Bird is the debut novel from Crystal Chan, who will be a featured reader at this year’s Mixed Remixed Festival. So, I was excited to get my hands on this book. To the writer’s credit, I read Bird in one day; something I haven’t done with another book in a long time. The narrator, Jewel, is an engaging and passionate young girl trying to carve a path for herself in the aftermath of her older brother’s death. Born the same day he dies, Jewel’s whole existence is in his shadow.
When her life is brightened by a new friend with the same name as her brother, Jewel must balance her own happiness with the superstitions of her family. Chan presents an interesting mix of culture, especially as the story takes place in Iowa. Jewel’s mix is Jamaican/White/Mexican, and the writer uses both Jamaican and Mexican superstitions as influences on the family’s actions. This allows the story to unfold in a surprising way and highlights Jewel’s growth throughout the story.
I wonder if people are afraid of us, of the circumstances of my birth, of Bird’s death, of how we’re mixing cultures and stories and magic that shouldn’t be mixed (20)
Sloan’s collection of essays are written in a sharp, modernist style. Her book explores the complexities of race, culture, society and media. It’s packed with close human moments – subtle interactions that have a profound impact on her development.
Fleur Philips doesn’t waste any space in her novel, Crumble. Her accessible writing style and well paced plot carry the story. It’s the kind of story which feels both familiar and new. A San Francisco Book Festival Winner in YA Fiction, Crumble alternates between the perspective of Sarah and Alex, both high school students in Kalispell, Montana. Sarah is an average, small-town teenage girl who lives with her single-parent father, George – except for a secret she keeps from her traditionalist father. Sarah is dating one of the few black kids in town, and as is quickly revealed, becomes pregnant. Alex works for George, who owns a gun shop, and because of his tumultuous family life, develops a close bond to him. When George senses that something is off with Sarah, he asks Alex to keep an eye on her. As Alex discovers Sarah’s relationship with her boyfriend, David, both of their lives begin to unravel. Sarah, caught between love, practicality, and loyalty to her father, searches for a solution that will keep everyone happy. As the novel comes to a close, Alex, armed with both George’s fear for his daughter and new familiarity with guns, considers taking it upon himself to right any wrongs in honor of the man who has helped him.
Though the first chapter starts slow in order to introduce many characters, the pace picks up quickly as Sarah’s situation complicates. There is a clear sense of tension about her relationship with David from the beginning, as Sarah knows the social expectations set by her community: “Reggie, Jalen and David aren’t treated any differently than anybody else, as long as the mingling of blacks and whites stays within the boundaries of friendship. But for me to be dating one of them?” (20). Philips makes sure to give the characters complexity beyond differences in race, (with only the exception of David’s parents, who seem to take the news of the relationship and the pregnancy very easily), and provides an interesting backstory that weighs heavily on each of the main characters. By switching points of view, she provides a full landscape of the world these characters inhabit. The dialogue and interaction of the younger characters is realistic and well structured. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel for me is the dynamic between Sarah and George, and how this secret changes their home life in a profound way. With Crumble, Philips has highlighted the tensions that still exist today about interracial relationships, and contributed to the dialogue about the modern face of racism. She does this with characters than can fully connect with a young adult audience and with a twist at the end, offers a glimpse of a reality that is far from perfect.
Here is my conversation with Fleur:
The switch in POV is surprising and refeshing. What made you chose to write in two POVs?
I had originally written the story in 3rd person for both characters, alternating chapters. By doing this, I allowed myself to remain a safe distance from both of them, but after rereading the novel (and having several other people read it), I felt I needed to be more in touch with Sarah’s character. For some reason, she felt too distant from me. Once I rewrote the story with Sarah in first person, I was able to ask more in regards to her feelings and emotions, and I think this made the novel more powerful.
How did Alex’s POV open up the story for you?
One the contrary, I needed to remain distant from Alex, but I also needed Alex to have a voice, more than just from Sarah’s perspective, which is what he would of been if I’d written only from Sarah’s POV. Although I personally wanted to be distant from Alex (as the author), I didn’t want my readers to be. I wanted them to identify with Alex, not just Sarah. By allowing Alex to have his own voice, I was able to create an identity for him that would have not happened otherwise.
