Friday, February 4, 2011

Liberian Writer Robtel Neajai Pailey'review of Helene Cooper's book The House at Sugar Beach.

Robtel Neajai Pailey

Deconstructing Helene Cooper’s The House at Sugar Beach

Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, is an account about dichotomies, race, class, and the African psyche in all its complexities. Cooper, a child of two “Congo” dynasties (descendants of repatriated American Blacks), dissects her unusual upbringing in Liberia, her exile to America’s deep South, and her reunion with a long lost adopted sister in her country of birth after years of professional training as a journalist in the United States.

The House at Sugar Beach traces a young girl’s journey to consciousness in a country of imported Nancy Drew books, American movies, phony British accents, blue jeans; essentially a country struggling to define itself. Cooper exposes with self-deprecating humor vices inherent in Liberian society, i.e. alcoholism, womanizing, kleptocracy, patronage, ethnocentrism, dependency, corruption, sloth, elitism, colonialism, colorism. Sugar Beach also reveals post-conflict schizophrenia, savagery, inhumanity, the ties that bind families, trans-nationalism, and hybridity, the theory of two-ness, tracing the apartheid-like disparities that separate the Coopers and their ilk from ordinary “Country” Liberians.

Separated into two distinct parts, based on Cooper’s sheltered existence in Liberia and her subsequent displacement in the United States after a coup topples Liberia’s one-party state, The House at Sugar Beach swings on a pendulum between the musings of a young girl through sing-song like lyricism and the firm cadence of an omniscient storyteller developing a critical consciousness. Nonetheless, the contradictions inherent in that consciousness are also apparent, as Cooper writes an editorial for her University of North Carolina student paper denigrating apartheid in South Africa when the apartheid system in Liberia is glaringly obvious. Cooper does a marvelous job, whether intentionally or unintentionally, of insinuating that most countries have apartheid systems-loosely based on affiliations of class, race, religion, socio-economic status, ability and sexuality-though they do not refer to it as such. Consequentially, Cooper seems to be wavering between defending the apartheid system in Liberia and satirizing it: “Everyone was still playing their assigned parts in the social structure of Liberia. The land barons, and Honorables who made up the Congo People were taking vacations abroad, visiting their many properties and farms around Liberia, and taking their families to the beach for day trips. The farm tenants, market women, and ‘gro-na’ boys who made up the Country People were tapping rubber trees for $40 a month, haggling with customers outside Abijioudi Supermarket and hanging out in front of Relda Cinema, looking for work.”

The first line of Sugar Beach, in fact, is about a self-perpetuating system of “pay-yourself” in which the rich get richer, and the poor suffer in silence or resort to stealing. “This is a story about rogues,” immediately contextualizes Liberia’s history, because it reveals the country’s very existence as imbedded in dishonesty and theft. Cooper exposes the white collar/blue-collar crime semantics when she says “Rogues broke into your house while you were sleeping and made off with the fine china. Thieves worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury.” What is interesting is that Cooper does not make the connection that members of her family could be placed in the category of rogues.

Cooper’s use of the pejorative term “Country” throughout the memoir must be deconstructed. This term is particularly jarring when she describes the inherent contradictions of celebrating Matilda Newport Day, as Newport was rumored to have led the defeat of native Liberians by lighting a cannon which annihilated native soldiers during the Battle of Crown Hill. This reminder of settler domination is enacted in the Battle of Crown Hill at Cooper’s elite school. The Battle of Crown Hill sounds almost like the machinations of a Civil War in Liberia, which determined, as in the United States, which forces would govern the state. It is clear, in this instance, that the history written by winners in Cooper’s account is a retelling of why the “Country” People were relegated to being ruled by the settlers, because they did not possess sophisticated weaponry such as cannons and guns. During Cooper’s retelling of the Battle, there emerges a critical consciousness that develops in hindsight: “It never occurred to me at the time that all across Liberia, native Liberians were getting more and more upset about the things that I took for granted: things that, for me, were as normal as the crow of the rooster every morning.”

