Friday, October 5, 2018

BOOKS! (An American Marriage + Masks)

When I was in California, I stopped at a Books Inc. in Mountain View on a whim and walked out with two books. Both my own selections, but they also received strong commendations and nods of approval from two of the store clerks who noticed me carrying them around the store. This review features one of them. On another day, I spent a couple hours seeking out old and used treasures at Bell's Books, and only one spoke to me while I was there. This review features that book too. Coincidentally, both of today's reads involve love triangles, though I didn't realize that connection until just now.

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

I can't remember the last time I read a book with such urgency. While I was away I decided to forego a day exploring in San Francisco just so I could sit at a cafe and read this book all day. On the way back home, I was reading and annotating so fervently at LAX that a really sweet older custodian lady noticed and complimented me on being "a good girl" because she thought I was studying. What's funny is that I put off reading this book for so long because of all the hype it's been getting. (Not proud to say that I'm still turned off by things that too many people are speaking highly of at the same time; trying to get over this.) And now I've put off writing about this very same book because I didn't want the story to be over. I could walk around just savoring it in my head without having to reckon with it or risk not doing justice to it with my potentially meager words. But it's been time.

Celestial is an artist and Roy is climbing the corporate ladder. They're a newlywed SpelHouse couple living the ideal life of a young, educated, successful black couple in Atlanta. Until one night changes it all. After visiting Roy's parents in his small hometown in Louisiana, they retreat to a hotel but are awakened in the middle of the night when cops bust down their door. Roy has been (falsely) accused of rape by another guest at the hotel, and despite his "respectable" background and the best efforts of both his and Celestial's families, Roy is convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail. He only serves five of those years, but that's more than enough time to reconfigure Roy in unimaginable ways. When he's released, his first inclination is to pick up where he's left off: he wants his life and his wife back. But Celestial's doll-making business has taken off, and she's moved on with her childhood friend and next door neighbor Andre. They have their own ideas for how to contend with Roy, but will he be set aside so easily? And is Celestial really done with him?

I love how Tayari Jones informs us about Roy's time in jail through the letters that he and Celestial write each other, compared to the prose used in the rest of the book. It spares us a few of the more gruesome details, gives us a clear-enough idea of how much time has passed, and maintains the novel's initial focus on their relationship. We get both of their perspectives, but also the sense of limited access to each other's lives that Celestial and Roy face when communicating with each other. Jones enables us to not only feel the time that's been lost, but the moments that have been lost as well. Because each chapter is written from one character's perspective (either Roy's or Celestial's, but sometimes Andre's too), readers may be tempted to pick a side. For most of the book it was easiest for me to align myself with Celestial's personality and thought process, but that waned as she started to hide behind Andre more and have him deal with her problems (read: Roy). But Roy's imprisonment and release force everyone connected to him to reveal themselves in one way or another, so I suppose even Celestial couldn't help but be changed.

All in all, I'll say that An American Marriage is a book that no one should deny themselves the pleasure of reading. It's a messy love story but also an indictment of the American justice system and prison industrial complex. A collection of traumas regarding the ripple effect that's created when a marriage is ruptured by the harvesting of yet another black body by the state. A mix of love lines, misunderstandings, and family tensions, but also a tenderly raw tale of consequences, duty, and healing. It's my absolute favorite of the books I've read this year. If you care about Black people, enjoy reading treatises on love and relationships, know anyone who's gone to prison, love your mom, have ever had to make a difficult decision, or enjoy being a bystander to gossip, then this is for you!

Favorite quotes:
"Up until now, I thought I knew what was and wasn't possible. Maybe that's what innocence is, having no way to predict the pain of the future. When something happens that eclipses the imaginable, it changes a person. It's like the difference between a raw egg and a scrambled egg. It's the same thing, but it's not the same at all. That's the best way that I can put it" (41).
"He was gone, and I was gone, too. It was like I slipped on a patch of ice on a dark road inside my own mind" (54).
"I urge you not to disconnect from the people who remind you of the life you once had and the life you want to live again" (86). 
"I never had a chance, did I? I only thought I did" (278).

