Fictionalized history is a tricky business. On the one hand, the past is a wealth of fascinating material for use in creating imaginary worlds. On the other hand, those doing that creating can’t go wild, they must honor the historical truth the best they can, especially when they are writing about real people from not so long ago. And so we come to X: A Novel, a gritty and glorious rendering of Malcolm X’s youth by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon.
Friends tell me trouble’s coming. I ease out of the restaurant onto sidewalk, gun in my pocket. Hand in there, too, keeping it close for good measure. I gotta get back to my pad, and quick now. One foot in front of the other. Keep my head down, hope no one sees me.
These first tense sentences introduce readers to the young Malcolm. It is 1945 Harlem and he is clearly in trouble. Big trouble. By the next page we know more about the trouble and more about Malcolm. He’s shrewd, clever, and at this moment very scared, rueing the direction his young life has taken. And then we are taken back to 1940 Lansing, Michigan where we see a younger Malcolm setting out on his new life. The novel goes on, fluidly moving back and forth in time, filling in elements of the young man’s history. There is family: a tragically lost father, sad mother, and supportive siblings. After a childhood of profound poverty, Malcolm leaves for the city, exploring exciting and darker places, girls, drugs — a very different world from that of his childhood. Settings are remarkably evoked, the dire poverty and horrific racism of Lansing swirling in and out amidst the jittery jazz environments of Boston and New York. Shabazz and Magoon do a remarkable job generating atmosphere, balancing family love in the face of dire circumstances against the pulsating energy of a self-assured young man swaggering through Harlem streets in a fine zoot suit and a conk. At times the language is blunt and challenging, appropriately in this fierce rendering of the youthful development of an iconic figure of America’s past.
The story of a reckless young man finding himself, X: A Novel is historical fiction at its best — an artistic exploration of a part of a renowned person’s life , one that stays true to his time and place.