Writing That Imagines What It's Like to Be: A Review of Kola Boof's Selected Works

Let's just spell it out right at the start: Kola Boof is one of the great migrant writers of our time.
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Let's just spell it out right at the start: Kola Boof is one of the great migrant writers of our time. Her Selected Writings, If My Father Dies I Give Birth to Him Again (edited by Mark Fogarty), underlines the Egyptian-Sudanese-American writer's literary achievements over a wide range of forms as diverse as poetry, memoir, and fiction, (both long and short form) and over a wide range of physical and emotional territory extending from her native Sudan to America, back to Africa, and then back to America again.

If you lean your ear against the page, you'll hear the story of a young Naima bint Harith (Boof's birth name) and the genocide and oppression she's witnessed in her birthplace of the Sudan. The heartbroken and heartbreaking poems in the Selected Writings, taken from her collection Nile River Woman, show a terrible beauty encompassing human triumph and degradation. And that terrible beauty extends to Kola's personal life. (She is a Bint Il Nil, a daughter of the Nile, born on the shores of that fabled river.) The excerpt Fogarty chooses from her autobiography, Diary of a Lost Girl, reconstructs her early life in Africa until the age of eight with brilliant clarity and lucidity. It's a triumphant claiming of more beautiful and terrible events, as her life was shattered by the killing of her parents, sending her out of the African paradise of her earliest years. If My Father Dies I Give Birth to Him Again shows she has had to, literally and figuratively, give birth to her assassinated father again.

It was during her second sojourn in Africa, as a young woman, that Naima bint Harith pulled together the bits of her shattered and troubled life and reimagined herself as the literary woman warrior Kola Boof. Fogarty has picked two short stories from her shocking and visceral collection Long Train to the Redeeming Sin: Stories of African Women, in which the lives of African women are portrayed as short, bloody, and exceptionally holy. And, finally, Fogarty shares an excerpt from Boof's world-striding novel Flesh and the Devil, with all of its fantastic, extraordinary mythmaking. We enter the world of woman and writer, both of whom explore ideas of trauma, authenticity and the narrative of the migrant writer, or the other.

In these brief selections, Boof faces the problem of writing in-between her country of origin and her current residence: the homeland, which has great claim on her emotions and imagination; and her life in America, which alienates her from her origin (but has given her the consolation of a large, adoptive African-American family, two sons, and a husband). Boof's elaborate and complicated life journey, which has shaped her as one of the great migrant writers of our time, shows her to be a writer that risks taking on an iconic role to make the horrors of her country known. Her writing attempts to re-learn and explore a Sudanese personal and extended cultural history, but it's not meant to be didactic or a lecture. The past, as we see in Boof's Diary of a Lost Girl, is hard to let go of. The past is also the "beginning of knowing" for her. Boof attempts to answer that same question that's been running through the pages of migrant and trauma narratives for decades: how can there be growth unless everything is shattered? How can ambiguity be banished from the language if there is no unknown to reveal?

When writing about her own migration, the painful history of the Sudanese nation, and migration of the Sudanese people (Boof was one of the first of a whole generation of Sudanese "lost boys" and "lost girls" to be placed in America) in regard to displacement and narrative authority, Boof engages with home through memory. She finds peace in remembering the past, in seeing her country as a major contributor to who she is today. In the "Bint Il Nil" section of her memoir, she writes about how her mostly-silent mother speaks to her for the first time, how she says to her, "Daughter...you must come and help mother to pray," and takes her to the Nile river to dance and gyrate in an attempt to bring her father back home safe. Boof tells us, "I know that this night that I speak of is a big part of my becoming who I am today. It was the first time ever that I felt a strong sense of myself as being whole...a part of something more tangible and deeply rooted than merely my family or the community." I am there with Boof, "up ahead in the dark," where we "suddenly saw a crescent flock of candlelight."

In the selection from the poetry collection Nile River Woman, Boof explains displacement and narrative authenticity in terms of imagination. She shows us a loss intensified by the fact she is out-of-country. She writes about home, about the past from a different physical place. She re-creates home vividly though. In "Christmas on the Nile" (a poem about Boof's birth mother), her primary place of home is in the mind and imagination. The imaginary home authenticates the missing past when there's an impossibility of understanding its origin. The imagined authenticity depends on how well such possibilities are written. She writes:

She is mighty-mighty
(and I remember her)

I remember her toes
piercing the bloody Nile; the
glimpse of leg
beneath the wool

Her writing works hard at piecing together the past; those "broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost" as Salman Rushdie puts it. The past, even as it is "salt-jagged and knotty," is "unforgettable." The poem itself is also unforgettable, a visionary flash of ultra-lucid clarity that captures forever, and in just a few brilliant lines, the grace and beauty and strength of her holy, African mother.

