Tag Archives: women of color

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


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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.

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

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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: Joanne C. Hillhouse #writerslife #authorinterview

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I want to thank Joanne for participating in the “Meet the Writer” series. You can read more about Joanne on her blog or Facebook page. Also, check out the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize – a writing programme Joanne C. Hillhouse founded in 2004 in Antigua and Barbuda.

What kinds of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I do a bit of everything; as a freelance writer, you kind of have to be open to taking on different types of writing projects. What I really love, though, is creative writing – fiction and poetry, and especially fiction. Not just the books I’ve written (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the MoonlightFish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and coming soon Musical Youth) but I just enjoy experimenting within the story writing form, short and long. Much of what I write is character driven and distinctively Caribbean with (I like to believe) universal resonance – because I do believe the stories that are about the human condition can cross over without having to be diluted. I want to keep telling those stories, tell them more. But I also want to continue experimenting, challenging myself. So I’ve tried my hand, within the short story format especially, at everything from noir to fairy tale. And that’s what I wish I could do more of…just new and interesting things. Like fantasy; how cool and what an interesting challenge it would be to create a wholly distinct and totally believable world from scratch. I’d like to try that someday. I hate boxes, labels, limitations, so I just want to keep being creative.

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In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

I’m not sure. I mean, I’m not a product of an MFA programme, but my love affair with literature has been a lifelong one, fed inside and outside of the classroom. At the tertiary level, I’ve done writing and literature courses, though my Bachelors is in Communications, and post-tertiary I’ve done workshops like the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami, the Breadloaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College, and Texas A & M Callaloo Writers workshop at Brown University. And I hope to do more of that kind of thing. But I think more important than “academia,” for me, has been this passion for reading and writing, and growing and being open to the opportunities to be mentored in person or on the page…because I do believe a lot of what I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from reading…I love to read.

In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

I wrote a poem once called “Stealing Life,” and that’s it in a nutshell. It’s not a conscious act, most of the time, and it’s not a linear relationship, but life feeds my writing; without life there’s nothing to write, is there?

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

I’ll let you know when that happens.

What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

At some point, you have to let it go, happy or not; at some point, you’ve done all you can with it. Sometimes that means filing it, never to be seen by the public; and sometimes that means putting it out there and letting it continue on its journey without you. The thing is, though, the act of writing is what makes me happy; I feel so blessed (okay, sometimes cursed, but mostly blessed) that I have this talent and I want to keep growing it. So, when I half-joke about not being happy with what I’ve written, it’s not meant to be falsely humble or overly critical, it’s a reflection of my desire to keep surprising myself. So, in that sense, I’ve been happy with everything, but I’m not satisfied. I do a fairy tale, for instance, and I try it out on the kids, and I take their feedback to heart and I work it out, and I submit it to a contest, and it earns honourable mention…and I’m happy, happy happy happy….but what more could I have done, you know. Or, I do a young adult script and its second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction…and I’m happy, happy happy happy…but what more could I have done? I’m very driven…and it’s not about what tier I’m on because I’m still very much a writer on the hustle… it’s about feeling like I heard the character right and told her or his story right; that’s what matters to me, and I’ll fight for that. That someone read something I wrote and was moved by it is what matters to me, and I’ll treasure that…but I’m always about, “What more could I have done?” I’m far from feeling comfortable.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

Until Oh Gad! I had pretty much convinced myself that my family didn’t read my writing, or at least had the grace not to discuss it with me if they did, so that I could pretend they didn’t…that’s changing, and all the uncomfortableness that comes with that, especially when the realism has them, and this applies to friends and family and random strangers, giving me the side eye…the hmmm… though truthfully that type of response goes all the way back to my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend…from my sister telling me how much the tanty character, modelled on our tanty, made her cry, one of my favourite responses to date, and not because I like to make people cry, but because I like when readers have a real moment with what I’ve written… to people asking if the boy’s story was my story, though I’m clearly a girl…so on the one hand, yay, you’ve done your job, but on the other hand, hello, it’s fiction. But I have to say, in my world (Antigua and Barbuda, in the Caribbean), being a writer, wanting to be a writer, it takes a bit of going against the grain, and I have to say both friends and family have been supportive… even when they don’t get me…or understand this journey I’m on.

Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

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Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Holt Paperbacks, 2008 (originally published in 2001)

Nickel and Dimed was written by a famous essayist, so right away she has credibility. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote 14 books of nonfiction before Nickel and Dimed, and she has a PhD in biology (though many of her books are not about science). Nickel and Dimed started out as a simple question during a fancy lunch: why doesn’t someone do one of those old-fashioned investigative journalism pieces on the working poor? Basically, she accidentally nominated herself.

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Ehrenreich sets up parameters for her inside scoop:

  1. No using skills learned from her work as an essayist or her college education.
  2. Accept only the highest paying job, stick to it to the best of her ability, and no complaining.
  3. Live in the least expensive place possible, but stay safe.

She also decides to limit the discomfort she could have with some advantages:

  1. She always had a car, which was not paid for with her low-wage earnings (except gas).
  2. She would never be homeless — “no shelters or sleeping in cars for me.”
  3. She wouldn’t skip a meal, “cheating” if necessary to eat.

Ehrenreich acknowledges that being a single white woman in excellent health with no kids is not how the working poor exist. There’s not much she can do though, because no one’s going to loan her a kid, and she can’t take back years of health insurance and The Stair Master to make her fifty-something body reflect the deteriorating health of the working poor. I didn’t think it fair for her to have reliable transportation, but she claims that no one wants to read nonfiction about waiting for the bus.

Actually, I had the audacity to challenge what I thought of as Ehrenreich’s “wimpiness.” Would sleeping in her car one night kill her? Is one missed meal really a big deal? Then I remembered, oh yeah, it’s actually pretty dangerous to sleep cars due to criminals and police. And yes, Ehrenreich is working so hard at her low-wage jobs that missing one meal actually might cause her to pass out instead of suffer a rumbly tumbly. That was the biggest problem with this book, to me: I wanted her to really, really live like the working poor, but it’s impossible. Therefore, I wish Ehrenreich had further interviewed her co-workers once she completed her time at each job. Why not let them speak for themselves?

Nickel and Dimed is broken into three sections: “Serving in Florida,” “Scrubbing in Maine,” and “Selling in Minnesota.” The goal was to make it through a month and have enough money to make rent a second month. I found the most illuminating part of Ehrenreich’s story to be the housing issue. First, the working poor don’t have enough money to pay a deposit on an apartment, the first month’s rent, and that annoying application fee. Thus, they’re all living in pricey yet sordid motels that rent by the week in which people double and triple up in single rooms. Secondly, weekly motel rooms should have some sort of kitchen area because it’s serving as home. Most don’t. As a result, the working poor eat fast food or convenience store junk that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking. People wonder why the poor are so fat; Ehrenreich’s book makes it easy to see why. If you think you know about being poor (and haven’t been poor yourself), Ehrenreich’s book still has something to offer.

Ehrenreich’s language is a lot harsher than I would expect from a journalist. I read Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America a while back and remember a clear, unbiased voice through the whole thing. Not true in Nickel and Dimed. This may be that Bright-Sided was not investigative journalism, which requires the writer to get out there, get dirty, and take some big risks. Here is a passage from Ehrenreich’s time as a maid in Maine:

The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it. For those who have never cleaned a really dirty toilet, I should explain that there are three kinds of shit stains. There are remnants of landslides running down the inside of toilet bowls. There are the splash-back remains on the underside of toilet seats. And, perhaps most repulsively, there’s sometimes a crust of brown on the rim of a toilet seat, where a turd happened to collide on its dive into the water.

How are my composition students, to whom I’m assigning this book, going to take this passage this coming fall? And at a Catholic college, no less. Sure, it’s unprofessional. It lacks all pretense of an unbiased attitude. But Ehrenreich’s passion creates an honesty that’s meant to make you angry for her — and the millions of other maids who do this job day in and out in the United States — and realize how dehumanizing low-wage jobs are.

The odd thing is that when Ehrenreich isn’t using angry language, her vocabulary can be complex. She often chooses a more complicated word over the simpler one. Is this her education showing? Should she have chosen more simplistic language and think of the low-wage earners as her audience? Then again, they already know what their lives are like… Essentially, the audience for Nickel and Dimed is the upper-middle class.