In light of several school tragedies, did any current events affect the way you approach the end of this novel?
No. I actually finished the novel a few weeks before the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I find this ironic because Alex doesn’t obtain his gun by purchasing it (as did James Holmes in the Colorado movie theatre shooting). Alex was given the weapon, and taught how to use it, by the man he considered his mentor (much like Adam Lanza who took the weapons he was taught to use by his mother and that belonged to her). I has actually considered going back and changing the ending after Sandy Hook, but I realized I’d be going against my writer’s instincts – the “go with your gut” ideology. As a reader, I always want a happy ending, but in the real world, this just isn’t the case. If I’d changed the ending in light of current events, I would’ve done it for the wrong reason.
You write about how antiquated race politics can still persist in modern times – what about this theme resonates with you?
I guess I just don’t understand how race is even an issue anymore, and that misunderstanding infuriates me. Writing about it helps relieve some of the anger.
Can you share any of your own race-based experiences and/or the differences or similarities you’ve witnessed between Montana and California?
I have friends who are the children of mixed couples, and I have friends who are in biracial relationships. So, although my personal experience is secondary, I have witnessed the looks and heard the comments, and as I mentioned above, it just infuriates me. In Montana, I grew up on a reservation, so my high school was roughly 70% white and 30% Native American. There was definitely a divide between us, but I don’t feel that division was as obvious as it might be in parts of the rural south between whites and African Americans. I’ve lived in Southern California now for almost 12 years. When I go back to Montana, I definitely see the difference, although at times subtle. For example, the anti-Obama stickers in places up there aren’t as politically correct as the ones you might see down here. In Crumble the intolerance is not necessarily obvious. Nobody is throwing stones in windows or egging cars, but there’s a definite tension. And that’s what it’s like in Montana – quiet, but apparent.
Though Alex wants to be the hero, no one in the story comes out as a savior for anyone else. Was this intentional? How do you approach writing complex characters?
I’m not sure I intended this, but I realized after finishing the novel that nobody could have been a savior. The pure lack of communication between and characters and anybody with authority would have made that impossible and therefore, unrealistic.
The novel is well thought out and plot driven. How much do you outline before diving into writing?
I’m a firm believer in developing an outline before diving into writing. I do this both with the story and the characters (which helps in creating complex characters). Just like the story, the character needs to be mapped out and then fleshed out.
How did you approach writing characters that are different from you, such as David and his family members?
One of the reasons I love Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness is that it celebrates the diversity of expression of blackness while at the same advocating that the heart of this culture can not be bought or sold. Or in the words of Michaela Angela Davis, “You cannot have our cool-ass Black style.” Davis goes on to say that there are no solid definitions of blackness, and it lacks the need for the validation from mainstream society. It exists as it’s own enigma, and when you try to change it or alter it, it dies (59). This collection has a lot of mixed love going on, firstly with the eloquent Rebecca Walker as its editor. In her introduction, she calls for the building of a “periodic table of Black Cool, element by element.” While this book is an excellent beginning, the movement reaches beyond the pages with the site Our Black Cool and an increasing Twitter presence.
Some of the other mixed contributors include Mat Johnson, Staceyann Chin, and Rachel M. Harper. Harper’s essay describes the tough black cool of her father, a trait that she found intimidating, untouchable and admirable. Within her community, men like her father “were fighting not only to assert their identities, but to create them, to solidify and define their myths. They were making the stories of who they are – to themselves, each other, and to the outside world.” This is something that bridges the experience of all people of color, and certainly a position mixed people take on every day.
Johnson, (whose new novel, Pym, just came out in paperback), writes about identifying (or being labeled as) a geek in the context of blackness. In a style that is complimentary to his fiction, his essay is a mix of humor, cultural criticism and academic analysis of what blackness is today. He writes: “Blackness is one of the few identities that comes with its own self-enforced expectation of expression. …Blackness can be a rigid identity, with people stepping out of line facing ridicule and admonishment, or worse, condemnation. Those who reject the perceived identity of Blackness can be seen as rejecting the whole of black worth itself” (14-15). Right? What more can you can say?
Read this book. Support this reclamation of Black Cool.
