Saturday, January 25, 2020

Two Reviews: "Touched By Eternity: A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels" by Susan Harris and “Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir” by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

“Touched By Eternity: A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels”

Written by Susan Harris
Published by White Lily Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.99 ISBN 9-780994-986948

Rural Saskatchewan writer Susan Harris wears a number of hats. I've previously reviewed two of her Christmas alphabet books, but her literary prowess also includes inspirational and nonfiction work. It's appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Sunday School students may have read her biblical literature in class. Outside of writing, Trinidad-born Harris can be found presenting on her extraordinary religious experiences, and hosting an Access7Television series called "Eternity".

In Touched By Eternity: A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels, Harris explores her greatest passion, Heaven. Indeed, she claims to have an "obsession about Heaven," and if you read her new book you'll understand why. In clear, well-written prose, Harris tells the otherwordly story of her three near death experiences, each occasioned by a health crisis, and what she felt and observed on the proverbial "other side". Add anecdotes about angels, a description of fiery Hell, and a few visions, and you'll also glean why she's dedicated her book to "those who long for Heaven".

Born into a family of "old-fashioned Pentecostals," it wasn't uncommon for Harris to attend revivals where people spoke "in tongues," and the author writes of her own early ability to speak in tongues: "My English words ceased and strange words began to flow from my mouth in a foreign language I had not learned. It was a full-bodied, fluent sound that spouted at first then gushed like a stream from a rainforest mountaintop." Harris was eleven, and her own daughter spoke in tongues at age four. 

The book begins dramatically with a desperate phone call to her husband after her teeth began chattering, three days after a wisdom tooth extraction. I commend Harris for her ability to make readers feel they're in the room as she slowly drags herself from her dining room to a day bed in excruciating pain. It's 2005, and she's about to have her second near death experience. She sees "a spectacular castle," and writes that "The castle is blue, a luminescent, glorious, amazing shade that I haven't seen on earth. The sides and edges are trimmed with gold …" Heaven. And this is the beginning of the "remarkably ordinary" woman's drive to share her experiences, and "to carry peace, compassion, and the message that Heaven is gained only through Jesus Christ" to whomever will listen.

One of the angel stories is particularly interesting. After Harris and her husband marry at the Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, they're walking the Strip and get harassed and followed by a "youth of African-American descent". Suddenly a large man, "possibly of Mexican descent" with "black shorts that came down to his knees," appears and the youth halts, "as if he had bumped into something". Harris later reasons that the protector was an angel.   

Many may think of death as the ultimate negative experience, but Harris's deep grieving for a return to the peaceful "Heaven's meadow" of her second near death experience - while in the Melville Hospital - denotes that it's anything but.  



“Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir”
Written by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 ISBN 9-780889-776593

Sometimes a single line succinctly underscores the depths of the valley a person's experienced. Deep into Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali's memoir, Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir, the Torontonian's phrase "the first day I was homeless for the second time" leaps off the page, and it's an example of how this first-time writer both lives, and writes. Changes happen quickly, and the reader finds herself catching her breath.

Ali's memoir was published as part of the University of Regina Press's series The Regina Collection. These pocket-sized hardcovers emulate the U of R's motto, "a voice of many peoples," and "tell the stories of those who have been caught up in social and political circumstances beyond their control." Born in Mogadishu in 1985, Ali was removed from his mother's home at age five to join his father and the man's new family in Abu Dhabi, then relocated to a refugee camp in the Netherlands (sans Dad). The next move - with his abusive stepmother and her kids - was to Toronto's "Jane and Finch area," where in school "The relationships between the white teaching staff and the largely brown and black student body prepared many of [the students] for the cruel reality of a racist society and the undermining of [their] abilities." 

But uprooting, domestic physical abuse, school bullying, poverty, wondering how "to be Somali outside of Somalia," forced "Islamizing," and crime are only part of the story: effeminate Ali - nicknamed "ballet girl" - also recognized early in life that he was gay. As one who'd only known violence, the writer's early sexuality was also fused with pain, and he writes with brutal candour: "I … took to squatting by the highway and pushing thick branches in my ass. I kept going until I bled." 

After a fight in the Netherlands with a classmate compounded Ali's "diminished sense of self," he dived "headfirst, into the world of drugs," and by thirteen was numbing his life with Valium. He writes that by the time he'd moved to Canada, he could only observe other youth playing at a public pool: he "didn't know how to have healthy fun."

So many adjustments within such a short timeframe. From leaving the rebel-threatened country of his birth - where he watched wrestling on television while overhearing the screams from his stepsisters' bedroom as they were being circumcised - to experiencing the backlash of being a black Muslim post 9/11; from attending Ryerson (he was "kicked out" after three years) to a suicide attempt and living in a shelter, where residents had to "Watch out for broken crack pipes on the piss-soaked floors of the bathroom" … it's not a wonder that the "boy who felt unwanted by the world" grew into a homeless alcoholic.

But he also became a writer, praise be, and his "nomadic journey" would be of a different sort. "Revisionism to cover up our history has been pervasive," he writes of the immigrant Somali experience. Here's a story that speaks the truth.