Gathering of Waters – A review

Gathering of Waters

Published: 2012

Publisher: Akashic Books

Pages: 252

“You would never think something so horrible happened in such a peaceful place” – Gathering of Waters

Elements of the supernatural have been the tie that binds Black American literature across genres. Whether you’re reading Octavia Butler or Alice Walker or Sister Souljah there is the presence of the unseen that exists, visible exclusively for those who get it, those who live it, those who understand the function of symbols in every day life. Toni Morrison described it as “all the parts of living […] on an equal footing. Birds talk and butterflies cry, and it is not surprising or upsetting,” otherwise known as animism.

Animism is the “idea that souls inhabit all objects, living things, and even phenomena.” This idea is what shapes Bernice McFadden’s novel about Money, Mississippi and one of its first families. Gathering of Waters is the meaning of the name Mississippi, a name given to the southern state by Choctaw Native Americans. While the European may have loved the name, he did not bestow that affection for the name givers and so they were violently exterminated. Mississippi’s evil past is, inadvertently, exhumed in order to build the town of Money, who serves as the narrator of Gathering of Waters.

It is Money who introduces readers to animism and how what is deemed as “bizarre,” and “absurd” are nothing more than “memories of previous existences.” Those previous existences are the souls that inhabit all things and if there is one thing to remember it is that “souls never, ever die.” That fact is displayed in the family Money has followed with a “desperate infatuation” for decades. A haunting history is revealed, ripe with tragedy and Bernice L. McFadden grips you from the very beginning with her stunning prose that is both succinct and poignant, commanding every inch of your attention.

Gathering of Waters is framed by three tragic events that take place in Money, Mississippi. It does not begin with the violent murder of Emmett Till in 1955; the story works itself backwards unfolding a cycle of evil beginning with the first problem to enter Money, “carrying a pink parasol in one hand and a Bible in the other.” In the 78 year existence of Money, Mississippi we not only follow a family’s inception, but the presence of a soul, a memory, a previous existence, that is not bound by the manmade boundaries of prejudices. Its presence shifts across color lines perpetuating an evil that devastates and destroys: young lovers are separated, lives are lost, families are torn apart. Gathering of Waters is an examination of the past and its active role in the present. McFadden brilliantly offers a deeper insight of the ways in which generations are linked; her use of the omniscient spirit of Money as a narrator allows her to interweave the material world and the spiritual world in a way that is neither surprising nor upsetting. McFadden sets both worlds on equal footing.

 McFadden succeeds in not only adding to the rich tradition of southern African-American gothic literature, she delivers a body of work whose soul will stick with readers forever. It has been such a long time since I’ve read a novel that I sacrificed sleep for on an account of not being able to bare putting it down. Gathering of Waters left me with the same sensation Song of Solomon introduced me to–I can never un-see what McFadden opened me up to, there are themes that will continue to unravel and amaze me for the rest of my life. This is a novel that I know I will turn to again and again. I am now going to devour everything McFadden has previously written.

Rating: 5/5

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Queen Sugar – A Review

Queen Sugar

Published: 2014

Publisher: Penguin Group

Pages: 372

Summary: Charlotte Boderlon, a California based teacher, inherits a sugar cane farm in Louisiana after the passing of her father. Driven by a need for a fresh start, she packs up her life, and eleven-year old daughter, Micah, and sets off for Saint Josephine Louisiana. Charlotte, Charley, quickly learns that neither a fresh start, nor managing a plummeting sugar cane farm, is as easy as it sounds. Family ties are tested, Love is discovered, and Life is re-defined in Natalie Baszile’s debut novel.

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The Cane Cutter, Richmond Barthé

“When Someone in a family needs help, it’s up to everyone to see that he gets what he needs”

Review: I love southern literature. My affection for the south runs deep. Anything that takes place in Louisiana or Alabama’s gulf coast I sniff out like a hound, so when I heard Ava DuVernay was creating a show about a woman running a sugar cane farm in Louisiana I scoured the internet for more information. As a bibliophile, you can imagine my delight–to put it mildly–when I discovered the series was based on a book. Once I got my hands on Natalie Baszile’s debut novel I felt a sense of nostalgia and longing surface for the region so deeply nestled in my heart. And to some degree, I was satisfied.

