Wednesday, March 31, 2021

BOOKS! (Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 + That Hair)

I made my first book purchases of 2021 earlier this month (stepped foot inside a B&N and everything), and fittingly, those purchases are the focus of this review! In addition to being two of the first three new books I bought this year, today's selections were both translated into English from other languages and published in 2020, and they're also books which I wasn't altogether blown away by but still appreciate for existing. First up is an international bestselling novel about a South Korean woman's debilitating lifelong experiences with sexism and misogyny. Then, a winding novel about an Angolan-Portuguese woman in Lisbon grappling with her curly hair and family history. And coincidentally, both of the protagonists of these novels were born in the year 1982!
 
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo
(Translated from Korean by Jamie Chang)

I can't remember exactly how I found out about this novel. No doubt I noticed the online hype and praise surrounding its release in the States last year, and I know for sure that my friend Irene read it and we briefly chatted about that fact. But I usually like to pin down exactly how or where I initially hear about the books I read so I can remember why I've chosen to read them, and in the case of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, for some reason I simply do not remember. At the very least, this novel was high enough on the to-buy-eventually book list on my phone that when I spotted it while scanning the B&N shelves, I recognized the title right away and grabbed a copy. 

The book opens in 2015 ("Autumn 2015"), when the titular Kim Jiyoung, a 33-year-old marketing professional turned stay-at-home mom in Seoul, starts acting in a way that makes her husband Daehyun fear there's something seriously wrong with her. Jiyoung begins talking to her husband as if she's other peoplewomen like her mom and her deceased college friendtaking on their speech patterns and mannerisms in a way that goes beyond mere impersonation. Daehyun shrugs it off at first, but when Jiyoung's new behavior embarrasses him in front of his family during Chuseok festivities (in American terms, he basically blames her for ruining Thanksgiving dinner), he arranges for Jiyoung to see a psychiatrist. The next four chapters recap Jiyoung's life and the inescapable multitude of ways in which she's observed (or experienced outright) how boys and men are prioritized over girls and women throughout each stage of her development. From her mom's sacrifices to Jiyoung being a middle child and an elementary school student ("Childhood, 1982-1994"), to Jiyoung's middle and high school years ("Adolescence, 1995-2000"),  to her college years and the first and only job she ever has ("Early Adulthood 2001-2011"), to becoming a wife and quitting her job to be a mother ("Marriage, 2012-2015"). After laying out Jiyoung's life story, the novel ends with a sixth and final chapter that's set during the year after Jiyoung begins therapy ("2016"). 
 
Jiyoung's early adulthood is what has resonated with me the most, probably because me being in my 20s makes that chapter the most immediately-relatable of her life phases. But it's also because of how disgusted I was by the rampant sexual harassment and workplace discrimination that Jiyoung and countless working women like her are expected to withstand (or even accommodate), just for the sake of being considered worthy of employment. And that's IF they can even get hired in the first place. Jiyoung's one of the lucky ones who gets a job straight out of college, and has a female boss who's gone out of her way to improve working conditions for women at that particular company, but Jiyoung still ends up dealing with pervy clients and watching her less-qualified male colleagues get a promotion that she deserves. The painful twenty-something disillusionment that overtakes her is something I know all too intimately. Later on after leaving the job to give birth and raise her daughter, Jiyoung hears from a former colleague about an incident involving spy cams that traumatizes all of the female staff, and reading about that made me want to break things.

Jiyoung is done dirty in numerous instances, but the way she's persuaded (weaseled, suckered, brow-beaten, worn down, take your pick) into giving up her career to have a baby really boils my blood. Before having their daughter, she and Daehyun have a serious conversation about whether they want kids or not and it's very clear that Jiyoung has more misgivings about it than anything; motherhood is an idea that's being thrust upon her, not a role that she actively wants at that point in time. And that discussion goes unresolved, but then she's pregnant in the next scene! It's as if the objections she raises during that prior conversation and whatever anticipatory guilt, anxiety, and stress Jiyoung feels about everything she may lose by becoming a mom... none of that matters anyway. None of it was ever going to make a difference. Daehyun's family wants her pregnant, Daehyun himself wants her pregnant (although to his credit, he's just a hair less overzealous and pushy about it than his family is), and so pregnant she becomes. But then being a mom brings her public derision that she's unprepared to handle.
 
Something that kept bothering me is that we never learn why Jiyoung is with Daehyun. At least with her previous two boyfriends before him, we know about the dates they go on and other romantic aspects of Jiyoung's relationships with them, as well as what about each boyfriend makes Jiyoung fancy them. But all we know about her and Daehyun is that they met at her now-deceased friend's wedding reception. We get very scant details of their relationship prior to engagement and marriage. No dates, no romance, no proposal, none of Daehyun's redeeming qualities. He's her husband at the beginning of the novel, and he's already her fiancé when he appears in the "Marriage, 2012-2015" chapter, and that's all there is to it. Which kept making me wonder: Jiyoung, why are you with this man? Something else I'm realizing just now as I write this review, is that sex is not discussed in the novel. There's mention of the pressure to have children, how much periods suck, the trials of pregnancy, sexual harassment/assault, and even an abortion that one of Jiyoung's relatives has, but the act of sexual intercourse and how Jiyoung feels about it aren't discussed at all.
 
