Thursday, December 29, 2016

BOOKS! (The Rapture of Canaan)

Another used book sale find. You know when you see a book, and after examining it you’re pretty sure you’ll find it only marginally interesting, but you decide to buy it anyway, and you wind up loving it more than any other book you’ve read in the past six months? Well I loved this one so much that I had to write about it all by itself.

The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds

In an unspecified U.S. state somewhere south of Virginia is a rigid, tobacco-farming, fundamentalist Christian commune, whose epicenter is the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind. Its leader, affectionately known as “Grandpa Herman” had been so shaken by his time serving in World War II, that he dedicated his life to Christ and set about creating a church and community which he’d run the same way he thought God ran Heaven.  But what he created was a fearful and isolated community of cruel obedience and sameness, where every member is related by blood or marriage, and Grandpa Herman is pastor, judge, and financial manager.

Growing up in “the community” is our narrator Ninah (nigh-nuh), an adolescent girl who realizes early on that she doesn’t quite fit in amongst her fellows who happily live by the rules and fiercely defend their way of life. She doesn’t like being indistinguishable in physical appearance from all the other female members. She resents being expected to act or not act a certain way just because she’s a girl. She’s skeptical of the theatrical wailing and crying and speaking in tongues that occurs every Sunday. And she’s got so many questions and opinions that, at first, she can bring to no one but Nanna. Grandpa Herman’s wife abides by her husband because she loves him, but internally she’s the most independent thinker at Fire and Brimstone. To a certain extent, this granddaughter and grandmother are each other’s confidants.

And so, when Ninah and her nephew-in-law James fall for each other (he’s Ninah’s eldest sister’s husband’s son from a different marriage; not incestuous but is still awkward), Nanna is her sole advocate. She arranges for the two youths to become prayer partners, allotted an amount of daily (and rare) private time together which is supposed to bring them closer to Jesus and hopefully prepare them for courting and marriage in the future. What they actually do is get to know each other in the biblical sense. In the choir loft, in the tobacco fields, behind barns, wherever they can. Eventually and unsurprisingly, Ninah winds up pregnant at the tender age of 15.

Though the story focuses on Ninah, James is actually the most tragic and one of the most fascinating characters in this novel.  He’s only one year older than Ninah, and he challenges much of Fire and Brimstone’s ideologies just like Ninah does. But the boy is so terribly afraid and confused that he flips between tolerance and torment on the daily. In fact, he’s so terrified of being rejected by God and tortured or killed (literally) by the community for fornicating and impregnating Ninah, that before news of the baby gets out to anyone else, he drowns himself in a nearby pond.

What follows is a whirlwind that I won’t spoil for you, but basically Ninah goes from being ostracized as a slut to being revered as the mother of the new Messiah, and she wields this fantasy to her advantage. Of course, The Rapture of Canaan is a tale of coming of age and the fallout from a teenage love affair, but under the surface it’s also the journey of a young woman grasping at self-determination in almost unconscionable conditions. She wants to honor what makes people (including herself) human without scorning them for it, and she questions what she’s been taught not to disprove her faith, but in order to make it more sincere.

One last point worthy of making is that the novel poses sexual intercourse as a form of prayer or worship, and I actually greatly appreciate that idea. On one hand this logic functions as a convenient and disingenuous way for Ninah and James to excuse themselves for engaging in the same thing that they’ve been taught to disparage others for. But on the other hand, it makes some sense. For them, sex is a way to experience Jesus through each other, and they’re not the only characters in the book who attest to feeling closer to God or understanding him better through such physical intimacy. As a Christian who wasn’t raised to view sex as evil but knows plenty of others who have, I think Reynolds proposes a perspective that all believers should consider. If you do question or have ever questioned faith, if you are in any way intrigued by the people behind religious cults and fundamentalism, and if you enjoy reading about female characters who are saved by their own stubbornness, then read The Rapture of Canaan. Undoubtedly my favorite book that I’ve read this year, next to An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, and Why We Came to The City by Kristopher Jansma.

Favorite quotes:

“For a second, I wanted to knock the stool right from under his self-righteous feet. Then I reminded myself not to fight evil with evil. And then I did it anyway” (105).

