I’ve always been a bit obsessed with birth stories. Even before I became pregnant and began consuming them as a way to allay my blinding panic, I sought them out regularly, like one would crossword puzzles. I nursed vague aspirations of becoming a doula—what could be more beautiful than helping a mother as she underwent one of the most transformative experiences of her life, without the years-long hassle of a midwifery certification? I relished the narratives that didn’t gloss over the messier details—childbirth was such a fascinating, terrifying yet completely normal human phenomenon, and I wanted the full scope of the experience, not just the palatable parts. Meaghan O’Connell’s new memoir, And Now We Have Everything: On Mother Before I Was Ready, fulfills that borderline voyeuristic impulse in full technicolor, with raw, unflinching honesty.
“I waited in front of the building and used the extra time I had to pray. I didn’t pray that I would get the role. I prayed that whatever my life was supposed to be, whatever my path was, I would finally be on it. I was only twenty-four years old, but I was tired of fear. I was tired of running away from something I could see into something I couldn’t.”
To be perfectly frank, I don't make a habit of reading many celebrity memoirs. There are a few that I’m interested in, certainly -- Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are undeniably funny, even if I don't agree with every view they hold; Aziz Ansari is [2018 edit: was!] impossible to dislike, in my book. The only one I can remember liking recently is Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and that wasn't even recent, actually -- more like seven years ago. But when I saw that Gabby was writing a book, I knew I had to read her story. Based on what I'd seen of her acting, and the small glimpses she affords us of her off-screen persona, I had an inkling that this would be a literary experience not to miss. I was right.
A common complaint I feel as though I've been hearing expressed with much more vitriol of late is the reasoning behind young writers publishing memoirs. Below the age of forty, or fifty, what does anyone have to share that warrants a book deal? The implication is that years lived = wisdom gained, which makes sense, to a point. The benefit of aging is the steady accretion of experiences, hurts, breakthroughs, triumphs, failures. Each successive milestone teaches a lesson, large or small, and it is silly, critics argue, for someone who hasn't had the time for these lessons to coalesce into a greater awareness, or appreciation, for the many things life has to offer. But the problem with this sort of reductive thinking is that it attempts to delegitimize the wisdom of the younger generation. It prescribes a standard to which all writers should theoretically be held to, when in reality, the beauty of literature, particularly confessional or epistolary literature, communicates the strength and joy and pain of a creative mind, an experience that is not at all diminished by its age. There is a sort of tenderness to a young memoirist, someone willing to look deeply inward and share what they see, someone completely aware of their shortcomings and gifts alike, pausing to reflect on what they have lived, and then resuming once they feel they’ve done justice to the story. A chance to pause and reflect--why should that be relegated to only the latter decades of our lives? Isn’t a story a story?
Gabourey Sidibe tells a hell of a story.
She pulls no punches in these recollections--each chapter contains detail after vivid detail of the parts of her life that shaped her into the woman she is today. There are moments that made me cringe, and wince, and wonder, over and over again, how did she find the courage to write this down? Courage--that moment when fear becomes irrelevant, though no less loud; when taking action trumps remaining motionless--this book is a testament to that kind of courage. Through her shockingly candid reminiscences about her struggle with mental illness, body image, academia, financial security--the pace of her writing remains consistent, even as it feels, from time to time, to meander into tangents, expletive-laden jokes, and references to pop culture. It is the gift of a singularly talented storyteller, one whose writing mimics a spoken conversation, but does not lean into the conceit with the single-minded aggression of one obviously trying to be Funny with a capital f. Gabby’s voice is undeniably hysterical, but her heart, what comes shining through each anecdote and each painful realization, is the force that carries this story forward. It feels authentic and true, with little regard for decorum or hollow proclamations of strength found through adversity. Life isn’t perfect, but it goes on. She lived it, she continues to live it, and she’s going to tell it how it is--exactly how it is. Haters be damned.
