‘Black Volta’ by Pete KJ is a superbly written book and has been such a pleasant reading experience for me. It is a travelogue through Ghana, an immigrants’ story in America and a thriller all rolled in together. There is this insane emotional connect with Liz, the central character of the story while reading this book.
The story is set in 2016 when Carlos Mario, a Puerto Rican is trying to remember a dark secret hidden in his past. And, there is Liz, the Ghanaian woman living in Pittsburg working hard to make ends meet and much more concerning her family’s never-ending financial expectations. Wa, a small town in Ghana is the focal point in the lives of Liz and Carlos.
The Context and Characters
Liz lived in Pittsburgh with her mother and son after separation with her American husband. In addition to her own needs and those of her son and mother, Liz is also responsible for her younger siblings. In a completely acceptable manner, the men in Liz’s family have shirked away from their responsibilities. Her sister Magdi lives in Wa, along with her daughter, Joyce and younger brother Joseph. There are three other elder brothers of Liz who happily married and settled living in bliss without being involved in family issues.
The ever obliged daughter Liz is the chosen sacrificial goat it seems but the woman is neither complaining nor evading the strenuous responsibilities.
Liz has to survive America with the prejudices for an African woman. She is either the “angry black woman” or “sista”, sort of Oprah for her co-workers in America.
Carlos is a 50-something-year-old well-off man from Puerto Rica. He had spent about a year in Wa, sent by his father to do community service. The young Carlos worked as a teacher but was continuously troubled by children on the road with their raucous shouts calling him ‘strange white’ in the local language. In a scenario where children were even scared to look directly into the eyes of the adults, this young man was a target for some easy fun. This was such an interesting perspective and something that gives a completely different tenor in our prejudiced literary world.
“So here I am: at the beginning of the Volta River, or the end of it, depending on how you look at it. The river that will guide me to Wa.”
Black Volta, the dark murky river flowing through Ghana holds the truth of these two lives and opens an interesting narrative for us to unravel. The river that was named by Europeans as the point of return that in the present-day generates power stands true to both interpretations. And, a third meaning is divulged by the author to this river in this book.
Did I like the writing?
Yes. You can see the stroke of a unique authorial voice. The language is fluid and the content is so vast that you never find flowery language overpowering the plot.
The nitty-gritty of Ghanaian way of living, the bargaining at the local marketplace or homemade millet beer add so-much authenticity.
Though one can always question if this is an outsider’s perspective of Ghana but, yes with Carlos in the picture, the author maintains that distance from claiming the know-all authority.
A Familiar Turf
Incredibly a lot of the practices and social norms are common to Indian ways. The shoe shop from where Carlos purchases shoes reminded me of the roadside shops in Central Market where the salespersons take down your chosen pair with a wooden staff. I couldn’t believe the Ghanaian word for daughter is ‘Betti’, probably pronounced a bit differently than our ‘Beti’ in Hindi. It is this familiarity with the context (though surprisingly I have never visited Ghana or read something specific to Ghana) added pace to reading.
Liz reminded me of Akhila from ‘Ladies Coupe’ by Anita Nair. The narrative of women who passionately take care of their family and yet, the same members are more parasitic in nature has such an emotional grip.
Firstly, the refreshing literary landscape beyond England and America is the greatest plus. Secondly, the immigrant’s trajectory in Liz trying to make a happy life in America.
And, then the plot that comes too close to being Indian. The little anecdotes of male-male buddies walking together as an acceptable norm in the past to present-day sighting of male-female couples walking hand-in-hand add so much flavour.
At times, you find overlap and wish the book was trimmed probably by about 50 pages. But, then I wasn’t bored reading it. There was a lot of content; I was enjoying the length at which Peter KJ was taking me through the lives of Ghanaian people – the hair braiding, yellow fever tests, millet farms, etc.
I was in love with Liz’s character and impatiently read through Carlos’ chapters to get in flow with Liz’s story. Definitely, ‘Black Volta’ struck all the right chords.
About the Author
Pete KJ began explorations at age three in a wooded ravine behind his childhood home in Seattle. Peace Corps experience in Africa cemented his deep desire to always be out in the world, and when he finally sat in a cubicle as a chemical engineer it was in places like Puerto Rico and India. Long absent from the cubicle, he moved on to raise kids, travel the world with them, and write about it—and also write genre-hopping novels.
I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review