When I read in the beginning about Jiyoung's behavior suddenly changing and her husband being perplexed about why it's happening and what to do about it, I immediately thought of Han Kang's The Vegetarian. (A Korean novel in which, rather than pretending to be other people like Jiyoung does, the female protagonist refuses to eat meat and then eventually stops eating altogether.) I wondered if Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 would go in a similar direction as The Vegetarian, revealing Jiyoung's current behavior to be the result of the mental trauma caused not solely by one specific incident, but by a lifetime of being undermined and disregarded in a sexist society. I found no delight and only sorrow in realizing that I was correct. 
 
Then I arrived at the last chapter ("2016"), where's it's revealed that the entire book is actually a collection of therapy notes! The contents are all observations about Jiyoung that her male psychiatrist has recorded based on what Jiyoung and her husband have told him in their sessions. So it's not that the book is oddly written (as I began to suspect due to its tone), but that the narration takes on the somewhat formal style of the psychiatrist, digging deep into his vulnerable patient's personal life and memories while remaining respectfully detached from the patient herself (a detachment that's compounded by his lack of experience living as a Korean woman). Maybe it was obvious to other readers that the book is written from the psychiatrist's perspective, but I was genuinely surprised. It felt like a huge reveal to me. And at first I thought the psychiatrist would be one of the good ones, so to speak; he's a man who gets it, or at least is closer to empathizing with the plight of women than most other Korean men seem to be. I hoped that Jiyoung would be in good hands. But then those last two paragraphs of the novel showed up like a punch in the gut, like salt rubbed into the wound of righteous indignance (dare I say rage?) that this book opened up in me. I won't spoil what exactly he does or says to reveal his true character, but I'll just say that if this is the best Jiyoung has access to as far as mental health support is concerned... she might not ever get truly well.

Now. Given the intense wave of simultaneous praise and outrage that pushed Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 into international bestseller status after its initial 2016 publication in South Korea, I buckled myself in to read some quality man-thrashing! The back cover declares that this is "the global sensation that ignited South Korea's new feminist movement", and I heard that plenty of men were upset about its popularity, so surely there would be some man-thrashing involved? Right? Not exactly. The book does pay careful attention to the daily horrors of living as a girl or woman in a way that frequently made me feel afraid, angry, and disheartened for Jiyoung. But overall, it's fairly tame in the man-thrashing department. Cho Nam-joo matter-of-factly portrays the average Korean woman's experience as she knows it, and if anything she tempers the egregiousness of those daily horrors by using a male narrator to convey them. So I definitely get why the book has been such a huge hit, but I don't get why men have been so offended by it. Maybe it was the timing of the publication, and maybe I'm missing something because I'm not Korean and don't read Korean. In any case, this is certainly a read that I would recommend! If you're interested in understanding Korean women's hopes and disappointments along with the countless nuances of Korean mothers' sacrifices, but you don't necessarily want something that will make you collapse in a puddle on the floor like Please Look After Mom and If You Leave Me almost did to me (which also came to mind as I read this), then read this book!
 
Favorite quotes:
"Besides, I don't know if I'm going to get married, or if I'm going to have children. Or maybe I'll die before I get to do any of that. Why do I have to deny myself something I want right now to prepare for a future that may or may not come?" (60).
 
"Disappointment collected between them like dust on top of the refrigerator or medicine cabinetspots clearly visible but neglected... Onto the feelings left unsaid for so long that they were desiccated and crackling, a tiny spark of a flame fell and instantly reduced the most shining romance of youth to ashes" (107-8). 

"The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts, and customs had not, which meant the world hadn't actually changed at all" (119).

"Help out? What is it with you and 'helping out'? You're going to 'help out' with chores. 'Help out' with raising our baby. 'Help out' with finding me a new job. Isn't this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don't you spend my pay, too? Why do you keep saying 'help out' like you're volunteering to pitch in on someone else's work?" (131).

That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida
(translated from Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker)
 
Same with Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, I have no recollection of how or when I first heard about this book. I just know that I decided to buy it at some point—probably because I wanted to learn about Angola and Portugal from the perspective of the Black woman who wrote it, plus the only other novel I've read about Portugal is Alentejo Blue—and it was on my book list for many months. Fun fact: This is the first book I've ever read or reviewed whose translator I've actually met! When I was in the running for an editorial fellowship with an international literary magazine last year, Eric M. B. Becker was one of the people who interviewed me. That interaction had absolutely no influence on my desire to read this novel, since I knew about That Hair before I knew that Becker existed, but it's a funny little coincidence that I was looking forward to sharing in this review.

