Daughters – Paule Marshall (1991)

I can’t help it. I really adore Paule Marshall’s work, and so I’m lucky that she has a good backlist of other titles to read and enjoy. Perhaps when I’ve finished that last read, I’ll just cycle back through them to enjoy them again. 🙂

Paule Marshall was an American author with immigrant parents from Barbados, so it’s easy to understand why several of her characters in the titles in her oevre straddle the two different worlds.

In this title, Daughters, her protagonist, Ursa, has spent her first fourteen formative years growing up on the fictional island nation of Triunion, and then is sent to the U.S. to continue her education there. Her father and US-born mother had met in the US earlier and then the couple had moved back to Triunion where her father had a career in governmental politics.

This political position influences everything and everyone throughout the novel, and just as a career based on election results can be unstable, Ursa remains conflicted about who she is: a serious research analyst or a father’s rock-solid support for his never-ending elections… Or can she be both?

The title, Daughters, also reflects the scope of the plot accurately as well as Ursa is not the only daughter who is involved in the narrative. Her mother, Estelle, is a daughter who grew up in a different country from where she lives, and Ursa’s life overlaps with other women who are daughters.

It’s also arguable that the idea of the fictional island of Trunion could also be a young daughter in terms of the nation only having earned its independence from England in the not-so-far past. So – who can a daughter be when she wants to be herself?

The story starts with Ursa returning to her apartment in New York after having just had an abortion at a local clinic. As she’s buttoning up and going home, she worries whether the doctor really completed the procedure and perhaps left a piece of a medical device inside her. (Again, this idea of children….)

Ursa’s really concerned about whether the fetus is really gone and this concern continues through the narrative – how much of her is all hers? It’s a question of identity that threads through this novel for most of its characters, and as the reader follows these characters chapter by chapter, so Ursa goes on a journey of discovery of herself, her life choices, and the people who surround her.

Ursa is currently unemployed but anxiously waiting to hear whether a grant proposal has been funded by a private foundation. It’s a project that continues from her earlier work about studying a small city in New Jersey and how its heavily African-American population is faring in terms of economic prosperity and other QOL issues. (Interestingly, it could be argued that the people of this town are also undergoing their own journeys, along with the town itself.)

With her unemployment period overlapping with her father’s upcoming political election, Ursa is torn. Her pattern of the past is that she flies down to Triunion to support her political parent at each of the elections that occur, and up until now, she has been content to play that role but she’s now wanting to break away from that.

As Ursa gets older, she is realizing that perhaps her father, always worshipped by most people (including her), isn’t the perfect person that she had thought he was. Age brings distance and clarity to some issues, and Ursa’s removal from Triunion has given her the necessary space to evaluate her perspective and it is this new view that is uncomfortable for her.

Ursa is an independent twentieth century woman, unattached for the most part (except for current boyfriend although this is not a deep attachment for her). Without a regular job and with questions about her future, she feels uncomfortably unmoored about her life and her future.

In contrast, she relies heavily on her best friend, Viney, for advice and consolation and a steadying influence and Marshall uses the instability of the lead character to compare and balance out the more anchored life of Viney, who has roots in the city. She has a son, no partner, and has just bought a house in Brooklyn so, to Ursa, it seems as though she herself is the one who is behind the curve and who needs to choose and then commit to how her life will pan out.

How will this play out for her in the end? That’s the big question.

Loved this read just as I’ve loved Marshall’s other titles so far (Praisesong for the Widow, Merle and Other Stories,  and Brown Girl, Brownstones).

A good solid read that kept me thinking way after I’d finished the book.

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Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid (2002)

book414After reading some earlier work by Jamaica Kinkaid (see review of Annie John), I already knew that Kinkaid was a really good writer, and so when I happened upon this volume, I picked it up with little hesitation as I knew it wouldn’t disappoint me. And it didn’t. Hooray for good consistent writers!

This novella is rather a coming-of-age/bildungsroman recount of how a young woman from the unnamed “islands” (but clearly referring to the Caribbean area) takes her first job as an au pair for a rich white family in the States. Lucy, the titular character, is young and not very experienced, and is excited about this opportunity to travel. Happy to be elsewhere, Lucy strikes out for this new adventure with trepidation and anticipation, but also colored by her having just finished a rather difficult childhood with a complicated relationship with her mother. This mix of emotion is a constant thread throughout this short story, and colors every experience that Lucy has in this new world of au pair-ing.

