Tag Archives: civil rights

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


hidden-figures

If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

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Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

The History of Great Things

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The History of Great Things

The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

published by Harper Perennial, April 2016

I want to thank my cousin Wendi for going with me on April 21st to the Elizabeth Crane reading in Kalamazoo, MI, at the Book Bug independent bookstore, where we bought our copies of this book.

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The History of Great Things is the first Crane novel I’ve read. I am familiar with her short story collection You Must Be This Happy to Enter, which I also taught to freshman at an all-women’s college. The students deemed the stories “just silly,” but the silliness is what appealed to me. So many novels are about destruction, sadness, addiction. During her reading, Elizabeth Crane explained that she wondered if it was possible for a writer to create when he/she is not unhappy. Does art, she wondered, require misery? I guess my students would be on the side of “yes.”

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The short story collection I taught at the women’s college. Crane said she never got her Precious Moments figurine back. I think she’s lucky!

I was curious to see how this playful author would turn her special flavor into something novel-length, and when I learned she would be reading in Kalamazoo, only an hour from me and where my favorite cousin Wendi lives, I made the drive. Prince had died that day. That shouldn’t matter, except the employee of the store kept making subtle Prince references instead of properly introducing Elizabeth Crane. She even started her speech with, “We are gathered here today….” Why was she mixing business with her sadness over a pop icon? She also kept saying “Betsy.” I had no idea who Betsy was, but after a few minutes I learned that the store employee was talking about Elizabeth Crane. It turns out that the author’s husband is from Kalamazoo, so she knew several people in the audience, including the woman introducing her, and they’d been hanging out and having fun all day — and drinking based on the wondering non-nonsensical introduction. It made for a lousy reading, but seeing Wendi was worth it, and the brief passages Elizabeth Crane read made me want to buy the book.

The History of Great Things has a confusing premise, but when you start reading it makes total sense. In real life, Elizabeth Crane is fondly known as Betsy. Her mother was Lois, who was an opera singer who died of cancer.

In the book, Lois tells her daughter’s life as she understands it. Betsy tells about Lois’s life as she understands it. It’s an interesting premise that asks, “What do daughters and mothers actually know about each other?”

Since the author’s mother is deceased, she is the puppet master in all of this. She is writing the book, pretending to think like her mother, who is pretending to understand her daughter. Whoa. Explaining it feels like the Matrix, or that scene in Chicago during which Richard Gere uses Renee Zellweger as a puppet to confuse the media. During the reading, Crane was insistent that this is not a memoir. These are characters, not “real” people (even though they are/were real people). Crane wasn’t there for a lot of it, she said (I’m paraphrasing as closely as possible), and at some points in the book she time travels, so yeah, it’s fiction. Crane also points out that while both of her parents are dead and left behind a lot of stuff, she didn’t go through those things, including letters, to write this book because she “didn’t want this book to depict events with any accuracy.”

To give you an idea of how this book starts, here is a sample from Lois’s perspective. Remember, she’s writing what she thinks Betsy’s life is like in 1961:

So you’re a giant bowling ball coming out of me. If bowling balls were square. It hurts like a bitch. Honestly. No one mentioned this detail to me in advance. I may as well be pushing out a full-grown adult. Wearing a tweed pantsuit. Think about that. That’s what they should tell kids in sex ed. Not that sex ed exists now, because it doesn’t. Sex exists. Not ed.

In the next chapter, Betsy writes what she thinks her mother’s life was like in 1936:

Okay. Muscatine, Iowa. June of 1936. You’re born in Muscatine. Edna, your mother, has been a homemaker since your older sister, Marjorie, was born a couple years earlier. Before that she worked at the Heinz factory for a while. Walter, your father, is the editor of the Muscatine Journal. Member of the lodge.

And that’s how the book reads: each woman tells the story of the other…or how she thinks it was, including the other person’s feelings and motives. Here, I can see a clear distinction in the voices. Betsy and Lois are definitely different speakers.

My favorite parts of the book are when Lois and Betsy interrupt each other mid-story. Here is a continuation of the previous quote:

–Which lodge?

–I don’t know, some lodge. A lodge is a lodge.

–Don’t tell him that.

–Mom, Grandpa’s long gone.

–Well, so am I, Betsy, but you’re talking to me.

–Okay, whatever! Let’s say it’s a Moose lodge.

–Let’s say? You don’t think we should try to be accurate?

–Well, it’s not a memoir. It’s just a story.

–But it’s a true story.

–It’s not a true story, though. That’s not what we’re doing. Do you think you know my story?

–Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. More than you think.

–Lemme just keep going.

These little squabbles are both funny and significant. Imagine if you could sit down with your parent and tell them what you think their life was like. Now, imagine that parent is dead, so you have to uphold both ends of the conversation. I’m positive therapists use this tool with patients. Also, Betsy points out to her mother that she wants to skip sex scenes because, ew, why would she want to imagine that? Her mother retorts that she’s already written three sex scenes for Betsy, but the Betsy points out that really she’s just imagining her mothering imagining herself, so all in all, it’s not hard for her to imagine herself having sex. These are very playful moments in the book!

