Kindred, a review

kindred

Finding yourself forcibly removed from your modern time to a slave plantation in the 19th century is the stuff of science fiction (Octavia Butler’s to be exact), but for Dana it’s reality—a reality as difficult to grapple with as the plot itself, but despite the inhumane circumstances, Octavia Butler cultivates a tale as hauntingly complex as the time she’s writing about while still managing to cloak each character in their unique brand of humanity. 

Dana is in the process of beginning a new family when she is taken far beyond her own ancestral recognizance to a time and a place that began her origins. That place, for some, would be an opportunity of great intrigue, but for Dana it is a place of great violence and trauma because in Dana’s modern time of 1976 she is a writer, a wife, a free woman, but in 1815 on the plantation of her soon to be great-great-great grandfather she is a slave—a role she struggles to define and play throughout the novel.

She quickly discovers that she is not being transported back to this plantation for the fun of it, she’s been casted in a dual-role of slave and savior. Her damsel in distress isn’t the slave woman forced to bring about the beginning of Dana’s family-line, not the other slave women whose bodies are used and broken at the will of their owner, not the slaves at constant risk of being sold, or killed, but their master, Rufus–who just happens to be her great-great-great grandfather. This ascribed responsibility is the test of her humanity, her strength, and her will to survive. Yet, despite all of this, Butler sets out to develop the most impractical, improbable, impossible relationship of the antebellum years—a friendship between a white, male, slave-owner and a black, female, slave. And, surprisingly, it works.

How? 

Butler’s language. It’s blunt and sharp. There is no palatable way to present slavery, so Butler disregards pleasantries and caution as she drops Dana, and the readers, into the thick of its ugliness forcing us to stumble along the way until we think we’ve gained our footing–only to have the wind, and sometimes the will, knocked out of us. But no matter how difficult–which isn’t even the word for how difficult–it gets, we are made to remain in its presence with little respite. This consistent exposure to such a harsh and bitter truth is a reminder that if actual humans could not only live it, but survive it, you surely can read it. Understand it. Understand how you got here, your connections to a root that is tangled and not always beautiful to look it, but must remain in sight. 

“Without knowing it, they prepared me to survive” – Kindred

 Butler offers no balm of romanticism to the reality of fierce tyrannical violence. It is that un-flinching honesty that allows readers to engage in the complex relationship of Dana and Rufus. A relationship critical for both; they depend on one another for survival—literally—requiring, demanding, a sense of trust between the two. But the inability of either to fully understand and trust the other gives way to consistent attempts to outsmart and undermine the other resulting in violent outbursts perpetrated exclusively against Dana. Such repercussions are ones modern-day readers know to be as tactics to remind a slave of their place, but it is Dana who—after multiple encounters with such violence—sees that love is the driving force, at least when dealing with her. Whether or not she agrees with Rufus’ expression of such “love,” the fact remains that in his world she is 3/5 of a human, his property, and he holds the power to love her, to destroy her as he pleases.

So why not leave?

Besides the obvious fact of her inability to control her departure and arrival from the world, without Rufus there is no Dana. Without his relationship with an unwilling slave-woman there is no origins for Dana.

“Was that why I was here? Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth” – Kindred

Kindred is a novel that traverses “one’s family and relations,” beyond the bonds created out of freewill and love, deeper, further back into the memory, the existence of a time when one’s family and relations were the result of bonds forced by people who created and upheld a system voiding one people of their humanity and ordaining the other people as the masters, owners, controllers of it–bonds Dana had to protect in order to secure her own destiny.   

Throw in Dana’s white husband–who accompanies her on one of these time-travel trips–and their vastly different vantage points of the time period, colorism, plus the fact that every one pretty much views her as some mythical creature with superior medical knowledge and you’ve got enough twists and turns to keep you locked on Butler’s psychologically thrilling tale.

Advertisements

Lucy: A Review

lucy

According to the Greeks there are four types of love: Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape, but the Greeks forgot to mention one more type and that is the love between a mother and daughter. It is an enduring love that withstands the initial mutual adoration, the misguided criticisms and accusations until the final arrival at respect. This is the type of love explored in Jamaica Kincaid’s semi-autobiographical novella, Lucy.

Lucy is a girl who, at nineteen, has had enough of her family, community, and west indian island. So she packs her bags and leaves to work as an au pair for a couple in New York while she studies to become a nurse—at least that what she leaves her mother to believe. In the span of 365 days Lucy’s personality and life direction does a complete 360 as she abandons her past in hopes of defining her own future. We arrive at her life in the middle of her existential crisis/transformation and Kincaid leads us on an emotional journey to discover the root of Lucy’s discomfort and incessant refusal to communicate with her past.