“Nobody even tried to tell her that he was simply normalbecause to Laura, that would have been like saying he was retarded. And I wanted to shake her until she broke and all the stupidness jingled out because she just couldn’t understand that what was normal was miraculous enough” (270).

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

BOOKS! (Running in the Family + Citizen)

We're getting so close to the New Year! There are three days left in 2016 after today, and this will be my third-to-last book review of the year (I've got two more for books that I've already finished in the works, and another two books I'm trying to finish reading before Sunday but which I probably won't be able to write about until after 2017 has arrived). With that said, let's gone on with it! This time around, the first read is another used find, and the second is a book I bought last year while working at the store.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Nearly 15 years before his prize-winning novel, The English Patient (which inspired the Oscar-winning film of the same name), was published, Michael Ondaatje took two trips from his home in Canada back to his native Sri Lanka for the first time since the 1950s. This memoir contains the recollections that he had recorded during both trips, which involved re-engaging with relatives and friends, revisiting old haunts, hearing familial legends for the first or thousandth time, and gaining a more nuanced understanding of his family history, which dates all the way back to Dutch and British colonization of the tear-shaped island nation. I'd been aware that Sri Lanka was one of the areas of South Asia that had been colonized by the Dutch and the British (and the Portuguese, but I know the least about that). But the only book I'd read about such colonial exploits, written by a native of said areas, was Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind (which is a fantastically consuming novel, by the way). And that's about Indonesia; I'd actually read nothing written specifically about Sri Lanka before. Laying my hands on this book reminded me that I still have plenty to learn, so I bought it.

Through Running in the Family Ondaatje offers readers a tribute to his family and its stories, as much as he offers insight into Sri Lanka's geography, climate, and literary/political history. But what stands out most to me are his descriptions of high society (both sides of his family were considerably wealthy and well-connected through the early 1900s). The parties, the affairs, the petty wars, the drunken spectacles, the controversies, the tragedies. Ondaatje's relatives and their friends are just as messy as regular people sometimes wish rich people to be, and they neither put on airs to the contrary nor bear any shame. Though his mischievous yet beloved father's complicated legacy is the note that Running in the Family ends on, Ondaatje also doesn't forget to acknowledge that the women of his family are his main source of information, especially his numerous aunts. Women often carry the oral histories that keep cultures alive, and his relatives are no different.

Favorite quotes:
"The island seduced all of Europe. The Portuguese. The Dutch. The English. And so its name changed, as well as its shape,Serendip, Ratnapida ("island of gems"), Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and Ceylonthe wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword or bible or language" (64).  
"But Lalla could never be just a mother; that seemed to be only one muscle in her chameleon nature, which had too many other things to reflect... Lalla remained the center of the world she moved through. She had been beautiful when young but most free after her husband died and her children grew up. There was some sense of divine right she felt she and everyone else had, even if she had to beg for it or steal it. This overbearing charmed flower" (124-125).

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

A woman named Johari Osayi Idusuyi was the only reason I knew about this book at first. I learned her name last autumn when a video of her reading Citizen at one of he-who-shall-not-be-named's rallies became an internet sensation, and that was all the endorsement I needed for this book of poetry. But know that this is not only a book of poetry; it's an art piece! One poem's text employs gradation to symbolize the seemingly unending erasure of Black lives. Another poem layers still images of the 2006 World Cup with selected quotes from a handful of notable utterers, suggesting that European racism toward people of Arab descent isn't divorced from anti-black racism. And numerous photos and art reprints are planted in between her poems, including an infamous American lynching photograph in which the dead black man hanging from the tree is removed, and the white spectators crowding beneath him have now become the object of spectacle.

Rankine is not only concerned with the historical aspect of racism, the reality that we as Black people in America will never be able to detach ourselves from the trauma and enforced limitations thrust upon our ancestors. She also takes up the daily lived experiences of racism, the subtle and unsaid ones, the ones that set off our intuitions and yet plant doubt in our mindsin other words, microaggressions. If you do not know what microaggressions are or don't quite understand how they play out in real life, let the multiple examples that Rankine provides be a resource for you. Citizen is a literary work that as many different sorts of people as possible should read, but it's also clearly an affirmation to Black people (and all people of color to a certain extent) that we are not crazy, that we are not imagining things, that our thoughts and feelings are not wrong.

