The New Yorker: “The Paper Revolution” by Dinaw Mengestu

CV1_TNY_01_13_14McCall.inddJanuary 13, 2014: “The Paper Revolution” by Dinaw Mengestu

This fiction is an excerpt from a novel by Mengestu that comes out this spring, and judging by the Q&A with Dinaw Mengestu it’s going to be quite interesting—parallel stories set in Africa and America in the 70s. What we have here, by itself, is also quite interesting. It’s the beginning of post-colonialism in Africa and there is a certain amount of optimism and political activism. The narrator, from Ethiopia, has arrived in Uganda to be part of that. Hanging out at the university, he meets Isaac, who also isn’t a student, and the two of them represent the voice of poverty that is in danger of being overlooked.

The plot isn’t so important: The narrator is inspired by the recent occurrence of the African Writers’ Conference. It’s less clear what motivates his friend Isaac. It’s Isaac, though, who gets beaten up, although both of them—poor boys living on less than a shoestring—risk being arrested at any moment.

So, not much to talk about here, but it’s a nice teaser for the novel.

The New Yorker: “First Husband” by Antonya Nelson

CV1_TNY_01_06_14Ware.inddJanuary 6, 2014: “First Husband” by Antonya Nelson

This is a terrific story with a lot going on. It’s a little hard to keep track of the people and their relationships, but it comes together. (The story is free to read, so you should!)

The first husband of the title is the protagonist’s first husband, her ex. Although Lovey is now married to William, her first husband’s youngest daughter, Benadette, comes to Lovey when there is a problem. Which there is on the night of this story. Lovey is having a dream in which the first husband features. Uh-oh, the reader correctly worries. (I hate dreams in short stories. To me the make the fiction more unbelievable, so if you’re going for realism, I recommend cutting dreams. But what do I know? Antonya Nelson doesn’t seem to be worried about it.) Bernadette’s husband, Aaron, who is a hell-raiser, is apparently on a binge and would Lovey watch the three kids while Bernadette finds him. So Lovey does that—feeds the infant from Bernadette’s breast milk, plays Monopoly with Caleb, the sensitive oldest child, and tries to pacify the toddler, still in diapers. But Bernadette may not have been completely honest about what was going on . . .

The main story here is Lovey’s apparently lingering feelings for her passionate first husband (who is now on his fourth wife) despite her love—but maybe not passion—for safe William. William, too, has an ex for whom he is the first husband, so Lovey is surrounded by them.

But there is also Bernadette’s story. Lovey is Bernadette’s enabler—a weak child who got into trouble a lot, and there’s a suggestion that Lovey might have been partly to blame for that. The older girls, not raised by Lovey, are more stable.

And, finally, there’s Lovey’s relationship with Bernadette’s children, especially Caleb, the boy. Caleb is perfectly competent—he knows how to heat the milk for the baby—and yet Lovey feels the need to let him win at Monopoly. Is she repeating mistakes she made with Caleb’s mother?

So we don’t need much help from the Q&A with Antonya Nelson, but it’s interesting to read anyway.