Maybe there are no borders. No novelists who cross over into poetry, no poets who skulk into prose. Maybe there are only writers writing in borderless space. J.J Bola is one of such artistically borderless creatures. He is a poet with three published works: Elevate (2012), Daughter of the Sun (2014) and WORD (2015). No Place to Call Home is his debut novel.
No Place to Call Home follows the travails (and small victories) of a young family from Congo who have come to reside in London, seeking a better life. We see the story mostly through young Jean, the eldest child. He lives with his parents, Papa and Mami, his younger sister, Marie; and Tonton, who swings anywhere from an uncle to an appendage.
The characters are exposed early enough in the first part (the book is in two parts). Jean is a bright boy gifted in sports. His desire to fit in leaves him hanging out with an unscrupulous James, who isn’t without troubles of his own. They skid in and out of trouble that gets progressively harder on poor Jean. Marie is exceptionally brilliant, commanding such air that guests would comment ‘this is no child.’ Papa is a stoic rock, bearing all their combined pains. He works like a slave and loves Mami, who is in fact the chord that binds the family.
By the second part, their lives get more complicated when Mami brings in an entire family of three who’re homeless. The ocassional flashbacks are sustained, like an investigation and we can draw clearer backgrounds albeit often unnecessary.
The story itself is the familiar tale of displacement and identity. You will almost certainly be starved of newness. You won’t find a fresh perspective on the African diasporic struggle. But it doesn’t make it any less compelling. In fact, considering the author’s life, having been born in Kinshasha and raised in London it be might start to read a bit like non-fiction.
J.J. doesn’t write in limbo. We’re occasionally dealt flashbacks in the story, usually against the backdrop of one event or the other. Like the Ali v. Foreman fight in 1974, while Papa and Mami basked in young love.
There is an educative quality to his writing. For instance, he tells us about Tonton being a Sapeur:
A sapeur, though taken from the acronym s.a.p.e; societe des ambianceurs et personnes elegants, has no official definition (it cannot be contained); it is a collective culture. A way of life incorporating a dress sense of individual style and unique eccentric expression embodied in a person, regardless of their profession,education, class or status.
This same quality, this need to expound is what makes his prose suffer. Although he’s a fine storyteller, J.J. is almost incapable of letting anything go in one sentence. He’s constantly metaphorizing and when he’s not, he’s as though-ing, as if-ing, like-ing to the point of torture. If the metaphors weren’t great, it would’ve been painful to read.
J.J. does open up a few worlds in which we’re confronted with homelessness. There is church, where “the people did not only come to hear the word of God, they came to hear the word of their God.” There is language, which fascinates me the most because of its weight on the characters’ lives. At home they speak mostly Lingala and English (which they called Lingish) or French and Lingala (which they called Frangala). Yet in the skill and fluency of it, they struggled to communicate outside their home. At least the parents. There is food. The homemade meals Jean takes to school that’s too weird for his peers. And there is deportation, living anxiously, afraid of envelopes from the government.
J.J. has definitely crossed borders with his new book. Maybe there were none for him, to start with. But has he found a place to call home?