The Legacy of Shame, with Kamila Shamsie (A Book Review of ‘Home Fire’)

Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction

“I pledged to ISIS in January 2015 and left in March,” said Raad Abdullah Ahmad, 31. “My family disowned me after that. Imagine having no family. I left because I didn’t like what they did to people.”

ISIS Fighters, Having Pledged to Fight or Die, Surrender En Masse (NYT)

When I read the lines above in a NYT article, my thoughts immediately went to Parvaiz Pasha, a fictional character in Kamila Shamsie’s book Home Fire: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) which was long-listed for the Man Book Prize for fiction.

Since I migrated to the U.S. in 2004, the political reality of the country has always stayed the same: at open war. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria. Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS. That has translated to war against Muslims, officially ordained as “terrorists” by the West.

My coming-of-age story is marked by this reality, a young Filipino immigrant slowly understanding the social pathology of violence, of the industrial military complex, of the other-ing of militants who essentially wanted the same thing the U.S. did.

In Home FireI was able to get a glimpse of the story behind Parvaiz’s decision, a British Pakistani who was recruited to a militant group on accounts of being the son of a famed jihadi warrior. Shamsie takes her readers beneath the layer of what we see on our TV screens, or what politicians have chosen as their generic anti-terrorism mouth pieces.

Parvaiz’s dad brought shame to their family, after joining a militant group himself. His involvement was immediately frowned upon, he was disowned. As a child, the boy took great pains to conceal his father’s identity, and it was only when he met another elder, a father figure who intentionally tried to recruit Parvaiz did he realize what his father’s work meant to other people.

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These responsibilities were what estranged the father from Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka and older sister Isma. The legacy of their father loomed in the household, a cause of great shame to both women. The story centers on these three characters, as Shamsie skillfully adopts and mimics their struggle as a Greek tragedy. She hones in on their relationship, illustrating the ebb and flow of simultaneous allegiance and estrangement.

War and Turpentine

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

…I wonder, time and again, what it is that connects us to our grandparents in this ambivalent way. Is it the absence of the generational conflict between parents and children? In the yawning gap between our grandparents and ourselves, the battle for our imagined individuality is waged, and the separation in time permits us to cherish the illusion that a greater truth lies concealed there than in what we know of our own parents.

It is a great and powerful naivete that makes us thirst for knowledge.

For over a month, I carried Stefan Hertmans’s (translated by David McKay) War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) in my backpack as I traveled from San Francisco to Pampanga, Philippines.

I started reading the book just as I was getting ready for a trip to the homeland, slowly getting to know Hertmans’s grandfather, Urbain Martien. It was inevitable then, that my thoughts slowly warmed to the memories of both my grandfathers, Emilio Cortez and Cornelio Galang, two significant figures of my childhood.

Hertmans’s novel (if it can be called that because it is so much more), is an ode of tenderness, memory and intimacy to an equally tender hero of the author’s heart (towards the end, mine as well) and of the First World War.

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Stefan Hertmans with a portrait of Urbain Martien

For more than thirty years I kept, and never opened, the notebooks in which he had set down his memories in his matchless prewar handwriting; he had given them to me a few months before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety. He was born in 1891. It was as if his life were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.

War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) is not your typical war novel, nor is it historical fiction. For Urbain was not just a Belgian soldier, held by the crutches of destruction of the First World War; he was also a delicate painter — a dreamer, a creator, an impassioned lover, a believer of all things beautiful.

His life in the battlefield was book-ended by his life as a painter, from A childhood spent watching his father create murals to later years when he would sit and paint for hours, in the quiet of his old age.

His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something — it was hard to say what — had broken inside him.

More than his paintings, and more than his war years (1914-1918), I was struck with Urbain’s sense of the world. In spite of a childhood ravished by war and poverty, his recollections about his family, particularly his parents, contained a kind of impeccable gentleness. His was of a contemplative, quiet temperament.