Tag: OwnVoices

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us, and reveal to us the better version of ourselves. And though I knew Akin had played me for a fool, for a while I still believed that he loved me and that the only thing left for him to do was the right thing, the good thing. I thought it was a matter of time before he would look me in the eye and apologise.

So, I waited for him to come to me.

Delinquent (Oops?)
I’m not sure I’ve been quite so delinquent on posting a book that had a sort-of-deadline built into its relevance but here we go. I read the MARCH book club selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and finished timely (March 4th!) and yet haven’t felt like I’ve had a chance to really sit down and process everything that is this book.

Synopsis
Stay With Me follows Yejide, a Nigerian woman who has been unable to have a child with her husband Akin. The story follows Yejide as she takes increasingly desperate steps to have and then keep a child.

Avoiding the Spoilers
It is hard to discuss this book without spoiling the events. This was a book I experienced with no extra information besides what appeared on the flap-copy. I didn’t know what exactly Yejide and Akin were willing to try or how each of those steps would result. This will be a short review—I want to review it because it is so well done but do not want to spoil any of the little events in the middle along the way. So I apologize now for my brevity and vaguess—do not let this deter you from reading but rather take it as a sign that you should pick up the book and see for yourself why I am rating it so highly.

Loss
The most prominent and obvious theme in Stay With Me is one of loss. There is the loss of children—each loss different in its means and impact—but also the loss of relationship and self. As is common in couples who experience this kind of loss, with each step Yejide and Akin take to have a keep their children, the two are driven further apart. Steps taken to have the child that will ultimately strengthen their marriage become the wedges between them. With each loss, Yejide also loses parts of herself. A chipping away so subtle that it isn’t clear until whole sections have been sheered off that this was happening. At a apex in the plot, Yejide makes a choice to initiate the loss herself—when you have had what you love most repeatedly wrenched from you hands, at some point initiating the coming loss feels like the only way to protect yourself, to try to keep a shred of agency. I am not sure I have ever read another book that explores the myriad facets of loss and its impacts so effectively.

Structure
The book does jump around a bit in time and narrator—the bulk of the story-telling is from Yejide’s point of view, though every third or fourth chapter is Akin. The chapters are not labeled so the reader has to realize the narrator has changed—this was somewhat disconcerting at times, though it was easy enough to realize this had happened within a few sentences. It didn’t bother me and it seemed a deliberate choice made by Adebayo to deliberately disrupt the narrative and leave the reader feeling as disrupted and off-balance as Yejide and Akin. The abrupt narration change did, however, both some readers—the handful of negative reviews on Amazon mention this. The time jumps are labeled, so while they are also abrupt at times, it is clear you’ve moved forward or backwards in time.   This kind of structure almost never bothers me—I like non-standard devices and techniques and I like to see authors play with things like this. This is, however, something it keep in mind if this style is something that usually impacts your ability to connect with a book.

Characters
To me, Yejide was a likeable narrator, drawing me in. Though we have nothing in common on paper—I have never even been to Nigeria, I have never tried to have a child—her experiences and the way Adebayo has her narrator speak to the reader made me feel a connection to her. She is well fleshed out—flawed but in ways that make sense for her experiences. She makes terrible choices at times, but by the time these happened, I connected with her so deeply I understood why she made the choice and was making it along with her. Stay With Me is a fascinating character study and makes me want to read more of Adelbayo’s work.

Because Yejide is the main narrator, I had a biased view of Akin. I felt affection for him early, as he supported Yejide. But as he and Yejide few further apart, I came to pity him, to see him as weak. Here again, this speaks to the power of Adebayo’s narrator. Stay With Me manages to simultaneously present Akin in the way his wife sees him, to have her thoughts color his presentation; yet just enough of his own character shines through here and there in his chapters that you still see him as a fleshed out person. He isn’t merely a foil or a plot device for Yejide’s development. He is his own character and I enjoyed digging for his real personality under Yejide’s assumptions about his motives.

In the discussion Anne hosted with Adebayo for book club, it came up that some people found all of the characters unlikeable and they struggled to finish. I was surprised by this assessment—Yejide and Akin seemed like people to me. Real people are not always likeable. And perpetually likeable characters are boring. Adebayo introduced both Yejide and Akin so thoroughly that I understood why they were making the choices they made; I understood why they were hurt and thus why they hurt others. I didn’t find either of them irredeemable or so distasteful that I wanted to stop reading.

The other fun little note that come up during the discussion is that all Yoruba names mean some thing. For Yejide, anyone who met her would know someone died before she was born—they would assume her grandmother but in Yejide’s case it was actually her mother who died giving birth to Yejide. Akin’s name means a courageous man—an ironic touch the more you get to know him.

Highly Recommended
I feel again that I need to apologize for being so vague—I feel like I’m saying “You should read this book but I can’t tell you why! You just should!” Obvious triggers surrounding child loss notwithstanding, this is a book I highly recommend if you like character-driven books. There are also sufficient events to keep the book moving, with moments of crisis, so even those who need more heavily plot-driven books will find something here to keep them reading. The entirety of the action occurs in Nigeria and Adebayo is herself Nigerian (I believe she said she was Yoruba), making this a book for both #diversebooks and #ownvoies.

