“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman
What have you been reading this February?!
This year, I have been focusing less on giving books a star rating and more on how books connect across the Africana Diaspora literary canon.
While So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ is by a Senegalese novel, the issues Bâ covers in this novella mirror topics that so many African-American women have written about.
Bâ speaks of female friendships and how they sustain us, like Toni Morrison in Sula and Alice Walker in The Color Purple.
She speaks of messy affairs in marriages and how love can look different for each person, like bell hooks in All About Love and Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo.
And when I think of scholarly theorist Bâ is communing with, Wicked Flesh by Jessica Marie Johnson and Thick: And Other Essay by Tressie McMillan Cotton, come to mind in the way Bâ stands up for female agency and independence in a society which demands that Black Womanhood appear under the thumb of the patriarchy as a thing of lesser value. Bâ writes about Ramatoulaye, her protagonist, struggle to assert herself as an educated single mother who attempts to assert herself in a society that does not see her as a valuable asset once her husband throws her to the side for his second wife.
Bâ’s writing is intriguing, and to the point, and for anyone who loves a drama-filled read that’s also character-driven, please give this a read.
“I heard my old friend Clem’s voice coming back to me through the dimness of thirty years: ‘I see you coming here trying to make sense where there is no sense. Try just living in it. Respond, alter, see what happens.’ I thought of the African way of perceiving life, as experience to be lived rather than as problem to be solved.” ― Audre Lorde
Thanks to Femi from @thebookalert, I got a chance to read The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin last year, and I absolutely loved it! Thank you to @tlcbooktours & @williammorrowbooks for providing me a free copy!
Shoneyin’s story follows Baba Segi and his four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle, who are all hiding secrets from each other.
In a culture that values children, Baba Segi sees his collection of wives and gaggle of children are a symbol of prosperity, success, and a validation of his manhood.
All is well in this patriarchal home until Baba arrives with wife number four, a quiet, college-educated, young woman named Bolanle. Jealous and resentful of this interloper who is stealing their husband’s attention, Baba’s three wives begin to plan her downfall.
Reading this book, I was placed in the mind of several books across the African Diaspora that are in conversation with Shoneyin’s story:
When it comes to the complexity and dynamics of sisterhood that Shoneyin displays in TSLIBSW, I immediately thought of The Women Of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and the essay, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving,” by Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider. There’s a myth that as a feminist or womanist, you have to like everyone, and as Naylor and Shoneyin prove, this isn’t the case. Solidarity amongst women can be as simple as me wanting you to have all your rights, especially the right to stay the heck away from me.
The problem of women being seen only as the bearer of children and through the lens of being the property of her husband is explored in #StayWithMe by #AyobamiAdebbayo and in Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks. In TSLIBSW, Shoneyin does a deep dive into how catastrophic it can be to see a woman in a piecemeal way instead of seeing her as a whole being. Each of Baba Segi Wives has their own talents, but because Baba only sees his wives in reference to being child bearers, he can’t see their talents as businesswomen, homemakers, or educated women.
While Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, & Bolanle don’t make any qualms around who Baba fundamentally is as a man or the belief he holds about their culture, there is a sense of resentment that underlines their relationship with him. Each woman’s household status and, subsequently, their independence are tied to Baba’s goodwill. This symbiotic relationship reminds me of all the women’s love for Bill Cosey in Love by Toni Morrison.
Lastly, Bolanle’s character made me think of Ngūgī wa Thiongo’s idea of the “cultural bomb” in Decolonizing the Mind and how being educated in societies that rely too heavily on colonial or imperialistic knowledge dilutes the regional culture. Seeing how Baba’s beliefs get challenged by Bolanle’s mere presence was fascinating.
If you haven’t read this book, I highly suggest it!
With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.
– Blurb from Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
What surprised you most about the process of writing this first novel?
The thing that surprised me most about writing this novel was that it did not become this novel until maybe the fourth or fifth iteration. There were things about Grace Porter that didn’t surface until my very last time editing. Some of her motivations and wishes and desires were still hidden until I had both the input from my amazing editor and also an entirely different headspace. I always hear the phrase, “writing is re-writing,” and I think the depth of that truth didn’t really hit me until I was knee-deep in revisions and realizing, like, wow, I needed so much more time to figure out how to say this, but now I can. Surprise!
