Issa Reading Challenge

The National Book Awards finalists for 2017 were announced today, which presents no better time to strike up a reading challenge. Two finalists for the Fiction category–Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body & Other Parties and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing–really sparked my interest and, to my surprise, were available at my library (newly delivered aka I’m the first person to lay hands on them)!

I also have Ta-Nehisi Coates’, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. Coates wrote the forward for Toni Morrison’s, The Origin of Other, which is also on my list. And, speaking of Toni Morrison, I will be seeing America’s greatest author for my birthday at Just Buffalo Literary Center (how lucky am I?!) and she will read from her classic, Beloved, which tops off my reading haul/challenge.

So, I’ve never done one of these before, which means I’m going to completely make up my own rules.

These 5 books I’ve selected will, realistically, not all be read by the end of this month which is why I will classify these as a fall reading challenge, giving myself until the end of the season to complete. I’m not sure what I’ll do upon completion, perhaps published a reflection piece about what each novel taught me.

Either way, I’m excited for fall and excited for new books! I hope you all are challenging yourselves as well. What books are you looking forward to reading?

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Well Read Black Girl festival

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Well Read Black Girl’s inaugural festival.

The WRBG team have done an incredible job of creating a space for black women writers and readers to join in support and fellowship.

It was an amazing experience. Check out my recaps below!

 

 

I’m Back!

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.

You can read more of it here!

 

Thanks for hanging in there with me, ya’ll!

Kindred, a review

kindred

Finding yourself forcibly removed from your modern time to a slave plantation in the 19th century is the stuff of science fiction (Octavia Butler’s to be exact), but for Dana it’s reality—a reality as difficult to grapple with as the plot itself, but despite the inhumane circumstances, Octavia Butler cultivates a tale as hauntingly complex as the time she’s writing about while still managing to cloak each character in their unique brand of humanity. 

Dana is in the process of beginning a new family when she is taken far beyond her own ancestral recognizance to a time and a place that began her origins. That place, for some, would be an opportunity of great intrigue, but for Dana it is a place of great violence and trauma because in Dana’s modern time of 1976 she is a writer, a wife, a free woman, but in 1815 on the plantation of her soon to be great-great-great grandfather she is a slave—a role she struggles to define and play throughout the novel.

She quickly discovers that she is not being transported back to this plantation for the fun of it, she’s been casted in a dual-role of slave and savior. Her damsel in distress isn’t the slave woman forced to bring about the beginning of Dana’s family-line, not the other slave women whose bodies are used and broken at the will of their owner, not the slaves at constant risk of being sold, or killed, but their master, Rufus–who just happens to be her great-great-great grandfather. This ascribed responsibility is the test of her humanity, her strength, and her will to survive. Yet, despite all of this, Butler sets out to develop the most impractical, improbable, impossible relationship of the antebellum years—a friendship between a white, male, slave-owner and a black, female, slave. And, surprisingly, it works.

How? 

Butler’s language. It’s blunt and sharp. There is no palatable way to present slavery, so Butler disregards pleasantries and caution as she drops Dana, and the readers, into the thick of its ugliness forcing us to stumble along the way until we think we’ve gained our footing–only to have the wind, and sometimes the will, knocked out of us. But no matter how difficult–which isn’t even the word for how difficult–it gets, we are made to remain in its presence with little respite. This consistent exposure to such a harsh and bitter truth is a reminder that if actual humans could not only live it, but survive it, you surely can read it. Understand it. Understand how you got here, your connections to a root that is tangled and not always beautiful to look it, but must remain in sight. 

“Without knowing it, they prepared me to survive” – Kindred

 Butler offers no balm of romanticism to the reality of fierce tyrannical violence. It is that un-flinching honesty that allows readers to engage in the complex relationship of Dana and Rufus. A relationship critical for both; they depend on one another for survival—literally—requiring, demanding, a sense of trust between the two. But the inability of either to fully understand and trust the other gives way to consistent attempts to outsmart and undermine the other resulting in violent outbursts perpetrated exclusively against Dana. Such repercussions are ones modern-day readers know to be as tactics to remind a slave of their place, but it is Dana who—after multiple encounters with such violence—sees that love is the driving force, at least when dealing with her. Whether or not she agrees with Rufus’ expression of such “love,” the fact remains that in his world she is 3/5 of a human, his property, and he holds the power to love her, to destroy her as he pleases.

So why not leave?

Besides the obvious fact of her inability to control her departure and arrival from the world, without Rufus there is no Dana. Without his relationship with an unwilling slave-woman there is no origins for Dana.

