Book Review: Submergence by J. M. Ledgard


“submergence” illustration 2014 by jpbohannon


There are some novels that do more than just examine a life, dissect a relationship, recount an adventure. They tell you things you do not know, often things you could not know. J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence is such a novel.

James More is a secret operative for the Secret Inteligence Service , dropped into Somalia under the guise of a water engineer and captured by al-Qaeda jihadists. Tortured–physically, mentally, and psychologically–he survives by remembering his past and observing keenly his present.  A very big part of his past is a recent love affair that he had the previous year in France with Danielle (Danny) Flinders, a bio-mathematician and a renowned expert in life at the bottom of the ocean. While More is submersed in chaotic Somalia, Flinders is on a dangerous diving expedition off Greenland where she will take the submersible, Nautilie,  into an oceanic fault to get samples of the microbiotic, chemosynthetic life that exists there.

More–an ancestor of Sir Thomas More, his father was Thomas More XVI–is an Englishman who is very fond of his native home. His memories of the stone walls and green fields, the beautiful churches and the glorious music are often set against the stark, impoverished sites that his captives periodically move him to.  Flinders, part French, part Australian, is more of a free spirit, a rootless and rogue scientist, whom this affair with More has seemingly tamed. Her thoughts are perhaps larger, going beyond the current events of Muslim Africa and modern conflicts, and contemplating human origins–and extinction, the primeval soup that is the ocean, and the mythic and cosmic implications of the studies she runs.

The actual love affair itself is quick and remembered periodically by James and Danny, as he is subjected to the harsh world of jihadists on the run and she on the prehistoric world of the ocean deeps.  But although it is quick–a week or so at Christmas–it creates a lasting–and perhaps permanent–bond for the both of them.

cover of the hardback edition of Submergence

cover of the hardback edition of Submergence

But then James is taken.

In the novel–informed so greatly by current events- we learn much about jihadists–about their training camps, their dreams, their aspirations, their hatreds, their violence. We see the extreme depredations that allows young boys to decide that the promise of Paradise to martyrs is much more attractive than the life they actually live.  We see primitive societies and their primitive justice. And we see the harsh landscape of Somalia.  We see the jihadists’ voiced hatred of things Western, yet their fascination with it at the same time. (Once very popular, Rambo fighting alongside the Afghans against the Soviets has been replaced by Disney animation. The leader of James’ captors sees Bambi as an allegory of the “Crusader” in the Muslim world.)

We learn about Islam, about the djinn and the promises of Paradise.  More’s education allows him to intelligently compare Islam with Christianity, for both good and bad, to discuss literature and his ancestor’s Utopia, and to give insight into the covert maneuvers of both sides in the “war on terror.”

And we learn much about violence.

We also learn a great deal about the ocean’s floor and the creatures that live there and the (few) people who explore it.

None of this is pedantic, however.  In fact, it is fascinating. It is couched in James More’s adventure story: his struggle to survive day in and day out propels the story forward. His memories and thoughts are what tie it together. Her memories and knowledge add to the banquet.

In all it is a wonderful read.

J. M. Ledgard

J. M. Ledgard

J.M Ledgard is a journalist who has been the political and war correspondent for the Economist. He now lives in Africa, where he consults developing countries on technology and risk.  His first novel Giraffe (2006) was inspired by the slaughter of 49 giraffes at a zoo in Czechoslovakia in 1975, which Ledgard uncovered in 2001 when he was working there as a correspondent.  Submergence is his 2nd novel.


A Chance Meeting: MK Asante on public radio

I rarely drive, so I rarely listen to the radio. That might not make sense for many, but I know that some will understand. The radio is simply not part of my home life.

But anyway,there were reasons for my being behind the wheel this past Thursday and I was listening to RadioTimes on Public Radio (Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia.) The guest was MK Asante, a hip-hop singer, filmmaker,  writer and creative-writing/film teacher at Morgan State University.

I was blown away.buckautographed

Asante was plugging his new book, Buck: A Memoir about his life in “Killadelphia” during the 1990s.  At the same time it is the story of his family’s breaking apart and then coming back together.

Asante was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia.  His parents’ marriage disintegrated, his idolized brother had a series of run-ins with the law and was imprisoned, his mother suffered from clinical depression, and he grew up in the “hood” full of anger, confusion, and energy.

This coming-of-age story is probably more familiar than it ever should be, but, oh, the language itself is extraordinary. Like nothing you ever heard.

Here is the first paragraph of the book: (Asante reads it in the interview attached below):

The Fall

      The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in air like sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed.

     Cracks, splits, bits.

     The rawest crews in Philly are all three letters,“  he tells me. I read the cover through the tobacco guts and weed flakes:  “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson: ‘I’m Not Good.  I’m Not Bad. I’m Just Trying to Survive in this World.’”

Awakening crews in a rude fashion
On they ass like Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant•

      I do this–spit lyrics to songs under my breath–all day, every day. The bars just jump out of me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.

     Dumps, spreads, evens.

    “JBM–Junior Black Mafia. Of course us,  UPK–Uptown Killaz.  PHD–Play Hero and Die.”

     Tears, licks, wraps.

    “HRM–Hit Run Mob. EAM–Erie Ave. Mobsters.  ABC–Another Bad Creation.”

    Folds, rolls, tucks. Another perfect blunt, jawn looks like a paintbrush.

    Jawn  can mean anything–person, place, or thing. Sometimes if we’re telling a story and don’t want people to know what we’re talking about, we’ll plug in jawn in for everything. The other day I was at the jawn around the corner with the young jawn from down the street. We get to the jawn, right, and the ngh at the door is all on his jawn, not nowing I had that jawn on me. Man, it was about to be on in that jawn.

“ Wreck Your Ears (Can Do),” The B.U.M.S. (Brothers Under Madness), 1965

This is language at its most alive, its most energetic. (To hear him read it is even more electrifying.)

Asante mentions in the interview that the first book that turned him on was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Besides the plot of the novel–drugs, sex, wildness–which he was surprised to learn could be the focus of serious literature, it was the style of the writing that attracted him, the energy, the speed, the exuberance.  As he said, from it he learned he didn’t have to worry about commas.

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

MK Asante’s journey from the hood to plugging his books on national radio is one story. But it is a minor story.  The true story is the language of this memoir. It is hypnotizing, energetic, alive and present.  It puts me to shame.

In two more weeks I begin teaching a class in creative writing. My students are quite a distance from the world that MK Asante grew up in.  Nevertheless, I am opening class with readings from the book.  It is a lesson in being true to oneself, in being true to one’s voice, in being able to plumb one’s life for the story we all need to tell.

Here is the interview in its entirety: (this is Radio Times web site and will feature the day’s current show. Scroll down to the middle of the page to hear MK Asante on yesterday’s show. As time passes, the 8/22/2013 show will be placed in the easily accessed archives. And check out MK Asante’s web page, above, to see trailers, past works, etc.)


A good story … and a story of goodness

Adams Daramy

Adams Daramy
photo © 2013 Malvern Preparatory School

Last summer, an African student at my school asked me to help him with his college application essay.  I was surprised–I had never taught him, had never actually met him before, although I knew who he was.  He was very polite, wide-smiling, and serious about his studies.  When I read his essay, I knew why.

Adams Daramy was born in Sierra Leone during the height of its civil war, the brutal Blood Diamond wars.  By the age of six, he had witnessed mutilation and rape, had seen dead bodies in the street and children trained to kill, and had eluded mass killings and general thuggery. He had seen vultures pick at not-yet-dead bodies and had barely escaped being forced himself into the military.  He told me of the favorite intimidation tactic of the rebels–chopping the limbs off civilians–and how once he was forced to stand in one of two lines and how his line was spared, but the other were not.  And all this by the time he was six years old.

His mother, wisely, got him out of there.

Because of the wars, Sierre Leone had no infrastructure to process Adams’ coming to the United States, so Adams had to live for a year in the Ivory Coast.  He worked that year as a tailor’s apprentice, sending money back to his mother and learning still yet another language–the French spoken in the Ivory Coast. In his college essay, he described how wonderful it was having a morning coffee at a shop down the street before he went off to work.  He was now seven, the age when most of the children we know are taking their first steps off to school.

And yet, in his essay, he did not dwell entirely on the bad. He recalled how kite flying was a favorite activity in the coastal town of Abidjan and because of his tailoring skills, how he was able to make some wonderful and beautiful kites.  He was proud of them and smiled brightly when telling me. But mostly, he wrote about his mother. He wrote about her love, her sacrifices and her courage.

This was all in 2001.

Fast forward now to 2013.  Adams had made it to the United States and lived with an uncle who had also escaped the horror that was Sierre Leone.  He enrolled in a good prep school where he succeeded in academics, athletics, activities and service. For his senior year, his classmates elected him president of the Student Council.  And all this success–the academic challenges, the championships on the track and field,  the rewarding service, the broadening activities and the solidarity with his classmates–all this came about while he was working long hours as an aide in a retirement home, sending the money home to the mother he had not seen in 12 years.

Yesterday, Adams Daramy graduated from high-school.  For the past three months, his classmates have been working very hard fund-raising and pestering a sometimes intractable bureaucracy to enable Adams’ mother to travel to the United States and be present at her son’s graduation.  On June 3, his mother was denied a visa.  The offices of Representative Pat Meehan worked overtime to see if they could have that decision changed, though they offered little hope. On June 4, the decision was reversed and she could come. Now, intricate travel plans had to be quickly expedited.

At midnight, ten hours before Adams Daramy would graduate from a prestigious American prep school, he embraced his mother, Grace Sankoh.

It was the first time in twelve years he had seen the woman he had written about so lovingly in his college application essay.

As with all graduations, there were speeches and homilies, awards and recognitions yesterday.  But nothing spoke so loudly about goodness and hope and friendship and love than the reunion of Adams Daramy and his mother.