At one point, Betsy tells the story of Lois as a little girl playing with another little girl, Ginny, whose great-grandmother was black. As a result, Lois’s racist father makes Ginny leave. The way Betsy tells the story sounds accurate, but she adds on that Lois is determined to be friends with Ginny when they grow up. Lois interjects:

–Okay, you’re pretty good at this.

–Thanks, Mom.

–I mean, that might be made up, but it could have happened. Maybe it did happen.

–Well, but it’s important that everyone understands this isn’t what actually happened, only what could have happened.

Elizabeth Crane makes sure her characters remind the reader that they’re reading a fake conversation, that it isn’t real and only what might have happened is allowed in the book. I feel this is important because we’ve got some sneaky metafiction here. The book is aware that it’s a book, and I haven’t read any good metafiction lately, not since Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in which he inserts himself in the final scene.

As the novel progresses, you start to notice similarities between mother and daughter. Lois is a professional opera singer stuck in a time when women are supposed to be wives and mothers. When she finds herself married at 19, and then pregnant, she simultaneously chases the dream of singing in New York City because she’s been accepted by a highly-coveted voice coach. Betsy imagines her mother thinking, “You do want this baby, you’re sure of it, pretty sure, granted the timing is suddenly not great, but it’s too late now.” Betsy flounders when it comes to fitting in as she should, too. Into her 30s she still is not gainfully employed and frequently moves back home. Lois images Betsy thinking, “Does everyone have to want the same thing? Does everyone have to know exactly what they want? Is there a cutoff date for knowing what you want? And if you go beyond it, what then?”

Around the middle of the book, Lois dies (just as she died of cancer in real life). This part is playful because Lois definitely wasn’t there, so there can be no accuracy in what she thinks. She has sections on how she thinks Betsy dealt with her death, everything from buying a house boat and having twins after going through in vitro fertilization, to trying for a career as a preschool teaching and dating but failing to find the right one so Betsy becomes celibate, to getting married and having twins and riding away on a whale. They’re all rather silly. Eventually, Betsy interrupts and says that she’s actually married to a man named Ben (no children). Her mother says, “–You’re with someone? Oh, sweetheart!” Now, isn’t that just cute? You could just imagine anyone’s mother saying that, but this mother is saying it from beyond the grave, as if Elizabeth Crane wanted or needed to hear it.

As the book goes on, Lois expresses that she feels miserable from the stories Betsy’s reminding her of — sad or painful parts of her past — and so things get a bit crazy. Together, they decide to re-do some of life. And here is where we get to the part that made me decide to buy the book: Betsy imagines that she and her mother are sisters on the day that the little African American girl, Ginny, was thrown out of Lois’s house. I’m just going to quote because this scene is fantastic:

…I run back downstairs to find Daddy smoking out in the backyard, and I say Daddy, Ginny is a person just like you, and he says You are asking for big trouble, young lady, and I say I don’t care! I am here from the future! We have an African American president! and he says What the hell is “African American”? And I say It means black, negro, colored! We have a colored president! There are two little colored girls in the White House! I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap for just for thinking such a thing! And I say I don’t care! The future is here! …Ginny really does want to go home now, and you [Lois] are rather unsure about this whole scene, and I yell loud enough for the neighbors three houses down to hear A racist lives here! A racist lives here! ….Daddy tells us we’re both grounded until we graduate from high school; that’s when I say Fuck you, I’m going back to the twenty-first century.

Oh, wow, can you imagine going back in time and righting the wrongs? I loved this moment where Betsy really gives it to her racist old grandpa! And, it pulls the story out of the sticky sadness that real life can be. Fiction is a place where people can do whatever they want, so why not?

Yet, there are some problems with the book. First, the author doesn’t keep her characters consistently named. When Betsy’s telling Lois’s story, instead of referring to herself in first person, she calls herself Betsy, which is confusing. Imagine Betsy writes something like “you’re holding Betsy after she is born” instead of “you’re holding me after I am born”). Instead of calling her parents mom and dad, they are Fred and Lois. Since the book made it so very clear that Betsy is telling the story, using Fred is strange. And sometimes he’s dad, which isn’t consistent. She also calls her grandparents what Lois calls them (Mother and Daddy) instead of grandma and grandpa. Whomever is writing should use the terms they would use to keep everything sorted.

Also, there are some language problems. Lois writes using phrases like “stupid-ass hat” and “cost about infinity more money than you have,” which sounds odd coming from a woman born in the 30s. Yes, she’s telling Betsy’s story, but it’s Lois’s voice. Could the author’s mother spoke that way? Sure, but if she’s going to insist this book isn’t a memoir, then Crane needs to adjust the voices so they are believable within the novel.