This commitment to living and speaking her truth, in spite of every force at work against her, is not the main reason I admire this book, and her, so much. It is her utter honesty in scrutinizing her position as celebrity. She admits, time and again, that the fame, while certainly enjoyable, and beneficial, doesn’t mean much. I may be biased, but unlike many actors who espouse this party line, with Gabby, it feels genuine. She has no problem enjoying the many aspects of being a TV and movie star: the free gifts, first class service, preferential seating, adoring fans. But for someone with a background like hers, for someone who had to scrabble and clutch for steady footing at multiple points in her life, someone who suffered feelings of betrayal from her father for years--emerging from a place of pain to embrace a life of wealth and opportunity is not a convenient way out. The past is sticky. Hard lessons learned remain embedded. And recognizing, with clear eyes, the fickle ephemera of Hollywood, being exposed to the casual cruelty of the industry from a young age, sets Gabby up in a position of power and self-determination that I deeply respect. If one is smart, and wants to do justice to the hand they’ve been dealt, they don’t pretend their future is untouchable the moment they jump a tax bracket. Gabby drives this point home with the dispassionate surety of someone who understands the frailty of life in the public eye. And she lives with the aplomb of a beautiful black woman who acutely recognizes the voices of her demons, and makes the conscious choice, day after day, to remind them to shut the fuck up.
This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, Gabourey Sidibe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2017.
“My throat was raw. All of me was raw. I didn’t give a damn. I would not leave my child alone. Finally, Ben snapped out of his trance and dragged me away. I fought him hard. When he finally got me in the car, he stood by my door. He pointed and said, “Stay, baby,” then ran around to his side of the car. Sweat trickled down his face and neck. There were damp arcs of sweat around my neck and below my armpits. We were rotten, filthy with grief. He turned and looked at me. “You’re stronger than I thought.” I pressed my hand against the car window as we pulled away. I said, “You have no idea.”
There is a place within familiar narratives of female passion and woe, a secret, labyrinthine chamber that contains the hurt, the sweat, the tears, the blood; a place that isn't afraid of the dark, but refuses to shun the light; a room that consumes, and dies, and heals, and bears fruit. Roxane Gay writes from this room. What has always struck me about her writing is the remorselessness of it: she doesn’t balk or falter, she doesn’t mince words or provide needless garnish. She is unapologetic in her ability to write through, and about, some of ugliest aspects of humanity - a line between carelessness and caution that she toes with unerring accuracy. In her nonfiction and fiction alike, she plumbs the deepest depths and most astonishing highs, never losing her firm grip on the characters she creates, their stories that beg to be told. In Difficult Women, the full gamut of her talent for fiction is on display. This collection thrums with life.
The title does not lie: these women are difficult. Difficult in that they refuse easy categorization. Boundary lines blur, shift, and snap; promises are made, retracted, broken. The title story presents small snapshots of different women - crazy women, frigid women, loose women, mothers - as they navigate their lives, the monikers acting as signifier and prison cell; each vignette concluding with a soft epiphany: these women are more than their epithet. They can transcend what is expected of them, whether they ultimately choose to or not. “Requiem for a Glass Heart” depicts a stone thrower who “lives in a glass house with his glass family,” including a glass wife, who despite his betrayal, never cracks, never shatters - despite his seeming terror (or is it subconscious wanting?) that she is ever at the brink.
In “The Sacrifice of Darkness”, a man desperate for light consumes the entire sun, leaving his son and the rest of the town to grapple for sanity and survival in a perpetually moonlit world. A young woman befriends the son, and the two of them share a deep, abiding friendship that slowly blossoms into love, in spite of the darkness, in spite of the hate and fear that encompasses around them. They name their eventual daughter Dawn, a hesitant promise, a gesture of faith. The days grow brighter. There is an elemental power in the women in these stories: a deep, ancient strength that either manifests, or burns at their core like molten metal. Some stories venture into the wilds of science fiction, others stay firmly rooted in reality. And yet, within a collection that meanders in and out of time, space, and logic, its cohesion is unerringly found in Roxane’s commitment to emotional realism. The women in this story are difficult, yes. But they are solid. They are undeniable.
