Wednesday, October 31, 2018

BOOKS! (Home. Girl. Hood. + A Greater Music)

Spent 13 hours doing my hair last night and didn't finish until 8:30am this morning, slept most of the day (fatigue and dehydration, lawdhammercy!), and didn't have special plans for today anyway, so I'm spending what's left of Halloween at home writing this review. I started both of these shorter books early in the year, but for some reason didn't finish either of them until last month. Let's get to it!

Home. Girl. Hood. by Ebony Stewart

I know I've mentioned this before, but I've been a fan of Ebony Stewart ever since I witnessed her perform at the MSU Union back when I was a college student. Ebony is a spoken word poet and former sex ed teacher (she's a full-time artist now!). I bought her previous book of poetry Love Letters to Balled Fists  three years ago, and when I found out she'd be releasing a new book this year and that the painting of the fly girl rocking faux locs and a drink in her hand would be a limited edition cover, I didn't even have to think about ordering my copy right away.

Much like Love Letters to Balled Fists, Home. Girl. Hood. features poems about love and heartbreak, which are familiar themes in Ebony's work. But it also addresses Ebony's southern roots, the women and ancestors who made her who she is, the marvels and trials of being a Black woman (or "womyn"/"womxn") in America, Ebony's autonomy as a sexual being, bucking prescribed norms and expectations, and the duality of women's bodies being both sacred entities and sites of trauma. There's also some commentary about how white people appropriate our ish while also contrasting themselves from us in order to define themselves as "white", and how even the natural hair movement hasn't escaped being influenced by aspirations toward whiteness/lightness.

My favorites this time around include: "Hairitage", where hair-braiding is a form of communication, with mothers and grandmothers transferring information to us black girls with their hands. "How to Properly Flirt with Someone You're Attracted to and Want to Be Your Boo", which includes some strikingly brilliant, silly, and even gross declarations of love. "Happy Father's Day: the child gets it wrong", where Ebony expresses all the bitter hurt and biting sarcasm toward her inactive father that I wish I had the audacity to express toward mine. "Perhaps we should go back" which lists all the things we'd be taking with us (and the pitifully little that would be left behind) if all Black people in America decided to return to Africa. And "I Love Mondays", which cleverly explores people's hate for Mondays and then connects that to how it feels to be an outcast, underappreciated person in this world.

If you love your mom, care about what Black women have to say, and support women artists who are multifaceted and aren't ashamed of where they come from, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"weaving... mistakes, to
remind me that there will always be a hair out of place and there
will never be enough time to fix it, so tread lightly, braid carefully.

[...] She says, when your
hair's a mess they think your life is too. And I shouldn't give them the
satisfaction of knowing my business better than me." (from "Hairitage", p. 6) 

"Crumble under pressure, only slapbox those they know they can beat
by bringing a knife or a gun to a fight that only requires the use of hands.
Name a coward that didn't break the rules, make a fist, a bomb, a "law",
and hit a nigga hard enough for the ground to open up and fit a
whole body in. Or at the very least, didn't send the police mob
to our neighborhoods with maximum power and chains.

[...] white men never intend to use just their hands." (from "Slapboxing: not just another hood game", p. 50)

"I don't even wanna be brave.
I just don't wanna be afraid to be myself.
But fear is the part of me I know the most."  (from "Fear", p. 58)

A Greater Music by Bae Suah
(Translated by Deborah Smith)

I heard about this book from Julia Megumi, a writer and academic who's my favorite book blogger on Instagram, recommending mostly Japanese, Korean, and Asian-American literature. I can't remember why I decided to order this novel other than because of its unique combination of character, setting, and subject matter (young Korean woman living in Germany, musing about music). Ordered my copy from ThriftBooks and what arrived was an advanced review copy from 2016 with perfumed pages. I was delighted!

A Greater Music is narrated by at aforementioned Korean woman, who is also a writer. Her name is never given. Within the first 15 pages we learn of an incident where she was walking her friend's dog and somehow slipped and fell into a frozen pond. We know that she survives (the book is framed as a sort of memoir, written by the narrator after she has already returned to South Korea), but never find out how. Anyway, this passage is significant because as she thinks she's dying, we're introduced to the narrator's way of thinking about death, denial, humiliation, and her German-tutor-turned-lover, M. Through the narrator's voice, Bae Suah writes that time and memories are not linear, so it makes sense that the events of the book aren't relayed in a linear fashion. The retelling of a past event is interrupted by the recollection of an event that took place even further in the past, before returning to where the initial retelling left off. A memory triggers other memories, which invoke ideas and sensations, which transition to other seemingly (but only seemingly) unrelated memories. And so on. But I'll do my best to recap the bare bones of  the novel's chronology.

