Tag Archives: race relations

Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, was originally published in 1968. I wanted this book to see if I could get an entirely different, yet still intensely personal, side of the time period compared to Malcolm X’s autobiography, published in 1965 shortly after his death. Malcolm lived exclusively in the North, whereas Moody was only in the South. Moody begins with her first memories and ends in her 20s at a church a group singing “We Shall Overcome,” wondering if they ever will. She has relationships to Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and other famous activists.

I hadn’t heard of Anne Moody before I saw her book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Most famously, she was one of the protesters who participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s.

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That’s Moody on the far right sitting at the counter. Photo for USA Today

Before that, she was a little girl who grew up poor, constantly changed addresses, gained a new sibling every year or two, and could barely get the clothes she needed to go to school. Moody worked most of her life, too, serving mostly in white people’s homes. When one racist white woman locked the front door so Moody would be forced to enter in the rear (which social norms required of black folks), Moody banged on the front door until someone else let her in. She was never subservient, though you could argue she was lucky. She saw friends and family shot, burned alive in their homes, and dragged in the woods to be stripped naked and beaten, all at the hands of white Southerners. Moody had anxiety that would earn her a Xanax prescription, plus some.

Moody is always aware of what’s really going on, even when other black people aren’t or won’t say anything. When Moody’s town gets a new high school for black students, everyone rejoices, but she points out, “As most of them, students, teachers, and principals alike, were bragging about how good the white folks were to give us such a big beautiful school, I was thinking of how dumb we were to accept it. I knew that the only reason the white folks were being so nice was that they were protecting their own schools. Our shiny new school would never be equal to any school of theirs.”

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Anne Moody, 1969. Photo for New York Times

Moody did well all through school and participated in many sports. Unlike many of her peers, she went on to college. At the time, a black student had to attend an all black college (no, Betsy DeVos, it wasn’t a “choice”). Soon, she was involved with the NAACP, which got back to the whites in her hometown. Since any hint of discontent among black citizens can easily lead to an uprising, and Southern whites know that, Moody’s membership was enough for white folks to harass her mother and ask her what Moody was doing, what her plans were, if she were coming home (she couldn’t; she would be killed). In fact, Moody worked so much for so little for the Civil Rights Movement that many times she nearly starved or was murdered.

My favorite aspect of the the autobiography as a genre is that it doesn’t try to add “flavor” to real-life events. Things aren’t reflected upon creatively; the writer needs to simply tell what happened. Moody does not add her own agenda into Coming of Age in Mississippi even though it’s her book. She doesn’t tell readers what to think about racism, but what she thought about racists during the time. Unlike Malcolm X’s autobiography, which clearly looks back from a time in the future (like when he writes about not being good at boxing as a teenager, which he believed as an adult was thanks to Allah, who kept him from “getting punchy”), Moody’s story is always in the moment. I respect this careful erasure of Moody the writer, and the focus on Moody as a girl, college student, and activist.

Moody’s book also taught me details of the Civil Rights Movement of which I was not aware, even though I’ve studied and taught the time period. For instance, when a house full of activists hear through the grapevine that a group of whites are going to kill them that night and block all the roads out of town, the young men and women lay out in the yard all night in long grass. It’s wet, hard, and they’re all shaking in terror. I felt like I was there with them. Moody’s family also turns on her quickly so they won’t be killed. Her favorite grandma treats her like a stranger. Later, I learned that in one town where Moody leads a group of activists that black people have most of the land and make up most of the population. However, land and crop contracts are only given to white farmers, so the black farmers sit on cropless land and nearly starve to death. Furthermore, I knew that activists were constantly arrested, but Moody explains that they were packed into a truck and locked in, after which the driver would crank up the heat on a 100+ degree day and leave them in their for hours until people freaked out or nearly died. When a headless black body is found, the colleges do room checks to see if it’s one of their students. The Klan shared pamphlets door-to-door with a blacklist of certain people (Moody’s picture appears on their list). This is the stuff you don’t get in your history textbook.

One thing Malcolm X and Anne Moody definitely had in common is they did not look to Dr. King for guidance. Malcolm complains King is an “Uncle Tom,” a sit-down Civil Rights activist (a play on the term for protests called sit-ins). Moody goes to see Dr. King at the March on Washington and comes to a conclusion about the black movement’s so-called leader: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about everyone of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton [a Mississippi city deep in poverty due to racism] we never had time to sleep, much less dream.” While we’re always hammered with Dr. King in school, his philosophies and actions didn’t sit well with many activists.

