Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

When the leader of your country seems hell bent on a personal mission to antagonize the rest of the world leaders, spend every dime at his disposal and then some on policies that marginalize the already at risk while bankrupting the nation, and generally behaving like a coked out gorilla, literature can offer a respite, a sanctuary of black letters on white pages that can buoy the reader only to the limits of imagination.

Or, it can shine a light on the swift devolution of civility and the eruption of chaos that can break out instantaneously in a country with an ever widening gap between the privileged and the working class and a strident adherence to us vs. them mentality.

Exquisitely written as it is, Half of a Yellow Sun is unmistakably the latter of the two. The story is told from three perspectives: Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy to Nsukka professor Odenigbo, Odenigbo’s fellow professor and mistress Olanna, and Richard, British expat and lover to Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. In the early sixties, the characters interact with each other through the prisms of race, class, and gender. Ugwu receives an education thanks to his employer’s socialist ideals, Olanna is a daughter of privilege and enjoys the benefits of both beauty and education, but has to live with accusations of witchcraft from Odenibo’s old-fashioned mother. Richard is a perennial outsider who views Nigeria–all of Africa, in fact–as a wonderland peppered with self-fulfillment.

Following the military coups that lead to the persecution of the Igbo, the characters become caught in the civil war follows the attempted secession of an Igbo state called Biafra. Olanna witnesses the slaughter of her beloved aunt and favorite cousin at the hands of Hausa militants. Ugwu gets conscripted and perpetuates the same war crimes that leave Olanna traumatized. Richard uses his privilege as a white man to report the atrocities of war to the wider world. In real life, the Nigerian-Biafran War saw the birth of NGOs across the world.

Adichie knows well that a million is a statistic. By weaving the story of a country in turmoil around her characters, the readers see firsthand the horrors of war, rape, starvation, and the casual brutality of indifference. Of course, the war in Nigeria was the result of American and European imperialism, the need to stake out multiple recognized territories as a singular country, currying the favor of one tribe while systemically forcing down the others, and absconding when the consequences of our actions come raining in. We’ve shifted the geographic location, but not learned from the tragedy. See the rise of Daesh in Syria, or Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan.

Reading Adichie now is like gazing into a crystal ball, and we are running out of time to curtail the effects of monumental greed combined with political power. It’s easy to absorb the story in a mantle of fear, but better to heed the warnings, pinpoint the failings, and resolve to improve both our approach and our attitudes.

We Were Once Refugees, Too

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly available for purchase here.

For most of my life, I didn’t feel the need for any identity more specific than “American”. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood where the other kids had traditions, families, and faces that looked like mine. What need had I for anything beyond that?

Reading Galway Bay, a novelized version of the author’s great-grandmother’s sojourn from Ireland to America, was the beginning of an awakening on my part, that the heritage that extended beyond my grandparents was more significant than names and dates on a ledger in the archives of various city halls.

I read this book several years ago, and my realization was compounded by my first trip to Ireland last year. History was taken out of textbooks and became as vibrant and alive as myself. Pre-independence, the Irish were second-class citizens in their own country. Our language was outlawed, our religion demonized, and the governing forces painted us in the caricature of apes. When the only food we had that they didn’t see fit to steal rotted in the blight, they left us to starve. When American Choctaws sent money to ease our suffering, they stole that too.

Faced with slow, agonizing death, the Irish turned to the uncertainty of the ocean. Families were torn apart, never knowing if there would be a reunion of parent and child, brother and sister, ever again. No one knew if we would survive America, but we knew for damn sure we would die in Ireland. To this day, Irish Americans outnumber Irish nationals.

In America, we were still the poor and the pissed-on, but through resiliency and the support of others unloved by society (Native Americans, Black Americans, Jewish immigrants) we survived. We thrived. We even returned home to see where it all had started. By the time we were three generations deep, the children of Irish immigrants were indistinguishable from any other white Americans. We were assimilated.