Listen to Rebecca Walker convince you even more:
Share your Black Cool. Here’s my sister and I sporting our early 90’s style and ‘fros.
I chose to read Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks for her take on colorism and passing as a light skinned black woman. Often in the context of the black community, I feel this is how I am expected to function, rather than to exist as a mixed women. Derricotte’s family has experience with passing, describing an incident between her grandmother and her mother: “My mother told me how, when she was young, her mother used to get great pleasure when she would seat her daughter in the white part of the train and then depart, as if she were her servant” (34-35). There’s a secret pleasure in taking control of a situation that is normally out of one’s control. And this connects to the purpose of Derricotte’s book; to take control of the conversation that is usually out of her hands. Derricotte feels, as I believe many mixed people feel, that “skin color causes certain problems continuously, problems that open the issue of racism over and over like a wound. …[her] skin keeps things, literally from being either black or white” (141).
This is just a short mention of The Black Notebooks, (and I really mean to get to writing some more substantial reviews soon), but I highly recommend reading it. If you’re a writer, you’ll especially appreciate the chapter, “Race in the Creative Writing Classroom,” in which she outlines her experience of approaching race as a creative writing teacher. I see these examples as universally relatable to any writer of color who has participated in an academic writing workshop. Derricotte illustrates that these situations are always more complex than we anticipate.
Did you know Derricotte is one of the co-founders of Cave Canem? Check them out.
As you will probably read in any review/mention of this novel, Edugyan’s strength in Half Blood Blues is the lyricism of the language; incredibly evocative of the jazz world she creates. In Berlin, 1939, The Hot Time Swingers face trouble when their music is forbidden by the Nazi government that is taking over. As the political conditions worsen, the group must flee to Paris, but not before a member of the group, Hiero, a young mixed musician, is captured. Mysteriously, he isn’t heard from again. The rest escape to Paris to meet Louis Armstrong – a connection they make through a mutual friend, Delilah Brown. Fast forward to 1992, when an old Hot Time Swingers vinyl is recovered, and a documentary about Hiero is produced, the members of jazz ensemble must reconvene and face what really happened that night. Sid, the only member who knows the full story, must break his silence; a history that challenges his past friendships.
Throughout the novel, Edugyan uses slang terms that create vivid, memorable characters and dialogue that speaks to the complications of mixed appearance in this time period:
[Hiero] was a Mischling, half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil. But he was a German-born, sure. …And add to this the fact that he didn’t have no identity papers right now – well, let’s just say wasn’t no cakewalk for him” (9).
I was an American…Son of two Baltimore quadroons, I come out striaght-haired, green-eyed. A right little Spaniard. In Baltimore this given me a soften ride than some. I’d be lying if I said it ain’t back in Berlin too. …any Kraut approaching us always come straight to me” (9).
Check out Edugyan’s website and the video below for an interview with her about the novel and winning the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
ALSO! I’M GIVING AWAY A COPY OF THIS BOOK! To enter to win this book, simply leave a comment below. You have until August 6th to enter. Share this post with others! [GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER – see below in comments for winner. Thanks zack for commenting]
Check out the website and trailer for Marcia Dawkins upcoming book: Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity. Dawkins wants to change the discourse about passing, and re-define it in our lives today. Be sure to check it out.
Wench is a carefully rendered story about emotional complexities and violence in master/slave relationships of the mid 1800s. Lizzie is a slave who develops a curious relationship with her master, Drayle, that begins with seduction and turns into a kind of love that is punctuated with moments of hurt and disappointment. There is a (albeit completely unequal) power struggle between them after Lizzie bears two mixed children with him. Much of the story takes place at a summertime resort called Tawawa House, where many Southern slave owners brought slave mistresses to spend time with. Lizzie meets other women in her situation, though she is the only one who’s heart is really tangled in her unpredictable pseudo-romance; while her mind is also at work in hopes of offering herself to Drayle in exchange for the freedom of her children. The novel highlights the different relationships the slave women have with these white men and treads around the awkward dangerousness the women experience on a daily basis.