Difficult Women, Roxane Gay, Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic), New York, NY, 2017.
"Sometimes I felt like we made love inside a vacuum that must have been his loneliness. Sometimes I felt like we were inside his cool, graceful humor. Only once did I feel we broke all the way through to each other."
It's hard to deny the ineffable beauty of art found long after the artist has died. So much of our creative impulse is borne of the realization that we are immaterial, impermanent; our bodies will wither and decay while only our words and images live on. Creating art is our elixir of life, our key to immortality. Even if they are never read, their mere existence, in a world that has grown colder in our absence, constitutes a certain triumph over death. A persistence. A remembering.
Kathleen Collins died from breast cancer at the tender age of 46 years old. She died the year I was born, in the fading twilight of the 1980s. Her death was abrupt: her daughter, Nina, was left to sort through her mother’s writing, the majority of which was unpublished, unseen. This collection of her short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, was published just last year, 28 years after her passing.
Each vignette feels like a tiny morsel bitten off from some rich, immense delicacy: laden with meaning, yet nimbly told. The mood, perspectives, and style of dialogue shift from story to story, an ebb and flow not unlike the ocean waves. The collection isn’t disjointed, but it isn’t quite linear, either: there’s a gentle, ordered chaos to the inherent push/pull of the narrative sequence. In “Exteriors”, we witness a couple’s rapid dissolution through an unknown, omniscient narrator's voice; “Interiors” comes straight from the source, chronicling a relationship’s slow, meandering dance to its natural end through the eyes of the participants. There is a palpable distance between lovers in each story, a subtle through-line in which Collins examines the reasons, spoken and unspoken, that men and women fail to recognize and truly connect with each other. She writes these shortcomings as melancholy inevitability rather than surprising misfortune; still, her resignation feels somewhat buoyant. It probably can’t work out, she seems to whisper. But the curve of your lip, the home that you’ve made, the sound of the rain - it will be beautiful nonetheless.
She plunges fearlessly into what it means to be black and female in the 1960s with a frank tenderness that feels daringly anachronistic. There is a college-aged woman whose father despises her natural hair, and who giddily tumbles into an affair with her older French professor, kinks and all. And another woman who longs to fold herself into her partner’s ideal of sophistication and grace, before realizing her identity as a black woman is a hurdle he cannot clear. Collins’ women are self-possessed and self-aware; there is no willful blindness or denial to justify the ways they are being treated - or mistreated. In “When Love Withers All Life Cries,” Miriam cannot fathom her partner Richard’s no-frills, straightforward communication style, and demands:
“Why don’t you give excuses, like you have to work late, like you’re going on location, like you missed me and you’re sorry you can’t come rushing over. Why do you always have to be so fucking blunt?”
The pervasive dysfunction in a partnership, Collins seems to affirm, does not justify accepting mistreatment. Even if an understanding is never found, these women find their own endings, whether we are allowed access to them or not. There is no passiveness to be found here, no tepid pandering to a patriarchal ideal. Quite the contrary: she subverts many typical markers of masculinity with unabashed finesse: a young girl who remembers how it moved her to see her uncle cry, a widower desperate to connect with his silent daughter, a garrulous pot-stirrer who marvels at the fecund radiance of a close female friend. No assumption is safe in Collins’ agile hands; life is not so neatly ordered. The wind howls, the tears spill, then dry; warm bodies crash together and peel apart, inevitable and chaotic as the tide.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Kathleen Collins, HarperCollins, 2016.