Boof's texts admit to a desire to return to the home of the past. In her poem "Bint Il Nil," she says, "Africa, I want you." But she wants the healthy Africa, the one "our mothers had in the river." This poem is a meditation of the present on the past, which she collects into words. The result of this poem is textual memory, a place where the past, present, and future are all intertwined. She cries and sings all at once:

I am tired of Jesus and Mohammed.
I am tired of man's foot.
I am tired of White man's mother.
I am weary...from doing nothing about it.

I want my own religion.
I want my real mother.

Her poetry is the capsule of personal love, and it evolves out of a hunger and respect for understanding. Boof's poetry creates a space for the truth to appear, for her truth to appear.

Mary Ruefle put it very well: the poetic memory doesn't "distinguish between the lived and unlived," but it is a place where the text always moves toward discovery of what isn't and already is.

In the "Night of the Living Dead" section of Diary of a Lost Girl, Boof asks the question, "What was it like to hear the murder of your parents--how did it feel?" She answers, "It was so overwhelming and so traumatic...that I can only describe it as being like a kind of birth...I couldn't believe in anything. I call it the 'living dead' because in the morning it was like birth...I felt myself becoming fearless...That's what fearless is--being ready to leave this life behind. And that's how it felt." Her authenticity is initiated out of her sincere attempt to catalog memory. Boof negotiates the documentary--materials providing factual accounts--within the narrative. Her gestures to understand language and memory suggest signification and pointing to, or one or the other. These gestures are linguistic and express her urge to understand the past on her own terms. She switches from "I" to "you," which signals that the book is borne from the impossibility of knowing. These pronouns identify gestures or fragments, and suggest an anxiety in rendering story, while welcoming the possibility of alternative scenarios.

In "Boy Magic" from her short story collection Long Train to the Redeeming Sin, Boof is concerned with this existence. She tells the haunting story of Nuntandi, the daughter of an Acholi, a tribe "considered a lower class breed of Africans known for their notorious lying, stealing, laziness, and general unworthiness of human beings." Nuntandi is brutally raped by her employer and then sent to prison so as to not ruin the reputation of the "very respected and well-liked man from India." Inside the prison, Boof notes that she "probably had AIDS." A white woman, Helen Gator, argues her case, and tries to get her out of prison. While in prison and dying, she dreams of a boy from her past named Kimba, a boy she'd dance with in the garden and fed tofu flakes.

Here's how great this story is: Nuntandi has contracted AIDS not from her rapist as you might imagine, but from Kimba, her "boy magic" with whom she has a joyous, if brief, "sky blue love." Boof's greatness comes from her ability to avoid the didactic, to see the nuance. She affirms and celebrates this dying girl's natural rights (which have left her with this terminal disease) even as she acknowledges the unbeatable weight of the obstacles that must bring her down. Nuntandi's life is both tragic and triumphant, and her inalienable dignity will leave you in tears as she is about to walk out of prison to spend her last few days free again. Wow.

Her depiction of African women's hard lives takes place within the gaps of fiction and creates worlds logical to her. This logic derives from the idea that fiction creates a place for the elsewhere to occur. This new place, while inauthentic, creates what Mary Ruefle calls "that which doesn't exist," and how this "newly made thing flies in the face of the already created and as such is based on negation (what already exists is simply not enough), but born also out of the greatest reverence for all that already is."

Boof does this rendering of authenticity beautifully in both prose and in poetry. We witness the less specific utterances of home in her poetry, the imaginative vision to understand truth in her fiction, and we see her in the moment of search in her memoir. Boof's writing re-shapes the spaces in our darkest wilderness; it doesn't distort, it imagines what it's like to be. Her acts of speech reveal an "I," which gives the narrative its shape, beauty, and sadness. Boof wrestles with this in her novel Flesh and the Devil. "Part One, The Creation," where she entwines myth and man, is a tour de force, a breathtaking swipe at exuberant worldmaking. She takes the reader under the sea and renames them "Father" and "Mother." She writes, "Before the White people created time and sailed on ships to bring it to us--we lived forever." Boof retells the story of creation, the story of man and woman, of father and mother, of the birth of Africa. The Father says, "The Sky was the man and the Sea...was the woman...and they hated each other!" He explains why they hated each other:

They hated each other, you understand, because there
was no land, no earth back then, so they had no way
of touching. It's the not being able to touch that keeps
the griot man and the fire witch at one another's throats.

