It’s nothing short of a blessing when you can devote an entire day to reading a book, or when a book is so compelling it requires your undivided attention until completed. That was my experience with Gayl Jones’ CoRregidora. Not since I was in high school had I experienced the giddy feeling of curling up and fervently turning the next page, needing to know what happened next. CoRregidora isn’t as suspenseful as it is spellbinding. Jones’ quick pacing, perfect dialogue, and gothic themes transfixes you until you’ve realized you reached the end. And what an impactful ending it is.
There is no one that explores the sexual, emotional, social, and physical trauma of slavery on their descendants like Jones. She perfectly melds the past and present showing how we are a single thread on the spool of time, merely continuing what has already transpired before our existence. It’s dark and uncomfortable, but it’s the truth of Jones’ work that will resonate with you and shake you to your core.
I’ve been a huge admirer of Jones’ work, and CoRregidora, edited by the great Toni Morrison,is a necessary staple that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.
Reading Toni Morrison is always a transformative experience, rereading her is even more so.
I had the pleasure of re-reading Beloved; a work I once found so impenetrable I was now, as an adult, able to enter with a steadier grasp that turned into profound appreciation. From the language to the characters, Morrison takes the horrifically triumphant tale of Margaret Garner and creates a world magnificent with complexity, sorrow, and healing. It was the latter that I newly discovered, which absolutely spellbound me by the time I reached the end.
This reading of Beloved gave me a deeper appreciation for Morrison’s emphasis on safe spaces. Beloved is full of them from Sethe’s keeping room where she does her introspection, to Denver’s secret garden, to Baby Sugg’s clearing space in the woods. Each of these women have a place that offer brief respites from the horror surrounding them. It reminded me that in the midst of turmoil, survival of the self is essential. These safe spaces allowed room for these women to be, to breathe, so that they could continue forth in a world rife with oppression, violence, and emotional trauma.
As equally important, Morrison also makes the case for the necessity of self-love. Baby Suggs is perhaps the best vehicle through which Morrison delivers this sermon. In that clearing space in the woods Baby Suggs urges for the black townspeople to love their heart, for “more than the lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your live-giving private parts…love your heart. For this is the prize.” Such declaration to former slaves and descendants of slaves is revolutionary as not only are they “legally” property and thought of to not be fully human, but they lived in an environment that did not breed neither love, nor joy, nor peace. And despite all of that, Baby Suggs tell all of these individuals to resists the temptation to be consumed by such trauma and, instead, rise in love.
Sethe and Denver both have to understand this in the face of their Beloved for whom they sacrifice themselves for. Denver’s discovery of her own self and the fight to preserve that self is what allows her to experience the most dynamic evolution of all the characters. It is also what helps keep her mother and sister alive. It’s a truth we’re reminded of by every flight attendant whosever demonstrated to you how to ensure the survival of yourself and loved one should the flight go awry—place the oxygen on yourself first, for without the preservation of yourself there is no hope for the survival of those who come after you.
In a novel filled with trauma, calls for self-love are laden throughout. It is what I believe to be Morrison’s call to action. Her definition of resistance is self-preservation. I’m reminded of such especially toward the end of the novel when, after Sethe has given almost life, limb, and sanity for her child who she defines as her “best thing,” Paul D reminds Sethe that it is her own self that is her “best thing.”
The testament of a truly remarkable piece of writing is when you can return to it at various moments in your life and extract different lessons along the way. It is also true that the right book will always find you at the right moment. Beloved did that for me and Morrison reminded me how important the self is and how, as Audre Lorde also says, self-preservation is the very act of political warfare.
Reading Challenge update: This is the second book I’ve completed in my challenge. I began with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
I have to admit I haven’t read in a while. Can you imagine how draining that is to a Bibliophile’s spirit? How could I have produced an entire web series about book lovers when I haven’t picked up a book in months, MONTHS?! Well, the short answer is, life happens and sometimes even the things you love have to be put on pause to deal with it. But I am proud to say the drought is over and I couldn’t have chosen a better book to get me back in the reading game.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons looks at the complicated mother-daughter relationship and how the self-image of the latter is defined through the reflection of the former. Thandi is an undergraduate student when she suffers the loss of her mother. It is an experience that, understandably, erupts the world she once knew and catapults her into grief’s stratosphere. There we find her grappling with identity, love, loss, and life.