"What unkindness showed me that she loved me by revealing the ways that she didn't love me?... What cruelty revealed that she cared by making me understand the limits of the same?" (300).

Masks by Fumiko Enchi
(Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Ibuki is a professor and Mikame is a psychologist. They're college friends and run in the same poetry and literature circles as middle-aged widow Mieko Togano and her daughter-in-law Yasuko, who's also a widow. Both Ibuki and Mikame are infatuated with Yasuko, and as they both vie for her affections, they become more curious about her mother-in-law, who seems to influence (if not outright control) everything that Yasuko does. Mieko's perpetually serene, composed, and graceful persona is indeed a facade, but they have no idea about her real plans, plans that enfold all four of them in something that will never be forgotten.

There's the obvious metaphor of masks, which represents how women often hid their true intentions. Not in the sense that they're inherently devious or corruptive, as traditional lore from virtually all cultures have tried to claim. But in the sense that, so long as women's livelihoods has been shaped by their ability to curry and maintain favor with the men around them, women have had to swallow their hurt, passion, anger, and desires and channel them into other forms of expression. For Mieko, that happens to be feigning modesty while manipulating people and events behind the scenes. But beyond the obvious metaphor, I appreciate how Fumiko Enchi uses the meanings of Noh theatre masks to raise common stereotypes and ideals of women that in turn shape how readers characterize Mieko and Yasuko. The first part of the novel is titled after "Ryō no Onna", a Noh mask that represents the vengeful spirit of an older woman tormented by unrequited love. The second part "Masugami" is named after the mask of a beautiful young madwoman, which could refer to Yasuko but probably more clearly references a different character whom I won't mention. And then the third and last part is titled "Fukai", the mask of an older woman with a deep, unsearchable heart. Again, Mieko.

This novel is so smart. It opens with Ibuki and Mikame, and most of the passages are written from their perspectives so it's so easy to only notice what they notice, especially as it concerns Yasuko and Mieko. I admit, I fell for it and was blindsided when I realized what the two women are really up to. But even after the deed is done in the book, I still have so many questions. Is Yasuko as desperate to get away from Mieko as she claims? At what point does she change her mind, and is this her own decision or yet another effect of Mieko's covert influence? Is she only pretending to be a damsel in distress in order to distract the men and inflate their egos? If Mieko is motivated by vengeance, how does it serve her to trick one of the men into [redacted]? Neither Ibuki nor Mikame did anything to her, so how does this deception function as revenge? Or will any man do, so long as she can use him for her own purposes? And if Mieko is so bitter about how her late husband treated her, wouldn't it make more sense for her to act out that bitterness by ending the Togano family name rather than scheming to prolong it? Or is it less about the Togano name and more about ensuring that evidence of her rebellion against her husband lives on after her?

If you appreciate subversive women characters, enjoy reading academic writing about literature and/or spirit possession, can deal with books that don't answer all questions, and are interested in women and gender studies within a Japanese context, then read this novel!

Favorite quotes:
"Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man's eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions" (57).

"What are patriarchal notions of blood and family to a man who has given his child you for a mother?... I am not int the least sorry to have loved you... I want to tell you once again that I feel no lingering sense of guilt, no ugly scar on my heart; and that I sense heaven's blessing in this tangible fruition of our love" (105).

"Sometimes it's better to be the one not chosen" (129).

Thursday, September 6, 2018

BOOKS! (Marriage of a Thousand Lies + Convenience Store Woman)

Today I have two books recommended to me by the internet. Let's get right to it!

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

If I remember correctly, I was killing time on Goodreads one day and somehow came across Roxane Gay's (An Untamed State, Bad Feminist) 5-star review of this book, one which I hadn't previously heard of. I think that the premise of two closeted South Asian people marrying each other to act as each other's beards is what sold me on this novel, but I honestly don't remember the exact reason. My decision to buy this book was quite impulsive, but absolutely not a decision that I regret. It turned out to be one of my favorite reads this year!

