Sunday, October 31, 2021

BOOKS! (Joy + Love in Color)

It's Halloween, it's the end of the month... it's time for me to write a new book review before 'Insecure' comes on tonight (S5E2) and October is completely over! My two selections for this month include a book of my mom's that I read in middle school (I think?) and re-borrowed this month to read again, and a book whose April 2021 US release date I eagerly awaited for months, to the point that I almost paid an exorbitant amount ordering the UK version so I could read it sooner. Both reads are written by Black women, and while only one of them is a through-and-through work of romance, both center around love and have romantic elements in them. First up, a novel about a Black thirty-something L.A. businesswoman in the early 2000s whose faith and already-rocky engagement are jeopardized after she's assaulted. And then, a short story anthology based on ancient myths from multiple countries, tenderly and daringly recast in a modern, mostly twenty-something, mostly Black British context.

Joy by Victoria Christopher Murray
 (Trigger warning: This book contains depictions of rape/sexual assault, and discussions of abortion.)
This is a rare re-read on my part! I know I've mentioned on this blog before how I seldom read books more than once because I have so many others that are still waiting for me to crack them open. But then I was snooping in my mom's bookcase earlier this month, spotted Joy, and felt compelled to give it another gander. Back when middle school me used to sneak and read the grown folks' books that Ma ordered from Black Expressions (I recall it as sneaking, but it's equally as possible that she knew about it and let it rock on very specific occasions), I remember this being the one that lingered in my mind the most. Now, I didn't realize until I told my friend Marlee about re-reading Joy that not all Black Americans my age know or remember what Black Expressions was, so for those who are curious: Remember the Scholastic Book Club in elementary or middle school where you could select books from a catalogue, give your order and requisite payment to your teacher, and then retrieve those books from school once they were delivered? Black Expressions was just like that, except you ordered and received the books at home, the books being sold were written by Black people for Black readers, and they were mostly too grown for me to be reading at the time but I read some of them anyway. (My mom did order age-appropriate books that were of interest of me, but I was always still trying to read beyond my years.) Black Expressions was a mail-in book subscription service that catered to Black people, active long before the abundance of online subscription services/boxes that we have now.
In Joy, Anya Mitchell is an L.A. native who seems happy with her life for the most part. Her financial services business is thriving, she's engaged to a handsome, successful writer named Braxton who adores her and goes to church with her every Sunday, and she always has her grandmother Madear and her pastor (Pastor Ford) to look to for guidance. But cracks are starting to show in her and Braxton's relationship as their engagement progresses; Braxton thinks Anya prioritizes her work over him, and he resents the premarital counseling with Pastor Ford and the pause on their sexual activities that Anya has insisted on. They love each other more than ever, but also find themselves fighting more than ever. Anya does her best to juggle her career and her relationship, and the main people who relieve her stress are her freshly-divorced cousin Sasha (who's staying with Anya as a reprieve from her personal drama back home in Chicago), and her VP David (who's technically her subordinate but feels more like her business partner at times, and who also has a crush on her but is content with being her friend). And Anya has God, of course. She's quick to pray, pull out her Bible, or listen to gospel music whenever she's seeking peace or direction in the midst of challenging situations. Her faith is strong, but that faith is nearly shattered when she's attacked and raped in her office one night, by someone she doesn't realize she knows already. To make matters more traumatizing and burdensome, Anya later discovers that the rape has resulted in pregnancy. So on top of struggling to make sense of why such a terrible thing happened to her, she's now faced with an ultimatum instigated by Braxton: keep the baby and lose him (because he doesn't want her birthing her rapist's child), or abort the baby and hope she won't regret it. What does she actually want to do, in her heart of hearts? What does God say about this?