Another thing Bright-Sided led me to expect was sources — a lot of sources. Nickel and Dimed relies quite a bit on The New York Times (which I can already hear my students calling “that liberal media”) and a book about Sam Walton, the creator of Wal-Mart. Other sources include local newspapers from the three cities in which she worked, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a few books about maids mentioned, which emphasize that the services the big maid companies provide are to make your house look clean; almost no disinfecting happens. Therefore, readers must really rely on Ehrenreich’s experiences to be described fairly and honestly. Photos also would have increased Ehrenreich’s credibility, especially of those motel rooms that she describes.

My copy of Nickel and Dimed has an afterword in which Ehrenreich recounts some of the individual responses to her book. Many middle class people were surprised; the working poor felt like they finally had a voice. While the book’s 2001 publication doesn’t make it outdated, I’ve spent my entire adult life surviving a recession. And here are some fun facts:

  • I’ve had four low-wage jobs of note:
    • direct care worker, meaning I took care of mentally disabled adults
    • front desk clerk at a campground, which means checking in campers and selling day passes
    • pushing carts and bagging groceries at a grocery store
    • front desk worker at a college, which literally requires just sitting at a desk
  • Three of these jobs required me to show up 10-15 minutes early to work (unpaid). This can amount to a few hours of free labor per two-week pay period.
  • Three of these jobs provided zero paid breaks. I simply used the restroom or ate food whenever I wanted (which was allowed for 5 minutes at a time), but if someone needed help, I would be scolded  by management, customers, or fellow employees for having been unavailable immediately.
  • My husband had a part-time low-wage job at Best Buy  on the Geek Squad that gave him very few hours each week. Instead, they would randomly call and ask him to come in immediately, which meant we never left our home for fear of being too far away for him to get to work — otherwise, he would lose those hours.
  • I was once yelled at for clocking in at my grocery store job before putting my purse in a locker. I cost the company 30 seconds and thus was reprimanded.
  • My boss in direct care work would purposely pull employees aside and tell them lies about the other employees so none of us would trust each other. For an entire summer, my co-workers thought I was a spy for the owner of the company, whom I had never met.
  • The grocery store (and many low-wage job employers) only provided the schedule two weeks at a time, so you couldn’t plan anything.

When the majority of your adult life is lived post-9/11, poverty doesn’t surprise you, nor does low-wage work (if you can get it). While Ehrenreich’s jobs didn’t surprise me, I have a feeling her book will still shock my students this fall. I don’t know if there are more contemporary investigative journalism books on the working poor, but Nickel and Dimed is the cornerstone, and a must read.

Note* Thanks to this book, I intent to read Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville (How the High Cost of Low Prices is Hurting America) by Anthony Bianco, which looks at employee treatment. There are numerous books on Wal-Mart, many dealing with economy, environment, and history, but I want more about the workers in particular.

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

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Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

bad feminist

Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

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The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

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What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

#DiverseBookBloggers

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Recently, the hashtag #DiverseBookBloggers has been uniting book bloggers across Twitter who want to see not only more diversity in books, but in those who read and review books. The hashtag was started by Naz, a Texan book blogger who identifies as a male Latino. Read the story of how and why Naz started #DiverseBookBloggers.

Since most of the book blogging world consists of straight white women, I was sure that I didn’t count as diverse. Later, book blogger Darkowaa from African Book Addict tagged me on Twitter as an “awesome” diverse book blogger, and I wondered how that label held up. Yes, I only review books written by folks who identify as women. No, I don’t really limit what people send me (though I don’t take Young Adult lit; I am not the reviewer for this genre). Yes, I prefer to review books by women of color and who fall on the LGBT spectrum.

Yet, when I have submissions open, it’s almost always straight white women who are self-published. These authors’ requests flooded my inbox. I thought I could include diversity by accepting people who were too “edgy” or marginalized to be published through traditional means, but I soon learned that “self-published” can mean anything — from an author who wanted full control of her book, to those who have grown impatient with editing, submitting, and revising and put the book out into the world far too soon (editors do serve a purpose).