Flight Pick — Americanah and the value of listening to books by foreign writers
Anne’s flight pick to read with Stay With Me was Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah. I actually “read” (listened) to Americanah early in 2017 so I didn’t revisit it last month. I felt like listening to Americanah last year was particularly helpful—there is a cadence to the writing that was accessible to me as a white American reader that wasn’t available if I had only read the book. Indeed, having listening to Americanah I felt like I could read Stay With Me and even Freshwater better—the speech and cadence of the Nigerian English stuck with me and aided my reading. If you haven’t ever listened to an audiobook of a Nigerian writer, I recommend your first book be one you listen to—it will make the experience of that book and subsequent books richer.

Notes
Published: August 22, 2017 by Knopf
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Date read: March 4, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Featured Photo Credit: Alexis Brown

Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater is going to be one of those books that draws a strong reaction from people—the viewpoint is non-standard, the structure unusual, and the content will be blasphemous for some. I adored it.

Synopsis
As a side note, I often write the synopsis last and usually struggle. It’s not my favorite part of this process but I assume people want at least a basic plot summary at the beginning. I have never struggled this much to summarize a book in a way that does it justice.

Freshwater is ultimately the story of Ada, beginning with her time as an embryo when she is first inhabited by the Ogbanje* spirits that will come to define her life. We follow Ada from birth through young adulthood, experiencing her life as it is described largely by the Ogbanje themselves. Her life is never easy—constantly at the whims of the spirits that embody her—and yet, perhaps because she is so full of spirits, her life has been more full than that experienced by others.

Viewpoints

I don’t even have a mouth to tell this story. I’m so tired most of the time. Besides, whatever they say will be the truest version of it, since they are the truest version of me….In many ways, you see, I am not even real. –Ada

She named me this name, Asughara, complete with that gritty slide of the throat halfway through. I hope it scrapes your mouth bloody to say it. When you name something, it comes into existence—did you know that? -Asughara

Freshwater is told in alternating viewpoints, though the viewpoints don’t share equal time, nor do they alternate in any particular order. The majority of the story is told from the viewpoint of the simmering, unnamed We—constantly in motion, constantly swirling around in Ada. She is subject to their whims in the sense that she can be querulous and divided in her attentions and wants. They are not of this world and they embody Ada such that she isn’t entirely either. The We open the book, describing Ada’s childhood in Nigeria as a middle child with a physically absent mother and an emotionally absent father. They return periodically, the Greek chorus filling in the audience, if the Greek chorus were the inner workings of a major character’s mind.

When Ada leaves Nigeria for college in the United States, she is shortly beset upon by one of the Ogbanje that becomes dominant enough to earn a name—Asughara.* Asughara is blood-thirsty and bent on destruction—others mostly, though her actions while embodying Ada will drive Ada to her limit. She is almost solely self-centered (Asughara-centered over Ada-centered) at the cost of all others, though she also protects Ada in some ways from experiencing violence, particularly sexual violence.

Very, very rarely Ada herself does speak, giving the reader the sense (mostly) of the agony of being beset upon by these gods, constantly at their mercy, constantly pulled in different directions that ultimately seem only to point to her destruction—a destruction that will free the Ogbanje back to the brothersisters.

There is one other viewpoint that is dominant enough to be named but does not, that I can recall, have any chapters directly from his viewpoint. When Asughara wanes, her opposite is St. Vincent. A male Ogbanje striking for his gentleness and yet no less fully encompassing of Ada’s self than Asughara.

Trigger Warning / Cautions
There are setting events that cause some of Ada’s Ogbanje/personalities to become dominant at different points in time. As you might expect, one of these things is a rape—while it is not described in excessive detail, its impact on Ada is and so this deserves a trigger warning. There are also a series of unhealthy relationships that at times include some elements of physical violence that may make some readers uncomfortable. This is something that I usually prefer to avoid; however, because the viewpoints describe the actions happening to Ada in a removed sense, these weren’t as triggering to me personally as they could have been—i.e. Ada doesn’t describe the violence to her body, Ashughara or the We/Ogbanje chorus do at a level removed. The removal itself indicates Ada’s own detachment from the trauma but in some ways, this device also made it easier for me to read.

While not something that deserves a trigger warning in the usual sense of the phrase, when St. Vincent embodies Ada, he doesn’t feel at home in her feminine body such that she starts wearing a binder and even has reduction surgery to be more masculine or, at least, more androgynous. I am not versed in the best ways to sensitively approach this topic. While Emezi seems to use it to show how Ada was at the mercy of the competing whims of the Ogbanje, I can also see the idea that her “trans personality” (for lack of another way to name it) is the result of some whim of the gods being an offensive way to explain why someone might not feel at home in their body—it isn’t Ada that wants to be more masculine but rather St. Vincent when he is forefront among the Ogbanje.

Writing
The writing—the word choice, cadence, and sentence structure—is loosely narrative in a sprawling, serpentine sense. This isn’t a Faulknerian stream of consciousness structure, but this is also not straight narrative. The spirits speak as they want and they rarely want to report what is directly happening. You have to read between the lines of what the Ogbanje describe they are doing to understand what this means for Ada—what this manifestation means for her body as it moves through the world. The writing felt fresh and original, never overdone for me, though it will absolutely drive away some readers. I would encourage you, dear reader, to push through several chapters before you give up on this one if it doesn’t seem immediately for you. Because the writing is so unlike most of what is readily out there for Western audiences to easily consume, it can take a few chapters to settle into the way the Ogbanje narrate but the investment is worth it. If the topics aren’t for you then that’s not something I can likely change but I propose that the writing is something you can get used to and this book is worth the investment, particularly if reading diversely is something you value.

