It’s startling to realise how much human suffering can be conveniently ignored by the general population when governmental institutions neatly shield this injustice away. Colson Whitehead’s new novel centres around the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Florida in the early 1960s. It was purportedly to school and train these teenagers to become “honorable and honest men” but in reality it abused, exploited and (sometimes) killed them. While the civil rights movement was valiantly working to end segregation the boys in this institution were still divided into white and black dormitories. Unsurprisingly, the white inmates were given better food and supplies as well as less labour and better treatment. Whitehead tells the story of this barbaric facility by focusing on the lives of several inmates – most notably an intelligent young man named Elwood who finds himself imprisoned there after he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many people I found Whitehead’s previous novel “The Underground Railroad” incredibly moving. This new novel is stylistically different but just as impactful. Not only does it tell a harrowing tale of racism and institutional abuse, but has a gripping plot with a surprising and moving ending.

One of the most heartrending things about this novel is that Whitehead based it on a real institution called the Dozier School for Boys. After this school closed down an anthropological survey in 2012 discovered the remains of dozens of bodies outside the cemetery grounds. Whitehead fictionizes the back stories of several boys who might have ended up in these unmarked graves while also depicting the atmosphere of the civil rights movement at that time. Elwood is a studious young man who aspires to go to college, but finds himself drawn into the protests after being inspired by a record of Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches and his teacher Mr Hill who was a former freedom rider. Through Elwood’s perspective we experience all the conflicted feelings of people had to choose between looking after their own self-interest or joining to fight for a bigger cause. Of course, when he realizes how inhibited his life would be given the current social systems it leaves him little choice because “It didn’t make no sense until it made the only sense.”

It’s incredibly moving how Whitehead depicts Elwood’s good intentions and his stalwart belief based off from Dr King’s words that if he maintains his integrity and diligently works for progress things will change for the better. But this is severely tested when Elwood finds himself locked in the Nickel Academy where there is no reason or justice – only an obtuse system where severe and entirely unjustified punishment can be randomly enacted. He observes “Problem was, even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway.” The institution is riddled with corruption and incompetence from the administration to the guards to the medical staff. The place is given a lick of paint and congenial veneer whenever any state inspection is due. There’s a sense that over many decades the abuse and prejudice has become so systematic no one in a position of power even thinks to question it.

Dozier School for Boys

Dozier School for Boys

This is extended further when Elwood and another boy are loaned out to the local population to perform unpaid work as well as deliver governmental supplies to local businesses which were intended to feed, clothe, educate and entertain the incarcerated boys. It meant civilians and businesses outside the institution directly benefited from the maltreatment and suffering of these young black men. In this way Whitehead’s novel makes me question in what ways ordinary people are complacent in the exploitation of others. It’s also a poignant reminder of how brutally people suffered during segregation in America which is something which should be obvious but as one character notes it is “hard to remember sometimes how bad it used to be.” But outside of these larger issues, this is novel which vividly and skilfully tells the stories of several characters trapped in a brutal system in a way which is rousing and memorable.  

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Any dramatic or violent shift in society will mean that the lives of ordinary people are drastically affected. When country borders are redrawn people must also redraw their sense of identity. Some will survive this shift and some won’t. Shobha Rao writes about a large group of loosely connected individuals whose lives have been changed or residually affected by the Indian subcontinent being partitioned into the countries of India and Pakistan in 1947. These are short stories which can definitely be read independently, but this book exists in that murky realm between the novel and a collection of short stories. Part of the book’s power comes from seeing how certain characters appear differently in stories which don’t focus on them. But each story brings to the forefront the concrete life-altering changes caused by Partition in a fascinating variety of forms.

Rao’s characters embody a wide spectrum of individuals from men to women, from the wealthy/powerful to the poor/helpless, from gay to straight or somewhere on the spectrum in between, from Hindu to Muslim to agnostic and from young to old. It’s certainly not necessary to read them in order, but since I did so I could detect the way some themes or ideas would recur in different forms throughout the book. Where in the story ‘The Merchant’s Mistress’ a female servant triumphs over the lord and memsahib of the manor, the story ‘The Mehsahib’ shows a similar situation but the servant’s triumph feels much more morally complicated. A woman’s grief over the death of her baby in ‘The Lost Ribbon’ resonates much differently from the grief felt by a woman taken on holiday by her husband to try to save their marriage in the story ‘Curfew.’ These show a vibrant array of personalities and how common experiences will have different repercussions depending on each character’s individual responses to them.

One of the most engaging things I found throughout the book was how Rao shows a variety of sexual identities. The first two stories ‘An Unrestored Woman’ and ‘The Merchant’s Mistress’ include female characters Neela and Renu who are housed together in a camp for women that have been outcast or left without means because of the loss of their husbands. The physical connection they find together isn’t explicitly sexual but involves complicated feelings of romance, desire and love. Another story ‘The Imperial Police’ is from the perspective of Jenkins, a British officer stationed in (what is today) a city in Pakistan. He falls for one of his subordinates named Abheet Singh who is a Sikh, but isn’t able to fully articulate this desire to him and discovers a very different perspective on Abheet’s life after he’s killed in a violent community skirmish. I always find it fascinating to read about sexuality presented in complex ways within stories, but this collection also includes different perspectives on heterosexual marriage and the problematic challenges these couples face.

