Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench

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:

 

Marie Hara & Nora Okja Keller, Intersecting Circles

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”

 

Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard

 

  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

Pym, Mat Johnson

See, the thing about Pym is that it’s all the novels you want to read in one. There’s apocalypse, there’s adventure, there’s the allusions to a literary classic – it’s all there. The narrator, Chris Jaynes, has a voice that has a hint of academia, a straight forward ease, and a dark humor slant.  Johnson is a writer who disregards the restraint of genres. Go and read it right now.

Then visit Mat Johnson’s website, and also his infamously funny Twitter.

From Booklist: “Jaynes devises a mission to find the lost, black-inhabited island near Antarctica described in Poe’s narrative, setting off with an all-black crew that includes his seafaring cousin; his obese friend Garth; his ex-fiance, Angela, and her husband, Nathaniel; and two flamboyant mechanics. They discover that something else described in Poe’s narrative is also real: giant, yeti-like, albino humanoids living in large colonies below the ice in Antarctica. This extension of Poe’s adventure is a romp that surprises on every page. Funny, insightful, racially important, Pym is a death-defying adventure and a probing examination of notions of race, even at the farthest ends of the earth.”

Here’s some relevant words:

  • I used to complain that the only things the white literary would would accept of Africa’s literary descendants were reflections of the Europeans themselves: works that focused on white racism, or the ghettos white economic and social disfranchisement of blacks created. I still think that, I have just come to the understanding that I’m no better (27)
  •  I am mulatto. I am mulatto in a long line of mulattoes, so visibly lacking in African heritage that I often appear to some uneducated eyes as a random, garden variety white guy. But I’m not….Octoroon  would have been the antebellum word for me. …I am a black man who looks white (135)
  • I would have to overcompensate for my pale skin to be accepted, I would have to learn to talk blacker, walk blacker, then even my peers. Or be rejected as other forever (137)

Here’s a video of him reading from Pym:

ALSO! Mat Johnson is doing a reading at the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival! Get excited! In fact, get so excited that you are inspired to DONATE TO THE FESTIVAL!

Veera Hiranandani, The Whole Story of Half a Girl

Sonia Nadhamuni is half Jewish, half Indian and navigating through the rough landscape of 6th grade. When her father loses his job, Sonia and her sister must switch from their private school to a much larger public school. Disconnected from her old friends, she wavers in and out of the popular crowd, trying to figure where she belongs and who really accepts her. She faces a line of questioning about her social allegiances, her culture and identity. Publishers Weekly says:

As in real life, her challenges don’t come neatly compartmentalized; Sonia will have to work out her mixed-heritage identity while contending with stressed-out parents, financial woes and vexing social uncertainties. Multifaceted characters, especially Sonia—astute, observant and original—provide depth. Like Blume, Hiranandani resists simplistic, tidy solutions. Each excels in charting the fluctuating discomfort zones of adolescent identity with affectionate humor.

The Whole Story of Half A Girl is a quick, fun read, certain to please middle grade readers. Check out Veera Hiranandani’s website here.

Quotes:

  • “I don’t know if we even count as a real Jewish family any more than we count as an Indian one” (13).
  • “Every time I say my last name for the first time, people always ask me to say it again or spell it three times, and they still can’t get it right” (33).
  • “I ate my sandwich and tried not to think of Community. Or why the white kids and black kids didn’t sit together here. Or where you were supposed to sit if you were too dark to be white and too light to be black” (43).
  • “For everything that reminds me of who I am, there’s always something reminding me of who I’m not” (84).

 

Nina Revoyr, Wingshooters

How have I not posted about this book yet? I think I’ve planing to for so long, that I forgot that I hadn’t actually done it yet. I met Nina Revoyr at last year’s Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, and she was so nice. She’s got an amazing collection of novels, and I would definitely recommend each one of them! So yes, about Wingshooters:

I love it when a book completely pulls me out of this world and conjures up emotions buried deep within me. Wingshooters  definitely did that with its precise, methodical prose and characters whose voices echoed in my head. This novel follows Michelle (Mikey) as she goes to live with her grandparents in rural Wisconsin. The daughter of a white man and Japanese woman, Mikey sticks out and becomes the target of incessant bullying. The only thing that keeps life bearable is the presence of her grandfather, a man that many in the town greatly respect and fear. Mikey says:

“He taught me how to punch, how to block incoming blows, how to throw rocks back with accuracy and strength. These lessons made my life easier and the irony only strikes me now: it was my grandfather, prejudiced  white man…who taught me how to survive as a child of color in America” (24).

When a black couple moves into town, all of the hate is redirected from Mikey to this couple  – thus beginning the downward spiral of the community. Mikey is sympathetic to their experience, but also afraid that if she shows this compassion, she becomes a target again:

“I did wonder…what it was like for Mr. Garrett. …Did he go home at night and share stories with his wife about how people whom he’d never hurt treated him like he carried the plague? And of course I wondered these things…because I had gone through them myself” (169).

The reader is so close to the narrator’s thoughts that I felt I was breathing with the character.   Revoyr examines race, justice and the limits of community in this novel in a way that is both familiar and fresh, and wholly inspiring.

Of course, check out her website and this video below of her reading at festival:

 

ALSO! Please donate to the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival! June 16 & 17! See you there!

The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings

Matt King has a lot to deal with. His wife Joanie is in a coma after a boating accident, his daughters seem beyond his reach, and he is the heir to a generous amount of land that he must make a decision about with other members of family. Set in Hawaii, the novel tackles family, ancestry, secrets, and resilience.

  • “I run down the hall with my daughter, feeling like I;m in some other country. All around, people speak pidgin English and stare at the two of us like we’re crazy white fools, even though we’re Hawaiian. But we don’t look it, and we don’t count as true or real Hawaiians because we don’t talk right either” (18).

Visit the website here.

Here’s Kaui reading:

Oh yeah, and it’s a movie!