Thursday, April 23, 2020

BOOKS! (The Shadow King + Bone Black)

Apparently today is World Book Day, part two: the UK, Ireland, and various folks on the Internet celebrated it on March 5th this year, but the day promoted by UNESCO worldwide is April 23rd. So what better day to put out a new book review? Two reviews on here in one month, wow. Can't remember the last time I've been able to do that (and without even planning to do so)! Like my last review, this time I'm once again doing something a little different. First up is a novel I bought in order to write a guest review for a different website, and then I have a memoir that I bought from my local library. Both of today's selections were written by Black women.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

A little while ago, I was selected to write a guest review for an online reading community and book club for people of color called Livre Cafe! And of the available options that Domonique (LC's curator) was seeking reviews for at the time, I chose The Shadow King. It's an unflinching and informative novel about Ethiopian women who fight to resist Italian colonizers in 1935. The questions that Domonique sent me for the review didn't ask about quotes, so I'll include my favorite quotes from this novel below like I always do. But to read more of what this book is about and what I thought of it, check out my guest review on the Livre Cafe website and Instagram page.

Favorite quotes:
"Not many are born when they should be. How I hope this time is meant for you" (76).

"And why wouldn't some of us read, Carlo? Why not? You can find an Ethiope in the earliest books. We are older than this Roman culture you're so proud of. We existed before you, when you were all just peasants, not even a people" (331). 

"Her heart twists in her chest as she realizes that she is watching an old version of herself, that girl who was a keeper of things she should not have claimed as her own. He is doing as she once did, in the naïve belief that what is buried stays that way, that what is hidden will stay unseen, that what is yours will remain always in your possession. He is being foolish" (375-376).

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

Back in early February when we could still go out and sit in public places for extended periods of time, I went to my local library to edit an episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad. The library has a small room full of used books that people can buy for super cheap, and when I stopped by this room on my way out, the red and black cover of this bell hooks memoir caught my eye. So far in 2020 I've been committing to buying fewer books so I can focus on reading the ones I already have, and at the time I hadn't bought a single new book. Since I'd remained disciplined up to that point, and because I hadn't read anything by bell hooks before, I decided to fork over the requested 50¢ for Bone Black as a Black History Month present to myself.

In the memoir's foreword, hooks mentions being inspired by the way that Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye examines various nuances of Black girlhood. hooks is also motivated by her own desire to add to the narrative by writing about her own girlhood, insisting that, "Not enough is known about the experience of black girls in our society" (xii). This memoir was published in 1996, and while much more literature and media are available on the subject now in 2020, there are still so many Black girl stories that need to be told and valued. In Bone Black, bell hooks takes the opportunity to tell hers in both first-person and third-person.

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s in a southern Kentucky town as one of seven kids, bell hooks is a book-loving, observant, and strong-willed child who is often misunderstood within her family. Because of this, she recounts frequent moments of profound sadness and loneliness as she searches for escape, for belonging, for answers. As with many stories that focus on childhood and adolescence, what Bone Black relays to readers is a gradual loss or comprise of innocence. And because it's bell hooks, added to that are her early encounters with racism, colorism, segregation, church hypocrisy, homophobia, classism, and gender-based discrimination and violence. In fact, much of the book focuses on gender dynamics and expectations that are impressed upon her via her own family or events that she witnesses in her local community.

Of course, it's not all pain and frustration. Even amidst parental dysfunction, young bell hooks loves her family. She loves the color black in every form it appears (skin tones, clothing, paintings, and so on). She gets along swimmingly with old people, and she lovingly remembers specific elders who influence her life and show her kindness. She finds refuge in reading books, and discovering poetry is particularly instrumental to her process of carving out her identity and purpose. And even with all the ills she examines, the appreciation that hooks has for the land, for the seemingly small things, and for Southern rural lifeespecially under the influence of two of her grandparentsis undeniable. If you're interested in bell hooks' work, want to read a Black girlhood story, are interested in Black Southern life, are a feminist, or just want a fairly quick read for yet another day of staying indoors, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Friday is the day to drink. It is the day when working people begin to try and give themselves back the pleasure that the job has taken away. We do not like the beginning of these days when people begin to change, become something else so as to reassure themselves that the white folk have not taken away all their powers to create. We do not like the way they change because the tenderness, the smiles, the laughter are all fleeting, will fade. We watch the grown-ups begin in laughter and end in tears" (68).

"There is much to celebrate about being old. I want to be old as soon as possible for I see the way the old ones live—free. They are free to be different—unique—distinct from one another. None of them are alike... My grandfather tells me that all he ever wanted was for the world to leave him be, that it won't let you be when you are a young man" (88).

"She did not want the mother to know that it was precisely her marriage that made it seem like a trap, a door closing in a room without air. She could not tell her mother how she became a different person as soon as the husband left the house in the morning... everything that she was not when he was around. When he was around she became silent" (98).