Being an au pair is a tricky situation. Most families try to be welcoming and include you as “part of the family”, but there is always a reminder that you’re not actually equal to the other family members, and it’s difficult to set up boundaries for both the au pair and the family. When is an au pair really off the clock? How private can his or her time really be? It seems to be fraught with issues, and the situation with Lucy is no different than that.

So this title follows a year of employment for Lucy with her au pair employers, and it’s certainly a year of growing for everyone involved: the children, Lucy herself, the parents… Just like any development, this gradual maturation can be a situation filled with dissonance for all.

Lucy has grown up on a small Caribbean island with her mother and step-father. Her mother is educated and employed as a social worker, but as is quite common, her mum is very patient and understanding with her clients, but this doesn’t carry home for Lucy. It’s curious – her mother is big on her clients growing and learning new skills, but she is resentful of Lucy continuing her education and of spreading her wings. (Perhaps it’s jealousy…)

Stateside, her employer family are having complications of their own, and they can’t help but involve Lucy in these problems as well, since she is with them all the time. As the saying goes, you can never step in the same stream twice, and as the novella continues, the family and Lucy grow and change both as a group, but also an independent beings.

Lucy is a bundle of conflicting emotions: happy to be away from her claustrophobic country, a common vacation choice for the Americans who surround her, Lucy also deeply misses her island and her family. Given the difficult childhood that she’s had, Lucy is relieved to be away from her family, and yet she yearns to be understood as only a family member could do. She yearns to “belong,” but she also wants to be independent from everything that she’s known before, so although this is a short novella, there are a lot of contents to be unpacked when you go through this read.

Considered to be highly autobiographical for Kinkaid (who lived a similar experience in her younger days), it’s a challenge to enjoy Lucy due to her fractious ways, and yet at the same time, I felt sympathy for her at the same time. As an expat from England who also moved away from home to a foreign country at a similar age, it’s true that you do really have a lot of mixed emotions about the first year in your new home. So much is different that, at times, you yearn for it to be more familiar so everything is not a surprise or a puzzle. And yet, at the same time, I’d been wanting to live abroad since I was a young girl ready for a change, so it can be tough to balance those two conflicting views.

This was well-written, but I’m not sure that I enjoyed this particular read that much. 😦 Aah well. Can’t win them all.

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

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Summer Reading List: The African-American Experience

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Credit: Keith Haring (1983).

I published a couple of posts the other day about summer reading, one of mostly fiction and then another on mostly non-fiction travel. In reviewing both of the lists, I saw that I was remiss in not recommending many reads from around the world from the POC experience, and so this post is to rectify that.

(Please note that just because these titles are under the POC category does not in any way negate their value. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of the many titles that are far outside the typical Western selection of literature than what’s on the best seller tables at Barnes & Nobles, and so that is what this post is. Just a signpost of some other excellent reads which may be more off the beaten track a bit… Feel free to add any titles. I’m always open for recommendations!)

For the queens of African-American writing (and superb artists in their own right), I would suggest starting with super stars such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple [1982]), Maya Angelou (who actually I haven’t really read yet, but is on TBR…) and the wonderful Toni Morrison (Beloved [1987], Jazz [1993] or perhaps Sula [1973]).

And for poetry, I happen to love contemporary poet, Nikki Giovanni, while Gwendolyn Brooks is also really good… What about Langston Hughes? And if you think about it, there’s definitely an argument for looking at rap and other song lyrics as poetry (even though some of the content can be a bit rough around the edges :-))…

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Part of a Langston Hughes poem integrated as part of huge public art project at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Well played, my friends.

More fairly contemporary writing comes from the pen of author Paule Marshall with the 1985 Virago title and collection of short stories, Merle and Other Stories , and I recommend exploring her backlist – Marshall has a wide variety and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read from her. These are out in the trusty Virago Press if you see some around.

(Side note: Virago Press is famous for printing neglected works of female authors of the twentieth century, and the books are easily recognizable for their dark green spines — the contents of each book vary widely. Worth seeking out in if you see one in a charity shop or similar.)

For a great contemporary solid read, try  the recently published Homecoming by Yaa Gyazi (2016) or, if you’d rather have a go at some strong short stories, try Z. Z. Packer’s wonderful Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003). Don’t forget the excellent Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) or any of the other works by this author.

The historical experience of African-Americans in the U.S. has been long and pretty awful for the most part, so there are some very tough but fascinating reads about this. Go back in time to the terrible years of slavery, and learn from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative of his life, 12 Years a Slave. Another really good memoir from a slave’s perspective is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.