We have, I think, assimilated too well. Too often, from the lips of family members, I’ve heard the same words and stereotypes that were once used to dehumanize our ancestors, being turned against other ethnic groups. We have lost sight of solidarity and adopted the aspect of our oppressors, much like the pigs in Animal Farm.

To be clear, Irish assimilation is not because we were more tenacious or intelligent than anyone else. It is the whiteness of our skin that led to our privileged place in modern society, and nothing more. Had Ireland been closer to the equator, we would never have put one of our own in the White House, and the stereotype of the drunken Irish would be a reason not to hire us instead of a mildly offensive joke.

White skin is armor, and Trump’s America is a battleground for the safekeeping of the rights and values this country was founded upon. On the same weekend we honor the victims of the Holocaust and tweet out #NeverAgain, Trump issued a ban prohibiting Muslims from given countries from entering the US, even as they flee certain death in their homelands–and too many of my fellow Irish-Americans support a policy that would’ve spelled our own doom if it had been enacted a century and a half ago.

The naysayers all have their reasons as to why “this time it’s different”. They had them in 1939 when we turned away the Jews. They had them when we were turning away the Chinese and Japanese in the early 1900’s and cut out whole swaths of the entire Asian continent in 1917. They have them now as we turn away green card holders and refugees, and hopefully this will be the last stand and we won’t ever have a cultural wave of apathy or antipathy towards those seeking safety ever again, but I doubt it. Hatred is hard to kill.

American values should not lie in the empty promises of politicians or solemn reflections on July 4th. No matter how much I value my Irish ancestry, I value my American nationality more, and being American means hitting the pavement to protect Black Lives, means protesting an oppressive government, and means making room for those who seek sanctuary on our shores.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

So get out there and act like it.

Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

Available for purchase here.

I’m an atheist and have been for about ten years, but it’s hard to deny the spark of the divine in Luvvie Ajayi. An ad for her book popped up on my Facebook feed several months ago, with a blurb featuring my imaginary fairy godmother Jenny Lawson extolling her virtues, and if Awesomely Luvvie wasn’t a thing I’d have spent the summer languishing with need.

Luvvie Ajayi is a magnificent force. She hates kitten heels. She extracts pop culture moments from major political events and peels back the layers of pop culture moments to reveal the underlying political significance. She toys with language on a Shakespearean level and when English fails to provide the necessary oomph she creates new words. She’s the Sophia Petrillo for the social media age, only instead of being the Italian grandma we never had she’s the wise friend we’ve always needed. She judges us because she cares.

Ajayi wants us to be better people, whether we’re attempting to navigate the murky waters of dating while dealing with the stupidity-inducing haze of really good sex, or while we’re trying to dismantle the patriarchy or take our society beyond the stagnant waters of white supremacy. She speaks only her truth but excoriates her readers to understand that all women cannot speak for each other. She calls out a society that sees Europe as a rich, diverse continent where a plethora of languages and cultures converge, but sees Africa as a monolith–or worse, a country. She even uses her nickname of Lovette (Luvvie) instead of Ifeoluwa because she tired of tongues that can manage names like Galifianakis butchering hers.

Ajayi, despite the solemnity of her subjects, is fun. She made me laugh out loud during an essay on institutional racism. She chastises those who would consider doing exactly what she’s railing against with the exasperation of the mom friend who is capital-D Done. She uses her social media acumen to turn the online community into a desirable place to be–oh Universe, grant into the hands of every teenage girl I’ve ever taken care of a copy of I’m Judging You.

Ajayi calls herself to task as often as she does others. She is a woman of enormous accomplishment, and with such, a concurrent level of responsibility and a certain level of privilege. She quotes Luke (the book of the Bible, not Skywalker): “To whom much is given, much is required.” and takes the lesson imparted to heart. She judges herself, and us, because we as individuals and a society, deserve to be the best versions of ourselves. Reading this book is a good start on that journey.

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

Available for purchase here.

Ballet is a beautiful art form, despite my near philistine level of ignorance of the nuances surrounding a dance or workshop. I don’t know a plié from a jeté, and if pressed to critique a performance I’d fall short. So my interest in Misty Copeland is purely from the aspect that she is a breaker of barriers. She’s the first Black principal dancer for a major American ballet company, and her memoir chronicles the story that brought her to such a feat.