Charlotte Boderlon, or Charley as she prefers to be called, is a woman in need of a do-over. At mid to late thirties her life hasn’t quite gone as planned. So when she inherits her father’s sugar cane farm, trading her life in California for a second chance in Louisiana seems like a logical plan. As she and her reluctant daughter, Micah, make their voyage, Charlotte is hoping this second chance will not only allow her to re-direct the course of her life, but to rectify the strained relationship she has with her daughter. More than anything she is seeking forgiveness.

The theme of forgiveness overtly weaves itself throughout the novel as we discover Charley is not the only one in need of a do-over. Her brother, Ralph-Angel, is on the run with his son, Blue, in tow. Like his sister he is escaping a life that hasn’t quite gone in his favor, but what he’s searching for continues to elude him and eventually he finds himself returning to the home, and memories, that have caused their equal share of joy and pain.

It is in Miss Honey’s house in Saint Josephine, Louisiana, where the two siblings “come to roost” after twenty-years. It is not a reunion either is exactly ecstatic over, but for a brief moment a bud of hope blossoms in Charley’s guarded heart as she ignores the warnings against trusting her shifty brother. She wants to believe that, despite the past, everyone deserves forgiveness–she herself has made gruesome mistakes. That hope is not only extended toward her brother, it reaches to the acres of unkept sugar cane land she’s now been crowned the owner of.

“You can’t come down here thinking the field’s wide open. You gotta know this thing. You got to live it” – Queen Sugar 

Chances of the crop’s redemption seem slim and just when Charley has dug herself out of a hole, she tumbles into a ditch. As much as she considers throwing the towel in, she understands that this land is more than just sugar cane crop, it’s a family legacy: a chance to re-right the wrong that was done to her father, a chance to bestow something on her daughter–even if it is simply showing her how “a woman in desperate straits could pull her own survival out of the ruddy earth.” She takes that chance, and it is not without risk as the more she toils the tougher the terrain becomes. What she’s working at is bigger than her individual self.

“People had fought over sugarcane and died for it. They had married for it, prayed over it, and cursed its existence” – Queen Sugar

The quest to restore her father’s land comes with a battle she hadn’t prepared for: her family’s skeletons. A fresh-start does not always mean an escape from the past. But sometimes, “you go looking for adventure, all you find is disaster.”

Queen Sugar has all of the elements to make it a compelling story. Baszile has a way of revealing the history and process of sugar cane farming that does not put you to sleep. Her prose is sweet and she paints the south in such rich and realistic colors you can feel the Louisiana sun beaming on you. I understand why Ava was inspired by the novel. While there is beautiful language, an empathetic protagonist, and a quasi love-triangle, Queen Sugar also examines the very real presence of race and its -isms. Baszile weaves reflections of farming’s racial history with the harsh reality of attempting to operate in a white male dominated industry as a black woman. The odds are stacked against Charley, but her determination and her sense of duty is endearing enough to win the partnership of the most revered and knowledgable farmer, and speak to the history of black female resilience and “generations of struggle and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.” Charlotte is not a woman made of stone, but she is also no push-over.

 

“You couldn’t expect to be the only woman in an industry filled with men and not think someone would eventually say something stupid; you couldn’t ignore the long, dark, tortured history of Southern race relations, or pretend everything would be fixed overnight. [..] But you could be brave.” – Queen Sugar 

 

I enjoyed Queen Sugar although the story began to lose grip of its reins toward the end and what should have been a gut-wrenching scene almost flew by too fast for me. Nevertheless, it opens up a dialog that will leave you wrestling with what’s left unresolved.

