Lives in Words

reviewing two books from Graywolf Press

Graywolf Press understands that urgent times require books that are willing to break convention and deliver truth. The independent publisher and nonprofit enjoys the freedom to publish books of lasting, trend-proof beauty. And as a reward for that risk, Graywolf authors are Poet Laureates and Booker Prize winners, recognized for singular contributions to craft. In a wearying calendar year coming to a merciful close, readers may be looking for novels that help us make sense of chaos. But that’s not exactly what these two books from Graywolf do. Instead, they offer perspectives on becoming what we fear; viewpoints that may be useful in this highly tumultuous era.

The latest by celebrated Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, This Mournable Body certainly counts among Graywolf’s more notable recent efforts. Zimbabwe, as depicted in this book, is a nation crippled under the deep trauma of its war of independence during the 1960s and 1970s, where everyone walking carries deep-seated scars from acts of war. Nearly everyone in This Mournable Body is a veteran of one brutal conflict or another.

Dangarembga previously authored Nervous Conditions which, at the time of its publication, was the first book published by a Zimbabwean woman in English and went on to win the 1989 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Dangarembga’s return to the scene as a novelist comes in the nick of time, and her unflinching storytelling voice should be one that rises to the fore in a new post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, as the country continues the work of piecing itself together to forge a post-trauma identity. This Mournable Body is a close look at the cumulative effect of life in a nation still recovering from the bloody traumas of colonialism and pervasive homegrown human greed on one woman’s character. This book can speak to any of us who wonder how life’s defeats have changed us.

Book cover image: 2018; Graywolf Press; Minneapolis, MN

Readers will recognize main character Tambudzai from Dangarembga’s prior novels, though I’d wager they will find her much changed. Dangarembga gives us a protagonist who we don’t always like and doesn’t always take the highest moral ground. She’s willing to sell others out for her own personal gain and sometimes stays silent in the face of injustice. The main character’s story does not grip us because we admire her, but because it offers the lens of her desperation, and the mental extremes she experiences—despair, paranoia, psychosis—dazzle and fascinate until the very end of the novel. The author’s choice to tell this story in the second person draws us in with an unusual degree of immediacy. The book forces us to imagine ourselves as Tambudzai; to give her the human consideration that so many of the other characters she encounters deny her when they dismiss her as a useless woman of a certain age. Although it traverses muddled psychological states, this book still maintains enough lucidity to describe both the natural beauty and urban decay of Zimbabwe. Ubiquitous trails of ants crisscross the book, making their way into all its corners, occasionally crawling on Tambudzai’s flesh itself. Sometimes the ants are a figment of her imagination, and other times they are not. In either case, they declare themselves in the face of human lawlessness and rot.

Tambudzai’s no saint, but she’s not entirely unsympathetic. She’s insecure about being overeducated, overqualified, and completely destitute after losing her job in advertising where white people took credit for her ideas. Her attempts to improve her situation manifest as a series of fumbling grasps at a better life for herself; the life the uncle who financed her education dreamed of for her. Tambudzai often feels like a beggar on the periphery of communities where everybody else belongs. She begins the novel as a washed-up former advertising copywriter and the oldest resident in a youth hostel. This is the first of several precarious living situations she finds herself in over the course of the novel. After the hostel, she becomes a boarder in a widow’s home, where one of the widow’s sons rapes another boarder. This incident marks the second sexual assault that occurs in close proximity to Tambudzai over the course of the novel, but she’s principally concerned with preserving herself. Later, she finds brief employment as a teacher until a violent incident with one of the girls leads to her hospitalization in a mental ward. Tambudzai’s fractured consciousness allows surreal elements into the narrative, and the specter of a hyena begins to haunt her days. After being discharged, she is sent to live with her cousin and her European husband with their children, back in the rural village of her birth. She takes another new job bringing international tourists in to gawk at the traditional ways of her ancestors. Despite the indignity, she is desperate to prove herself after having felt like a complete failure for so long. Life’s continued disappointments wear on Tambudzai’s very soul and affect the choices she makes.

Due to Tambudzai’s rapidly shifting circumstances, this isn’t the kind of novel that highlights close personal relationships. But that isn’t simply because she doesn’t stick around long enough to form them. There is a fundamental disconnect between Tambudzai and all the other characters she encounters, including her own mother. She views each person she encounters as a means to an end and calculates the ways they may be instrumental to her survival. But then again, the people she encounters sometimes view her in the same way. Everyone has a war story in this novel’s Zimbabwe. Everyone’s trying to get from day to day at any cost.