The most intense part of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the anticipation. Will Moody make real gains as an activist? Will she be able to return to her hometown? It’s a book that makes readers lean forward, so to speak, so the 424 pages of this mass market paperback fly by. The only complaint I have is Moody’s frequent mention of Reverend King, who is a minister from the South who helps activists. He’s the only white person she trusts, but it’s easy to confuse his name with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

coming of age

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

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


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).


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.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self #bookreview #readwomen @daniellevalore

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self #bookreview #readwomen @daniellevalore

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

Riverhead Books, September 2010

I first saw Evans at an AWP conference a few years ago and loved the way she spoke. When I heard the title of her book, I knew I had to read her writing. “Before you suffocate your own fool self” is a quote from Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem.” The poem suggests a speaker who must remind someone to not be foolish, to take a deep breath and not let the worst version kill the best versions of him/herself.

Looking at Evans’s stories, I can surmise why she chose this quote and title. The characters often find themselves in some sort of trouble, but never the same kind of trouble, whether it’s being honest about being a virgin pretending/wanting to handle grown-up relations, like Erica in the story “Virgins,” or Tara nearly dying the summer she lives with her white grandmother and her cousin in “Snakes.”

You might be wondering why I pointed out the grandmother is white. The characters in Suffocate are, more often than not, black. Evans doesn’t come out and say this; instead she leaves room for the readers to figure it out, which doesn’t take long if the character is younger, around teen aged. For instance, in “Virgins,” when Erica, Michael, and Jasmine are at the pool, Jasmine is quick to harass Michael for wearing sunblock: “Sunscreen…is some white-people shit. That’s them white girls you’ve been hanging out with, got you wearing sunscreen. Black people don’t burn.” Erica the narrator reassures us in that Michael is lighter than Jasmine, and that she is lighter than Michael, but that really all three of them burn in the sun. Evans goes on to make references to the differences between black and white adolescents, comparing their hair (“Snakes”), examining the race of the students and the amount money their public school has (“Robert E. Lee is Dead”), and even the value of the eggs of white versus black college women (“Harvest”). I appreciated Evans’s ability to weave race into her stories without having it be the entire focus of characters’ lives. After all, if readers are led to believe people are nothing more than their race, rather than their race being a part of their identity, the author would be doing a disservice.

The non-teenage characters don’t come right out and talk about race, which creates a sort of washing away of stereotypes: there are no thugs, baby mamas, or big mamas who beat sense into her grandchildren, images we’ve all seen on movies and television. These characters are nuanced. They go to school, have sex, make friends, consider their economic options, struggle with their parents. In “The King of a Vast Empire,” Liddie, her brother Terrence, and their parents were in a car accident years ago. Now, Liddie guilts her parents whenever she wants something, or doesn’t want to do something, by casually flashing the large scar on her forehead. They all must remember how she didn’t speak for years after the accident, that she is not permanent, and, therefore, should have her way — even if she wants to be an elephant trainer after having gone to college for some time.

Evans’s prose has depth and variety, switching points of view from first to third, using male and female narrators, and looking through the eyes of different age groups (children, teens, college students, adults). The stories don’t feel like the same subject hashed out over and over again, like some story collections, which leaves me bored. Her collection will keep you entertained and interested.

Procurement: My sweet ma gave me birthday money, so I bought this book on Amazon

Meet the Writer: Bonnie ZoBell #writerslife #interview

Meet the Writer: Bonnie ZoBell #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Bonnie for answering my questions! Read more about Bonnie here and check out her virtual book tour that we put together here!

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The beautiful banner my husband created for Zobell’s book blog tour tour last year

What was the first story you ever wrote about?

It was a story called “The Bridle Path,” published in some obscure magazine. At least this is the first one I can remember. It was a story about kids and class and racial distinctions, but apparently the magazine that published it was made uncomfortable by some of it. They renamed one of the main characters intentionally nicknamed “Whitey” to “Whitney” without talking to me about it and other changes along those lines.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

How long do you have? I had more majors in college than almost anybody I know. The fact is that I’m slow and methodical, which works well with writing and teaching, but not so good for waitressing, which I got fired from when several customers wrote letters of complaints about me at the Bon Marché lunch counter in Spokane, Washington.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think it’s some of both, to be wishy-washy about it. I think some of it is instinctive, but even much of that is shaped by our backgrounds, what we grow up to value, our experiences, and so on. I think you can learn to be a much better writer, not so much from books on craft, I’m sorry to say, but by reading as much as you possibly can.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

Statistics. There was the WHY? factor. Why did I need to know this? (because for about a week in college I’d decided to go into fashion merchandising and it was required). But probably the biggest reason is that my brain works in a completely opposite way. I didn’t get it.

