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.

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.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

Imagine for a moment that the Westboro Baptist Church had major political power. That the “divine fusion” of spirituality and capitalism that fuels the megachurches of men like Joel Osteen were the majority. Children are actively kept out of school for fear of exposing them to secular teachings, girls marry young and get pregnant within seconds of the vows. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are considered virtuous.

It’s not hard to imagine, because between rampant police shootings, permissive sentences for convicted rapists, and bigoted, bullying laws that prohibit people from using almost any service, up to and including public bathrooms, because of their sexuality or gender identity, Katie Coyle’s novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World feels like nothing so much as the extreme logical endpoint for where our society is headed.

There’s a lot to like about Vivian Apple. The title protagonist is partying away on “Rapture Eve” with her fellow skeptics, dancing with other teenagers and toasting the strike of midnight, assuming that when the new day dawns and the world remains as it was, her parents and the rest of the world will disavow their cultlike fanaticism with the fictional Church of America and she can slip back into a semblance of normalcy.

When she gets home, Vivian discovers that her parents are gone and there are holes in her ceiling. News begins to pour in–the Rapture has apparently happenedon a significantly smaller scale than the Church’s devotees had planned, and the rest of the country is left to pick up the pieces. Some hunker down with renewed zealotry, some philosophize, some plunge into a second coming of Caligula’s court, while a final few continue a strong strain of denial and disavowal that the world has changed.

Vivian, lifelong meek girl defined by her good grades and 10 star rating on the parental likability scale, is tired of the world gone mad. She pairs up with her recently acquired best friend, Harp, a character that smashes about a thousand and a half stereotypes, and a boy with the most beautiful blue eyes (this is a YA novel, after all) who has insider information about the upper echelon of the Church.

The ensuing road trip takes the trio on a literal quest through the US, and a philosophical one on the nature of love, mortality, morality, motherhood, and our place in the world. It sets up a real stunner of a sequel hook while being a fully contained story in and of itself. But in a world where a 70 year old toddler brags about not paying his billionaire business taxes to thunderous applause from working class supporters, a man who opposes the very existence of most Americans and pushes for the continued and extreme marginalization of the already marginalized, who could become our president, it reads a lot like horror.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.