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The closer you get, the further away you are

Going home may not be possible when a life straddles two continents.

By / June 27, 2006



I spent most of graduate school utterly envious of the first-generation Italian-Americans in my program. As children they had effortlessly picked up the language I had to work so hard to master.

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They had the accent and they had the looks. When we were in Italy, as long as they kept their passports out of sight, no one dreamed they were not natives.

So I was amazed when one of them said to me, "Actually you're the lucky one." With unexpected ferocity she cut short my response with the retort, "At least you belong somewhere."

It's the dark side of biculturalism: a sense that your roots are shallow in both places. Add to that the sting of racism, the cavernous gap between the first and third worlds, and the anxiety of adoption and you have some of the powerful currents enlivening two new memoirs.

The more literary of the two, Black Gold of the Sun traces the author's search for himself in Ghana.

Ekow Eshun was born in London in 1963, the child of a Ghanaian official working there. His parents had never planned to stay in England, and when Eshun was still small the family returned to Ghana for three years. But the father's job took them back to England again where, after a military coup in Ghana in 1979, they remained stuck in exile.

Eshun grew up as British as any of his neighbors except that he knew in his heart that he was not – and anytime he forgot, there was a racist slur or assault to remind him.

Finally, at the age of 33, facing the "spiritual exhaustion" of racism, he decides to return to Ghana "to find out what I was made of."

But Ghana holds no easy answers for Eshun. He lands there with the baggage of outdated memories and an inadequate grasp of Fante, the language he once spoke as a child.

He is baffled and dismayed to discover that Accra, the teeming capital where he once lived, feels so alien to him. Still hopeful, however, he heads to his grandfather's city, Cape Coast, only to discover there a repellent secret from his family's past.

Eshun tries to distract himself by sightseeing but fails. The country's historic tie to slavery is all around him and perpetually painful. The African-American tourists he sees irk him, as do many of the Ghanaians themselves.

Eshun finds no relief in an upbeatly Christian town where the shops have names like God Is Able Plumbing Works and Humble Yourself Bicycle Repair. Nor is he at ease on a bus displaying the motto: "We'll Get You There Alive."

At a wildlife park he spies more animals grazing in the garbage than in the wild. He visits the home of Asante royalty, but ends up feeling "as lost as the deposed king."

But his gloom is not without relief. Eshun, a former magazine editor, is a skilled wordsmith, and if his pessimism at times seems relentless, it is also leavened with insight, self-awareness, and flashes of humor. When he is finally able to embrace the gift of dual vision that his upbringing gave him and recognize the dignity of the battle being fought all around him – "the refusal to believe that you were anything less than human" – the reader finds recompense for having undertaken this dark journey with him.

Daughter of the Ganges tells the story of Asha Miró, an Indian adopted by a loving Spanish family who, at age 27, decides to return to India to explore her roots.

The first part of this book was published in Spain in 2003 and quickly became a bestseller. It is easy to understand why.

Interspersed with the story of Miró's journey are excerpts from her adoptive mother's diary and her own memories of early life in an Indian orphanage. The result is a collage of poignant images. The depiction of the spunky 6-year-old who incessantly begged the convent's head to find parents for her is as powerfully touching as is the story of the gentle, thoughtful family in Barcelona who made that dream come true.

Miró is not a prose stylist, and as she describes her trip to India she often resorts to statements like, "The emotions are overwhelming" and "I can find no words to describe the kind of anxiety I feel." But she nonetheless does a credible job of offering a straightforward account of her bicultural confusion.

To her dismay she remembers none of the Marathi she spoke as a child and finds herself feeling no particular connection to India. She agonizes over the chasm between Europe and the developing world and feels ashamed that she could never give up the luxuries her adopted life has afforded her.

But when she discovers that she has a family in India still missing her (in the second half of the book, written during another trip eight years later), she wholeheartedly embraces them and rejoices in a dual sense of belonging.

The second half of the book, does not read as well as the first, despite the drama of the family reunion. It bogs down with repetition and there are just too many breathless climaxes. But no reader who has read the beginning will want to stop before knowing the end.

The story Miró tells is one we'd all like to believe: that our planet is both small enough and kind enough to allow a child to journey safely from one side to the other and then back again, meeting with great love on both sides.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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