What we Lose is a story told in a fascinating intertextual way that rebukes traditional form and convention. Clemmons uses Biggie Smalls lyrics, pop cultural references, historical artifacts, and cultural footnotes to shape the international, intercultural, interracial reality of a young black girl straddling culture, society, and countries. Thandi’s evolution is paired alongside the evolution of her mother’s land of South Africa. Her relationship, affection, and memory of the country directly relate to her relationship with her mother through life and death. What we find is an intimate, diary-esque stream-of-conscious journey of a womantrying to remember her mother, trying to make sense of the disease that killed her, and trying to make sense of her own self in the face of life’s traumas.
I found myself gripped immediately at the depth of Clemson’s succinct writing. Like a true millennial, she perfected the ability to convey such breadth in so few words. The impact is direct; her words hit you in all the vulnerable places one often shies from visiting. The novel’s structure is a sign of careful storytelling that is idiosyncratic yet so universal. While we may not all be able to relate to losing a mother, we surely can understand how omnipotent our mother’s presence is. We are often shaping ourselves from our hair to our morals in direct accordance with or rebellion of our mother’s. As daughters we are always seeking her approval yet turning askance at her judgement trying to hard to discover our individual selves while still aiming to be someone she can be proud of. These truths are never made more clear until the day we no longer have her voice to reassure as or her arms to comfort us, or her chastisement to guide us. I would argue that What We Lose is a meditation on that. It is a reflection of how we never stop needing our mothers, even when life takes her from us.
Clemmons takes us to that bridge we will all have to cross someday, with What We Lose she shows us what it is like to step into the land of lasting grief and how it will rock one to the core. What we learn is that life and death, gain and loss, happiness and sadness are all natural occurrences in this journey we’re traveling and while we lean on our parents to guide us through many of the dark times, there will come a day when we will have to learn to stand on our own.
Like the work of Lorraine Hansberry’s autobiography and Jean Toomer’s Cane, Clemmons blends genre, text, and discourse to bring us something greater than a story, she has delivered an irrevocable, life-altering experience.
How long has it been? Ages, I know! Well, I’ve been off in my writer’s cave…writing (more on that to come soon), but for now I’m delivering one of the fruits from such arduous labor!
It’s no secret that I loved Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? I didn’t just write a book review, I got the pleasure to interview her daughter! And since I just can’t leave these stories alone I’ve returned with an analysis of Collins’ use of the tragic mulatto trope.
Not only did I get the pleasure of reading an early copy of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? but I was fortunate enough to sit down with the woman behind making the collection possible, Nina Collins. As the daughter of the late writer & filmmaker, Kathleen Collins, Nina felt it her mission to restore her mother’s work; she showed me the plethora of her mother’s work and talked about the autobiographical elements in her favorite stories from the collection, which is out today!
I work in marketing. I enjoy it, but it’s not exactly what I see myself doing for the rest of my life. In fact, there are often times when I’m stricken, at my desk, with a paralyzing fear that I’ve somehow become one of those people. You know, those people who talk about the grand dreams they once had for themselves but are now living out something disappointingly opposite? It’s been a fear since I was a young girl, to be given all this life and somehow waste it on something I never intended to do. I fear that the dreams I have for myself and my life will somehow become a shell of a memory and I, too, will be speaking about what I once hoped for. I’m afraid that I’ll become like the narrator of Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, the no-name brown girl who deffered her dreams and life for the sake of managing someone else’s.
Swing Time is described as “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them.” It’s a novel wide in scope touching so many bases, but underneath the plethora of themes, tangents, and subplots, what I found most compelling is Smith’s exploration of dreams, success, and the affect time has on both.
We meet the unnamed protagonist and her friend, Tracey, when they are ten years old. Both girls are joining Miss. Isabel’s dance class, both are brown, and both have a deep love for dance. These three things become the building blocks upon which a shaky friendship is built. Though they both are mixed-race, live in estates, and have a passion for dancing, they come from two different worlds. The unnamed friend’s parents are “reversed” in their pairing; the father is white and the mother is a Jamaican feminist with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and mobility. Tracey’s world is the inverse; her Jamaican father is frequently absent and her white mother has an insatiable love for musicals and Michael Jackson.
It’s these two worlds that are always threatening the girls’ friendship. Where the unnamed protagonist’s mother wants her to steer clear of Tracey, the unnamed girl only grows more infatuated with Tracey’s “freedom,” charm, and talent. But despite their opposing worlds (read: mothers), the two girls hold onto their love and dream of dancing until that singular dream is split into two roads: one which the talented Tracey travels confidently toward and the other which the flat-footed—thus, ill-fitted for dance—unnamed protagonist painfully avoids. This divergence of paths is not singularly the physical mechanics making one girl best suited for dance over the other; while Tracey’s mother supports her daughter auditioning and attending the full-time dance school, the unnamed protagonist’s mother forbids her daughter, instead, demanding that she focus on the only important thing in life, which are the things that can be written down. This mother’s dreams of intelligence, dreams of choices, dreams of opportunity for her daughter—the opportunity to disrupt the cycle of poverty, teenage pregnancy, and illiteracy—overshadows whatever dream the daughter has of dancing. We continue to watch this, however inadvertent, deferment of a dream dry up in the girl’s heart festering a rebellion, a bitterness, a jealousy instead.