Rating: 3.5/5

Valentine’s Day Lit: The Realest Fictitious Love Stories Ever

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Tis the season for loooove, and what better way to get into the spirit than reading a great love story! I recently wrote a piece for QuirkyBrownLove about my favorite couples in literature. From Their Eyes Were Watching God to Tar Baby and Quicksand these stories reject the old Cinderella narrative and tap into love’s nuances. They serve as perfect reminders for why we dedicate an entire day for celebrating love!

Head on over to QuirkyBrownLove to read about my favorite fictitious couples!

A Small Place — A Review

a small place

Published: 1988

Publisher: (Farrar, Straus, and Grioux)

Pages: 81

Synopsis: A Small Place is a part fictional and part autobiographical novel published in 1988 by Jamaica Kincaid. The work is an indictment of the Antiguan government, the tourist industry and Antigua’s British colonial legacy.

Review: “Antigua is beautiful. Antigua is too beautiful. Sometimes the beauty of it seems unreal,” says Kincaid in her 81-paged analysis of her homeland. A Small Place is the controversial book that resulted in Kincaid’s 5 year ban from Antigua, and serves as the basis for the documentary, Life and Debt. Kincaid does what she always does, brilliantly links the past to the present, something she laments as a difficult task for Antiguans who aren’t often privy to the bigger picture.

“Antigua is a small place. Antigua is a very small place. In Antigua, not only is the event turned into everyday but the everyday is turned into an event” – Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid takes readers through some of the events in Antiguan history that have perpetuated corruption, poverty, and neo-colonialism. Of course, these are not topics that trouble the minds of (mainly white) tourists who flock to this Caribbean destination for a respite from their “amniotic sac of the modern experience.” Beautiful though Antigua may be, Kincaid makes no attempt to continue the idea of Island Paradise. Instead she takes tourism to task, confronting their voluntary ignorance and exoticism of a land where “there is no proper sewage-disposal system,” an indefinitely closed library, a hospital so run-down Westerners “would not feel confident leaving a domestic animal there,” and a corrupt system of importation of goods such as the food being served in the lavish hotels. Kincaid takes away the bliss of ignorance in her direct address to tourists. She informs that they too are natives of somewhere but, unlike them, the natives they exoticize on their vacations do not have the luxury to escape their own “banality and boredom”. The “source of pleasure” tourists are privileged to experience while visiting Antigua comes at the expense of those who cannot escape.

I am becoming an admirer of Kincaid. Her voice is often criticized for being angry and vengeful, but I find her words to always be breaths of fresh, honest, air. She does not shy away from the truth or make it palatable for readers; if you are going to pick up one of her books then you must be prepared for the mirror she holds up reflecting the atrocities colonialism has inflicted on the world, specifically the West Indies.

“Do you ever try to understand why people like me cannot get over the past, cannot forgive and cannot forget?” – Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place is not a flowery tour-guide of Antigua, it is a beautifully written, starkly honest look into not only the events that shaped the ten-by-twelve-mile island, but into humanity and its willfully ignorant transgressions against those rendered “other.” It is worth the read and Kincaid’s voice is worth listening to.

Rating: 5/5

*This novel completes the following reading challenge: Read One Book in a Day

The Magic Beyoncé and Melina Matsoukas Form

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Beyonce, ‘Formation’
Formation (noun) – the action of forming or process of being formed.

Beyoncé understands the power of visuals. In 2013 she graced the world with an entire visual album and forever changed the way artists release music. So when she prepared Saturday, February 6, 2016, to be the day she’d return to scalp the globe with her pro-black anthem she knew she would need a video to capture the track’s grit and gutter. It would only make sense that she’d turn to Melina Matsoukas, the woman whose directed over 10 of Bey’s visuals.

While known for her vibrant colors, vintage flair, and ingenious direction, Melina does not shy away from controversy; her visuals have often either been banned or come under heavy scrutiny, but that doesn’t seem to stop the NYU and AFI alumna from creating thmelina-matsoukas-video-maven-w-magazinee most stunning videos at a time when narrative music videos seem to be declining. In her latest collaboration with Queen Bey she delves into the spirit of Southern Goth and New Orleans to bless viewers with a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackExcellence, #BlackEverything.