Somehow I only remembered the stalker/rapist showing up in the second half of the story when he attacks Anya, so color me surprised to read the handful of italicized passages that Victoria Christopher Murray includes from his perspective, anonymous and unseen as he surveils Anya at all the places she frequents. The book even opens with him, coming home after a long day of stalking Anya, sitting in a dingy apartment surrounded by hundreds of clandestine photos he's taken of her, fantasizing about his end goal. I was fascinated by Murray's decision to give him a clear backstory and set of motivations, making him a much more fleshed-out character than just the hypothetical looming stranger who randomly appears out of the shadows and pounces on an unsuspecting woman one night. Of the male characters in Anya's life, five of them could potentially be the stalker: Braxton, David, Jon (a white corporate client who ogles Anya and excessively demands her attention), Alaister (a British subordinate who challenges Anya's authority and frequently disagrees with her decisions), and Hunter (the hottest Black actor in Hollywood, who's also a client of Anya's and whose romantic advances she rejected in the past). From innocently marveling at her beauty to planning out her future without consulting her, each man has a vision for Anya that she isn't entirely privy to. The list of culprits got narrowed down even further when I remembered that Anya's rapist is somebody white, because her daughter (the titular Joy) comes out mixed and sporting a head full of curly golden hair. Fortunately for me I still couldn't remember the full identity of the assailant, so it was intriguing to relive the mystery all over again. But then, I sensed who the culprit was by page 32 and ruined the surprise for myself. Whether readers are able to figure it out early on or not, Murray skillfully casts doubt by sprinkling in clues that apply to more than one of the male characters.
As I remembered it, as a faith-based novel Joy was meant to be an uplifting story, one that blended raunchy-ness and Black Christianity in a way that much of Victoria Christopher Murray's work tends to do. And for the most part, it actually was uplifting the first time I read it. But at the same time, the brutality of the assault Anya experiences stuck with me for years, and I didn't feel the need to return to Joy for that reason. So I already knew what I was in for this time around, but I chose to re-read it anyway, with new eyes, as a so-called adult. And as a so-called adult, it concerns me how much the discussion of Anya's rape might read as insensitive or illogical to survivors who aren't Christians or weren't raised in a Black church community. At first, Anya implies that the rape is partially her fault, claiming God warned her but she didn't listen; she had an inkling to leave work but instead returned to her office to retrieve something, and that's where the attack happened. Which, I'm not entirely mad at because it's not uncommon for victims to blame themselves in reaction to being violated. But then in response to Anya asking why God let her be raped, Pastor Ford encourages her to trust that all things work together for our good, and on Anya's first day back at work Braxton reads her a scripture about rejoicing in suffering, encouraging her to believe that there's a reason behind what happened. Those are framed as insightful and touching moments, whereas I didn't see how they were helpful at all given the extreme circumstances. They felt like hollow platitudes. And then, Anya declares that the baby she has now chosen to keep is "one hundred percent [of/from] God", and Madear seconds this by saying the baby is "God's idea" and that God chose Anya to be this baby's mother no matter how it came to be. And all that just... really made me cringe. I know I've never been in such a predicament as Anya's, and it's noted that she had an abortion in college which she still feels burdened by the memory of and doesn't want to repeat. And I mean no disrespect to real-life people out there who were conceived as a result of rape. It's just that as a person with my own uterus who doesn't want kids anyway, I myself can't imagine being raped and viewing the resulting child as any sort of consolation. I would feel like crawling into a hole or burning the world down first before arriving at such a conclusion. Perhaps I'm just projecting.
With that being said, I do acknowledge that given the religious Black woman Anya is, and the demographic Murray is writing for (similarly religious Black women of the early aughts, especially ages 30 and up), this is probably as progressively as Murray could've addressed these issues at the time. Also, props to Murray for making Pastor Ford a woman! Many churches don't allow women to stand behind their pulpits to this day, so I thought it was awesome that Anya and Braxton's spiritual leader is a Black woman who used to be a rape counselor. In fact, Pastor Ford advocates for Anya to seek therapy, noting how difficult it was to convince Black women to accept such help in her former profession, and that therapists can be vessels for the very same healing that people think only comes from God. For me it was impressive to read that sentiment so boldly expressed in 2001, but it was also saddening to know that while more Black women are actively seeking and talking about therapy now in 2021, we are still conditioned to hold in our pain, to suck it up, pray about it, and move on. On a lighter note, I can't not appreciate the fact that Joy is so very 2000s! It mentions beepers/pagers, answering machines, fax machines, rolodexes, 'Jerry Springer', using newspapers to job search, needing to purchase a caller ID box separately, picking people up at the airport by meeting them directly at their gate as they de-board their flight... so many aspects of society and technology in America that are obsolete or as good as obsolete now. The book is very of its time, and rather than making it feel outdated, I think this adds to its charm! Additionally, I learned from the opening acknowledgements that Victoria Christopher Murray is close friends with Dawnn Lewis, who played Jaleesa on the 1990s Black TV staple 'A Different World', and who apparently is also a singer. Murray name-drops Dawnn within the novel and even quotes the lyrics to one of Dawnn's songs in an early romantic scene between Anya and Braxton on a yacht, and I found it heartwarming that Murray shouted out her friend like that!