Most of her life, Lucky (nickname for Lakshmi), has gotten through life by following her Sri Lankan immigrant parents' expectations, or at least by maintaining the appearance of such while keeping certain truths a secret. One of those truths is that she's gay. She's married to a respectable young man named Kris (Krishna) whom she became friends with in college. Kris is also gay. Their marriage, while a facade, allows them to pursue their respective love lives without being ostracized by their Boston area Sri Lankan community or being cut off financially by their parents. Living with Kris in Connecticut provides a comfortable distance as well. But when Lucky returns to her hometown to help take care of her ailing grandmother, the burden of being closeted weighs more heavily than ever when she learns that her childhood best friend and first love, Nisha, is engaged to marry a man. Lucky assists with engagement and wedding preparations, and the two women resume their sexual relationship in the process.

Though they are both closeted, it seems that Nisha hasn't fully embraced her sexuality, and the stress of wedding planning only makes it more difficult for her to make up her mind. One minute Nisha wants Lucky to be her escape from the life that's been pre-planned for her, the next minute she's standoffish and can't bear to face the disapproval of their community or be shunned by her parents. And though she tries to resist her feelings, Lucky is deeply in love with Nisha and weathers each heartbreak and disappointment in hopes that maybe one day they can be together without Nisha waffling from the fear of what people will think. Their rekindled relationship forces both of them to painfully confront the reality and potential consequences of their same-sex attraction. But while this eventually leads Lucky to greater self-acceptance rather than self-destruction, Nisha's wedding day looms and neither of them are sure which path Nisha will choose. I'll let y'all read the book to find out.

So much blunt, heartfelt, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes subtle, and sometimes devastating prose in this book. So much valuable insight on being brown and gay. I think it was necessary for SJ Sindu to delineate the strong (though not unmarred) ties that Lucky has with her family in order to demonstrate how the ideal of living your life and forsaking the opinions of others is a specifically terrifying prospect when you're the child of South Asian immigrants, even when you and your family aren't on the best of terms. Oh and props to Sindu for randomly (not completely random within the plot, just a pleasant surprise) having Lucky drive to Louisville, Kentucky to locate her estranged sister! My mom's city almost never gets a shout-out in literature, so this novel gets extra points just for that. If you're interested in LGBTQ literature, Sri Lankan culture, struggles of first-generation Americans, family drama, or tortured love stories, then this book is for you!

Favorite quotes:
"Most people think the closet is a small room. They think you can touch the walls, touch the door, turn the handle, and walk free. But when you're inside it, the closet is vast. No walls, no door, just empty darkness stretching the length of the world" (25). 

"I want to be art of the mess, wonderful chaos and movement, a purpose I haven't felt in my muscles for much too long. I haven't danced in ages and this is like scratching an itch deep under the skin. I remember what it's like to movelike something ballooning inside of me, like I'm going to expand and expand and become the air" (57).

"Art isn't small. Don't try to fit it into your fist" (74).

"I want to think so, believe she ran away for a reason that lasted" (215).

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
(Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)


Just like Pachinko, I learned about this novel through a Japan Times article that I happened upon. Apparently this novel was a hit in Japan, and the English translation of this book was highly anticipated. The main character Keiko has never been "normal", having learned since childhood to adapt to social mores but not understanding or caring about them enough to practice them in her own life. To most people, her abnormality is exemplified by the fact that she's worked at the same convenience store for nearly 20 years and hasn't tried to get a "real" job or get married and start a family in all that time. She enjoys working in an uncomplicated environment, and she doesn't earn a ton of money but has enough to live a quiet life on her own. At some point, Keiko receives an unignorable amount of judgment and pressure to conform from her family, friends, and coworkers, to the point that she finds herself a live-in boyfriend just to get everyone off her back. She doesn't care about pleasing them, but also doesn't want to cause them further distress if her living a certain way means so much to them. Ironically, who she chooses to pose as her boyfriend and the arrangement that they have only add to the absurdity.

