Review of Jeffery Colvin’s Africaville

Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin

Africaville is, to put it briefly, stunning. It took me some time to grasp the reasons for the diffuseness of the book’s events, characters, and topography. Frankly, names and places seemed to be jostling, crowding one another too closely, sending things out of focus.

After reading more, though, and noting the peripatetic lives of so many characters in the community — living or dead — I began to realize that the mode is the matter. The diffuseness of the telling gestures at the displacement and movements of the African diaspora, with corners and nooks of the world of Africaville and its residents left in gray shadows such as those an incomplete and un-sutured people’s history and memory create. How else does one talk about what happened to the African diaspora, and what continues to happen today in penitentiaries and purgatories in North America? Last but not least, the delineation of women characters in the book was outstanding, and Zera Platt was someone I got to know and like as if she were a foremother I hope I’ve had.

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Frank Chin, playwright, said in 1974 something that might still apply today: “Whites love us because we’re not black.”

There’s only one way to confront the term “Model Minority” in the United States, generally applied to Asians, including South Asians. That way is to understand it as the intentional and painstaking act of ‘modeling’ a minority in the image of the majority. That, Chin was saying, was what some Asians do or feel they must: stay as far away from blacks and hispanics as possible because then the white majority won’t get “spooked” by them. By the way, since the 1940s the word “spook” which originally meant difficult to see, has been used derogatorily toward black people.

Honestly, this is sort of like the terrible, very bad race and color problem in William Blake’s 1789 poem “The Little Black Boy.” There, the African boy twists himself into quite a knot trying to tackle and somehow conciliate the violent mysteries of race and color. He says, poor boy, of his English counterpart:

I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear, 

To lean in joy upon our father’s knee. 

And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,

And be like him and he will then love me.


But how can this one little black boy reconcile the problems of inside and outside, black and white? It’s difficult, he admits.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,

And I am black, but O! my soul is white;

White as an angel is the English child: 

But I am black as if bereav’d of light

I’m black, I’m white. Now black, now white, now black outside, now white inside. It’s a maze. And a chiasmus. (And I’m fairly sure that Blake, one of the smartest men in history, meant us to feel a-mazed)

That’s what we’re still doing as “model minorities,” twisting ourselves inside and outside into shapes of the right color and phenotype so that we’re not mistaken as black or Hispanics. In 1923, in The United States vs. Bhagat Singh, Bhagat Singh Thind demanded naturalization from  the US Supreme Court because as an Indian man, he said, he was a “high-caste Aryan.’ Indians were Aryans, so almost white.

Listen, I once had a colleague comfort me during some form-filling bonanza — where of course I filled every demographic category as ‘other’ — that I was really Caucasian. Being Indo-Aryan. It was unfortunate the institution didn’t take that point of view, but she herself fully endorsed my racial superiority as racial distance from blacks or hispanics and proximity to the Caucasus. I think she meant well. Because she didn’t know what she meant meant. I didn’t want to be Caucasian, like her, so that she’d love me. I didn’t want to be liked by her because I wasn’t black. I wasn’t going to emerge from that form-filling room schizophrenic like Blake’s poor little black boy. Sorry Michael Jackson, it still do matter if you’re black or white.

For more on the ‘model minority’ see

Also, in my novel in the works, Homeland Blues, a good bit of this issue forms the core of the story. Wish me luck, folks.

In praise of regional cuisine

In my next novel in progress, Homeland Blues, there’s a lot about food. Specifically Indian food. Exile from it. Diaspora marriages and communities built on it. Craving for it. Craving for regional soul food. For the pungency of flavors that make you temporarily stop breathing as they exact your love. And about perhaps nativist disdain among South Asians for the popular Indian restaurant brand “curry” foods palatable to Americans, and I’d say especially Americans, who tend to be adamant about the sanctity and primacy of American tastes (sorry Ameri ca but you can be tyrannical even outside politics). One of my characters in Homeland Blues talsk about “the local Indian restaurant of the twelve dollar all-you-can-eat-buffet-of-universally-creamed-dishes variety.”

It’s important for us Indians to educate the world about our FOODS. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there’s nothing called INDIAN FOOD. There’s this vast culinary continent called the FOODs of India. As a little tribute to my region, Bengal, here’s wishing you a happy Maachher Jhol (fish curry).

And then I find this.

Why It’s Hard to Open Indian Restaurants in America

Priya Krishna writes this awesome piece in Juggernaut, a South Asia focused newsletter about politics, culture and food that you should try out, maybe, for a TASTE of South Asia-related journalism