Bernardo Atxaga’s Nevada Days is another of Graywolf’s summer offerings. Margaret Jull Costa’s nuanced translation of the novel originally penned in the Basque language makes it accessible to English-speaking readers. Atxaga is the author of more than eight novels, garnering distinctions like Spain’s National Literature Prize for Narrative for his groundbreaking 1988 book Obabakoak.

Bringing his skills as a poet to the fore with Nevada Days, Atxaga offers a series of vignettes that proceed in a fashion not altogether linear. This book manages to genre-bend without pretentiousness. When the line between nonfiction and fiction blurs, and we aren’t quite sure if events occur in the writer’s real life or his imagination, it feels like a tall tale. What we’re reading feels organically rooted in experience, but with a life of its own.

Book cover image: 2018; Graywolf Press; Minneapolis, MN

In some ways, Atxaga’s book reads as, perhaps, the latest in a line of travelogues from outsiders to America dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville. The twist is that Atxaga is a member of Spain’s Basque minority, and brings that identity unapologetically into any space he enters. Atxaga is a stranger in a strange land throughout this book, but a marginalized identity is nothing new to him, and he is not uncomfortable when called on to explain himself.

He comes as a visiting scholar to Nevada with his wife and two daughters, due to stay for the remainder of the academic year. There’s a rapist and murderer of young women on the loose, with crimes occurring only yards away from the Atxaga family’s rented home. The ongoing mystery is personal for Atxaga, who fears for the safety of his daughters. Mounting clues provide a noir-ish element to the story that propels it forward, even when the vignettes don’t apparently relate in sequence.

Atxaga and his wife Angela, a Basque translator, are academics, and so the world of this novel is well cited, with archival newspaper clippings used to document his fascination with the Basque boxer Paulino Uzcudun. Some sections are presented as the author’s letters, and scan as a type of historical documents.

The concept of memory is important to this book. Not only is the idea of Atxaga’s homeland never far from his mind, but the idea of documenting or tracing a sojourn for posterity appears frequently. American flora and fauna, and the raccoon Atxaga’s daughters are excited to catch sight of around their house, are all noted for further investigation.

Overall, the novel could do a better job exploring the dynamics between characters. The stability of the Atxaga marriage goes unchallenged, as does his paternal sense of protection over his girls. Colleagues who host them are accommodating, curious, witty, and knowledgeable. People they meet on their road trips are quirky and charming. But we aren’t exactly privy to the gears spinning in any of these people’s minds. Perhaps the most moving relationship in the story is Atxaga’s relationship with his aging mother back in the Basque Country. Speaking to her over the phone strongly evokes his nostalgia, as well as a sense of loss that comes from knowing he’ll never really be able to communicate this new world before his eyes to her.

The book uses food and music as descriptive anchors, so that the nostalgic 1960s tunes Atxaga listens to on family trips through terrifying winding roads in the Rockies, as well as comfort foods from his native cuisine and the tables of gracious American hosts, root the reader firmly in its world. A young Democratic candidate named Barack Obama figures in the book, as the family has the opportunity to hear him speak and to catch his infectious message of hope. The story darts back and forth between the Basque Country of the writer’s memory and the barren landscape of Nevada, which resonates as alien as Mars. The Atxaga family is determined to see the most of this land they find themselves in, so we are treated to stark Western vistas as they travel. When the author’s term is complete, the family will head home imprinted with the danger and bizarreness of the Wild West. In a book that at first seems to ask a lot of the reader—that we determine whether the author is telling the “truth” or making up a story—this author chooses to give us a clear beginning and end. In its ways, Nevada Days is the neatly dressed story of a journey that is clearly bound in time.

With these two titles among others in its catalogue, Graywolf showcases itself as an international press that happens to operate from the US. These titles do not reach print merely out of the aim to expose an American readership to international authors, but, perhaps, out of the desire to create a dialogue that flows in multiple directions. We are taken first-hand into realities where Americans are not the center of the stories, and our own culture is mirrored back to us so that we can see it from the vantage point of a skeptical observer. It’s an approach that allows the world as we know it to expand, and that’s something we need in our reading now more than ever.