In an interview she recorded with Balticon 34 in April 2004, Octavia E. Butler talks about wanting to “desensitize” readers with her writing and show them the “world as she wishes it worked” in her novels. One of the things I really loved about Honey Girl is that you don’t waste time explaining or trying to convince the reader that Grace Porter, your main character, and the rest of her friends, who are LGBTQ+, deserve to exist when it comes to their sexuality.
Instead, your writing creates these characters as messy and flawed human beings doing mundane day-to-day activities, like going to graduate school, trying to live up to their parents’ expectations, and falling in love. Why did you feel this was a significant angle to take with your writing? And did you feel, like Ms. Butler, that you were simply writing the world as you saw it or as you wanted it to be in your writing?
I know in theory it’s significant, but honestly, it doesn’t feel that big to me. Grace Porter is queer. Grace Porter is a lesbian. All her friends are queer. Queer people do really mundane things like work and go to school and date and even disappoint their parents for reasons other than being queer! I wrote a world that is very similar to mine, because I’m a queer person with queer friends and we just do really boring things like complain in our group chats and forget to pay bills. It doesn’t feel revolutionary to me because we are out here living our not-very-exciting lives, but then I remember in the larger scheme of things, us living our lives is revolutionary.
All of that is to say, I didn’t go in with any particular mindset except portraying queerness the way it is in my little corner of the world, and now in Grace’s, too. In academia and the corporate world adjacent to it, the reality is very cis-heteronormative and white, so that’s the reality I put on the page. I wish the world did not work that way, but it does. So, to answer the question, I feel like I was writing the world as I saw it and also how it really is, which is a world in which queer people, especially queer people of color, live and breathe and survive for as long as we can.
There is a strong sense of community and collective care that is frequently referenced in Honey Girl. At times, Grace is treated with more love and acceptance from her “chosen family” than her blood relatives. What made you create such a multilayered approach to family and community care when portraying Grace’s support system?
I say this all the time, seriously, but I feel like “found family” or “chosen family” is such an important component of the varied queer experience. It’s so hard to be alone, especially with people who are your blood, and may still love you, but can’t really understand something that makes up such a huge part of you and influences the other intersections of your identity. You need queer friends and queer friends that feel like family because those are the people you lean on and learn from and support on your respective journeys.
For Grace, her chosen family provides her with unconditional love and unconditional honesty. She makes a lot of mistakes, and she gets in her head a lot, and they are right there to be like, hey, you are not the only person going through this thing. They all have their own lives and issues, and though not every problem revolves around their LGBTQ+ identity, because they are all sharing this queer identity, they are able to be their full, authentic selves when they are vulnerable and asking each other for help.
At the same time, I wanted to show Grace’s mom and dad as people she thinks should be infallible and all-knowing, but she has to realize that’s not possible. Parents are not perfect. Parents don’t know everything, or even half of everything. They are flawed people who make mistakes like anyone else. Sometimes those mistakes can be apologized for and relationships redeemed and repaired, and sometimes not. Sometimes the best thing is for people to break off from their parents entirely. It was important in Grace’s journey for her to start to think about the type of relationship she wanted with her parents that was best for all them and didn’t sacrifice her mental and emotional health. Basically family, in all of its manifestations, can be really complicated and intricate and nuanced, and there are so many different ways to build one or multiple with the different people in your life.
What books have you read recently and loved, that inspired Honey Girl in some way or that you very much look forward to reading?
Recently I’ve read and loved Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, and of course, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.
There are so, so many books coming out this year that I want in my eyeballs immediately. I can’t list them all, so here’s five:
Thank you to Harper Teen, Simon Teen, and Mahogany L. Browne for allowing me to receive finishing copies of the following books. Originally, these novels were meant for my Instagram Kwanzaa Giveaway. But, I wanted to give back to my subscribers for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Synopsis: This coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year. Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
Synopsis: A novel-in-verse about a young girl coming-of-age and stepping out of the shadow of her former best friend. Perfect for readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Nikki Grimes.
She looks me hard in my eyes & my knees lock into tree trunks My eyes don’t dance like my heartbeat racing They stare straight back hot daggers. I remember things will never be the same. I remember things.
