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