June 2012

In ancient Greece, Socrates recounted to Phaedrus what the Egyptian god Ammon had to say about writing:

…[it] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [It] is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Today in Kenya there are still some who would agree. In Masha Hamilton’s fictional story about a real library on camelback we see the arrival of books in the village of Mididima from many perspectives: The Librarian, The Teacher, Scar Boy, The Grandmother, The Girl, The Teacher’s Wife and The Drum-maker. Each character has his stake in the Camel Bookmobile and will wrestle with its impact on the village. When books go missing, it is The American, Fi Sweeney, who takes it upon herself to negotiate between the strict rules of the fledgling Bookmobile and the needs of Mididima on the outskirts of the modern world.

With extraordinary empathy and sensual detail we experience the drama through the different characters in turn. At some points it can take on the shape of a morality play, arguing back and forth – not between good and evil, but between the cultural traditions of a nomadic African tribe and the Pandora’s box of literacy. The teacher’s wife, looking into a cookbook, scoffs at the waste of time and effort to make only one dish from so many foods. Scar Boy asks how someone can be called generous if they give such a powerful gift and then impose rules on how it is to be used.

Some of our book group found the story and arguments simplistic, most found one or another of the characters unbelievable, verging on ‘tiresome company’. But most of us forgave the author her audacity – looking at the world through African eyes – because she tackles many hard questions and doesn’t come to any easy conclusions, because her sympathies lie on both sides of the issue, and because of her graceful prose, especially in the voices of the African grandmother and Scar Boy.

Hamilton seems to have an affinity for the confused and questioning gaze of the outsiders in a community, while at the same time making their physical environment so vivid, in the words of one reviewer, ‘you might want to shake the sand from your shoes as you close the book.’

Hamilton won the 2010 Women’s National Book Association award for ‘meritorious work in the world of books beyond her profession.’ She continues fundraising for the Camel Bookmobile and has helped start the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. The Camel Bookmobile is currently being made into a film.

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