Situated on the west coast of south-central Africa, what's known today as Angola was colonized by Portugal for 400 years until independence in 1975, and the impact of colonization is embedded in main character Mila's family history and physical features. Her most visible and commented-on feature being her naturally curly hair, which sticks out and up rather than flowing downward. She's a biracial woman with an Angolan (Black) mom and a Portuguese (white) dad, who was born in Luanda (the capital of Angola) and then raised in Lisbon (the capital of Portugal) from the age of three. Colonial relations are what makes it conceivable that both of her parents are "from" Africa: her dad was born in Mozambique when it was still a Portuguese colony, was raised by Portuguese parents who considered Africa to be their home, and he met Mila's mom after moving to Luanda as a young adult. Mila moves to Portugal with her dad in 1985, and by the mid-1990s most of her family on both sidesincluding her Angolan grandparents but not including her motherare living in or around Lisbon. Mila mostly grows up with her Portuguese relatives, though she has a tender fondness for both sides, especially all four of her grandparents. She sees her mom during summers when either she visits Angola or her mom visits her in Portugal. (No mention is made regarding the circumstances of her parents' divorce or her mom's decision to remain in Angola.) In this novel that's framed as Mila's attempt at autobiography, her yearning to know more about her Angolan roots and her desire to make sense of her hair journey feed into each other.

It's not that I wanted this to be exactly like, for example, 'Nappily Ever After' (of which I've only seen the Netflix movie adaptation and haven't read the book it's based on). But I suppose I was expecting That Hair to be its own version of that now-quintessential, heartfelt, even humorous story of a Black woman learning to embrace herself through her hair, albeit written in a more sophisticated way and in a Portuguese context. And while Mila does pepper in anecdotes about unsuccessful at-home and in-salon attempts to style her hair, the comments she fields from relatives and strangers alike, and how frustrations with her tresses affect her sense of self... this book doesn't actually center around Mila's hair. It's more about her family and how she memorializes the people in her life (including her ancestors and herself), with frequent mention of her hair as a guiding motif. Reading That Hair actually reminded me a lot of Michael Ondaatje's fictionalized memoir Running in the Family, which also features multiple generations of a mixed family connected to a formerly-colonized country of Brown people (Sri Lanka).
  
I'll just make it plain and say that I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. Something about the writing took me out of it. Though I do appreciate that Becker's translator's note at the beginning of the book provides a heads-up about this, explaining how Portuguese writing "is many times more permissive of and malleable to discursive detours, repeated pivots, and elliptical flights of lyrical fancy, all in the same phrase" (xiii). Knowing what to expect did make the book smoother to get through. And while I was impressed by much of the novel's poetic phrasing, I'd venture to say that That Hair probably wouldn't be a good choice for someone who gets lost when reading heavily-descriptive or winding sentences. It feels like something I would've been assigned to read in one of my James Madison College classes back at MSU, classes in which I still distinctly remember tackling community and identity-related questions like: What is a symbol, what is a sign, and what is the real? What is memory and what is forgetting? What is history, what isn't history but functions as history, and what's the difference? What does everything mean? If you enjoy reading philosophical, theoretical, or even slightly abstract thought processes like these, then you'll probably appreciate this book. Or maybe if you're someone who is fond of and has a solid grasp of comprehending poetry (even though the book is written in prose). But if none of that applies to you, the reflective passages that are interspersed with the more relatable quotidian snapshots within the book might read as slightly dry or confusing. 
 
Personally, past a certain point I felt like I was reading this book primarily because I'd assigned myself to read it. And as insightful as it is about the cultures and geopolitics between Angola and Portugal, I finished it mostly because I'd already committed to the idea of finishing it (and I had a review to write!), not necessarily because I was enthralled by it. In a nutshell, I really wanted to connect with That Hair on an emotional level, but I couldn't. And that's okay. I'm still glad that Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida has gotten some shine for writing it.

Favorite quotes:
"They were part of her, like an elastic band around her wrist meant to remind her of something she'd unwittingly thrown away before its time, forgetting what had brought her there in the first place" (29).
 
"She never got caught up in the mechanics of prayer, the way those who don't know how to pray do. Prayer was, above all, fertile terrain for improvisation, where she didn't trouble herself with vain questions of whether we have a duty to restrain ourselves when we ask something of God" (74).

"Visiting salons has been a way of visiting different countries and learning to distinguish the features and manners of each, giving new fuel to prejudices. Senegal is a pair of moisturized hands; Angola a certain casualness, a brutal grace; Zaire a disaster; Portugal a burn from a hair dryer, the flesh wound left by a brush. I remember Tina, from Guinea-Conakry, a girl who did my hair in Mercês and shared a similar distrust of the Portuguese; but I can color in this map with the angel from another day, Lena, the Angolan girl who saved me one afternoon" (114).

"What is found reconfigures what was sought... A person finds herself only by chance" (133).

Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOKS! (Luster + Memorial)

Black History Month is coming to a close, and it seemed to pass more quickly and with less exuberance than in recent years, but hey. We're here. And I'm ending this month by reviewing two debut novels, about twenty-somethings in personal and relationship crises, that were written by Black authors! Both of these novels were released during the second half of 2020, and they were both given to me by my mom as birthday/Christmas presents. I'd included them on my wish list because authors and bookstagrammers that I follow were raving about them throughout the year.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie is functional but struggling, and has been that way for a long time. She was raised by traumatized parents—her mom dealt with addiction for years, her dad was a war veteran with PTSD—both of whom attempted to find stability in a strict Caribbean religious community. And Edie has experienced trauma of her own: from growing up out of place in a mostly-white area in the 1990s/early 2000s, to body image issues exacerbated by comments from churchwomen, to discovering her mom's dead body and being neglected by her dad afterward. Now as an adult in New York City with no living parents, she's barely making ends meet with the lackluster position she has at a publishing house, she's living in a run-down building that she'll soon be priced out of despite how unlivable it is, she has no friends (except maybe her roommate?), she's tried staving off loneliness/boredom/horniness through not-so-secret liaisons with numerous co-workers and various men who don't care about her, and the only dream she can summon the will to entertain (being a professional working artist) seems relegated to the realm of fantasy. She can't get the art director at the publishing house to take her work seriously enough to let her join his department, and her commitment to practicing her craft has waned. Eventually Edie finds herself fired for her indiscretions at work, and without a home when her roommate moves out and she can't pay the full rent by herself. "Depressed" and "going through it" are understatements for all that Edie's dealing with.
 
That's where Eric Walker comes in, 23 years her senior. Eric is the white, relatively wealthy archivist with an open marriage whom Edie meets through a dating app while she's still working at the publishing house. They establish a rapport that Edie views as an emotional investment, and as much as she hates feeling ignored, her limited access to Eric's time and affection make her want him all the more. She and Eric have a (consensual?) sexually violent moment after she lets herself into Eric's house in New Jersey and unwittingly crashes his anniversary party, and Edie seems aroused by the pain/punishment, but it's unclear whether this is genuinely her kink or if she might also be using it as a form of self-harm. Following this incident, it's actually Eric's medical examiner wife Rebecca who moves Edie into their family home (without Eric's knowledge at first) when Edie has nowhere to go and is spread too thin by odd jobs. Edie stays with the Walkers for two months, and a tacit agreement develops during that time: Edie must look after their almost-13-year-old adopted Black daughter named Akila and basically teach her how to be Black, in exchange for staying in their guest room and earning some cash here and there. 
 
Now. I'd assumed that having sex with Eric was also on the table, because I don't know how one would expect the husband and the mistress not to copulate while allowing them to live under the same roof. But when Eric gets over being upset that Edie's in his house and the pair eventually re-initiate sexual relations, they hide it from Rebecca, and when Rebecca eventually finds them out, she's disappointed in them. (Especially in Edie, whom I guess Rebecca has come to think of as a friend in some way.) Which I truly did not understand. But I digress. Edie and Akila gradually bond over video games, and Edie's guidance proves to be desperately needed to fill the gaps in the kid's Black girlhood: Akila's parents haven't bothered to learn to do her hair, or surround her with other Black people, or advise her on how to deal with police and why such precautions are necessary. And everyone in the house just goes along with this living arrangement without directly addressing it; even Akila somehow knows that Edie is "the girlfriend"! Presumably, this absurd reluctance to discuss anything real is a function of the Walkers' whiteness that Raven Leilani wants to demonstrate. Most of the important things are implied or unacknowledged, confrontation is sparser than it should be, and Edie is largely left to deduce the dynamics of the household and what is expected of her.
 
In all honesty, I had a hard time dismissing the impulse to judge Edie for allowing herself to be, effectively, these white people's servant. I struggled to not see her that way. Cleaning their home, instructing their adopted daughter in the ways of Blackness in addition to driving her to taekwondo practice, sexually satisfying the (white) man of the house... I wanted more for Edie than that. And I had to question myself: Am I offended or even angry that Edie is so stuck on this average white man, whose only distinguishing features are his nerdiness and above-average resources, and who isn't as emotionally invested in her as she is in him? If so, why am I offended or angry? And is she not also satisfying herself in some ways? Furthermore, she's got no one, she's been suffering emotionally and financially for years, and she has a history of making unwise/bizarre decisions and forming unhealthy attachments with people (let her tell it, she never "means" for things to happen the way they do, they just happen). So on exactly what grounds am I expecting her to do anything different from what she's doing right now?

I was so focused on the more scandalous elements of the book (admittedly that's what drew me to it in the first place), until I realized that what's even more meaningful here is Edie's path back to her artistry. After she starts seeing Eric, she digs out her art supplies for the first time in two years and tries to paint a portrait of him. While living with the Walkers, she passes the time by taking pictures of various items around the house and then holing herself in her room to commit those same images to paint. At some point Rebecca discovers Edie's paintings and starts taking Edie to work with her so Edie can paint cadavers (improving her mastery of anatomy) while Rebecca performs autopsies. The book even ends with Edie doing what? Painting. That's what this story is inching us toward, not whatever dramatic fallout I was expecting for the messy and awkward open marriage/cohabitation scenario that Edie's entered. Because that scenario ends pretty much as one would expect it to. After Edie has encountered more loss along with more inspiration, the novel closes with her living on her own again and creating a new painting before unpacking her new place. She's prepared to start anew and finally embrace herself as an artist, even. Because with or without the validation she craves from others, painting is something she just can't not do.

