I want to give you some background. Be patient. My reasoning will, I hope, become clear.
Before I was published, I walked into Bakka Books and was recommended a novel by Minister Faust. Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad.
I read it and cursed him out. It was the book I wished I wrote. When I stopped swearing, I wrote him an email, asking if he would read my novel, Technicolor Ultra Mall, which had zero interested publishers at the time, and, if he liked it, to please provide me with a blurb. To my shock, he agreed to do this. That blurb is now on the back of my book.
And that’s how we started a long conversation about politics, science fiction and the intersection between them.
When I started reviewing books –a task I undertook with the not so hidden agenda of promoting science fiction to a wider audience– I asked him to send me a copy of his second book: From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain. This novel shocked me with its inventiveness, humor and prose. I started swearing again.
He helped me with a blurb, I helped him by contacting him for a review. This is how things often work. It sounds much more corrupt than it actually is. Had I not loved his work, I would not have asked him for a blurb, let alone a review copy. Had he not liked mine, he would not have blurbed it. I had nothing to offer.
The basis of any friendship is respect.
And I think, in the arts, it is impossible to be friends with people whose work you do not respect.
I’m happy to consider the man a friend. From an artistic point of view, kin.
I mention all of this not as a form of disclosure. I couldn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of my integrity. I know who I am. But because reviewing books left me with two enduring impressions.
The first was how the book business works as a business. This, I knew next to nothing about. It also showed me just how bad science fiction is at this business. While mainstream publishers were sending me books by the boatload and invites to fancy parties, science fiction houses often seemed to view me as some sort of scam artist trying to procure free books. When possible, I had to route around them and go straight to the authors. Or buy the books myself.
The fact I had to go to them at all –instead of beating them off with a stick– was very different from how things work in the mainstream.
But it’s reviewing’s other legacy that is important here. It’s bad one. The one I don’t like to talk about. It seriously damaged my enjoyment of books. I have little doubt that some people like the academic exercise of reviewing – the search for objective worth in a piece of art. It’s a perfectly valid way to regard books. But it’s not my way. It’s poison to my way. And it fucked me up.
Having turned that part of my brain on, I felt and still feel helpless to turn it off again. Books left me with a sour taste. I’ve only recently (in the course of this past year) been able to enjoy fiction again. Not as I once did, like a drunk knocking back shots at the Rusty Anchor, but slowly and deeply. Chewing. Digesting. Sometimes, spitting out.
I’m getting better but slow.
So when I picked up a copy of Minister Faust’s new novel, The Alchemists of Kush, knowing that I wanted to review it, I shied away from the task.
I want to help a friend get a bit of press but at what cost? This is gambling with the precarious hold I have on enjoying fiction.
I have not been able to exorcise that reviewing part of my brain and I don’t want to feed it. To me, it feels like flirting with drinking again. But, because I cannot rid myself of this goblin, I need to tame it. To turn it into something else. To find a new way –to myself, at least– of reviewing these things. One that does not pretend objectivity or scholarly shit or the cleverness of the reviewer but is, somehow, all of that but personal. Something that more honestly reflects my experience of a book.
As Faust would say, to turn lead into gold.
I feel like my long-term enjoyment of fiction depends on my ability to do this.
So I hope you forgive the wordy introduction but this is my first shot at such an approach. I thought it needed a bit of background.
Anyway . . .
Alchemy of Two Malcolms
Minister Faust has another name: Malcolm Azania.
He did not introduce me to Malcolm X but his radio show, The Terrordome, introduced me to a bulk of the source material. The actual unedited speeches. And these I listened to, in times of upheaval and war, with an anarchist waiter in the back of a darkened restaurant.
We were horrified that so little had changed since 1965.
We were impressed by the lucidity, sensitivity and humor of the speaker. He had nothing to do with the parody we have been shown. He was angry but he was genuine. Kindness is the prerequisite for intelligence and he was intelligent. Intelligence is the prerequisite for humor. And he was funny.
Tonight, I’ve listened to those speeches again. In my bright brown room. Alone.
Once again , years later, in another era of upheaval and war, Malcolm has sent me to Malcolm.
This time, not through his radio show but through his fiction. Through his story of Sudanese lost boys, living in Edmonton. The Alchemists of Kush has very little fiction in it.
There is autism. Tonight, I walked through the living room and glimpsed, on my television, a Somali woman living in Canada with her autistic child.
There is violence. I flicked on the local news and found a man stabbed to death outside a subway station.
There is racism. While following baseball, I had the misfortune to see this reaction to Jose Reyes signing with a different team.
This book has very little fiction in it. It starts from myths. On the first page, Malcolm invites us to read his novel in a variety of different orders.
I went with the order it appeared in. Some part of me wishes I had not. The Book of Then is fantastic, mythological. It is the skeleton that provides the structure for everything else. In retrospect, I would have liked to have read that and then moved up to The Book of Now. But I like dealing in basics first. From dreams to reality.
Other people may feel otherwise.
I speak of structure because this is not a novel. It is a blueprint.
Aside from the quality of the prose, I get very little out of this book when I regard it as a novel. I could chop it apart and make a case. I’m not into that anymore.
When I look at it as a guidebook, a way to build community, to turn killers and crooks into builders and alchemists, to reach beyond the particular even while portraying it in detail, as a map that leads you right down to myth of the thing, as a methodology for nation building in enemy territory, it becomes a rich mine indeed.
One that turns lead into gold.
But this is not a novel.
It is a map.
Rather than the dis-empowering aspect of protest, where you ask other people to do something for you, it is about empowering aspects of self and community building, where you do for yourself. It is not about integration with your oppressor but separation from him. It’s about being better. Read it as teachings. As instructions. And warnings.
I often judge a book by the amount of dog-ears I’ve put in it. I do this to mark passages I that either strike me with their lyrical quality or that I want to come back to and think on. These are my breadcrumbs. Even by my own liberal standards, I have folded a lot of pages in the The Alchemists of Kush. And these breadcrumbs have led me from the words of one Malcolm to another:
You don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn-the-other-cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. The only kind of revolution that’s nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. … Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, “I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.” No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, singing “We Shall Overcome”? You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging. It’s based on land. A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation. These Negroes aren’t asking for any nation—they’re trying to crawl back on the plantation.
And those lead me back again to our other Malcolm. To not asking for a nation but building one. Without permission. From within. In territory ruled by The Destroyer.
This book is a lamp. Light it up.