MAKEDA by Randall Robinson

Book Quote:

“Her eyes came open. Fully open. But she could no longer see the Abyssinian mountain that the Sabbath sun had turned like fire…
She could no longer see anything. She was blind.
For a long and disconcerting moment, she did not know who she was or where she was.  Only five to eight seconds later did she begin to realize that she had been dreaming.”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  (SEP 10, 2011)

Makeda is the title character of Randall Robinson’s astounding, thought provoking, and highly engaging novel. A blind retired “laundress,” Makeda’s life is anchored in her tiny, often sun-filled, parlour in Richmond, Virginia. Her modest circumstances, after a life of hardship, stand in stark contrast to her appearance and demeanor: at home, at church and in the market, she is usually clad in richly embroidered beautiful African gowns and she radiates wisdom and emotional strength, instilling respect wherever she goes. Some unknown visitors leave gifts for her, or speak to her as if she were somebody else…

Often, when she lifts her unseeing eyes toward the sun, her posture and diction change: she appears to have moved from one instant to the next – like a time traveller – into a far away place. She dreams “in pictures – color pictures, pictures of people, pictures of odd places – though she had never in her life seen a human soul…” she tells Gray, her youngest grandson, later. Recalling her dreams in great detail, she will only allow Gray, her “spirit child,” to share her secrets. “I remember at that point she said to me: Things are almost never what you, with your two eyes, can see them being. Sometimes they are less, but most of the time they are more. Worlds and worlds more, son.”

Makeda’s dreams, the “special ones,” take her to different places in Africa, regions that all have a special spiritual connection to African-American history. The dream stories are so vividly told, and, with each recurrence, grow in such intricate detail, that they pull the reader into those past lives just as much as Gray, letting us forget that it may be “just a dream.” Or is it? Is there more to it? Makeda knows where she has been and who she is in her dreams; did these places really exist at some time in the past? Is there surviving evidence of them today? Why those places and not others? What are the connections of those people to her own life and time? Many questions occupy her mind. Her curiosity grows to the point that she, after warning her grandson not to share his knowledge with anybody, instructs him to investigate any factual bases of what she tells him. Especially the amazing story of the Dogon people in Mali, West Africa, fascinates both: Dogon cosmology claims to have known about Sirius and his three stars hundreds or, maybe, thousands of years before science could prove their claim. Gray, by then a college student, will have to find a way to make this journey for his grandmother, and as it turns out, also for himself.

Robinson, recognized for his extensive non-fiction writing on topics that range from African-American socio-politics to international human rights, ventures with Makeda beyond any confines of a more traditional novel. The very moving account of Gray’s coming-of-age journey, the depiction of his close ties to his grandmother, set against the backdrop of the family’s difficult circumstances in nineteen fifties and sixties, represent by themselves a richly rewarding story. Yet, Makeda’s dream travels are more than a key for Gray’s own journey in search for identity and, eventual, love. They are like virtual spiritual doors that Robinson opens that lead us into his multi-layered vision of a broad-based African-American identity that, while recognizing its contemporary challenges, is intimately connecting it back to its African roots and its African historical and spiritual heritage.

To expand on his theme, the author introduces fictional and existing expert voices that speak to the young people in Gray’s college environment. For many students and readers, these are provocative and challenging propositions. For Gray, through the many talks with his grandmother, they are, more than anything, confirmation of his learning and evolving vision of his own role in life.

Robinson is an exquisite writer and stylist who brings the different narrative strands and themes harmoniously together and into one fascinating and enriching reading experience. I want to add on a personal level, that I found Robinson’s choices for Makeda’s “dream places and times” highly relevant for the themes of the novel. For me, they have been meaningful also as they reminded me of my own journeys of discovery into Africa and, especially of my very own very similar experience in Mali’s Dogon region.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: OpenLens; 1 edition (August 30, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Randall Robinson
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Coming-of-Age, Family Matters, Literary, US South

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