Cooper seems to be re-writing history in her memoir, with revisionist flair. She delves into the history of Elijah Johnson, one of the first pioneers to make the trek to Liberia on the Elizabeth, the very first ship of free blacks to sail from New York Harbor in 1820. Her reconstruction of the lives of Elijah Johnson and company is an attempt to resuscitate the seamless web of voices of repatriated “freemen.” A child of the Liberian soil whose family can trace her ancestry to two different Liberian dynasties, the Coopers and Dennises, Cooper reveals to the reader that her grandfathers and their lineage benefited from their enterprising spirits in the midst of native naiveté. But her attempt at revisionist history is questionable and skewed, at best. The chapters that re-tell what may have happened to Elijah Johnson and the first settlers appear to be historical fiction, told through the lens of an 8-year-old. Cooper describes being a descendant of Elijah Johnson and Randolph Cooper as “birth into what passed for the landed gentry upper class of Africa’s first independent country, Liberia.” Her revisionist text is problematic because it portrays the colonists as humanitarians and the Africans as uncouth and barbaric: “Why were Africans still selling their brothers and sisters to European slave traders? The new settlers took this as another sign of their superiority to the native Africans, which would persist for decades to come.”

A post-colonial reading of The House at Sugar Beach would not be complete without an explication of how Cooper treats language. Throughout the text, Liberian vernacular and colloquial is interspersed with standard American English, bringing to bear the duality of language in Liberia. In the first few chapters of her memoir, Cooper goes through pains to explain to the reader who is not Liberian what certain phrases and aphorisms mean. Her explanations are satirical in that they are an over exaggerated appeal to an American consciousness, i.e. “Bolabo: ‘Aya Ma, na mind ya.’ Translation: ‘Gosh! How awful! Never you mind, Mrs. Cooper, please accept my apologies.” This is an attempt to make the memoir decidedly more accessible, yet it begs the question of audience.

The old debate about accessibility and universality becomes crucial at this juncture. So, too, is a discussion about how aesthetics comes across in the novel. Cooper says, “In Liberia, we cared far more about how we looked outside than who we were inside.” It is clear what aesthetic Liberians adopted based on their historical experience in the United States. According to Cooper, her mom was “tall and thin and light-skinned, and had the ultimate symbol of beauty in Liberia: long, silky, soft, white, people’s hair.” Anyone visiting Liberia today can see that this particular aesthetic still holds true, as the vast majority of women in Liberia can be seen donning any number of weaves, wigs, and hairpieces that resemble what the Coopers inherited.

In the same vein of the aesthetic, Cooper personifies the house at Sugar Beach as a place of solace from the occult forces of the neegee society, a place of quietude from the raucous Monrovia urban sprawl, and a refuge from the onslaught of impending war – a paradise. The “twenty-two-room behemoth my father had built overlooking the Atlantic Ocean” filled with servants and imported ivory also starkly contrasts what well-meaning foreigners only believe can exist in the so-called “developed” world:

This was our house at Sugar Beach: a futuristic, three-level verandahed 1970s era behemoth with a mammoth glass dome on top, visible as soon as you turned onto the dirt road junction a mile away. The house revealed itself slowly like a coquettish Parisian dancer from the 1920s. Emerging from the road’s first major pothole-big enough to swallow a small European car-your reward was a glimpse of the house’s sloping roof and glass dome, shining in the equatorial sun. Rounding the bend between the dense bush of plum trees and vines, you next got a glimpse of the house’s eastern wraparound second-floor porches, painted creamy butter, with a roasted red pepper trim hand selected for tropical contrast. Driving by the two huts that framed the outermost edge of the nearby Bassa village of Bubba Town, you then caught another tease: the sliding glass doors that formed the perimeter of the second-floor living room. But nothing could prepare you for the final disrobing as you crested the hill that opened up to the panoramic view of the house, back-lit by the thunderous waves and pounding surf from the Atlantic as far as the eye could see.

In many ways, the house at Sugar Beach is what Liberia represents for an elite few, opulence in the midst of filth and poverty. There is a smidgen of self-derision when Cooper says, “Shangri-la, Camelot, the Garden of Eden-the Cooper family’s perfect and perfectly grand paradise, where John and Calista Cooper could raise their perfect family, cosseted by well-paid servants, and protected from the ravages of West African squalor and poverty by central air-conditioning, strategically placed coconut trees, and a private water well.”

