Friday, July 3, 2020

BOOKS! (Well-Read Black Girl + The Perfect Nanny)

Here I am! I had a hard time reading consistently in May, and I was on a self-help (or "personal growth" as B&N would call it) kick all that month, so what I did manage to read was too personal for me to write about here. Then in June, I was able to get back into my reading groove but not my writing groove. (Was also focused on putting together my podcast's 2nd anniversary episode, by the way.) I managed to finish the second of today's selections on June 30th, but it just didn't feel necessary to push myself to churn out my monthly review that same day. Figured it could wait. So yes, I missed May and June, but I am back now. Hopefully July will be a more inspired and creatively-productive month, and I'm giving myself an early start with today's picks: a collection of essays by Black women writers, and a novel about a Parisian nanny-turned-murderer.

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves by Glory Edim

I don't remember how I initially heard about the online book club/reading community known as Well-Read Black Girl, but I've been following them on Instagram for years. (In fact, thanks to them I discovered Black Girl in Paris, which is now one of my favorite books.) I also don't remember when I bought this anthology, or even why, besides the fact that I was already a fan and was looking forward to learning what readerly joys and discoveries I had in common with the writers featured in it. In essays and edited interviews, 22 Black women writers lift up their favorite authors as well as the books that first made them feel seen in literature, inspired them to write what needed to be written, or made them realize that becoming a writer was even possible in the first place.

All of the people featured are Black women, including some names I knewJesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Gabourey Sidibe, Nicole Dennis-Benn, N.K. Jemisin, Carla Bruce-Eddings, Jacqueline Woodson—and other names that I learned for the first time through reading this book. And with very few exceptions, all of the works mentioned throughout were written by Black woman too. As such, Well-Read Black Girl not only offers a collection of relatable and affirming stories, but also demonstrates a literary legacy between Black women writers of the past—those who are considered "the greats"and the contemporary ones who are writing and reading today.

My personal favorite WRBG essay is "Amazing Grace" by Carla Bruce-Eddings, because I too grew up reading the Amazing Grace picture book series. (I've also fielded corny "Are you amazing?" and "Do people call you amazing?" jokes my whole life because Grace is my last name.) Additionally, Carla describes introversion and imposter syndrome so accurately that I suspect that she and I might be the same person. Another fave of mine is Rénee Watson's "Space to Move Around In", which honors Lucille Clifton's poetry and all the fat Black girls out there. And I was so charmed by Kaitlyn Greenidge's sense of specificity and humor in "Books for a Black Girl's Soul", where she recommends ten reads to help Black women find themselves.

I cracked this book open merely expecting to enjoy the stories it contains and learn about books and authors that I hadn't previously heard of; I wasn't seeking to be validated in any way. But I couldn't help but come away from Well-Read Black Girl feeling deeply inspired. It honestly reaffirmed for me that I am a writer too; my calling is true and sacred just like that of all the women named in this anthology. If you care about what Black women have to say, want to read more literature written by Black women, want to know people's bookworm/writer origin stories, or are looking for book recommendations (lots and lots of them, as in multiple lists of them), then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Her canon is a master class in the art of living. And it is only through tackling and striding naked and unafraid into the territory, the geography of life and its awful realness and concreteness, that we build an imagination that can find life on a page and withstand the assault of indifference or misinterpretation. Dream a World. Imagine a Life. Be Here Now. That is what Zora mirrored for me to see in myself" (Marita Golden, "Zora and Me", 56-57).

"Reading for me was a vehicle for self-exploration when real life wasn't safe" (Dhonielle Clayton, "The Need for Kisses", 89).

"I asked her how she prepares herself to go out into the world. She told me that it's not that she has to prepare herself for the world; it's that the world interrupts her" (Morgan Jerkins, "To Be a Citizen", 124).

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
(Translated from French by Sam Taylor)

I'm pretty sure I heard about this 2016 Prix Goncourt-winning novel thanks to a bookstagram account I follow called @blackgirlthatreads. The book's title and what I could surmise of the plot are usually not my cup of tea (thrillers and child-rearing, I'll pass). But once I found out that this novel not only examines the power dynamics between nannies and their employers, but it's also set in Paris, and is a translation of a French novel (originally Chanson douce, or Lullaby in the U.K.)? Oh, then I was all in! When I was a student in Paris I actually spotted nannies or "nounous" (mostly Black or Brown) caring for their employers' children (mostly white) on a regular basis, and this coupled with learning that Leila Slimani is a French person of Moroccan origin made me incredibly interested to see what she had to say about this topic. I was lucky enough to find a copy of The Perfect Nanny while randomly browsing at a book warehouse in Kentucky last holiday season (the same place where I found Rue McClanahan's memoir), and six months later I've finally read it.

