“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!
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.
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.
Faith’s parents and brother, on the other hand, treat her as an anomaly. To her parents, she is rudderless with no understanding of her Jamaican heritage. Yet, neither parent will tell her what she needs to know to grow closer to the country they love so dearly. Faith’s brother sees her as disconnected from her roots and writes her off as a “lost cause,” as he finds his foot in between the hyphen as a British Jamaican person.
With all these conflicting opinions about herself, it is no wonder Faith finds herself confused about who she is meant to be. It is not until a trip to the “Motherland” that Faith begins to craft an identity for herself.
What I most enjoyed about Levy’s story is that it is purely a character study. The shifts in the story feel akin to real life. Levy’s choice to explore the “hyphenated identity” of her character is something that any BIPOC person can understand regardless of their country or their economic class.
This is because we all eventually go through some metamorphosis that moves us further away from our ancestral “home base” be it through our economic status or geographical location. And due to this change, we often face scrutiny within our community and outside forces, who either see us as pretenders or as phony in how we present ourselves.
Therefore, it’s easy to understand the struggles Faith faces as she battles the remnants of colonialization and casual racism to become self-actualized.
In August, I read The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune after seeing Mara (@bookslikewhoa) rave about it on her BookTube page. Klune’s novel is one of a kind in its depiction of the child welfare state and how “unwanted” children are often herded from place to place with no real care for their wellbeing. Even though this author has placed the children in his story in an alternate world, it speaks to the plight of children who are either minority or LGBTQ+ or “hard to manage.”
Klune’s book starts in this “alternate” version of what seems to be London with Linus Baker, a caseworker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who happens to be gay. Linus is a character who the reader will immediately recognize as a person who’s just going through the motions at work. For all those in the helping profession, you’ll recognize him immediately as a person who’s “burned out” and just going through the motions of his job.
However, this all changes when he’s sent to check up on Arthur Parnassus and his gang of “misfit” children. The children under Arthur’s care can be seen to represent several unwanted groups of children, such as those with behavioral issues (Lucy, the Antichrist), those who are transgendered or non-binary (Talia, a female gnome, & Chauncey, an anthropomorphic blob), mischaracterized BIPOC children (Sal, a Black teenager who has been characterized as “violent” even though he’s just introverted), and the neurodiverse (Phee, a sprite who relates more to nature, & Theodore, a wyvern with limited speech patterns).
While the world and Linus at the beginning of the book view Arthur’s charges as a danger to society, he knows better. Through careful work with each child, he’s able to bring out the best in them. Sadly, this is not the route many people take when dealing with children in each of these populations, causing them more harm than good.
I will admit when I met the kids in Klune’s book, I was a little taken aback by the fact that Sal, who seems to be the only child of color, was depicted as a “were-dog.” Yet, it hit me that this was a stroke of brilliance since Sal’s transformation from being this “scary animal” that society sees him as mirrors the plight of black men everywhere once they go past the toddler stage. Sal is a victim of circumstance who has PTSD from the violence inflicted on him. He’s not only intelligent and poetic, but also the calmest child out the bunch. Likewise, the fact that Klune subtle pokes fun at the irony of dogs being highly protected by society when BIPOC aren’t had me smirking.
This book is a heartwarming tale that everyone needs to read! I gave it 4 ⭐️. It’s a book for the whole family. Checkout some of the character avatars that the publisher, TOR Forge, shared on their site below and on their website!
Furia is the story of Camila Hassan, a soccer prodigy that lives in Rosario, Argentina. As the only daughter of a misogynistic father, Camila is forced to hide her dreams of playing soccer from her parents, who hope she will become a doctor or marry rich to help them escape poverty.
Méndez’s #OwnVoices book is everything I could ever want in a YA Novel. This author tackles feminism, the fragile male ego, domestic and mental abuse, and what life can be like for women and abandoned children in a violent and impoverished country in the Global South. And, not to mention, Méndez’s book has a “friends to lovers” romance, a sports plotline, and involves social commentary on what it means to be a woman in a culture that runs on machismo.
Earning the nickname, “La Furia,” from admirers for her prowess on the soccer field, Camila is sure that she can help save her family if given a chance. When her childhood friend, Diego, comes home from playing pro-soccer overseas, she is forced to choose between her desire to be independent and play the sport she loves or yield to her family and Diego’s wishes for her.
Méndez navigates multiple plot lines and character development with finesse and manages to ask the bigger question of what happens in society if women are not protected and allowed to live full lives? This book has a little something for all readers.
Over the last month, I had the chance to read Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam thanks to the kindness of Harper Collins and Karina @AFirePages. As an avid Ibi Zoboi fan and an admirer of the tenacity of the Exonerated Five, getting an ARC of this book was one of the highlights of my year.
Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam book follows the story of Amal, a sixteen-year-old Black artist, who is convicted of a crime of aggravated assault against a White boy. But, Amal’s real crime stems from being born Black.
Thus, when readers see Amal claiming his innocence in court and being convicted to a harsh sentence at a young age, it hurts. As a minority reader, you will more than likely not only remember Dr. Yusef and the Exonerated Five’s case, but probably can also relate to Amal’s plight because you remember the a loved one or friend who’s also experienced harsh sentencing and lost years behind bars.
What I enjoyed most about this #OwnVoice novel in verse is that it is not only raw and real, but it feels honest. Amal is a character that I saw my brother, cousins, and nephews in. He is a boy who has high hopes, but gets painted as a monster by society instead of embraced for his art and potential.
The White educators and lawyers in his life masquerade as these Anti-racist figures and do-gooders, but when their feet are held to the fire, they act in their own self-interest.
Zoboi and Dr. Salaam’s book is an essential read, and I hope that you also pick it up and read it alongside Just Mercy by Bryan and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Yet, this group is frequently under attack and lauded as “leeches” on American resources even while they are recruited to keep America running smoothly by doing tasks that others won’t or can’t do. This is often done for little to no pay. With the current administration’s smear campaign against immigration, it’s refreshing to read stories by authors with firsthand experience of the true labor that goes into immigrating in the anthology, Come On In.
The anthology was edited by Adi Alsaid and is comprised of fourteen authors who hail from a variety of global backgrounds ranging from Fiji to Ecuador. I loved this anthology because each author shows that it takes courage and tenacity to leave the world you once knew behind to embrace a new life.
Likewise, each author has their own unique voice and tells their story from different vantage points of immigrating to America. For instance, some writers speak of the pain that comes with confronting TSA when you arrive in America and ICE if you are unfortunate enough to be deported. Other authors in the anthology tell of being told that they’re moving, but their older siblings are being left behind because they weren’t approved for a visa. Still, in other stories, the author presents first-generation American born children who struggle with building an identity in-between the proverbial hyphen of their parents’ native land and the American country they grew up in.
All these stories that Alsaid has edited together show that the immigrant experience, like everything else, cannot be told in a single story. Even within the same family, the story and one’s outlook on being an immigrant can vary.
This anthology is an excellent initial resource for anyone who has questions about what it is like for people who make the journey to leave their homelands and move to a new country. The stories in this collection will force readers to face their assumptions about who immigrants are.
If you go into this collection with an open mind, the stories will force you to look deeper into the question of why people choose to leave their homes, and if there even is a choice for some people. Likewise, for readers who love good storytelling, this anthology is perfect because of the nuanced viewpoints presented in the collection.