I was ready to be enthralled by this book, but something about it is... off. I think the writing style is what threw me the most. Not sure if that has to more to do with the original text or the English translation. There are certain turns of phrase that seem really awkward and unnatural, but perhaps they're just unfamiliar to me because I'm American (not up on British-isms yet, sorry). Overall I do appreciate that Murata poses the question of why people are so obsessed with normalcy and why they insist on invasively ensuring that other people live in the same presumably acceptable ways that they do. Like seriously, why is one's humanity defined by how normal they can claim to be? If you like reading about people who choose the road less traveled (not in a pretentious way), and what that means for women in Japan especially, then read this book.

Favorite quotes:
"I find the shape of people's eyes particularly interesting when they're being condescending. I see a wariness or a fear of being contradicted or sometimes a belligerent spark ready to jump on any attack. And if they're unaware of being condescending, their glazed-over eyeballs are steeped in a fluid mix of ecstasy and a sense of superiority" (65-66).

"I want to spend my whole life doing nothing. For my whole life, until I die, I want to just breathe without anyone interfering in my life. That's all I wish for" (108).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Life Update (Hello September!)

Welcome to September, everybody!

It hasn't escaped me that I've been writing less and less every year since starting this blog in 2013. During the first three years I was writing hundreds of posts every year, and from 2016 onward it's decreased to the double digits. This year's number is the lowest ever. There are a few reasons for this, one of them being that when I started this blog I was still in college: had just turned 20, was up to more things then, and so had more to write about. Another reason is that since graduating I've tried to focus my writing on book reviews, J-drama reviews, and my travels. I'm not sure that my life or personality are interesting enough in themselves to sustain writing about them all the time (and again, I have a lot less going on now), so I don't write about personal things or random thoughts/opinions as much as I used to because—Who cares? Who needs to know?  But I still love writing, this blog is still special to me and is still very much "my thing", and I come here when I can. Most of 2018 has kind of worn me down so motivating myself has been difficult, but I'm in a much better place at the moment.

Well. Today is the 1st of September, which is the unofficial beginning of autumn in many people's minds here (but I still maintain that summer isn't officially over for another 3 weeks; y'all spend all year pining for summer and then when it's here you rush to make it more fleeting than it needs to be!). Since I barely wrote anything this summer, I thought to post a life update just so whoever's reading this knows that I'm still here, I'm still alive, I'm still writing. So here goes:

  • I started a podcast! Got the idea for it in May and launched it on Juneteenth (June 19th). It's called Young, Gifted and Abroad and in each episode I interview a different person of color about their study abroad experiences. Hence, "Perspectives on studying abroad from past and present students of color". We'll be at 12 episodes come this Tuesday! I initially started it because I was bored and frustrated and wanted to feel like I was still capable of doing things, and now working on it every week keeps me going. Plus all my guests have been lovely! Listen to the podcast here: younggiftedandabroad.com 
  • My cousin (also the very first guest on the podcast) got married in July, and I was called at the last minute by another cousin to sing in the wedding. I had about four hours to learn the song ("You and I" by O'Bryan), but that actually worked to my advantage because I didn't have enough time to think myself out of it. It was so much fun! I hadn't performed since 2016, and it's been sort of a passive goal of mine to try performing again in 2018. And I did! Haven't performed again since then, but hey, I've still got four months left to put myself out there this year.
  • As of early August, I am now in between jobs. It's really for the best though. I felt like it was time to move on, and even though things are kind of uncertain right now, I feel more hopeful and at greater peace than I have in a really long time. Since I put in my notice in July, I've been surrounded by immense love, calm, assurance, and relief (joy, even?) coming from such delightfully random and not-so-random directions, so I honestly do feel like I made the right decision. Just praying that the Lord will hold my hand and that nothing that's for me will pass me by.
  • I just came back from spending 10 days in the Bay Area visiting a friend. She kept saying this year that I could come her way if I needed a break, so I took her up on it. It was more of a suburban vacation than a high-flying adventure, but I still had a wonderful time and learned some much-needed lessons. Check the photos out here: All dogs are BAYbies
What are my plans? I have more reviews coming and more podcast episodes coming. I'd like to make more artist friends so that I can become more confident and active musically. I'd like to get a good setup going with remote/freelance work (translation, editing, proofreading, transcription, maybe even writing) so I can see what that lifestyle is like. I had to go to an office almost every day for my 9-5, but personnel changes and time zone differences basically had me working remotely while at the office, and I enjoy the idea of being trusted to do what I need to do in solitude. Beyond that, I have no clue. But I'm open!

