Little Liberia – Jonny Steinberg

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Since reading Jonny Steinberg’s outstanding work of non-fiction The Number, I decided that it was high time to tackle one of his more recent works, Little Liberia. What I appreciate about Steinberg’s writing style is that he completely immerses himself in his subject and is one of my role models as a journalist. I also appreciate the way his books are able to introduce me to worlds and people that I would never know or understand otherwise.

In this book, Steinberg spends two years speaking to, following around and getting to know two Liberians who fled that country’s civil war, only to find themselves in Staten Island, New York. The premise of this book is that the Liberian community which now lives in New York is frozen in time, stuck in the moment that they left Liberia, which includes all the factionalism and mistrust that caused the civil war in the first place.

The subjects of the story are Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaquoi, two Liberians separated both by age and clan. Rufus’ passion is football, which he uses both as a means to escape Liberia and to promote youth development in his country of exile. Meanwhile, Jacob stayed in Liberia for much of the war, only seeking to escape after many traumatic and devastating encounters, one of which leaves him with a tell-tale limp that marks him in his new life of exile.

The book is well written in Steinberg’s typical style, but I was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t learn as much about the Liberian civil war as I had hoped (and as I have done with similar books, like Jacques Pauw’s Rat Roads).  I did struggle to finish it, and at times I felt like there was too much going on: too many themes and tropes and characters to try and pull together. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book to just anyone, but if you find African politics interesting, as well as the modern concept of exile, it may well be worth it for you.

It seemed appropriate to pair this story of two survivors with a blended wine, so I chose Slowine’s blend of Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc which has notes of tropical fruit, guava and gooseberry.

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