Some decades ago, before it was rechristened the "East Village," New York's Alphabet City was a destination of true Bohemians, even literally, with the Czechs amongst other Eastern European immigrants. And then, in the late '50's and early '60's came the "intellectuals." Poets, novelists, jazz musicians and political progressives of all colors took up residence in that section of the city, living side by side with the immigrants.
Autobiography of the Lower East Side enveloped this reader to such an extent that every other task was put on hold until its completion. The book, a set of tales; both complete in themselves, but intertwined skillfully, pours forth with an economic lyricism; where metaphors and similes are used sparingly, leaving the story and setting to enter the reader's consciousness. Richer for that, we are engulfed in the sights, smells, and colors of this neighborhood, finding the beauty through prose, even though the reality might have sometimes been grim.
The narrative mostly follows the lives of American and African emigre black men and women, realized most interestingly so when regarding the traditions and spirit of one Muslim woman, Nusa, who comes to America to finish her post-graduate studies. She is left by her husband to fend for herself and her young son, and that she does. From Nusa's marketing, cooking and home organization, Ismaili provides details, which although routine, breathe and fascinate. ALE does not merely concern itself with abject suffering; the author portrays the richness of everyday life. Starting with Nusa--we are allowed into the heads of near a score of characters, each possessing distinct voices and strong points of view. Her male characters are fully realized, which is no mean feat.
Ismaili's prose, so lyrical at times, can and does portray conflicts that pull no punches. The strongest vignette, "Another Saturday Fish Fry," is breathtaking in its searing honesty of emotion, as one creative woman from Ohio lets loose on a room of various types of caricatures. The realistic dialog was painfully courageous. Conversely, there are stories of romance that will satisfy anyone looking for sensual pleasures. The few love making scenes are intimate, yet tasteful.
The story of Fred, one of a heroin-addicted jazz musician, could fill a book in itself, with the depiction of the character "hitting bottom" so realistically portrayed and detailed, as to be effectively cautionary. H is not glamorized here, not one bit. You root for Fred in a story that turns into suspense. Will he get clean? Or will he cop the minute he gets out of rehab? You won't go to sleep until you find out. The author's knowledge of jazz music, including the works of Miles Davis playing the Great American Song Book clearly, comes from the author's lifetime of being steeped in such music. Her sharp, yet funny bit about tone deaf, rich girl singers paying to get arrangements is timeless. They still do. Pay that is.
Finally, the evocation of nostalgia, inevitable in a work set decades ago, is so palpable, as to make one remember one's own youth, be it on the Lower East Side, or whatever setting one resided in when trying to "find" one's self and become educated. "Art, intelligence, work, and kindness will save humanity if people can be convinced to work together," Nusa's professor chants daily. If only that were so, but books like the Autobiography of the Lower East Side bring one into a world where anything is possible.
Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr is a poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Her life has taken her from the Benin port city of Cotonou to the artistic hub of New York's Lower East Side in the 1960s. A portrait of her life can be found at...