“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”
It’s a strange thing, playing secondary character in the story of your own life. Being the protagonist is a privilege often taken for granted by the more garrulous, the more bold, the more forceful souls who possess mere traces of fragility and self-doubt in the smallest measures. I am no stranger to this feeling - it is a deeply embedded tradition I have to commit to subduing every minute, every hour of every day: the urge to shrink, to become physically and psychologically less, to feel fewer storms of emotion, to recognize fewer demands on my attention, performance, my time. The type for whom the power of invisibility is the ultimate gift. I found that part of myself in Swing Time, recognized her like a girl through a passing train window, blurred and inexorably familiar, leaving a discomfiting tingle in her wake. Ugh. You again.
Zadie’s superpower lies in her world-building: from the cracked sidewalk to a passerby’s faded smile, from grand, sweeping sociopolitical backdrops to the most minute displays of aging from chapter three to thirteen. She suffuses her worlds with blazing color and incredible detail, populating them with characters that live and breathe within them, a symphonic interplay of imagined time and space that feels sliced directly from the heart of essential humanity. I marveled at this in On Beauty and White Teeth. In Swing Time, however, I felt rather emptier. The streets lost their grit and the glittering vistas their distant horizon. I craved cohesion where I found only disparate scenes, connected by the bare bones of bitter chronology: a likely consequence of the protagonist’s inability to recognize her role as such. She lacked vitality, compelling personhood, believable motivation. The love that she should have kept for herself spilled into Tracey, her childhood best friend. The formative, vulnerable years, siphoned away from the pursuit of her own interests, her own sense of pride, the very creation of her own identity. So is it any wonder that her interior world developed into a flat, monochrome landscape? Into a career in assisting someone else’s dreams to fruition? So far beyond yourself, beyond years of denying desires you couldn’t coalesce into words, lies only more of the same. The same cracks in the view.
The story of our nameless narrator exists in constant flux, an unending vacillation between past and present, black and white, poor and wealthy, home and abroad, within Tracey’s favor and outside of it. She is captive to the whims of others, women in particular, at times railing against their apparent power over her, like a captured butterfly beating its wings against its glass enclosure - at other times, she acquiesces, acknowledging her role as supporting character, taking tepid comfort in the slackened expectations that her position brings. Her overbearing, politically-minded mother, then Tracey, ultimate frenemy and object of her jealous obsession, and then mega pop star Aimee, who comes to control her every move, until she suddenly doesn’t - the narrator sways, bends, and often buckles beneath the weight of these outside influences, never feeling adequate enough, smart enough, talented enough, or just...enough. Even when she eventually takes a stand, quits her job, makes decisions based solely on her own selfish desires, it is not a totally convincing act of rebellion, but feels moreso like a desperate grab for a life that was never actually hers. And in attempting to claim it, she only further alienates herself from the person she thought she should be.
While I recognized, and at times, understood the narrator’s fundamental dissonance of self, I could not enjoy it. Zadie’s unwavering attention to detail, her commitment to revealing the wholly realistic disappointments and realizations that emerge with the slow passage of time, remains unmatched. I enjoyed diving into the rich interior lives of the supporting characters, wading through their varied fears, neuroses, crises of conscience. Zadie writes with a three-dimensional deliberation so robust I could nearly taste the storms of emotion that swirled within them. The lack of urgency I felt for the protagonist, however, rendered much of this novel’s narrative artistry paper-thin. Maybe my ambivalence towards Swing Time is partly borne of my own reluctance to connect with a character who epitomizes the parts of my personality I work so hard to keep subdued. Maybe the story truly suffered from its lackluster narrator. Either way, my deep admiration for Zadie is unchanged, and I eagerly await her next offering, whenever and however she chooses to grace us with it.
Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Penguin Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House), New York, NY, 2016.
“Though she doesn’t know the story, Thandi has captured all of this pain. All Delores is to her is this ugly, dark woman capable of nothing but fits of rage and cruelty. Who knew that both her daughters would come to view her this way? Delores sinks into the chair around the dining table. Thandi, like Margot, hates her. And so does Mama Merle, sitting outside on that rocking chair. The old bat will spend another day wishing her beloved, good-for-nothing son home; while Delores will continue breaking her back to provide for the family, doing what she does best: survive.”
