Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’ & the deferred dream

swing-time

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.

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Zadie Smith

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:

“Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

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Women Who Write: Raven Starr

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’tve left you without a dope beat to step to, step to…

I’ve been gone for a minute, but I’m back with another profile on yet another brilliant writer. Raven Starr is a poet whose vulnerability is so authentic it will inspire you to be just as open. She’s raw, she’s honest, and she’s talented. Check out the amazing piece she shared with me, “It was 12 a.m. and I Thought I was a Rapper”

 

Woman Writer Wednesday: Lenora Inez Brown

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#WomenWritersWednesday is a docu-series that explores the inner lives of women writers. Writers discuss everything from inspiration to writing processes to inherited gifts.

Dramaturge and writer, Lenora Inez Brown shares why writing is horrible, the challenges for creators of color on the theatre, and what dramaturge do. Brown has published two books: The Art of Active Dramaturgy: Transforming Critical Thought into Dramatic Action, and,  New Play Development: Facilitating Creativity for Dramaturgs, Playwrights, and Everyone Else. She has also written several articles and chapters. She has been a guest dra­maturg for the Sundance Theatre Lab 2000 and 2001, the Southern Writer’s Project at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Kennedy Center’s Youth and Family Program’s New Visons/New Voices and the Cleveland Play House.

 

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

Mahogany

So, as you may know I’ve been working on a collection of short-stories (you can read about my experience here). The process has been extremely transformative and is nearing completion. I am excited to be able to share one of the stories, which you can read by following clicking this link.

A small excerpt can also be found below:

It was in the dead of night when headlights flooded a pale blue shotgun house rooted on modest land. The car stopped in the middle of the make-shift driveway. Margaret had been up for two hours, stirring a now lukewarm pot of coffee. She wasn’t thirsty but she needed something to occupy her hands. The rumbling sound of the engine was cut and the lights faded into the night. From the open window, she could hear two doors slam. Her heart picked up a few paces. Since her phone had rung two hours ago, she was a ball of tension. There was a rapt at her door and she jumped at the sound. She set the mug on the counter and went to open the door. Even in the blackest of night, Anne’s skin still glowed pale like the moon. Margaret didn’t say a word, she just simply stepped aside as Anne walked in, followed by her husband who was carrying a bundle of swathed cloth in his arm. Margaret shut the door, her ears had become hot and she felt an off rhythm thud in her left temple. She was stressed. Stressed after working twelve hours at the mill, stressed after coming home to find her husband still hadn’t returned, and stressed that a woman she hadn’t seen for thirteen years was now in her too small kitchen. Margaret struck a match and set the lit lantern in the middle of the table. She gestured for the couple to have a seat, her eyes still on the bundle in the man’s arms.

“Can I get ya’ll something to drink?” She asked

“No, no, we’re fine, Margaret. Thank you,” Anne refused in her crisp, elegant, northern accent.

“Well, follow me,” Margaret picked up the lantern and lead them through three doors that shot straight to the back room where a bed laid and not much else besides a wooden chair, a tin bucket, and a nightstand. 

“This will do fine, Margaret. Thank you,” Anne said. 

Margaret set the lantern on the nightstand.

“I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” she walked out of the room.

Margaret began making a fresh batch of coffee. She didn’t have much to offer her guest, food-wise, and though they refused her offer of coffee, bustling around the kitchen kept her mind far away from the mysterious bundle in Anne’s husband’s arms. The light from the lantern partially illuminated the small room, throwing shadows against the lit wall. Margaret peaked over her shoulder at Anne. She got a good look at the woman: tall, slim, and dressed in an expensive black pants and shirt outfit. Her hair was pushed out of her face and her eyes were bright and demanding to be looked into. She was a far cry from the Anne that Margaret had known.

“It’s a fresh pot,” Margaret gestured toward the coffee.

“No, thank you,” Anne smiled, taking a seat at the table where she placed the lantern.

“Margaret, do you remember George Stowe?”

“Sho do, how could I forget?”

“Remember when he used to pick on me for being white?” Anne laughed. Margaret kept quiet.

“One day, you finally punched him in his mouth and said, ‘she as black as you and the rest of us,’ he never messed with me again.”

“What you getting at?” Margaret wasn’t one who enjoyed digging up the past.

“Margaret, have a seat. Please.”

Margaret’s heavy feet dragged a deep groan from the floor as she took the chair opposite from Anne.

“What I was trying to say is that I wish I was as strong as you.”

Margaret huffed.

“No, really, Margaret. You weren’t ashamed of anything. I wish I had been more like you.” Anne was staring hard into Margaret’s eyes.

“You protected me back then and I never thanked you,” Anne reached over and placed her delicate hands over Margaret’s calloused ones. Margaret looked down at those dainty pale fingers. Did she really drive all the way out here to thank her for something she did almost twenty years ago?