Kincaid delivers a stellar novella whose character and language is so captivating it will not allow you to put it down—I finished it in one sitting. In 165 pages the Antiguan author offers us one of the most idiosyncratic, cleverly angsty, fiercely independent female characters in Literature history. Lucy is a woman for whom convention and tradition holds no place, at least that’s what she is fighting so hard to convince herself to believe. She is in a constant battle with authentic reality and illusion and it is through this conflict that Kincaid delves into the most complex relationship of all—a mother and daughter. Her emotionally intense illustration of this relationship is so nuanced yet relatable you will remember the very moment at which the illusion of who you thought your mother was and the reality of who she is clashes so fiercely that you begin to unravel your own identity. And it is through that painful and confusing process that Lucy sets out on leaving us to root for her, to cry with her, to side-eye her, but most of all, to relate to her. She is one of the most endearing characters I have ever come across.

This sort of personal (re)development set against the backdrop of a white upper class family allows room for Kincaid’s stunning critiques of classicism, colonialism, gender roles, and white feminism. Her language is blunt, but beautiful. She weaves the straight-forward with the figurative in a way that will force you to to re-read sections not for clarity, but for adoration.

We have all had that moment where we despise where we’re from; the people, ideas, and culture is so confining that we believe if we just escape its borders we will find happiness. But it isn’t until we cross into new territory that we learn:

Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

No piece of work captures that more brilliantly than Kincaid’s Lucy.

3 things I learned from Big Magic

BigMagicFinal

I was listening to NPR’s Here & Now when I heard Elizabeth Gilbert–the woman who wrote Eat Pray Love–talking about how someone wrote the exact novel she was planning to write. As a writer/creative nothing cuts deeper than seeing someone else produce the work you believe you were supposed to. But instead of sharing that anguish, envy, rage, Gilbert did the exact opposite. Instead of believing she owned that idea for her the novel, she believed

“Ideas are these disembodied life-forms; they don’t have a form but they have a will and all they want is to be made manifest, and they circle the world looking for human collaborators to work with” – Elizabeth Gilbert

In summation, Gilbert believed that creativity, or inspiration, had left her and found its true home in the other writer, who she holds no ill-will toward and is even friends with. As she discussed this strange situation she began to talk about creativity and what it means to live a creative life beyond fear. Of course I did exactly what Gilbert wanted listeners of that show to do–go out and read her latest novel, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear–and I learned quite a bit, but here are three key things:  

1. Don’t ask permission

“You do not need anyone’s permission to live a creative life” – Elizabeth Gilbert

Fortunately, creativity is not something you need a special license to practice. There is no specific amount of training, there is no ordaining ceremony, there is no piece of paper necessary to permit you to create. According to Gilbert, creative living is “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than fear.” Fear is that voice giving you every reason why you shouldn’t follow your curiosity, it’s that feeling that you can’t because you don’t have a fancy degree, or someone already wrote that, or you’ll never be as great as so-and-so. Creativity takes courage to register your fear and persist beyond it. You don’t need any priest, teacher, etc. giving you permission, but if you feel you need some sort of written permission, Gilbert is happy to give you one, scribbled “on the back of an old shopping list.”

2. Be entitled 

No, not the self-absorbed, arrogant entitled, but rather the unwavering belief in the value of your voice and your life as a creative.

“Creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that–merely by being here–you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own” – Elizabeth Gilbert

It is this belief that is essential to creating anything worth-while. You will never be able to take creative risks, to soar new heights, to unlock the hidden treasures of your own capability if you do not first believe that your existence and your work have value.

3. Success is not the point 

Oftentimes the one thing that stops us from creating is this fear that we won’t be “successful.” Success, like Life, is a concept whose meaning causes constant debate. If success, to you, is excessive monetary gain and notoriety then no, you may never achieve that, but it should never affect your willingness, your need to create.

“You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome.You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I often thought of Frida Kahlo as this point of “success” began to come up in Big Magic. Frida Kahlo was an artist who created with an intensity so desperate it appeared as if painting was second to oxygen for her. She created because it was natural, because it was her way of exploring her curiosity. She did not die a wildly famous artist, though her work was certainly known and revered, but she did not create for that reason. Success in the sense of notoriety and fortune did not directly affect her need to create. It is that trust, that love, need, and curiosity with which you must persist to create.

