An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Available for purchase here.

So much of who we are as people is based on the social contract. We give non-committal answers to questions like “How was your day?”, we close the door when we relieve ourselves, then spray Febreze when we’re through. Even concerning the people with whom we are most intimate, there are some niceties that we all observe, a surface level veneer of politeness.

There are brief epochs of time when we suspend our superficiality and expose our most raw, primal selves. Extreme youth and advanced age, extreme illness and grief, childbirth. Know someone in those circumstances, and you truly know them.

Stealing that kind of intimacy is the cruelest act one can perpetuate, which is the circumstance Mirielle, the protagonist of Gay’s An Untamed State, finds herself. Mirielle is an American woman visiting her re-patriated parents in Port-au-Prince when she’s kidnapped in a smoothly orchestrated event outside the gates of her parents’ palatial home. She manages to remain calm at first–kidnapping is a common problem for wealthy families in an impoverished country. Mirielle can offhandedly think of five friends and family members who’ve experienced it.
Mirielle’s father is a man unmoved by sentiment and designed to play hardball. He refuses to meet the ransom demands, and the gang of kidnappers vent their frustrations and cruelties on Mirielle. She is beaten, raped, and starved. They withhold the bathroom, and her breasts, from which she’s still nursing her toddler son, run painfully dry.

In the aftermath of Mirielle’s kidnapping and eventual return, the true complexities of her trauma emerge. Her body has been destroyed, her brain is racked with PTSD, and upon her return to the United States, her casually racist mother-in-law becomes her port in the storm of her ordeal.

Mirielle is used as a pawn so frequently in her story–ignored by her father, abused by the ringleader of the kidnappers, beset by a husband who ignorantly tries to compare his fears to her trauma–but always she, and her native Haiti, are the crown jewels of the novel. Exposed at their ugliest, most primitive selves, Mirielle and Haiti could easily be dismissed as a tragedy, but both are so much more.

Neither Mirielle nor Haiti can be healed in one fell swoop. Only by peeling back the layers of what they’ve survived and exploring the root causes of their pain can anyone hope to be the port in the storm. But both woman and country have so much more to unveil to a world willing to offer support.

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.

Philadelphia: Birthplace of the American Revolutions

My poorly shot panorama of the day’s speakers and organizers

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one day before the national day of recognition that honors him, writers and readers across the United States gathered in the spirit of Writers Resist, a movement born out of the need to protect democracy and the spirit of justice following the 2016 election.

I’m from Philadelphia, born and raised (cue obligatory recitation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). It stands to reason that I’m biased in favor of my hometown’s importance, but truly no city encapsulates America like Philly. We are the nation’s first capital, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the finish line of the Underground Railroad, a key battleground in the war for LGBTQ+ rights, a haven for writers and artists of all stripes. The America I love and seek to protect would not exist without Philadelphia.

The Writers Resist event in Philadelphia was hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage and organized by Alicia Askenase, Nathaniel Popkin, and Stephanie Feldman, and featured readings from some of Philadelphia’s most prolific writers, reading poetry, petitions, and speeches from some of history’s bravest and most iconic speakers, some who were famous, some who simply deserve to be.

Six of the 36 readings were first given in Philadelphia, including the Resolution for Declaration of Women’s Rights, given during the centennial by the National Woman Suffrage Association, read by Lise Funderburg, and FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech for renomination, read by Lori Tharpe.

Most stirring, for me, was Lauren Grodstein’s rendition of Jameson Fitzpatrick’s 2016 poem “I Woke Up”. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who recognize that our identities, our passions, our very existences are political, and those who have yet to realize it.

In being political, one of the most important things to realize is that not all of our political perceptions are the same, and the beautiful diversity showcased on Sunday illustrated such. Men spoke women’s words, white, Black, Latinx, and Asian voices co-mingled with each other’s wisdom, disabled people offered each other solidarity, queer people and their allies spoke their truths to a crowd 300 strong.

Words, of course, will not be enough going forward. There must be action and resistance if justice is to be both won and preserved. But words are the genesis of movement. Stories are our empathy, articles are our information, media is our ability to connect. Revolutions do not happen without writers, and writers do not have a voice without readers.

Learn more about the movement at WritersResist.com and see a full list of the readings at #WritersResistPHL*

*Before Joey Sweeney opened with the Bob Dylan song “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, he noted that the song selection was chosen BEFORE #UrineGate broke.

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.

 

Bone Black by bell hooks

Available for purchase here.

If you only read one bell hooks book in your lifetime, first of all, don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to my friends, and in the event I ever buy nice clothes, don’t talk to my dry cleaner. But assuming you are a person who has a strict one book per author limit, Bone Black is not the bell hooks for you. Her most famous work is Feminism is for Everybody, but if asked for a personal recommendation, the one that changed my life is All About Love. Either of these would be better, as would her numerous other works, but not because Bone Black is lacking in either quality or beauty, but because the lens through which it must be read can’t be fully appreciated without understanding the important role bell hooks has played in shaping the core feminist movement.

bell hooks frequently writes in such a way that makes reality more magical than the realms of Hogwarts and Narnia, and though she’s writing through the framework of adulthood, academia, and the shifting paradigms of time itself, hooks identifies so cleanly and clearly with her child-self, and children in general, especially with her own foibles and temerity that ousted her completely from fitting the mold of proper sixties girlhood, that she unveils, without ever stating it, how one small twist of fate could’ve turned her into a woman like her mother, trapped and tragic, serving the needs of a man who had no consideration for hers.

How many fine minds and hearts have we lost to just such casual cruelty? There’s no way to overstate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, and their goal to end police violence towards communities of color, but our society is inherently flawed in how we structure human worth around a given system of race, class, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and the myriad smaller ways that elevate certain people above others for something absent of merit.

People born at the top of the pyramid are presumed worthy, those holding it up must prove their worth, and we accept this as function of a society that prizes equality when nothing could be less equalizing. bell hooks may have a singular mind, but what other talents and gifts have we as a society deprived the world of because they existed in someone we felt didn’t warrant opportunity?

hooks had some advantages–she was taught to see her black skin as beautiful and regal, even knowing society did not. But it was hooks herself, her strong sense of determination and self-advocacy, that placed her on the trajectory that lead her–and us–to a revitalized and revolutionary way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

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.