“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”

‘Formation’ opens with Beyoncé dressed down in a red and white calico inspired fit and black boots. She is standing atop of a partially submerged New Orleans Police squad car as the late Messy Mya states “bitch, I’m back by popular demand.” Immediately you know that what you are about to witness is unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the Beyoncé and Melina catalog. Flashes of scenes from Abteen Bagheri’s (@abteen), That B.E.A.T., give you just enough time to brace yourself before being launched into a space where the past, the present, and the future intertwine at the picturesque plantation home. Inside is Beyoncé in various Southern garb as she recites her linage:

“My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas Bama”

It is then that you realize Beyoncé is leading you to a place of no return. For years she has subtly distanced herself from the mainstream media that once kept her in a commercialized box. ‘Formation’ is where she breaks her silence. What we hear, and see, is a Beyoncé who is unapologetically black, who likes her “baby hair with baby hair and afros,” and her “negro nose with jackson five nostrils.” Blue Ivy Carter stands before us, her afro a glorious halo, with all of the grace and confidence that make up her celestial DNA. Melina cuts back and forth between Mother and Daughter conjuring up a spirit, a tangible feeling, so visceral and magical it belongs in a Toni Morrison novel.

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Formation’ is an homage. As Beyoncé sits in a sparse room in a corset, twirling an umbrella, pictures of her ancestors behind her, Melina has expertly woven generations together illustrating the shoulders upon which Beyoncé, Blue, and all black women stand. One of the most powerful moments is the performance scene in the middle of the home’s hallway. Beyoncé and her dancers are clothed in maroon leotards with deep necklines and dancing fiercely as Bey declares:

“I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.”

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Amidst those walls where Bey, and crew, dance with a dominant strut are the spirits of the women who once walked those halls as servants, violently stripped of the ability to work toward any dream, let alone own it. Women who were incapable of any agency over their own bodies and sexualities. No one captures that spirit with the same poignancy as Melina who places one of the most powerful women in spaces that once existed as oppressive structures for black bodies and souls, thus, reforming the image–reclaiming power and restoring dignity to what we’ve too long been made to feel ashamed of. 

While managing to insert her signature vibrant color schemes Melina continues to push the envelope as she makes some of her boldest statements yet. As the black boy in his hoodie dances before the line of SWAT officers, and the NOLA squad car submerges, and
the graffiti demanding “stop shooting us” pans across the screen, we see Melina brilliantly tackling police brutality and the incessant violent assault on black lives and bodies. This is not solely Melina’s boldest move, it is also Beyoncé’s. For a womantumblr_o25mci3Bo51qf29nao2_500 who is so calculated  and strategic with her image Beyoncé needed a vision she could trust to handle the most controversial moment of her career with grace. Melina is who Beyoncé trusts. Time and time again these two forces prove that when combined they are nothing short of Magical.

“Ok, ladies, now let’s get in formation.”

What I’m Watching

Netflix (or any other preferred streaming service) isn’t the only place to find quality content. As a self-proclaimed web-series/docu-series aficionado, YouTube is my biggest resource for quick, engaging, and innovative content. Here’s a look at what I’ve been watching.

Mic.com’s new digital docu-series, The Movement

The movement

“[…] there are the stories we choose to tell in media and those we ignore. It’s easy to locate media accounts highlighting social ills, but less available are narratives of progress and transformation. Mic‘s newest original series,The Movement, is an attempt to fill in the gap.”

Mic.com senior correspondent, Darnell L. Moore, hosts “The Movement,” and takes viewers where CNN, FOX, and any other major news media outlet won’t. So far “The Movement” has highlighted the prejudicial divide of Zip Codes, Young Individuals re-imagining Baltimore, and A Camden NJ non-profit organization committed to revitalizing the community.