In a perfect world our creative passions would be able to sustain our rent/mortgages, utilities, and shopping expenses; our own responsibility would be to follow our curiosity and create from there. Gilbert isn’t giving you advice on how to pursue your creativity in a perfect world. She is giving you tools on how to persist with your creativity in an imperfect world with the existence of fear and adult responsibilities:

“this is a world, not a womb. You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time” – Elizabeth Gilbert

While there is a magic to creativity, ideas, and inspiration Gilbert continues to remind her readers that creativity does not exist to support you; it is a collaborative effort between you and the genius who visits you. Now go make stuff!

Library Haul

DSC_0156

Ok, so not exactly a haul, but I have heard so much about Octavia Butler’s Kindred that I had to pick it up! Hopefully I get to it before its return date.

Book Haul

DSC_0148

My local library was having an incredible book-sale–fill a bag of books for only $3!–so I had to check it out. Here are some books I picked up:

  • My Education, Susan Choi
  • My Jim, Nancy Rawles
  • In The Woods, Tana French
  • Rosa Parks: My Story, Rosa Parks
  • See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid
  • The First Bad Man, Miranda July
  • The House Girl, Tara Conklin

Jubilee: A Review

Jubilee

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

for the year of Jubilee!

– Traditional Negro Spiritual

Thirty years after Margaret Mitchell published her novel of love, loss, and the ruin of the good ol’ south in Gone With The Wind, Margaret Walker published, Jubilee, a story as wide in scope as Mitchell’s, but with a focus primarily on the lives of those whose fate desperately relied on the outcome of the war, the lives of those who Mitchell did not thoroughly include in her epic tale: The lives of black slaves turned free people.

Vyry is a woman whose taste for freedom had been teased so much that when the war breaks out she doesn’t dare allow herself to believe it will result in her liberation. But that is precisely what happens and suddenly the intangible Jubilee appears on the doorstep of her master’s home in the form of Union Soldiers who read aloud her, and the rest of the black slaves on the plantation, declaration of freedom. Though certainly a joyous occasion—while friends of hers are hurriedly leaving the wretched plantation—Vyry is stuck in her familiar state of ambivalence; she is waiting for her free-colored husband to return and reclaim her and their children and she is bound to the habitual duty of caring for her master’s family. Vyry learns that some old dreams cannot be carried into the future and so she gathers her family and leaves the plantation she has called home her entire life.

In the midst of attempting to find that “40 acres and a mule” promised to them by the government—attempts that result in a series of frustrating and frightening setbacks—Vyry finds herself in a love triangle. How Walker is able to weave a love-story inside of a traumatic tale is not only a testament to her writing, but a revelation of black people’s inherent will to assert their humanity. All Vyry and her family want after the war is a place to be free and commune. At every corner this basic desire is viciously threatened. But it is Vyry’s strength of character that allows her family to persevere even when tensions run so high their bond is threatened to snap.

Thirty years of research allows for Margaret Walker to tell the gripping history of black people before, during, and after the war. She keenly illustrates the evolution of white-supremacist violence in relation to black liberation and traces the varied philosophies black individuals believed would lead to their advancement. She thrusts open the window into black humanity and allows us to see the psychological, emotional, and physical affects of liberation—or the false promise of it—has on Vyry and her family. Walker’s language is blunt yet extends into perfect figurative poetry when necessary. Each chapter is accompanied by a short interlude of “negro spirituals” that succinctly tell the depth of the pain, the joy, the creativity, the intelligence of black people. Jubilee is the enriching tale that extends beyond the Big House and unveils the lives and experiences, the hopes and dreams, the humanity and vitality of the individuals who kept it running.

Resisting Resistance

resisting

I did two things last week: listened to Kendrick Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly–for the first time–and started  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. Neither piece was approached with jubilant anticipation–Lamar’s album has been out for half a year. I resisted the exploration of both for a number of reasons–all of which boil down to bias. Growing up in a digital world where everyone has license to publish an opinion makes it difficult to have an original thought, or at least an autonomous experience of a piece of work, without the assistance, or distraction, of someone else’s view. Of course I could join generation X in blaming the Internet for…everything, but as an adult (who is still growing) I can acknowledge that I resisted both pieces of work out of fear and ignorance. Fear of what? Having my views challenged, liking something I thought I wasn’t supposed to, changing my mind? It was a culmination of all three. K. Dot’s album dropped at a time where everyone who looked like me was dying at once and the ones who looked like me with money and “power” were either blaming us, ignoring us, or pimping us. Kendrick had his infamous interview with Billboard where he stated:

“What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” – Kendrick Lamaar

without even reading the full article, I tuned him out–decided he had nothing worthy for me to listen to. That’s where my own ignorance came in. I couldn’t have been more wrong about Kendrick. At the time, I felt like an exposed nerve that was being hit and hit and hit. I couldn’t take anymore thinking, feeling, healing, whatever–I was just raw, raw and angry.