Swing Time is Smith’s usual epic of ideas and observations about race, gender, class, family, identity, and London. We follow the unnamed protagonist from London to New York to West Africa and learn of globalization, white privilege, matriarchal societies, and–of course–dance. And while readers are required to do their usual sifting through long-winded prose, and some anti-climatic dramas, continuing forth leads to the heart of the story: time, dreams, success, and how the former informs everything.
Ten plus years since meeting Tracey, and developing that dream of dancing, the unnamed protagonist has chosen a shadow of a life where she is a single blade on the propeller of someone else’s dream. She lives in the enclaves of someone else’s life, reducing her own purpose to making someone else’s dreams possible. Her entire reason for being in West Africa is lay down the blueprint and monitor the success of someone else’s vision. It’s an act, a relationship that is no different from the one the unnamed protagonist engaged with Tracey and her own mother. She is consistently surrounded by headstrong women with desires that cannot be extinguished by any outside influences. They railroad the world, and people like the unnamed protagonist, with their tenacious pursuit of their vision. The success of the unnamed protagonist’s relationship with these women is the deferment of her own dreams. And she does so, willingly, exchanging her own happiness for the envy of others living theirs and relishing at the joy of any one’s failure, specifically Tracey’s.
Through traveling their respective roads, Tracey and the unnamed protagonist again become paralleled as adults when each looks upon the other at Tracey’s dining room table only to find that neither are who they imagined themselves to be. Amidst that air of unspoken tension and pain is the question of success: which woman was successful, which one beat the odds…the b-list dancer who never left the estates or the no-name assistant forced to return? Were they both doomed to end up here despite whatever path they jumped on in hopes of escaping? Tracey doesn’t necessarily become the biggest star in the dance world, but is it better than spending half one’s life as the stagehand to someone else’s? Such is the same with the protagonist’s mother; she may not have been able to save the world, and her people, in the way that she thought she could, but nonetheless she tried. We are not in control of where our dreams lead us, but the bravery and the triumph is not in the destination but the journey.
But we’ve heard their stories before. We’ve read of the people who fight against the odds to make their dreams come true. We’ve seen the Traceys in Marilyn, Dorothy, and even Nella Larsen’s Clare Kendry. Very rarely do we hear from the other side–the Ethels, the Irenes, the Cindy Lou’s–the people running the well oiled machine of dreams, and the people who get hurt at the expense of the dream chasers. The unnamed protagonist gives us a thorough glimpse in Swing Time, a novel that I can only think of as an extension of Langston Hughes’ question of what happens to a deferred dream:
In the introduction to her 1983 collection of interviews with black women writers, Claudia Tate explained the difference between the black hero’s and the black heroine’s quest for self-affirmation and identity. While both the black hero and the black heroine are in search of “increasingly higher levels of emotional and intellectual awareness of the self and the outside world,” the process by which they journey to such a destination differs. The black hero’s journey is often an external exploration requiring his physical departure from his home/community of origin. The black heroine’s journey is internal requiring physical isolation or restriction. She is not detached from responsibilities as often times these heroines are mothers, wives, etc. Therefore the black heroine’s destination is not a place, but rather, a state of mind. Writer and Filmmaker Kathleen Collins employs this dynamic exploration of the internal journey throughout her posthumous collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? But Collins’ doesn’t make that internal journey exclusive to her black heroines; she extends it to her black hero’s as she delves into the murky mist of self-reckoning. But by expanding Tate’s theory of isolation to her black hero’s, Collins, inadvertently, examines the ways in which such physical isolation affect both her male and female characters. Where the isolation is a therapeutic experience for her heroines it is a crushing life-threatening experience for her heroes. This curious examination reveals Collins deep interest not with the physical outcome of her characters, but rather, their interior resolution of their lives and place in the world. Whatever results from such resolution is purely circumstantial.
The first couplet of stories appropriately titled “Exteriors” and “Interiors” set the tone for which the following fourteen stories will take. We begin with the external voyeuristic view of a couple whose marriage is unhinging in “Exteriors”. The husband goes off on a whimsical excursion while the wife is left in isolation. Or rather, the wife chooses isolation. In “Interiors” the wife is not lamenting the reasons why her husband left, instead she voluntarily enters a “benevolent solitude” where she steps into herself and explores her horizon. She plays the violin, she starts a home garden, she takes on lovers–however inept–she creates art. All of these are attempts to understand herself while also resolving an independent identity in the face of her broken marriage.