Blasphemy
Jesus—the god of the white man—is presented as essentially another Ogbanje. He isn’t truly in the sense that he isn’t African and the Ogbanje are the Igbo spirits; however, he interacts with Ada in much the same way as the other spirits. He rarely answers Ada when she seeks his help and he is no more holy and no more a god than the others. If this is going to bother you, this isn’t a book you should start.

Mental Illness

We’ve wondered in the years since then what she would have been without us, if she would have still gone mad. What if we had stayed asleep? What if she had remained locked in those years when she belonged to herself?….The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin. -We

Inaccurate and/or lazy descriptions of mental illness are something I can’t abide in a book and yet…I had no problem with Freshwater. The manifestation of the Ogbanje through Ada is pretty clearly interpreted by people around Ada as the manifestation of mental illness—she dissociates into the various personalities, she can be manically hedonistic when in Asughara’s hands and is self-harming to the point of a suicide attempt.

On the one hand, the idea that mental illness is caused by the possession of evil spirits is an offensive proposition. And yet, I don’t think Emezi’s point was that Ogbanje are the source of all mental illness. Rather, while the outside word might interpret Ada’s actions as those of someone with mental illness, she isn’t one. Her actions have another cause but this doesn’t mean that all individuals with mental illness are also at the mercy of the Ogbanje. Because Emezi doesn’t present the Ogbanje as a universal experience outside of the Igbo people, I didn’t read Freshwater as really being a book about mental illness at all. Rather, mental illness was the periphery, an explanation others had for Ada but not the explanation for her at all.

Stay With Me
Shortly before I read Freshwater, I read Adebayo’s Stay With Me. Adebayo is also Nigerian (Emezi grew up in Nigeria and is Igbo, one of the larger people groups found in Nigeria). In Stay With Me one of the beliefs that the characters discuss is the idea that malevolent spirits can be born to a mother, only to die and then repeat this cycle. In order to prevent the malevolent spirit from returning—so that, in essence, a real child can be born to the mother—the body the malevolent spirit inhabited must be mutilated and the object they use as their tether to this world and this family must be found and destroyed. I don’t recall Adebayo using the word Ogbanje (I could definitely be wrong) but these are the same spirits that embody Ada in Freshwater, except the spirits in Freshwater didn’t cause Ada to die as a child. Where Stay With Me peripherally explains what the Ogbanje often cause, Freshwater explains what happens when they stay and the havoc they can wreck. If you read Freshwater and enjoy it, you may enjoy Stay With Me. If you enjoyed Stay With Me and are wiling to go a step further down the path into the beliefs espoused by some of the minor characters in Stay With Me, then check out Freshwater.

Notes
Published: February 13, 2018 by Grove Atlantic (@groveatlantic)
Author: Akwaeke Emezi (@azemezi)
Date read: March 8, 2018
Rating: 4 ¼ stars

*While the Microsoft Word symbols have a plethora of symbols/letters for other languages, the “O” in Ogbanje and the “u” in Asughara actually have a dot under them in (what I believe is) Igbo based on the Author’s dual ethnicity as Igbo and Tamil. Word, not terribly surprisingly, doesn’t have this symbol.

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

All around Roy were shards of a broken life, not merely a broken heart. Yet who could deny that I was the only one who could mend him, if he could be healed at all? Women’s work is never easy, never clean.

Synopsis
On the night Roy and Celestial decide to try for a baby, Roy is arrested and wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Roy and Celestial find themselves looking at a twelve-year sentence only eighteen months into their marriage. As Roy lives behind bars, life—and his marriage—moves on without him. When Roy finds himself suddenly released early, he sets off home to find out what, if anything, remains of his and Celestial’s marriage.

Characters
Jones did an excellent job introducing Roy and fleshing out his character. Of the three viewpoints in An American Marriage (Roy, Celestial, and their friend Andre), he was the only character I felt I really knew. Even the viewpoints of the other characters seemed mostly to serve to introduce Roy to the reader. When Andre visits Roy’s father to pick Roy up from prison, I didn’t learn anything in particular about Andre; rather, I saw Roy through his father’s eyes. Saw the sacrifices that allowed Roy Jr. to leave his small town, to try to become the man he wanted to be. I met Roy through the dialect of the people where he grew up in Louisiana, through Celestial and her family that adopts him in Atlanta.

I don’t feel the same about Celestial, though my sense that I don’t now her comes as a contrast to Roy since I felt he was so deeply introduced. Her chapters seemed to try to give an introduction to who Celestial was, particularly when interacting with her father and Roy’s and Andre’s chapters gave an outside view of her…but I was left feeling like I didn’t know Celestial nearly as well as I knew Roy, and I wanted to. The book doesn’t read as if it is about one main character, but rather that the Marriage and its participants are the focus. And yet, I was left hanging with Celestial—unconnected to her as a character, not engaged with her and the choices she was making. In some ways, it seemed Celestial didn’t truly know herself and her actions reflected this. However, if the point was that Celestial didn’t’ know herself, this made it awfully difficult to introduce her to a reader and to make a reader care for her. It was ultimately a lopsided marriage and while the writing may have been making this point, it didn’t feel like a deliberate choice not to round out Celestial. In some ways, I even felt like I knew Andre better than I knew Celestial and he was the most peripheral of the three characters.

