends in their intersecting searches for a demanding yet satisfying personal identity – what Nietzsche called ‘super personhood’.  Two voices are heard throughout: the One, likely the voice of God, and the Other, probably Satan’s voice, as they offer conflicting guidance on achieving alternative identities.

The synopsis:

                Kamiri, a dirt-poor, but likable and intelligent migrant, who was raised in the tribal faith, is drawn to the city where he joins his brother in the drugs trade.  Disgusted, he finds work in an abattoir, but his comradeship with Hassan leads him into professional football.  Kamiri’s jealous brother, Warari, turned terrorist, shoots him in the knee, ending his athletic career, and he returns to the solace of the wilderness as a park ranger.  Accidentally, he kills an ivory poacher and faces prosecution until Hassan’s older, half-brother hires him to work as a ranger in an up-market safari park.  Can Kamiri become the park’s general manager, and can he marry Dorothy?

Dorothy, a college graduate from a professional, middle class, Christian family is an impatient idealist who is unsure whether her future lies on politics or medicine.  As an intern working for an MP, she becomes involved in a sting on corrupt exploitation of a diamond mine. Realising that the low ethical standards of politics are an obstacle for her, she opts for medicine, only to be raped by a senior doctor.  Her faith in medicine is also shaken, but she mounts a civil suit and media campaign in retaliation for her humiliation.  Can she find success and happiness as a doctor, and whom will she marry: Kamiri or Hassan?

Hassan, of doubtful parentage, is the youngest child in a rich and powerful Muslim family.  Lonely, insecure and drifting at university, he joins Dorothy in a political protest which goes wrong for him: he receives a two-year suspended jail sentence.  While helping Dorothy in the mining sting, he trespasses on a claim, and fearful of being sent to prison, he immerses himself in suspect Islamic studies and is misled into a terrorist organisation.  Appalled by the terrorists’ values and deeds, he escapes to Kamiri who provides him with a safe haven while he considers his options.  Hassan’s father is able to place him in the Army’s officer candidate school.  Will Hassan make a good Army officer, and will he marry Dorothy?

The setting is current in the startling diversity (cultural, economic, social and political) that is East Africa.

If you would like to read Achieving Superpersonhood, I will send free copies to the first twenty-five of you who send your postal address to bill@williampeace.net.  What I ask in return is that you write a review.  Happy reading!

Review: Living Buddha, Living Christ

My wife read this book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and when I ran out of handy books (we’re on holiday), I decided to read it.  The subtitle is “A revered meditation master explores two of the world’s great contemplative traditions.”

The author is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1926; he is active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.  He has written more than 100 books, including over 40 in English.  He is fluent in French, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, English and Vietnamese.  He is based in Plum Village in Dordogne in the south of France, and has established Buddhist facilities in Vietnam, France, USA, Germany.  He is a Zen Master of Buddhism and a teacher of mindfulness (meditation).

Thich Nhat Hanh

This book does a very credible job bringing the teaching of Jesus Christ in line with the teaching of Buddha.  If these two men were to meet, one can suppose that they would have gotten along well.  More on this below.  Contact with the Holy Spirit is suggested to place one in a similar state of near nirvana to Buddhist mindfulness or meditation.  In fact there are references to the benefits of mindfulness on nearly every page, and although Thich Nhat Hanh is a master teacher of Buddhist mindfulness, and he has written books on the subject, there is no prescription for reaching near nirvana.

(When I was much younger, the company I worked for put its sales people on a course in meditation taught be a man named Jeff Coats.  The reason for the course was that sales people needed to have a constructive escape from the stress of selling.  I can recall reaching a meditative state only once, but it was quite sublime.)

The author takes issue with the Roman Catholic church on its implied position that it is the only true religion.  He makes the point that this can lean to real conflict and it inhibits constructive dialogue.  I agree.

While the ethos of Christianity and Buddhism may be similar, there are two important points on which the two diverge,  Buddhists do not believe in an immortal soul; Buddha taught that the soul, like the body is constantly evolving and therefore impermanent.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A good theologian is one who says almost nothing about God, even though the word ‘theology’ means ‘discourse about God’.  It is risky to talk about God.  The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom and mindfulness.” and “The Buddha was not against God.  He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions and do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.”  It seems to me that there are several problems with this.  Christians believe that Jesus, as part of the Trinity, is God, and He is not a ‘mental construction’.  Thich Nhat Hanh seems to accept the reality of the Holy Spirit, also part of the Trinity; is the Spirit a ‘mental construction’?  In the last sentence quoted above, the author uses the word ‘reality’ twice, without being clear about what ‘reality’ he is referring to.

When I imagine a meeting between Jesus and Buddha, I don’t think it would be entirely friendly.  In my scenario, Jesus chastises Buddha for being a ‘man of little faith’.

For this reason, I found Living Buddha, Living Christ to be a book of little value: it focuses on relatively minor similarities while ignoring the important differences.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”