Baker, Calvin 1972-
Baker, Calvin 1972-
BAKER, Calvin 1972-
PERSONAL: Born 1972. Education: Amherst College, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1994.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o People Weekly, Time & Life Bldg., Rockefeller Center, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Writer. People magazine, New York, NY, staff writer; Bard College, member of faculty of Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.
AWARDS, HONORS: Recipient of grants from Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, MacDowell Colony, and Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation.
Naming the New World (novel), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1997.
Once Two Heroes (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Time.
SIDELIGHTS: Calvin Baker's debut novel, Naming the New World, is a slim volume that takes its reader on a multi-generational journey spanning four hundred years and winding from Africa to the United States and back again. The book opens as a young man searches for his name, which he eventually discovers is River. The man's own life story flows throughout the novel, appearing periodically as the author gives voices to other characters, including Ampofo, a slave newly arrived in the Americas; Tom, a plantation owner's biracial son who feels displaced in a segregated world; and others. Baker then advances his story to contemporary times, as Richard, a government agent, returns to Africa to connect with himself and his past following the death of his brother in Vietnam. Similarly, another character, Robert, searches within, trying to make sense of his dual feelings of intense love and disgust for his brother, a drug addict who murdered a young man in retailiation for a petty offense. "The haunting tales [are] often intertwined and the stories conveyed in heart-wrenching prose," commented Booklist reviewer Kathleen Hughes.
Lise Funderberg, writing in the New York Times Book Review, described Naming the New World as "too lean," but found that "when Mr. Baker spends time with a character … his writing can be taut and evocative." A Publishers Weekly critic issued praise for Baker's effort, maintaining that "the African American voices in this brilliant debut novel form a turbulent current of racial memory that flows through two continents, three centuries, and incalculable terror, suffering, and grief…. Through his virtuostic creation of myriad ancestral voices, Baker proves himself a powerful new male voice in African American literature." Acknowledging that the shifts of time, place, and character might confuse some readers, Mosi Reeves, in a review posted on BookWire.com, added, "After each of the narrators has spoken, they clearly emerge as varied faces of the African in America…. [it] is an elegantly written novel that encourages contemplation of the Middle Passage and its effects." Time reviewer John Skow remarked, "Naming the New World is a writer's gamble, a brief, fast-changing swirl of prose sketches, prose-poetry, and poetry standing naked. Such a recitation—it could be chanted, to drum beats, in an evening—might dissipate in artiness. The view here is that it stands solid and speaks the author's mind."
Baker said in an interview with Niloufar Motamed, posted on BookWire.com, that inspiration for his novel came from a year he spent living in Kenya alongside the nomadic Samburu tribe. There he witnessed a coming-of-age ritual for the boys of the tribe in which they journey to lands their ancestors had inhabited, imbuing a sense of history in their lives. "This made me wonder: what would happen if someone made that arduous journey alone? To go back to the place you came from—to discover your past," commented Baker. "My book is about grappling with the relationship between Africa and America, history and modernity…. I see it as one continuous line—the exploration of the machinations of history which go into the making of America—the things that are carried and the things that are lost."
In Baker's next novel, Once Two Heroes, the author again concentrates on the African American experience in America. Denise Simon, writing in Black Issues Book Review, described the novel as "a grim story about how racial prejudice can turn ordinary people into monsters, robbing both the victims and oppressors of their humanity." The novel is divided into two sections: a story about Mather Rose, an African-American World War II soldier who is denied a medal of honor simply because of his skin color, and Lewis Hampton, a Southern, white World War II soldier who has mixed feelings about racism and the Jim Crow laws of the South. The two strangers' lives tragically intersect when Mather passes through a small Mississippi town on his way home to California. While putting gasoline in his car, Mather is attacked by Nathan Hampton, Lewis's older brother, and, in the midst of the fighting, kills the white man. Mather now faces a lynching unless someone intervenes on his behalf.
Reviewing Once Two Heroes, Simon pointed out that "the story is told entirely in the present tense, which lends an awkward feel to the writing," but noted that "Baker's premise is compelling." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called it "a pretty obvious morality tale," and maintained that the book is "well written." Other critics found more to praise in the novel. A Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed the work an "intelligent, harrowing novel of death, loyalty, and revenge." In Bookreporter.com, Marie Hashima Lofton concluded that "Once Two Heroes is about two men, racial prejudices, and pride in family and in one's ethnic background. But it's also about what happens when two different worlds meet in a time when one did not dare cross over racial boundaries. It is an important novel that should not be dismissed."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2003, Denise Simon, review of Once Two Heroes, pp. 42-43.
Booklist, January 1, 1997, Kathleen Hughes, review of Naming the New World, p. 815.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of Once Two Heroes, p. 1635.
Library Journal, January, 1997, Ellen Flexman, review of Naming the New World, p. 141.
New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1997.
Publishers Weekly, November 25, 1996, review of Naming the New World, p. 56; December 23, 2002, review of Once Two Heroes, p. 47.
Time, March 3, 1997, John Skow, review of Naming the New World, p. 78.
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com (April 23, 2004), Marie Hashima Lofton, review of Once Two Heroes.
BookWire.com, http://www.bookwire.com/ (April 23, 2004), Mosi Reeves, review of Naming the New World; Niloufar Motamed, review of Naming the New World.