All in all, while I did take issue with some of the ways Joy addresses rape and abortion in a religious context, I'm glad that I chose to re-read this novel. And while I don't see myself needing to re-read it again in another 10 years, I do still think of it fondly. If you are a Black person who's a Christian or was raised in the church at some point, enjoy independent Black woman characters, have ever had relationship problems, have ever had to make impossible decisions about what to do with your body, don't mind books that try to keep it real but are still a little preachy, are interested in true crime or office romances, or are nostalgic for the early 2000s, then give this book a try! 

Favorite quotes:
"'Dear God,' he whispered, not having the strength to talk louder. 'Dear God, please, please...' He didn't know what else to say, but, for some reason he was sure that God would fill in the blanks" (198). 
"You can scream, you can yell, you can kick, you can break down—do anything that you have to do. You have people who want to help you through this" (228). 

"Believe me, I have my moments. I feel like I'm in the middle of a tight circle surrounded by every emotion possible. Two steps in either direction, and I could become angry, or depressed or sad. But I'm hanging right there in the center" (240).

"The sky was the color of serenity, and as brush-stroked clouds glided aimlessly across the blue canvas, Anya sighed... 'I wish our life was like one of those clouds, where we could wander through without care'" (314).

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola
In my review of If I Don't Have You (which is STILL my favorite read of 2021!), I mentioned Bolu Babalola as one of the Black British women writers I've come to follow online and greatly respect over the past couple of years. And when I heard about her debut anthology (originally Love in Colour) getting a US release, I made sure to pre-order it. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, Love in Color is actually the first book I've ever taken the time to pre-order. So I got it when it was released in April this year, read bits and pieces here and there, and got serious about reading it for real this fall. It should be no surprise that delving into this book coincides with my personal exploration of romance writing, circa 2019 to present. This gem of a collection contains 13 stories, 10 of which are Babalola's brilliant contemporary spins on ancient myths that originate from West Africa, Egypt/the Middle East, Greece, and China. The final three are "New Tales", completely new stories about lovers in London, including Babalola's own parents.
I wanted to enjoy the stories for what they are, so I didn't put any pressure on myself to know or research the source material behind each story as I went along. (And luckily for me and other readers, a "Sources of Inspiration" list is included at the end, noting the specific works and geographical areas that each of the first 10 stories derive from.) Some stories I recognized even just by the names of the characters they were titled after ("Ọṣun", "Nefertiti", "Psyche"), and others reminded me of similar stories that are more common in the West. Like the jaguar thief hook-up story presented in "Attem", which showed me that Nigeria has it own tale that echoes and likely predates the Robin Hood that I'm familiar with. But for the most part, what Love in Color offered was brand new to me. Furthermore, it wasn't until six stories in that I noticed that the title of each story is accompanied by a quarter-sized illustration of an item or symbol that proves significant to the events of said story. Isn't that so clever?
Babalola makes sure that each story centers around its female protagonist, and in a delightful way it feels like reading 13 different versions of the same person. That is to say, a talented, brilliant, beautiful, powerful, accomplished or soon-to-be-more-accomplished young woman who struggles to be true to herself due to obligations, and/or needs a little extra encouragement to push through her insecurities. She also has some sort of internal or external obstacle that keeps her from wholly embracing and trusting the love that enters her life. As for the male leads, I love that they're all sensitive men, or at least men who are emotionally self-aware. When they're in love, they're passionately consumed by it, constantly in awe of