“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:
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.
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!