The two books I read over the weekend both deal with clashing cultures – basically, racism (and England is the bad guy in both cases). Nehanda by Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe) is about the white invasion of Africa, and The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (Trinidad) is the story ofWest Indian immigrants in the 1950s. I hadn’t intended on reading these two together, by good chance they just happened to come off my library pile that way.
While searching for an image of the novel Nehanda, I accidentally discovered Nehanda herself was a real woman and is still revered as the most important person in Zimbabwe’s history. During her lifetime (c1840-1898) she was a spirit medium of the Shona people. As one of the spiritual leaders of the Shona, she provided inspiration for their revolt against the Rhodesian colonization of Zimbabwe. The British spent some time hunting her down and when they eventually captured her they executed her as a warning to all those who refused to accept and embrace the supposedly superior English culture and religion.
Sam Selvon’s novel is also a history of experience and Selvon himself was also a leader of a kind. Before he died, he was already being hailed as the ‘father of black writing in Britain’. Although Selvon’s situation is the inverse of Nehanda’s – he chose to come and make a life in Britain – he didn’t have an easy time in London. Londoners were racist and expected the West Indians to behave as though they were British while still assuming an inferior status. There was no mass persecution or executions, but it is still not exactly a comfortable read. Selvon’s writing is incredibly atmospheric; he is one of those authors who can put you inside a character’s head so that you absorb their feelings or personality traits while you are reading and it only occurs to you to think objectively about what just happened when you put the book down for a break and realise your feelings are something quite different to the main character’s.
The themes of these two novels are themes that will never get tired and will never be resolved. Culture and society are like religion; almost everyone thinks theirs is best.