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m finishing Richard Peabody’s awesome Blue Suburban Skies, full of all kinds of strange and wonderful characters and stories.  And I’m starting Roxane Gay’s painful and beautifully-written An Untamed State.

Are you writing anything right now?

Since my new book, What Happened Here, was just released by Press 53, I’m mainly writing interviews like this one and trying to get more people to read it. Soon, I will go back to a novel I started a long time ago. I’m looking forward to that!

How They Spend Their Sundays

How They Spend Their Sundays

how they spend their sudaysHow They Spend Their Sundays
by Courtney McDermott
Whitepoint Press, 2013
229 pages

Courtney McDermott’s first book, a collection of stories set in South Africa and Lesotho, comes in three sections: Part One contains story-length pieces of mostly straightforward narrative that focuses on experiences (work, love, education, racism, biological ties). Part Two contains flash fiction revealing a moment or a feeling, and Part Three is what I thought of as the genre section. Although all three sections are strong, I enjoyed the longer pieces more. The shorter pieces are not poorly written; it’s that the long pieces were places of escape that fully immersed me elsewhere. Appearing throughout are unfamiliar words, perhaps Sesotho, though I am not always certain. In some cases, the words appear to be defined just after the italicized foreign word, though this isn’t always the case, and it’s not always clear. Regardless, the use of the language strengthens the collection as a whole, increasing the ethos of the author.

There are stories that you read and then there are stories that transport you outside of your body; McDermott writes the latter. It’s entirely possible to forget you’re in public or how long you’ve been sitting while reading this collection. Part of it has to do with the way McDermott doesn’t overly focus on the setting, with which, I would take a chance and argue, most readers will be unfamiliar. Select images and items from the setting are described briefly, just enough to place the reader somewhere solid. These images and details represent a larger picture. For instance, whether or not someone has boiled water, a rusted-out car with a steering wheel made of wire, or shaved heads of children to dissuade lice. Instead, the focus is on the people and the way attitudes differ between characters. Although there is shared human experience, I would also argue that McDermott’s collection doesn’t try to argue that everyone is the same, either. There is a respect for the fact that humans do differ in their experiences and that those differences are of value. A few times it is noted that the ability to drive as a major life accomplishment, one that does not mean freedom to travel and visit friends, as it does in the U.S., but a successful life. In the first story, though, a group of friends, all of whom but one are gay or lesbian, gather secretly for a party, a fear that translates to other people, cultures, countries.

McDermott’s style is mostly straightforward storytelling, though she incorporates unusual images at times that show, yes, this is a Courtney McDermott piece. The beginning of “The Secrets of Mothers and Daughters” contains one such instance:

“There he was: a peeled apart version of the man simply known as my father. He was a man knocked apart and carelessly rebuilt. First it has stripped his appetite, leaving the skin in rows of dried petals sewn onto the bones that had been gnawed away. These bones (they had carried my brothers and sisters, had worked in fields, driven cattle) had been twisted apart from the joints, the blood drained from his face, his gums gored and left weeping blood.”

As the father dies, he comes apart like the organic matter he is, emphasized by words that could describe a dying plant, like “petals” and “twisted.”

There is much happiness in McDermott’s collection. A young woman makes love for the first time, knowing that disease, like AIDS, is a constant threat. It is worth it, though, for the experience: “As he reaches for her, she cries–out of happiness in love–but out of sadness too. That this may be her last time, as well as her first. But nonetheless a brilliant time, when her eyes are stars and he calls her name.” This is a strength of the collection: a good balance between the life experiences worth taking risks for and the reality of the situation. Children may live in desperate poverty, but they will find ways of enjoying each other’s company. Mothers may live in fear of human predators, but understand that all humans have needs that must be met.

McDermott’s collection is full of surprises, rich storytelling, and hard-to-forget characters. Her real talent is in respect for observation, and for that reason, I expect to see more books from her soon.