If you are an artist and feel like you've lapsed or that your work isn't "good", are a fan of disco music, like peeking into messy relationships, have ever struggled to make ends meet in a big city, care about the trauma that Black women and girls face, or are intrigued by somewhat peculiar sex scenes, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:

"Eric's enthusiasm is infectious. After the first two rides, I am enjoying myself, and not just because dying means I won't have to pay my student loans" (9-10).

"During this time, I couldn't tell if I liked being alone, or if I only endured it because I knew I had no choice... This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man. I was pretending not to worry about the consequences of my isolation. But whenever I talked to anyone, I found myself overcompensating for the atrophy of my social muscles (44-45).

"I was sixteen. I could not have been a mother. The women in my family maybe should not have been mothers. This is not so much a judgment as a fact. They were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance" (195).

"but somehow, after being a woman for twenty-three years... I too am still alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat" (208).


Memorial  by Bryan Washington 

By the time Mike leaves Houston for Osaka to be with his dying father who abandoned him 15 years prior, giving his boyfriend Benson only a day's notice beforehand, these two lovers' relationship is already on the rocks. After four years together, Mike and Benson still love each other but love isn't enough to prevent them from fighting (with their words and their hands), or to mitigate the problems that they keep trying to solve through sex, silence, and willful forgetting. Add on the fact that Mike leaves with the full knowledge that his mother Mitsuko is flying in from Tokyo to visit him, and he doesn't tell her his plans until she arrives in Houston, and you've got a trio of people with a lion's share of unresolved issues between them. A Black American man is forced to be the unprepared host to a Japanese mom who's none too pleased to be in a stranger's care, while the Japanese American man who connects them has jetted off to the other side of the world. 

This novel is divided into three sections. First up is Benson's perspective on life in Houston, his job at a daycare, his difficult family history, and the twists and turns of his sexual history as a young gay man (including but not exclusive to Mike). The second part covers Mike's time in Osaka as he both cares for and argues incessantly with his disagreeable father Eiju, uncovers family secrets, and puts his chef skills to use by helping to run Eiju's small bar (the gruff warmth of that place gave me some very pleasant 'Shinya Shokudo' vibes). The third and final part is from Benson's perspective again, but has the couple reunited in Houston, attempting to figure out the future of their relationship and tying up loose ends with Mitsuko before she returns to Japan. After having read both Memorial and Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Last Friend—another novel that examines a relationship from the alternating perspectives of the two people in it—I'm very curious about the thought process behind how an author of such a novel chooses which perspective is presented first. I'd assume that Bryan Washington knew that having Benson go first would automatically afford him the benefit of the doubt regarding what he says about Mike and himself, especially since he's stating his case first, his voice familiarizes readers with what's going on, and he sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I think the book is arranged exactly as it needs to be, but I do wonder how the story would change if the order were switched.

It goes without saying that Benson and Mike's relationship is in trouble, and both men have their faults. I was so turned off by how inconsiderate Mike was to leave Benson and Mitsuko like that at the beginning of the novel, and then only communicate with them sparingly while he's away. Even toward the end when he and Benson discuss their options, he's one-track minded about moving to Osaka and doesn't believe Benson stands to lose as much as he does by leaving Houston for good. But at the same time, by going to Osaka when he does, Mike is able to accompany his dad during Eiju's final months in addition to learning the business sufficiently enough that Eiju can die reassured that someone he trusts can take over the bar when he's gone. If Mike hadn't been impulsive (one might even say selfish) enough to do that, even with all the distress and confusion it causes his boyfriend and his mom, he would've missed out on all those extra moments with Eiju and Eiju would've died alone. So to a certain extent, I get it. As for Benson, he definitely has anger issues and takes them out on Mike during their many arguments. But if I were a gay Black man in Texas, who was saddled with the responsibility of looking after my abusive alcoholic father while my mom and sister got to move on with their lives, and then my parents rejected me when I need them the most, and my first love was turning sour, and then my boyfriend left me alone with his mom for an undetermined amount of time while he flew across the world... I would be angry too. My point is that as imperfect as both Benson and Mike are, they have their reasons.

On a lighter note, Washington's sense of humor comes through so clearly, and this novel has so many delightful quirks! Like how Washington's intentional choice to truncate "white boy", "white chick", and "white lady" into "whiteboy", "whitechick", "whitelady" and so on emphasizes the particular type yet unremarkable quality of the white people he's referring to. Or how the often deadpan ("acerbic" as the book jacket describes her), suffer-no-fools Mitsuko cries her eyes out watching the rom-com Maid In Manhattan of all things. Or how Ahmad, the sole Black kid at the daycare who also seems to only listen to Benson, is an adorable little visionary who bucks rules and doesn't mince words. Or how the epigraph of this novel includes a quote from a Japanese reality show called 'Terrace House', said by a bassist named Masao Wada who's also in an incredibly famous band called Gesu no Kiwami Otome. (My point of connection to Masao Wada was the latter, but upon googling the quote I found an article of Washington's that makes very clear how much of a 'Terrace House' fan he is.) Relatedly, Washington writes about Japan and Japanese things like someone who's been there before and was paying thoughtful attention while he was there, which I appreciate. Also, fat people generally don't get to be fully-realized and complex romantic leads in enough forms of media, so I appreciate that Mike is very clearly noted as being fat or chubby. I wish he didn't have to feel as self-conscious about it as he is, but that's an understandable hang-up for a person to have in a fatphobic world. Last but not least, it's also worth mentioning that just like Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, all the dialogue is written without quotation marks; in fact, there are none to be found in the entire novel. I know this is a literary choice, but I don't know the "why" behind it. Perhaps it's a trend?