I promptly closed my submissions and started asking authors or publishers for books that sounded bold or diverse. Or, I would seek out books by marginalized authors from my library. I started Grab the Lapels because I wasn’t reviewing diverse books when I worked for magazines. If a book by an author who identifies as male grabs my interest, I publish that review on another fantastic blog — the blogger is great about letting me review what I want, so long as it’s from a small press.

But.

What does Naz from Read Diverse Books blog consider “diverse”? Do I live up to the label? Here’s what he says:

What do we mean by “diverse”? Who qualifies as #DiverseBookBloggers?

#DiverseBookBloggers are not white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied bloggers who write predominantly about authors of that same description.

They ideally blog about #ownvoices authors and advocate diverse reading habits for all. This includes white bloggers who write about diverse literature regularly.

They find themselves in the LGBTQ+ spectrum or are people with disabilities and blog about books that represent them when possible

The hashtag more generally includes any person who is LGBT, a person of color, or a person with a disability who also is a book blogger. But diverse reading is preferred.

Well…I’m pretty sure I don’t fit. I’m a straight, married, able-bodied (though a bit lazy and totally out of shape), middle class women. However, an examination of my Goodreads “read” pile for 2016 shows that 12 out of 27 books I’ve read are from diverse voices! I include books from victims, people of color, those on the LGBT spectrum, non-Christian religious, and authors who are not from the United States. Here are some of those books:


The Rabbi’s Cat and The Rabbi’s Cat 2

  • Graphic novels by French author Joann Sfar
  • Explore Judaism and Islam in Africa
  • Comments on colonialism
  • Translated from French
  • Wicked funny

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Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary and Bogeywoman and Blue is the Warmest Color

  • Star lesbians as the main character
  • Have strong women as secondary characters who help the main character
  • Explore coming out as lesbians

best lois lenzBogeywoman Covermaroh book cover


Powerful Days and Between the World and Me

  • Examine racial tension in the United States between black and white communities
  • Give anecdotal evidence of how violence against black bodies happens insidiously.

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Missoula and PHD to PhD

  • Both books examine sexual assault and what it’s like (as a result, both books can be very upsetting).
  • Describe how sexual assault victims are not taken serious because of the context of the assault, such as the victim was drinking, a prostitute, a drug addict, or friends with the perpetrator.
  • Explore how victims are ignored or not believed when facing their perpetrators due to their gender or race.

missoulaPo Ho on Dope


Explosion and A Decent Ride and The Normal State of Mind

  • These books are by individuals from countries that are not the United States (Russia, Scotland, and India, respectively).
  • Examine contexts that affect the characters, such Soviet Russia and the lack of human rights, the drug and HIV epidemic aftermath in Scotland, and the rights of women in India
  • Each book taught me something new about a country and culture I did not learn from reading books by authors born in American.
  • Note that Zabrisky and Welsh both live in the U.S. at this point in time.

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I want to thank Naz for starting the conversation about diverse bloggers! I made the comment on his site that I often try to avoid book bloggers who only seek out characters with whom they can relate. To me, “relate” is another way of saying “just like me.” If you are a blogger and you feel that you sympathize or empathize with a character, make sure you aren’t accidentally saying “relate” — empathy and sympathy shows growth in a reader and helps your audience know that you are open to and accepting of new ideas and different cultures.

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

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How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

TITLE: How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch
AUTHOR: D. Bryant Simmons
PUBLISHER: Bravebird Publishing (Jan 2014)

D. Bryant Simmons has already made an appearance at Grab the Lapels when she answered my questions for the Meet the Writer series, and I am pleased to be able to review her book, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch, which is the first in what is called the Morrow Girls series. D’s second book in the series, Blue Sky, was recently released, so if you like this review and read the book, the second one is available!

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is set mostly in the 1970s and is about Belinda (“Pecan”), a girl with a daddy who raised her right and loved her so, but when a Ricky comes into her town, things get messy. Pecan’s daddy doesn’t really seem to like Ricky, but he can’t say too much about it, as he has a heart attack and dies within the first few pages. Ricky and Pecan get married and move to Chicago where Ricky trains as a boxer and Pecan starts having babies. Girl after girl is born, and Ricky really wants a boy. He appears to hold this against Pecan, but that’s not surprising; Ricky has a temper on him and fists trained to hit. For several years, Ricky’s Aunt Clara lives with the family, and she is often able to keep Ricky from knocking the crap out of Pecan by threatening him with a cast iron skillet. But one night, when Pecan goes dancing with her girlfriends after Aunt Clara tells her she has to, Pecan meets an honorable man.