With gritty and heartbreaking honesty, Mahogany L. Browne delivers a novel-in-verse about broken promises, fast rumors, and when growing up means growing apart from your best friend.
Synopsis: Justin A. Reynolds, author of Opposite of Always, delivers another smart, funny, and powerful stand-alone YA contemporary novel, with a speculative twist in which Jamal’s best friend is brought back to life after a freak accident . . . but they only have a short time together before he will die again.
Jamal’s best friend, Q, doesn’t know he’s about to die . . . again.
He also doesn’t know that Jamal tried to save his life, rescuing him from drowning only to watch Q die later in the hospital. Even more complicated, Jamal and Q haven’t been best friends in two years—not since Jamal’s parents died in a car accident, leaving him and his sister to carry on without them. Grief swallowed Jamal whole, and he blamed Q for causing the accident.
But what if Jamal could have a second chance? An impossible chance that would grant him the opportunity to say goodbye to his best friend? A new health-care technology allows Q to be reanimated—brought back to life like the old Q again. But there’s a catch: Q will only reanimate for a short time before he dies . . . forever.
Jamal is determined to make things right with Q, but grief is hard to shake. And he can’t tell Q why he’s suddenly trying to be friends with him again. Because Q has no idea that he died, and Q’s mom is not about to let anyone ruin the miracle by telling him. How can Jamal fix his friendship with Q if he can’t tell him the truth?
Ways to enter the contest
To enter to win all three novels, you MUST:
Be subscribed to my blog via email or on WordPress
Like this post
Comment below with your favorite Young Adult read y an African or African-American author from 2020
An extra entry a piece will be given for anyone who follows me on Instagram (@IntrovertInterrupted) and twitter (@MakeItLITerary) and shares a photo or link to this giveaway. Tag me on each platform, so I can count your entry!
I saw in your talk with Madeline Dyer for 2020’s YA Thriller Con that one of the inspirations behind this novel came from the loss of your uncle in Jamaica. I’d first like to extend my condolences for this personal loss. I know as an artist, drawing on personal pain is sometimes a source of inspiration. But, how were you able to balance grieving while also going through the writing process of telling such a detailed story about gang culture, police brutality, and political intrigue without being sucked back into that headspace?
Desmond Hall: I really like what the great actor Francis McDormand said about her art. She felt she had to figuratively pick at her wounds to keep them fresh, so she’d be able to access her pain, and apply it to her work. She actually dreaded the closing of her psychological wounds. This is a type of method acting that I think applies to writing as well.
A: So often, the way that many people get introduced to Jamaica is as a country that’s akin to “paradise.” In my course on Globalization and Transnationalism, we watched the documentary Life and Debt, which spoke about how often we as tourists are never seeing the “real” Jamaica or partaking in the actual culture when we come to this island to visit. This made me think of how when reading your novel, readers are introduced to another viewpoint of your homeland that lingers just under Jamaica’s surface in the form of gang culture. Why did you feel that this story was important to talk about as a Jamaican?
DH:Your Corner Dark is a specific story, but also a universal one. The book touches on police brutality, gang culture, defining masculinity, and political intrigue. Those topics are just as relevant here in the States. I’m just telling the truth that I know.
A: In your talk with Dyer, you mentioned that the title of your book is the Jamaican equivalent of the saying, “between a rock and a hard place.” In true fashion, Frankie is stuck between two worlds. On the one hand, he is a student who aspires to be an engineer and create things that will ease the hardships of he and his neighbors’ lives. Yet, Frankie is also living in a world that wants to box him in and make him become a part of gang culture even though everyone around him acknowledges that Frankie is “too smart” to go down this path. How did you balance telling Frankie’s story between these two realities while making it believable?
DH: I think one of the keys is Frankie’s interiority. We get to know how he experiences the angst of having a father who he feels doesn’t understand him. We understand Frankie’s fear and admiration for a dangerous and charismatic uncle. We sympathize with the evil acts he feels compelled to commit. We also get to feel his shame when he ventures into a social class above his rank, and gets intimidated by sushi.