As I progressed through this book, I tried to figure out why it's titled Memorial. I was thinking maybe the entire story serves as a "memorial" to Benson and Mike's relationship, bracing readers for their eventual and inevitable breakup, but the book doesn't exactly end that way. So I'm not sure about that theory. There's also a street in Houston called Memorial that's mentioned in connection to the releasing of Eiju's ashes, so maybe that could be it? I'm aware that I could just look it up and see what Bryan Washington has actually said about the title, but I suppose I want to sit with my guesses for a little while longer. As for whether this book merits the hype it's been receiving, I'll say this: I have no experience with dating or romantic relationships. None. Literally zero. And even I was feeling emotionally raw by the time I finished reading Memorial. That's how heartfelt and affecting it is. I did my best to speed through it for the sake of writing a review by the end of this month, but it's definitely a read that people should let linger. Take your time with it. If you have any interest in Houston and/or Osaka, are amused by odd couple situations, have dysfunctional relationships with your parents, love food/cooking descriptions (especially of Japanese food), want to read a gay love story featuring Black and Asian characters, or have ever been unable (unwilling) to decide whether a relationship is worth saving or has run its course, then read this book!
   
 Favorite quotes:
"A story is an heirloom. It's a personal thing... You don't ask for heirlooms. They're just given to you" (93).
 
 "I didn't tell him not to give up so easily, because he'd already made his decision.
I didn't tell him that we didn't know he was going to die, because everyone dies.
I didn't ask him why he'd already given up, because I didn't need to know.
I didn't tell him that it was too little too late, that forgiveness isn't something you just hand out whenever you feel like it.
I said, Okay" (157).

"No one gets to choose what steadies them" (172).

"It's not a waste, is what I'm saying. There are no wastes. Either nothing is a waste, or everything is a waste. But you two could do worse than each other, than being in each other's lives. Do you understand?" (300).

Sunday, January 31, 2021

BOOKS! (The Last Friend + Girl, Woman, Other)

I'm finally back writing on this blog for the first time this year! The way I see it, the entire month of January is fair game for saying "Happy New Year" to people, and I'm taking advantage of this final day of January to say Happy New Year to y'all! For my first book review of the year, I've got the last book I finished in 2020 (a French novel about male friendship that I found at a book warehouse) and the first book I finished in 2021 (A Booker Prize-winning story collection about Black British women's experiences, which I chanced upon at Target).

The Last Friend  by Tahar Ben Jelloun
(Translated from French by Kevin Michel Capé and Hazel Rowley)
 
If you've been keeping track, you might know that throughout 2020 I was steadily reading my way through a handful of discounted books I bought in Kentucky during the 2019 holiday season (see My First Five Husbands, The Perfect Nanny, Confessions, Moving to Higher Ground, and The Hole). And fittingly, The Last Friend is the last of those selections. I finished it in December 2020, which means I was able to read all six books within a year of buying them. And that's progress for me! Some books I fly through in hours or days, and others take me months or even years to finish because I read them off and on while flitting around to other books at the same time. So finishing The Last Friend (
French title: Le dernier ami) feels like a mini milestone, an end of an era that was consequential to me and me only. It also feels like a full-circle moment, because Moroccan-French writer Tahar Ben Jelloun was the first author whose work I read in a college-level French class. Back when my dad and stepmom were still together and I was still in high school, I spent spring break 2010 with them in Arizona. My stepmom knew I wanted to study French in college, so she arranged for me to sit in on a French literature class at Arizona State. And in that class, we read passages from Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child (L'enfant de sable). Ten years later, I've been able to read another work of his, but in its entirety this time. And in English, haha.

Ali and Mamed are teenagers when they meet at school in late-1950s Tangier, during the Algerian War of Independence from France (which Morocco was also involved in). Ali is the new kid from Fez, Mamed defends him from bullies, and the two quickly become best friends. Over the next 30 years, from secret trysts with girlfriends and sex workers, to studying film in Canada (Ali) and medicine in France (Mamed), to returning to Morocco and reuniting in prison after being wrongfully arrested by the king's secret police, to growing apart when their wives question their friendship and Mamed relocates to Sweden for work, the two men remain extremely close. Arguments arise due to their penchant for intellectual debates, and Mamed can be particularly disagreeable sometimes, but they are able to weather each storm. Until one day when Mamed and his family are back visiting Tangier, and he suddenly picks a fight with Ali, claiming that Ali cheated him financially and has taken advantage of him for the entire time they've known each other. He then declares that their friendship is over. Blindsided and confused, Ali writes Mamed a letter to figure out where Mamed's claims are coming from and hopefully reconcile, but Mamed's response is basically (and I paraphrase): Pay up, and piss off! And just like that, Ali never sees or hears from Mamed again. What Ali doesn't know is that Mamed has a secret that's making him behave this way, and with the help of one of their mutual friends, he makes sure that Ali never finds out.

