He relives some of this as he speaks, something he has studiously avoided until now; his hands are shaking in his lap. When he sees me watching his hands, he shoots me a look of accusation, as if I have caught him out.
That’s from Little Liberia, Jonny Steinberg‘s latest impossibly good book about two Liberian men who come to Staten Island, one in 1986, the other in 2002. Steinberg is a South African scholar and writer. You can buy Little Liberia via Amazon UK. (I got my copy 12 days after ordering it, and shipping costs were not bad at all.)
Rufus, one of the men, has established himself as leader of Liberians in Staten Island by the time Liberian refugees start flooding the borough’s Park Hill neighborhood. Jacob arrives toward the end of the war. He is shocked to find that there are no reliable immigration and health services–the most pressing concerns for many Liberians in the community. The two men clash. Jacob wonders if the politics of Americo-Liberian exclusion have replicated themselves across time and the Atlantic. Steinberg summarizes the concern: “Could it be that wherever Liberians settled, some among them would become Congos, the rest helpless indigenes?”
Steinberg brings Rufus and Jacob to life through his attentiveness to their words, actions, and demeanor, which he observed during two years of shadowing them in New York and Liberia.
One of the most powerful passages in the book comes when Jacob describes his first reaction to America: He was infuriated.
…the level of development…it reinforced my belief that the Americo-Liberians had used Liberia as their farm, their dumping ground, their pet project. They had their homes here in America. They…went to hospital here when they were sick. I lost all respect for Americo-Liberians; for all those years, sending their children overseas and leaving us in the dark.
Beyond the substance of the book, I love Steinberg’s transparency about his interactions with his subjects, and how he wrestles to interpret what they are thinking and saying. “One is always performing, even in the most private corridors of one’s soul,” he writes. He describes Jacob’s unhappy response to the book manuscript, interprets the source of this unhappiness, and discusses the process of revision.
I also admire how Steinberg captures the small and large humiliations people suffer–humiliations that are only apparent to an outsider who is empathetic and understands the context.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. I’d love to hear other thoughts.
You can buy the book here. You can read an excerpt from another review I very much liked here. You can read a short profile I wrote of Steinberg here (pdf, p. 18)