“Was that why I was here? Not only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival, my own birth” – Kindred

Kindred is a novel that traverses “one’s family and relations,” beyond the bonds created out of freewill and love, deeper, further back into the memory, the existence of a time when one’s family and relations were the result of bonds forced by people who created and upheld a system voiding one people of their humanity and ordaining the other people as the masters, owners, controllers of it–bonds Dana had to protect in order to secure her own destiny.   

Throw in Dana’s white husband–who accompanies her on one of these time-travel trips–and their vastly different vantage points of the time period, colorism, plus the fact that every one pretty much views her as some mythical creature with superior medical knowledge and you’ve got enough twists and turns to keep you locked on Butler’s psychologically thrilling tale.

Resisting Resistance

resisting

I did two things last week: listened to Kendrick Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly–for the first time–and started  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. Neither piece was approached with jubilant anticipation–Lamar’s album has been out for half a year. I resisted the exploration of both for a number of reasons–all of which boil down to bias. Growing up in a digital world where everyone has license to publish an opinion makes it difficult to have an original thought, or at least an autonomous experience of a piece of work, without the assistance, or distraction, of someone else’s view. Of course I could join generation X in blaming the Internet for…everything, but as an adult (who is still growing) I can acknowledge that I resisted both pieces of work out of fear and ignorance. Fear of what? Having my views challenged, liking something I thought I wasn’t supposed to, changing my mind? It was a culmination of all three. K. Dot’s album dropped at a time where everyone who looked like me was dying at once and the ones who looked like me with money and “power” were either blaming us, ignoring us, or pimping us. Kendrick had his infamous interview with Billboard where he stated:

“What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” – Kendrick Lamaar

without even reading the full article, I tuned him out–decided he had nothing worthy for me to listen to. That’s where my own ignorance came in. I couldn’t have been more wrong about Kendrick. At the time, I felt like an exposed nerve that was being hit and hit and hit. I couldn’t take anymore thinking, feeling, healing, whatever–I was just raw, raw and angry.

Those feelings seemed to sew my mind up and leave my conscience huddled in a safe corner clinging on to the things that either justified my anger or made me feel good. I wasn’t challenging myself. I was even proposing the expulsion of books and writers who didn’t speak specifically to “me” and those who forms of my identity.  My ignorance, my resistance was slowly forming a cave and I was blinding  myself to my own manipulation of images. This affected my ability to socialize, my ability to explore, my ability to grow. 

Coates talks about a similar moment during his time at Howard, “The Mecca”, where the notions he walked in with were being conflicted and challenged. He believed that his search for the history of Europe’s violent under development of Africa would be “a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected,” but, through his readings, his exploration, he found “factions,” and “factions within factions,” where one black scholar/theorist/artists’ plausible idea was “smashed to splinters by another,” equally plausible idea, leaving “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just often marching away from each other.” His comforting singular ideas were being shredded; leaving him open, conflicted, confused with multiple ways to go. But where I shied away from the “intellectual vertigo” he indulged. He continued to read, even pieces that dismantled his dream. Where I shut myself up in the cave of my limited thoughts he made the painful process of stepping out into the light. Such is the journey Kendrick takes throughout his album. In To Pimp a Butterfly there is a poem that begins as follows: 

“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in a hotel room
I didn’t want to self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers

the poem continues to weave through the rest of the album, taking us deeper into his existential, intellectual, and moral crisis of battling what he knew and what he’s learning all while trying to remain a humble leader and lover is his people. We see that same indulgence in “intellectual vertigo” Coates also relished in. Like Coates he too took a trip away from his streets, his home, away his world, and into a world that challenged, conflicted and, ultimately, changed him:

“I know what I know and I know it well not to ever forget/until I realized I didn’t know shit” – “Momma”

There is no way To Pimp A Butterfly could exist without Lamar’s own personal metamorphosis. It’s the very thing he discusses on the final track of the album, “Mortal Man,” where he engages in a conversation with Tupac about a series of things, one of those being Lamar’s poem on the caterpillar’s pimping of a butterfly:

“Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
He’s trapped
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots” – “Mortal Man”

Like Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave, the caterpillar is shrouded in the darkness of its cocoon–never breaking free of the projected images in order to walk into the light of consciousness. Though I am a woman from an upper-middle class suburb, who can only look into Coates’ and Kendrick’s childhood worlds from the outside, I can relate to the darkness. I can relate to the resistance of the light, the pain, the journey of becoming a butterfly. But where both Lamar and Coates pushed forward, I remained inert. Where both took on the work of metamorphosing, I was stationary, comfortable, stagnant. Until now.