Half of this novel is written from Ali's perspective and the other half is written from Mamed's. I was inclined to believe Ali's side of the story more because his version of events is presented first, and because he seems to be the more considerate and level-headed of the two friends. As is to be expected when dealing with people's subjective memories, Ali and Mamed's recollections both intersect and diverge. Some details differ, accounts of who did or said what are switched, Mamed mentions some things or people that Ali has left out, and vice versa. (Although now I think that that's quite clever on Ben Jelloun's part. Why rehash all the same scenes when you could just modify a few details and then insert new ones to add context and perspective?) They even put differing emphasis on certain events; for instance, Mamed spends notably more time discussing their imprisonment than Ali does. Such discrepancies are designed to raise the question of whether either of these two men are reliable narrators. Who is telling the truth, or at least the most complete version of the story? Furthermore, even though the book is about their friendship and allows both men to say their piece, the novel still feels like it's mostly about Mamed. Ali spends more time empathizing him, explaining his personality/behavior, and recounting events in Mamed's life than Mamed does for Ali. And Mamed's the one who breaks off their friendship, which makes everyone close to them (as well as the reader) focus even more on what's going on with him and what could've possessed him to act so erratically. I won't spoil the exact reason for why Mamed breaks up with his best friend, but if you've watched Korean dramas and are familiar with the "noble idiot" trope, well then... there you have it.

There's a huge theme of jealousy here; you can't miss it since it's mentioned frequently in Mamed's half of the book, and he even admits to being an insecure person. But believe it or not, his motivation for ending the friendship is actually quite tender, thoughtful, and could even be seen as self-sacrificial (or self-indulgent, depending on if you as a reader have come to like Mamed or not). There's this paradox of destroying a friendship in an attempt to protect it, to preserve it the way it was. And to preserve Mamed's pride, sure. But who truly wants to make someone they love
their oldest and dearest companionwitness them suffer? Mamed believes that that would be too much, and decides for himself and Ali that throwing away 30 years of life together is the lesser evil compared to the alternative of telling his friend, his brother, the truth. If you're interested in reading about enduring friendship (especially between men who aren't too macho to express love and care for each other), how recollections of the same events can diverge among the people who lived them (à la Rashōmon), Moroccan political history in the 1950s and '60s, and how French colonialism penetrated North African societies, thought, and ways of life, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"These exchanges were supposed to keep our minds active so we wouldn't fall into the lethargy most people in Tangier suffered from. Especially in those days, when everybody lived in wariness and fear. A diffuse fear, without name or shape" (50).

"Some people hold up Britain as an example, but a country that colonized other countries can never be an example for others" (169).

"Ali spent three years pondering the cause of this inexplicable breakup... He clung to the image of his friend as a man of his word, a faithful friend, but decided that Mamed had taken another path in life, discovered new horizons, and didn't want to be bound by a relationship that reminded him of his youth and adolescence. Maybe he thought of their friendship as a book he had read too many times. Now it was time to start a new one" (172). 

"Night entered his room, never to leave it" (174).

 Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
 
I first heard about this book back in 2019 when it was decided that Bernardine Evaristo would have to "share" that year's Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. Many people online expressed how confused and disappointed they were by the judges seemingly choosing fame and familiarity over throwing their full weight behind the originality that is Girl, Woman, Other. And that's not to discredit Margaret Atwood; I enjoyed reading The Handmaid's Tale, and her renown as an author is deserved. But she already won the Booker Prize back in 2000, and in 2019 she won for her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale—meaning it wasn't even something completely new! Meanwhile, Bernardine Evaristo is the first Black woman to ever win what's considered Britain's most prestigious literary award, and I maintain that she shouldn't have had to share it with anyone. But I digress. That was in 2019, and it wasn't until a random trip to Target in 2020 that I spotted the paperback for GWO on one of the bookshelves.
 
Consisting of five chapters and an epilogue, Girl, Woman, Other presents the stories of 12 Black British women, whose life experiences range from the present day all the way back to the 1890s. Most of them live in London, nearly all of them are African or Caribbean immigrants or the children of such, and a few of their stories are set in northern England. We meet each of them in chapters one through four, with each chapter containing three individual stories. Each of these 12 characters are connected, though some of the connections are revealed more gradually than others. I had to break it down by chapter in order to remember everything and keep the connections straight in my mind, so I'm sharing my breakdown with you (some spoilers to follow):
 
One: Amma is a 50-something lesbian and playwright whose hard-won big break finally arrives with the opening of her play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, at the National Theatre. Yazz is Amma's daughter, an outspoken and trend-conscious student with a diverse array of college friends. Dominique is Amma's close friend and former theatre company co-owner, who experiences domestic abuse after moving to the United States to live with her girlfriend.

Two: Carole is sexually assaulted as a teenager but keeps it a secret, and later uses her math prowess to secure a career in finance and a place in more elite social circles. Bummi is Carole's mom, a Nigerian immigrant and fellow math whiz, who has her own cleaning business an unconventional romantic history prompted by grief. LaTisha is a single mom, supermarket supervisor, and Carole's former friend/classmate, whose father abandoned her when she was younger.