When I got to the end of the book, I wasn’t sure why we were stopping. What exactly was the arc of this book? In the very end, after the acknowledgements, the author explains why she wrote this book, but doesn’t give any new reasons beyond what’s already stated in the novel. She also includes a bunch of pictures and newspaper clippings from her and her parents’ lives, though they are small, grainy layered black-and-white images without labels, so I wasn’t sure what to take from them. And why add them to a book that purports to NOT be fiction?

Finally, the quality of the book itself could be better. I’m used to reading small press books, which are often designed with integrity, but this Harper Perennial book was cheaply made. I felt like I was trying to read print cooked lasagna noodles, and the pages hadn’t been completely been cut in the process, so I was constantly picking bits of paper fuzz from the bottom edge.

Despite my criticisms, I would recommend everyone read this book because it is uniquely told. If you are a writer, The History of Great Things could give you some ideas on how to play with style and point of view. The novel is a speedy read. You might find yourself thinking “just one more” like I did many times because of the digestible length of chapters.

elizabeth-crane

Elizabeth Crane

PHD to Ph.D.

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PHD to Ph.D.

Po Ho on Dope

Title: PHD (Po H# on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life

Author: Elaine Richardson, Ph.D.

Published by: New City Community Press in 2013

For me, it’s been a long time between finishing this book and writing the review—about two weeks. I always have something to say about a book, but am careful to write an outline and decide which pages I want to point to and quote. But this book has almost scared me out of writing anything. I met Elaine Richardson at an education conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was a keynote speaker. She was electric, charming, and intelligent in a way that intimidated me despite my own schooling and experience as an adjunct professor. When she signed my book, she was very kind and wrote, “Melanie, thanks for teaching and loving! Dr. E.”

PHD to Ph.D. is Richardson’s memoir about growing up a black girl in Cleveland. She writes briefly about her parents, a mother from Jamaica with very little education and a father who played with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, though he was never famous (7). Richardson has some girlfriends who help her get into trouble when she is a girl, and later starts dating a much older boy, which is when things get drastically worse. He begins using her as a prostitute, and Richardson ends up prostituting until she is about 27. She has a baby with one of her pimps, and another baby whose father she doesn’t know. On many occasions, Richardson almost dies. When she finally gets things together and decides to go back to school, she never could have imagined how education would save her from certain death. The book is a compulsive read, but isn’t balanced evenly between being a drugged-out prostitute and a college student.

Richardson made me care about the people in her memoir. Her father isn’t written about much, but I still remember how cool he was in his old neighborhood. Richardson writes that her father dressed “gangsta style. When he wasn’t going to work, he wore his brim broke down and carried his pool stick in a long black case….His pool shootin friends called him ‘Bullwhip shawty from section 40’…” (5). Her father was a Black Muslim, like Malcolm X, and he had a “Black name” (meaning his Muslim name): Gulam Jameel Abdul-Rasheed (7). Richardson remembers how she felt about her father: “[My brother and me] cracked up at that name. We didn’t know any better. Daddy was also into something called Mentalphysics. He had his books and encyclopedias in a special place in the living room and couldn’t nobody touch em!” (7). Richardson’s dad is a textured guy: gangsta, pool shooter, musician, Black Muslim, reader, and I liked how memorable he was. I also like that Richardson maintains her childish voice: it’s “mentalphysics” as she remembers it, instead of “metaphysics.”

Her mother, too, was a vivid presence, though she is mentioned a lot more than the father. It really stuck with me that when Richardson was on a drugs and prostituting that her mother would call the police anytime she saw her daughter on the streets (141). The mother doesn’t necessarily want her daughter in trouble, but kept from dying.

Richardson herself is someone I care about, even when she makes terrible choices and I want to dislike her. While it may sound like Richardson writes herself in a sympathetic light, I didn’t find that to be the case. People live their lives and survive as best they can, period. Richardson describes herself as a girl: “I was a good kid. I played violin in the orchestra, sang in the choir, I was in the smart kids’ reading group, I was outgoing” (24). But, she’s also tormented, made fun of: “Other names people called me were chub, fat girl, liver lips, rubber lips, and bubble lips” (21). Down and down her sense of self-worth goes, and Richardson knows it’s important to connect her self-esteem to becoming a prostitute.

In 7th grade (about age 12) she is a victim of statutory rape and becomes pregnant. Her mother helps her procure an abortion, and Richardson reflects on it. She realizes she shouldn’t have hung out with girls who “knew” more than her, and she shouldn’t have gone into a room with a boy who was 19, because that meant that you wanted to have sex. She says she didn’t know these things at the time (43). We all know that hanging out with the cool, fast girls is a way to heal our broken self-esteem.

