How I Read and Why It's Humbling
By Patrick McGinty
I am reviewing NoViolet Bulawayo’s forthcoming debut novel, We Need New Names, for another site. The first half is set in Zimbabwe, the second in Michigan, and both halves are equally strong, fresh, and engaging. The novel opens: “We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me.”
I read that line and think: first-person present tense. This is one of those immediate African voices that will force me to confront our country’s backwards approach to immigration, that will make Zimbabwe and its problems feel urgent, etc. I have encountered similar voices before and liked them. Off to my bookshelf I go, first to Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. Agu is a child solider in an unnamed West African country:
It is starting like this. I am feeling itch like insect is crawling on my skin, and then my head is just starting to tingle right between my eye, and then I am wanting to sneeze because my nose is itching, and then the air is just blowing into my ear and I am hearing so many thing: the clicking of insect, the sound of truck grumbling like one kind of animal, and then the sound of somebody shouting...
Another present tense opening. Where else can I find it? On what shelf have I placed Dinaw Mengetsu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears? That’s right: the grocery store. Sepha flees the Ethiopian revolution to run a grocery store in Washington, D.C.: “At eight o’clock Joseph and Kenneth come into the store.”
Dinaw Mengetsu, author of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.
Present present present. First person, too. Something is clearly afoot. I’m 90% sure that Dave Eggers’ account of Valentino Achak Deng’s life in What is the What is told in first-person present tense: “I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.”
So: four books, all present tense. All feature African-born narrators written by writers who have emigrated to America (I’m framing Deng here as a co-writer). I am no scholar on African languages, but: could it just be a matter of linguistics? Is present tense just a more common narrative and oral option in Africa? I poke around. Berber lacks a past imperfect tense, so: maybe. Ewe distinguishes only between non-future and future, however Zulu has several past tenses, and...I’m likely looking at a few years of graduate study if I want any serious answers. There are supposedly five present tenses in the somewhat controversial African-American English, which itself goes by several controversial names (Black English, Black English Vernacular, Ebonics, etc.), but none of the novels in my wee literary sample size feature an American-born narrator, so: what of it? And at what age do you cement your speaking habits, anyways? I’ve got a range of ages here in front of me. Plus Dave Eggers is technically American-born but not black, Iweala’s narrator technically never leaves the continent yet we’re hearing the account in English...
NoViolet Bulawayo, author of We Need New Names.
It’s normally around this juncture that I stop, look at all the web pages open on my screen, all the books facedown on my desk, spines bobbing, and ask what it is that I’m hoping to accomplish. What exactly am I trying to prove—that I know anything about the thousands of languages in Africa? That I can capably categorize an entire subset of writers who struggle to categorize themselves, identifying as both Zimbabwean and American or American and Nigerian, their main similarity being that they render the term African-American thoroughly non-descriptive?
At this point I usually start pulling books at random, eager to prove how stupid and possibly racist I am. Present tense is all over my shelves. After all, there are really only three doors through which we can enter a story: first, second, and third. James Salter’s elegant A Sport and a Pastime: “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” Dennis Cooper’s disturbing Try: “Ziggy’s splayed in bed editing I Apologize, ‘A Magazine for the Sexually Abused.’” I think of books I’ve written about on this site, A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, Zadie Smith’s NW, both of them written in first-person present tense, yet here I am trying to hang the label of “simple present first-person narration” on a range of African novels in a way that now strikes me as overly reductive, if not ignorant. My “first-line” habit rarely feels this sinister—comparing the epic, over-written openings by Ken Kesey, Cormac McCarthy, and David Foster Wallace wouldn’t rankle me like this—and I can’t help but feel that this quartet I’ve chosen is revealing something ugly about myself. No, I tell myself, the similarities are right there on the page. The intentional omission of an article, the authentic bungling of singular-plural: there is real, writerly resemblance among the works. Perhaps I’m good at drawing out syntactical comparisons but just woefully unprepared and unlearned when it comes to discussing all things African (or even all things non-American, period). Maybe I should shy away from this genre and stick to the epically overwritten canonical stuff that I love so much. I want to believe that the impulse to compare comes from good intentions, that its by-product is not stereotype but instead a firmer understanding of fiction, yet it feels as though I’m discriminating in ways both good and bad. Maybe I know way less than I think.
At which point I feel icky and curse myself for starting books this way, then finally begin to read and allow myself to be taught.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.