the women they love and eager to follow their lead. When they are heartbroken, they are absolutely shattered. And what's even better is that they express all of these emotions; their intentions are always made clear at some point. When they're real with themselves, these are not men who play games with women's hearts or their own. This characterization made all the more sense to me when I read the last story, "Alagomeji", an absolutely stunning and adorable fairy tale-style retelling of Babalola's parents' love story (beginning in 1970s Lagos), and how they inspired Bolu's own fascination with romantic love. It turns out that her dad is the exact kind of man I just described. And no wonder Babalola believes in love so much, when she has her parents' beautiful example to look to.
The collection focuses on hetero couples—with the exception of Nefertiti, who has slept with both men and women and is seduced by a female spy—but hey, so does most of the source material Babalola uses for it. And I can't presume to know her sexual orientation, but if she were straight then I wouldn't expect her to write a ton from a lived experience that she might not be intimately familiar with. Then it would be reaching. So it's all good. What I do extremely appreciate is that she included a story about a plus-sized young Black college student ("Thisbe"). I loved the plus-sized representation, the depiction of what it's like to feel undeserving of touch and public affection simply for having a soft, round body, and the disruption of Thisbe's belief that the hot guy next door couldn't possibly have a crush on her. I related so much to her and wanted to give her all the hugs! Also, while this isn't the only Love in Color story written from both lovers' perspectives, I was particularly charmed by how Thisbe and Pyramus' perspectives interplay with one another. It felt like call-and-response, which is fitting since blaring music through walls and sharing '90s/2000s R&B playlists with each other are a major ingredient in their transformation from mutually-disgruntled neighbors to deeply-in-love boyfriend and girlfriend. I don't usually be crying when I read or watch things, but this story almost got me!

So obviously "Thisbe" is my favorite story in this collection. My other favorites are "Psyche" (a will-they-won't-they office romance between a fashion editorial assistant on the rise and her flirtatious co-worker friend who's also her boss's brother);  "Scheherazade" (a drama about Persian political rivals-turned-lovers à la 'Scandal', where the Olivia Pope-esque heroine must face her self-sabotaging fear of commitment or risk losing the love of her life); "Yaa" (in which a Ghanaian activist who's arranged to become a politician's wife is unexpectedly reunited with the college boyfriend of modest means whose heart she accidentally broke); "Zhinu" (where a Chinese popstar finds the courage to sing her own songs after an impromptu performance for a disarmingly-sarcastic country lodge owner and his cow); and "Tiara" (a tale of second chances where a writer finds herself pining for her actor ex-boyfriend who moved to Los Angeles and has just returned to London for the first time in two years). But of course, I think all 13 stories are magnificent. There's not a single one in the bunch that's not worth reading. If you are someone who "loves love" or who's just increasingly curious about it, are interested in history and ancient myths/legends/folklore, want to support Black women authors from across the pond, or enjoy stories where women lead and men follow, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"[I will] Slap the clouds to make them cry so your rivers will always overflow" (18).

"Thisbe had a sharp mind and a cushy body" (209).

"She deserved something hearty and healthy and filling, she deserved something that would overflow out of cupped hands, she deserved to be scooped up and loved on. She wasn't going to be anybody's dirty little secret" (211).

"Try not to fall in love with someone passionately dedicated to their craft, because after they've broken up with you, you will still be impressed by them. You may find yourself unable to distinguish between your feelings of professional admiration and feelings of a deep and irrevocable love" (234).

"Hope, innit. That's not a bad thing. It's not a character failing" (262).

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