But, her new boyfriend, Andrew, understands nothing, and when they have intercourse, he comments on how “loose” she is. Richardson breaks my heart when she writes, “I had had an abortion in the second trimester. The baby I would have had was developed. Whatever the size of my vagina, it was the way it was because I had had a dead baby. All he talked about was how huge I was down there” (43). While dating Andrew, who is 17, Richardson continues to go to junior high, where she loves to learn. She is leading a double life of intelligent girl at school, and girl with poor self-esteem hanging out with older boys who pay attention to her. Andrew eventually convinces Richardson that if she loves him she will work the street, and he becomes her pimp.

I learned that pimps have favorite “hos” and treat that prostitute almost like a girlfriend. When Richardson has intercourse with her second pimp, AC, she knows that she feels nothing from sex. She believes it might be her experience in 7th grade or from having turned tricks for a while already, but it’s like she’s dead inside to sexual relationships (98). I felt terrible when I read her assessment. Sexual intimacy is so important, but Richardson doesn’t feel it anywhere in the book because sex is disconnected from love and partnership.

Richardson still has dreams, even when she’s drugged out and working as a prostitute for pimp #3, Mack. They plan to save enough money to open a legitimate jewelry store, and it makes sense to her 19-year-old mind (139). But not much later, Richardson is stabbed while escorting a trick (158). It’s hard to read about the author nearly getting herself killed, and later almost abducted by a serial murderer/rapist (170), but juxtaposed with her dreams, the whole story created sympathy in me. This is a woman who was broken as a girl, and she has no idea how to fix it.

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I definitely had a lot I wanted to remember as I was reading so I could talk about it later.

Almost all of PHD to Ph.D. is written in various dialects. I love the authenticity this adds to the story. For instance, the black community in Cleveland makes fun of people who aren’t from the city, and readers get a great dose of dialect: “Dat county ass nigga got dem big ass white wall tires, dat funny ass cucaracha horn and got da nerve to have air shocks on that raggedy ass green car. Dat’s a country muthafucka right dere” (20). Some people in the book use more slang that others; not every sentence is written like the previous example. Remember, Richardson’s mother is Jamaican: “Mi ago kill yuh. Yuh nuh want nuttin from life? Before I mek a dutty nigga ruin yah life, mi will kill yuh mi-self and walk downtown and tell the dyam police is mi kill yuh” (75). Richarson’s grad school advisor, also a black woman, tells her, “You have to stay in da library. You have to know the field like the back of your hand. Knowwhatumsayin? You cain’t sing upon dis Ph.D. You have to read, write and research up on dis bad boy” (233). By getting how people talk and think in those people’s own words, Richardson gives voices to those who are often told they’re wrong. Black folks in the book, from the educated to the illiterate, have a voice they’re told is “wrong” because it doesn’t sound white.

Getting back into college after drugs and turning tricks happens quickly; in fact, I have to comb through my memory to remember how she got herself clean, into support groups, and to Cleveland State University. Everything about Richardson as a girl and later prostitute made me a compulsive reader. I couldn’t put this book down! But everything about school seems rushed and not as clearly thought out. Indeed, she goes to college on page 192, but the book is only 251 total pages. Things start out interestingly; Richardson is told she needs a lot of help with her writing and is sent to the writing center. The professors and tutors are all white, and they can’t figure out what to make of this black woman’s voice, which is especially insulting because her first paper is about her own neighborhood. The tutor keeps asking, “Whadidya mean to say here?” (197). Richardson writes, “I looked her dead in the eyes and said, ‘I meant what I said'” (197). There’s a great exchange here; basically, the tutor has her own nasally Midwestern sound, but she gets to judge the author because Richardson doesn’t sound white. This is a fantastic, enlightening scene.

The rest of the college section is rushed, though. She flies through her bachelors, masters, and PhD. She gets a teaching job at a university. She moves to another university. She studies the value of black voices and argues they are not “incorrect” or “wrong,” that closed-minded white tutors and professors “didn’t see who we were or where we came from as an important part of the educational process” (201). I wanted to know so much more here. There isn’t nearly as much detail or specific anecdotes told about her time in school as there was from when she was a prostitute.

This is the biggest flaw of the book. I wish there were two books: one for the first part of her life, and one for the transition into school and the process of earning degrees. I wanted to read about her encounters with teachers, peers, tutors, and even her co-workers and students when she starts to teach. There are a couple of instances, but not nearly enough. After Richardson gets that first college paper back with a D, she talks to another student, a black man who is also older. He says, “This chump don’t know nothin about Black folks. I was using Manchild in the Promised Land as my model, and he was trippin, crossin out every other word! These lil tutors in here, too. Please! I ain’t even worried about it, sis. I got a wife and a family. My wife takes classes at night. We just need they little degrees so we can do what we got to do to take care of ourselves. Knowwhatumsayin?” (200). I love this encounter! It’s as if Richardson and this man are in on a secret about some “system” or “game” that is college.

Despite its too-speedy ending, I highly recommend PHD to Ph.D. You can read more about the book and Dr. E on her website.