In many ways the fact that Copeland still had the opportunity to be the first African American dancer in 2015 is a telling barometer for where our country stands regarding equality, for those readers who haven’t been convinced by the epidemic of civilian murders at the hands of police.

Ballet is classically known as a rarefied art form. Those who can attend performances take pride in the exclusivity of their club, which is one of the many ways in which it’s problematic. Another is chronicled in Copeland’s memoir: the physically punishing demands the dance makes of the body. Copeland describes having the “perfect ballet” body until her very late onset of puberty, and the pressures put on her to lengthen (read: lose weight) her body after the normal flux of hormones caused her breasts and hips to sprout.

These are personal grievances against the culture of the dance, for the record, not a slam against Copeland or the incredible amount of work she’s put in to mastering her craft or achieving her high rank. A dancer tapped to perform with Prince and who has been credited with bringing ballet to the masses who may otherwise never have a chance to discover the majesty is a force to be reckoned with, not an emblem of my own reticence.

Copeland’s life started out in reduced circumstances. She grew up with a rotating cast of stepfathers and moved from house to house with her many siblings while her mother struggled to provide for them. One of the great joys of her memoir is learning that, while famous, Copeland is not alone among her siblings in achieving success, and they are doing extremely well for themselves.

Copeland learned that she was a natural dance talent while taking classes at an after school center, where she dazzled her teachers with the speed with which she mastered her classes. Over the remainder of her teen years she attended workshops and camps where she distinguished herself amid dancers with double and triple her years of training. She even resided with one of her teachers for a long stretch of time so she could follow a more rigorous dance curriculum, an offer made after her teacher saw the cramped circumstances Copeland was living in one night after class.

This, more than any other passage, highlights our social problem with perceived merit. Copeland’s dance teacher was horrified at the idea of her star pupil being crammed into a tiny flat with her siblings, but where was that compassion for her siblings? Where was the influx of support for the children who were just as young and in need of a leg up but hadn’t yet displayed a remarkable–some would say exploitable–gift? How many children are being denied the opportunity to develop the skills that will earn them self-reliance because we don’t see it? Why do we demand that the people who struggle with poverty prove they deserve a shot while those born in the upper echelons are presumed to belong there?

This is not a question of how many Misty Copelands have we deprived ourselves of because of the arbitrary standard of “merit”, but how many of those who weren’t remarkable athletes or artists have we condemned to a cycle of poverty because we couldn’t make a buck off their talents. This is an acknowledgment that young Misty deserved healthy food and a safe place to spend her afternoons regardless of her talent. This is a call to do better.

 

Bad(ass) Feminist by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

There are some books that I feel flat-out unqualified to read. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace has been eight pounds of big, blue judgment haunting my bookshelf for ages. And Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay has been staring me down from my nightstand for over a year, taunting me with its sleek font. “You’re not worthy of reading this.” said the cover. I was aware of its cultural importance as a book, and had only just learned of the panache of the woman behind it. So I let my own insecurities curtail my interest. It’s a bad habit of mine.

It’s a shame I existed for so long in that paradigm of needless self-deprivation, because for all her serious academic acumen and brilliant analysis of cultural issues both serious and frothy, Gay is eminently down-to-earth and relatable. Hard to imagine a woman on earth who can’t find a way to connect with her, while she debates the merits of pink (and traditional femininity in general–Gay is an unabashed girly girl who loves fashion and once live-tweeted the September issue of Vogue) or calls out the centering of white voices in stories about people of color *cough*The Help*cough*.

In Bad Feminist, Gay calls out the feminist movement and herself as a feminist. Neither are perfect, and the former is riddled with problematic history and tactics that persist to this day, in our supposed age of enlightenment. And no one feminist is a “good feminist”. I can count the ways in which I could be accused of hindering the movement: I shave my legs, I wear makeup, I chose a traditionally feminine career, I am absolute shit with money and all things regarding cars–fixing them, maneuvering clogged highways, parallel parking them, etc. On that last front, I apologize to all women everywhere who had some sexist male in their life use my personal crappiness as justification for some form of casual misogyny that they leave like slug slime in their wake.