Interview with Courtney McDermott

Did you journal a lot while in the Peace Corps? If so, what did that journal look like? (notes, sketches, full stories?)

Journaling is practically an essential part of surviving Peace Corps. Most Volunteers I know journal at some point during their service. I wrote in my journal most days.The journals I kept contained a series of vignettes, notes about people and places I didn’t want to forget, and ideas for stories that I wanted to write. Sometimes my journal entries were rants or doodles, depending on my mood. But mostly they were snippets of (personal) stories.

What made you decide to write genre pieces (Part 3 of your collection)?

“Genre” is a misleading term. Technically, “literary fiction” is also a genre. I didn’t set out to write pieces that qualify as “genre.” Rather, as with most everything I write, I start out with character and a set of questions. So for “Evenings With Hilda” I asked: how might someone deal with the AIDS epidemic in a complicated moral or “humane” way? Or for “An Apocalyptic Search for Water,” I  was inspired by my rural isolation in the village where I lived. At times, I felt like the last person on earth, and that got me wondering: what would it be like to be the last person on earth in a place which often already seems desolate? Because I read a variety of literature, and I enjoy fairytales and horror stories as much as the Classics, I am influenced by that range and I wanted to demonstrate that range within the collection.

What was your approach to including non-English words in your stories? Did you want them italicized, not italicized, explained, vague, etc?

Originally, I didn’t want any of the non-English words to be italicized. If my characters were native Sesotho speakers, then why would those words be italicized? Ultimately, I made decisions based on the narrative–whose perspective is relaying the story and would these words be familiar to them or not.

Has anyone ever challenged your “right” to write about South Africa and Lesotho culture as a white woman from the United States? I’m thinking of issues of representation and who gets to create the stories of whom.

No one ever has challenged me. Should people challenge me if I’m writing about a man? Or an 18th-century aristocrat? Or an American mother of two on welfare? I’m not a man, I’m not dead, I’m neither a mother nor poor, and yet few people would challenge me to write about these characters’ experiences. I write about people. I wrote a book about southern Africa because it is part of my life experience, and with any life experience, I write about it to understand it. The core component to making any story effective, in my opinion, is to have a rich imagination that allows you to fully empathize with people. My capacity for empathy enables me to write about the range of characters that are in my book. And I think part of the reason people don’t challenge me, is because they feel for my characters, see a sliver of themselves within them. My characters bear difficulties, fall in love, face their fears, experience boredom, dream, eat, have sex, laugh–and not because they are African or from a particular culture that is “Other” than mine, but because they are human. At the end of the day, I’m attempting to tell a good story. Period.

Are you working on any new projects?

Yes, I am! I’m finishing up two projects right now. The first is a novel set in rural Iowa, where I’m originally from. It’s a coming-of-age novel that tackles some of the pressing social issues of small-town America–everything from gay marriage to immigration to the role of organized religion. The second is a more experimental novella about a failed mathematician on a downward spiral. I’m currently writing it in a day planner, which has created the structure of the piece. It includes many word and number patterns and math formulas built into the text, which has been a fun and creative way of writing.

*Courtney McDermott and I attended the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame together in 2009-2010. Therefore, I’m sure unintentional bias exists in my review as a result of me wanting my peer to do well in her writing endeavors.

Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

lori jakiela belief

Title: Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

Author: Lori Jakiela

Published by: Atticus Books in 2015

I never noticed it until recently, but many of the books I grew up loving and remembering in vivid detail are stories of adopted girls. First, there was the eponymous The Great Gilly Hopkins. She waited for about eight years for her birth mother to come get her out of foster care and pushed everyone away because she didn’t want to let them love her.

th_038045963922c1c78abe8bab13b43bfb1d72a3a5d4 Anne-of-Green-Gables.jpg

Then there was The Family Nobody Wanted, a memoir by Helen Doss. When Doss and her husband are unable to conceive a child, they struggle to adopt one…and then another and another until they have twelve kids from all over the world, leading people to call them the United Nations of adopting.

Another standout was Anne Shirley of the series Anne of Green Gables. While the books were too tough for me, I was obsessed with the film. There was also Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, who later wrote the memoir about her adoption, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Why have adoption stories stuck with me so? Perhaps because these stories always seem like ones of hope in which the adopted person proves that all people are valuable and worthy or love. But Lori Jakiela’s story is both quite messy and front and center of her entire life.


In Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, Jakiela writes the story of how she found her birth mother and discovered she has four half-siblings. To simplify, that’s the whole book. But, the story isn’t simple at all. Firstly, it’s important to know that Belief is Jakiela’s third memoir. I haven’t read Miss New York Has Everything, the first memoir, but I did read and review the second, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious.

I would argue that you should read The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious before you read the newest memoir, Belief. In The Bridge, the author discusses her “real parents,” which is how she refers to the people who adopted her. Her real father has passed away, and her real mother is ill and dying. Jakiela, who is in her 30s, goes to care for her mother while also spending time with new guy she’s attracted to, writer Dave Newman. When Jakiela realizes she is pregnant, despite using birth control, her real mother flips her lid and proceeds to severely shame her daughter. Dave and Jakiela do get married, but throughout The Bridge they fight constantly, insulting even each other’s writing and publications.

But this review is about the newest memoir, Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. The people are represented differently. Dave is now a kind and supportive man: “My husband’s a writer, like me, when the world will let him work,” Jakiela explains. “Today he’s supposed to be writing. I’m supposed to be keeping the kids away. Tomorrow he’ll do the same for me. This is how we love each other” (62). This love they share is very important to understanding Belief. Jakiela has a good husband and children, but she keeps looking for her birth mother. Knowing that her relationship with Dave Newman had a tough start and began quickly (they hadn’t dated long when she got pregnant) reminds readers that though she is content, finding a man didn’t cease her shark-like looking for why she was given away by her birth mother.

Belief is written in very small sections, sometimes only a paragraph or two. By crafting such small passages, Jakiela can really capture an emotion and overpower the reader in a way that forces us to feel empathy. In one section, after Jakiela has found her birth mother, she receives a message from the birth mother that says, “I’ve thought of you often. It’s just too much after all these years. What’s done is done” (249). I’m bummed, but it’s not a bad message. There is a little section break. The next section says only this: “And then, later, she sends another e-mail that says she wishes she’d aborted me. She says she would have, had she known” (249). I’m punched in the heart when the birth mother says she wishes her daughter was dead. Section breaks often give readers pause to prepare, but Jakiela catches us off guard each time, much like she must have felt.

Let’s back up a bit: Jakiela never face-to-face meets her birth mother. She goes to the adoption agency to ask if her birth mother will give her a medical history. The answer is a big fat NO. I’m a bit confused about how it all works out, but I do know that Jakiela gets an email from someone with the username Blonde4Eva, and it’s the author’s half-sister. Blonde4Eva’s grammar and sentences are terrible, and she often highlights her messages in lime green. Apprehension aside, Jakiela keeps looking. She hears from a half-brother who read The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious and figured out that she was his sister. Jakiela and the birth family still all live in Pittsburgh, so it wasn’t hard for him to put two and two together. Jakiela writes that she plays a song on the piano for her brother (157). Later, she meets her brother and sister for the first time in a bar (191). I started to get confused. Hadn’t she played piano for him before? Maybe this is another brother! There is another brother…but she never meets him. After puzzling it out, I realized there are four children who share Jakiela’s birth mother: BLonde4Eva, a brother she meets in a bar and plays piano for, another sister who is also at the bar meeting, and a brother she does not meet. Sometimes the organization of the book gets confusing, possibly because trying to tell things in order doesn’t always work when you learn who you are out of order, like Jakiela did.

After meeting at the bar, where the brother, sister, Jakiela, and Dave Newman get wasted, I had to wonder if the meeting was significant. And Jakiela does, too. She had “…hoped for more, maybe — a little less party, a little less booziness, fewer ghosts, a little less reality TV” (208). Was this really the answer to the ache to know who she is? In the epilogue, Jakiela notes that she still sees her brother, and they continue to drink at bars and their houses and listen to music. From the reader’s perspective, the relationship isn’t adding to Jakiela’s story. We don’t get to hear their thoughts or conversations or questions. It’s just drunkenness.

Between her birth mother wishing her dead, her real parents shaming her, and her siblings who drink like fish, I kept wishing Jakiela would realize that the love she was seeking was in Dave and her children. But when it comes to adoption searches, you can only watch it unfold. My own husband grew up with his birth mother and a father who adopted him. Not knowing his birth father haunted the second decade of his life. I’ve asked him before: Why find a man you’ve never met when you have a good dad who chose you? This question is unanswerable. After ten years with my husband, the answer is still missing. Knowing my husband makes me patient with Jakiela’s search for family when she already built one, but other readers may find her obsessive nature unbearable. Jakiela finds herself annoying, too (135-136).