It’s not 100% clear to me what would be considered a spoiler, so I’ll stop there. There are two distinct aspects of this novel that stand out: the way Simmons challenges the reader to face their preconceived notions about domestic abuse, and the pacing.

It’s fairly early in the story that the reader learns that Ricky hits. Pecan tries to use her voice for the first time, but is silenced:

That’s all I could get out before he hit me again. And again. And again. I just couldn’t believe it. Not me. Other girls might have that happen to them but not me. My man was not doing that to me.

There are a series of thoughts that I had as a reader that made me feel horrible, and I believe Simmons was doing this to me on purpose. First, I paid attention to why Ricky hit Pecan the first time. Shortly after their first baby is born, Pecan packs up the baby and as much food as she can carry and tries to run away. She says that she has been lying to him to tell him what he wants to hear, but if I think back on the timeline, they haven’t been together that long. Why did she marry the first guy to talk to her, I ask, if she’s just going to lie to him? When I think about Ricky finding Pecan standing on the sidewalk with his baby and her guilt, I realize that I would be mad, too. Then comes the hitting. It’s that moment that Simmons makes readers tie together poor logic: Pecan was being a horrible person, and Ricky was just reacting. Of course, people make these logical leaps in the real world all the time. We excuse the hitters and blame the victims–and are quick to do so. When Pecan spends years and years and years getting hit by Ricky, readers are forced to wonder why she doesn’t call the police. Why she doesn’t try to run away again. Why she doesn’t ask for help. We think, Oh, she’s probably thinking he doesn’t hit the kids, so it’s okay, but once he does she’ll leave (how stupid; of course he’ll eventually hit the kids). This is where we must all stop; why are we asking questions of what Pecan does and doesn’t do and not of what Ricky does? This is one of the triumph’s of Simmons’s novel: she makes readers go to these uncomfortable places and face their own judgments.

The pacing becomes very important to making the novel realistic. The children growing are great time indicators, and part of their growth is not just age, but in cognitive function. They begin to realize what’s going on, to speak to their mother differently than their father, to realize what makes them afraid. Watching the four daughters grow into their personalities gives the book a slow, steady pace that demonstrates just how long the domestic abuse goes on. We don’t need to read about every punch and every cut, black eye, and broken bone (I remember reading these details in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and feeling sick over and over) because there are other ways Simmons shows how time progresses. When child protective services gets involved, it seems like the whole CPS agent/home visits is a waste of time to the point where I felt myself getting angry with an agency designed to help children be with their parents and be properly cared for. It feels like Pecan will never be with her family and happy and unafraid because someone will always be a barrier.

Took my time going down the stairs. One step at a time. Holding onto the banister and the wall. Had to come up with new reasons to get outta bed every night. Wasn’t no sense in having both of us worry. I flicked on the lights and checked each window on the main floor. Had to wait until bedtime because Heziah was in the habit of opening a window every time he went into a room, but most of the time he forgot to close and lock it. Wasn’t his fault. He just ain’t know like I did. I knew better than to leave anything open or unlocked. We’d gotten the locks changed, but Ricky Morrow wasn’t the type to let a locked door stop him.

And it is this slow pacing that gives the book its realistic feel; separation, violence, legal issues, and parents’ rights are not easy topics to summarize and stuff in the closet. It’s a long, drawn-out process that affects so many individuals, and Simmons captures that reality in her book.

Overall, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is novel that is able to capture many characters and render them in a realistic tone that makes it pleasurable to read in addition to the challenging topics readers will face.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture

This post is to update you on whether or not I was brave enough to ask for an autograph at the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture I attended last night at Saint Mary’s College. During the summer, between semesters, I work at the front desk in dorms at this women’s college; therefore, I know the place pretty well. I arrived a bit after 7:00 to find the entire lobby of the building packed. I moved to the front and got my will call ticket, which put me right by the doors that would soon open so we could all enter the auditorium. Like I said, I’m familiar with the buildings on the Saint Mary’s campus, so I was able to walk right to the front and get the closest possible seat. The seating was not assigned, which I always think is a mistake for a popular event.

