Neo-Naturalism's Bittersweet Nativity
IMANI ALL MINE
By Connie Porter
Houghton Mifflin Co.
212 pp., $22
A teenage mother, desperate for a handhold in the long climb through a childhood in the ghetto names her child Imani or "Faith." Though the simple significance of the appellation may initially seem shallow and even trite, it's this almost innocent, simple connection that gives Imani All Mine its poignancy. The account of child mothering child becomes a story of epic determination which grabs readers and takes them on a ride through a world about which they know little, if anything.
We follow the life of Tasha, a street-smart, scholastically bright, incredibly strong 15-year-old who narrates her own story with a colorful, spirited voice that refuses to falter or halt regardless of all that she faces: the ever-increasing violence and crime in her inner-city Buffalo neighborhood, the blatant drug-dealing of her next-door neighbor, the fact that her child, Imani, is both daughter and granddaughter of single mothers.
The struggle to integrate her life as a mother with her life as a motivated, bright students is complicated by the emotional issues attached to the rape which she has been a victim and her heart wrenchingly adolescent yearning for the life of the girls she sees in Seventeen. Her survival in spite of such daunting obstacles becomes for us a shining example of the triumph of the human spirit.
I'll admit that I was attracted to the book just because I like stories of the underdog. I'll even admit that the deal was sweetened by my personal fascination with African-American inner-city life. But this book is one that transcends those interests. I found myself reading passages again because they were so full of a simple, quiet strength of character and intensity of spirit which allows the narrator-heroine to endure the trials that occasionally strike the reader dumb with incredulity. Despite a few rough edges, the book manages to involve readers deeply in the emotional current of the story. While the novel falls down occasionally in the use of an inner-city dialect which author Connie Porter has trouble translating into text, the skilled use of deliberately, nakedly inelegant language and expressive imagery fills readers with the lyric of her tale and almost unwittingly immerses us in the complexities of Tasha's emotional life.
Perhaps it's the soft, unexpected shock of every sequential tragedy presented in Imani; perhaps it's the rather unprecedented portrayal of innocent joy in teenage motherhood; or perhaps it is just the accepting, enduring clarity and strength of the main character, and the renewal of faith in the human spirit-whatever the case, Porter has uplifted a typically unheralded heroine and established herself as capable of writing with power and grace in a context unbraved by many other authors.