Favorite quotes:
"To live through the days sometimes you moan like a deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets... truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings them about... That's just self-preservation... The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache. You wouldn't call it an illness; still it is not the iteration of a free being." (59-60).

 "because white men can't 
police their imagination
black men are dying" (135).

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas morning.

(After listening to Ma and Grandpa joke about my Aunt Daune's Christmas morning ritutals)

Me: When she gets here I'mma tell her y'all were talking about her.

Grandpa (entire face widens with indignance): I'll talk about her to her face! What that got to do with anything? Shoooot... 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Scripture & Lyrics

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” -Esther 4:13‭-‬14 (NIV)

"Can you say your name, or would you rather stay unknown? / Can you show your face, or are you fearful of it shown? / Can you feel your heart, or does it beat for you alone? / Lift your glass up high, say that your truth will never lie / If your love cannot be moved" -Stevie Wonder ft. Kim Burrell

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Ocean Chose You!" - Moana

Moana is for Pacific Islanders. Indigenous people. Melanated populations and their ancestors. Protectors of the earth. Healers. Mamas, Mama's mamas, and Mama's Mama's mamas. Seekers. Adventurers. Girls on fire. People who know there's something more inside them and that they have to see it through, even if they don't know why or how.  Do your spirit a favor and go see this movie!

Seen Thursday, December 1st: Moana

When vegetation starts dying and fish become scarce for the island of Motunui, the villagers begin to fear for their survival. The chief's daughter Moana is then inspired by her grandmother to sail the ocean and make the demi-god Maui restore balance to nature by returning the power of creation that he'd stolen to its rightful keeper. That is, to Te Fiti, mother goddess of the earth. With the ocean's help, Maui's supernatural abilities, and her ancestors' guidance, Moana must save her island before it's too late. 

"The ocean is calling."


What I really like about this film: Reverence for ancestors! Reverence for elders! Do you need guidance? Do you need a reminder of where you come from and what your purpose is? Then consult those who came before you, and listen to them!

Reverence for maternal figures and spirits! Especially Moana's grandmother Tala, the ocean (yes, the ocean is its own character in this movie!), and mother goddess Te Fiti. I've never had a grandmother but I was deeply moved by what Moana and Tala share, which is something that's unspeakably precious, honest, and authentic in a mischievous way. Do you need encouragement? Do you need someone to see and affirm in you what no one else does? Do you need someone to love you back to life?  Then seek out that mama, that grandmama, that auntie, that sister, that motherly figure in your life, and listen to them!

And my Lord, there are such beautiful people all up and through this movie! Such unambiguously brown skin, such full lips, such broad noses, such glorious dark curls and waves. Variations of phrases including "We know who we are", "my/our people", "this/our island" are prevalent in the film's dialogue, and this is neither coincidental nor redundant. Moana is not only an adventure story led by a headstrong young girl. It is also a bold statement about a culture honoring its origins, cherishing its natural resources, and protecting its beloved home so that this home can continue to love it back.

Also, I don't think I've ever witnessed a feat of animation as awe-inducing as the scene where Te Fiti comes back to life in her true form. The goddess is manifested as a gigantic and lushly green woman-shaped island made of trees, plants, vines, and flowers. She is royal and superior to all, and at the same time is tender and graceful, communicating with her facial expressions and the movement of her body. She may very well be the most magnificent being that I have ever seen appear on screen.

What I don't like about this film: I didn't really care for Moana's main song ("How Far I'll Go"), but I LOVED "We Know the Way" and Maui's song, "You're Welcome" (especially the soundtrack version with Jordan Fisher and Lin Manuel Miranda). I had no idea that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson could carry a tune, and the lyrics, delivery, and cheekily arrogant attitude of the song are classic Lin Manuel. Oh and I almost forgot! "Shiny", a trippy song sung by an evil crab named Tamatoa (Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement) is oddly pleasing to the ear given its murderous intentions.

Would I recommend it?: YES! YES YES YES! This film is such a victory for brown peoples everywhere, but especially Pacific Islanders because I don't think we've ever had a film of this scale that centers them the way Moana does. Island characters, island mythology, islanders and other people of color voicing most of the leads and singing most of the music. Disney has produced many masterpieces but this is one of the most unique, humbling, and inspiring ones.