The house’s distance from ‘civilization’ on the outskirts of Monrovia is a testament of its iconoclasm. The violence that erupted during the April 12, 1980 coup and its subsequent aftermath does not spare that refuge, as soldiers enter Cooper’s safe haven of all women and rape her mother. This is the beginning of the end, of Liberia, of Cooper’s idyllic existence. When Cooper returns to Sugar Beach at the end of her account with her long-lost sister, Eunice, she finds it in the same state that she finds Liberia, gutted, ravaged, and spiritless. It is even rumored that President Samuel K. Doe used the house for capitol torture. The house once again transforms into a symbolic representation of something, yet this time it is more than the iconic lifestyle of the Cooper clan. At the end of Cooper’s memoir, the house represents all that was wrong with Liberia and all that needs to be deconstructed, gutted, and redesigned based on a new set of rules and principles.

Cooper evocatively juxtaposes the personal with the political. One of the most gut-wrenching accounts in the book is universally painful, as Cooper tenderly describes her family on the brink of collapse and her parents’ inevitable divorce. This poignant account reveals the universal pain of parental separation, a separation that leaves only women at sugar beach. The divorce also exposes womanizing as a national Liberian epidemic, as the source of Cooper’s parents’ separation is her father’s philandering ways, ways that seem to be numbly tolerated, if not glumly expected in Liberian society.

In juxtaposing the personal with the political, Cooper, in the same chapter, exposes the ridiculous manner in which President Tolbert and the Liberian state prepare with pomp and circumstance the visit of Jimmy Carter, and the anticipation of Amy Carter, the blond-haired, blue-eyed American first child: “We had worked with other Liberian kids on a gigantic mural that had a picture of a blond girl with braces surrounded by a bunch of African kids.” During that visit, Monrovia traffic halts, and the city is transformed into an African haven, only for Carter to stay in Liberia for a mere four hours while visiting Nigeria for three days. This is a reminder of Liberia’s status as America’s stepchild, a term that has since gained traction with the production of Nancee Oku Bright’s documentary of the same name. A spunky Mama Grand, Cooper’s grandmother, expresses indignation at Carter’s impropriety during a short 60 Minutes cameo: “You see? The president passed through here, and went to Nigeria and stayed there for days, and came here for few hours. That’s your daughter? . . . You pass by your daughter and go to somebody else’s place and stay two, three days, and you don’t even lay your head on one pillow in your house? Tell her [America]! We don’t like it. And she [America] must change her ways.”

Cooper continues on a trajectory of juxtaposing the personal with the political when she describes the lopsided governance structure in Liberia, the True Whig Party hegemony which started in 1890, and finally the beginning of the end of her family’s dynastic rule. She describes running smack dab in the midst of the cyclone that was Liberia’s rice riots in 1979, reflecting that “Liberia was like a pot of water that had been put on the stove at a slow boil and forgotten about.” That pot boils over on April 12, 1980, when a group of second-tiered soldiers led by an unknown Master Sergeant, Samuel Doe, storm the Executive Mansion, the seat of Liberia’s presidency, savagely kills President Tolbert, and rounds up all political affiliates of the True Whig Party.

Ten days later, on Cooper’s 14th birthday (April 22), thirteen of Tolbert’s Cabinet ministers are strapped to poles in the name of redemption and shot. Cooper’s description of her cousin [Foreign Affairs Minister] Cecil Dennis’ death is particularly stark: “We watched Uncle Cecil die, noting how he kept his head up until the end; how he didn’t look scared, but proud; how he didn’t beg, how the soldier kept missing him, and what that meant.” The phrase that Cooper hears over and over again following the assassination of some of her relatives, “Who born soldier? Country woman! Who born minister? Congo woman!,” is an echo of the peculiar manner in which Liberians rejoiced for the coming of a presumed messiah-turned-military monster. This phrase would precede the peculiar phrase “You kill my ma, you kill my pa, I will vote for you” that was chanted during Charles Taylor’s presidential bid and election in 1997.

According to Cooper’s account, the sequence of events that led to Liberia’s spiral into anarchy implicates the United States as a chess player arbitrarily and strategically knocking down board pieces at will. Copper reveals, through personal anecdotal evidence, that the whispered rumors about America’s support of Tolbert’s political downfall are true. One of the soldiers who gang rape her mother tells them: “You think the Americans are going to come and help you? Well, they back us.”

Cooper tells of returning to school and discovering that many of her classmates suffered similar fates during post-coup raids. This would mirror a fraction of the horrors many women in Liberia encountered during the civil war beginning a decade later. At this juncture in the memoir, Cooper questions the madness around her: “I had never dug deep enough to wonder how much native Liberians resented us. I had been shocked at the level of hatred expressed when those people started chanting, as Cousin Cecil was killed.” It is then, and only then, that Cooper questions what her adopted sister, Eunice, must be thinking or feeling: “Did Eunice feel that way too?” This eventually would be the catalyst for Cooper’s return to Liberia after a protracted exile in the United States.