Another option is to read some of the speeches of the day by African-Americans throughout history. I enjoyed Great Speeches by African-Americans (edited by James Daley) (2006). This has a wide spread of historical speeches, ranging from the powerful Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth to speeches by 1974 politician Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X and former President Barack Obama.

If you’d like more NF background into the slavery issue, there are loads of titles out there. I started with this one and found it to be a good backgrounder: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Horschild — a really accessible and useful introduction.

Nella Larson’s 1929 fiction, Passing, looks at life for two female friends in the early twentieth century when people felt that they had to hide their origins in order to live a happy life. (Good read, btw, and will leave you with lots of thinking about it.)

Another excellent read from the early twentieth century, this one with the power of a hurricane, is Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937). (Hold on to your hat for that one as it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Highly recommended. Stick with it though… There’s dialect, but you get the hang of it after a while.)

The history of having African-American help is covered very nicely from the perspective in the novel Like One of the Family (Alice Childress [1954]) which explores the divide (obvious and otherwise) between the white families and the domestic black servants that they hire. (This is also a good read as it’s in one-sided conversations….)

Plays of that era are also excellent and powerful: Try A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959) and her follow-up play, Clybourne Park (2010). (The sequel is by Bruce Norris, but it follows the narrative arc of Raisin.) (Really good if you can see if in person on a stage. Or check out the 1961 movie of the same name…)

For a more contemporary look at life in America, check out Stick Fly (2006) by playwright Lydia Diamond about family dynamics in modern America…

Coming forward in time, there are some really good titles from African authors, among whom would be the Senegalese classic So Long a Letter (Mariama Bâ [1980]) about a first wife who reacts when her husband takes a second wife, or perhaps Blackass (A. Igoni Barrett [2015]) about a twenty-first century young Nigerian man who is born black, but wakes up one day with all-white skin (except for his bottom). How does this impact his life? You’ll have to see…. (Blackass is written in a pidgin dialect, but stick with the read as you get the hang of it pretty quickly.)

Mentioned in the other post the other day, I really recommend the Aya graphic novel series by Marguerite Abouret and Clement Oubrerie set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, or if you’d like to read a poignant and really funny novel about a young girl growing up in 1970’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), see if you can find Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1989). Great read.

If you travel north a bit from the African continent, you may run across Zadie Smith who has a great collection of work from which to choose… White Teeth is the one that brought her to the fore and the one that I remember the most, but the others are certainly as good.

For a non-fiction focus on the U.S., one of the best historical reads about African-American pioneer history I’ve read (in terms of opening up a whole new world of black history in the US) was Going Home to Nicodemus by Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994) which covers Exodusters and the African-American migration to pioneering Kansas. (Fascinating.) Related to this would be Black Women of the Old West (William Loren Katz, 1995) about the rarely talked-about world of African-American female pioneers who traveled west when the frontier was open. This led me down rabbit holes for many happy hours…

If you’d like to trace more recent history and the absolutely amazing stories of courage with reference to the U.S. Civil Rights fight, you can do no better than reading Sen. John Lewis’ graphic novel series called March. (Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III right now.)

To fully understand and appreciate our great former President Obama, try his fascinating autobiography, Dreams from my Father. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on right now, it’s a good read about a very smart and level-headed man.

Moving forward in time, there are some excellent African American authors who are very eloquent and vocal about the state of their world.

A really good and passionate start to this would be reading journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, including Between the World and Me, his essay to his teenaged son on life in the U.S. for an African-American young man, or, if you’d rather read a plea for feminism (through the African-American lens), pick up And We Should All be Feminists by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (2012). Both strong and provocative pieces of non-fiction writing…

(Coates also has written an impassioned plea for reparations in this article from the Atlantic mag. Totally worth reading if only to make you possibly rethink and reimagine a new future.)

For a shocking and contemporary critical look at how the medical establishment has treated the African-American population, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington (2007) will leave you shaking your head at the world around you.

In fact, there is so much really good POC literature out there, that it’s hard to choose. What a great problem to have!

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (1983)

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Since I’ve been digging more deeply into authors (and characters) of color, Jamaica Kincaid’s name has kept cropping up and so when I saw this title in a thrift shop the other day, I picked it up with interest. After struggling mightily with another book and finally admitting defeat, it was with somewhat relief that I picked this one up and found it to be a joy to read. I loved it and will definitely be picking up more of Kincaid in the future.

