No Place To Call Home – JJ Bola

JJ Bola’s, debut novel, No Place To Call Home attentively develops the themes expected in a novel about refugees surviving in a strange new country. Bola touches on language, community, parent-child relationships, specifically father-son and father-daughter relationships, expectations of first generation African children, religion, moeurs, and most of all home. All of these subjects are catalysts for developing each of the main characters.

The personable third person voice of No Place To Call Home tells the story of Papa, Mami, Jean, and Marie. The ingenuity of the narrator’s voice gently pulls us into the complex life of this family. Refugees from the Congo living in London, we follow the difficulty of Papa and Mami to survive while waiting to get their papers, which will allow them to stay in the UK legally. They are fleeing political horrors of the dictator Le Maréchal.

The story quickly focuses mostly on their family life. Jean is about 11 years old, trying to fit in and master the English language. This comes with many tests, from fitting in with the boys to making excellent grades to pleasing his exigent father. Jean’s sister Marie is the model child and student. She is younger and not the first-born boy so she doesn’t have the same expectations placed upon her as, her brother, Jean.

Bola does an excellent comparison of Papa and Jean by starting out developing Jean’s character at school in the UK and then later paralleling that with Papa’s adaptation to École Polytechinique in Brussels. They are two different ages in these scenes but it depicts similar difficulties they have, how they deal with them and how they develop and reinforce their personalities. This also depicts the way Bola has chosen to talk about African societal expectations for African men and women. The roles of men are incorporated in the story and juxtaposed with those of women. For example, there is Tonton, the lazy womanizer, Pastor Kaddi the dishonest evangelical priest, and Koko Patrice, Papa’s manipulative, elusive father, and Koko Mobali, Mami’s domineering father.

I strongly urge you to pick up No Place To Call Home.  Its touching characters and well-developed story lines will have you completely submerged.  I read this book in two sittings. I couldn’t put it down.  However the only thing that disappointed me about this book was the ending.  I was hoping for something a bit more concrete.

“JJ Bola is a Kinshasa-born, London-raised writer, poet, educator, and workshop facilitator. He has published two books of poetry, Elevate and Word, and performs regularly at shows and festivals.  In 2015-2016, Bola performed on a US poetry slam tour that took him to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Toronto, and more.  He lives in London.” (back cover of No Place To Call home)

No Place to Call Home, 286 pages, Arcade Publishing

Rating: 4 stars

Recommended to: Readers looking for interesting fiction novels about refugees in the UK

Book quote:  “If you are lucky, you will never have to remember home through your mother’s tears or the rage in your father’s voice when it shakes. Home will be somewhere you run to, never away from. It will never chase you away; a rabid dog hot on your heels with teeth like a shark, teeth so sharp you can already feel it cutting into you.” (No Place to Call Home, p. 285)

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16. Home

In a way, home can be considered the beginning of us all.  For some it evokes nostalgia, comfort, warmth, love-a place one can’t wait to get back to.  For others it’s a place we’d like to forget completely or partly, and some wander aimlessly for a good amount of their lives trying to find one.   Home is our reference point.  The place which has made us in some respect who we are today.  Home is the story of Frank Money and his journey to his home after serving in the Korean War, which took place between 1950 and 1953.  Frank is a self-loathing African-American man who is searching for peace among all the horrors he went through during the Korean War, but that he can’t seem to shake.  He tries to subdue them with alcohol but that just disorients him. and gets him into trouble.  This novel is engaging, but very melancholy.  At some points, I got the impression that he felt he didn’t deserve to survive the war.  It’s very difficult to talk about this book without including spoilers but I’ll try.

The second main character in Home is Frank’s sister, Cee.  Cee is the reason that Frank finally goes home.  Growing up, Frank and Cee were very close to each other.  He protected his sister as if he were a parent.  Until then, we follow Frank through the ups and downs of being an African-American veteran in racist America.  Jim Crow Laws (1876-1965) are being enforced, separating blacks from whites, and preventing any type of equality.  The Korean War was the first time that whites and blacks actually fought in combat side-by-side in war.  Preceding this war, the military was segregated, although President Truman had signed the Executive Order 9981 in July of 1948.  It established equal treatment and opportunity in the Armed Forces without regard to race.  More than 600,000 African-Americans served in the Korean War and no one can begin to imagine the horrors they must have had to face in the US after what they had already been through in Korea.  What’s even more incomprehensible is that Korea integrated the armed forces.

Home is Toni Morrison’s latest and tenth book.  Morrison is 81 this year and still an extraordinary writer.  I hope she’ll continue to write these informative and important stories that we don’t have the possibility to read so often.  Before long,  I’ll be able to say I’ve read them all.  I still have Love and Paradise left to complete reading all of her genius works.  Home is a real gem!  Morrison does what she knows how to do best, which are descriptions and massively detail packed sentences giving you the character analysis,  scenery and time, but most of all feelings.  She really knows how to get to the crux of the subject and the emotion, which she explores thoroughly.  It’s like watching a movie and you’re afraid to blink because you’re afraid of missing something.  I hated putting it down because I just wanted to know more about what happens to the characters in the future.  I haven’t read anything before as a fiction novel on this subject, but Home reads quickly.  The proof, I read it in 2 days.  I probably could have read it quicker if I didn’t have so many classes to teach.  Approaching the end of the novel, I wanted to know more about the future of the characters.  It’s a lovely little 145 page book that I suggest all Morrison fans and newbies to Morrison should read.  I rate it 5 stars out of 5!  Happy reading……

http://www.nj.gov/military/korea/factsheets/afroamer.html