Monday, May 31, 2021

BOOKS! (Silver Sparrow + Heads of the Colored People)

Okay, so I missed April. I've been consistent with writing my monthly book reviews so far this year, so I figure I'm within my rights to miss a month. Actually, I did have one book finished in time to write about on its own for April (and there would've been plenty to write about, since it's another stunning novel from Tayari Jones). But then I thought I had enough time before April's end to squeeze in finishing a much shorter book, and do a two-fer review like I usually do... and I was hilariously mistaken. Now it's the end of May. But hey, I'm still reading, I'm still writing, I'm back on this blog to do a new review, and that's what matters most! Both written by Black women, this month's selections  are a novel about secret second families that was on my 2020 Christmas list (thanks Ma!), and a collection of short stories about Black middle class concerns that's the third of the first three new books I bought this year.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
This is a tale of two Atlanta sisters—Dana Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon, born four months apart—who meet each other for the first time as teenagers in the 1980s. But when they meet, only Dana knows that they share a father, a chauffeur named James. In fact, Dana knows all about Chaurisse because Dana's lived her whole life aware that she and her mother Gwen are James' secret second family. And despite his warnings to stay away from his wife and daughter, Dana and Gwen have been spying on Chaurisse and her mother Laverne for years.

How has all of this happened, you ask? James and Laverne meet and marry in 1958, during their teen years in rural Georgia. In 1968, James (now running his own chauffeur business) begins dating and soon impregnates Gwen (a department store gift wrapper and eventual nurse), whom he meets while buying an anniversary present for Laverne. Having no accessible family, knowing how difficult it will be to survive as a single mom with no community support or social standing during this time period, and also unfortunately besotted with James, Gwen clings to him and insists that he marry her too. That way, there will at least be some documentation (however illegal) preventing Dana from being born a complete "bastard". Gwen gives birth to Dana the following year (1969), and four months later while baby Chaurisse is still in the hospital with Laverne, James and Gwen get married at a courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama. (I still don't understand what this truly achieves because their marriage is invalid in the state they actually live in, and James' best friend Raleigh puts his own name down as Dana's "father" on her birth certificate. But it seems that Gwen sincerely wants to believe in the merit of "better than nothing". Having null and void marriage documents is better than no documents. Dana, a Black child, having half a father in her life is better than not having a father at all. Or so Gwen hopes.)

Over the course of the sisters' lives, Dana lives in a different part of town and attends different schools from Chaurisse, James has dinner with Gwen and Dana once a week, and Raleigh (known as "Uncle Raleigh" to both daughters) helps James look after both families and keep them separated at all costs. If a situation arises where Dana and Chaurisse's paths might cross, James forces Dana to forfeit that opportunity (a summer science program, a job at Six Flags, etc.) so that Chaurisse and Laverne can be shielded from the truth. Gwen tries to hold James' feetand especially his pockets—to the fire so that Dana still has access to similar opportunities and resources as her sister, but over time Gwen and Dana both sour on James' verbal assurances. This is because his actions consistently demonstrate how much he prioritizes his public family and reputation over all else. "Separate but equal" proves to be an inevitably cruel and impossible concept in this double-family that revolves around James Witherspoon. And a pivotal incident happens that solidifies what has already been known: if it comes down to Dana or Chaurisse, James will choose Chaurisse, and literally leave Dana stranded in the process. During Dana and Chaurisse's senior year of high school, their forbidden friendship, a high-intensity bout of car trouble, and their recently-deceased grandma's brooch combine to force Chaurisse and her mom to confront James' unveiled secrets. This novel is written in two parts of near-equal length, focusing first on Dana/Gwen's side of the story (part I) and then on Chaurisse/Laverne's side (part II). However, given that the novel also closes with an epilogue from adult Dana's perspective, and the title Silver Sparrow refers to secret or outside children, it can be argued that the story is mostly about Dana.

