Trying to escape her embarrassing immigrant mother, Vimbai moves into a dilapidated house in the dunes… and discovers that one of her new roommates has a pocket universe instead of hair, there’s a psychic energy baby living in the telephone wires, and her dead Zimbabwean grandmother is doing dishes in the kitchen. When the house gets lost at sea and creatures of African urban legends all but take it over, Vimbai turns to horseshoe crabs in the ocean to ask for their help in getting home to New Jersey.
This isn’t a book, I suspect, that too many typical genre fans would like since it shades into magic realism. It’s orders of magnitude better than any other novel I’ve read by Sedia, and much superior to Heart of Iron. But it’s also a book where the author writes of a non-dominant culture and experience not her own, so standard precautions apply. See Tricia Sullivan’s post about writing Double Vision and her many, many, many fails with regards to writing black women and Japanese people.
Having said that, we can’t ignore the context of Sedia being from a non-dominant culture and Sullivan being very much so: there’s a vast gulf of experiences between a Russian immigrant to the US and a white American born and bred in the UK who never needs to apply for a visa to travel much of anywhere, and whose passport will never make her a subject of scrutiny.
House centers the generational conflict between an African-American daughter with her Zimbabwean immigrant parents. It is home to this:
Vimbai’s mother still complained about the new [white] head of Africana Studies. “And he also said just the other day that Mugabe is the worst thing that ever happened to Zimbabwe. I told him that colonialism was really up there among the shitty things.”
“But you hate Mugabe,” Vimbai’s father said mildly. “Why are you defending him?”
“I’m not,” mother said. “I’m just sick and tired of hearing about African corruption. Sick and tired.”
One of the things she had learned from her mother was that one did not disparage one’s people or culture in front of the outsiders. It’s different for them, her mother said. They don’t know what it’s like, they have no sympathy, no kinship. They look and they criticize, they look for cracks, they look for proof of something they are already thinking in their hearts – that we are worse than them, that we should not be allowed to govern ourselves. So you argue and you don’t show weakness. And you don’t ever, ever agree with them if they speak poorly of your people. What if they are right, Vimbai had asked then. They are never right, her mother answered. They may appear to be right because of the words they use, but their hearts are wrong. To be right, you need to know, to understand, to have a kinship of spirit.
Which is something I doubt a dominant-culture writer could comprehend. Westerners have this deep defect: to have an opinion about everything, and to have them as loudly and obnoxiously as possible. Usually when it comes to having opinions about thirdworldia, westerners will behave like this and reveal themselves for the subhuman scum that they truly are. And I say–as this passage says–that westerners’ opinions are irrelevant; that they not having lived in it, being outsiders, are not to speak; that they should sew their mouths and be forever silent. Because when they open their mouths all that comes out is noise. Westerners don’t talk about our problems because they care those problems. They do it simply to confirm (to themselves) that they’re superior and live in wonderful fairylands where nothing bad ever, ever happens. And that we need them to save us–not that they’ll ever do anything, mind you; all they’ll do is make a face and turn up their noses and talk about the importance of freedom, civilization, and democracy. Projectile word vomit from the cushy position of armchair smugness.
(No, doing missionary work doesn’t count as “doing anything” except reenacting colonialism.)
Invertebrates, she said, the word that wondrously summed up all the fascinating transparent things that the tide left behind thrashing in tiny pools. I want to study invertebrates. Anything, she wanted to add, but your Africana Studies, anything but that continent you—both of you—carry inside; what was the point in ever leaving if you were going to bring it with you?
Vimbai felt embarrassed of her ignorant indifference toward these battles, of her dismissal of things that had anything at all to do with Africana Studies or African politics or Africa anything. She was an American, she used to tell herself, and it had nothing to do with her, the only person in her family who spoke English without an accent. It was her parents that carried Africa within them, who could not let it go and kept obsessing over it years and years after it became irrelevant to them—and after they became irrelevant to it, immigrants, deserters, people who left their country and were in turn left behind, as it moved on without them.
House engages closely with the matter of being an outsider–of belonging, not belonging; of how Vimbai doesn’t feel quite all the way American, of how she observes her housemate Maya (also African-American) and how “there was simply no polite way of asking Maya about the way she spoke, about her carefully cultivated non-regional accent, without sounding offensive.” Vimbai feels acute embarrassment that her mother wants to make everything about politics, but there are moments where she can’t help but share in her mother’s impatience, in not wanting to explain African literature to white kids who are only remotely and superficially interested, how after the umpteenth time the act of explaining becomes unbelievably tiring.
Then Vimbai finds a house in the dunes, and strange things–like her grandmother’s ghost showing up in her car–start happening. Oh, and then the house unmoors and drifts off to sea.
Her grandmother’s sight entered her own like a hand enters an empty glove. Vimbai had been hollow and now she had a center, a depth, a density—she felt three-dimensional and alive and aware. She focused her eyes and she could see every grain of sand in the bottom, every rock, every shrimp hiding in the crevices. She saw kelp forests and the silvering of a school of anchovies, the rapid quirk of a shad. On the bottom, hagfishes braided themselves into an incestuous, slithering nest of Gorgon’s hair in the empty cavity of a dead shark’s head, its gill arches protecting them like the barred windows of a jailhouse.
It’s beautifully written, wonderfully surreal, and readers who ask just why Vimbai and her housemates don’t react in gibbering shock miss the point (see: magic realism)–there’s a lot of inferior reading done to this book, not least of them complaints about how it’s too much “pretense at ‘serious real literature'”, which I suppose makes a certain kind of readers break into hives.
The titular discarded dreams concern a great many things, from Vimbai’s adolescent love (of which, sweet and sad), her uneasy acknowledgment of the “Africa within” and colonialism, the last of which is a central preoccupation: the horseshoe crabs and the soulless, insatiable medical vampires who drain them are a persistent metaphor for, then a literalization of colonialism. All of this is mediated through exquisite imagery and a textual heart that doesn’t care about conforming to expectations of plot and conflict–the pacing can be slow and introspective, but given the subject matter it would have to be.
What I can’t speak for or about is whether the novel does a fair job of capturing the experience of being African-American, or whether it handles well African urban legends and folklore. But House is written with great compassion, empathy and never relents in its political confrontation. The one stumbling point is that African magic plays a significant part, in the form of Vimbai’s inadvertent “witch” spell and two undead grandmothers, and there’s a wilderness association with Maya’s canine creatures which may or may not express some part of her–but at the same time, Vimbai’s dream of Africa is not the savannah or the jungle but the city Harare, to which she and more strongly her mother has a complicated relationship. It rejects the (frequently bandied about and racist) vision of the entire continent as animalistic, corrupt, uncivilized. Not for nothing does Vimbai’s mother get angrier about colonialism than she does about Mugabe; not for nothing are the creeping horror in the dreams vampires that represent white colonial greed.
Very much recommended.