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The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi: A Novel [Paperback]

Arthur Japin
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 11 2002 Vintage International
“The first ten years of my life I was not black.” Thus begins this startlingly eloquent and beautiful tale based on the true story of Kwasi Boachi, a 19th- century African prince who was sent with his cousin, Kwame, to be raised in Holland as a guest of the royal family. Narrated by Kwasi himself, the story movingly portrays the perplexing dichotomy of the cousins' situation: black men of royal ancestry, they are subject to insidious bigotry even as they enjoy status among Europe’s highest echelons. As their lives wind down different paths–Kwame back to Africa where he enlists in the Dutch army, Kwasi to an Indonesian coffee plantation where success remains mysteriously elusive–they become aware of a terrible truth that lies at the heart of their experiences. Vivid, subtle, poignant and profound, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi is an exquisite masterpiece of story and craft, a heartrending work that places Arthur Japin on a shelf that includes Joseph Conrad, J.M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and Nadine Gordimer.

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From Publishers Weekly

Dutch singer/actor Japin's debut draws on extraordinary real-life material: in 1837 two young Ashanti princes, Kwasi and Kwame, were taken to Holland, ostensibly to receive a European education, but in fact as peons in a cynical exchange between the Ashanti king (Kwame's father) and the still active slave traders. Kwasi tells the strange story as a gentle, peevish old man living on a failed coffee plantation in Java at the turn of the century. He remembers his jungle boyhood with cousin Kwame, the coming of the Dutch traders and his and Kwame's early years as curiosities at a Dutch school. Later embraced by the royal court, the two went on to college and became offbeat figures in Dutch society, struggling to persuade themselves that they had really found a new life. Kwasi, the more adaptable, cherished a passion for a Dutch princess until she married elsewhere for convenience. Kwame, deeply uneasy at his equivocal role, joined the army and was posted back to Africa where, eventually realizing that he was a mere plaything of the Dutch, he killed himself. Only toward the end of his life is Kwasi aware that he, too, has lived in self-deception. Japin tells the tale with imaginative empathy and, in the case of Kwame, truly powerful poetic re-creation. However, his incorporation of text from authentic 19th-century documents is disconcerting. This is an unusual story that could appeal to an appetite for the odd corners of history, but perhaps is too close to history to please the lovers of literary fiction who would at first seem to be its natural readers. (Nov. 21)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Japin's beautifully written debut novel is based on the true story of two West African princes, Kwasi and Kwame, who are sent by the king of Ashanti (modern-day Ghana) to study in Holland in the 1830s. In Holland, they attend a private boarding school, where Kwasi excels at his studies and Kwame at art. Neither boy fits in; they are ridiculed by some and shunned by others. Kwame never ceases to long for the day he can return home to Africa, whereas Kwasi embraces the new culture and tries to blend in as much as possible. The boys' different reactions to Dutch culture drive a wedge between them, and they choose separate paths. As Kwame tries to return home, Kwasi accepts a government post, only to encounter prejudice from every side. Both face harsh disappointments: Kwame from the home he thought would not forsake him, and Kwasi from the realization that the abandonment of his native culture has harmed him most of all. Quietly moving, Japin's novel is a powerful study of displacement and disillusionment. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why, of course, you belong here!! March 23 2001
Format:Hardcover
Mr. Japin has succeeded on all fronts with a thorough and powerful chronicle as he assumes the voice of Kwasi Boachi, an Ashanti prince who embodies mockery for the sake and hope of belonging.
The world of Kwasi Boachi, though set in an era apart, stays true to the current reality of Black existence worldwide. You may be a Black prince. You may be a Black slave. At either extreme, you, especially as a Black man, remain far below the worthiness of simple human consideration, and as such can without conflict be at once Prince Nobody and Slave Nobody. Of course, this worldview of Blacks, while tightly upholstered, does not represent an uninterrupted fabric. No man-made construction could be so perfect neither in its evil nor in its goodness. There are right-thinking men and women of all colors who do not subscribe to lies and low thoughts on this matter.
Nevertheless, in the Black case, the fabric retains an amazing consistency under its disguise as an end unto itself. However, the real game is and has always been power and money, not color. Race, however, is probably the most convenient distraction used to establish a hierarchy complete with the areas of high and low pressure necessary for fierce winds to blow. How powerful and perceptive the author's summary in opening the book: Color is not something one has, color is bestowed on one by others.
Kwasi Boachi and his friend Kwame were, in different ways, blind to this fact. Kwasi makes the fatal mistake of attempting to prove his humanity to people who are impervious to believing or acknowledging it.
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By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