[Lizzie to Drayle]: “Our little Rabbit is so white, one day she could just up and disappear into the white race altogether” (21)
“Mawu was from a plantation in Louisiana about twenty miles west of the Mississippi border. …Of the eighteen children living in the slave quarters, more than a dozen of them were tan-colored” (39)
“[Mawu] had loved them so- light skin, silky hair, and all – but now, she told Lizzie and Sweet and Reenie that she knew all her children had been born of evil spirits” (40)
“It was better, she figured, for [her children] to know sooner rather than later that the white people they loved would disappoint them (146)
Here’s is Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s website (which has a slideshow of images of the actual Tawawa resort) and below is a video of Perkins-Valdez speaking about the origins of the novel:
I stumbled across this anthology of writing in the library and was instantly grabbed by the title: Intersecting Circles, the Voices of Hapa Women in Poetry and Prose. It’s a substantial collection, just about 400 pages of thought-provoking, quality writing about the Hapa experience. Check out the anthology here. Reading it, I was reminded of the now classic reference for the Asian American mixed experience, The Sum of Our Parts, though Intersecting Circles was less academic and full of the heart and passion of its contributors. Here’s some quotes I appreciated:
For those of monocultural or strong ideological background, a definition of identity seems simple. …If they belong to a powerful majority mindset, they often claim not to ‘see’ color…at the same time they ask for a definition. It’s their way of being polite as well as reflecting a choice about toning down their power -Marie Murphy Hara, “Negotiating the Hyphen”
I have learned the lesson most multiracial people must learn in order to live with the fact of not belonging: there is no identity for me “out there.” – Ai, “On Being Multiracial”
What lurked perpetually at the edge of my consciousness was a vague sense of otherness. A feeling of being slightly unconnected from the group, no matter which group I happened to be with. It had to do not with such superficial things as clothes or physical appearance, but with something more basic. Primal. My blood. -Nanea Hoffman, “All American Family”
Trethewey pays tribute to both her mother and to her home in the South in this Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection. Through these poems, Trethewey navigates the empty space between the living and the dead. She questions what information still lives, and what is cast into history. Even further, what part of that history remains in memory; what still clings? In “The Southern Crescent,” the narrator embraces the idea of transience, but as “she is leaving behind/ the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film/ of red dust around her ankles…” remains, a marker of where she has been. It is left to the reader to determine how far this woman can truly get from where she’s come (5). Trethewey doesn’t forget the flourishes of poetry, she is a master of form, using different sonnet and rhyming structures in “Myth” and “Graveyard Blues.”
Towards the end of the collection, Trethewey delves into the subject of identity, particularly referencing the interracial marriage of her own parents in the context of the South. In both “Miscegenation” and “My Mother Dreams Another Country,” she writes in a very matter of fact tone, tracing history as if drawing a timeline. “My Mother Dreams Another Country” focuses on the issue from her mother’s point of view, and how she watches the world change: “already the words are changing. She is changing/ from colored to negro, black still years ahead./ This is 1966 – she is married to a white man -/ and there are more names for what grows inside her/ It is enough to worry about words like mongrel/ and the infertility of mules and mulattoes/ while flipping through a book of baby names” (37).
Trethewey keeps it honest, as in “Blond,” where the possibility of what she could have looked like is explored; how each different variation in skin tone or hair color could have changed her experience in the world. While writing with an admiring respect for the history of the South, Trethewey is not afraid to expose the contradictions that work to limit those she identifies with. She writes in forms that celebrate the history of poetry that keep the language accessible to the reader.
On a personal note, Trethewey visited my school during our last residency in December. She spoke freely about her experiences in an MFA program and her passion for writing about race. She mentioned how she was discouraged from “writing solely about her people” and was told to “unburden herself” from her ancestry. This hit me hard, having experienced the same kind of criticism from a mentor who was assigned to me in my program. Trethewey mentioned that part of her impetus to write Bellocq’s Ophelia, (her 2nd book of poetry), was to push these issues onto a removed outlet that would be listened to – something of specific and intriguing historical context. During her talk, she encouraged us to become the writer we feel we are meant to be in spite of what others say. And especially as a writer of color, you have to know yourself even more. That our real teachers are those we seek out and read. Trethewey is one of those real teachers for me.
So of course, watch/listen to her read poetry – this video from last year’s Cave Canem. Her next collection, Thrall, with be out Sept. 2012