Here's to better, whatever that comes to mean.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 20

Wow. It's been a whole entire six months since my last J-drama review. Honestly I have no excuses, other than that after trying a few, I only came across three dramas this year that I could stick with, and I literally finished the third one yesterday. Suffice it to say that I've been taking my time, perhaps dragging my feet, whatever you want to call it. But the summer broadcast season just started, and I didn't want to leave this review undone before starting my summer selections. So here goes! The first two dramas were viewed on DramaCool/WatchAsian (without subs and then with English subs, respectively), and the last one was viewed on Netflix with Japanese subs. In the order that I started them:

ブランケット・キャッツ  (Buranketto Kyattsu/Blanket Cats) - NHK/2017
  • Shusuke was a high-level furniture designer who originally cared more about his job than his wife and her seven cats. When his wife passed away, he gave up his career for a small furniture repair business in an old house, where he dutifully takes care of his late wife's cats as penance.
  • Shusuke's friend/neighbor/veterinarian Misaki (Kichise Michiko, 'Seshiru no Mokuromi') encourages him to move on with his life by adopting the cats out. Each episode features a different person seeking to adopt a cat, seven episodes for seven cats. Shusuke allows each person to take their cat of choice home on a three-day trial basis. Spoiler: Most of the cats end up back with Shusuke. 
  • Each cat has a special blanket chosen for them by Shusuke, and he insists that each cat is accompanied by their blanket when they go to their prospective owner's home. Hence, 'Blanket Cats'.
I can't quite remember when I heard about this drama. It came out last summer, so either I was late to the party, or I actually started it late last year and kept setting it aside. That's not to say that this show is uninteresting, though! I actually love this show because it exudes that homey, unaffected feeling that 'Shinya Shokudo' and 'Wakamonotachi' gave me. Due to lack of exposure, allergies, and superstitious parents, unfortunately I'm not a cat person. Yet, I was charmed by the relationship that Shusuke has with his cats. He cares about them more than anyone else, even though they exasperate him and do whatevertheheck they want to do on a daily basis. Plus the show deals with real human issues such as grief, bullying, aging and memory loss, infertility, and even suicide.


ラブリラン (Rabu Riran/Love Rerun) - NTV, YTV/2018
  • In all her 29 years of life, graphic designer Sayaka (Nakamura Anne, 'Totsuzen Desu ga, Ashita Kekkon Shimasu') has never been in a relationship. Her only experience with love is her 15-year crush on her high school friend Ryosuke (Otani Ryohei, 'Ubai Ai, Fuyu').
  • On the eve of her 30th birthday, Sayaka finally decides to confess to to Ryosuke. But then she blanks out and wakes up three months later with a completely different style, a significant memory gap, and a new ex-boyfriend. Apparently she'd been dating her co-worker, Shohei.
  • Shohei lets Sayaka continue staying at his apartment until she gets her memory back. The relationship didn't end well and they still have to work at the same place everyday, so awkward is an understatement. Especially when Shohei's other ex-girlfriend tries to speed up the memory recovery process so that she can be with Shohei instead of Sayaka.
  • As Sayaka remembers more of the past, she realizes how much her lifestyle and romance priorities have shifted. Will it be Ryosuke or Shohei in the end?
I had high hopes for this drama because I'm a fan of Nakamura Anne's persona (she's sporty and flirtatious, has almost a Western vibe to her), and this is her first starring role in a TV show. Originally I thought the drama would explore the struggles that 30-something women face, and how Sayaka chooses between changing because she wants to and changing because of what she thinks will please the men in her life. And the show did start out like that. But eventually it just devolved into the same old love triangle story, with her wavering between two men who both claim to not want her anymore. It could've been fresh and then it just... wasn't. Still enjoyed Nakamura Anne's performance, though.