One of the most interesting parts of Belief is how Jakiela looks at the smashed dreams of the people in her families and lets the reader be warned that our suffering is passed down to our children. And it happens whether your parents are real or biological. Jakiela’s biological family is miserable. Her grandfather, she learns, was a cold, cruel man who loved his dog more than his children. He would beat kids for small infractions and push them away when they did good (154-156). Jakiela’s mother took on this man’s misery. She ended up pregnant by a man who was already married, so her older sister helped hide the pregnancy all while shaming her (173). (Remember how Jakiela was shamed by her real mother? There’s a lovely connection). Eventually, the birth mother ends up at Rosalia, a home for unwed pregnant women run by nuns. Once Jakiela is born, her mother gives her to an adoption agency.

Jakiela’s real parents can also be cruel people, but Jakiela reminds us how hard they tried to be good people. It doesn’t help that Jakiela’s extended family don’t see her as real family:

We are having our usual Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house when my aunts mention my [adopted] cousin’s good temperament one too many times.

I am the worst kind of teenager–a seether.

“You mean smart ass,” my father says.

“It’s in you to always look at the worst in things,” my mother says.

“She’s been that way from the moment you picked her up,” my aunt says.

“You never can tell what you’ll get,” my grandmother says, like adoption is a grab-bag sale. (116-117)

Later, when he real mother passes away, Jakiela notices a shift–her mother’s family no longer want to claim her: “After my mother died, Aunt Velma did not refer to her as my mother. My mother became her sister. Aunt Velma became simply Velma. I became some people” (98). Jakiela captures just the right sentiments to put the readers in her shoes, especially those of us who are not adopted. I hadn’t thought about how what once was family could become a sigh of relief for those who want to stop pretending to be related. Based on their cruel comments, why, we might ask, did Jakiela’s real parents adopt her? Her mother reveals that her father had been molested as a boy and it messed him up, so she thought adopting a kid might help (273). Whether the family is real or biological, Jakiela teaches us, one person’s misery is passed down to the next. And it isn’t until the end of three memoirs that she realizes her husband and kids are the important family, “the most sacred thing” (257).

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe was a difficult book to review. Here’s how this review was created:

  1. First outline
  2. First rough draft
  3. Second outline
  4. Second rough draft
  5. Third outline
  6. Brainstorming session with my husband
  7. Freewriting session
  8. Third rough draft
  9. Fourth rough draft

While I was incredibly frustrated trying to evaluate this book, I kept reminding myself of how frustrated Lori Jakiela must have been not only writing this book, but living a life that she has to piece together when it is her right to know. Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe is a page turner, an emotion twister, and an empathy builder.

This summer I will be reading and reviewing the entire Anne of Green Gables series. If you’re interested in reading along, please let me know in the comments!



PHD to Ph.D.

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.


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

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 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

Every Kiss a War


Every Kiss a War
 (Mojave River Press, 2014) is a collection of short and short-short stories by Leesa Cross-Smith. The sentence structure tends to be fairly simplistic, and the theme is often love in Kentucky. While Every Kiss a War might sound deceptively simple, the stories within radiate with a unique light that stunned this reader.

The characters in Cross-Smith’s stories are described as extremely perceptive, even when they don’t makes choices based on what they see and know. In “And It Can Never Be Too Dark or Too Bright,” the narrator describes her two beaus. One of them “…kisses like a dying man. He kisses like he worships women. Your mouth is his church.” Here, it is less that the man is smooth, but that the woman is perceptive as the focus. Death/worship/church all go together, but the images are a bit off kilter for romance. In this case, though, Cross-Smith makes it work because the way the narrator’s beau treats her is deadly serious, which must be deduced.leesa

A moment of clarity doesn’t have to be explained, a kindness that Cross-Smith extends to her readers. In “Kentucky Sugar,” a thirty-five-year-old woman takes a younger lover. She gives him an orange ball cap to wear when he visits one day, which we learn originally belonged to her ex-husband. When the ex shows up to pick up some of his things only to see the young guy in his old hat, things get heated. After the ex leaves, the woman decides she must do something:

She snatches the orange ball cap from the floor and goes into the kitchen. I [the young lover] follow her. She shoves it into the garbage can, smashes it down. She takes a big ladle of sauce from dinner, pours it in there, too. “Alright,” she says after she’s finished.

