My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“I wanted to leave London. This is why. There were too many bombs going off. After joining America in her ‘war on terrorism’, our Prime Minister had started his own ‘war on terrorism’. Muslim houses were being raided all over the country and my Muslim friends felt as if they were under siege. I was stopped three times in one day and I don’t look anything like a Muslim.”
True. Anyone who has seen Zephaniah will know he looks nothing like a Muslim. He’s a cool, Rasta dub-poet known for his gap-toothed smile that reaches his eyes, his resemblance to Bob Marley and his streetwise lyricism that captured the imagination of teenagers. He is also famous for having turned down an OBE because it reminded him of ‘how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised’. Zephaniah does not mince his words, he is upfront and direct about issues close to his heart such as dyslexia (as a sufferer, he left school aged 13 unable to read or write), street politics and racism.
In this short but funny read Zephaniah leaves behind his poet persona and talks about his pilgrimage to China to study kung fu at a Shaolin Temple. As he battles jet lag, bemoans the lack of Vegan restaurants and revels in being perceived ‘like a god’ (the Chinese aren’t used to Rastafarians); he recounts the oddities of the country, its’ people and reflects on cultural image and how this might or might not match up with reality and how misinformed we really are about other people. Part humour, part travelog and part philosophical musing, this was an entertaining read and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I don’t know how much of it is true, but I really enjoyed the parts about Zephaniah’s dream to study with the monks on a snow-capped mountain. I had the same aspirations (still do!) and it was great to see them mirrored. There were many strange characters along the way such as the ‘kissy kissy’ woman, Sifu Iron Breath and Fat Thumb which were among the most memorable.
China is indeed a strange place if you do not know much about its culture. Kung Fu, or Wu Shu is probably the most famous thing people associate with it. However even I seem to forget that in China, not everyone knows or does kung fu. In fact those like Zephaniah and I who grew up on Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films that channelled the nobility and spirituality of Zen Buddhism, often end up disappointed by just how commercial and touristic the once-sacred temples have become. At one point Zephaniah muses on how Bodhidharma once left China to find enlightenment, but that everyone now comes to China to find it. There is a faint whiff of disillusionment, as he realises how most of its citizens are doing their utmost to be more ‘Western’.
“The pagodas have Buddhist holy writing carved on them and a history of the life of the deceased, but in China not everything is as it seems at first. Near the gate there was a pagoda that was extremely old. As I walked around it admiring the kung fu fighters using sticks and knives and doing various exercises, I saw a carving of a laptop computer, a digital camera and then a jumbo jet.”
Yet there are moments when Zephaniah finally feels the true spirit of Kung Fu, as on the last day of training he is granted special permission to perform with the monks. Donning his bright orange suit, he goes through each movement, trying to empty his mind and stay in unison with the collective. As he puts it, ‘it was like training in heaven’.
This was an impulse read, but I recommend this as an ideal book for young readers of age 12 upwards who might not like reading much. It’s very quick and would give them instant gratification. It is also quite good for those who might have reading difficulties.
If you are interested in short reads then I suggest you check out the www.quickreads.org.uk website for more on this series which is supported by the Arts Council England and World Book Day. You will find titles by authors such as Val McDermid, Maeve Binchy and Ian Rankin who agreed to collaborate. I think it’s a great way to try out authors and genres you might not be that interested in.
- Benjamin Zephaniah (wearepandorica.wordpress.com)
- Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘There isn’t enough anger in politics’ (guardian.co.uk)
- The real me at 18: the personal statements of five public figures | Richard Dawkins, Alan Johnson, Suzanne Moore, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Benjamin Zephaniah (guardian.co.uk)