A well researched mid 19th century histrory of two Ghanian Princes who are sent to be educated in Holland only to encounter the depths of prejudice, a prejudice which is unspoken but a governing fact. Truly accepted by a few, a novelty for many, with no one willing to acknowledge the truth. It is a miracle that today Kwashi Boachi has decendants who can know the story of their forebearer and be proud of him as a caring, sensive human being. While the early part of the book was a bit slow, I found myself wanting to learn the story of the cousins lives and the truths these lives speak to us.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A African Prince's Attempted Entrance Into World Of Whites March 6 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A well researched mid 19th century histrory of two Ghanian Princes who are sent to be educated in Holland only to encounter the depths of prejudice, a prejudice which is unspoken but a governing fact. Truly accepted by a few, a novelty for many, with no one willing to acknowledge the truth. It is a miracle that today Kwashi Boachi has decendants who can know the story of their forebearer and be proud of him as a caring, sensive human being. While the early part of the book was a bit slow, I found myself wanting to learn the story of the cousins lives and the truths these lives speak to us.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why, of course, you belong here!! March 23 2001
By Basil Gangliaa - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Mr. Japin has succeeded on all fronts with a thorough and powerful chronicle as he assumes the voice of Kwasi Boachi, an Ashanti prince who embodies mockery for the sake and hope of belonging.
The world of Kwasi Boachi, though set in an era apart, stays true to the current reality of Black existence worldwide. You may be a Black prince. You may be a Black slave. At either extreme, you, especially as a Black man, remain far below the worthiness of simple human consideration, and as such can without conflict be at once Prince Nobody and Slave Nobody. Of course, this worldview of Blacks, while tightly upholstered, does not represent an uninterrupted fabric. No man-made construction could be so perfect neither in its evil nor in its goodness. There are right-thinking men and women of all colors who do not subscribe to lies and low thoughts on this matter.
Nevertheless, in the Black case, the fabric retains an amazing consistency under its disguise as an end unto itself. However, the real game is and has always been power and money, not color. Race, however, is probably the most convenient distraction used to establish a hierarchy complete with the areas of high and low pressure necessary for fierce winds to blow. How powerful and perceptive the author's summary in opening the book: Color is not something one has, color is bestowed on one by others.
Kwasi Boachi and his friend Kwame were, in different ways, blind to this fact. Kwasi makes the fatal mistake of attempting to prove his humanity to people who are impervious to believing or acknowledging it. His lifelong friend, Kwame, makes the fatal mistake of fully trusting a romantic notion of culture, not realizing that his notion was incomplete, consisting of only those cultural elements that did not threaten a broader power structure. Gestalt is ugly.
Look at how this tragedy played itself out in the book and think of today's dramas in parallel. Kwasi and Kwame discover that being Black means being treated extraordinarily - extraordinarily badly or extraordinarily well, but never simply as another human being of equal standing. Worse, while the bad treatment has its obvious ill effect, the evil of good treatment manifests itself so subtly as an undertone to a warm embrace.
What is the evil present in good treatment? Well, if a Black man is held up as a marvel, it is because of the shocking truth that a monkey can read, write, and perform human tricks. If he is congratulated, it is patronage that at its height of sincerity merely approaches the professional protocol that demands recognition of obviously uncommon deeds. At its depth see Tiger Woods and Fuzzy Zoeller for a prime example:
"That little boy is driving well and he's putting well," Zoeller said. "He's doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?" Then, as he was walking away, Zoeller snapped his fingers and added, "Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."
This is the sentiment that says, "Wow, the monkey plays golf like a champion!" and gives new meaning to "greens fees". Racial prejudice is a distraction, an effective tool for stifling productive exchange and maintaining artificial but profitable differences between people. The masses of white people who maintain this system unwittingly are not compensated to the degree of their cooperation. Their pay has traditionally been "Thank God you are better than the Negro". Hardly negotiable but yet strangely satisfying. And, by definition, Blacks aren't compensated for submission - these days taking the form of inferiority complexes and sham rebellions. Now, while we both argue, someone is smiling on our trivia and counting white, black, brown, and Green money in neat, non-discriminatory stacks.
Racism alone cannot defeat a people - not by far. But, we would be silly not to recognize it for what it is and for what it does. The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi is a telling microcosm, and, in that, is much larger than black and white. However, given the role of race in public discourse, I thought it worth taking time with the racial surface of this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Race, Rank, and Rancour April 29 2012
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It sounds like a fairy tale. Two Ashanti Princes, ten-year-old boys, sent by their king in the 19th-century to be educated in Holland at the expense of the Dutch government. Installed in a boarding school in Delft, both progress with astonishing speed in their lessons, and both become frequent guests at court, becoming special friends with the young princess Sophie, and gaining access to several of the royal courts in Europe. Hans Christian Andersen even appears himself as one of the more sympathetic fellow guests at some of these occasions.