Please believe that I gobbled up this novel, that's how much I enjoyed it. I didn't consume the book, the book consumed me! But the reason I love it is the same reason why I found myself agitated reading it, and why I'm finding it difficult to write about even now. (Just like with Leah Vernon's Unashamed, I was enthralled by a work of art that also made me angry because it hit too close to home. I can't even count how many times I scribbled, "F*ck you James!" or "STFU James!" in the margins of Silver Sparrow. And I don't even cuss in real life, but this fictional man took me there.) I just relate so much to Dana, to an extent that makes me feel both relieved and incredibly uncomfortable! My dad never had a second family or any outside children as far as I know, and compared to James my dad really wasn't that bad. But I know what it's like to have a father who isn't always malicious but invariably puts his own wants first, who dismisses all criticism, who underestimates a child's capacity to recognize harm and form her own opinions about the source of that harm. James only tells Dana he loves her when he's letting her down (telling her she's not allowed to have or do something because he doesn't want to pay for it or risk Chaurisse meeting her), or when he's otherwise trying to control her (having the gall to lecture her on chastity and police the clothes she wears or the boys she dates). So Dana grows up learning to associate James and his supposed affection for her with disappointment, and although our specific contexts are very different, I know what it's like to experience such long-enduring parental disappointment in one's youth.

And as much as I rooted for Gwen, I was frequently bewildered by her as well; I couldn't understand her loyalty to James or her insistence that the "love" she and James have is some fierce and mystical bond. James disrespects her time and time again (even tells his dying mother that Gwen is dead!), yet up until her breaking point she continues to treat him like an honored guest, like the man of the house, whenever he comes over. There's a moment where Gwen and James are grilling Dana and Gwen sides with James instead of believing her own daughter, pressing the girl to prove to James that there aren't drugs in a paper bag that she's holding. Even earlier in Dana's life, Gwen is offered the chance to leave James and move on with someone else. But then she places the decision in nine-year-old Dana's hands, expecting Dana to choose between the two major male figures in her life on the spot, which is such an unfair thing to request of a child. Now, I know that moms get enough judgment for the choices they make as it is. Tayari Jones even says in the interview printed at the end of the book that she hopes readers can spare some grace for people who get stuck and try to make the best out of  "complicated and messy" situations (348), and I respect that. Furthermore, as someone whose own mom has apologized to me in hindsight for choosing a man who wasn't the person she believed him to be, I know that moms like Gwen don't intentionally set their children up to be let down by fathers. All I'm saying is that I wish it wouldn't have taken so many of James' transgressions for Gwen to accept how little he actually cares about her and her daughter. She does eventually blow up James' spot (which is glorious!), but she waits until she has no other choice but to do so, and that still bothers me.

In the midst of my indignation on Dana's behalf, I desperately sought an explanation for why Gwen, Laverne, and Raleigh's are so unfailingly loyal to James. I really tried to make it make sense in my own mind, because the way each of them maintains that James is a "good man" for so long is just... beyond my comprehension. And what I came up with based on the information Jones presents is four-pronged. James is simply too familiar (there's too much history) for them to let go of him. He's provided for each of them financially in one way or another. They feel for him because of how much they respected his mother. And most notably, they're all love-starved. Gwen, Laverne, and Raleigh were each abandoned by their respective parents at young ages, and now they have no other family besides James and the girls. Laverne doesn't even have any friends besides her daughter or perhaps the clients who patronize her home salon. When James' double-life finally gets exposed along with all the lies he told to sustain it, Chaurisse asks Laverne the same exact question I'd been thinking the whole time, "Don't you think he should, I don't know, suffer?". But I suppose James not suffering or atoning is, sadly, the most realistic scenario. He's the kind of man who's used to getting his way, and whatever pain he causes his wives and daughters is of minimal importance, if it even registers at all. If you're interested in Atlanta from the 1950s to 1980s, family secrets, what bigamy might look like, coming-of-age stories that focus on Black girls, or peeking behind the scenes of dysfunctional relationships, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"On that day, my mother would be called upon to do the talking. She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear" (5).
"I had no argument, no reasonable cover story, but I wanted her to stand up for me anyway. Isn't love when you defend someone when you know she's wrong? I didn't want her to stand up for what was right, I wanted my mother to stand up for me" (104).

"You can't put the rain back in the sky" (319).

