Akec, Kgshak. Hopeless Kingdom. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 324pp, ISBN: 9781760802158.
How do we keep from repeating the mistakes of the past? Can we ever truly escape the effects of intergenerational trauma? What makes a place a ‘home’?
These are just some of the questions Kgshak Akec explores in her debut novel Hopeless Kingdom. Winning the 2021 Dorothy Hewett Award, the story was inspired by the author’s own experience of migration from Africa to Australia. The catalyst for the novel, Akec has said, was a plane journey back to Australia where she had the realisation that she thought of Australia as ‘home’.
Hopeless Kingdom is told through the interchanging eyes of Akita and her mother Taresai; it tracks their migration from Sudan to Cairo to Sydney, and then from Sydney to Geelong. Theirs is a journey fraught with racism, rejection, despair and resilience, as the two women seek to find their place as daughters, sisters, mothers and women of colour in the world. Powerful and timely, the novel is deeply personal and heartbreakingly relatable.
The book begins with the family awaiting news of their move from Cairo to Australia. We are introduced firstly to our narrators, Taresai and Akita, and then to their immediate family: Taresai’s husband Santino, and the remaining children, Santo, Amara and Ashanti. We also meet Taresai’s sisters and their children, and the looming figure of her mother, Adele Deng.
Complex family dynamics are evident from the outset: Adele is described as ‘a warrior of a woman, a monster of a mother’ (54), and Taresai’s own fraught childhood is revealed (she was denied an education, and subsequently inserted into the role of a secondary mother). Taresai is determined her children will have more, and the move to Australia seems a pathway to this.
The novel then follows the family as they migrate to Sydney and begin to build a life. Akec immediately makes us cognisant of the difficulties of finding acceptance within an adopted society. Whilst Akita thrives in her new environment, we glimpse Taresai’s struggle, as she becomes ‘limited’ by her inability to speak English. She becomes reliant on her husband in social situations, learning to ‘read people rather than speaking or listening to them’ (85). In a poignant moment, when asking another migrant mother, Achol, if things ever get easier, Achol speaks to the survival instincts learnt by those who are othered in a less-than-welcome society: ‘There’s a stillness that only women like you and I know and have […] A stillness that’s been beaten into us, one that will soon force you to learn. To perfectly adapt. To speak. Out of survival, if desire is too feeble an incentive to suffice’ (95). Achol adds that there is ‘no magic to making a place feel like your own, you just have to wait and let time do that for you’ (95).
The idea of ‘home’ and finding a place to belong is a theme that hums in the background of this novel, serving as a backdrop for the family dramas that play out. Each of the characters are seeking to find a connection to place, as well as to understand how and why these connections exist. Akita finds her home in Sydney, but the links to her cultural heritage and history remain strong. When looking through an atlas, she is unable to resist flicking to the pages that relate to Africa: ‘As I look at the picture, at the faces of my people […] I get a feeling I don’t understand… I feel a pulling. I want to reach into the book and grab them, but I don’t know if I want them to pull me in or if I want to pull them out’ (133). This line is particularly poignant in its summation of the push-pull, diasporic reality of living life as a migrant, seemingly suspended between two places and constantly reassessing and redefining what ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ means. It describes a feeling Santino struggles with, and, driven by homesickness and thoughts of what could have been, he eventually returns to Sudan. His departure disrupts the family further, and prompts their final move to Geelong, where Akita grieves for Sydney, Taresai reckons with becoming a solo parent, and Santo further continues down a path of dangerous self-destruction. The relationship between mother and daughter fractures, and we see history repeating itself as Akita is thrust into a motherly role whilst Taresai works to support the family. Both simultaneously grapple with an increasingly unruly Santo.
It is the character of Santo who truly allows Hopeless Kingdom to explore the heartache often present within familial love. As he becomes violent and aggressive, the novel is able to tackle the complexities of a love threaded with fear and, in some instances, even hate. How can we hate something we also love? How can we love something we hate just a little?
Akec’s prose is simple but effective; she doesn’t waste space with fanciful adjectives or flowery imagery. It is the rawness of her writing that facilitates a sense of authenticity and intimacy between her readers and her narrators. Akec is an expert in building subtle tension, particularly through the racial microaggressions experienced by her novel’s protagonists, each contributing to a mounting feeling of frustration and discomfort that gives insight into the wearying reality of being a migrant in Australia.
Hopeless Kingdom walks us through the migrant experience and opens our eyes to issues of race, gender and displacement, whilst also exploring and questioning what it means to be family. It is a powerfully discerning novel that captures both the devastating lows of familial love, and the small pockets of joy that make a life worth living.
Shaeden Berry is a writer from Boorloo with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Murdoch University. She has written for Kill Your Darlings, Refinery29, MamaMia and Fashion Journal. Her short stories will be featured in the upcoming anthologies: The Unexpected Party by Fremantle Press, and Strange by MidnightSun Publishing.