The point is, which Gay makes so clear so well in the breadth of essays in Bad Feminist, is that a movement comprised of people, is inherently flawed, because we are inherently flawed. And we could strive for perfection in ourselves and our philosophy, which is an admirable but pointless cause, or we can simply try to be better. Better, like listening to women of color and making sure we (white feminists) add our voices to their concerns. Better, like not allowing affable men to hide behind their veils of likability when they rape women. Better, like calling out microaggressions when we hear them instead of allowing a “nice” person to slide because they “mean well”.

We can also be better by not letting a book’s pedigree intimidate us, but that might really be more of a me problem. What can I say? I’m a Bad Feminist.

 

Black Hair and Misogynoir

    

Women are accustomed to having our bodies policed and politicized. Our reproductive parts are legislated, our body hair used as a source of shame. Trans women’s bodies are used as an excuse for violence. We aren’t safe at parties, clubs, on the streets, or often in our very own homes. We don’t have many ways to stake out a claim for autonomy over our own bodies, but if you’re not a Black woman, the hair on your head is at least a non-controversial aspect of your appearance.

I’ve read a fair amount of books by Black women over the past year, and not one of them, not novels, memoirs, or essays, that don’t devote massive amounts of time and story space to the phenomenon of living in a white-privileging culture with natural Black hair.

Being white, I’ve never thought about my hair outside the parameters of my own personal preferences. It’s long and layered because I like it that way, it’s red because that’s the color I landed on this time, and it’s straight because curling takes too much time. If I cut it off it would be a pixie cut, if I dyed it pink it’d be “quirky”. But it wouldn’t be a statement about anyone or anything but me.

Black women’s hair has been admired on white women while scorned on Black women. It’s been called unprofessional in the work place merely for growing. If a Black woman dyes her hair pink it’s “ghetto”, if she shaves it or grows it naturally it’s a political statement, if she straightens it she’s assimilating. In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie details the scalp singeing ways women relax their natural curls into an approximation of white hair, not because white hair is naturally more beautiful, but because society prizes it as such.

Black hair is only the tip of the iceberg (forgive me). The more closely Black women resemble white, the more beautiful we consider them. It’s why the internet felt so comfortable saying vile things about adorable Blue Ivy Carter, who played dress-up with her mommy Beyoncé at the VMAs, because Blue Ivy looks more like her father. She’s a four year old little girl, by the way.

Nothing I’m saying is new in anyway, of course. This is merely an observation made after reading the words of the wise and wonderful women directly impacted by our Eurocentric beauty standards. We see this subject on dozens of think pieces as we scroll through social media, and it would be easy to dismiss the issue as having little importance–hair is small potatoes compared to the issues of racism and sexism our society struggles with. But reading Adichie, or bell hooks, Misty Copeland, Issa Rae, Kaitlyn Greenidge, or Angela Flournoy gives shape to the insidious ways misogynoir, that unholy confluence of racial and sexual hate targeting Black women, take root. Hair is the symptom, these women and their words are the cure.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Available for purchase here.

I’m not cool. There’s ample evidence of that, so I won’t waste precious reading time listing the reasons, but it’s sufficient to say that I’m hopeful that perpetual awkwardness is the root cause of an individual’s powers of fascination and not just correlative, because otherwise Issa Rae’s memoir/essays offer only amusement and not hope.

Rae doesn’t write for the laugh out loud crowd, but more for the chuckle, wince, and knowing sigh. There’s a lot to recognize in the bad fashion choices, the early days of cyber chatting (think Tinder, but without the class, for those of you not in the know). It’s a testament to Rae’s writing ability that she hits so many notes that ring true for the average reader when she’s lived such a noteworthy life. She’s a Stanford grad who’s been straddling the cultures between America and her father’s native Senegal, where the music is old and flirtation is dangerous. But the more compelling narrative is the two worlds she finds herself caught between in one culture.