The titular nanny is a 40-something woman named Louise who works for the Massé family: a lawyer named Myriam, a music producer named Paul, a nearly-uncontrollable young child named Mila, and a baby named Adam. The couple seeks a nanny at Myriam's insistence after she foregoes the stay-at-home mom life to restart her law career, and Louise quickly becomes an integral part of the Massés life. Initially, Louise brings the peace, order, and joy that seemed to be missing in this household. She's excellent at her job and has an elegant air about her, but she's also myserious: she keeps most of her private life and thoughts to herself, while Paul and Myriam almost never inquire about the person she is outside of being their nanny (and their unpaid cleaning lady, if we're being honest). Small incidents, misunderstandings, and miscommunication build up overtime to cause the adults' working relationship to devolve into distrust and passive aggression. Within less than a year and a half of being hired, Louise kills Mila and Adam. (This is not a spoiler; the book opens with the discovery of the childrens' bodies and Louise's suicide attempt before going back to before Louise was hired.) What's Louise's story, why does her rapport with Myriam and Paul sour, and why does she murder the children whom she was devoted to caring for?

Prior to the tragic event, Louise briefly fantasizes about leaving the Massés. But once she senses that they will likely fire her, she desperately wants to stay. It was never clear to me what is so special about the Massés that Louise becomes so obsessively attached to staying with them. Perhaps it isn't so much this particular family but rather the timing. The idea of growing old and alone is weighing on Louise more than ever after a lifetime of loss, and the mountain of debt she inherited from a loved one has caught up to her. The Massés just so happen to be the family she's involved with during this period where she's desperate to feel needed but also wants to claim something of her own. Losing her place within their household would mean losing both her livelihood and the caregiver role that she's based her existence on. So even though the Massés are just another family, for Louise losing them would be the start of her losing everything.

I must admit that I assumed Louise was Brown and/or an immigrant until very late in the novel. There is mention of her being blonde and pale, and she's even referred to as "white" a couple times, but I guess I just didn't want to believe it. As I mentioned, I'm used to thinking of nannies (especially in Paris) as being mostly Black or Brown women serving white families, because my mind can never divorce that awful colonial precedent from it. And the way Louise is disrespected and taken advantage of by others is so consistent with how Black, Brown, and foreign "help" are treated by white and/or wealthy people that I must have conflated Louise's profession and mistreatment with what her race might be, not fathoming that Louise would be white. (Or maybe "white" is a descriptor of Louise's appearance and not necessarily her ethnicity, I don't know.)  Race is definitely brought up, though, as non-white nannies of varying backgrounds are mentioned along with the discrimination that's levied against them before they even get hired (if they can get hired). It's also implied that Myriam has some unaddressed self-hatred as a North African woman who doesn't speak Arabic with her children, is wary of "immigrant solidarity", and refuses to hire a North African nanny for fear that they will expect favors from her.

The Perfect Nanny is one of those books that leaves some questions unanswered on purpose, including the details of exactly why and how Louise kills Mila and Adam. At the same time, the novel doesn't let us off with the simple explanation that she "just snapped" or was simply crazy or evil. We are given the aftermath first, then shown the signs, and then left to contend with the intentional gaps in between. If you are interested in French feminist literature, intersections of race/gender/class within domestic roles, discussions of motherhood that aren't flowery and rose-colored, or murder investigations, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"We will, all of us, only be happy, she thinks, when we don't need one another anymore. When we can live a life of our own, a life that belongs to us, that has nothing to do with anyone else. When we are free" (38).

"She walked in the street as if it were a cinema set and she were not there, an invisible spectator to the movements of mankind... Solitude was like a drug that she wasn't sure she wanted to do without. Louise wandered through the streets in a daze, eyes so wide open that they hurt. In her solitude, she started to see other people. To really see them. The existence of others became palpable, vibrant, more real than ever" (98).

"She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there, to dig herself a niche, a burrow, a warm hiding place. Sometimes she feels ready to claim her portion of earth and then the urge wanes, she is overcome by sorrow, and she feels ashamed even to have believed in something" (189).

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