A: One of my favorite parts of Your Corner Dark is the usage of Jamaican patois, the “unofficial language of Jamaica.” For me, the richness of this dialect draws from hearing Jamaicans speak their language out loud, similar to how I feel about hearing African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) being spoken. This got me thinking about Nate Marshall’s poetry collection, Finna, where he mentions that AAVE isn’t necessarily a dialect that’s meant to be written down but is meant to be spoken. Did you find a similar issue come up with your characters as you shaped their dialogue?
DH: I’m not familiar with Mr. Marshall’s thoughts on the matter, but I do believe It’s important to note that a lot of Jamaicans speak the Queens English as well as patois (Patwah in Jamaica). We have a lot of fun with the language, verbally, and in written form. In fact, a lot of the newspapers run social commentary cartoons, and the characters often speak in a thick patwah.
A: I mention this because, at one point in the story, when Frankie hears Leah “chat patois,” he is shocked because he says that some Jamaicans aren’t comfortable with speaking in patois. As a reader who is not an #OwnVoices reviewer, I was unsure if this was indicative of the class issue between Leah and Frankie, which is a topic that comes up several times, or if there was a variation of the dialect that Frankie, a person from the country would speak, versus Leah, who is from the city.
The Jamaican upper middle class has a tendency to be very conservative, even to the extent of reviling Rastafarians, even though Rastas are featured in our tourism advertising. This disdain also extends to speaking patwah. It’s similar to how some Americans look at the southern drawl (Dolly Parton actually points this out!). Frankie is aware that Leah is from the upper middle class as most kids are in his fancy school, and he worries that Leah may harbor some of those upper middle class tendencies.
A:In your talk with Dyer, you also mention that Your Corner Dark is your “love letter to Jamaica.” What is the one thing you want your readers to take away from this story?
DH: I want them to understand more the complexity of Jamaica. Seven days and six nights at the resort won’t show people the real Jamaica, even with excursions.
A:Your background as a screenwriter really shines in this novel! As I was reading Frankie’s story, I was in awe of the fact that so much of the story’s content’s felt as if they are primed to be on the “big screen.” Have you thought of turning this book into a screenplay?
DH: It’s funny you ask because I’d originally written this story as a screenplay, and back in the day, it was a runner up in the IFP Screenwriting contest in NYC.
Over the last few months, we’ve been having meetings with a few TV producers, so we’ll see.
A:You also mentioned that you moved from Jamaica to Jamaica, Queens in New York City. Does this shift in geographical location have any bearings on the types of stories you write about?
DH: I think all my experiences come into play when I write. I remember talking to the great screenwriter, Budd Schulburg. I asked him how he came up with that great line from the awesome movie, ON THE WATERFRONT. “…I coulda been a contender…instead of a bum.” He said he was in Gleason’s boxing gym, and overheard a palooka saying those words to his manager. Mr. Schulburg said he quickly jotted down the line because he knew he would use it in a script one day. That day didn’t come until many years later, but he knew to catalogue the encounter. Essentially, he was telling me to draw from all my experiences, and use anything relevant to help render the story I want to tell.
A:What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-read?”
I’m moved by Richard Price, and how he imbues crime stories with so much humanity. I wish I could be as harshly real as James Baldwin or as deep as Toni Morrison.
In the YA space, I love reading Jason Reynolds and Courtney Summers.
A:Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
-Grubstreet is a great writing school.
-There’s a famous quote about how published authors are the ones who didn’t give up.
-The SAVE THE CAT book(s) are quick and easy ways to add the power of story structure to your arsenal. If you want a more in depth way, take the Mckee Story Class, and buckle up.
Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Mr. Hall!
Desmond Hall was born in Jamaica, West Indies, and moved to Jamaica, Queens. He has worked as a high school biology and English teacher; counseled teenage ex-cons after their release from Rikers Island; and served as Spike Lee’s creative director at Spike DDB. Desmond has served on the board of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Advertising Council and judged the One Show, the American Advertising Awards, and the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival. He’s also been named one of Variety magazine’s Top 50 Creatives to Watch. Desmond lives outside of Boston with his wife and two daughters.