Such critical, nuanced, and engaging material is neatly packed in a 5-8 minute clip.

i-D Magazine’s new web docu-series, “Relocate”

relocate

“VW presents a four part series that explores the hopes, dreams and realities of moving abroad. New Year, new start, new city? DJ, producer and radio presenter Nabihah Iqbal is questioning whether London is still the city for her and she’s not alone. 323,000 emigrated from Britain last year and with spiraling costs of living, contrasted with the perceived better quality of life elsewhere, it’s easy to see why. […] Is it really that much easier to be a young artist elsewhere? To what extent is this dream a reality?”

I was always obsessed with the travel channel as a child. This docu-series takes you into the Arts, Music, and Culture scene of three European cities. Though short, it is beautifully shot and gives viewers insight into new places.

 

Nike Women’s web-series ‘Margot vs Lily’

margot vs lilly

“Two sisters—total opposites—make a bet that pushes them both way
outside their comfort zones.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I hit the “skip” button on every ad before a YouTube video, but this time I’m glad I didn’t. Although it’s only one episode in, ‘Margot vs Lily’ is not your typical gimmicky advertizing series–although there is some heavy product placement. There’s a story here that will get you invested, even if you aren’t a Nike fan.

A Moment of Silence – Review

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Published: 2015
Publisher: Simon & Shuster
Pages: 535

Synopsis: Handsome, young, Muslim, and married to two women living in one house along with his mother, Umma, and sister, Naja: can Midnight manage? He is surrounded by Americans who don’t share or understand his faith or culture, and adults who are offended by his maturity, intelligence, or his natural ability to make his hard work turn into real money. He is calm, confident, and cool, Ninja-trained and powerful, but one moment of rage throws this Brooklyn youth into a dark world of dirty police, gangs, guns, drugs, prisons, and prisoners. Everything he ever believed, every dollar he ever earned, and all of the women he ever loved—including his mother—are at risk.

In this heart-pounding adventure, thriller, and intense narrative, New York Times bestselling author Sister Souljah has penned her most passionate and engrossing novel to date. Raw and uncompromising, her storytelling highlights and ignites the ongoing struggle of young men worldwide, to more than survive, but to live strong, to earn, to have the right to love and protect their families, to receive justice, and to be free.

Review:  Midnight, a sixteen-year-old Muslim ninja from Sudan with two wives, is supposedly, represents the epitome of manhood: he protects and provides for “his women,” he has a strong faith, he is intelligent, he engages in legitimate business, and he is a dependable friend. One of his wives’ Aunts describes him as having “this compelling beauty and implacable charm.” Sister Souljah’s latest offering of the Midnight series is set up like a guideline on how to steer the lost, the broken, and the confused men of America onto the righteous path Midnight walks–Midnight delivers several asides on what a “true” man is supposed to do. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t convinced.

Beyond being an epic-novel full of adventures and mystery, A Moment of Silence, is a critique on Western Culture, especially America and its criminal justice system, and, specifically, African-Americans. Midnight is an immigrant and continues to remind us of his outsider status as he launches several critiques on African-American men, women, families, and belief in Christianity.

“It was next to impossible for me to understand the African-American mindset. Most of them were mad at the things that should make them happy, I thought, and content and stagnant with the things that should make them make moves. Too many of them hated the exact things that they should love, I thought.” – A Moment of Silence

Yet, despite Midnight’s refusal to affiliate himself with the African-Americans he critiques, he finds himself facing a reality many black men are forced to live with–police brutality. A case of mistaken identity lands Midnight in tangled, biased web of the American Criminal Justice System whose scales are often unbalanced. It is when Souljah delves into the perverse system of “justice” that she offers some of her most eloquent pieces of prose. Through Midnight’s naive position–though he would never admit to it–as a “foreigner” Souljah explores exactly how police brutality and the institution of prisons “break men.”

“Being cuffed and trapped was expected. But what they kill you with is what no decent men would ever do, or ever expect to be done. It’s the extra shit that has nothing to do with being questioned, or with being charged with a crime, or even with being sentenced or with serving time as a just punishment” – A Moment of Silence

Such insights are, perhaps, this novel’s only saving grace because after moving beyond the critique of police brutality and the prison structure, there is thinly-veiled sexism that permeates the entire novel. The attention may be on the protagonist of the story and evaluating the state of black men in America, but women also play a major role–however silent they are forced to be.

