Reviewed by Justin Goodman
The Three Books of Shama
by Benjamin Kwakye
Cissus World Press
Paperback: 410 pages, June 2016, ISBN-13: 978-0967951133
Being a lawyer, it’s unsurprising that Benjamin Kwakye’s writing outlines and unfolds like a closing argument. As the Ghanian-born director of the Africa Education Initiative, it should be even less surprising that his newest novel, The Three Books of Shama, is the bildungsroman of a Rwandan girl who finds her way to the US. Described as “an epic chronicle” on Kwakye’s site, the scope is cradle to success, but, while Kwakye avoids the human-dissolving grandiosity of such an epic, his pragmatism prevents the richer human experience to present itself amidst the flitting of the past. The history-haunted narrator, Shama, comes across as minimally involved even as she narrates the novel’s nearly 400 pages. It’s only in those times when she exceeds her function as storyteller does she surprise us with her substance. Otherwise, The Three Books reduces the willful Shama to a guileless voice driven by the narrative momentum of good fortune.
Daughter of a successful Christian tomato farmer and his Muslim wife, Shama grows up learning about love amidst the familiarity of literary middle class homes–largely trivial conflicts that flame up due to marital failure. This uneven Eden collapses with the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide and the systematic murder of Tutsis. Because of the power of the ethnic division that led to the Genocide, it’s seemingly counterintuitive that one of the features of Kwakye’s novel is its insistence on sectioning and sub-sectioning. Just as Shama’s life is roughly divided between her childhood in Rwanda, growing years in Chicago, and adulthood in Washington, the three books of the title are each divided into 5 short stories (or can be taken as such since the second story of the first book, “The Fool’s Tomatoes,” was published as one). Both exacting in its clarity and crude in its shape, The Three Books resembles the nigh-arbitrary Hutu-Tutsi distinction left by colonizing powers. The outcome, Shama, exists to scorn them: From African slice-of-life, through genocide, Shama rises from her country’s ashes to unify broken families and become the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite being a unique angle for an immigrant narrative, it lacks a degree of substantiating feeling. All the expected horrors a female genocide survivor battling against the gravitational force of a racially-charged culture tend to occur and recur with a discomforting clear-eyed certainty. This is how Shama recounts seeing her family slaughtered:
A step in one direction and I saw Papa’s unhinged body falling to the ground. Before I could fully exhale my sorrowful gasp, a scream brought my attention to Mama in the short distance as she fell under a rain of pangas, and then Placide when he attempted to rescue Mama through a fruitless attempt to shield her.
Rhythmically, there is no intensity and immediacy. “A step in one direction” is clarification, while “Papa’s unhinged body” is unclarified. The passive voice–”a scream brought my attention”–removes any urgency the buildup prior assumed. And now, fully removed from the moment, phrases like “sorrowful gasp” and “fruitless attempt,” which should feel aggressively mundane for such an experience, fit perfectly into the moment. Because Shama must document everything, she fails to capture any of it. Her words simply sponge the ambience away. When she gets to America in a fortunate series of events, whatever trauma she brings with her is smothered in words at the first instant.
What The Three Books does well with by erasing experience through overtelling is to look outward, away from linearity. Like in Teju Cole’s 2012 Open City, Shama finds herself the willing ear to many who were not given voices. Many of these stories are not unfamiliar to a female, black immigrant with aspirations: her Aunt Shama (whom she is named for) recounts the story of her survival–involving her Hutu rapist hiding her from fellow Hutus–while her future mother-in-law explains the circumstances that led her to cheat on her now-deceased husband. This same husband, whose diary tells yet another story to Shama, is also the protagonist of Kwakye’s 2010 novel, The Other Crucifix. A story in a story in a story; as with the many of these backstories, the husband’s, Jojo Badu’s, is a putrid smell that Shama wades through it in order to learn and rise above. In a way, it’s a rebuttal to The Other Crucifix. The story of a brilliant Ghanian law student’s American Dream crushed by racial prejudice is rewritten as a brilliant Rwandan law student who succeeds beyond expectation.
So both read like just-so stories–Juju Badu perfectly crushed, Shama Rugwe perfectly lifted–even as they sincerely question whether, as Shama would like to believe, “The past was the past.” It cannot be “past,” obviously, as the those numerous splinters suggest. For all the maudlin and ludicrous staging of The Three Books though, its patchwork structure keeps its attention focused on the constructed nature of splintering. When Shama begins interning at the Supreme Court, her work consists of sifting through writs of certiorari, arguing for and against each requested hearing. Having the task dissolved of all meaning through sheer repetition, Shama realizes ”how justice could turn…on the opinion (or perhaps even whim) of a group of recent graduates from law school.” These rare, intimate realizations are the signs of the meditative Shama trying to peer from behind her doll-like image; her physical appearance, it’s important to note, is the first thing each character comments on.
The Three Books is caught in the urge to distinguish without distinguishing. Just as its narrator has “the perception that neither blames nor absolves,” the story itself is sculpted in a way to avoid specificity: a nameless Democratic President is “accused” of being muslim and struggles against a Republican-controlled Congress to appoint a Justice. But, as in the courtroom, details matter. It’s not sufficient for a novel to have the familiar outlines of present-day politics, failing marriages, and stories-within-stories. It’s not sufficient for an epic. Imagine a puzzle missing a piece. Grandiosity is built on fragments, and the loss of one risks the whole. For the all the technical expertise Kwakye shows (and there is much to admire regarding narrative trust), none of it reveals much heart for these details. When phrases as clammy and unironically declared as “sensitizing my skepticism-antennae” are paired up with the gruesome depth and legalistic heights of Shama’s story, the consequences are both camp and absurd. Shama, it seems, was never more than a box of words to begin with.
About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.