Set in 1930s India under British rule comes the story of chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan. Forgotten by the world but renowned for his chess acumen, Sultan Khan is a historical figure that Paolo Maurensig reimagines from the notebooks of a fictional reporter at the Washington Post. The author fills in Sultan Khan’s life’s details using “what if” scenarios and the scraps he finds from the chess player’s history.
As a reader, this story was engrossing from a plot perspective. Maurensig introduced us to the character, Sultan Khan, at the end of his life, and from there, the author starts off the chess champion’s story. Going from a young village boy with humble beginnings to becoming Asia’s most renowned chess champion of his time makes the character a formidable subject. Yet, when Maurensig delved into his plotline about a blind heiress and the potential that Sultan Khan was believed to have been the woman’s killer, I tuned out.
For me, the depiction of Sultan Khan in such a stereotypical role being framed for being capable of this type of action seemed steeped in his “Otherness” as an Indian. The passivity of Sultan Khan’s character also detracted from how I interacted with the book. While reading, I felt as if this character was passive about his existence and experiences as others were moving him around. I wanted to see him become more assertive when it came to deciding his fate. Thus, while this book had masterful writing, I would have liked to see a different outcome for Sultan Khan than Maurensig provided.
In real life, according to The Oxford Companion to Chess, Sultan Khan was a chess player that became one of the world’s top ten best chess players regardless of not being able to read or write and never learning any openings for himself since he could not study chess hooks without those skills. He was known as a “positional player” and worked best as a middle-player. Sultan Khan was deemed a “genius” by José Raúl Capablanca, a major chess prodigy of his time. Yet, as Maurensig wrote, the chess player suffered from malaria and frequent cold and throat infections during his Europe tour.
In 1933, Sultan Khan went back to India due to being summoned home by Sir Umar, his benefactor. At that time, Sultan Khan was given a small farmstead by Sir Umar near his birthplace in Punjab, where he spent the rest of his life. Sultan Khan’s children were quoted as saying that he wanted them to do something “more useful with their lives” than playing chess, like him. After playing his last chess game in 1935, Sultan Khan disappeared from the chess world and later died of tuberculosis.
For lovers of suspense novels and mysteries, Game of the Gods is a short read if taken as pure fiction, and the bent toward Orientalism is ignored. However, if you are looking just to pass the time, I would suggest watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.
Thank you to @RandomTTours and Mrs. Rodríguez Drissi for my finished copy of Until We’re Fish!
In a virtual talk with Harvard Book Store, Susannah Rodríguez Drissi says of her title, Until We’re Fish, that “fish are bounty…they speak of potential.” For her, the loose translation of her title means “until [the characters] are able to claim a space for [them]selves and feel like [they] belong,” they will always feel like “fish out of water.” And nothing can be more accurate for the three main characters, Elio, Maria, and Pepe, as the reader follows them on their journey into adulthood over a span of thirty years in Cuba.
Set from 1958 to the 1990s, Until We’re Fish by Susannah Rodríguez Drissi, is a coming-of-age story. Elio, Maria, and Pepe grow up during the tumultuous years of the Cuban Revolution. As the novel unfolds, each character is forced to make hard choices as they wrestle with the futures they desire for themselves while living in the unfair world that the revolution creates.
As a girl, Maria dreams of freedom and moving to Chicago after spending years reading the Sears catalog. However, Elio, her neighbor, only dreams of Maria and owning a Schwinn bike. In direct competition with Pepe, his friend and rival for Maria’s heart, Elio holds out hope that Maria will be his.
Rodríguez Drissi’s prose is distinct as she narrates the lives of her characters. This author’s descriptive portrayal of Cubans trying to fight to survive succeeded in drawing me in as a reader because I could picture revolutionary Cuba during the 50’s going forward. And as a lover of languages, having the author use rich references and imagery to her home country and the novel, Don Quixote, helped build suspense about what choices her characters would make regarding their lives and fleeing Cuba. However, it also drives home the point that the Cuba mainland Americans imagine pales compared to the world that native Cubans inhabit or for the world those who immigrated left behind.
Until We’re Fish is an authentic tale about survival, love, and coming of age in a world where nothing is a sure thing. Lovers of Chanel Cleeton’s When We Left Cuba and Next Year in Havana will enjoy returning to Cuba from the perspective of Cubans who were left on the island or chose to stay as revolution broke out.