In Part II of Cooper’s account, she discovers her niche not as the cherished heir to two Liberian dynasties, but rather the immigrant fleeing a nation in flames. It is here that the tale of migration and displacement is evoked. Like immigrant accounts that are post-colonial in nature, Sugar Beach expresses the painful alienation that most migrants feel, bordering on anxiety and depression. The act of straddling two worlds, not being wholly of one or the other, is certainly not a new literary trope here. Cooper spends her high school years being shuttled from one Southern enclave to another before the eventual demise of her father in Liberia-first to Knoxville, Tennessee, eventually settling on Greensboro, North Carolina, when her mother leaves her and her younger sister, Marlene, with their dad to return to Liberia. It is at this point that Cooper’s interest in journalism is piqued, with her eventually pursing this calling at the University of North Carolina.

Sugar Beach, part historical fiction, part memoir, part journalistic snapshot, eventually begs the question, as stipulated by post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, “What is the subaltern saying?” A conscientious reader, though riveted by Cooper’s account of her family’s history in what could only be regarded as a colony of the U.S., is constantly bombarded by the nagging sensation that Eunice’s perspective is undeniably missing from a book whose very essence is about a reunion between the legitimate prodigal daughter and the adopted child who never left. Eunice’s missing voice and consciousness is symbolic of all the missing histories of Liberia’s native class. Settler hegemony sits starkly in binary opposition to native or indigene objectivity in Sugar Beach. What was Eunice really thinking when she entered the Cooper compound, so jarringly different from what she knew? How did she feel being left behind during the Coopers’ many trips abroad? How did she feel remaining in Liberia when the Cooper girls were hauled off to the United States after the 1980 coup? These questions are akin to what post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak explores in her essay, “What is the subaltern saying?” In other words, reading 20th and 21st century works from a post-colonial perspective forces one to record the moments of glaring silence. Eunice is a symbolic representation of the subaltern subject. The very act of trying to re-tell Eunice’s story is a clear falsehood on Cooper’s part because it is akin to the missionaries or colonists attempting to relay what their subjects were thinking and feeling.

Cooper unintentionally reveals that when a child is prematurely separated from his/her family/familiar surrounding, as so many native children were bequeathed to settler families (this system still operates, albeit in a transformed manner), as Eunice had been when she moved into the Cooper house, psychological turmoil is sure to ensue. Eunice runs away from the Cooper house on a number of occasions as a result of this trauma of separation. And just as Cooper is born a hybrid, Eunice too becomes a hybrid as a result of being indoctrinated into a family whose wealth and privilege means vacations to Spain and the United States for the younger Cooper girls, imported luxury cars, acres upon acres of land perhaps illegitimately owned, guaranteed government posts which equate to more wealth accumulation, a place at the American Cooperative School whose tuition is in the thousands per year, and much more. This ultimately becomes the source of her ‘otherness’ when the Cooper girls leave Liberia for good and she must return to her family. She eventually becomes alienated from her siblings and her Bassa mother, who constantly refers to her as “Mrs. Cooper’s Daughter,” further separating her from her counterparts.

Eventually, Cooper tells us that Eunice gets pregnant by a Guinean national, sends her child off to live with his better off father, marries a preacher, and settles in a respectable job after the war, while Cooper builds a career as a globe-trotting correspondent with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, eventually renouncing her Liberian passport for something more wholesome, a claim to legitimacy as a bona fide American citizen. During this period, and throughout her exile years in America, Cooper’s communication with Eunice dwindles until she eventually does not think about Eunice at all, even as war is raging in Liberia.

Like many Liberians in the United States, Cooper assimilates into life in America, eventually becoming the poster child for a model immigrant. She travels to Iraq as an imbedded journalist to “liberate the besieged population of . . . Iraq.” The author’s blind faith in the American military machinery-as exemplified by her eagerness to recount Iraq’s ‘liberation’ from the annals of Saddam Hussein’s reign for a reputable and internationally referenced daily paper-stands in stark contrast to her earlier cynicism about America’s complicity in Liberia’s destruction. The severity of the situation in Iraq is described like an epic adventure rather than a war zone with innocent Iraqi civilians under siege: “I found myself actually praying for the war to hurry up and start.”