Somehow, two undergrads from the University of Notre Dame reserved their seats. The young man, a junior, was hard core fan-girling. He said, “Oh, my god” about a dozen times in a row (literally). I told him I was auto-correcting him in my head. He then apologized, thinking I was upset that he was using the lord’s name in vain in a Catholic college setting. It wasn’t that, I said, but the fact that he was stuck on repeat.

Two young students, women of color, asked me if the seats on the other side of me were taken, and I said no. They were so surprised because the whole place was packed. They wouldn’t stop saying “Shut. Up.” “Shut. Up. Oh, my God, shut. Up.” I remember doing what people now call “fan-girling” myself upon seeing the faces of Salmon Rushdie, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Jeanette Winterson, and Lidia Yuknavitch. But I felt different, more grown up. Like I’ve reached the age that even though I know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a big deal, I also know she’s a person. And I’ve been to so many lectures and readings that they’re starting to sounds the same, no matter where the person is from.

First, Adichie delivered a 30 minute lecture. Then, she took questions for an hour. I discovered there were a number of Nigerian students in the audience who had come from nearby colleges, students whose parents are from Nigeria, but they are not. Here are some of the main points Adichie made during the event. I tried to get the wording as close to her’s as possible, but really it’s all paraphrased because I couldn’t record the lecture.

She made the point that feminists can’t just critique, they have to do something. Here, I was immediately reminded of my experience reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I’d read Gay’s articles online and always found them insightful but puzzling. Why, I couldn’t figure out. When I read a collection of these essays altogether, I realized what it was: Gay has many things she critiques, but rarely in her book did she have some sort of suggestion to do something about the problems.

Women are complicit in demeaning women and hurting feminism. This one is easy to see in everyday life. Women constantly tear each other down, and I’m sure you all see it.

Women shouldn’t worry so much about what men who aren’t feminists think. They’re going to think it anyway. Worry more about raising children to be feminists. Adichie also added the point that a wife can find a fairly balanced man and then shape him by teaching him. Hoping that a whole generation of women across the globe will raise their sons differently is beautiful, but this also neglects the effects of other people who are not in the same age cohort as children raised as feminists. Adichie was responding to a question from the audience, and it seemed like the real point was ignore the trolls.

Professional women feel like they can’t talk about the surgery they did or the class they taught, but reassure everyone their husband is cared for in order to be forgiven for having a job. This is a point with which I am familiar, but I guess I never thought of it as feminist guilt. I always thought women were trying to show the world they are do-it-alls. This point definitely gave me something to think about.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel set during a war that is not far in our past. They people involved are still alive, and so when her book came out and she did her first event, people yelled at each other, which she said she found quite delightful because now they were talking about it. She also said that if a writer is going to write about a period in history, especially a recent and contested one, then they’d better get it right, factually. I enjoyed this answer Adichie gave to a question from the audience. I’ve read too many books and seen too many movies that romanticize tumultuous periods. It’s one of the main reasons I won’t go see the movie Race even though I love Jesse Owens. What are the chances that film ends with the true end of his story: Owens being so poor because he can’t get a job in American because he’s black, so he starts running races against horses to entertain white people?

There are so many problems in the world, and when people write back to those things, they are not writing art. I would have liked to hear more about this comment from Adichie. Many readings I’ve attended emphasize that when we see obstacles in life, writing will help us make sense of them. I came away puzzled by this comment.

A professor from a nearby college asked how to say the names of the characters in Americanah. One of the names is hard to say, Adichie told us, even in Nigeria, because Adichie likes to be difficult. She says she used to read Russian books growing up and didn’t even try to say their names, they were always “the one who starts with an I.” She thought this all was quite funny, and the audience did, too!

An African student who identified as a writer asked if Africans must write books that are political. Adichie said no, and said she knew a few African authors who write genre stories. There didn’t seem to be many examples, though! It was a good question!