Elaine Richardson

Dr. Richardson did sing a bit at the conference I attended. She also writes poetry and studies hip hop with her students.

Bitch Planet

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Bitch Planet

“Are you non-compliant? Do you fit in your box?

Are you too fat

too thin

too loud

too shy

too religious

too secular

too prudish

too sexual

too queer

too black

too brown

too whatever-it-is-they’ll-judge-you-for?

You may just belong on…

BITCH PLANET”

Bitch Planet Vol 1

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine (Oct 2015, Image Comics) is the trade paperback version of the series by writer Kelly Sue Deconnick. The first book of the graphic novel came out in December of 2014, so this is a relatively new series. The first five books are included in Extraordinary Machine. You’ll get from the beginning of the series to problems that occur before the big upcoming fight.

Bitch Planet is the nickname for a prison that houses “non-compliant” women. Offenses can be anything (see the list above), making this story an obvious look at feminism and the patriarchal system that controls them every day. What is referred to as “The Feed” (a strange-looking pink computer woman) legally must appear on all TV screens on Earth, encouraging women to stop with their gluttony, pride, and wickedness—basically, the biblical stuff.

The Feed

She’s so creepy, like a pink demon.

The men on earth decide who goes to Bitch Planet, and the leaders are called “Father” (also very biblical). Bitch Planet actually is another planet, though, so women have no hope of escape.

One notable prisoner is Penny, a very large black woman in her early twenties, known for fighting in prison. We see she has a tattoo that says, “Born Big.” It seems like a symbol of pride in her size, but we later learn that it was the name of Penny’s bakery on Earth. She grew up with a loving grandmother who taught her how to bake, but was taken away when men show up at the house and her grandma instructs her to “run.” We don’t know what the grandmother’s crimes are (or if the men are coming for young Penny?), but “non-compliance” can mean almost anything. Men decide, women are punished.

Penny’s character is interesting; she represents race, size, and gender issues in contemporary culture. When the guards hook Penny up to a machine that will reveal what Penny actually thinks her ideal self looks like, the guards are surprised. They expected the image to be a “desirable” woman—most likely thinner, lighter, and well-behaved. But Penny’s image comes up looking exactly like her.

Ideal Penny IS Penny

Ideal Penny IS Penny

People tried to fix Penny along the way, before she was put in prison. A white woman attempts to “tame” Penny’s black hair, saying, “You need to learn to see yourself through the Fathers’ eyes. And I will teaching, Penny. I will teach you if it kills us both.” Author Deconnick is obviously packing in as much feminist discourse as she can into this one story.

Then there’s Kam, another black prisoner, who fights in a style that seems very ninja (the images remind me of Riley and Huey in The Boondocks). Because she fights to save the life of another prisoner, the guards view her as “a star,” and she is charged with putting together a team to fight in the Megaton games, which as far as I can tell is a sport for guards vs. prisoners. But prisoners fighting in games has been done many times, from Death Race to The Longest Yard. Megaton seems different, though, because the prisoners are not told they will win their freedom. In fact, Kam is warned that someone will kill her on the field. At first, Kam doesn’t want to lead a team, but it seems like everyone on Bitch Planet has to behave because the Fathers have human collateral. In Kam’s case, there is a sister somewhere.

Bitch Planet Kam

Karate Kam

In each individual book the author includes a page of old-school ads that you would see in magazines or comic books. All of the ads are ironic in a way, such as a “Missed Connection” that has a fact about domestic violence, or a big ad selling parasites that says, “STOP BEING SO FAT AND GROSS YOU BIG FATTY!” Other ads tell you they’re selling bullshit and are disappointed in you for buying it. For example, “MONEY BACK GUARANTEE. If you try to order a diet parasite from us, we will donate your money to the Girls Leadership Institute in the hopes that tomorrow’s generation fares better. And we will be sad for you. GUARANTEED.” Sometimes the ads seem over the top. Yes, I get it—women buy a lot of dumb stuff to adhere to society’s standards of beauty. But, if I really get it, then why do I buy things to help me follow the norm? Just because women understand what’s happening to them doesn’t mean they fully see the asinine nature of their decisions, which Deconnick captures in her ads.

Spicy Cinnamon Taco scented douche

Spicy Cinnamon Taco scented douche

Back on Earth, Roberto Solanza, an “Off-World Overseer” from the “Bureau of Compliancy and Corrections,” is working with one of the Fathers to organize the forthcoming Megaton game. Together, they hire a gentleman who goes by “Mack” to create the arena. Mack, though, has a motive for building an area in an impossible time frame: for a chance to see a specific prisoner. Deconnick suggests, wisely, that though this is a story about woman’s plight, men are caught up in what happens to the female population. The women who “behave” (and have white skin) also serve as enemies to the “non-compliants” on Bitch Planet by serving as representations of “good women.” As a result, the story seems less man vs. woman (though there is plenty of that) and more power structure vs. people being abused by that power. Deconnick can thus appeal to a wider audience, as I am sure Bitch Planet will be labeled a diatribe for “those” feminists.