While Liberia is sinking into an endless pit of carnage, death and destruction, Cooper is ironically anticipating America’s illegitimate invasion of Iraq, and subsequent occupation. It is not until Cooper is catapulted in the battlefield and gets stuck in a tracked armored vehicle that she realizes that “I sure as hell didn’t belong in Iraq . . . I was in the wrong country fighting the wrong war . . . I shouldn’t die here . . . What a stupid place to die. What a stupid war to die in. If I’m going to die in a war, it should be in my own country.” So begins the needle prick that sends Cooper back to Liberia following Charles Taylor’s exile in 2003. She discovers that “I was home, and home was Hell.” And so begin a series of reunions, among them, a reunion with Cooper’s long lost sister, Eunice. In a frank conversation with Eunice, Cooper asks if the Bassa girl ever hated the well-to-do Coopers for abandoning her during the war. Eunice responds with “Ya’ll were a good Congo group. My Congo group was a different Congo group than my pa’s group.” In this particular account, Karl Marx’s theory of the dialectic being at work is glaringly true.

Even in the midst of all of its inherent, one-dimensional shortcomings, The House at Sugar Beach is an account of one woman’s history in the midst of many other histories. It goes to show that neutrality is a falsehood, and that subjectivity reigns supreme.

44 Responses to “Robtel Neajai Pailey”

Greetings Ms Pailey
I appreciate your work on Liberia and it is without a doubt you have Liberia and its people in your heart.
The problem with your analysis is it seems you read the book looking to confirm your already prejudice beliefs of the settlers.This is very evident because what you fail to mention is that most if not all elite societies are corrupt,and imperfect.Have you ever been critical of the Emir's in Nigeria who's children are worth hundreds of millions of petro dollars looted at the expense of the population?They were royalty like the leaders of Equitorial Guinea and the masses of people in both those countries were and are far worse off than the native Liberian.You were never colonized.There are no Afrikaaner farmers in the hinterland of Liberia it is a Black state.The founders of Liberia created it to one day be a unified Black state but they made mistakes.What never ceases to amaze me is people are always so forgiving with Whites but fellow Blacks I see your obvious hatred towards Helene Cooper.What did she ever do to you?Because she was born to privilege?Was that her fault?Was she suppose to hate herself?Many native Liberians sound as if they could stop her from being born they would.They cannot accept the fact that history cannot change itself.Just as the world and Africa is asking African Americans to forget slavery and move on,when are the native Africans going to move on?Liberia survives now only because of the international community.Liberia is totally dependent on the world.The early founders wanted to make Liberia a proud Black republic and you should be proud of that.Instead you play the victim attacking Helene Cooper for a life she never ask for.Not one bit of empathy about the tragedy of seeing her mother raped.Is it because you in your heart was glad?As a woman you cant even see the horrible crime in rape?What did her mother or the Congos do to deserve that?But you were quick to ask what her sister was thinking.As a young girl telling a story in the present tense,she could not ever know what Eunice was feeling when she did not know what she was feeling.You were way to hard on Helene who strikes me as a decent woman.
My family was among the settlers who came to Liberia from Georgia in the mid 1800's.I am proud of my heritage.I also know they were ignorant about Africa and only went by what they saw.The question you have to ask is-just what did they see in the natives to convince them that they were inferior?Now clues in Liberia history tells us they did not think it was racial,it was cultural.Now at the time that part of Africa and descended in savagery and ravaged by the slave trade.Do you even believe selling humans like cattle was wrong?The settlers did and they saw themselves in those in bondage.The native rulers were greedy and wanted to rape and sell settler women.The settler men protected them and escaped slaves from African slavers.So what I am saying is you are beautiful and strong so is Helene.She you and I love Liberia and this hatred is not the way forward.


Grebo girl said...

Thank you very much for an intelligent and very well written review. Your knowledge of our homeland and of the nuances and underneath of things shine through in every sentence. This is really an amazing work that you have done and we Liberians say thank you for telling the second story, the true story, through your review.

RockMusic said...

Thank you very much for the review. It was nicely written. I will have to order the book now! My mother's family had the same thing happen to them in Burma in 1960 when General Ne Win took over in a coup. They lost everything and fled to London. Very sad. I am also a fan of Liberian history and culture and that is what led me to your blog. Thank you!

John in Houston Texas USA