A black student asked Adichie what her advice would be to women of color navigating college. Adichie’s first piece of advice was step 1, throw away the weave. The author laughed a lot and seemed delighted by the questions asked of her. She described watching YouTube videos about natural black hair when she feels stuck writing, and everyone laughed. There were a lot of women of color in the audience. She said natural black hair is about doing something for yourself, and pride.

After the reading, one of the fangirls next to me asked if I liked the event. I paused for a long time and said it was good. I’m sure she thought this meant I didn’t really like it. Who doesn’t just say, “YES!” right away?

I realized I was a million miles away from being a fangirl undergrad like I once was and that instead of being in awe of speakers, I forget they are famous and think about the messages, their practicality, and where I’ve heard those messages before. I’m constructing patterns in my head. The ideas about global perspectives and compassion that Adichie talked about reminded me of things Salman Rushdie said at a lecture in Lansing, Michigan, in 2005. He said, “For God’s sakes, open the world a bit.” Adichie also made a strong connection to the people of color in the audience (without ignoring anyone else) like Nikki Giovanni did at Central Michigan University in 2008. There were so many black students, both college and high school, at the Giovanni event who came to hear what she had to say about black lives in contemporary America. Adichie did the same, but added a multi-cultural perspective as a Nigerian.

In the end, there were no books for sale and no book signing. I think the many, many people I saw sitting around me, clutching their copies of her book eagerly, were super disappointed. I’m okay with that; I’ll head to the library.

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Can I Have Your Autograph?

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Can I Have Your Autograph?

Tonight, I am going to a lecture at Saint Mary’s College in northern Indiana. I only happened to hear about it on my local NPR station a few days ago: the famous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is coming! I bought tickets and am already thinking about how early to get there to procure the best seat. Now, I must confess that I have not read Adichie’s work. I know she is relevant and important, but sometimes it takes that personal connection of seeing and hearing the author live for me to actually buy the book. Why, my brain might ask, should I buy one pivotal author’s book over another’s? It’s often the reading or lecture that pushes me to purchase.

I attended Central Michigan University for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (both in fiction writing). The creative writing department there worked very hard to bring in many authors, and I was lucky to meet so many amazing people. Many of the writers publish with smaller, yet prestigious, presses, and maybe you haven’t heard of them, but one writer, Steve Tomasula, made such and impression on me that I applied to his Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Notre Dame. And that’s how I came to live in northern Indiana! Although I graduated with my MFA in 2010, I still live in the area. My husband earned an amazing job at the university right after I graduated, and he’s been working his way up rapidly as a trusted and caring IT employee. I’ve been teaching composition, literature, and creative writing.

The interesting thing about a city with such a famous college like the University of Notre Dame is that there are many other colleges nearby: the aforementioned Saint Mary’s College, which is the sister school to Notre Dame (while only women may graduate from Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame went co-ed in the 1970s). There’s also Holy Cross College, where I teach and am a happy member of the community. A few miles away is a satellite campus of Indiana University and many community colleges. Altogether, there is always a fiction or poetry reading to go to! I am lucky that the University of Notre Dame has such tremendous revenue, because that money can be channeled into the arts.

I’m thinking of waiting in that long line tonight to get Adichie’s autograph. I’ll buy her book before I get there and then stand among the giddy undergraduates of Saint Mary’s and feel a bit foolish. I remember being terrified of asking authors to sign my books. I have since learned that they’re pretty intimidated that anyone even wants it. Buy Adichie isn’t a small-press author; she’s big news. Will she quickly say hello, ask how to spell “Melanie” and the sign her name with such speed that I won’t even be able to read it later? Or will she write something thoughtful but brief, like Junot Diaz, who signed my book “Melanie, for your heart.”

Below are the messages of all the women I’ve seen read. Please do not assume I only attend readings given by women. There are lots of men I’ve met and spoken with and thoroughly enjoyed. Yet, Grab the Lapels is a lady zone, so you’re getting the ladies.

