LA Times Book Jacket Copy, July 27th, 2017, 3:00PM
by Mark Athitakis
“Our heroes tend to be orphans,” Zinzi Clemmons writes in her debut novel “What We Lose,” and the more you look the more the literary universe seems all but built by them. They stretch from Beowulf to Batman, from Tom Sawyer to Harry Potter, Pip to Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre to Anne of Green Gables. Writers love imagining literary orphans because they arrive in the story pre-conflicted; they’re carrying something that’s tested their mettle early. But they’re also heroic figures because they’re blank slates. Free of parental baggage, their stories are usually about how they come to acquire identities all their own. They’re one part loss, one part liberation.
The acclaimed and prolific writer Alain Mabanckou, born in the Republic of Congo and now a professor in the French and Francophone Studies department at UCLA, uses biting humor to tweak this formula in his new novel, “Black Moses.” His hero is a 13-year-old living in an orphanage in the province of Loango who is indeed named Moses. More precisely, his full name is “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” That mouthful was bestowed upon him by a priest who believed that having “the most kilometrically extended name in the entire orphanage” might be a source of inspiration.