Review: Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis
Mama Can’t Raise No Man was recently reported to be the only fiction debut by a black male novelist to have been published in Britain this year. It is a dubious privilege for any first novel to bear, but beyond this woeful statistic, it is also an urban coming-of-age story about masculinity, fatherhood, crime, punishment and psychic rehabilitation by a young novelist who writes with insight into and compassion for the world he dramatises, as if from its inside. In this insider mentality, Mama Can’t Raise No Man poses questions about the value of authenticity in fiction and also, obliquely, the burden of representation.
Travis’s first book, Prisoner to the Streets (2013) was a non-fiction account of his early life in the gangs he encountered while growing up in Tottenham, North London. The cast of Mama Can’t Raise No Man is not far removed from that milieu; Duane Ricketts is its protagonist and the novel opens just as he is sentenced to a prison term on assault and drug-related charges — his third time in jail before the age of 25.
The story unfolds in epistolary form with an ensemble of voices from Duane’s world on the outside. As he reflects on his life through letters and struggles to come to terms with his past – an absent father, a single mother who evicted him from his home at the age of 15 and all his toughest lessons learned on the streets – we discover that he is a sometime absent father (of twins) himself and a wayward boyfriend. A plot unravels gradually, although Duane’s confinement gives the narrative a static quality, and it is the emotional and psychological charge between characters that drives the story forward.
Duane is deeply rooted in estate life and every character speaks in distinct vernacular — part Caribbean patois, part London street slang. The older generation – his mother Audrey, his Aunty Jan and Uncle Leeroy – use Jamaican pigeon while the ‘yutes’ talk in a quick-fire rap-slang that is packed with acronyms and bears a coded, street identity and a muscular tone. His friend Redz writes:
Me and you have been bruddas from day one… we’ve been side by side on the front-line on some real Troy types of beef. We’ve seen mad paper together, got rushed together even beat couple chicks together LOL. The only thing that keeps man apart is jail-time.
Grammar, spelling, vocabulary is irregular and its effect is vivid with no hint of artifice. Unlike those authors who have studied the social realities of their subjects and carefully reproduced a vernacular such as Gautam Malkani (who used a university research thesis on South Asian ‘rude boys’ in West London as the basis for his book Londonstani) or Stephen Kelman (who reconstructed the Ghanaian patois he heard and jotted down on buses for his novel Pigeon English), Travis has a natural, seemingly effortless fluidity to his prose.
Alongside the strengths are the imperfections of first time novel writing; characterisation veers towards stereotype at times: Duane’s wise-talking Auntie Jan, his womanising uncle Leeroy, his two-timing father and his stoic single mother forced to bring two children up on her own. Every character feels already known, too generic. The epistolary format becomes a straitjacket that suffocates dramatic tension — characters end up expounding thoughts and feelings in monologue, or they report action rather than perform it in ‘real’ time. Daune’s father, for instance, begins defending his shortcomings in one letter, but falls into a mini lecture on the socio-economic odds stacked against black fatherhood:
Life in general is a test. And raising a son especially a black son in an area with hardly any tangible prospects or prominent male figures to look up to as role models is a test within itself. Not to mention the fact that the same area is known for low income, crime, police, rivalry, inequality, broken homes, drugs, violence and prostitution.
Travis makes up for these failings with a keen, complex exploration of black masculinity that humanises the male characters, however unfaithful and unreliable they are, and captures the plight of black single motherhood too. A crisis in masculinity places an unfair burden on the book’s mothers but Travis’s men make the point that single motherhood is so entrenched in black communities that it leaves no place for fathers, even the most dedicated of fathers like Duane. Leeroy is one among many men who console Duane with stories of forced filial separation: ‘Pam, took ‘way my eldest daughter when you was bout 2. Then my 2nd baby mudder, Monica, took ‘way my boy and me daughter when you were bout 10. And you see how that one deh mash me up bad. I’ve been there Neph, I’ve worn your shoes.’
Other men are deliberate deserters. Audrey is left to fend for her children after she falls pregnant for the second time, and when Duane reconnects with his father, he blames him for denying him a well-adjusted manhood:
What kinda man does that bruv? I mean you just ducked out on man at age 4! Why did you let me grow without you? You left me to figure out this manhood journey thing on my jacks. Nigga you never taught me shit, not to fight, to ride a bike, fix a puncture, none of that sort of shit… I felt I had to wear the trousers and do your job.
There is no nuclear family in Travis’s world but family loyalty is paramount nonetheless. Duane dotes on his children, he adores his sister, Marrisa, and despite the tensions, is loyal to his mother. There are biblical tones to the drama around family with a twist on the Cain and Abel story at the end and an exploration of the extent to which the sins of fathers are visited upon children.
Duane’s story is a refreshing one: he depicts marginalised, often demonised, young black sensibilities which represent the silenced, working-class voice that Kit de Waal has spoken out about for its absence in mainstream fiction. More complicated though is the mission statement by Travis’s publisher to champion ‘original and authentic stories told in creative new ways’. On the face of it, it is it difficult to see the original aspects of Travis’s story; contemporary narratives of black lives so often fixate on crime, violence, male infidelity and the grit of street life. The cycle of criminality that Duane and his fellow ‘roadmen’ are trapped in has shades of films made years ago such as Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy and Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood.
What sets this novel apart, perhaps, is its deliberate aversion of tragic outcomes, and its purpose to be more than fiction, or so it seems. Duane is a victim of circumstance, born in disadvantage, as he comes to realise, but he still refuses to be a tragic victim. The final twist condemns him to yet more emotional hardship but by this time, Duane has grown so much as a man that he can take what comes.
Travis places rousing messages of hope and strength into the mouths of his characters that appear to speak directly to readers, floating above the fiction and almost – but never quite – rupturing our suspension of disbelief: ‘You can’t replace a mother our mothers are key. But so are our fathers,’ Leeroy tells Duane at one point. ‘Stop being angry with life so you can receive that love and give it back when you step in the home. Remember the streets is how you once lived, it’s not who you are. Know yourself’, says Aunt Jan to him at another. The boundary between fiction and motivational self-help manual seems to blur in these moments, and Travis appears to reach a hand out directly to his most vulnerable imaginary readers. If young men in prison read Mama Can’t Raise No Man, they will undoubtedly be uplifted by it. Their lives might even change because of it.
Mama Can’t Raise No Man
OWN IT!, London, 2016, hb
235pp ISBN 0 9954 5891 X £9.99