Queen Sugar – A Review

Queen Sugar

Published: 2014

Publisher: Penguin Group

Pages: 372

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.

richmond barthe the cane cutter

The Cane Cutter, Richmond Barthé

“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.

Rating: 3.5/5

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The Magic Beyoncé and Melina Matsoukas Form

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Beyonce, ‘Formation’
Formation (noun) – the action of forming or process of being formed.

Beyoncé understands the power of visuals. In 2013 she graced the world with an entire visual album and forever changed the way artists release music. So when she prepared Saturday, February 6, 2016, to be the day she’d return to scalp the globe with her pro-black anthem she knew she would need a video to capture the track’s grit and gutter. It would only make sense that she’d turn to Melina Matsoukas, the woman whose directed over 10 of Bey’s visuals.

While known for her vibrant colors, vintage flair, and ingenious direction, Melina does not shy away from controversy; her visuals have often either been banned or come under heavy scrutiny, but that doesn’t seem to stop the NYU and AFI alumna from creating thmelina-matsoukas-video-maven-w-magazinee most stunning videos at a time when narrative music videos seem to be declining. In her latest collaboration with Queen Bey she delves into the spirit of Southern Goth and New Orleans to bless viewers with a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackExcellence, #BlackEverything.

“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”

‘Formation’ opens with Beyoncé dressed down in a red and white calico inspired fit and black boots. She is standing atop of a partially submerged New Orleans Police squad car as the late Messy Mya states “bitch, I’m back by popular demand.” Immediately you know that what you are about to witness is unlike anything you’ve ever seen from the Beyoncé and Melina catalog. Flashes of scenes from Abteen Bagheri’s (@abteen), That B.E.A.T., give you just enough time to brace yourself before being launched into a space where the past, the present, and the future intertwine at the picturesque plantation home. Inside is Beyoncé in various Southern garb as she recites her linage:

“My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas Bama”

It is then that you realize Beyoncé is leading you to a place of no return. For years she has subtly distanced herself from the mainstream media that once kept her in a commercialized box. ‘Formation’ is where she breaks her silence. What we hear, and see, is a Beyoncé who is unapologetically black, who likes her “baby hair with baby hair and afros,” and her “negro nose with jackson five nostrils.” Blue Ivy Carter stands before us, her afro a glorious halo, with all of the grace and confidence that make up her celestial DNA. Melina cuts back and forth between Mother and Daughter conjuring up a spirit, a tangible feeling, so visceral and magical it belongs in a Toni Morrison novel.

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Formation’ is an homage. As Beyoncé sits in a sparse room in a corset, twirling an umbrella, pictures of her ancestors behind her, Melina has expertly woven generations together illustrating the shoulders upon which Beyoncé, Blue, and all black women stand. One of the most powerful moments is the performance scene in the middle of the home’s hallway. Beyoncé and her dancers are clothed in maroon leotards with deep necklines and dancing fiercely as Bey declares:

“I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.”

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Amidst those walls where Bey, and crew, dance with a dominant strut are the spirits of the women who once walked those halls as servants, violently stripped of the ability to work toward any dream, let alone own it. Women who were incapable of any agency over their own bodies and sexualities. No one captures that spirit with the same poignancy as Melina who places one of the most powerful women in spaces that once existed as oppressive structures for black bodies and souls, thus, reforming the image–reclaiming power and restoring dignity to what we’ve too long been made to feel ashamed of. 

While managing to insert her signature vibrant color schemes Melina continues to push the envelope as she makes some of her boldest statements yet. As the black boy in his hoodie dances before the line of SWAT officers, and the NOLA squad car submerges, and
the graffiti demanding “stop shooting us” pans across the screen, we see Melina brilliantly tackling police brutality and the incessant violent assault on black lives and bodies. This is not solely Melina’s boldest move, it is also Beyoncé’s. For a womantumblr_o25mci3Bo51qf29nao2_500 who is so calculated  and strategic with her image Beyoncé needed a vision she could trust to handle the most controversial moment of her career with grace. Melina is who Beyoncé trusts. Time and time again these two forces prove that when combined they are nothing short of Magical.

“Ok, ladies, now let’s get in formation.”

Cane River Review

I have a fixation with the south, particularly Louisiana—it’s a borderline obsession. My father is from a small Alabama town on the Gulf of Mexico, two hours outside of New Orleans, which I deem close enough for me to claim some sort of Louisiana roots. In fact, Mobile was once the capital of Louisiana during the French colonial period. There is a rich and unique history that lies in that gulf state. From the music, to the food, to the eclectic cultures and hues of people, it’s hard not to fall in love and, in my case, romanticize Louisiana. So, imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Cane River. Ok, more like scoured the internet for novels that took place in Louisiana, but, nevertheless, I became acquainted with this gem of a tale.

Cane River is the story of four generations of women in Lalita Tademy’s family spawning from Slavery, the Civil War, and the Depression era all along Louisiana’s Cane River in Natchitoches Parish. Before going any further, I have to applaud Tademy for her copious amount of research and dedication—she quit her job in Silicon Valley—to telling the incredible story of her family. From word-of-mouth to factual records Tademy wove in elements of fact and fiction to bring us the story of four women who used their ingenuity, coupled with their limited access, in order to survive and keep their family together. The tale begins with Emily, the fierce matriarch of her family–composed and resilient. Despite the tragedies she has faced, she is never deterred from her goal of keeping her family together. From Emily, Suzette is begotten. A once idealistic and romantic girl, Suzette is accosted with the harsh reality of her circumstances and though she must bury those old dreams, she grows stronger and more determined for her family and her children to see the light of freedom. Philomene is the even fiercer re-incarnation of her grandmother with dreams bigger than the two women before her. She is a fighter, despite the repeated blows of reality, she maintains her tenacious will to secure financial independence and reunite her family. The tale concludes with Emily, the realization of all the dreams and sacrifices of the women before her. She operates a new and confusing space of freedom and economic affluence, but she too is unable to escape the affliction of the her reality’s harsh times. But, just like the strong women who came before her, she squares her shoulders and stands up to the challenges of her society, unwilling to let them break or demean her. I was impressed by Tademy’s humanistic approach to each character in her novel. She shed the 21st centuries’ convictions on America’s most heinous crime against humanity and allowed us a deep psychoanalytic glimpse into the world of slavery and the complex factors that held up its institution. The characters lift right off the page and you become so immersed in their story that you feel as if you’re right there beside them. I finished the book in less than three days and was so engrossed that I couldn’t bother to pause and mark up the text for fear that I would miss something. Tademy’s beautiful prose is filled with poetic figurative and metaphoric ethos as it opens the window of the souls and minds of these women. She is able to spare us from too graphic details while still providing us the weight of sacrifice and the complexity of rationale. You’ll find yourself not in criticism of these women and their choices, but understanding their position respective to the confines of their reality. Tademy provides no good characters and no bad characters; she creates humans. Cane River is a story that goes beyond our notions of morality and ethics and centers on survival and the power of family.