I was nine years old the first and only time I visited Jamaica, my mother’s home country. My sister’s grandfather on her father’s side had passed away, and I eagerly awaited this chance to see where my mother had grown up; to see this country that so fascinated and tickled the rest of the world. I envisioned warm sunny days, pristine beaches of sparkling white sand, more plates of curry goat and ackee and saltfish than I could possibly eat. When we touched down in picturesque Montego Bay, I thought my fantasy had come true. And then my mother said, “This isn’t our final stop, remember. We’re going to Kingston.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel, Here Comes the Sun, examines what is lost in the liminal space between wealth and poverty; knowledge and ignorance, acceptance and hatred. Her characters are red-blooded and complex: beset by circumstances beyond their control, they each strive to live their lives in a way that serves a greater purpose, and the tragedy lies in their individual interpretations of what that purpose is. We watch a family of three women: Delores, mother of two and long traumatized by the residual effects of ingrained colorism and early pregnancies she was utterly unprepared for; Margot, her older daughter who will stop at nothing to provide the life for her little sister that she never had; and Thandi, the baby, who bears the weight of her family’s hope and expectations, with little opportunity or encouragement to pursue her own. And Verdene, Margot’s secret lover, a pariah in the community due to her sexuality, the knowledge of which is nestled deep within the more palatable charge of witchcraft, also known as ‘activities women engage in that are foreign, and thus supernaturally wrong’.
Perhaps the most poignant character of this book is Jamaica herself, home to a people that must endure endless exploitation of their homeland for its natural beauty, while being shunted to its less prosperous inland towns. For such a small island, the ideological and economic differences are vast. There are issues inherent in its very infrastructure that create complications within the characters' relationships that are never resolved with a tidy little bow. Dennis-Benn is refreshingly candid about the society's oversights, shortcomings, and areas of victimization, and does not offer hollow solutions to the many problems she explores. While this makes for a story that aches with longing, for redemption, for vengeance, even, it's not one in which you lose the threads in a sea of misery and hopelessness. There is so much more than pain, here: the many ways that faith and devotion can make themselves known, the pure joy of self-discovery, the intoxicating magic of first love.
Kingston was hot, as I expected, but it was a somewhat muted, damp warmth: cloying, pregnant with mosquitoes. I developed an obsession with counting and cataloging my bites: well over a hundred, spotting my arms, legs, neck, feet and hands. I felt wretched: I couldn't stand the shoddily paved roads, crumbling building facades, children in torn clothing with outstretched hands - markers of a level of poverty I had never experienced, could barely comprehend. I met my grandmother for the first time, and was both terrified and in awe: she sobbed when she saw her daughter, when she saw me. Her appearance and demeanor made her seem both intrinsic to her surroundings yet somehow grander than them, a contradiction I would not come to understand until much later. Auntie Thelma. I failed to notice, too, how famous - or infamous - she was in those parts.
Even when we visited a friend of my mother’s who lived in a more affluent part of Kingston, I couldn’t enjoy it: her mansion was beautifully furnished, air-conditioned, and full of snacks, but I couldn’t let go of the discomfort that had burrowed beneath my skin, like mosquito venom. I felt so far from home, so guilty for my misery, and suspended in a constant state of shock that this place had been my mother’s home, that she found comfort and refuge in it - that she discovered a way out, and then came back. Even the patois I heard was surprisingly incomprehensible: somehow thicker and more rapid-fire than what I had grown used to hearing at home. I was nine: I couldn’t verbalize this storm of conflicted emotion, I could only swat and cry and complain and grow quiet when I met yet another family member, while I marveled at the cows and goats grazing on the side of the road, while I sat still so that three women could braid tight extensions into my hair. I think that I packed a bathing suit, but we never made a trip to the beach. It seemed impossibly far from where we were, anyway: among the red dirt and tall grass, honking cabs and the sickly-sweet smell of sun-drenched fruit, grasping my mother’s hand tightly, wondering at the depths she’d hidden so carefully inside of her.