Collins presents isolation as a choice, a reprieve from the external world, an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole falling experience where one discovers the depths of one’s own soul, when it comes to her female characters. But a reprieve it is not for her male characters. Where the wife in “Interiors” emerges with her life and some sort of hope for the future, the Uncle in “The Uncle” isn’t as fortunate. His external circumstances have forced him no other option but isolation and in those confines he is never able to emerge with his life or any such hope for his future. Such is the same for the young man in “Only Once.” Isolation, for these men, is instead a cocoon, a Plato’s cave of manipulated images from their external reality are reflected in their internal resolutions preventing them from ever rising to the light. This dichotomy continues to play throughout Collins’ stories and characters: a disenchanted young woman who finds solace in a dark closet, an ill-fated lover and his gun, a playwright in suburbia, another abandoned wife who retreats into a new home. Many of these characters are faced with the external challenges of race, gender, class, and unfulfilled relationships, but Collin does not focus on the external. Instead she takes us into each character’s interior challenge of reconciling a self-image despite, or perhaps in spite of their outside circumstances.
There is a rebellious undertone in Collins’ work threading itself through each story. From the daughter who commits the “unforgivable sin of (“Negro”) girlhood” by cutting her hair and therefore turning herself into “any other Negro,” to the man who takes his own life, to the black middle-class girl from New Jersey agrees to marry her white lover in 1963 as they both naively confront the south and racial segregation, Collins presents unconventional resolutions that are not tidy, but instead a form of rebellion from what each of these characters are expected to be from the outside looking in. Each character is trying to find themselves and it’s a journey that requires the painful task of rejecting the external labels which have been arbitrarily placed on them from white-supremacy ideas of blackness to their own black bourgeois community’s. In these rebellious internal resolutions Collins is calling for a deep introspection of us all. Her work reminds us that we are humans first and our journeys toward seeking higher levels of emotional and intellectual awareness begin with our individual selves first.
That confrontation of self is often brutal and not all of her characters make it out alive, but the point is not to make it out alive, the point is to go through the process of delving deep into one’s self. That alone is one of the bravest things any human can do.
I thoroughly enjoyed Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Collins’s critical but sympathetic gaze on the black bourgeois is a perspective reminiscent of Nella Larsen, Lorraine Hansberry, and Dorothy West. Her insistence on the human spirit and internal self first allows her voice to be dynamic, idiosyncratic, and refreshing. I only wish that there was more.
“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
My grandmother often tells the story of her mother’s frequent returns home to Mississippi after getting married at 13. She would have her first three children in tow as she repeatedly left her marriage home in Alabama—the place she ran off to marry the 19 year old with the sweet voice. The most infamous story is how my great-grandmother stuffed her clothes in the suitcase of her sister who was visiting. When her sister returned home she was shocked to find my great-grandmother’s clothes and even more shocked when she appeared on her door-step a short while later. But however long my great-grandmother stayed away, eventually her husband would always come for her and she’d leave with him. I never met my great-grandmother, so I can’t ask her what kind of pain drove her frequent attempts to run away, neither can I ask her about the kind of resolution that drove her to return.
What I am more curious of is the type of refuge she received at her mother’s home—that mother who had a husband in St. Louis who never returned—what kind of strength and salvation was conjured between two generations of hurt women in that space? What did my great-great grandmother teach her daughter about love and forgiveness and making lemonade from the lemons life had given her?
Returning home is a theme explored everywhere from the Bible to 21st century art. It is a tradition with particular significance in the cannon of black female art and literature. Coming home isn’t a destination, it’s a pilgrimage back to the place that either defined or broke you or both. Returning to that place is not only where black women have come to rest, but to confront the things they were unable to out in the world. The thing that they are often confronting is themselves. Home is never a place to quit, but to restore and figure out how to go on from their current state. Most recently, Annalise Keating showed us the kind of refuge home serves a black woman when the world is threatening to break our bodies and our spirits.
At home Annalise is not able to simply rest, she must confront the pain of her father leaving and the confusion of how her mother forgave him. There is a lesson she is meant to learn no matter how reluctant she is. The sweet is never without the bitter.
Zora Neale Hurston blessed the cannon with her pioneering pilgrimage tale, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Beyoncé offered her own tale of returning home in Lemonade. As I watched the Queen Bey deliver her most vulnerable work to date I was struck by the similarities I found between the woman she portrays and Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God.