The mother listens to father and splashes "a little water on her long, heavy breasts at that moment--pursing her lips and rolling her eyes at father." She rolls her eyes at his attempt at showing power. She knows that she too is powerful as a result of her great, dark depth that not even the sun or moons could swim to. Then Ajowa is born, which means love. She is "half dolphin and swims and leaps out of the sea. She is boundless like Africa is boundless and fiery."

In "The Kingdom of Ajowaloand," we meet Shango Ogun, a prince that desires to marry the sea. Home here is built in nature; it is sensual and solitary. She uses words like "warm jism," "birth odor," and "tender pucker" when describing how the sea can "gently masturbate the genitals of those that swam inside her." The sea is the home we've come from, the place we wish to return. The desire for the sea is intense yearning; it is indigenous. But the Moon also wants Shango, and it wants him to remain lonely and separated from the sea, removed from the home that is most natural to him. The moon says, "...my loneliness is everywhere! I am the separation..." This is the place where past, present, and future intersect, where the "wreckage of dreams" lead to "insanity and paradise." This is the story that makes us meet our fate, our pasts, and our desires. It makes us trek through our own mental jungles to find our way home. Boof is everywhere. She builds a new home from the wreckage of time and space in the sky, in the sea, in the retelling of how the word began, and how her world begins. Here it is a matter of taking the hidden memory and acknowledging the remembered versus the forgotten, and their correlation with the project of writing.

I'm reminded so much in reading this compilation of Boof's work of two writers: Jacques Derrida saying, "'founds memory,' it's not a 'supplement' to it." In this case there is no difference. The second is Helen Cixous saying, "at the beginning of every book, there is this: the 'unexpected discovery.'" Writing founds facts and discovers hidden memory, which opens doors. Boof's text manifests the difficulties of writing, in that writers want to know and learn at the same time. This is a dream. These are the currents of texts that Boof takes us deeper and deeper into, the passages and relationships that are constructed but not necessarily resolved. These are the "unlivable hours" (as Cixous reminds us), or foreignness, that Boof recognizes within herself.

These unresolved relationships are the boundaries Boof tries to pass. Though, throughout the text, she realizes she can't tame the impassable (Cixous). The impassable is the boundary enforced by authenticity. The inauthentic retaliates against this and allows the writer an opportunity to relocate the self, midst such limits. Boundaries are also the fragmented pasts, which challenge Boof's attempt at re-learning. The boundary is defined by the (in)accessibility of her own history and opens Boof's senses that connect her to the world outside the page. It reminds us of the value of her body and its presence in the world.

In If My Father Dies I Give Birth to Him Again, Boof re-learns a past buried in a contemporary world that's only concerned with representing snapshots of life versus a deeper story. Her poems stand ready to communicate the mind and emotions, which are deeply embedded in how she sees the world, in how she translates experience into language. She brings me back to something that Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) once said about his writing, "stories within the poems don't matter, the grand themes don't matter. The movement of the mind and language is what's important." The reader must put the pieces back together themselves. They must enter the language.

Boof tells her stories on her own terms and defines her own authenticity. The genesis for this authenticity originates out of the need to understand. This is reminiscent of Derrida's concept of the real text, how in the absence of everything "presence is announced," and this inspires--makes the text move. Boof is masterful at bringing us in and out of moods, at recreating and redefining the past, and using language to create a mythical and beautiful experience.

This book may well whet your appetite for more Kola Boof. Try her novel The Sexy Part of the Bible (great title!), an extravagant take on 21st-Century cultural imperialism where white scientists clone native Africans(!). And there's a Kola Boof collection of short stories she should write, which I think of as Long Train to the Redeeming Sin: Stories of African American Women. This one will close the migrant loop as Kola examines the lives of the women of her adored and exasperating adopted tribe, the African-Americans. This one will have people thinking of her in the same window as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

There are few writers that rock me like Kola Boof. Her writing is boundless and beautiful. This collection is a lovely representation of personal rendering, possibility, and the modification of those things in life that are out-of-order. The migrant writer takes those fragments of the past and gives them a personal order. Boof makes us forget about our own lives for a split second and invites us into her own world, her own wilderness. Her writing reinforces that as people we should choose never to be blind, even though our way of seeing is subjective and defined by difference. Her writing is about traveling. It is about departure and return. Boof proves to us, like the great literary critic and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous once noted, that writing "is the hope for this meeting with ourselves." Writing is the place where we discover the passable and impassable.

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