When I was interviewing my friend, Kopano, for my Why I Read docu-series she said something that always stuck with me: “when you’re reading something that’s uncomfortable…keep reading it.” I was astonished. Though, in romantic theory, I agreed with her I was totally incapable of practicing it. My biases, my ignorance, my resistance couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow me to come in contact with what offended, challenged, or contradicted me. I was afraid. Of what? Confrontation? Transformation? Both? 

My bias, my ignorance is my cocoon, my cave, but my recognition of both and my continuous desire to challenge both is what brings about a metamorphosis that is perpetual for there is, as Coates articulates, power in “discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear.” Constant challenging, defending, learning, and unlearning is how evolution works. The mind must remain kinetic or it risks a dormancy worse than death.

Each day is a conscious act to fight my resistance. Where others run into the wind open to its ever changing direction I step in, cautiously, with my windbreaker stubbornly walking in my own direction–fighting its current. In some respects I am thankful for my stubbornness–it is a testament to my independence–but in some cases where it renders me provincial I am…not ashamed, but alarmed and determined to change. I’m determined to enter my journey of “intellectual vertigo,” to forage through my cocoon and emerge a butterfly, who is by no means perfect, but who is constantly trying to soar higher. It is the same journey I read in Coates’ book and it is the same journey I hear in Lamar’s album.

I’ve had my mind, my emotions, my sensibilities on training wheels. I’m a big girl now and it’s time I take them off. It’s time I embrace challenges of the mind. Holding on too tightly of previous notions will never allow space for growth or inspiration. The Bible says “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” Erykah says, “The man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all,” Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” I say, resist your resistance; you’ll be a better person for it. 

Why I Read: Dr. Davida L. Haywood

In my ongoing quest to showcase the importance of literacy across career-fields, I had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Davida L. Haywood (senior director of student life at the Multicultural Center at The Ohio State University). Dr. Haywood shared with me the importance of being in the moment when reading, learning in the margins, and how social media is affecting (and influencing) a new generation of readers.

Watch below:

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.

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.

Jane Eyre is Still Relevant

When one thinks of great literature there often three classics that come to mind: The Bible, Any and Everything Toni Morrison has ever written, and Jane Eyre.

For close to two-hundred years Charlotte Bronte’s tale of a young woman’s quest for independence and self-love has been the inspiration of several film adaptations, fan-fiction stories, intertextual prequels, web series, etc. There are several reasons why the stubborn and passionate character of Jane Eyre continues to be relevant in the 21st century:

Independence:

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

It’s a theme that echoes through each page of the novel.

Jane is a young woman who has felt the neglect and the abuse of being dependent on others as a child. As a young adult she is steadfast in her quest to be financially and emotionally independent.

Self-Love:

“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Though Jane is described as : “poor, obscure, plan, and little,” that is no cause for her to think lesser of herself. She stands up to the man she loves and demands his respect, not on the bases of “mortal flesh,” but from spirit to spirit.

Resilience:

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”

Faced with the tragedy of heartbreak from family members, institutions, and her beloved, Jane does not crumble into a pool of sorrow. She is a follower of the “if at first you don’t succeed” philosophy where she dusts herself off and continues to go forth in life without bitterness and hate in her heart. Though she may be guarded, love and passion still burn underneath her cool exterior.

Jane Eyre is a novel about a young woman with principles. She challenges her society’s idea of femininity and chooses happiness and self-worth over image and acceptance. She is not a flat, life-less character who only comes alive through the presence of a male. She is a resilient, self-respecting, independent woman; one we can still draw inspiration from today.

Vintage Black Glamour

vbg

(Nichelle Gainer, Vintage Black Glamour)

As a young girl, I was always fascinated by the beauty of Dorothy Dandridge, the courage of Josephine Baker, the confidence of Eartha Kitt. I often dreamt of a place where I could see these faces printed on posters, magazines, etc. I wanted their images and their stories to be as ingrained in our nostalgia for vintage Hollywood as Marilyn Monroe and Mae West (both stars in their own right). Thanks to Nichelle Gainer, I no longer have to imagine such a place–she has brought it to life with her encapsulation of the glamour of African-American female entertainers in her book, Vintage Black Glamour.

The book presents historic photographs of famous actors, dancers, writers and entertainers who worked in the 20th-century entertainment business, but who rarely appeared in the same publications as their white counterparts

This incredible collection includes women like:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Lorraine Hansberry
  • Diana Ross
  • Donyale Luna

Not only are there rare pictures of these iconic women, but biographical text is included to tell the dynamic and inspiring story of each starlet. Gainer, who writes for: 55 Secret Street, Revenge of the Curves, and Anovelista, brings us an important archive of history with this book, one that I can’t wait to purchase.

Check out some of Gainer’s amazing work on the Vintage Black Glamour site  and order your copy of, Black Glamour, today.