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
In twelve stories spanning from the 1990s to the present, Heads of the Colored People presents an array of Black middle class perspectives via characters ranging from cosplayers to writers, visual artists, yogis, professors, childhood nemeses, teenagers learning to be Black, former-hippies-turned-wellness-industry-hostages, influencers, disabled grad students, church ladies with anger issues, and funeral singers. Most of the stories take place in Southern California, thematically related but not all directly linked. Even though the characters come from the same region, they aren't so obviously interconnected as the characters are in, say, Sour Heart or Girl, Woman, Other. Some are brought up in two consecutive stories, only to never to be mentioned again. 
The most reoccurring character is a woman named Fatima (loosely based on the author herself, perhaps? Fa-ti-ma, Na-fi-ssa... it's possible). Fatima is mentioned as a 5th grader during an argument her mom is having with another mom ("Belles Lettres"), and appears or is mentioned at different ages in four other stories. There's "The Necessary Changes Have Been Made", where she's mentioned as a former acquaintance or lover of a male professor who hates female authority. There's "The Body's Defenses Against Itself", where Fatima reflects on her body issues in yoga class while being unsettled by the presence of a woman who reminds her of her childhood frenemy. There's "Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story" which recalls teenage Fatima making a new friend who teaches her how to be Black, while at the same time dating a white boy whom she doesn't want her Black friend to know about. And then there's "Suicide, Watch", where a social media-obsessed college student recalls knowing Fatima back when Fatima suffered from bulimia in high school.
Something about the cover and the title made me assume that this story collection would be solemn. And sure, just like Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's Friday Black, Heads of the Colored People opens with a story about Black people being murdered in public due to racist assumptions about their innate dangerousness. But also just like Friday Black, as serious as HOTCP can get at certain points, it's also genuinely funny in an "I'm not sure if I should even be laughing at this but I can't help it" sort of way. For instance, the brilliantly-conceived "Belles Lettres" features two Black women academics throwing down via written letters à la private school PTO moms who hate each other and whose daughters don't get along at school, but also both of these PTO moms have doctorates and fight like academics would. That story and the petty battle of wills that takes place between professors who can't agree on the lighting in their shared office ("The Necessary Changes Have Been Made") convinced me that Nafissa Thompson-Spires must be an academic before I confirmed that she actually is a professor in real life. There's a certain way of writing about jobs that people can only pull off when they have intimate knowledge of said jobs, and it shows. It's unmistakable. It's just like how I, as someone who worked retail in the past, immediately knew that Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah had also worked retail by the way he satirized Black Friday shopping in Friday Black.

By the way, I know I keep bringing up Friday Black, and it's not because direct comparisons could or even should be made between the two books. It's just that I only read story collections every now and then, and as another socially-conscious collection that has sly wit and focuses on Black people, Friday Black kept coming to mind the more I read HOTCP. They remind me of each other. Speaking of which, one last connection I'll make between the two (in this review, at least) is that they both end on tragic yet hesitantly hopeful notes. In particular, HOTCP closes with a story about a funeral singer/hospital employee/single mom who despairs of how powerless she feels to prevent suffering and loss, but then resolves to keep living for now ("Wash Clean The Bones").

Seriously though, what a fun read this was! I felt so smart catching certain cultural or literary references that Nafissa-Spires throws in, like using "Smaller Thomas" as an intentional mess-up of the main character's name in Richard Wright's Native Son. Or mentioning how Baratunde Thurston's writing might have helped Fatima learn how to be Black, when his book is literally titled How To Be Black. Or including Drake's character in 'Degrassi' as the kind of fit disabled man that a fetishist sculptor wishes she could have ("My own personal Jimmy Brooks"). Or referring to "the new whiny style" of today's rap music, which... I think is a playful shot at Young Thug? Additionally, thanks to the skillful name-dropping that Thompson-Spires employs, I also got to learn about noteworthy Black figures that I hadn't known existed! Figures such as a contemporary poet Donita Kelly, track and field Olympian Wilma Rudolph, and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. If you're interested in satire, award-winning story collections, reading about Black people just living, chuckling and reflecting at the same time, or media literacy that encompasses anything from 1850s "picture gallery" archives to ASMR videos, then read this book!
Favorite quotes:
"You're afraid of the light... You think you're too good for this school. It's obvious to me. You don't want to be exposed, so you overcorrect in some places, but it all comes out somewhere else... Sometimes the problem is the environment; sometimes you are the environment. In your case, you think you're making changes, but you take the problem with you" (31).
"But what then? She wanted to think of college as an opportunity for new freedoms, self-expression, rebellion... But what if college was only thirteenth grade, an escalation of everything in her life now, with older, more taxing versions of the same people, where she'd exchange Carmen and Kevin for new avatarsa controlling sorority sister or an inappropriate professor?" (132-33).

"In addition to Jessica, more than a few former friends had called her volatile. She was tired of that word. She was not a beaker full of combustible chemicals or a volcano looking for an opportunity to expel pent-up heat, leaving ash and damage in her wake. She was a person, just as much as they were, perhaps more complicated, but certainly normal, just as normal as they were" (141).

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