Here Comes the Sun brought me back to that place: suspended between the foreign and the familiar, bearing witness to a vivid world that is both enticing and horrifying in almost equal measure. So much of this story’s heart lies in the spaces between: the words that can’t be uttered, the paths that can’t be taken, the gulfs that can’t be crossed. Each person is an island unto themselves, carrying their wholly singular burden, laboring beneath the sun, beneath its thick, unforgiving heat. And the vast, glittering blue ocean, an oasis, just a bit too far out of reach. Paradise found, and lost again, only a few miles away.
Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2016.
“How many times could he pick himself up off the dirty floor of a jail cell? How many hours could he spend marching? How many bruises could he collect from the police? How many letters to the mayor, governor, president could he send? How many more days would it take to get something to change? Would America be any different, or would it mostly be the same?”
It isn’t often that a book functions as entertainment, history lesson, and emotional pilgrimage as willingly and thoroughly as Homegoing. The sheer scope of this story is breathtakingly enormous, spanning seven generations of a family, torn apart, living mirrored lives. There are some chapters of this book that I’ve seen before, heard before - not in way that suggests lack of imagination or invention on the author’s part, but because they are so deeply embedded within the African, within the Caribbean, within the black cultural tradition: they felt warm, familiar, like home. Or they felt barbed, and tear-stained, like bitter anguish - also like home. Gyasi is an expert storyteller, weaving together bright hues of truths we know and can recognize with the darker shades that are recounted less, taught in fewer classrooms. All together, they create a vivid, breathing tapestry: one story, their story - yet, all of our stories - that gleams golden and pure as the sun, and just as undeniable.
The book begins with Effia, daughter of Cobbe, who also sired Esi, Effia’s half sister. These sisters are never to meet, but through their progeny, we watch their history unfold. Each chapter tells the story of the successive generation: crucial decisions, marriages, births, deaths - falling in love, making banku, being sold into slavery, braiding someone's hair - the banal and the momentous alike, the miniscule and giant moments that comprise a life. No matter how much we are given, it never feels like enough, each chapter ending with the finality of a heavy jaw snapping shut, rendering a story in-progress a mere memory, somehow both light and heavy in its floating ephemera. It’s a testament to Gyasi’s form: the way we must reconcile ourselves with losing family, losing memories with each generation even as we are introduced to new ones, our sense of loss mingling with ever-present hesitant curiosity. At times, I felt almost winded as I raced through the pages, desperate to reach a conclusion to the current story, only to remember, yet again, that there was no conclusion - no, only continuation, as the story pressed on through the eyes of that character's grandchild, and their child, and their child’s child. It’s discovering door after door after window in room after room after room and never thinking to turn back around to the first. It’s an endless, grueling, archeological dig, one that stretches and widens exponentially as you press deeper into rich dark earth.
Homegoing employs the use of dichotomies to bring us to its resolution: two sisters; north and south; black and white; fire and water. And within this conceit, or perhaps, despite of it, we are witness to the myriad ways these dichotomies bend and blend, overturning our assumptions and wreaking fresh havoc on our expectations. Liberation is not a mere result of unshackling chains. Race is not a simple question of whose sperm and which egg. Gyasi’s writing style is akin to pouring water from one bucket into another, and into another, and yet another. Perhaps the buckets appear the same, maybe we’re taught in elementary school that their differences are negligible. Nonetheless, the water you end up with is radically different from the original. Discerning which bucket contributed which attribute to the water is a painstaking, arduous task - and often, seemingly impossible.
Gyasi, with Homegoing, does this work anyway.
