By Tim O'Dell
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Five things to read this month

This article is over 2 years, 6 months old
Tim O'Dell picks his top five new releases to get stuck into in June

Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men tells the story of racism and injustice in 1950s Britain. (Photo: Penguin)

The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed

The Fortune Men is Nadifa Mohammed’s third novel and, as with her first two, focuses on the Somali community. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy (2010), won her great plaudits. It fictionalised her father’s journey across Africa, fleeing war in Somalia in the 1930s. Her second, The Orchard of Lost Souls, was set in the Somali Civil War of the 1980s. In The Fortune Men she returns to the fictionalising of real events, in particular the judicial hanging of Mahmood Hussein Mattan in Cardiff in 1952 for murder. He was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff – it was a miscarriage of justice which shockingly took until 1998 before it was finally overturned.

The novel is set in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, a multicultural area for a long time, frequented by seamen who arrived to work there from around the British Empire – including British Somaliland.

The murder of Lily Volpert, here renamed Violet Volacki, in 1952 took place in the docks district of Cardiff, one of the world’s big ports. Many foreign-born merchant seamen had settled, married and raised families in the area. Mohamed tells the story of the murder and of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, the man who was framed, through fiction, getting to the heart those involved, their motivations and complexities.

Mahmood Hussein Mattan had arrived in Cardiff in 1946 and married locally, having three children. He is a father, chancer, some-time petty thief. He is many things, but he is not a murderer and is secure in his innocence in a country where he thinks justice is served. It is only as his trial approaches and his prospects of freedom dwindle, that it dawns on Mahmood that he is in a terrifying fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. And, under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he begins to realise that the truth may not be enough to save him.

Nadifa Mohamed is an exceptional writer who gets to bigger truths through the daily encounters of ordinary people in extreme circumstances. The Fortune Men is a powerful novel that shines a light on the length and breadth of the Black presence in Britain as well as the systemic injustice with a history equally long.

  • The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed, Penguin (May 2021). £14.99

How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue

Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, How Beautiful We Were tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean-up and financial reparations are made – and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interests only. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. But their fight will come at a steep price . . . one which generation after generation will have to pay.

The novel opens with a major decision at the village meeting – one which will be cheered by many readers. But Mbue explores much deeper the complexity of the choices and consequences of actions faced by her protagonists. When faced with support from well-meaning American activists, a key character states “Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same… No matter their pretences, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us, or give to us, whatever will satisfy their endless wants.”

How Beautiful We Were is told through the perspective of a generation of children. It is an exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold onto its ancestral land. It centres on one young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.

Imbolo Mbue is a Cameroonian-American novelist and short-story writer. She came to prominence with her debut novel Behold the Dreamers (2016), which in the year Trump won the US election, asked what happened to “American dream” for today’s migrants.

  • How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue, Cannongate (March 2021). £14.99

Wicked Enchantment, Wanda Coleman

Wanda Coleman was born in Watts, Los Angeles in 1946. Her father had relocated from Little Rock, Arkansas, after the lynching of a young man who was hung from a church steeple. While her poetry had been a staple of Southern California for a long time, after her death in 2013 she was heard as a voice for poor Black America.

She writes about her parents’ youth in the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration that took them west, to Watts. The African American civil rights movement, the rise of Black nationalism, and the flowering of the Black feminist movement all shape her work too. “Racism is our national horror,” she told journalist Harvey Robert Kubernik in 1990, a reality she worked to expose and redress in her poems, short stories, novels, journalism, and literary criticism.

This is the first ever British publication of her poetry. A self-described “beat-up, broke and Black woman”, she writes with defiance, humour and clarity about her life on the margins. She was overlooked by the establishment for decades – although she was known colloquially as “the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles”.

The blurb for the book notes, “Nobody wrote about police hassle like she did. Nobody wrote about making ends meet, about the history of the slave trade or the comedy of the daily grind, with the same breath-taking originality and brio. And few writers, before or since, have had the courage to write with such honesty about their everyday experience of life – and love – in an unjust world.”

In the words of award winning poet Roger Robinson, author of the great collection ‘A Portable Paradise’, this book is “essential reading”.

  • Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems by Wanda Coleman, Penguin (April 2021). £9.99

A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance, Stella Dadzie

A Kick in the Belly is a key contribution to our understanding of the enslavement of African peoples. It challenges historians’ view of the role of women in the rebellions that brought the slave trade to an end. The book begins with Dadzie’s own experience of the absence of Black history in the British school system, and her need to seek out what information she could to educate herself.

Dadzie states of her own life in 1950s Britain, We experienced poverty, homelessness and racism – my mother was ostracised as she had a black child and was a single parent. We… were constantly getting thrown out by racist landlords. There was a lot of pain and suffering.”

Through the following decades, the rise of the American civil rights and Black Power movements gave Dadzie the impetus for her activism in Britain. She was a founder member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in 1978. In 1980 she was commissioned with Beverley Bryan and Suzanne Scafeto to write the now seminal The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (1985). She has written widely on curriculum development and good practice with Black adult learners, and the development of anti-racist strategies with schools, colleges and youth services.

A Kick in the Belly continues from Dadzie’s own early experiences looking at the legacy of slavery and the silence of the society that descendants of the enslaved live in. She focuses on those descendants, and their struggle to find connections and belonging.

She vividly charts the experience of the enslaved, the horrors of the middle passage and the atrocities at the core of the system. Her research challenges readers on the slave trade to look at history as her-story, how women with few opportunities to leave a record of their lives did in fact leave a “dusty footprint”.

When the slave owner Matthew “Monk” Lewis wrote about witnessing a black woman being kicked in the belly, Dadzie uses this as a metaphor for the experience of Black women under slavery. She wanted to emphasise that these women kicked back.

Readers will revel in the stories of women’s rebellion from the small acts of subversion to the tale of Minelta, a fifteen-year-old who was condemned to death for attempting to poison her master. She was seen to laugh on the court steps upon hearing her fate.

Dadzie follows the evidence, and uniquely finds women playing a central and distinctive role in the development of the culture of slave resistance. This process helped give meaning and purpose to enslaved people in the most extreme of circumstances. The subtle acts of insubordination, and conscious acts of rebellion, came to undermine the very fabric and survival of West Indian slavery itself.

A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance is a short book with a big punch.

  • A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance, Stella Dadzie, Verso (October 2020). £11.99

 Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism,  Jillian C. York 

The term ‘surveillance capitalism’ first came into our lexicon with Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019). It swiftly became a best seller, garnering many prize nominations and was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2019. It argued that while industrial capitalism exploits and controls nature with devastating consequences, surveillance capitalism exploits and controls human nature. This led to a totalitarian order as the outcome – the commodification of private experience – the rendition of human experience as behavioural data. The Facebook Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018 was one political endpoint for this development.

In truth it can be seen as the development of a new data package for the prediction of human activity on which financial capital can bet – not so different from the gambling on financial futures. This system then develops to incorporate behavioural modification, an unwarranted intervention which aims to actually produce behaviour that reliably, definitively, and certainly leads to predicted commercial results for surveillance customers.

Internet freedom activist Jillian York develops arguments from Zuboff’s ideas around the threat posed to democracy and free speech by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Some thought the internet promised to be a place of extraordinary freedom beyond the control of money or politics. Today it is a platform exercising more control over our ability to access information and share knowledge.

From the use of social media in the thick of the Arab Spring to the contemporary front line of misinformation, Jillian York charts the war over our digital rights. She looks at both how the big corporations have become unaccountable censors, and the devastating impact it has had on those who have been censored.

She also looks at how governments have used the same technology to monitor citizens and threatened our ability to communicate. As a result are our daily lives, and private thoughts, are being policed in an unprecedented manner? Who decides the difference between political debate and hate speech? How does this impact on our identity, our ability to create communities and to protest? Who regulates the censors? In response to this threat to democracy, York proposes a user-powered movement against the platforms that demands change and a new form of ownership over our own data. But in a class system how can such democratic oversight be organised in the interests of the majority and not just limited to legislative change?

While there is much to argue with here, the two books are worth a healthy read on the way in which humanity’s connectivity is mined for profit.

  • Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism, Jillian C. York – Verso (March 2021). £16.99

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