Themes
Two related themes in An American Marriage struck me in particular and made this book both a good and a hard read. The first, admittedly obvious point, is that being an African American (particularly an African American man) in this country (particularly but not exclusively in the South) has inherent danger. No matter how far you have climbed, how upright and moral you are, the color of you skin alone places you in suspicion. When circumstances are right (or wrong), the color of your skin alone can land you in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. It’s easy to think that Roy’s story in An American Marriage is just a story, based around a plotline that is far-fetched. And yet, the wrongful convictions of four African-American and one Hispanic youth in the Central Park Jogger case and the wrongful conviction of African-American football player Brian Banks belie the idea that wrongful convictions of people of color still happen.

The second was a question about how far from your roots you can ever really grow. On the one hand, Celestial’s father was a chemistry teacher who discovered a synthetic substance that made the family millions when the patent was sold. He’s a black man who was able to raise himself up from what seemed to be lower-middle to middle-middle class in Atlanta to richy-rich, though he still chose to live on the black side of town. His choice to remain on the black side of town, having bought a mansion from a white family who was too nervous to continue to live there (it being a black neighborhood), raises questions about how far success can take a black family. They could have lived anywhere. But would they have been safe? You can see the Davenport choice to stay in the neighborhood as staying where they are comfortable. You can also see it as an example of staying safe—choosing to limit their success so that the family is successful in ways that stay palatable (re: largely unseen) to white Atlanta. Similarly, when Celestial gains a following making dolls as art, she’s Ebony famous. Her store is in an area where it is accessible to Black Atlantians with money but not in the Black part of town where whites would feel uncomfortable shopping.

Where the Davenports have had their success constrained by white senses of propriety, Roy’s life has the greatest constraints. Roy grew up poor in Louisiana. He went to Morehouse, got a job with upward mobility, and scrapped and hustled. He was on the come-up. Until he was Black at the wrong place in the wrong time and his Morehouse degree and cufflinks didn’t matter one whit to a mostly white jury in Louisiana.

The idea of this—that skin color alone can make you vulnerable, can cost you years of your life and health—is so abhorrent that we would rather pretend it isn’t possible than deal with the idea that this happens to people. And, as Roy’s and Celestial’s marriage shows, even if you’ve been freed, even if you’ve been set “right,” there is no getting back what that wrongful conviction took. Roy and Celestial can’t get those five years back—there were life events Roy missed in prison that he doesn’t get the chance to re-experience. The marriage suffers, with Roy in prison three times longer than they were married to start with. One of the wrongful convictions I mentioned earlier was of football player Brian Banks—before his false accusation, he was a rising football star. By the time he made it out of prison several years later and was exonerated, it was over five years later. He was signed to an NFL team but never made it off the practice squad.

While the reader is left with the question of what Roy might have been, there are real Roys—there are Brians, there are the Central Park Five—walking around, unable to get those five, six, ten years inside back.

And indeed, the life inside changes Roy, as it must inevitably change anyone who spends any amount of time there.   My job affords me access to see prisoners in jail in their pods, so I have seen jail life closer up than most people have outside of watching Orange is the New Black. It is not any place I would want to spend any amount of time. And yet, I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what five years in actual prison must be like. Roy leaves with physical scars (as does Celestial, a remnant of police treatment during Roy’s arrest) as well as psychological ones—the result of becoming responsible for something inside that he didn’t understand until it was too late.

In this way, the damage done to Roy and Celestial’s marriage feels almost inevitable. Marriage changes you, but in theory its changing both of you in ways that mean you can grow and change together. Roy’s incarceration changes Roy and Celestial in ways that seem impossible to mend.

Writing
An American Marriage is, overall, strongly written with alternating first-person viewpoints from the three characters, along with sections of letters between characters. Because the characters are mostly speaking to each other or to other African Americans, there is no need to code-switch in their speech so Jones doesn’t have them speaking white. At the same time, the language is clear enough for a white audience to read without feeling terribly out of the loop. It’s a fine line but (as far I can tell as a white woman) it’s a line Jones walks well to stay realistic for her Black audience but not alienating of a non-Black audience.

Recommended
I picked An American Marriage for my BOTM pick for February a few days before Oprah announced it as her Book Club selection. I can see why she chose it—it is a powerful book that can have mass appeal. With that, I know people for whom that Oprah sticker would be a turn-off. Even for those highbrow folks, An American Marriage is worth a read. The writing is strong, even poignant at times, with relevant and important themes, and a character that stays with you even after you close the book. I finished several days ago and I still find myself hoping Roy—with all of his flaws and sometimes cocksure personality—found happiness after the book ended.

Notes
Published: February 6, 2018 by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Tayari Jones (@tayari)
Date read: February 25, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

rawpixel.com

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom….