"For the first time in my life I hear someone say that there is nothing wrong with feeling alone, that he, too, has been at the edge, has felt the fear of drowning, of being moved toward death without consciously contemplating suicide... he tells me that the young woman standing on the cliff, alone and afraid to live, is only suspended in a moment of hesitation, that she will overcome her fear and leap into life" (177).

Sunday, April 5, 2020

BOOKS! (Seeing Life Through a Different Lens)

I usually write about books in pairs because it helps me review more books in less time, but today's review is a little different. For the first time, I'm reviewing a book at its author's request! And the author is none other than Zaakirah Muhammad, one of my recent guests on Young, Gifted and Abroad. This isn't the first time that I've reviewed a book written by one of my podcast guests, but it is the first time that I've been directly asked to do so. After I interviewed Zaakirah in February, she found out that I write book reviews and asked me to review her memoir. I am not being paid to write this review, but I do want to acknowledge that Zaakirah graciously sent me a physical copy of her book on her own dime. All opinions expressed in this review will be genuine and honest as always. Let's get to it, shall we?

Seeing Life Through a Different Lens: A Survivor's Memoir on Overcoming Adversity with Resilience by Zaakirah N. Muhammad

Published in December 2019, this memoir traces Zaakirah's story from when her mom was pregnant with her to the present. From partway through her high school years and onward, all of the writing is Zaakirah's alone. But most of the book before that point also includes sections written by her mom Khai'dah, which I think is an excellent choice. In fact, this book has me wondering why more people don't co-write memoirs with their parents!

As an infant, Zaakirah had a form of cancer called retinoblastoma. The cancer was detected and treated early thanks to her mom's vigilance, but pretty soon afterward Zaakirah's parents had to learn how to raise and shape a life for a child with disabilities. (Zaakirah's right eye was surgically removed as a baby and she later developed partial hearing loss, so much of the book focuses on her experience growing up as a deaf-blind person.) Between Florida and Tennessee, Zaakirah spent many years of her life seeing multiple specialists, having various vision and hearing tests done, and getting fitted and re-fitted for a prosthetic eye. And though Zaakirah contributes what she remembers from those times, her mom's perspective is invaluable in helping the reader understand the decisions that were made and how much Zaakirah's parents endeavored to support and protect her. And so, instead of having to craft a narrative about her infancy and childhood by herself, she includes excerpts from "Sun Daughter", a blog that her mom Khai'dah wrote to encourage other parents and families affected by retinoblastoma.

When I interviewed Zaakirah for my podcast, she was very open about her experiences, so much of what I read in her memoir was familiar to me already. However, there was plenty that I didn't know. For instance, I didn't know that Zaakirah was born in the same month and year as me. I didn't know that she often became physically exhausted from trying to understand what people around her were saying on a daily basis (and that this is a common struggle for hearing-impaired people). I didn't know that Zaakirah loves music as much as she does. I knew she opted not to get a bachelor's degree, but I didn't know that she went to art school in D.C. to get a certification in photography instead (the first of a number of certifications she would earn in her adult life). I knew that she started traveling internationally fairly early in her young adulthood, and that she married her Gambian husband not long after being introduced by mutual friends online and then meeting him in person in The Gambia. What I didn't know was that "not long" was actually a matter of monthsa whirlwind, indeed! And obviously starting a business and being a freelancer aren't a cake walk for most people, but I didn't know how much Zaakirah struggled to find stability as a working photographer and media strategist. At multiple points in her life she's had to be precise about the kind of person she wants to be and the type of work she wants to do, and she's overcome numerous obstacles in order to do so.

While Seeing Life Through a Different Lens could use some extra lovin' by way of editing, my only major criticism is that this book could stand to be longer. There are a number of aspects that Zaakirah mentions but doesn't dwell on too long before moving on to something else, and I would've loved to learn more about some of those things. Like more of the particularities of being a Black Muslim girl who's continued with the faith in adulthood. Or more about her adult friendships and relationships. Or more about what the photography industry is like, what it's like being a blind photographer, and how her peers and clients interact with her. Obviously Zaakirah's still quite young, so much of her life is still unwritten (cue Natasha Bedingfield), and perhaps there are some details she wanted to leave out in the interest of privacy. But those are the things that I'm still curious about. If you want to learn more about people who live with disabilities, if you're a professional or aspiring artist of any sort, if you've ever been through hardship, if you want an example of what supportive parenting looks like, or if you just want to read about a Black woman living life the way she wants to live it, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I allowed the camera to be my voice. By sharing my story, I allowed others to see life and humanity though my monocular vision. It is truly a blessing to be able to see the beauty that is surrounding us" (22). 

"That was my life lesson from my mom- to always do something outside of the norm because the right people will accept it. That advice from her only made me a stronger person, student, and later entrepreneur" (77).

 "Maybe you just started on that journey, maybe you're still on it, and there's a deep feeling of loneliness as you fight through your situation quietly in hopes that nobody knows just how real life has gotten for you. Trust and believe you are not alone" (108).