AUTOGRAPHS


“For Melanie–Fellow fiction writer in South Bend! At ND 2/16/11. Kelcey”

Kelcey Parker, who signed her short story collection, For Sale By Owner


“For Melanie–Pleasure to meet you and best of luck to you and your career goals. Best wishes, Debra Di Blasi”

Debra Di Blasi, who signed her two-novellas-in-one, Drought

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A doodle Debra Di Blasi included


“Dear Melanie! With great hopes for your own work! Deb”

Deb Olin Unferth, who signed her novel Vacation


“For Melanie–Sorry about the evils of my book! (only sort of–grateful–xo Lucy”

Lucy Corin, who signed her short story collection, The Entire Predicament. I had told the author that I had taught her novel, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, the semester before at Saint Mary’s College and almost got in trouble because there were a number of rapes, murders, and sex scenes in the book, and many of the young ladies felt offended.


“The heart is the toughest part of the body; tenderness is in the hands. Lidia Yuknavitch”

Lidia Yuknavitch, who signed her book Real to Reel


“Melanie, keep writing your great work! Best wishes always, Kim Chinquee”

Kim Chinquee, who signed her book of flash fiction Oh Baby


“To Melanie. Sheila Heti, feb 9 06”

Sheila Heti, who signed her book The Middle Stories. Although she didn’t write much, she also drew a picture of my ear, for some reason.

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I maintain that my ear is not that fat.

This book has since been reprinted, but the original was plain yellow, with only the title and author’s name. Sheila Heti and her friends (this according to the author) had a party during which everyone put on stickers of various photos Heti had chosen for the book. Everyone was then encouraged to draw on the stickers with sharpie. The end result is each book buyer gets a one-of-a-kind product!

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“For Melanie”–and then on the title page is the title THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY–“but this is now your book!  With best wishes and thanks for reading. Caitlin Horrocks”

Caitlin Horrocks, who signed her short story collection, This is Not Your City


“For Melanie–Thanks for reading! Good [luck] with all @ ND [University of Notre Dame] & onward. Looking forward to many more conversations & the emergence of your book! Lily Hoang, AWP Chicago, 12 Feb 2009”

Lily Hoang, who signed her book Changing


“3/20/2011. For Melanie, Hope you enjoy these essays. Best of luck with your writing. Edwidge Danticat”

Edwidge Danticat, who signed her collection of essays, Create Dangerously


“To Melanie, a real Michigan lady–all best–Lolita Hernandez”

Lolita Hernandez, who signed her fiction collection, Autopsy of an Engine


“For Melanie–So happy you got here! All best, Carole”

Carole Maso, who signed her novel The Art Lover


“For dear Melanie with joy and gratitude! Melanie”

Melanie Rae Thon, who signed her fiction collection, Girls in the Grass


“3-24-2010. For Melanie–Thanks for coming out tonight! Warm wishes, Frances”

Frances Hwang, who signed her fiction collection Transparency


“Melanie, may you find a part of Haiti in these words. Roxane Gay”

Roxane Gay, who signed her short story collection, Ayiti. I bought this book at a writing conference because the publishers were selling them for $2. Apparently, the pages didn’t print just how they wanted them to, so they were getting rid of them. Ayiti was Gay’s first book, but I went to see her read on a tour for An Untamed State. I had already bought the e-book in anticipation of the reading, which obviously can’t be signed!


“To Melanie–What a pleasure to meet you at Notre Dame. Three cheers for Michigan! B” and then she drew three hearts and wrote the date, “Feb 16, 2012.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell, who signed her novel Once Upon a River

I went back to see Bonnie at a different reading years later, where she signed my copy of her new fiction collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: “To Melanie–What a joy to see you again! Bonnie Jo Campbell 10-3-2015”


“For Melanie, who really gets it–thanks! 2.15.12 Jaimy in S.B. [South Bend, IN]”

Jaimy Gordon, who signed her novel Bogeywoman


“For Melanie, a writer I’ve always admired, and a fan! Valerie 4/3/13”

Valerie Sayers, who signed her novel The Powers


“To Melanie with thanks! Azareen”

Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, who signed her book, Fra Keeler


“Noy Holland”

Noy Holland, who signed her book What Begins With Bird. I’m not entirely sure why she did not write anything else! Like I said, some authors get very shy when you ask them to sign your book.


Do you get your books autographed? Anything particularly interesting appear in your pages? Thanks for reading about my adventures seeing women read and lecture on creative writing. I’m sure tonight with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be amazing!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Image from The Guardian