Summary
In Cora’s world, the Underground Railroad is not merely a network, but an actual railroad running from the slave states of the south to the perceived freedom of the north. Cora, an outsider even among the slaves on the plantation where she grew up and orphaned by a mother who ran north years before, has never had a good enough reason to run until a few days after our book begins. In The Underground Railroad, as Cora flees Georgia, each geographical state she passes through represents one of the states, forms, or ideas of how to address Black Americans in the 1800s. In many ways, vestiges of these “solutions” remain alive today.

Interspersed with the state chapters are vignettes of minor characters including the man who runs with Cora, the slave catcher chagrinned with having never caught Cora’s mother and obsessed with catching Cora, and even (lastly) Cora’s mother. The timeline presented is loosely linear as time bounces around a bit with Cora’s remembrances and the flashback vignettes, adding to the reader’s overall sense of being detached from time. This detachment adds to the sense that much of what is happening could be happening today.

Time & Timeliness
The Underground Railroad is, like Beartown, a book I read before I was blogging but that I wanted to revisit and write about. Other books had been published more recently and always seemed to be more urgent to write about (“urgent” being relative and, in this case, entirely self-defined and imposed). And yet, just two weeks ago there was discussion on Facebook of a University of Alabama student expelled for saying she “hates N-words” and can use that word as much as she wants. The President of the United States is talking about immigrants from shithole countries. Here we are. 2018. While slavery of African Americans is officially eradicated in the United States, the states through which Cora and her companions traveled are still alive and well in America today.

Georgia
In Georgia (where our book starts) is brutal slavery—Cora lives on the Randall plantation, owned by two brothers, each representing one of the extremes of slaveholding. James is the “kinder” slaveholder, a bit more reticent to punish, not unnecessarily harsh (ignoring, of course, that the idea of owning another person is of itself automatically unnecessary and harsh). Terrence is the opposite; the slaves are there for his amusement and his amusement includes rape and beatings. While one of these treatments is preferable to the other in the day-to-day, both are slavery. Both are predicated on ideas of supremacy and values of human life that change based on the color of ones skin. Even “benevolence” is brutal.

As expected, Whitehead does not shy away from the brutality of slavery—Cora witnesses beatings and is herself beaten and raped. These events are described (though not gratuitously—Whitehead hits the right balance here), including the one that served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and sent Cora running. The only part about the Georgia chapters that were surprising to me was the cruelty she experienced at the hands of her fellow slaves before she left. My surprise at this was obviously my ignorance and failure to question other portrayals of slaves in other works—slaves who were loyal to each other, all family, all united with no dissent. Of course, enslaved African Americans were humans like any other—there were some who were selfless and others who were selfish. While they’re often portrayed as only selfless and helping of others in fiction and movies, this “magical negro” variant is unhelpful. Anything that removes ones humanity—be it degradation or overwrought elevation is harmful. Whitehead avoids this by portraying his black characters throughout as well-rounded, representative human beings, including black wrongdoers.

South Carolina
In South Carolina, Cora initially thinks she has come to someplace wonderful. She’s given a job and lessons. She is housed in a dormitory with a proper bed and shown signs of respect, including having white people nod to her and look her in the eye. After the brutality of the plantation and the overwhelming fear attendant to her flight, South Carolina originally seems like a peaceful place to be.

And yet shortly after Cora settles into her new life in South Carolina, little flags start to raise themselves. She is given a thorough and invasive physical exam including a rough gynecological exam. A seemingly crazy woman is dragged away yelling that these (“respectful”) white people are taking her babies. Shortly after, Cora finds her job reassigned, removed from being a nanny (reminiscent of the care of white children by African Americans that continued for more than one hundred years after the official end of slavery) and instead made part of a living history museum. Yet as Cora “reenacts” the highly sanitized version of slavery presented at the “history” museum for white children, she begins to see that South Carolina may not be the haven it seemed. History is still being told by the ones in power and the ones in power are all white. Even when life is better here, there is still an inviolable power dynamic that is not changed by the occasional handshake—there are simply different strings that still serve to tie blacks firmly down into their places.

Almost too late, Cora discovers what is really behind the courtesies and medical examinations in South Carolina and barely makes it out, catching a maintenance cart to a station that should be closed in North Carolina.

North Carolina
North Carolina is a new hell—the whites have solved the “black problem” by eliminating all blacks and those who attempted to help them. There are weekly hangings of any that have been rooted out, with the bodies left on the ironically, grotesquely named “Freedom Trail.” (“Freedom” being defined by the whites as being free altogether of African Americans.) In some ways similar to South Carolina, the “solution” is North Carolina is presented as the logical, thought-out conclusion to the “problem.”

Here Cora is forced to impose upon a couple that finds her but doesn’t want her. Martin feels obligated to fulfill his father’s legacy and take her in where Ethel resents the danger Cora has forced upon her family. Cora is forced into what is essentially an attic crawl space. Here Whitehead’s descriptions made me feel as if the walls and ceilings were closing in on me, in a space that feels more and more like it could become Cora’s coffin. From Cora’s perch in hiding, she has one view—the view of the square where the weekly hangings are. Because life in a coffin isn’t bad enough, she must constantly be reminded of what is outside the coffin. When the family is betrayed, Cora is again on the move.

