Review of Kashamba Williams' Driven as part of Bargain Bin where gossip rag reviews books found for under £3 at charity shops and supermarkets.
'Turn this shit up,” is the opening line of the bombastic if not haphazard 2005 novel Driven by Kashamba Williams. The novel’s opening line is indicative of the high energy and spiritedness of the read, Driven is funny, carefree, perhaps careless, violent and cheeky. It is concerned with understanding the masculine, and how it is expressed through relationships with women and children in the context of an unnamed African American hood. It is ‘street lit’ but it engages seriously with its task and I think its grappling with the subject matter and its commitment to vibe — which often takes precedence over orthographical correctness and diligent editing — is ultimately successful.
The novel begins with Loretta and Marvin; Loretta becomes involved with Marvin who is a pimp and drug dealer at 17. When accompanying Marvin on a drug deal turned sour she ends up in prison for 18 years, Loretta remains faithful and deeply in love. Marvin is not arrested but is eventually killed in a street brawl leaving his son Nasir orphaned. When Nasir grows up he (consciously) adopts his father’s drug dealing and womanising ways, he impregnates two women, Nakea and Sonya, who become dangerously obsessed with him but Nasir wants neither of them; instead he covets Farren, the well educated Madonna from a two parent home. Towards its end the novel rushes to a hasty conclusion, ending on a cliff hanger as Nakea, aided by a newly released Loretta, becomes increasingly threatening and Nasir’s relationship with Farren is put in jeopardy.
Driven is the fourth of 11 novels published by Kashamba Williams which all seem to play in a similar terrain, African American hood dynamics, ‘street lit’. It is material that Driven’s hood is unnamed — which is not the case in all of Williams’ books — as this is exemplary of the central tension in the novel, that of specificity: the presence of it and the lack thereof. Throughout, Williams timemarks the story with specific references to early 2000s and late 20th century music and film, but never does she name the city that her novel is set in, nor does she furnish the novel with any specific descriptions of place. Further, many of Williams’ characters do not have any real sense of interiority, notably the motivations behind Loretta’s many puzzling decisions remain mysterious. My most generous read suggests that Williams is most interested in portraying an environment and tableau, she is speaking to many hoods in many places and is penning — as Jane Campion said of the Western — the hood as “mythic space”, the hood as an imaginary and a playground in which many in film, TV and literature have played. Following a similar logic, one can see the characters’ lack of interiority as a choice that Williams has made because it is not the individual but the archetype which she is interested in and not the personal but the interpersonal which she is reproducing. It is absolutely true after all that the dialogue between Williams’ characters is consistently natural and compelling, Williams has a firm grip on voice.
There is one point however where voice breaks, in the chapter “Testing, Testing” where Nasir’s GED teacher sits him down to deliver some home truths. Here the central philosophy of Driven emerges. A conspicuous switch in tone alerts the reader to the fact that suddenly Williams has taken the wheel. As Ms. Hurdle delivers sage advice on fatherhood, parenting, relationships between men and women, the hinge themes of the novel solidify. In Driven, women and children are reflections of the men in their lives, Farren is a reflection of the man Nasir wants to be, his baby mommas are bad angles which the eye avoids. Marvin III as Nasir’s “seed” is a reflection of his future, something which lengthens his father’s shadow. For women and children however, men do not glint off of their surface. They are subsuming. Women logically therefore become crazed baby mommas and children fashion themselves into tragic reproductions of their fathers. This is the theory Williams proffers as to the difference between men and women and her explanation for the paternal absenteeism which is so prevalent in the novel.
Williams’ novel is no masterpiece, but what is commendable is her level-eyed lack of judgement and her refusal to condescend the people she has portrayed. Through this, she was able to comment meaningfully on gender dynamics in the ‘mythic space’ of the hood and find success in crafting real and authentic voice in an otherwise rather slapdash novel.