Since I already closely follow the current feminist movement, Bitch Planet didn’t have quite the effect on me that it will surely have on younger women, perhaps college-aged. It has a positive reception thus far, and I even saw a images of young women with  tattoos of the “NC” (for non-compliant) logo. I was impressed that the message was delivered through a graphic novel medium, which isn’t exactly female-friendly. According to The Atlantic, comic books are still read mostly by men, which is not surprising considering graphic novels are a genre written by, for, and about men, but the numbers for women are rising.

Non-Compliant tattoos

Non-Compliant tattoos

Of Marriageable Age

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51AACbxgrlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of Marriageable Age is a saga (546 pages) by Guyanese author Sharon Maas. The book was originally published by Harper Collins in 2000, but Maas has re-released it through Bookoutre. The description of this book alone intimidated me, and sagas are not my usual read. Of Marriageable Age follows three narratives (Savitri’s, Nataraj’s, and Sarojini’s) that start in three different decades (1920s, 1940s, 1960s) on three continents (India, British Guyana, England). Even the names and locations intimidated me, as I was worried about cultural and historical information and pronunciation being a hinderance, which caused me to put off reading Of Marriageable Age for a while.

This saga is actually quite easy to follow. The author makes sure to remind readers often enough of who’s who. If I wasn’t sure of a location, a simple Google search helped me out. In terms of remembering the decades, it’s not really that important. One character’s story, Savitri’s, is set in the 1920s, which is the outlier and easy to remember. By page 130 I was aware of how the three characters were related. But, the exciting part was seeing how it unfolded. There are also Tamil words used, like amma and appa, which were easy enough to figure out. Other words, such as lungisambar, and tinnai were not super clear, though I did get the idea: pants, food, sleeping spot. I was dismayed to find a glossary at the end of the book–dismayed because it was too late for me to use it. Why publishers never alert readers to the fact that there is a glossary, especially e-reader editions that don’t make it easy to flip through the whole book before reading, is beyond me.

The story mostly focuses on the Indian tradition of fathers being responsible for marrying off their daughters to suitable families. Oftentimes, little children are paired up, “officially” engaged when they are about 13, and then married at 14. Brides come from all over the place. Sarojini’s mother was “imported from India.” Her bridegroom, Deodat, who lives in British Guyana, is an “orthodox Brahmin” who “refused to take a wife born and bred in BG [British Guyana]. In such a woman traditions were diluted, culture was dying….He was appalled at the gradual disintegration of Hindu traditions, and the spineless capitulation of Indians to the secular spirit which ruled the colony.” While Of Marriageable Age hits on many important topics, whether or not girls can choose their husbands and whether or not Indians can marry non-Indians is the big theme.

Chennai-v1

Madras in India, where most of Nataraj’s story takes place

Maas excels at yo-yoing the reader. At times, I wanted to burn this book for how Maas made me feel. I was faced with difficult moments that made me question what I would be okay with accepting. I hated Maas for making me do such personal questioning. Truly, it says a lot for an author to get the reader so involved and thinking beyond myself and my world. Then, when all seemed to be horrible, a breath of fresh air would rescue me and take the decision out of my hands, for which I was grateful. Some of the heavier topics included: rape, incest, arranged marriages, politics, racism, sexual liberation, and magical realism.

Yes, magical realism. Maas conflates idealized Indians with magical realism, which made me more willing to accept some of what might otherwise be sappy perfection. For instance, you’ll find this sort of thing often: “the dark, deep, all-knowing, all-seeing pools of his eyes.” Every time eyes were called “pools” I wanted to snicker. But, Maas gives some of her characters magical abilities, like this:

“Savitri once believed that everyone could talk to plants and birds and animals, that everyone knew their language. When she was very small, people had been alarmed by her silences….It was only when she discovered that humans didn’t understand silence that she began to use words, and then they came out in perfectly formed sentences, in two languages, and people were astonished. Only the other beings, the plants, birds, and animals, understood silence. People, she knew now, lived wrapped in thought-bodies, which was why they could not understand silence. The thought-bodies got in the way. They were like thick black clouds through which the purity of silence could not enter, and they kept people captive and dulled. Sometimes there were gaps in the thought-bodies.”

Georgetown, British Guyana, where most of Sarojini's story takes place.

Georgetown, British Guyana, where most of Sarojini’s story takes place.

And so, it feels a little more genuine to me that the characters with the ability to hear voices and animals, to heal or bring good fortune, should have deep “pool” eyes (they are magical, after all), and so I forgave the otherwise cliched descriptions.