Tennessee
Cora next finds herself in Tennessee. It is nearly impossible to write much further about the events in Tennessee without providing significant spoilers, so there is less here that I can say. A handful of characters appear in Tennessee serving as allegories of larger issues and ideas in the history of the treatment of African Americans in this country. In Tennessee we first meet a black child who has so internalized the racism that he has voluntarily taken up with slave catchers and helps them to catch other African Americans. We also meet a group of black freemen with significantly different ideas about the use of violence in the struggle for black freedom, ideas reminiscent of the debates between adherents of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophies and those embraced by Malcolm X.

Indiana
Cora next finds herself on Valentine farm, a haven in the north for freemen and women. While whites are not banned, few of them find their way there—and these are typically whites that were involved with the stops on the Underground Railroad and so must seek refuge themselves. But even here, the haven cannot be a paradise. The farm has grown large enough that they are attracting attention and hatred from the white farmers whose lands bound the farm. There are discussions about whether to close their doors to any further fugitives. Whether they should be concerned with maintaining only their own freedom or whether they owe a duty to those still running to be the haven they will need in the weeks and months to come.

“We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers.
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without a yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary….
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are….”

Ultimately, the whites cannot let this haven be untouched. No place of Black freedom and prosperity, even now, can thrive without jealousy and a white, entitled sense of the reversal of the order of things.

Recommended
The Underground Railroad was timely when it was published more than a year ago and remains so today. Neo-nazis are not new; however, it seems that in the last two years they have been emboldened into no longer feeling they have to hide. They’ve lost the sense that as a society we will reject them—largely because we haven’t. There is always work I can and should be doing, as a possessor of almost all of the privileges—white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. I find books like The Underground Railroad to be helpful in making me think through my privilege in different ways, to connect what happened back then with what is still very much happening now. While the book does have some brutal depictions of slavery, it is never gratuitous and so is a book I recommend (particularly for white readers) without hesitation.

Notes
Published: August 2 2016 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Colson Whitehead (@thecolsonwhitehead)
Date read: September 16, 2017
Rating: 4 ¾ stars

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


rawpixel.com

I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out. Daddy is moved aside and Mama wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s alright, baby. It’s alright.”

Synopsis
The Hate U Give explores the aftermath to a girl, a family, and a community after one of their own—a black teenage boy named Khalil—is brutally murdered by a white cop. The novel follows sixteen-year old Starr, a witness and passenger in the car the night of the murder, as she struggles to find her voice and what it means for her to be a black teenager living in 2017.

Not For Me
I hesitated in writing this review—The Hate U Give isn’t about me and it isn’t for me. Even if I hated this book (which I absolutely don’t), it wouldn’t really be my place to say that anymore than it’s my place to critique “Lemonade.”

They. Weren’t. Made. For. Me.

In fact, I decided early on that if I were going to give this book any less than five stars, that I would simply refrain from rating it at all. Turns out, that wasn’t a problem.

The Hate U Give sucked me in quickly with a fast-paced narrative and a likeable main character who was easy to identify with, even as a white person who did not grow up in anything like Starr’s neighborhood. Starr is studious, funny, and athletic—she has universal appeal and it is easy for most readers to see something of themselves in her. I didn’t identify whatsoever with her love of basketball, but her studiousness and teenage worries over friends hit home for me.

There are, however, many things in the book that will likely make a white audience uncomfortable—the foremost example to me being Starr’s father’s lauding of the Nation of Islam. It is to Thomas’s credit that she wrote a book that can be so universally read; but at the end of the day this is a book for black readers. It should make you squirm a little if you’re white. That squirming can be good for you—why does this make you uncomfortable? Is the reason you’re uncomfortable about you or is what’s happening here actually wrong? (Spoiler alert: the answer is probably the former).

I do think this is a book everyone should read so (obviously, since you’re here) I went ahead with my planned review, with the recognition that there is probably a lot that went over my head and that I didn’t understand that would resonate with a black audience. It felt like the lesser of two evils to review the book and hopefully bring it more attention than to refrain. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.)

Title
The title “The Hate U Give” comes from a Tupac reference to “Thug Life”—The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. The hate, the vitriol, even the malignant neglect the vast majority of white society gives to African Americans starting when they are very young ultimately comes back to effect everyone. It isn’t just the black community that is hurt by Khalil’s death in this book. Through Starr and her siblings, the effects of the murder reach into their predominantly white school. Parts of the city literally burn as riots break out.

To be sure—my point here is not “treat black people nicer so that you can have nicer things yourself, dear white person.” However, it is shockingly easy for white America to look at the problems coming from predominantly black and poor neighborhoods and blame the people that live there without ever thinking about white America’s systemic racist policies and decisions that resulted in the ghettoization of black Americans. White people are not innocent of the problems that created black ghettos; therefore, white people are not innocent of the resulting poverty and crime.

It is hard to ignore the larger societal issues at play when Thomas gives you the back story of why Khalil may have been selling drugs before his murder and why another character named DeVonte joined a gang. It’s not so easy as their making bad decisions or being bad people. Thomas doesn’t completely exculpate them, but by putting specific, likeable faces on issues like drug dealing and gang-banging, she invites her reader to question their biases to see that good people can make bad decisions for good reasons. And that these same people are far more than what a single bad decision defines them as.

Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland.
Through the experiences of Starr, Thomas puts a face on those left behind when black people are murdered by those who are sworn to serve and protect. To be sure—each of the more than one thousand African Americans killed by cops each year has a story, a name, and people who love them. Unfortunately, with talking heads screaming at each other in the media, the story the reader gets here with Khalil is not one we get to see for the vast majority of those murdered, at least not without a lot of effort to dig and cut through the crap. We don’t see Michael Brown’s struggle to provide for his family, even though he isn’t yet a man himself. We don’t see the agony the witnesses in the Eric Garner case went through to decide whether to testify or not—and the danger of any decision to “snitch” that might result. We don’t see the impact, months later, on the family of Sandra Bland. Not like this. Not in this detail.

Through fictional Khalil, Thomas brings home every name that crossed the headlines over the last few years and reminds us that each black boy and each black woman was, at the end of the day, human and loved. That it is a tragedy when any life is taken at the hands of the police.

Time Capsule Book
Because of its timeliness it is easy to see why some critics are referring to The Hate U Give as a new classic and a book with staying power. I’m not sure I agree it is a classic, largely because there are many references to things like Tumblr that are quickly going to become dated. To me, the book read like a “Time Capsule” book. By that, I mean The Hate U Give is a snapshot in time of 2017 where this real, pervasive injustice is happening far too often in modern society. This book will stand through time as representative of where we are as a country and a people now. I could certainly be wrong (and would not be disappointed if I am!); it is just difficult for me with the speed at which technology changes to see many modern books as “classics” if the technology and references in them are going to become dated and lost in a few years. I loved the Jessica Darling books as a teen myself, but they don’t hold the same appeal to the YA audience today because so many of the little situations that arise wouldn’t happen nearly the same way today with the advances in technology we’ve made since the ‘90s. Because of this, I see The Hate U Give as less likely to be studied the way we study Jane Austen now in 2217, though it absolutely deserves attention and should (and, I hope, will) stand the test of time as a powerful snapshot of society in 2017.

Things Black People Deal With But Shouldn’t Have To 101
Though this book certainly wasn’t written with a white audience in mind, Thomas is masterful at explaining things like code-switching to the audience—

I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang. Some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a sassy black girl. I have to watch what I say and how I say it. But I can’t sound “white.” Shit is exhausting.

—without sounding heavy-handed to those who already know what things like code-switching are. If I did not have mixed-race friends who consciously moderate their accent based on their audience, I don’t know that I would know what code-switching is, and I certainly didn’t know what it was when I was in high school.

As a black student at a predominantly white school, Starr has to be aware of how she comes across—because black children are seen as more culpable and less innocent than white ones, because she is one of a handful of black kids in her school and therefore her actions will be imputed to all black people (but only her negative actions, of course), because she doesn’t want to affirm stereotypes. Starr thinks more about her state of being on a daily basis than most white folks likely do in a month.

This short explanation plus the extended examples of code-switching in The Hate U Give are but one example of Thomas making the book accessible to readers of all ages so that maybe those who aren’t familiar with these ideas can begin to see all of the little ways people of color experience life differently, through no fault of their own. (Thomas also expertly explores the harm of microaggressions through one of Starr’s friendships).

While we (white folks) should be doing more hard work to root out our biases and discover our blind spots, I do think books like The Hate U Give can be a good non-threatening way to begin to recognize issues like microaggressions. Regardless of whether you are beginning because you are actually a young adult for whom this book was written or whether, like me, you grew up sheltered in a predominantly white town, it is often less threatening to be confronted with something you are wrong in through narrative fiction. This doesn’t mean you get to stay in your safe fictional world forever; however, it is better to begin with something like The Hate U Give than to never begin. Reading books like The Hate U Give teaches readers empathy and I defy you to read this book and not feel for Starr, Khalil’s family, and their community, regardless of where you stand on Black Lives Matter.

Fangirling hard for Bahni Turpin
I listened to The Hate U Give on audio. I would be remiss if I did not rave about the excellent choice of narrator for Thomas’s work. Even before listening to this book, I had an audiobook voice crush on Bahni Turpin, the narrator here. I would listen to her read food ingredient labels. She also read A Piece of Cake, a memoir I read earlier in the year by Cupcake Brown, a woman who grew up in the foster system and was a heavy drug user for years before getting clean and becoming an attorney. Admittedly going from the voice of drugged-out, screaming Cupcake to having that voice also be Starr threw me a little for a loop. I had to remind myself for the first few minutes that Starr was a good girl in this story. (Case in point for my undying love of Bahni Turpin—the fact that Bahni is one of the readers is what pushed me to use my most recent audiobook credit on Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.) Bahni is genius as Starr and makes the audiobook for The Hate U Give a real standout. She is breathtaking in her voice acting as teenage Starr and moved me to tears several times.

Summary
If this weren’t already abundantly clear, I think this is a book everyone should read. Because of some language and violence, the book skews a little older YA than most of its genre-mates but still has a strong appeal and well-developed narrative for adult readers.

Notes
Author: Angie Thomas (@angiethomas)
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray) (imprint of HarperCollins @harpercollinsus)
Audiobook narrator: Bahni Turpin (@prospertunia)
Date Published: February 28, 2017
Date Read: July 9, 2017
Rating: 5 stars

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai


rawpixel.com

 
Oh, my daughter/ at times you have to fight,/ but preferably/ not with your fists

 
Beginning with the Vietnamese New Year (Têt), Inside Out and Back Again follows the life of Hà, ten year-old girl living with her mother and three brothers in the last days of Saigon, fleeing the city the day it fell. She lives on a ship, in a refugee camp, and then, finally, in Alabama, sponsored by a good-hearted man. She must navigate English and schoolyard politics. Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again is simultaneously a story of many of the tiny cruelties and tiny joys that make up the life of a child and a beautiful story of resilience.

