Others made of kindness

Ed Pavlic's new novel follows two lovers trading Chicago for Mombasa.

Boarding the Likoni Ferry bound for Mombasa. Image credit Xiaojun Deng via Flickr (CC).

Another Kind of Madness, the viscous, lyrical debut by American poet Ed Pavlic, moves at two different speeds at once. While the narration threads quickly and easily through the interior worlds of Ndiya Grayson and Shame Luther, the scenes, set alternately in beachfront Mombasa in Kenya and the South Side of Chicago, unfold languorously. The book focuses on seemingly disconnected moments—babysitting twins, sleeping on a strange train, a factory without ventilation (“acid ate the teeth”)—and yet the tension between the characters’ tactile reactions and their submerged trauma burns an unexpected urgency into the story.

Shame, a laborer and son of a bricklayer, returns to Chicago after a decade of self-imposed exile. Jobs in Los Angeles and Mississippi have provided him with a bigger picture: “The days of long jobs on newly constructed factories were, as far as he’d seen in Chicago, gone.” Back home he spends his time at industrial gigs, minding the children of 63rd Street, and dabbling with the piano at a Northside lounge.

Ndiya attends college in Cambridge and lives afterwards in New York City. The recent demolition of The Grave, the Chicago building where she was victimized as a child, offers her the possibility of return. Once back, however, she feels unmoored. “The way she saw it, things in Chicago and the rest of the United States would continue to slosh about, unanchored, and … in the end no one really had any idea of what it would mean.” She struggles with her job, and later with the idea of work itself. When Shame introduces himself as a member of “International Laborers’ Union, Local 269,” she misunderstands. “Yeah? Where’s that?” she replies.

Shame’s building is owned by Junior, a drug dealer who knew Ndiya when they were children. When violence engulfs Junior and the neighborhood, Shame, with the help of a bassist named Kima (a nod to novelist Peter Kimani), flees to Kenya. Eventually Ndiya joins him.

Major Chicago episodes, such as the murder of Fred Hampton in December 1969, the politicization of Yvette “Chaka Khan” Stevens (Chaka Khan joined the Black Panthers in her teens and befriended Hampton), the fall of kingpin Jeff Fort and the rise of the Gangster Disciples street gang, make cameo appearances. The attack on Ndiya reverberates with the real-life attack on “Girl X”, who was sexually assaulted and left for dead in the Cabrini Green (public) Houses on Chicago’s South Side in 1997:

Far as he knew, the girl lived. He forgot the name. She was shipped out of the city by sponsors and private schools… Years later they’d been this story about the girl grown, on her way to Harvard.

As the book glances these large events, it lingers longer on seemingly inconsequential ones. A spider bites a thigh, someone slices ginger, an ankle monitor slips out of a handbag—Ndiya or Shame pull apart each incident as they replay them. Hazy word-clouds accumulate, condense, and dissipate, leaving gooey drips of information.

In the morning:

Shame’s before-work was stripped down to bed, fridge, the first forced meal of the day, the painted-pine closet full of worksmell, bodysmell, chemical-scented clothes hanging in there. The feel of worn cotton. Cotton was his one extravagance. It was expensive and it wore out fast. But he wouldn’t wear the polyester work clothes the old men wore. Wouldn’t do it.

And on a Mombasa beach:

Barracuda. Their heads were oversized as locomotives, Shame thought, as he gazed down at the strangely fixed image cast by the tangle of specialized marine engineering. Kubwa and his brothers watched Shame from behind but he had no sense of that. The eyes of the fish were obsidian disks with flecks of cobalt, none of it much use, he figured, out of the water.

Some sections are narrated by a ghost of Shame’s best friend, whose death precipitated his exile. The ghost tells us that Shame is not a birth name, but the alias of Allen Sardonovic. For Allen, “shame” describes a “silent border between grief and despair.” Some grief comes from the loss of the friend, some from a distance from his father. “I’d call Shame’s pops Gotta Go and laugh. Shame didn’t laugh,” the ghost says.

But Shame also experiences humiliation and anguish around racial (mis)identification. During a police interrogation in Chicago, a childhood memory rushes up:

The conversation he didn’t need to hear when he got up and left the table: “Do you know, up until now, I mean at first, I thought he was white?”

Other such exchanges exhaust Shame. “Just another roll of the same dice,” he says. In a 2016 Boston Review essay, Pavlic, who shares biographical details with Shame, is more explicit:

More than once in my twenties, police asked me point blank: Are you black or white? In these previews of often subtler interrogations to come, it always seemed to me that the question was the answer. Yet for years and long after I knew better, and even up until now, I have been afraid to openly analyze the dynamics that have produced these questions. I dealt with them lyrically, both in poems and in life. But in a fearful and tiresome symmetry, this silence and lyrical angularity… also forced me to treat my condition as if it were a personal psychosis, mine and mine alone, an essential and incommunicable privacy. It’s taught me how necessary privacy is but also how an incommunicable privacy narrows, collapses, becomes a trap.

Mombasa, then, where East Africa meets the Indian Ocean, becomes, for both Ndiya and Shame, a place of renewal and reinvention, where people blend in, blend away, start over. Witness the symbolism in the advice they get:

Take yourself a sail. Charter a dhow. Go all the way to Kiwayu, near Somalia—a beautiful sandy seal on a wide-open envelope. The place is borderless.

Ndiya begins, and struggles, in Mombasa, to tell Shame her story. He doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, but “he knows there is no way to ask. He hopes she’ll continue. And he’s afraid.” Ndiya arrives at the following realization: “We owe the world that—to live in it.”

The title of the novel is taken from the 1994 song Miles Blowin, recorded by Chaka Khan. Other Khan epigraphs guide the story. Yet the ragged, passionate love that she sings out into the world—I need you, that’s another kind of madness—feels, when compared to the quiet pact Ndiye and Shame make, the solidarity of the lonely, of a different timbre. The profound kindness and the redemptive acceptance that the two find and build in each other is what sticks.

Ndiya, at times, feels like too many characters bundled into one: child survivor, Harvard graduate, urban drifter. And often our picture of Shame seems incomplete, leaning away from the “necessary privacy” towards the “incommunicable.” Yet this remarkable project, with its lyrical play and experimental structure, shrinks the moment between event and emotion—as well as the distance between text and experience—down to a dot. Another Kind of Madness is likely to grow Pavlic’s reputation beyond the community of poets and academics in which he is already well-known.

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.