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Tichaona M Chinyelu

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The Resurrecting Writers Series: John A. Williams
by Tichaona M Chinyelu   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Sunday, January 02, 2011
Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2011

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Tichaona M Chinyelu

Sometimes It Takes a Death: Mother to Mother - a Book Review
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If you google John A. Williams, you’ll find a quote referring to him as “arguably the finest Afro-American novelist of his generation”. I considered that statement to be PR hyperbole until I actually bought and opened one of his books over ten years ago.

If you google John A. Williams, you’ll find a quote referring to him as “arguably the finest Afro-American novelist of his generation”. I considered that statement to be PR hyperbole until I actually bought and opened one of his books over ten years ago. My memory does not provide clear data on whether I read Clifford’s Blues or !Click Song first. Whichever one I finished first, the other was next. As is my tendency when I like an author, I tend to read as much as his/her work as I can. A friend recently asked me which Edwidge Danticat books I had read. I started going down the list. Before I named book #3, she laughingly inquired if I read everything by her. The answer was yes – that’s how I do. Reading a single author intensively like that can be both beneficial and a mistake. I read Alice Walker like that up to and including Temple of my Familiar. After that book, I was done. I don’t read Alice Walker anymore. I feel as if I know her writing and there’s nothing new she has to offer to my reading experience. It’s not a judgement because I’ll always be appreciative of the time I spent with her novels and poems. However, when it comes to diversity of subject matter, well, there’s not a wide range. That is not the case with John A. Williams. Author of numerous novels, the ones focused on here will be !Click Song, Clifford’s Blues and Jacob’s Ladder. To be perfectly honest, !Click Song is a long book. I’m not referring simply to the number of pages – although it does clock in at 430 pages. Rather, I’m referring to the energy of the novel. At times, it drags by dwelling on aspects of Cato’s life that could’ve used an editor’s knife. However, in detailing Cato’s experience during the period when it wasn’t as “fashionable” to be a black writer, !Click Song provides writers interested in black literary history with a bird’s eye view. That, to me, is what sustained my interest and kept me reading. Having something in common with Cato (writing) helped inordinately with reading !Click Song. However. all I had in common with the narrator of Clifford’s Blues was skin color and a mutual existence in a hostile environment – although his was more openly genocidal than mine. To quote from the book’s description on its amazon.com page: If there is an undiscovered aspect of the black experience, it will be found by John A. Williams, one of the founding members of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In his newest of twelve novels, Williams presents the fictionalized narrative of a black jazz musician imprisoned in Dachau who keeps himself alive by working as the band leader of a group of prisoners who play jazz at a nearby officers' club. Clifford's Blues penetrates a hidden portion of African American history, and the hidden reserves of the heart. Told in journal form, this novel is the story of Clifford Pepperidge, a gay musician performing in Europe during the thirties. After he is caught in a compromising situation with a American diplomat, Clifford spends the duration of Hitler's reign in Dachau. He escapes the worst horrors of the camp by working as the houseservant to an SS officer. Undoubtedly harrowing, the things Clifford experiences as part of his struggle to survive as a black gay jazz musician in Nazi-era Germany constitute a testimony to the strength of the human spirit. Out of the three novels by Williams that I’ve read so far, Clifford Blues is my favorite. Williams has an undeniable ability to capture the times his varied novels depict. Upon completing !Click Song, I started giving more serious thought to remaining a truly independent writer whose career and/or book production/output is not dependent on the traditional, major publishing houses. However the book that spoke most to my conscious “side” was Jacob’s Ladder. It is a Bond type thriller – only the hero is a black US military advisor sent to a fictional West African country. While there he resumes ties with a boyhood friend, Chuma Fasseke, who is now president of the country. The dynamics – Jake’s confusion about his loyalty – Africa or the US; the friendship between Fasseke and Jake still resonate with me – even though it’s been over a decade since I read the book. Therefore, it has to be said, John A. Williams is a hell of a novelist. Never was I unduly bored or uninterested in the characters in his novels. The settings were written so well I came away from each read with a deeper sense of the period depicted than a regular history book could provide. I have added Captain Blackman, another one of his novels, to my next book buying list.

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