The Fall of Vietnam, as told by a Child
It is not difficult to see why Inside Out and Back Again won both Newberry Honors and the National Book Award when it was published. The poems balance the mundanity of daily life when you are ten with three older brothers—watching and waiting for her papaya to grow, juxtaposed with the chaos of the last days of Vietnam from the perspective of a child whose only understanding of the crisis are her mother’s brows twist[ing] like laundry being wrung dry. Her brother clings to a chick he hatched as Saigon fell, even when the process of fleeing causes its death. Hà mistakes her family’s sponsor—a tall Alabaman—with a cowboy, holding out hope he’ll take her on the horse he ultimately doesn’t have.

Thanhha Lai pulls the reader in, managing to present what is happening to Hà and Saigon in a way that is accessible to elementary and middle grade readers while still being remarkably moving to adult readers. I don’t have either an elementary or middle grade reader in my house, yet I’m looking for my own copy of this book. By writing in free- verse as well, the poetry is accessible, even though it’s…you know…poetry.

Novels in verse
I didn’t realize I enjoyed novels in verse until reading Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I read Brown Girl Dreaming first and enjoyed it but Inside Out and Back Again pushed me over the top on this particular form. I loved this book, with its spare words—in merely thirty words on a page, Lai told me more about Hà and her life than a “regular” novel with one hundred words on a page and twice as many chapters. I haven’t yet dabbled with finding an adult book in verse yet, but Brown Girl Dreaming and Inside Out and Back Again have made me feel like it could be accessible and enjoyable.

My favorites in the collection were the first—the day of Têt—as well as the poems about learning English once she moves to Alabama. Interspersed in the short poems are lines like “Whoever invented/ English/ must have loved/ snakes” and “Would be simpler/ if English/ and life/ were logical.” (English is my first language and I still feel this one!) Lai writes phonetically as Hà learns English (“MiSSS SScott” is her teacher), a little addition that draws the reader fully into Hà’s world, full of this new, strange language.

History Class Failures
This book showed me I know embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. We almost never reached it in history class in high school or only spent a day on it, moving on to Reagan and the entirety of the ‘80s the next day. I’ve never learned more because military history was never my thing and the bulk of what is out there always seemed to me to be military history. Shamefully, I had never stopped to think what this war must have been like for the people of Vietnam—that the history of this conflict was far more than its impact on the American military and the discontent at home. Inside Out and Back Again showed me that not only do I need to know more about this part of world history but also that I want to know more.

Reading with Kids
With that caveat that I don’t have kids and so don’t actually know what I’m talking about here…I also think this book could be a wonderful tool to talk about being different, bullying, and friendship with kids.   Hà doesn’t speak English and so seems to be slow to many of her classmates. She wears a nightgown to school one day, not realizing it is a nightgown and not a dress. This book could open a conversation with kids as to why people do things that sometimes seem strange to others. She eventually gains two friends who are also outsiders, though in a different way than Hà. She suffers under the cruelties of a bully (“the pink boy”) until eventually vanquishing him, leaving the reader cheering all the more for her.

I can see this being an excellent book to read in short bits (the poems are between one and three pages) and then talk about—what do you think Hà’s life was like? Why do you think the pink boy was so mean? What should you do if you see someone like Hà? Even though I could have read this quickly, I found the book lent itself to being read slowly, to being savored. I find that when I read poetry quickly, I don’t glean as much from it as when I limit my intake and take time to really sit with what I’ve read rather than consuming large quantities at once.

Given today’s climate, the influx of global refugees, and the growth of minority populations, this book could spark great conversations about what it means to be a neighbor, to be welcoming. The approach to the Vietnam war is also age-appropriate. With the exception of the fact that her father is missing, there is little else about the war that is directly mentioned, just the fact that it makes her move and leave as Saigon falls. There will likely be some background explanation necessary for a child reader, but even my vague, elementary understanding of the war was enough for me to understand (and to explain if necessary) what was happening to Hà as the story progressed.
 
Adult Readers
I step back/hating pity/ having learned/ from Mother that/ the pity giver/ feels better,/ never the pity receiver

For an adult reader, the book raises interesting questions about who we see as other and what we consider charity—how helpful or not it is and for whose benefit we are really acting. In hindsight, there are many things I’ve done or given that made me feel “better” disproportionate to their likely worth (…the orphans in Nicaragua probably really didn’t need all those T-shirts of mine in college). Having the narrator here be a child makes these lessons feel less condemning while still impactful. The same lessons that make this a wonderful book for children—why someone from another country might do something strange and why someone might appear to be slower when they don’t know English—apply equally for adults.

Living in Texas where there is a constant influx of immigrants—just this weekend, coyotes left dozens in a hot truck in San Antonio, including children, resulting in several deaths—this book feels all the more timely. The conflicts are different, the reasons people come here are different, but how we treat people—with kindness, respect, and dignity for their humanity—should never change.

Notes
Published January 2, 2013 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Thanhha Lai
Date read: July 6, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars