19 Varieties of Gazelle:|
Poems of the Middle East
by Naomi Shihab Nye
The Other Side of Truth
by Beverley Naidoo
by Bernard Ashley
Post Your Opinion
by Jeffrey Canton
Since September 11th 2001, we have all had to acknowledge that our world has changed. We have become more reflective about¨ sometimes even more outspoken¨about the nature of conflicts in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Balkans and, most recently, India and Pakistan. We see how these conflicts actually impact on the way that we live our own lives. And, to my mind, nowhere is this state of affairs better reflected than in the literature that is currently being created for children and young adults. It's not necesaarily the thoughtfully provocative expression that you'll find in the new issue of Granta, What We Think of America, or Noam Chomsky's raging 9-1-1¨it's that much subtler, as so much children's literature is, dealing with the issues through a child's eye view, finding ways to explore with words a world, or worlds even, in turmoil.
Looking back at the past six months, we see a novel like Deborah Ellis's evocative The Breadwinner suddenly become an international bestseller¨the only novel for children to explore what life was like under the repressive regime of the Taliban. Novels like Adem's Cross by Alice Mead focusing on the war in Kosovo or Michele Marineau's Road to Chlifa, which explores the scars left watching the Beirut of your childhood disappear under the bombs, become of ever greater importance to contemporary kids as things fall apart. We've seen books like Jennifer Armstrong's extraordinary Shattered: Stories of Children and War and poet Benjamin Zephaniah's ever-so-moving Refugee Boy, and there are more to come without any doubt.
Bernard Ashley's Little Soldier explores how race hatred infiltrates into the very deepest recesses of a child's soul, fuelling the ethnic conflicts that, in this case, burns between the Kibu and Yusulu tribes in Zaire. Kaninda, "saved" by the Red Cross and taken to South London under the watchful eye of the zealous evangelical Captain Betty Rose, is just waiting for the right moment to escape and begin to make his way back to Lasai, back to Colonel Munyankindi's rebel army. He hates the Yusulu governement soldiers for what they did to his family and to countless others¨he'd watched his mother, father and little sister massacred by Yusulu soldier and had been left for dead himself¨and he is going back to join the Kibu rebels and do to the Yusulu president and his clansmen what they had done to his father, mother and little sister.
Kaninda doesn't realize how scarred and wounded he's been by the events that he's witnessed, as a child whose family has been murdered by government forces and as a child soldier in the rebel army. All he thinks about is revenge¨and so deep is his hatred that when a Yusulu boy begins classes at his school, he plans how he can first kill Faustin N'gensi and then stow aboard a cargo ship to make his way back to Lasai.
Running parallel to his struggle is a brutal gang war that has exploded in South London after a little girl is knocked down in a hit-and-run accident. Kaninda has the chance to watch the escalation of violence between the Federation and their rivals, the Crew and to see first-hand how senseless their "war" is. The Federation is going to get whoever it was that knocked down Dolly Hedges but all their information is based on guesses, hearsay and innuendo¨no one will really get at the truth until Dolly comes out of her coma. And somehow the Federation have decided that Kaninda is at the heart of the mystery.
Ashley has found a powerful way to mesh the ethnic conflict in Zaire with an urban inner city conflict. Using flashbacks, he takes us inside Kaninda's past and through an array of narrative voices, he explores the meaning of race hatred, gang warfare and revenge.This is a stunning novel that is sure to empower young readers with its passion.
South African born Beverley Naidoo was forced into exile in 1965 as a student. Her first book, Journey to Jo'Burg: A South African Story, published in 1985 was banned in South Africa. She has explored the lingering effects of racial hatred in her novels Chain of Fire and No Turning Back and in her short fiction collection, Out of Bounds. Her novel, The Other Side of Truth, won the presitigious Carnegie Medal.
The Other Side of Truth begins with a shocking murder witnessed by twelve-year-old Sade Solaja and her ten-year-old brother Femi. Government soldiers shoot down their mother in retaliation for their journalist father's outspoken criticisms of the Nigerian government. Folarin Solaja has remained vocal even in the wake of the trial and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa. But now, with his wife's murder, and fearing for his children's well-being and continued safety, he decides that he has to get them out of Nigeria as quickly as possible. He won't be silenced¨"The truth is the truth. How can I write about what's untrue?" he argues¨but neither is willing to let the Brass Buttons, the generals who control Nigeria, murder his children.
Smuggled to London, the plan is for the children to take refuge with their uncle, a teacher at the London College of Art, and wait until their father manages to leave the country. But the best-laid plans go astray¨Uncle Dele has mysteriously disappeared and Sade and Femi find themselves abandoned and on the streets of London, without money or any other contacts, and afraid to say anything about their father for fear that the Brass Buttons will imprison him. And while the children find refuge in the foster care system, they have no way of knowing what has happened to their father and whether or not he has managed to leave Nigeria.
Naidoo takes readers right into the heart of the children's plight, telling it like it is. Naidoo makes sure that readers know where things stand, weaving the political turmoil into the story's narrative, exposing the brutality and viciousness of the army generals who control Nigeria. It's a story haunted by the murdder of Ken Saro-Wiwa but this isn't his story. It's Sade's story and Femi's¨victims who don't normally have the chance to make their voices heard in the political conflict. But Naidoo adds a delicious twist here¨Sade and Femi get a chance to speak out to tell the other side of truth, the side that lies behind those "truths" spun by repressive governments and it has a stunning impact on their lives and on the life of their father.
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye is no stranger to the conflicts in the Middle East. She's the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother and much of her work as a poet and anthologist has been to find bridges between the work of writers and artists of the Middle East and North American readers. Her extraordinary anthology, Flags of Childhood, brought together poets from all over the Middle East, Arab and Israeli.
"All my life I thought about the Middle East, wrote about it, wondered about it, loved it," she writes in her introduction to her stunning collection of poetry, 19 Varieties of Gazelle. Here are poems that celebrate friends and neighbours, giving young readers a glimpse of the ordinary day-to-day lives that people live in the Middle East, lives outside of conflict that are the same as lives everywhere. Here are poems that smell of strong aromatic coffee and hand-tinted photographs, kitchens rich with cooking smells, jars of olives. Here are memories of a beloved grandmother, a favourite uncle. And here too are men, women and children who have been brutalized by decades of conflict¨lives lived within the confines of refugee camps, homes destroyed by bombs, haunted by memories of a dead child, separated from family members they love by by vast continents. It is a reminder of the lives of the "innocent citizens of the Middle East who haven't committed any crimes. The people who are living solid, considerate lives, often in difficult conditions¨especially children, who struggle to maintain their beautiful hope.
I support all people on earth
who have bodies like and unlike my body,
skin and moles and old scars,
secret and public hair, crooked toes. I support
those who have done nothing large,
sifter of lentils, sifter of wisdoms,
speak. If we have killed no one
in the name of anything bad or good,
may light feed our lefiest veins.
In the wake of September 11th, Nye wants more than ever that her young readers believe that peace is possible. Through poetry, she offers them the hope that in sharing their lives, their hearts and their imaginations, there is truly common ground that all of us can share.