Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Book about displacement intelligent, pedantic

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THE search for Zion, although rooted in the Old Testament, has come to represent the universal longing for a safe homeland.

For African-Americans particularly, with their history of slavery and of civil rights abuses, this longing has traditionally been imagined as both a spiritual and a physical Eden.

Zion represents the Promised Land, a place where faith is respected, prejudice is unknown and equality unquestioned.

For Emily Raboteau, a biracial American novelist, essayist and English literature professor, the search for Zion, or a place to call home, became an obsession.

At the age of 23, she began researching the phenomenon of the search for Zion, in the process travelling to and from Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia and Ghana and throughout the American South.

A dozen years later, she has compiled that research into a work of creative non-fiction. Part memoir, part travelogue, part social history and part treatise on faith, Searching for Zion is intelligent and illuminating, but also pedantic, humourless and sometimes biased.

Although it is considerably more sophisticated and thought-provoking than the quest memoir Eat Pray Love, it is also less readable and less entertaining.

Raboteau, the daughter of a black American father and an Irish Catholic mother, uses her personal quest for identity and belonging in 21st century America as the starting point of her book.

She weaves these stories about her own sense of displacement with the stories of faith, dispossession and homecoming relayed to her by the other searchers she meets in the course of her travels.

"I inherited my sense of displacement from my father," she writes. "It had something to do with the legacy of our slave past. Our ancestors did not come to this country freely, but by force -- the general Kunta Kinte rap of the uprooted."

Those she meets and interviews include African Hebrew Israelites living off the grid in the Negev desert of Israel, Rastafarians living in pop icon Bob Marley's Jamaican hometown, American evangelical Christians living in Ghana, and her own New Orleans relatives living in Atlanta in the wake of Katrina.

Raboteau approaches each of these groups with brusque and candid questions about their sense of belonging, their beliefs and their ideas of Zion.

What is that idea, have they found the home they were looking for, and has it satisfied or disappointed them?

In between the questions and answers she offers up interesting social cultural history lessons about West African slavery, the black American migration to Ghana, and the Rastafarian adoration of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, among numerous other topics.

This background detail, though, is not enough to keep readers engaged. A book about people, places and displacement should be fascinating, but somehow Raboteau's effort is not.

Her conclusions that "the Promised Land is never arrived at," and "No country is what it should be, just as no man is perfect," are obvious from the beginning, and thus further diminish the pages in between.

Winnipeg writer Sharon Chisvin is the author of the children's book The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 J9

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