So – this was a fiction read, a bildungsroman (posh way of saying “coming of age”) that follows a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It starts in the middle of her childhood and follows to her teens when there is a sudden change that happens to her that affects all her relationships, particularly that between herself and her mother. Previously adored, the teen protagonist now faces her mother with unexplainable rage and resentment, and the reader watches how this enigmatic development affects her life as she grows and changes. It’s pretty hard to watch but understandable for the most part as who, at some point during their teen years, wasn’t sorely embarrassed by one’s parents at one time or another for no particularly compelling reason?

So, as mentioned, protagonist Annie knows that this is how she feels, but doesn’t really understand why; with nothing to put her finger on, the closest that she is able to come to is describing it as “carrying the thimble that weighed worlds” deep down inside her. Who would understand that, she thinks sadly? No one, and her days go by with her repelling all that seemed perfectly fine until a few months ago with the arrival of that internal thimble.

Annie’s early to mid-teen years were deliriously happy with a mutually adoring relationship between her mother and herself, but once that dark feeling is established, things change for the worse and both of them are confused and frustrated by this sudden change. It’s never mentioned, but then neither of them has the right vocabulary to do that. (It’s fairly typical teenaged angst, but when you’re going through it, it’s a big deal, right?)

The narrative is structured as a series of eight chapters, each one describing a particular episode in Annie’s life (big and small) and spotlights the ebb and flow of school friends, confusion about this sudden dissatisfaction of almost everything in life, and no tools to impact it either way. I would think that anyone who was a teenager (or who knows a teenager) would be able to relate on some level, really.

The depths of the descriptions of the lushness of Annie’s life on Antigua reflect the depth of the introspection that is seen through the PoV of Annie. She is a ferocious and witty character with a fearless attitude to life. It’s equally frustrating and admirable at the same time, really.

This was a fabulous read on a rather endless plane journey, but the time passed really quickly (which underscores how good the read was). I loved loved loved this book.

Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (1959)

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“Unlike Chauncey Street, Fulton Street on this summer Saturday night was a swirling spectrum of neon signs, movie marquees, bright-lit store windows and sweeping yellow streamers of light from the cars…”

“Brown Girl, Brownstones” is a title that has been on my shelf of Viragoes for years (and that’s not hyperbole there), and as part of this month’s African-American History Month celebration, I picked it up. (I’d also just finished a collection of short stories by Marshall last week and I’d loved that read.)

Paule Marshall.

Paule Marshall.

And this read was the same level of literary excellence that I’d been hoping for after that short story collection. Marshall continues with her high level of wordsmithing here in this bildungsroman of a young immigrant child whose family are first-generation arrivals from Barbados living in early 20th century NYC. Historically speaking, after having dealt (and lived) with years of servitude, there was a wave of Barbadians (or Bajans as they’re called in this novel) who immigrated to New York hoping for a better life. New York was, at that times, called the “City of the Almighty Dollar” among this group, and all who arrived there came with dreams of big money and big success. They were literate, ambitious, and business-minded, and considered themselves as separate from the African-American population for the most part. They were Bajans.

So – to the story itself. As mentioned, it’s a coming of age novel set in Brooklyn in this immigrant neighborhood. The protagonist is Selina Boyce, a girl of twelve when the novel begins and whose parents are complete opposites of each other. The father is a dream-large layabout who talks big without following through on the action whilst her mother (always referred to as “the” mother to emphasize the distance between them) is a reality-based ambitious hard worker who has to provide the money for the bread and butter and the board for the family. Selina grudgingly admires her mother, but her father she views as “Christ-like” as the mother points out in one paragraph. Selina admires her father enough to side with him in the many family arguments that arise, and so she often defends her father’s ways in opposition of her mother who is faced with paying for the daily bread and board.

Over the years, Selina is smart in school and grows up with dreams of being a dancer. She also falls in love with a man who is older and who is, incidentally, very like her father in that he has half-baked dreams of being a successful artist but doesn’t have the wherewithal to make that actually happen. So, young Selina is torn in terms of who she wants to be: should she model herself after her father and his pie-in-the-sky ways, or after her mother who is more down-to-earth and realistic?

It’s this dichotomy which runs its thread through this novel. Selina can see that her father is not going to achieve much, but still – she admires his dreams of freedom and success and strongly identifies with him. Her mother, on the other hand — Selina can’t ignore her skills and her own dreams of being a successful independent business owner. And so Selina has to learn to decide her own future – does she have to choose one parent over another or is there another way?

This was written entirely in dialect which made it a slow read at first, but once I got the hang of it, I could hear it in my head and really enjoyed the novel. Marshall is a superb writer, and this was a good read for Black History Month.

(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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