She’s awkward and black, and in between her amusing anecdotes and observations about life, youth, education, and the interaction between loved ones she reveals the ways in which she’s told she doesn’t measure up.

Whiteness offers me numerous options in American society. I can be a punk, a prep, a jock (stop laughing), a vamp, a hippie, a hipster, or any other subculture with a known aesthetic. Even cultures I don’t come from are open to me, with enough similarly white folks willing to defend me if I decide to appropriate someone else’s culture for my own amusement.

In a worst case scenario, I’d look silly or stupid. My very identity as an Irish American would never be questioned though, while Rae’s identity is measured against some arbitrary standard of Blackness, and she gets found wanting by people who have no place judging her in the first place.

No matter the color of one’s skin, there’s something eminently relatable in every word of Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, but the ways it quietly dismantles aspects of privilege that are hidden from those who benefit make it a standout among a scree of confessional first person essays.

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack

Available for purchase here.

If you’re planning on using these waning days of summer for a few final hours of sun-soaked beach vacations before the weather turns and the days shorten, do NOT bring Unspeakable Things with you. For all the world is well acquainted with the horrors of the Holocaust, there are as many ugly realities that lay hidden in the shadows of history that Spivack’s novel pulls back the veil on. It’s not an easy or comfortable read.

It’s nigh impossible to not draw parallels between the European refugee crisis during the advent of World War II, and the modern Middle Eastern crisis faced by refugees fleeing the Islamic state. When blocked from safety through legal means, desperate people will fall to shady and even immoral means to find shelter for themselves, which leads to innocents being holed away with the same people they were fleeing from in the first place.

Unspeakable Things lives up to its name. Eugenics, rape, and pedophilia are shaped into a story with language so gorgeous it only serves to highlight the horror of what is so lovingly rendered. It’s not without its problems: one of the vilest characters is gender non-conforming in a cultural landscape rife with vilifying depictions of trans, non-binary, and other GNC people, a gay son serves as the sacrificial lamb for the rest of his family’s freedom, leaving a guilt-ridden father to tend to his grieving, catatonic wife.

In a simplistic purview, Unspeakable Things could be seen as a treatise against the acceptance of refugees, but in a more thoughtful, analytical lens, it’s a highlight of our historical failings and missteps, a spotlight on the people we’ve failed to help in the past and a blueprint for how we can be better.

The Hanged Man by P.N. Elrod

Available for purchase here.

What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman? What if her inductive powers (not deductive, despite what Sir A.C. Doyle wants us to believe) were a combination of both native intelligence and psychic abilities? What if she managed to save Queen and Country while still making time for the blessed brew?

What if you read The Hanged Man? You’d get the answers to all those questions. And you’d be salivating for more, which is lucky because The Hanged Man is the first of a forthcoming series starring Alexandra Pendlebury, goddaughter to Queen Victoria and enrolled in Her Majesty’s Psychic Service, using her unique abilities to assist in the investigations of murders.

Alexandra’s–or rather, Alex’s–greatest strength is that while being a woman in Victorian society is a major characteristic, it’s not the sole definer of her role in the story. Alex has far worse to worry about other than gender stereotypes–she’s embroiled in a murder case that hits far too close to home and her involvement leads to her being targeted by villainous forces.

It can’t be a coincidence that of all the periods of British history, Elrod sets her story under the reign of Queen Victoria, notable not only for her own place in history as a powerful monarch, but for the time itself being the era that history would eventually recognize as the first wave of feminism. It’s what enables the character of Alex to fit so seamlessly into the setting but feel so incredibly modern.

Alex is, as typical for a real life Victorian detective, a soul alone among the men, but Elrod gives her fascinating women characters to surround herself with, both as friends and foils. Even bit characters get little pellets of rich characterization–a passing acquaintance who brings Alex a change of clothes has the foresight to bring her a few necessary items, for instance. As the series progresses, I can’t wait to see more from Miss Pendlebury’s intriguing life.