Although I understood how the three character’s lives were linked, truly I did not fully know. Typically, Maas rotates the stories in a predictable way: Nataraj, Saroj, Savitri, each with their own chapter, and then repeat. Later in the book something tragic happens at the end of one of Savitri’s chapters, so I kept reading to get back to her story and find out what happened. Instead, Maas danced away from the foreboding plot, making the chapters play Nat and Saroj and Nat and Saroj and back and forth between THOSE two! I had to keep reading to know what happened! Maas expertly leaves readers dangling above the plot line they most want.

Whenever I thought I knew how the saga would end, even when I didn’t want it to end the way I predicted, I often found that I was wrong and there was more to know. Although the ending of the book is wrapped too neatly, is a bit too eager, it is Maas’s ability to make the reader feel right and then incorrect that kept me reading way past my bedtime. I highly recommend this Of Marriageable Age.

July is Women’s History Month!

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Welcome to July, which is Women’s History Month in the U.S.!

There are lots of interesting books that celebrate these events!

What about you, reader?

How do you celebrate Women’s History Month?

Bad Feminist

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71BKpcWC4bLBad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014) by Roxane Gay is a collection of essays, many of which have appeared online at places like The RumpusJezebel, and Buzzfeed. The book is broken into sections:

  • Me
  • Gender & Sexuality
  • Race & Entertainment
  • Politics, Gender & Race
  • Back to Me

Each section has a number of essays that address the topic of the section.

Several times, Gay tries to define feminism and understand her relationship to the idea. She notes, “Feminism has helped me believe that my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.” This is from the introduction, which first tells the reader that Gay is a bad feminist–someone who believes in equality and thinks sexism is institutional, but who also contradicts what some people believe is feminism.

A number of essays seemed without a thesis, which caused the content to seem only loosely related. “Bad Feminist: Take One” (which appears at the very end of the collection) begins by defining feminism (though I’m not sure why she’s doing this again–to come full circle?). Gay quotes a number of women who identify as feminist and then those who don’t due to the harsh connotations. Gay admits she has trouble being called a feminist for the same reasons: “I sometimes cringe when I am referred to as a feminist, as if I should be ashamed of my feminism or as if the word ‘feminist’ is an insult. The label is rarely offered in kindness.” She discusses stereotypes of feminists and how “sex-positive feminism” was born (to show which feminists don’t hate sex). She gives examples of wealthy or famous women who have made it who don’t call themselves feminists. Then, Gay describes how discouraged she is that feminism doesn’t really include women of color who face different kinds of struggles that white women don’t. The essay then describes Elizabeth Wurtzel’s idea that feminism needs to have work/life balance followed by an introduction to Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote an article about the struggle of feminists to have it all. Finally, Roxane Gay ends with discussing the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg–and spends about 6 pages discussing the problems with this book and when the author should be forgiven. Why is so much time dedicated to just Sandberg’s book? By the end of the essay, I wasn’t sure what the point was that Gay wanted to make. Did Gay work to define feminism, give a brief history of recent views of feminism, or mean to deconstruct Sandberg’s book?

The various essays have differing tones. I tended to like the articles that were personal. For example, “Bad Feminist: Take Two” seems much more heartfelt. Roxane Gay writes about her own struggles with feminism and the way she doesn’t quite fit into what she thinks the definition of a feminist is. This essay is a breath of fresh air, one that seems honest and suggests that readers not simply follow her advice, but to consider their own positions. However, I’m not sure why she discusses her own views on feminism in multiple essays and felt that editing to create one essay on Gay’s “bad feminism”–even if she did write about it multiple times on various websites–was needed. The essay on Scrabble also gave some great insight into the author’s personality. When she beats a man whom she considers her personal Scrabble enemy, she runs into the bathroom, hides in a stall, and does a fist pump while repeatedly whispering “I beat you!” Here, Gay shines as a unique personality that I wanted to get to know better.

Many of the essays left me feeling just…bad. I get that we have to go to uncomfortable places to understand societal issues, but sometimes the negativity left me with no direction. For instance, when Roxane Gay discusses movies, she hates the recent movies that discuss black lives because she’s tired of seeing stories about slaves. She’s over it. But, she barely talks about movies about contemporary black lives that she does support. She lists a few–Love & Basketball, The Best Man, The Best Man Holiday–but she doesn’t say much about them. She gives more attention to Fruitvale Station, but it wasn’t always clear what made this movie better. I do understand that Gay is pointing out that people of color shouldn’t feel thankful simply because they’re included: “Here is popular culture about people who look like me. That’s all I should need, right? Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There’s this strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies or television shows simply because they exist.” However, I felt that without some guidance as to what kinds of movies/TV she feels would be successful representations of black lives, the book left me just feeling grumpy, and not supportive.

Some of the articles brought together media quotes, such as “The Alienable Rights of Women”. What was interesting is that Gay used quotes from articles off of social media that I remember seeing when they first were released, typically stupid things conservatives have said about rape, contraception, and abortion. The essay puts these quotes together and adds some information from how abortions were conducted centuries ago, but I struggled to see what Gay was contributing that was new. Part of the blogging world is collating information and adding our two cents; however, in book form, the essay had less impact because it is now a “million” years old in internet time. Mostly, I gathered that the current politics around reproductive rights scares the author.