“I want to ask you something,” Anne said.

“Ok.”

“It’s a favor, a big favor. I know I’ll owe you forever.”

Margaret inched back into her seat. She didn’t like the sound of Anne’s voice or the pleading look in her eyes. 

“Will you do it?” Anne asked

“Do what?”

“Will you…I need you to keep my daughter.”

Margaret sighed, she had imagined having to do something far worse.

“Of course,” she smiled, “for how long?”

“Forever.”

Continue reading here

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.

Paradise–a review

Paradise

“How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it.” – Toni Morrison (Paradise)

When struggling with how to make sense of the world’s chaos, one often turns to the the artistic, philosophical, theological interpretations of another. In this moment, as in many moments of my life, I turned to Toni Morrison. I remember a conversation I watched between her and Angela Davis; she was speaking about Paradise and how she had received a letter from a prison in Texas stating that her novel had been banned from their facility. I remember thinking, “hmm, I’ve got to read that.” Of course life continued on after that conversation and I found my nose in a series of other books, but eventually fate aligned the perfect moment at which it became necessary to open this majestic journey of wisdom bound in a “book”–a word that only oversimplifies what Toni created.

Over the past couple of months I have watched what seems like more of a manipulation than observation and critique of the world, especially as it relates to the complex reality of black individuals. Everything created in response to recent events have felt like contrite efforts to cash in on a hot topic. I didn’t need the painful reality manipulated into some twisted “fairy-tale” for ratings. I didn’t need some roundtable discussion that never addressed the real root. I didn’t need some misguided lyrics under a compelling beat.  What I needed was understanding. I needed something that delved into the ugliness, not to find beauty, but to understand that ugliness and how it got there. That’s when I sought after Paradise. Quite an unbefitting title for such a story, but that’s just like the legendary Toni Morrison to take a word and totally turn it on its head.

I always approach a Toni Morrison novel with trepidation–intimated by her worthiness and my lack thereof. She is much more than a complement to the craft of writing; her work is the very epitome of it (and I’m not just saying that because we’re both from small towns in Ohio and I hope that she may one day become aware of my existence).

At the surface, Paradise is about a town at odds. The citizens of Ruby, Oklahoma are descendants of the Old Fathers; a congregation of nine men who found no solace in any town after America’s failed “attempt” at reconstruction. They took their families and set up roots in a place called Haven, Oklahoma, but later those families packed up and searched for a more secluded place to call home. All of the motivations and intentions of the Old Fathers–being perpetuated by the New Fathers–are called into question by a younger generation. This generation is not blindly accepting truths their parents regarded with reverence. They have new ideas and hopes for their future as well as the principle upon which Ruby was founded.

Ruby is in an ideological war between two generations. One is complicit with their segregated, self-created, and self-supported community. Another feels compelled to explore what lies beyond its borders. The New Fathers are determined to eliminate all threats to the permanent happiness their forefathers created for them. Such threats include outsiders. These outsiders come in the form of a minister, a fair-skinned black woman, and a group of women who live in an abandoned convent on the outskirts of Ruby.

Toni Morrison wouldn’t be Toni Morrison if she didn’t have a parallel story that ran in between the lines. The history of Ruby and the nine families are told in an achronological frame of women who have all had some form of contact–direct or indirect–with the abandoned convent and its inhabitants. The women in the convent live on the peripheral of society–they have been abandoned, scorned, and outlawed by those whom they loved. In this convent they have created their own utopia away from their dark pasts.

With a town, led by men, paranoid over how to maintain control and the presence of women, who seem to have had some affect–direct or indirect–on the threat of that control, tensions come to an explosive head that slices the town wide open.

Paradise is one of the most important feministic piece of literature in our society. Toni Morrison has often stated her interest in unconventional women. This novel explores the saint/whore complex and truly humanizes women who are often relegated into constricting stereotypes. Morrison looks at the daughters of Eve and reveals the sins that lead them all to the convent. It is there that they create a silent covenant to help one another relinquish the shit that weighs them down so that they may fly.

Morrison experiments with structure and chronos in this tale of two intersecting and conflicting utopias. She continues her gaze into the nuanced experience of black self-identification as she explores issues of  tradition, colorism, misogyny, oppression, religion, and sexuality. Morrison also explores the pursuit of happiness and how far individuals will go in order to secure their own.

Of course, with every Toni Morrison novel, you will have to read it several more times before you can grasp even half of her multi-textured tale. Morrison creates stories and characters that will live with you forever and, quite frankly, no one does an extended metaphor like her.

Though set in the early-to-mid 1970s, Paradise is a timeless classic that has a way of speaking to the issues of today, or showing how very little has changed. Regardless, it is a must-read.