士のグルメ (Nobushi no Gurume/Samurai Gourmet) - Netflix/2017
  • Now that he's retired and has time to enjoy life, 60-year-old Takeshi decides to use his abundant free time to explore his surroundings and indulge in delicious foods (mostly Japanese, but some Chinese, Korean, and Italian dishes too). Some of his selections are random, but others are influenced by nostalgia.
  • Each episode features a different dish. Takeshi has an imaginary samurai persona, and that samurai steps in to embolden Takeshi to act or speak in situations which he would normally shy away from. 
I'm pretty sure I'd heard of this show previously, but I didn't look it up until after I came across an article of Japanese recommendations on Netflix. It's an easy drama to watch, with 25-minute episodes and plenty of shots of food! My personal favorite is the episode where Takeshi works as an extra in a film for a day. Despite the many Japanese dramas that I've watched over the years, I don't know much of what goes on behind the scenes, so it was nice to see an example of what a typical shoot might be like from the extras' perspective. This show is excellent if you just want something light-hearted to help you sharpen your Japanese listening comprehension.

I appreciated all three of these dramas in their own way, but if I had to choose a winner this time, it'd be a tie between 'Blanket Cats' and 'Samurai Gourmet'. 'Samurai Gourmet' is sweet, occasionally silly, and visually captivating, but 'Blanket Cats' has a ton of heart and probably would've been the overall winner if only there were more than seven episodes. As always, I'd encourage you to try them all!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

BOOKS! (Talking to Ourselves + Forbidden Tears)

I'm back! Been working on a new project since May (more on that later), which means that I took longer to write this review than I meant to, but no matter! I'm back, I'm still reading, and now it's time to write! This week I have a book that was indirectly recommended to me by educator/photographer/singer friend from college, and a student-authored collection of writing that was published by another college friend.

Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman

Set in Spain, this novel recounts the last few months of a man named Mario's life, as narrated by his 10-year-old son Lito, his wife Elena, and Mario himself. Mario is a truck driver, and the book opens with him finally making good on his promise to take Lito with him on a long-distance delivery. Elena is devastated by Mario's decision, because Mario is dying from cancer. Lito is unaware of this, and Elena doesn't want her husband and son to risk being in danger, but Mario is determined to leave his son with happy memories and takes Lito anyway.

We are led to understand that Mario's narration is recorded from his hospital bed after returning from the trip. Elena is a would-be academic researcher who now works as a high school teacher, so her recollections are written down. However, it's not clear what medium Lito is using to get his thoughts out. They are each talking to themselves in their own way, not sharing these thoughts with others, except for when Elena listens to Mario's recordings after his passing.

Elena is the most verbose of the three and also shoulders the most responsibility as mother, wife, caretaker, and then grieving widow, so her voice comes through the strongest. From her we get a multitude of opinions regarding not only her family and death, but also literature, the ill, caretakers of the ill, beauty, sex, youth, women in academia, and her personal insecurities. Because of certain decisions she's made, Elena occasionally confesses to feeling unworthy of love and even life itself. But she keeps pushing through out of a heavy mixture of love, guilt, and duty. Meanwhile, Lito is imaginative and confused, his confusion gradually morphing into aggression. And Mario worries for all that he and Lito will miss out on when they no longer have each other.

If you enjoy reading multi-perspective narratives, family dramas, or literature-based discussions of grief, then read this novel!

Favorite quotes:
"Son, he says, there are lots of things about work that make no sense. That's what they pay us for, do you see what I mean?" (7).

"Now I think that deep down, because it seemed to me his body was more admirable than mine, I was constantly wriggling away, choosing my best side, half-posing. With Ezequiel I allow myself to be plain. Vulgar. Ugly. Excitingly ugly" (38).

"in short, advice isn't much use, if you disagree with it you don't listen, and if you already agree you don't need it, never trust advice, son, travel agents advise you to go places they've never been" (122).