Where Roxane Gay shined the most was when she was right in her element: discussing literature. Gay analyzes her love of the Hunger Games series and how damaging the Fifty Shades series is to women. She looks at how women who behave badly are hated by critics, and that people often attribute mental illness to such characters. In another essay, “Beyond the Measure of Men,” Gay explores the publishing industry and how it is gender biased:

“There are books written by women. There are books written by men. Somehow, though, it is only books by women, or books about certain topics, that require this special ‘women’s fiction’ designation, particularly when those books have the audacity to explore, in some manner, the female experience, which, apparently, includes the topics of marriage, suburban existence, and parenthood, as if women act alone in these endeavors, wedding themselves, immaculately conceiving children, and the like.”

In this essay, she gives the readers something to chew on, something we can do:

The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers.

Although I can’t expect one author to offer solutions to every issue that plagues a nation, when she does give some ideas, I finished the essay and wanted to take action. I’m not asking to leave each essay with warm and fuzzies, but in contrast, so many were negative and without suggestions that the collection began to wear on me, like someone telling me I’m unhealthy and saying I should do something about it, but not brainstorming suggestions to get me started. “Beyond the Measure of Men,” with its advice, gave me room to breathe.

In the end, I wanted more breathe room, more Roxane Gay herself. Unfortunately, at times, she drowns out her own voice by quoting media and bringing up enormous issues with no hope of addressing them or working to correct those problems, even in small ways, even in ways that she herself practices.

Meet the Writer: Nina Bingham

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Many thanks to Nina for answering my questions. You can find more information about all of her books on her website. She maintains a blog and can be found on Twitter.
Why did you start writing?
My life coaching clients inspired me to write my recovery workbook, Never Enough. A lost love inspired me to write Aphrodite’s Cup: Passionate Poems. Needing to be “realer” as a writer inspired me to write Living Out Loud: Outspoken Poems, and God on Fire: Spiritual Poems was written after discovering J. Rumi’s spiritual poetry. BIG Rumi fan!
My 5th book published March 2015, Once The Storm Is Over: From Grieving To Healing After the Suicide of My Daughter was written so I could share my journey from grief to healing with other suicide survivors, and with teens and young adults struggling with depression.

What kind of writing do you do?

I write non-fiction, because I am an avid reader, but have always preferred to read true-to-life stories that offered answers to life’s challenges. I have been most inspired by autobiographies that served to inspire me. One of the most influential books has been Dr. Elyn R. Sak’s, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Her book saw me through my darkest hours of grief, and gave me the courage to find my voice, to speak out about my own struggle with depression, and my daughter’s suicide. It’s ironic that I have written an autobiography, and honored that Dr. Sak’s wrote the title review of my book.

What would you like readers to know about your new book, Once The Storm Is Over?

It is raw and honest, sharing my painful past: an abusive alcoholic father, a failed marriage, the rejection I suffered after I came out as a lesbian, and my own brush with suicide. What could have been a story mired in self-pity and misery, ultimately is a story of hope.  This book is not only for survivors but for anyone facing depression. The book has garnered outstanding reviews from suicide prevention organizations, expert psychiatrists, best-selling authors on suicide, mental health and parenting magazines, as well as grief recovery organizations. My hope is that it will lesson the stigma of mental illness and comfort those who are grieving, so they know they are not alone.

Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

I see myself as a part of the movement to fight the stigma of mental illness worldwide, specifically that of suicide. My community is a world-wide and large: I’m part of the Suicide Club-survivors of suicide, a terrible club to be a part of. And although we have been silenced in the past by the societal taboo about suicide, if all survivors do their part by speaking about their own journeys, their own experiences, we can lesson the stigma of mental illness so that more people will come out of the shadows and feel safe about reaching out for help.

Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
Because there are so many misconceptions about mental illness and suicide. Case in point: there’s a myth that says mentally ill people are dangerous or violent. We see this depicted in the media, especially in the past in movies such as Fatal Attraction (which Glenn Close starred in, and who started “Bring Change To Mind,” a mental health organization that she leads with her sister who has Bipolar Disorder). The fact is that only a very small percentage of the mentally ill ever become violent; we just hear about it because the media has perpetuated this myth. What we should be emphazing is that 90% of suicides are completed by people with mental illness, such as depression. The stigma of mental illness can be reduced by book clubs, schools, mental health and grief organizations and businesses as they read real accounts written by suicide survivors.

Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

Once The Storm Is Over is being described by reviewers as: raw, honest, shattering, healing, and important. This is an emotional read, especially for suicide survivors. But to have an impact, sensitive topics like mental illness and suicide need to be genuine and caring; they also need to be brutally honest. I believe this is one of the few books that manages to be both.