But the story is a true one. Kwasi Boachi, the son of the Asantehene (or king) of the Ashanti was indeed sent to Holland in 1837 together with his cousin Kwame Poku who, because of the laws of matrilinear succession, was actually the heir to the throne. The Dutch had important commercial interests in the Gold Coast, seeking not only natural resources but also a supply of indentured "volunteers" to replace the now-prohibited slave trade. Although couched as a goodwill gesture, the removal of the two young princes also provided the Dutch crown with a lever to ensure the continued collaboration of the Ashanti king. The irony is that, while being feted as curiosities in the manner of "noble savages," the princes were also subject to all sorts of discrimination from their schoolmates and ultimately from the state itself, who could not permit that a person of darker complexion could achieve such success as might call into question the inherent superiority of the white race; neither of them prospered once they reached adulthood. [Their rocket rise and dying fall is a very similar trajectory to that of the black violinist George Bridgetower, described so beautifully by Rita Dove in her SONATA MULATTICA.] While Kwame Poku did return to Africa, neither cousin ever saw his birthplace again. Kwasi Boachi left behind the courts of the Hague and Weimar to labor in relative obscurity in Java, where he died in 1904.

Arthur Japin's book is framed by two real photographs: one of Kwasi as a young dandy in Holland, the other of him as an old man with two of his children, taken on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival on Java in 1850. The narrative takes the reverse course, starting in 1900 and moving back through a series of extended flashbacks. Japin is wonderful at describing the different ways the two boys react to the experience: Kwasi embracing the European world despite setbacks, Kwame mourning a past that is growing ever more distant from him. But as Kwasi remarks, "The traveler is always one step ahead of his feelings. While amassing experiences of the world outside, his inner being goes to waste." Nonetheless, those new experiences are very exciting. Kwasi's discovery of the powers of language, for instance, is as thrilling as Kate Grenville's similar passages in THE LIEUTENANT, and more intellectually penetrating, for Kwasi at least is capable of standing beside some of the acutest minds of his age. Japin is wonderful in his invented episodes too, as for instance the circus that Kwasi visits incognito with Princess Sophie only to discover that the pièce-de-résistance is a so-called man-eating tribe from the African jungle. Or the many-layered back-story he constructs to explain why Kwasi's immediate superior on Java, Cornelius de Groot, was so active in holding the young prince back. Although there are weaknesses -- a rather disjointed section told entirely through Kwame's letters from Africa, and a slight loss of interest in the Javanese years -- the strength of Japin's writing and the thought-provoking subject easily move the novel up to five stars.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi Aug. 24 2012
By Warren - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Other reviews here outline the story, but I must add that this is one of the most well-written and insightful books I have read in recent years....especially insightful on the subject of hidden, pervasive and institutionalized racism and the sense of isolation and "separation" that it produces. Some draw strength from it and some are crushed by it; some experience both.

absolutely amazing...so well written and full of insights into the human condition. In fact, about a third of the way through I was motivated to start turning down various pages and marking passages that I found particularly insightful. It is a brilliant insight and depiction of the subtle isolation of those of us who are "different" or unique from the mainstream of our surroundings...plus the secret power of government and others on our lives as well as the subtle influence of racism. I can see why Arthur Japin is considered one of Holland's great modern-day writers....he puts so much insight into his novel. It's the best-written book I've read in many years. I intend to recommend it to many others.
5.0 out of 5 stars Ashanti Princes Raised in the Netherlands Aug. 2 2006
By Lynn Ellingwood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a fiction book based on a true story. Two princes were taken from the Ashanti Kingdom to be given a Dutch education. Things didn't turn out expectedly. The boys grew up in Holland losing their native language Twi, and becoming too Dutch to go home. Prejudice for being black caused the princes to not be accepted or live a life that they were educated for. Tragedy and a lifetime of feeling displaced resulted.
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