Three: Shirley is a history teacher at the school Carole and Latisha (from chapter two) attended, and has also been friends with Amma (from chapter one) since childhood. Winsome is Shirley's mom who's moved back to Barbados from Britain, and who previously had an affair with someone close to Shirley. Penelope is Shirley's racist and miserable white co-worker (a biology teacher at Carole and Latisha's school), and also Bummi's (Carole's mom's) first cleaning client.

Four: Morgan is a gender-free, half-Malawian social media influencer who attends and reviews Amma's play, and also crosses paths with Yazz at the after-party after having previously met her at a university event. Hattie (a.k.a. GG) is Morgan's great-grandma, a mixed/light-skinned woman who lives on a farm her entire life, marries a Black American man, and has a loss that nobody knows about (hint: it involves Penelope). Grace (Hattie/GG's mother) is an orphan consumed with her mom's memory and her Ethiopian father's mystery identity, who eventually marries a wealthy farmer (GG's father).
 
In case you're wondering, my favorite stories are Dominique's, Bummi's, and Winsome's. This is partly due to their salaciousness, but mostly due to how much their grief and longing resonated with me.
 
I started reading GWO in August 2020, which happened to be a very personally tumultuous month for me, and that plus the very strange year that 2020 continued to be meant that I didn't finish it until a few days ago. If I'm being honest, I did feel like the book started dragging after the halfway point (especially during the third and forth chapters), but that's probably because I was just personally less invested in most of the characters in those chapters. For all the insight that the two teachers provide about the British education system, I found Shirley to be kind of boring—which makes sense since she's written to be very uptight and insecureand I was profoundly confused as to why Evaristo was having me read an entire story about this bitter white woman (Penelope) in a book that is meant to prioritize Black women's experiences. And then Hattie just.... she's aware of being mixed but is also frustratingly ambivalent about it. She fails to instill Black pride in her children, only to then express disappointment that her kids don't identify as Black and that her descendants intentionally procreated with white people so as to erase Blackness from the family. How can you be surprised or disappointed when you yourself didn't set a strong precedent for embracing Blackness, and even your pro-Black husband was color-struck and chose you precisely because you're light-skinned? Honestly, how else did you expect future generations of your family to turn out, Hattie?
 
Furthermore, Penelope, Morgan, Hattie, and Grace being mixed meant delving into their parentage, which also meant me having to read significantly more about white people than I'd expected to when first cracking this book open. This also added to the slight dragging feeling I had when reading those parts of GWO. I know that in a colonialist country like England, especially given that a considerable amount of the Black women in it are mixed, one perhaps can't fully examine Black experiences without acknowledging the moments where whiteness has infiltrated or otherwise affected them... but it still felt like too much for me. Almost like the book had shifted ever so slightly off course. Although a handful of the other main characters reappear at Amma's after-party in chapter five, the book ultimately ends with an epilogue focusing on Penelope, and I didn't appreciate that. She's the character I liked the least, and is only Black according to one drop rule logic, not her lived experience, phenotype, how society treats her, or how she identifies herself. Am I to believe she's been redeemed? She's lived her whole entire life as a racist (and especially anti-Black) white woman, but because she learns she's 13% African and decides her mom's (Hattie's) brown skin doesn't matter to her, she's supposed to be included in Black womanhood? No ma'am. I understand that Evaristo means for all of these stories to be nuanced and complicated, and it's a worthwhile decision on her part to use mixed characters to examine who counts as "Black". And maybe I'm being too emotionally affected by this one particular fictional character. Nonetheless, I maintain that Penelope is no sista of mine.
 
Despite how much I've just ranted, I do believe that Girl, Woman, Other is absolutely brilliant and worth all the time it took me to finish it. If you're interested in story collections, Black women in Britain, or unconventional structure and punctuation choices (some passages are written in poem form, and there's not a single period or quotation mark to be found anywhere), then read this book! Or this "polyphonic social novel", as the back cover describes it!
 
Favorite quotes: 
"they were two halves of a circle moving towards completion" (165).
 
"Bummi lost her Faith the minute she walked into the Chapel of Rest and saw her beloved Augustine lying there in body only... she decided there was no great spiritual being watching over her, protecting her and the people she loved... the space once occupied by God was now hollow, and with no god to promise everlasting salvation, it hit her hard how much she was on her own" (169-70).
 
"Winsome wished he hadn't awakened a longing in her that he wouldn't satisfy
he'd given her a taste of himself and then withdrawn it
she didn't hate him for it, she wanted him more because of it
he became fantasy material... in a fantasy anything was possible
even now, so many decades later, she feels the old attraction stir when he arrives for the summer, and when she catches him in a certain light" (274). 

"Megan already knew it was time to grow up, the whole point of leaving home was to find out where she began and her parents ended" (320). 

"what matters most to me, is that I know how I feel, and the rest of the world might catch up one day, even if it'll be a quiet revolution over longer than my lifetime, if it happens at all" (328).