In these brief sentences, it dawned on me that the woman had thrown the hat–a memory of the ex-husband–into the trash before. By mashing it down, she’s pushing it into the filth, but to prevent herself from removing the hat later, she makes it a mess with a ladle of wet food. None of these thoughts are told to the reader; we get it on our own in a way that allows us to join the moment.

Although the woman and her hat don’t seem definitively strong, women are in control in this collection. When a young woman leaves her boyfriend, who previously had many lovers that he dumped for her, she breaks up with him via a note stuck in his cigarettes:

Come on. I am a lioness on a big, hot rock. I told you that.

The woman makes the final decision, her way, and unapologetically. Even the repeated vowels–“o” in particular–give the words a strong sound in the reader’s ear.

Some of the strong characters may not be likable to the reader, say, if you hate cheating or women in control of their sex lives. For me, it’s not about questioning whether a character’s decisions match my personal values, but how well those decisions are sewn into the fabric of the character. Read this example of a woman who has now run away from her husband, Dominic, twice, and is thinking of having sex in the middle of the night with a veritable stranger name Roscoe in the dugout of a baseball field:

And I thought about how maybe if Dom got there a little to early, he’d catch the end of it. He’d stand there and watch Roscoe’s ass tighten and let go, my skirt hitched up somewhere by my ribcage, my brown legs and cowboy boots wilding up into the hot-breath night air. My panties pushed to the side like they were nothing. I’d say hold on, hold on, to Dominic and he’d stand there and watch us panting like animals. My mouth pressed against Roscoe’s ear, begging underneath that tight sky and half-moon.

Maybe before he threw me over his shoulder, took me home, got me pregnant and made me a good, decent wife and mom–my husband would stand there and wait until I was finished. On the drive back home I’d feel a little bad, tell him what a good boy he was. Make promises, pat his head. Let his rough, pink tongue lick my hand.

Now, readers may feel that the narrator telling her husband where she is so he can come pick her up on to see her cheat and then have him beg like a dog later is deplorable. However, given the personality of this character established earlier in the story, her strength–her ability to act without permission or guilt–is magnificent. We typically see women waiting at home for adulterous husbands, women crying because they don’t understand how sex can mean nothing and that her husband can still love her. Here, the roles are reversed, and I applaud Cross-Smith’s ability to make me understand the unsavory person.

“Whiskey and Ribbons” is my favorite piece. It stands out not only because the situation is different from many other stories in the book–Evangeline’s husband is killed in the line of duty, leaving her a pregnant widow–but because the emotions got into me and made me join in like some concerned neighbor or relative. The grief of Evangeline is so visceral, and Dalton, her husband’s friend who now lives in her house, is such a good person. Dalton sleeps in his own room, never makes a move on Evangeline, and helps care for the new baby. There are so many good people in the story that only grief seems to be the villain, which is unusual. Watching the minor characters state concern about Evangeline’s living situation and grief adds sprinkles to the flavorful story, but it also makes the reader–and Evangeline–wonder if she’s making good decisions. Eventually, Evangeline comes to a philosophy about how to live:

I listened for it then and I’m still listening for it now. I am always putting my ear down to the railroad tracks, waiting for the distant, low rattle and rumble of something coming to heal me.

trainWhat a twist! In a surprising moment, Cross-Smith describes the sound of a train, which usually spells danger, as something that could be healing. Trains are powerful and can be fast-moving. Perhaps this is what she means? Dalton might be the train; regardless, the author leaves me in this woman’s head to consider her life and the way she chooses to deal with tragedy. Never once did I feel the need to impose my beliefs on Cross-Smith’s characters because she gives them so much life that I accept them–like real people.

Some short story collections blur together, but I really remember a lot of these stories, even if I don’t remember the names of the characters: The girl who had an abortion and lives with her friend and her friend’s mom. The man who meets up with the woman who owns the coffee store. The professor who lives in France. The newlyweds who have kids the same age. I highly recommend Every Kiss a War. If you are on Goodreads, Leesa Cross-Smith loves to reach out to readers. To find out more about her, please check out her Meet the Writer feature published here on Grab the Lapels!

Of Marriageable Age


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.


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.