Those feelings seemed to sew my mind up and leave my conscience huddled in a safe corner clinging on to the things that either justified my anger or made me feel good. I wasn’t challenging myself. I was even proposing the expulsion of books and writers who didn’t speak specifically to “me” and those who forms of my identity.  My ignorance, my resistance was slowly forming a cave and I was blinding  myself to my own manipulation of images. This affected my ability to socialize, my ability to explore, my ability to grow. 

Coates talks about a similar moment during his time at Howard, “The Mecca”, where the notions he walked in with were being conflicted and challenged. He believed that his search for the history of Europe’s violent under development of Africa would be “a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected,” but, through his readings, his exploration, he found “factions,” and “factions within factions,” where one black scholar/theorist/artists’ plausible idea was “smashed to splinters by another,” equally plausible idea, leaving “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just often marching away from each other.” His comforting singular ideas were being shredded; leaving him open, conflicted, confused with multiple ways to go. But where I shied away from the “intellectual vertigo” he indulged. He continued to read, even pieces that dismantled his dream. Where I shut myself up in the cave of my limited thoughts he made the painful process of stepping out into the light. Such is the journey Kendrick takes throughout his album. In To Pimp a Butterfly there is a poem that begins as follows: 

“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in a hotel room
I didn’t want to self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers

the poem continues to weave through the rest of the album, taking us deeper into his existential, intellectual, and moral crisis of battling what he knew and what he’s learning all while trying to remain a humble leader and lover is his people. We see that same indulgence in “intellectual vertigo” Coates also relished in. Like Coates he too took a trip away from his streets, his home, away his world, and into a world that challenged, conflicted and, ultimately, changed him:

“I know what I know and I know it well not to ever forget/until I realized I didn’t know shit” – “Momma”

There is no way To Pimp A Butterfly could exist without Lamar’s own personal metamorphosis. It’s the very thing he discusses on the final track of the album, “Mortal Man,” where he engages in a conversation with Tupac about a series of things, one of those being Lamar’s poem on the caterpillar’s pimping of a butterfly:

“Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
He’s trapped
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots” – “Mortal Man”

Like Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave, the caterpillar is shrouded in the darkness of its cocoon–never breaking free of the projected images in order to walk into the light of consciousness. Though I am a woman from an upper-middle class suburb, who can only look into Coates’ and Kendrick’s childhood worlds from the outside, I can relate to the darkness. I can relate to the resistance of the light, the pain, the journey of becoming a butterfly. But where both Lamar and Coates pushed forward, I remained inert. Where both took on the work of metamorphosing, I was stationary, comfortable, stagnant. Until now.

When I was interviewing my friend, Kopano, for my Why I Read docu-series she said something that always stuck with me: “when you’re reading something that’s uncomfortable…keep reading it.” I was astonished. Though, in romantic theory, I agreed with her I was totally incapable of practicing it. My biases, my ignorance, my resistance couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow me to come in contact with what offended, challenged, or contradicted me. I was afraid. Of what? Confrontation? Transformation? Both? 

My bias, my ignorance is my cocoon, my cave, but my recognition of both and my continuous desire to challenge both is what brings about a metamorphosis that is perpetual for there is, as Coates articulates, power in “discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear.” Constant challenging, defending, learning, and unlearning is how evolution works. The mind must remain kinetic or it risks a dormancy worse than death.

Each day is a conscious act to fight my resistance. Where others run into the wind open to its ever changing direction I step in, cautiously, with my windbreaker stubbornly walking in my own direction–fighting its current. In some respects I am thankful for my stubbornness–it is a testament to my independence–but in some cases where it renders me provincial I am…not ashamed, but alarmed and determined to change. I’m determined to enter my journey of “intellectual vertigo,” to forage through my cocoon and emerge a butterfly, who is by no means perfect, but who is constantly trying to soar higher. It is the same journey I read in Coates’ book and it is the same journey I hear in Lamar’s album.

I’ve had my mind, my emotions, my sensibilities on training wheels. I’m a big girl now and it’s time I take them off. It’s time I embrace challenges of the mind. Holding on too tightly of previous notions will never allow space for growth or inspiration. The Bible says “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” Erykah says, “The man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all,” Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” I say, resist your resistance; you’ll be a better person for it.