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Bright Felon: Autobiography & Cities by Kazim Ali. Wesleyan University Press. 2009.

Bright Felon

Reviewed February 3, 2012 by Tyrone Williams.

Kazim Ali’s “autobiography,” Bright Felon, is a beautifully written collection of epigrammatic meditations that traverse the various values and borders of the East and West as internalized by the subject at, if not in, hand. For one convention of autobiography is the multiplication of a self kept at a distance; the “author” reviews the many selves that have preceded his or her current identity. However, the scare quotes around autobiography here do not simply signal that this is yet another fictionalized recounting of a life, the fiction in this instance being both deliberate (“I will not say” and its variants constitute one of the leitmotifs woven throughout the fifteen narratives that comprise the book) and an intrinsic feature of all autobiography, since “You really don’t know yourself so well.” Rather, the qualifying upside-down commas point to the absence of causality, an overarching narrative of a “life.” However much they call, respond to, and echo one another, these fifteen narratives are, finally, separate ruminations that begin and end in medias res. Bright Felon simply starts and stops, framed by the figure of the mother: “Paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother” and “Kind mother your kin.” Ali goes on to note that “hadith, meaning traditions of the prophet,” were believed to have been passed down by his wives. Thus the centrality of women to this tradition within Islam means that there is always a “body of the prophet’s wife…between us.” His conclusion? “In which case there really is something to grieve at death: that the soul/is wind, not immortal.” This is not Ali siding with religion-inspired (or justified) misogyny. Before the law of the father, wives and sons fall short:

Go back upstairs to work.

An empty set of sentences or syntax. Being then unable to make

The subtitle of this book is “Autobiography and Cities”; each narrative bears the title of a city, town or neighborhood in which our peripatetic narrator has dwelled, through he has wandered. Travel is here a search for a voice, for a right to speak and write outside the law of the father in order to communicate with the Father prior to law, to language:

Any teacher of a sacred text will tell you when he’s teaching you that
pronunciation is of utmost importance and that the power of the word
is inherent in the unknown language itself.

Why, for example, nammaaz must be recited in Arabic or the vedantic
chants spoken in Sanskrit. Or Talmud remain in Hebrew.
It is not a mere rhetorical flourish of translation but another form of
distance from G-D, who if truly omnipotent or omnipresent must exist
without language which even in its mortal form functions as a form of
distance—necessary perhaps—from meaning.

I am on a rescue mission.

In its search for salvation as well as to salvage, Bright Felon is similar to Barbara Henning’s recent autobiography Cities and Memory. In that book Henning recounts her travels from Detroit to New York, New York to Calcutta, Calcutta to New York, New York to Tucson, and, most recently, her return to New York. In Bright Felon our peripatetic narrator traverses small towns scattered throughout the New York and Pennsylvania states (Carlisle, Rhinebeck, Beacon, etc.), though the second half of the book is organized around the metropolises New York City, Paris, Cairo and Barcelona. In narrative structure, however, Bright Felon recalls Charles Baxter’s novel, First Light. In both works the narrative of recall proceeds in reverse, going from adulthood to childhood. First Light recounts the movement from one end of human life to the other; however, Bright Felon covers only about a twenty year period in the narrator’s life. As much as I enjoyed First Light and Cities and Memory (I have taught both), I was struck by the poignancy of loneliness that suffuses Bright Felon, a loneliness resulting from, in part, a singular, unsolvable dilemma at the book’s core: what does it mean to be a believer in Allah and a gay man? What does it mean to obliterate oneself in order to save oneself?

To speak against the enemy when the enemy was myself.

That’s really what Satan meant when he spoke to Jesus in the desert:
I will give you all of this if you fall down and worship me.

How easy it would be to do it: to bow down and worship the Satan
inside: my hatred of myself.

This dilemma differs from its Judaic and Christian versions for several reasons, chief among them, as Ali himself notes, is the absence of an explicit prohibition against homosexuality in the Qur’an. While Henning’s narrative is driven, in part, by her search for spiritual renewal and sustenance in Buddhism, Ali’s is less about searching for something than it is a manifestation of his desire to embrace oblivion: “Now, years later, I wonder why no one could see my deep sadness, my desire to disappear.” Disappearance manifests itself here as silence—“Because I couldn’t say it, to myself, to him, to anybody, I couldn’t tell why I had been with him, why I had left him”— as anorexia—“I throttled myself and became thinner. And then thinner.”—and as asceticism: “I stripped myself down, left behind my job, gave away my things and left Jason to move back…” Despite the Qur’an’s silence on sexual orientation, these modes of oblivion comprise the “final” solution to the intractable contradiction Ali faces: how is he to surmount the distance between the man he has become and the man he believes he can—or should—be for Allah? Of course, this distance is the very definition of sin; but here, sin is as much a result of Islam’s composite of religious practices in the “real” world of social taboos, family pressure and general disapproval as it is Ali’s own internalization of his “crime” against Allah, nature and society.

In other words, Bright Felon tracks a man simply moving from, perhaps fleeing to, city after city, from America to Europe and back again, from loneliness to lover to loneliness again, and so on, without ever finding solace, much less peace: “I came around the world to sort it out or did I come to begin another sentence.” Propelled by the pleasures of a potentially interminable text, he can search for something (perhaps a lover to relieve, however temporarily, some of the unbearable estrangement evoked so passionately in these narratives) as long as he never finds it; he is a nomad incapable of settling in (for?) any one place on this planet. Lest we over-sympathize with his existential crisis, however, the narrator makes it clear that he is no saint. He can be cruel, selfish, and self-absorbed: “One more way to trick myself because in this case I did the betraying and I did the leaving.” Indeed, it is only Ali’s unflinching honesty and delicate but trenchant prose that elevates this work above an exercise in mere narcissism. Bright Felon (the title is taken from a fragment of a poem by Gillian Connolly) is a troubling work of unrelieved sadness and relentless self-examination and yet, for all that, it is also a monument to a yearning for oblivion, a desire so unimpeachable at its center it reminds us that there are no happy endings—only intervals of relief.


Tyrone Williams's new books are Howell and Adventures of Pi. He lives in Cincinnati where he teaches fiction and theory at Xavier University.

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