I was particularly interested in reading this alongside Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” as both authors sought to explicitly depict the repercussions of Partition for a wide variety of individuals. While Roy’s novel is more an overarching look at society and explicitly political, Shobha Rao’s stories focus much more on the preoccupations and individual conflicts within particular moments in her character’s lives. Some are directly involved in Partition and some are not. The story ‘Such a Mighty River’ explores the life of an old man suffering from a form of dementia where he wanders the streets searching for his long-deceased wife. He’s been removed from time and circumstance in a curious way, yet he’s drawn back into it when a former prostitute he once visited and her cohorts decide to hold him hostage. However, the story ‘The Opposite of Sex’ is about a character named Mohan, one of the surveyors responsible for literally drawing the borders between India and Pakistan. He decides to use this power for his own selfish means with tragic results. Then there is the story 'Unleashed' which is far removed from India and involves a woman named Anju who lives in America in a drunken, depressed state which is reminiscent of a Jean Rhys novel.

Watch Shobha Rao discuss her collection and read from the story 'Kavitha and Mustafa'

One of the most memorable stories for me was ‘Blindfold’ where Bandra is a woman stripped of any prospects or livelihood, but she decides to muster what funds she can to found a brothel. This is a woman whose course in life was severely disrupted because of the repercussions of Partition, but who chose to survive and earn money to better the lives of her children through the exploitation of girls and women she buys from impoverished farmers. While her decision brings her temporary security and prosperity, it ultimately destroys her in both her estrangement from her children and a particular girl she purchases who cunningly asserts her independence. It’s fascinating how the issue of selling sex is represented here when compared to how it’s played out in the story ‘The Road to Mirpur Khas’ where a wife named Arya decides to sell her body when she and her husband face starvation.

In these stories, Shobha Rao powerfully represents a variety of experience all the way from the formation of the borders between India and Pakistan in 1947 to the present day where a woman of Indian descent contemplates what was lost along the way. They are at turns harrowing and heart-warming, but all utterly absorbing. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesShobha Rao
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I was halfway through reading “The Underground Railroad” this past week when the American election results came through. It was difficult to do anything on that devastating day as I was so depressed, but I did keep reading Colson Whitehead’s novel because it took on an added poignancy. It merges a modern consciousness with representations of inequality, oppression and racial discrimination to create a new kind of historical novel about the struggle for freedom. It’s the tale of Cora who lives on a southern plantation owned by the Randall family in the 1820s. She’s invited by a fellow slave named Caesar to escape the enslavement of the south through a connection he has in The Underground Railroad. Her journey takes her through a number of states which all have distinct social characteristics and exhibit different forms of prejudice. Over time she’s pursued by vicious slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway who is motivated primarily by his belief that America belongs to whites and that he’s restoring order by profitably returning slaves to their owners. It’s a novel which is both fantastical for the way it invents a physical underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves and starkly realistic for the brutality with which slaves and abolitionists are suppressed, beaten and killed. Whitehead has created a story with phenomenal momentum and moving insights into our society.

We currently face at least four years of Trump leading America. Because his campaign was imbued with many overtly racist and isolationist statements, we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves over time: who does America belong to? The sentiment of Trump and many people who voted for him feels not too dissimilar from the logic of slavers in Whitehead’s novel: “If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.” A bi-racial writer, orator and intellectual named Lander in the story states at one point: “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.” To many people’s astonishment here we are in Trump’s America, a country half filled with citizens who believe they are entitled to imprison, throw out or build a wall against anyone who is different. It’s a reactionary stance which will no doubt lead to further discrimination and animosity between factions of society. Whitehead shows how little these sentiments have changed in America over time.

It’s fascinating how Cora finds various levels of tyranny in the different states she lives in and at the plantation she’s born into. After losing her imposing grandmother and her mother runs away from the plantation, Cora is left vulnerably alone and must live in a place called the Hob which is for female outcasts within the community of slaves. Amongst the slave cabins “There was no recourse, were no laws but the ones rewritten every day.” Here she has to learn to protect herself and what belongs to her not only against the slave owners and fierce overseer, but the threatening individuals amongst the slaves. Once Cora finds her freedom she becomes attuned to other forms of oppression including becoming an actor in a museum simulating white people’s ideas of African communities and slaver ships, sterilization, and all out annihilation of the black population. The logic behind these methods is to quell the difficulty and complication of difference. Rather than embrace the challenges involved with trying to live together they are radically inhumane strategies to maintain white people’s sole ownership of America.

Cora inhabits a series of different possibilities for how America can deal with its historically racist past. In this way Whitehead plays with history to say something urgent about the present. It’s remarked that “She had never learned history proper, but sometimes one’s eyes are teacher enough.” Although we should learn as much about the past as possible, you don’t need a special knowledge of it to see that the ideologies and values exemplified by Trump and his supporters will lead to a dangerously fractious society. I was greatly moved by the way “The Underground Railroad” depicted Cora’s struggle for both a mental and physical independence within this viciously divided America. Her journey and intellectual development elucidates strategies for survival in a country plagued by such deeply embedded prejudice. It’s foolish to pretend this doesn’t exist: “Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade.” It is this country’s original sin. Whitehead brings alive a large cast of characters who present different points of view to form a disarming portrait of America past, present and future.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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