For all the chaos of 2020, I had an excellent reading year.
I found myself gravitating more toward fantasy novels and doing a lot more rereading than usual as a means of escaping into “alternate realities” or books that were a comfort to me in my childhood.
Each of the featured books below are ones I loved or feel that I would revisit in the future.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
This book was such a joy to read! If you loved reading fairytales as a kid or want to read more fantasy novels, this book is a must read! It’s also a wonderful audiobook.
In a year of chaos and pandemic, Klune’s novel shows the side effects of burnout on people in helping professions. The House in the Cerulean Sea also details how the child welfare system fails children over time. The characters in Klune’s novel are ones that will stay with you long after the book closes.
Initially published in French, Dabos’ series is full of tomfoolery and shenanigans set around a world built on Classic Western Mythology. The main character of the series, Ophelia, is the odd one out in her family that has the gift of walking through mirrors.
Sent away to the sky palace of Clairdelune to marry Thorn, another outcast from the who has a detailed memory, Ophelia is on her own for the first time to be the person she’s always desired to be. From here, chaos ensues.
Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge
I really enjoyed reading this classic Caribbean novel by Merle Hodge.
Crick Crack, Monkey follows Tee, the main character, as she comes into her identity as a Black Trinidadian girl in a post-colonial nation. The novel was accessible and showed the differences in the class structure in this island nation.
Tee is shuttled between two aunts of varying class and economic levels and made to piece together an identity through her experiences with both. Hodge’s novel was short, but it packed a punch.
In this text, Freire argues that teachers must open dialogue and facilitate critical thinking around subjects instead of spoonfeeding students lessons to regurgitate. By opening critical discussion around issues, the educator will build stronger learners that can become self-actualized.
Coupled with this, the chapters about how the oppressed seek out liberation blew me away. The idea that everyone can be an oppressor and the oppressed gave me a lot of food for thought. This text is one I hope to revisit in the future.
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
The task of a first or second-generation child of immigrants is to pick up the hopes and dreams of their parents and to carry them over the threshold of success. Often times, it’s not important what that child wants, but more importantly is how they add to the legacy of their family. Thus, these children live within a confined space that is both real and imagined, between cultures that they can never honestly explain until they meet someone else with a similar burden to carry.
Kara’s story in Frying Plantainleads me to wonder, what parts of our cultures do we inherit, and what is learned as people immigrate to new places? Likewise, how does the meaning/practice of culture change as each generation gains new information and comes into contact with new technologies that shift the way that certain traditions are carried out?
It starts cliched with the main female lead, Liya, a successful biochemical engineer sneaking out on a dinner they put together with the family of Jay Shah, a potential suitor. Unfortunately, Liya bumps into him on the way out, and of course, the two end up being forced to work together as the novel unfolds.
If you are a reader who enjoys multi-layered characters and non-generic romances, this book is for you! Jay and Liya both have a traumatic past, and Patel has each of them work through their trauma before giving them their happy ending. I appreciate that Patel showed the real aspects of trauma in a person’s life and how they play out in interpersonal relationships and across a community.
Throughout this series, Taylor has the Logan children fight for their agency as Black people before they really even know what they’re fighting for. I’ve read this series countless times over the years, but it always hits differently each time. I highly recommend it!
Thanks to Terminal Tours, I was able to get an advanced readers copy of the fantasy-themed short story anthology, A Universe of Wishes: A We Need Diverse Books Anthology. This anthology was edited by Dhonielle Clayton and included authors like Samira Ahmed, Zoraida Córdova, Kwame Mbalia, Tochi Onyebuchi, and many more authors of colors.
In her editor’s letter, Clayton talks about growing up as a reader of color and not seeing herself in fantasy novels. This was something that I could relate to. While I always had stories, like The Logan Family Saga by Mildred D. Taylor or The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake, to read if I wanted to see real-world images of myself in the 90s if I wanted to read a fantasy novel with African-American characters, my pickings were slim.
Reading through A Universe of Wishes, I was pleasantly surprised to read stories, like “Liberia” by Kwame Mbalia, where readers are shown a story of where the love of one’s family takes center stage. Having Mbalia speak to African-Americans’ collectivist nature and centering the magic of this cultural trait warmed my heart.