The narrator originally comes to Berlin to study, and during that time she becomes friends with a fellow university student named Joachim. Joachim introduces her to M, a sickly but independent woman who serves as her German teacher for a time before they become romantically involved. M is also the one who helps the narrator learn about and appreciate classical music. For some reason (not going to spoil it for you), the narrator and M lose contact and the narrator has to return to South Korea once her visa's expired. She then returns three years later during the Christmas holiday and stays with Joachim during that time, reading, wandering around Berlin, walking Joachim's dog, and thinking and dreaming a lot about M but not making an effort to get back in contact with her. Essentially, being severed from M has been such a devastating loss that the narrator isn't able to think about anything the same way again, or approach anything akin to a stable sense of happiness. (I promise it's not as depressing as I'm making it sound!)

If you don't like listening to people discuss music history, literature, love, or human behavior just for discussion's sake, then this book might seem dry. Aside from the minimal plot and the narrator's feelings about M, much of the book is just the narrator thinking really deeply and abstractly about those other topics. Luckily that sort of thing is right up my alley, so such passages read more like the book was meandering with a purpose. If you're seeking closure for a certain relationship, are interested in reading about Korean expats, enjoy classical music, or are just in the mood to read something set in Germany, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Music transcends its so-called 'creator,' rising above whatever motivation—whether individual fame, avarice, or even pure egoism—lay behind its so-called 'creation.' Music is itself that spirit of artistic creation that can't be compassed by the human, which simply chooses the body of an individual as its temporary vessel... dedicating their 'own' music to a given individual would be beyond the power of the composer" (102-103).

"M wasn't someone whose entire being could be summed up in a snappy slogan or TV debate. Rather, she was like a book without any pictures. In other words, the kind of person who, unless you brought your whole soul to bear in reading them, would remain forever unknowable" (116).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Affirmation and Gratitude (10/20)

One of my goals for the month of October has been to leave the house for non-routine or non-errand-related reasons at least once per week. This week, that reason was an affirmation circle for black women, put on by an organization called Dear Black Women. It took place yesterday, at one woman's home in Detroit. Each participant was encouraged to write a letter of affirmation to herself and submit it to DBW beforehand, and then we spent most of the circle reading the letters out loud together. The letters are allowed to be anonymous, but I included my name in mine since what I wrote about was so specific to me. Here's my letter, which I wrote a week ago. I hope that someone can draw some reassurance from it.

Saturday, October 13th, 2018
Dear Danielle,
By the time you read this out loud again, it will be October 20th, which is your yearly personal day of gratitude. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that you found out a week ago that Dear Black Women’s affirmation circle would be taking place in Detroit on the very same day. Given this auspicious occasion, I, your week-ago self, would like to tell you all the reasons why I’m proud of you today.
I’m proud of you for leaving the house and coming to this event. You are very good at hiding, and it can be tempting to flake on opportunities like this, but I’m glad that you didn’t.
I’m proud of you for all the ways you tried to both challenge and stay true to yourself this year. Even if you didn’t realize that that’s what you were doing at the time.
You started traveling again (with the help of some very generous friends), to places you hadn’t envisioned yourself going to this time last year. And those travels taught you so many valuable lessons, namely: things can be easy (they don’t always have to be hard); it’s okay for you to rely on and collaborate with people more; everything doesn’t have to be an achievement or accomplishment (you’re allowed to do things simply because you want to); and peace of mind is immeasurably more precious than you think.
You finally performed again.
You started a new project, which would’ve seemed absurd and impossible to you just six months ago. You not only started it, but you’ve been so consistent with it! And sure, it’s been teaching you a lot of new skills, but you’ve also developed a practice of communicating with people more in a less guarded way, lifting people up, and expressing more gratitude. How cool is that?
And on top of all that, you made a really big, really difficult decision this year which you’d been agonizing over for a really long time. It’s ushered more uncertainty but also more hope into your life, and I know how much you needed to be able to wake up in the morning and feel hopeful again. I know how terrified you were to make that decision, but you made it, and that’s probably what I’m proudest of you for.
It’s not over for you. Nothing has been wasted. Think of all the things and people that re-entered your life this year that you didn’t even think to ask for, and yet you received them anyway. You’re going to keep growing, exploring, and letting passion and curiosity guide you closer to more of the things and people that you love.
There are probably some things that I’m forgetting; you know how you are reluctant to give yourself props. And I cried a lot while writing this letter, so I really hope you did make it to the affirmation circle so that you can share this with yourself and the sisters there. But anyway, I just want to end this by saying you are loved, you are a good person, you are doing your best, and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else but you right now.

Friday, October 5, 2018

BOOKS! (An American Marriage + Masks)

When I was in California back in August, 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 in Palo Alto, and only one book 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 still in the Bay I decided to forego an extra day exploring in San Francisco just so I could sit at a cafe in Palo Alto 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 and the ripple effects that are created when a marriage is ruptured by the harvesting of yet another black body by the state. A mix of love lives, 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 from Japanese 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, which enfold all four of them in something that will never be forgotten.

There's the obvious metaphor of masks, which represents how women often hide 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 consequently 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 bring attention to common stereotypes and ideals of women which 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 directly 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).