Forbidden Tears: Stories, Poems & Essays of Trauma from the Imprisoned Voices of Unapologetic Black Youth  by Youth of Detroit Collegiate High School 

I met Sirrita Darby while we were both students in James Madison College at Michigan State University. She went on to become what she calls a "social just educator" in Detroit, where she not only teaches English to high school students, but also encourages them to address their pain through various means of expression and healing. One of those means was this book! Sirrita noticed that in many ways and for various reasons, her students weren't being listened to at home or at school. Furthermore, she observed that Black kids are often not allowed to show their emotions or cry when they're in pain, so she encouraged her students to let these "forbidden tears" out through their writing. The result is Forbidden Tears. Sirrita edited the book and wrote the foreword, but other than that, it's comprised completely of poems and essays written by teenagers.

Depending on a reader's preconceptions, some of the themes may not be surprising: concerns for survival, fear (of the police, violence in their neighborhoods, and the future), racism, anger, lack of belonging. And while some topics are particular to this age group, much of it is still relevant to grown-ups. Personally, my heart hurt when reading from some female students about their strained relationships with their fathers, because I've been in their shoes. These girls are so young, and yet they've already been let down so many times and are tempted to trust no one and question their worthiness. But at the same time, these students' writing radiates so much light! There's immense pride in being Black youth from Detroit, self-awareness, love and gratitude toward the people who stepped up, and even quite a few laughs. These are not merely kids. These are young people who are just beginning to flex their intellectual muscles and use their voices. Forbidden Tears is a quick read, but it's not to be taken lightly. Plus there's a healing mantra at the end that can be helpful to any and all readers.

If you enjoy literature written by (Black) youth, have any interest in or connection to the city of Detroit, or simply want to be more informed about the needs of students and educators, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"My love for her is nationwide"
(from "A Million Dimes" by Heavon Mapp)

"Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Malcolm X dead because of these fools"
(from "Nothing But The Real" by Alexis Hailey)

"What if in those dark nights, you can't find your brighter days? What if in those brighter days there comes a darker night? What if those darker nights come even worse days?... you can't always get through a dark day with a fake and convincing smile... what if it keeps raining and the sun never shines. What are you supposed to do? Who are you supposed to talk to?"
(from "For Every Dark Night, There's a Brighter Day" by Micah Barnes)

Monday, June 4, 2018

BOOKS! (Go Tell It on the Mountain + Baking Cakes in Kigali)

Been a minute but I'm back! Today I've got the other of two novels that I bought on my last day working at a bookstore, and a novel that I bought at at a Half Price Books during the 2017 holiday season.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

James Baldwin has been on my radar for a very long time. I read Giovanni's Room when I was in high school. In the bookstore that I worked at years ago, Go Tell It on the Mountain was the only work by a Black author among a handful of classic book covers that were printed on enormous canvases and hung in the most visible areas of the store. My latest book review included a novel about a writer who idolized Baldwin and moved to Paris to emulate his artistic journey. Plus, it's currently very trendy for young Black people my age to be well-versed in James Baldwin's work (or at least to claim to be so). But for some reason I kept putting off Go Tell It on the Mountain. I only bought it because it was one of his most popular titles, but even without looking through it or researching about it, I had a feeling that this book would be heavy for me. And it was, but in a way that ended up being right on time.

This novel draws much from Baldwin's own childhood, chronicling one Saturday in the life of a Black boy in Harlem named John Grimes . It's 1935, he's the oldest of four children, and his preacher father hates him for reasons he hasn't been able to figure out. The hate is mutual, and he resists God because his dad supposedly represents God. This particular Saturday also happens to be his 14th birthday, but instead of celebration, the day starts with chores and ends with chaos. In addition to an ongoing sexual awakening and a peculiar yet unignorable awareness that he's different from other Black boys his age (he's a book smart kid who's already realizing how his intellect might appeal to whiteness, and it's hinted that John is gay), his brother gets injured and the family implodes. All this, before going to church that night and unexpectedly catching the Holy Spirit at the weekly tarrying service. (This is a Pentecostal church ritual where people who haven't gotten saved yet try to pray and worship really hard until they "catch" the Holy Spirit.) I'm not Pentecostal and I've never been caught up in exactly the same way John is, but Baldwin undoubtedly writes the most vivid description of it that I've read so far.

