Japan is a culture filled with intriguing history, traditions and characters. Over the years there have been many tales of the samurai but rarely told from the perspective of a person of African descent. In The African Samurai, Craig Shreve has created a fascinating historical novel about Yasuke, the real-life first foreign-born samurai who served under Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s most powerful feudal lords.
The African Samurai is more than battles and warlords but is a story about home, loss, identity, freedom and, above all, hope. Throughout this captivating novel, Shreve shares wisdom in vividly crafted scenes without being sentimental. For example in the following passage, Shreve touches upon the question of whether people are that different from one another:
“So many reminders of home, in this place [Japan] so far from what should have been my home. The traditions of painted faces and carved masks, and song and dance. The belief that we can be guided by the spirits of our ancestors. Even the legends, of holy mountains and gods that fought over the land. All these things made me wonder if maybe men everywhere were the same.”
The story begins with the insightful words “Home is a lost place, more dream to me than memory” and goes on to describe the laying of turtle eggs on a beach where the protagonist’s family and other members of his tribe go to gather some of the eggs. Then a second trip is made two months later and the reader witnesses the birthing of a hundred tiny turtles. “I wanted to believe that they were crawling out to sea to find their mother, to reunite themselves…the first trip to the sea had been to gather food. The second trip had been to learn why to leave as many [eggs] as possible, to take only what was needed…I remember the turtles, rising out of the sand and making their way to the sea. It was the last time I was free.”
What does it feel like to not be free? Shreve explores freedom, or the lack of it, in his novel with empathy and powerful imagery. With the strong development of the main character, we see a young child from Africa being sold and tortured and trained to be a soldier who has to kill others in order to survive. Shreve tackles these terrifying scenes of horror and pain with sensitivity. His observations are intelligently written and help the reader understand the struggles of this boy who was taken from his home and forced to live, without any choice, in India and, then as an adult, in Japan. It is impressive how Shreve combined and balanced the geographies and historical events in this novel while, at the same time, imagining the life of the protagonist. Yasuke has to do some atrocious things to survive and has horrific things done to him yet Shreve has created a compassionate and likeable character and through Yasuke, Shreve provides insight to thoughtful questions of belonging and identity.
The question of whether Yasuke is free also comes to the forefront of the novel when he arrives in Japan with an Italian priest and Jesuit missionary named Alessandro Valignano. Yasuke, or known as “Isaac” to the Jesuits, acts as a bodyguard to Father Valignano, but in order to develop a good rapport with Nobunaga, the priest offers Yasuke as a “gift”. As a result, Yasuke begins to question his identity and if he belongs to himself or still to others. Will he only be Nobunaga’s servant? Or will he finally be free?
As the novel progresses, the themes of identity, belonging and freedom intensify and Shreve brilliantly explores these important issues with passages that cause the reader to pause, think and empathize with Yasuke. The novel also moves at a steady pace and captivates the reader’s attention.
The writing is as strong as the powerful Yasuke who develops a good relationship with Nobunaga and eventually becomes a samurai. Nobunaga sees something in Yasuke that others do not understand. But, above all, he gives Yasuke a chance to belong.
The characters in The African Samurai are remarkable, however, some are not completely developed like Tomiko, a woman whom Yasuke tries to befriend but whatever relationship between them is never fully realized. There are pieces of her life in the novel but not enough for the reader to get to know her. Despite this, Shreve evocatively captures the brief encounters between Tomiko and Yasuke with astuteness. “When I spoke to her before leaving for Tenmokuzan, when I told her how I thought my life would have been if I had not been taken, she considered it all for a moment, then replied in her quiet voice. “You know what you would have been if your past was different. You know what you are today, what men have made you. The only thing that matters is who you will be tomorrow. And that choice is yours to make.””
Shreve is a writer of enormous talent and with his latest novel The African Samurai, he is making his mark on the literary world.
About the Author
Craig Shreve was born and raised in North Buxton, Ontario, a small town that has been recognized by the Canadian government as a National Historic Site due to its former status as a popular terminus on the Underground Railroad. He is a descendant of Abraham Doras Shadd, the first Black person in Canada to be elected to public office, and of his daughter Mary Ann Shadd, the pioneering abolitionist, suffragette, and newspaper editor/publisher who was inducted posthumously into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the United States. Craig is the author of One Night in Mississippi and a graduate of the School for Writers at Humber College. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @CG_Shreve.
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster (Aug. 1 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1668002868
- ISBN-13 : 978-1668002865