We cannot unspool the current state of black America from the tightly woven threads of sharecropping and Jim Crow; we cannot separate the hues of colonialism and forced religion if we are to clearly see the color of self-hatred, of respectability. The slave trade, redlining, the prison industrial complex, the dissolution of the black family - these are not disparate issues, existing in a vacuum; they are irrevocably intertwined with our history, much of which has been lost, forgotten, incinerated, drowned. Homegoing is more than a sad story that echoes those of our grandparents and great-grandparents'. It offers a lens and incredible insight to the questions we’re still - still! - demanding answers to today.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Alfred A. Knopf (division of Penguin Random House), New York, NY, 2016.
“Of course it doesn’t make any sense,” she told us. “Nothing about racism makes sense. If it made sense, it would mean it was real, it was the truth.”
I succeeded in avoiding any spoilers for this book, and boy, am I glad that I did. Even in trying to describe it to my husband, I can feel my summary falling woefully short. It isn't an easy novel to explain. The titular character is a chimp with abandonment issues, who connects with humans more than other members of his species, despite their fundamental differences. This is a running theme in the novel; the struggle to find your tribe, your people, and even harder than that, maintain it, and how relentlessly wearying that pursuit can be. Every character is searching for a place to belong, a person to belong to. Whether they find it is debatable. And even if they have, what have they lost in the discovery?
Truth be told, the premise made - still makes - me uncomfortable. But I enjoyed that discomfort. It meant that I couldn't engage with the plot on autopilot. That I was being forced to witness, and thus, contemplate parallels I've always found repulsive and degrading - it brought a more complicated humanity to the characters who espouse those beliefs, albeit intentionally or unintentionally. It is infuriating and embarrassing, and yet you have to find the dignity and strength to press on, because what other choice is there?
One of the most important things Mumma drilled into me was never to let a white person think that they knew you. In Spring City, Mumma and Pop and all the other Stars and Saturnites were planets, possessing deep and mysterious seas, complicated deserts, forests of of knowledge and pain. But step across the border into Courtland County and they were little more than rocks, pebbles really, to the white people that lived there. Small and insignificant, without the weight or density to command even the smallest orbit. Mumma told me that this underestimation was an advantage. It meant you could do things white people would never even know about. Your invisibility was your power.
The Freeman family - Laurel, Charles, and their daughters Charlotte and Callie - are chosen to participate in a groundbreaking scientific study at a research facility in a very white suburb of Boston. They are assigned a chimp, Charlie, and charged with not only helping him assimilate into their family, but learn how to speak sign language. It's a study many years in the making after several failed attempts, and the anticipation surrounding the experiment is palpable - or incredibly awkward, depending on which Freeman you're talking to. What follows is a tale that feels rooted in (dubious) science, laced with the potential for tragedy, but periodically adopts the whimsy of a children's cartoon: days and nights spent feeding and dressing Charlie, who grins and screams and clings to his new mother; raucous family dinners; the myriad tiny indignities of living in such intimate quarters with a wild animal.
Greenidge doesn’t shy away from the heavy racial implications of this experiment, but she draws the line at crafting a plot that droops too low beneath the weight of its own righteousness. Her characters are human first, however flawed, misled, or desperately lonely they might be. We change points of view often; we make leaps through time and place. While this story feels in no way incomplete, there is much we are not privy to; answers to questions we are not aware of the need to ask. I felt a peculiar distance from her characters, only able to just make out a quirk of their brow or a curl of their lip before they were obscured again, as if behind a translucent film, a jungle brush. They are still somewhat mysterious to me, these Freemans, and I like them that way. Greenidge doesn’t reduce them to hapless victims; easy specimens. They have interiority, depth, purpose. And they are not ours to own.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (division of Workman Publishing), New York, NY, 2016.
