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Publisher: Akashic Books
“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.
Publisher: Penguin Group
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.
I was listening to NPR’s Here & Now when I heard Elizabeth Gilbert–the woman who wrote Eat Pray Love–talking about how someone wrote the exact novel she was planning to write. As a writer/creative nothing cuts deeper than seeing someone else produce the work you believe you were supposed to. But instead of sharing that anguish, envy, rage, Gilbert did the exact opposite. Instead of believing she owned that idea for her the novel, she believed
“Ideas are these disembodied life-forms; they don’t have a form but they have a will and all they want is to be made manifest, and they circle the world looking for human collaborators to work with” – Elizabeth Gilbert
In summation, Gilbert believed that creativity, or inspiration, had left her and found its true home in the other writer, who she holds no ill-will toward and is even friends with. As she discussed this strange situation she began to talk about creativity and what it means to live a creative life beyond fear. Of course I did exactly what Gilbert wanted listeners of that show to do–go out and read her latest novel, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear–and I learned quite a bit, but here are three key things:
1. Don’t ask permission
“You do not need anyone’s permission to live a creative life” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Fortunately, creativity is not something you need a special license to practice. There is no specific amount of training, there is no ordaining ceremony, there is no piece of paper necessary to permit you to create. According to Gilbert, creative living is “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than fear.” Fear is that voice giving you every reason why you shouldn’t follow your curiosity, it’s that feeling that you can’t because you don’t have a fancy degree, or someone already wrote that, or you’ll never be as great as so-and-so. Creativity takes courage to register your fear and persist beyond it. You don’t need any priest, teacher, etc. giving you permission, but if you feel you need some sort of written permission, Gilbert is happy to give you one, scribbled “on the back of an old shopping list.”
2. Be entitled
No, not the self-absorbed, arrogant entitled, but rather the unwavering belief in the value of your voice and your life as a creative.
“Creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that–merely by being here–you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own” – Elizabeth Gilbert
It is this belief that is essential to creating anything worth-while. You will never be able to take creative risks, to soar new heights, to unlock the hidden treasures of your own capability if you do not first believe that your existence and your work have value.
3. Success is not the point
Oftentimes the one thing that stops us from creating is this fear that we won’t be “successful.” Success, like Life, is a concept whose meaning causes constant debate. If success, to you, is excessive monetary gain and notoriety then no, you may never achieve that, but it should never affect your willingness, your need to create.
“You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome.You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome” – Elizabeth Gilbert
I often thought of Frida Kahlo as this point of “success” began to come up in Big Magic. Frida Kahlo was an artist who created with an intensity so desperate it appeared as if painting was second to oxygen for her. She created because it was natural, because it was her way of exploring her curiosity. She did not die a wildly famous artist, though her work was certainly known and revered, but she did not create for that reason. Success in the sense of notoriety and fortune did not directly affect her need to create. It is that trust, that love, need, and curiosity with which you must persist to create.
In a perfect world our creative passions would be able to sustain our rent/mortgages, utilities, and shopping expenses; our own responsibility would be to follow our curiosity and create from there. Gilbert isn’t giving you advice on how to pursue your creativity in a perfect world. She is giving you tools on how to persist with your creativity in an imperfect world with the existence of fear and adult responsibilities:
“this is a world, not a womb. You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time” – Elizabeth Gilbert
While there is a magic to creativity, ideas, and inspiration Gilbert continues to remind her readers that creativity does not exist to support you; it is a collaborative effort between you and the genius who visits you. Now go make stuff!
My local library was having an incredible book-sale–fill a bag of books for only $3!–so I had to check it out. Here are some books I picked up:
- My Education, Susan Choi
- My Jim, Nancy Rawles
- In The Woods, Tana French
- Rosa Parks: My Story, Rosa Parks
- See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid
- The First Bad Man, Miranda July
- The House Girl, Tara Conklin
“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.