Likewise, reading “The Takeback Tango” by Rebecca Roanhorse, where a teen thief sets out to reclaim her planet’s artifacts, is reminiscent of my favorite scene from Black Panther with Kilmonger in the British Museum. Having Roanhorse show the power that comes from taking ownership over one’s heritage is what I love to see!
As a lover of Disney’s Tangled, “Longer Than the Threads of Time” by Zoraida Córdova was also a treat. However, like so many stories in this anthology, I wanted the stories to be so much longer.
A Universe of Wishes holds all the magic a reader could want. Having authors of color flex their muscles and show creativity outside the normal realm of “suffering” that so many BIPOC writers are pigeonholed into to get their break in the publishing industry was refreshing.
If you enjoyed this anthology, I’d highly recommend looking into all the featured writers’ works and read Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton, which was one of my favorite short story collections of African-American folktales and fairy tales as a kid.
2020 has been the year of “escapism” for me. Along with science-fiction and fantasy, romance has been the genre I’ve consumed the most of this year. Thanks to Hear Our Voices Tours, I got the chances to read A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey early.
Checkout the novel’s blurb and an interview with the author below!
For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.
Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.
A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.
II:Congratulations on publishing your second novel! What was the process like writing A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow?
LTN: Thank you so much! Writing this book was like entering a time capsule of both my experience as a teen trying to figure out life and love, and my childhood growing up in a large Cuban family. I truly enjoyed the process and there is a part of me who would always like to be the drafter of this book, over and over again.
II: What is the inspiration behind A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow?
LTN: I’m the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and grew up in a huge, wonderful Cuban family. This story is my tribute to all of them, and all of the things I witnessed as a child. I took all of those themes, lessons, and the spirts of those who loved me best, and reimagined them into a modern story about legacy, loss, and love.
II: There is a strong sense of community that Lila constantly references within A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?
LTN: I have always thought of community as a tight physical and metaphorical place of nurturing and belonging that we can call our own, within a much larger environment. It shapes us and our worldview. Community is what Lila is almost obsessively invested in at the start of my book. She feels her place and role as a teen Cuban baker and future owner in the West Dade area of Miami is so rooted and crucial to her success, it grows to inform much of her identity. This is why she is so opposed to going to England for the summer. Orion also has deep roots in his community within Winchester, England. He relies on the steadfast consistency of great friends and his small, tight knit network to help him cope with, and navigate the trauma and uncertainty plaguing his family.
II: On your website, you have a mood board and write up about the inspiration behind Lila. However, I was wondering about the creation of Orion Maxwell. How did you decide to write about a character who is dealing with an ill parent but who remains resilient?
LTN: There are some special people in my life who have experienced what Orion is going through at home with his cherished mother, and I wanted to honor this as part of my story. The way Orion processes a different, but parallel form of loss stands in contrast to Lila’s response. I enjoyed their interplay as they discuss their losses and situations, and learn from one another. They tug each other’s emotional arcs forward (and maybe a bit sideways!)
Also, while Lila’s loss is fresh and acute, Orion has had longer to adjust to his “new normal.” Orion has created a distinct method for living through his grief. It allows him to go on, but it also makes him extremely cautious as to where and how he gives his heart. Orion is looking for things that last. Permanence appeals to him––as his mother, and to an extent, a growing teenage sister––are slowly slipping away. Yet, he begins to fall for a certain Cuban baker who is only in England temporarily. She has big plans to return to in Miami. How does this work out or end up? I won’t spoil, but writing the building and changing relationship between Lila and Orion is my favorite thing I have written so far.
II: A major theme in your novel has to do with dealing with loss (e.g., of love, family, and to a degree, self). How do you get into this mindset for building characters that feel so much pain while keeping enough mental clarity as a writer to create such a wonderful story?