She was tired of seeing people drudge, get sick, and die...Tired of yearning for the woman she wanted to become, someone who moved through life with self-designed purpose…
I don’t often read historical fiction. The last few novels I read in this genre (Kindred, Fever 1793) were the foundation of whole units in the eighth and ninth grade English classes I co-teach, so I did not have much of a choice. Both times, I ended up loving the books more than I had anticipated. Much of my hesitation to delve into anything with ‘historical’ in the title is an unfortunate holdover from my own middle and high school years, where I viewed the bland, whitewashed history I was taught as facts and dates to memorize and regurgitate for the express purpose of getting As from my history teachers. Now, at 27, I’m still playing catch up: slipping into the intermittent Wikipedia wormhole, devouring articles and essays that draw on the past to make sense of the present, and, of course, listening to my husband’s occasional profuse recollections of a historical event for which I only possess the most basic, peripheral details.
To call Jam on the Vine ‘history come to life’ is to do this work a disservice: it is a story rooted in love and determination, flowered from a rich soil of blood and oppression, to sprout into an enduring saga that strikes a heavy cord in our present cultural and political landscape. What Barnett does with this story is not only illuminate a moment in time that set in motion some of the most transformative and influential policy the United States has ever seen, but highlight, with lush profundity, where we continue to falter. I finished this book with the strangest sensation of hope and dread: how far we have come, I thought; and yet, how depressingly close to the starting line we still seem to be!
“--After all, the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ have no meaning for us...We pledge allegiance to a nation that has not returned the favor. The root of this problem is the ballot-less Negro’s level of citizenship renders him ineligible for democracy. The government bills our nation as democratic but that is a claim we must refute. Far beyond rule by the people through election, a democratic government promised equal treatment for all. Where is the equality in underpaid labor, poor education and housing, substandard health facilities, lynching, police harassment and murder, wrongful convictions, and disproportionate incarceration? For the average Negro, how is living in American democracy much different from peasantry under monarch rule?”
Jam, set during the racially and economically tumultuous years of 1897-1925, follows the Williams family of Little Tunis, Central East Texas. We have Lemon, the tenacious matriarch who holds fast to her Islamic upbringing, despite being surrounded by former slaves who worship “the white man’s Jesus”; May-Belle, her aunt, whip-sharp and wise in all things medicinal and emotional; Ennis, Lemon’s loving husband, who bows daily beneath the weight of his family’s needs and his battered dignity; Timbo, the eldest son, who is lost for years before eventually finding himself; Irabelle, the youngest, the loveliest, and the one made to suffer most for it; and Ivoe, our intrepid protagonist, hungry for a purpose beyond merely surviving day-to-day in Little Tunis. Ever an enthusiastic student, she spends her childhood stealing newspapers to read, and ultimately uses her passion for education as a means to a life she thought might only exist in dreams. She is not without her healthy share of setbacks, at the hands of enemies, lovers, and the omnipresent obstacle of being born within her gender and race, but she perseveres--not out of some outdated notion of the indestructible black woman, but simply because she understands her life’s calling to investigative journalism, to bold activism, and will not bend to the world’s insistence that she sit down and be quiet.
Reading Jam is nothing short of a sensory delight. Barnett’s descriptions are warm and thick as the golden Texas sun, crafting rich scenes of pleasure and pain alike that linger long after you’ve read them. We are witness to a shifting racial climate, that ugly purgatorial morass that kept black Americans enslaved far longer than any official decree would have us believe, but the story does not stop there, at the plundering evil we have become desensitized to after centuries of media normalization. Barnett pierces the gritty surface and lets the sustaining essence of the bonds forged by black community flow: the earnest schoolteacher determined to educate the poor children in her town; disenfranchised laborers coming together to unionize; a father holding his children rapt with a beloved story on a lazy afternoon. There is more to our story than pain; more to remember than injustice, Barnett reminds us. At our root, we are human, sown with seeds of love. And it is this, the fundamental surety of our personhood, our dignity, that enables us to fight. That emboldens us to walk a little longer.
Jam on the Vine, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Grove Press (imprint of Grove Atlantic), New York, NY, 2015.
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