While John is the main character, most of the book focuses on the backstories of the most prominent elders in his life: his aunt Florence (least pious), his dad Gabriel (most pious), and his mom Elizabeth (somewhere in between). It's through them that the story extends beyond this one day or the 14 years of memories that John has, to decades of life and migration between the South and North. We witness how each of them wandered, rebelled, fell in love, lost people, contended with racism, took life-changing chances, made horrible mistakes, and eventually found God in their own way. John's life, like those of most children, is profoundly influenced by the adults around him. And while his frustrations are just beginning and he doesn't receive many answers by the end of the novel, we as readers get an in-depth look at exactly why the people who shape his life behave the way they do.

If you grew up in a Black church, struggled with faith, have daddy issues, like coming of age stories, are interested in the Great Migration and Black life in late 19th/early 20th century America, or just love James Baldwin and somehow missed this one, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"To 'come along' meant that he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had traveled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive" (78).

"there was only one difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other" (164).
 "what's in you is in you, and it's got to come out" (182). 
"And yet, it came to him that he must move; for there was a light somewhere, and life, and joy, and singingsomewhere, somewhere above him" (206).

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
(advanced reading copy from 2009)

In the year 2000, Rwanda is still recovering from the genocide of 1994, and numerous professionals and organizations have been sent to Kigali to assist. Angel Tungaraza's husband is one such professional, and they've moved from Tanzania along with their five grandchildren to live in an apartment complex with numerous other expats. Angel's way of getting to know her community and giving people in Kigali an excuse to celebrate more things is running a cake business out of her apartment. She's renowned for her professionalism and creative designs, and she often helps her clients with their personal problems in the process. Eventually this helps her confront the secrets and grief in her own life.

My personal favorite client of Angel's is the soldier who tries to order a cake so he can use it propose on the spot to one of the local white women (any random one, mind you, he doesn't actually have a white girlfriend or anything), who will hopefully marry him and take him to America so he can live a better life and not be a soldier anymore. His small arc is heartbreaking because of his stolen childhood and the atrocities he was forced to witness and participate in. It's infuriating because worshiping white women just screams self-hatred to me, and he doesn't accept Angel's refusal or challenges to his logic. But it's also hilarious because he genuinely believes his plan will work and any white woman will do; all he needs to woo one is a diamond, an engagement party planned in advance, and a certificate attesting to his negative HIV status. My goodness.

However, what I most enjoy about this novel is how much it taught me about Rwanda. When I was in school, we learned about the Rwandan genocide but the discussion didn't go beyond the facts that Belgium arbitrarily created ethnic/social classes that eventually led to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, up to a million people died, and the US didn't intervene and supposedly we feel really sorry for that. We don't learn anything beyond 1994, the year that the genocide happened. So it was eye-opening to read about Rwanda's reconciliation initiatives (especially in light of South Africa's which are much more well-known). And to learn about the skills gap that existed at the time (hence the flood of expats into Kigali), or how the AIDS epidemic in East Africa splintered families in a similar way to the genocide. I greatly appreciate Gaile Parkin for using a story about a cake baker to educate readers about these issues in a way that's not patronizing or didactic.

I don't intend to read the other books in this series (reading this gave me No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency vibes, another book series featuring an African female character who solves people's problems and was written by a white author born in Africa; been there, done that). But I am glad that I read this one. If you're into baking, want to learn more about Rwanda in the years that followed the genocide, care about survivors' trauma and remorse, enjoy neighborhood gossip, or just want an easy read that's lighthearted but still has some depth, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"bilingual means you can speak two languages. People here can already speak two languages at least: Kinyarwanda and French, or Kinyarwanda and Swahili, or some other two. But when your president talks about bilingual, he means only English and FrenchWazungu languages. Does he mean to say that our own African languages are not languages?" (180).
"There are many of us who wish every day that we had not survived. Do you think I feel blessed to live in this house with the ghosts of everyone who was killed here?... If I had known then what survival was going to be like, I would not have chosen it" (217-218).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Scripture & Lyrics

"Had to talk to God, drop down and pray for this / To my surprise, He replied, said 'You made for this'" -Cardi B


"For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." -Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)