LTN: Truthfully, there were moments drafting this book where I became overcome by the emotion and memories I was harnessing to tell the story. While I was writing, two of the family members I heavily reference in the narrative passed away. This was incredibly tough. But I pressed on though the pain and tried to use it to make the storytelling real and raw and viscerally authentic.Lila suffers great loss in this story. And I did too, as its author. That, plus many of the experiences I still remember so clearly from my teenage years that greatly shaped my emotional upbringing came back strong. I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I’d be at some points. Much of this story was penned through streams of tears. But I also found it an incredibly cathartic and healing experience. It was as if I had this ink and paper center with which to reconcile my emotion––past and present. I ended up with a preserved tribute to some amazing people who loved me well. And to a teenage girl used to know––myself.
II: Lila calls Miami her “charm city.” Do you have a city that you feel is your charm city?
It’s a tie between London and Paris. I have left parts of me inside each city and I can’t wait until I can go back and find them again.
II: In A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Lila’s family runs a panadería, and she makes a lot of delicious pastries as an offering to others and as comfort food for herself. Were any of the pastries she cooked based on your family’s recipes? Also, did you have a favorite recipe that you gave Lila to cook in the book?
LTN: All of the pastries and dishes in this book are foods that my family ate and cooked. My mom and tías are so skilled at adapting Cuban recipes and making them their own. As for a favorite, it’s kind of Cuban-cliche but it’s also real, so the fact that Lila chooses to cook arroz con pollo for a big dinner party for her new British friends has a lot of personal meaning. It’s the first dish that comes to mind from my childhood that makes me think of my mother as a consummate Cuban cook.
II: There’s a constant conversation within the literary community about “own voices” and the way that we as readers engage with the text we are given when we are outside a novel’s targeted demographic. What I love about A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow is that when Lila is speaking Spanish, it does not go the traditional route of italicizing her speech to categorize these lines as “out of the norm,” but instead forces readers who may not speak Spanish to truly immerse themselves into Lila’s world and see the story fully from her point of view. Is there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel? If so, how does having a bilingual character inform the dialogue of your novel?
Thank you! And early on I made the decision with my editor not to italicize, as this is an #ownvoices work and the Spanish language is an important part of both my and Lila’s heritage. This is not something I added to a story, it is a foundational element of the story. I wanted to showcase the way many Florida Cubans in particular use Spanglish and code switching. This is only a peek! Cuban Spanish has a distinct flow and “gate” to it. Cubans drop vowels at the end of words, and often run their speech together like they’re on a word slip-n-slide. I also have a couple of tías who speak at speed level 10,000. You have to really be paying attention to understand! These are all things I grew up listening to and absorbing. I couldn’t convey the whole effect of the speed and sound, but I tried to add a bit of the flavor of what Lila’s family sounds like.
II: In A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow Lila is forced from her beloved Miami and planted in England, where life is the total opposite. How did you get into the head of this character to write about this type of journey?
In writing Lila’s journey, it was first and foremost important for me to establish a clear sense of place and purpose for her back in Miami. I really spent time fleshing this out, and creating my Lila as a fixture in her community of West Dade. I had to firmly ground her in Florida, and have that be real and pressing and believable before yanking her out of her comfort zone into a new place. Because if her home isn’t calling out to her so deeply, it doesn’t matter as much that she’s being forced to leave to recover and recoup. With that foundation in my head and in my pen, England blossomed with all of these fun and frustrating ways for Lila, and for me in writing her. It was fun to throw experiences at her and watch her adapt and change. It was a joy to surprise her.
II: Do you have any books or authors that inspire you?
II: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?
LTN: I say this every time but it never fails: read fifty books in your chosen genre and age level. Read for voice, pacing, narrative tricks, character development, and to get a general sense of the bounds and possibilities within the genre. Also, join the online writing community early on. Get used to sharing your writing as soon as possible and try to align yourself with like-minded peers who can walk with you during your publishing journey. Find your squad––you won’t be sorry!
Laura Taylor Namey is a Cuban-American Californian who can be found haunting her favorite coffee shops, drooling over leather jackets, and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two superstar children.
This former teacher writes young adult novels about quirky teens learning to navigate life and love. Her debut, The Library of Lost Things, published 10/08/19 from Inkyard Press/HarperCollins. Her #ownvoices sophomore project, A CUBAN GIRL’S GUIDE TO TEA AND TOMORROW is coming November 10, 2020 from Atheneum Simon and Schuster, with a third title to follow fall 2021.