- Coffee Culture
Green Writers Press
224 pages; Print, $19.95
Sarina Prabasi's The Coffeehouse Resistance journeys through selected memories that led this Nepali-heritage woman born in Amsterdam to marry an Ethiopian man, move to the United States, and become a fervent spokesperson for immigrant rights and safe communities. The subtitle Brewing Hope in Desperate Times further alerts us that Prabasi's memoir focuses on brewing activist strategies and coffee. The author avoids the word racism and rarely mentions the dark and tan skin colors of her family of four. Six engaging chapters have sections separated by coffee bean emojis which focus on overcoming a particular challenge related to family, researching coffee's Ethiopian origins, and becoming American. The main years covered are from 2009 to 2018. In the opening scene, set in 2011, readers meet author Sarina, eighteen-month old Juni, and her husband Elias as they arrive at JFK Airport on a humid July night. The next day, as they open the door of their small, as-yet-unseen Hudson Heights apartment rented online, claustrophobia sets in. Next, the downstairs neighbor complains that their fan is too noisy. Prabasi confides,
I wonder what we're going to do with these old towels, with a downstairs neighbor who can hear our fan, with an active daughter in a dollhouse apartment, in a city of millions with no job, no real connections. For the first time since we decided to move, I feel a little afraid.
Prabasi then skips through memory and growing up: "There's an irony in the fact that I am writing a memoir. Or perhaps it makes perfect sense. I have a deep fear of forgetting. I've had to let go of places, friends, family, over and over again." The author shares a few early memories, such as her best friend Julie's move to the United States and her family's move back to Nepal in fifth grade, but not that, growing up, she also lived in India and China. The reader learns that, thanks to education, Sabrina's father, born in a remote Nepali village, became an academic at an "acclaimed university" and later a senior diplomat. Her father both sends her to Nepal's American international school and also overrides his own mother's adherence to cultural traditions that ban menstruating women from the kitchen and from the dinner table. College in [End Page 22] Massachusetts seems like a lonely time until Sarina discovers the Haymarket Café, named for the May 4, 1884 "Haymarket Affair" in Chicago that led to International Workers Day. This introduces the coffeehouse-as-study hall and meeting place theme.
"Addis Ababa" is the next chapter. Sarina is working for a nonprofit in Washington, D. C. when her boss invites her to be part of a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Sarina had heard about the city from her father's travels there in the late 1960's. Readers aren't given the exact year, only told that when she and her boss Liz arrive, many soldiers with rifles are at the airport. Liz speaks Amharic, and she and Sarina visit her favorite places—they buy coffee freshly-roasted coffee at Tomoca. One page and five years later, roughly around 2007-8, Sarina is regularly visiting Ethiopia for work. She has become a macchiato coffee aficionado, often accompanied by Elias, a cute taxi guy who's a childhood friend of one of her co-workers. As they become close over macchiatos, Elias starts a restaurant, they begin living together, and the political situation in Ethiopia worsens. Unlike the novels by Ethiophian author Maaza Mengiste, which delve into the high losses of life as a result of military power struggles that began in the mid-1930s and are ongoing, this memoir understates the disappearance of one of Elias's friends, Elias's own arrest, and the man following him. Sarina gets a diplomat friend to call off the man shadowing Elias. Even Prabasi's account suggesting that a national election has been rigged...