Women are continuously described as “naive,” emotional creatures who are helpless without a man’s intelligence and protection.

“I need for my sister and mother and wives to be untouched, unseen, uninterrupted and unknown to anyone who we, and they have not chosen to be apart of our world” – A Moment of Silence

Midnight literally builds a wall around his house to cage his mother, sister, and two wives inside. They are not permitted to leave unless they are accompanied by him or he approves of their travels. His friends are not allowed to see or speak to his wives and any other man who so much as expresses concern for one of his wives is classified as an enemy. All of this is defined as “protection”.

One of Midnight’s wives, Chiasa, who is also a ninja, is almost capable of being an independent woman with her own thoughts and feelings–there is a moment when she begins to question Midnight about his “protection” of her–thus being an attempt to dispel the sexist stereotype of Islam, but the way Chiasa so easily concedes to Midnight’s explanation that women can do everything, as long as women “do it among women, and men among men,”continues to fuel the stereotype and illustrates Midnight’s belief that Chiasa, nor any other woman, is equal to a man.

While women were limited and silenced throughout the novel, ironically, so is masculinity. The depiction of “manhood” in A Moment of Silence is rooted in the silencing, damaging encouragement of hyper-masculinity:

“Men fight. Men work. Men defend. Men murder” – A Moment of Silence

Midnight praises a trait that continues to plague, specifically, black men today. This notion that men are nothing more than brutes forces them to silence their emotions and render any expression of them as a “feminine” trait. There is no plurality to maleness in A Moment of Silence. When homosexuality does appear in the novel, it is described as a “circumstance” and “disease” that can easily be cured by having a strong male figure–in this case, Midnight–and a pretty, modestly dressed, respectable Muslim girl. At first glance it’s comical, upon deeper reflection it’s frightening to have such ignorance delivered as a helpful manual for men as if  “true manhood” is a uniform one size fits all mindset and life-style. 

In the midst of such cringe-worthy themes there is an actual plot, and several sub plots, to the story. Midnight commits a crime that is contradictorily described as criminal and commendable. Somehow he also gets wrapped up in a drug-bust that lands him in jail. As he traverses the vile, and seedy corruption of prison, he attempts to maintain a clear conscious and pure heart, all easily achieved by remaining silent. It is through silence that he learns “the demons that live in men.” 

The novel skips back-and-forth between past and present interactions Midnight has exclusively with men–there is a chapter dedicated to a “she-officer,” an Aunt, and his female attorney. Through these interactions Midnight reveals how he manages to pass all of the tests on his character, never making a mistake–except for the one that lands him in prison. Unfortunately, the plot is not as engaging as one may think. The ending is an anti-climatic twist that was more of an easy way out of a confusing web than an actual resolve. I have no doubts another Midnight book will be coming, I have even fewer doubts that I’ll be reading it.  

I struggled to complete this book. Seriously, it took me a month to finish, and the staggering 535 pages weren’t solely to blame as I am not a reader who shies away from larger novels. It was Souljah’s depiction of manhood, and love that I found myself questioning. While I could agree with her critique of the justice system and the fact that “we are at war” when it comes to police brutality, I could not concede to the idea that Midnight’s example was the answer for freedom. I continued reading because I was waiting for some sort of shift or growth in Midnight’s character. I was hoping the sexism and hyper-masculinity talk was that of a young, naively arrogant, sixteen-year-old boy. But there was no shift, there was no growth, apart from him understanding how he got caught in the drug bust and how the prison system worked. Midnight is a static character. Whatever charm that bedazzles his wife, his peers, the “she-officer,” and his attorney is completely lost on me. If this is a guideline for men across the world on how to “restore” masculinity and gain freedom, then a moment of silence is definitely needed to reflect on the dangers of the outline presented.

Rating: 2.5/5