Dear Zora

Zora

I remember the first time I was confronted with your work. It was 10th grade in my suburban high school. My English teacher assigned Their Eyes Were Watching God and I’ll never forget those few weeks with that text. I’m almost ashamed of my old self and how I cringed at the vernacular you wrote in and how quick I was to reject this story as being unworthy of respect let alone analysis, but something kept me turning the page. It wasn’t until I finally finished that I sat in silence. It was a silent reverence, an adoration, an apology because at the time I had yet to read something so powerful, so honest, so visceral. You spoke to the me who only appeared at the kitchen table, at the beauty shop, at home far away from my predominately-white school. You held a mirror up to me and it reflected not the image I hoped to project to the world, but the true person I was outside of the double-dutch game of double-consciousness. It was alarming, it was uncomfortable, it was liberating.

You resurfaced again when I expressed my fear of not being able to be a writer because of my race and gender. My 12th grade teacher referenced you and your pride in your culture and gender. From that moment on my love and obsession for you grew. What a maverick you were, how fearless you were. 

Thank you for working, despite the criticism, and traveling the diaspora in order to preserve a piece of culture for young people like me who approach with reluctance and even shame from our own Eurocentric nurturing. You taught me to write from the soul and with passion. You taught me to never tuck in my vulnerabilities and flaws, but to let them hang loose and to be proud of where I come from. You taught me that my story is legitimate, worthy of respect and analysis. 

Happy Birthday and thank you for living out loud and writing it all down. 

Xoxo

– Stephanie 

NW: A Review

B Zadie Smith - NW

NW is a meta-exploration/experiment of time and identity. Zadie Smith plays with chronology, plot structure, and syntax. All of these elements are used to paint the vibrant NorthWest London town, home to Leah Hanwell, Natalie Blake (Keisha Blake), and Nathan Bogle. All come from the same place and the same socioeconomic background, but experience three different trajectories.

What’s similar about these three is loss of identity. Each is grappling with the loss of self and trying to reconstruct an identity from the tools they’ve received.

Leah and Natalie battle the time restrictions placed on women and how to respond to their ever-so-loudly ticking biological clocks.

Nathan is dealing with the loss of who he was or who he was perceived to be.

Amongst these trials is tragedy: from murder to theft, Smith illustrates the devaluation of a place already not highly esteemed. The town is as much a character as anyone else; it serves as a force that continues to draw in even those who’ve worked hard to get out. Smith explores how hometowns shape, cultivate, and store our history–clues that might help mend gaps between who we think we are and who we’ve become.

“We all get what we deserve,” explains Natasha Blake, whose identity crisis extends so deep that she changes her name.

Time and chronology are so central to the tale that they become characters along with the town. Smith also plays with this idea of not being able to escape neither right nor left, but being stuck and forced to face whatever it is approaching or attempting to be avoided. This claustrophobia results in drastic decisions made by each character in attempts to escape.

There’s something cinematic about Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW. Perhaps it is the structure: often breaking into fragmented poetic forms of dialogue. Perhaps it is the vivid description of a town riddled with poverty, multiculturalism, and a desperation to either get out, to remain, or to survive. I’m still not sure. I’m still not sure about a lot of things concerning this novel including whether I like it or not. It is certainly a book that deserves a re-read and there is a lot of careful connections made and blatant themes and motifs that all but smack you in the face at every page.

In true Zadie style, there is no ending or tying up of things; we are simply given a vignette of these people’s lives. While no one likes carefully tidied up endings, I was left with a lot of questions.

But, nevertheless, Zadie is a powerful story teller who will pull you in with her humor, her truth, her complexity.

Throwback Thursday: TIA Talks

Clearly I have been living under a rock as I am just now bearing witness to the awesomeness of TIA Talks. If you too have been living in the dark ages, allow me to bring you to the light.

TIA Talks are book reviews done by TokenInAmerica. Her blogs and her videos are as hilarious as they are insightful. She has been on a Toni Morrison campaign where she’s tried to read all of Morrison’s novels by the end of 2014 (#ReadMorrison2014), which is enough for me to classify her as my literary best friend.

I was even more overjoyed to find a review on what is probably my favorite (if favorites are allowed) of Toni Morrison’s work, Tar Baby. My mother literally has a box (that I have more or less stolen) of works by Toni Morrison, and after falling in love with Song of Solomon I dived into that box like a ravenous fiend.

I read the book when I was a senior in high school, and though I knew I loved it I was kind of like “Huh?” and I needed to talk to someone about it. To my dismay, no one had read it! My mother, the hoarder of Toni Morrison paraphernalia, couldn’t even remember the novel well enough to engage in an analytical dialogue with me.

I read the book again as a sophomore in college and was able to really sort of sink my teeth into the themes of love, colorism, black femininity, but still had no one to discuss it with. So imagine my excitement when I found this TIA review of the book!

Though short, the review is done in TIA’s eloquent style: discussing the material in a way that is digestible for contemporary 21st century audience.

Check out TokenInAmerica’s review of, Tar Baby, below.