#1000BlackGirlBooks: One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of Delphine Gaither and her sisters, Vonetta and Fern. In the summer of 1968, they fly from New York City to Oakland to meet their mother, Cecile. Cecile left the family when Fern was a baby, and the sisters have next to no memories of their mother. She resents the intrusion into her life, and sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers.

I was interested in this book, because for a long time, the only thing I knew about the Black Panthers came from a two-minute scene in Forrest Gump. Most media depicts the Black Panthers in a one-sided way, as a ruthless, militant group. It wasn’t until last year that I even learned about the survival programs the Black Panthers ran. These included the Free Breakfast for Children, community medical clinics, voter registration, and sickle-cell anemia testing. There’s no denying that the Black Panthers were a militant group, and they remain controversial today. But that’s not all they were.

Doing some research on the author herself, I learned that Williams-Garcia’s relatives were members of the Black Panther party. She grew up during the Civil Rights era, and refers to her diaries as her primary sources.

I don’t necessarily dislike historical fiction, but I am very picky about it. I’ve given up reading far more historical novels than I actually finish. So when I say that I couldn’t put this book down, you know that I was hooked. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that characters tend to be what draws me into a story.

All the Gathier women are vibrant and memorable in their own ways. Eleven-year-old Delphine is the eldest, but often must act older than her years. She takes it upon herself to be her younger sisters’ guardian, helping to raise them after Cecile abandoned her family. The middle child, Vonetta, is showy and loves to be at the center of attention. Fern, the youngest, is clear-eyed and an emerging poet.

Cecile is hardly a warm matriarch, and doesn’t want the girls in her life. She’s associated with the Black Panthers and allows them to use her beloved printing press, but she doesn’t share their zeal. Her main concern is her poetry, and she doesn’t act anything like the mother the Gaither sisters imagined for most of the novel.

Another crucial piece of historical fiction is the setting. The time period and location are critical parts of the narrative. In a good historical fiction, the setting is woven together with the story to the point where you can’t separate them.

One Crazy Summer couldn’t be set anywhere but Oakland, CA in the summer of 1968. Along with the other social upheaval and counterculture movements at the time, the murder of Bobby Hutton had occurred only months prior to the beginning of the novel.

When the story begins, Delphine only knows a little about the Black Panthers, and her grandmother, “Big Ma”, only refers to its founders as troublemakers. When they first go to the center for breakfast and the day camp program, they are largely indifferent to the Panthers’ cause. As Vonetta says:

We didn’t come for revolution, we came for breakfast.

As the story progresses, Delphine starts reading the Black Panther’s newspaper, and becomes sympathetic to their cause. She takes pride in her work passing out fliers to encourage people to come to a rally, refusing to shop again at the grocery store that would not allow her to post one. By the end of the novel, she knows taht being associated with the Black Panthers is dangerous, but also understand the value of the party. She comes to better understand the racism and prejudice she and her loved ones face every day, and wants to fight back against it.

There’s a lot more I could talk about this book. I especially loved the importance that was placed on names and identity. However, I don’t want to spoil the events and significant moments in the book for you. I want you to go and read it. You won’t regret it.

One Crazy Summer was a fantastic book from start to finish, and I’ve added its two sequels onto my ever-growing to be read list. The characters and setting are vibrant and authentic, and the novel portrays another side of the Black Panthers that is rarely seen in media.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

This post contains many, many spoilers for A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.

Just as I thought my days of watching teenagers kill each other for sport were over, I got dragged back in.

I’m not going to lie: I was definitely intrigued when I heard a new Hunger Games book was coming out. I couldn’t read the original trilogy fast enough. Like a lot of people, something about the Hunger Games series hooked me. Even now, I occasionally go back to those books, years after the books were read and the movies had wrapped, every so often, I still go back to the books.

I really like the original series, and I knew that I had to read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

I didn’t like it.

I don’t think that it was an objectively bad book, and if you read it and loved it–great! Just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean that it’s awful. A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was the perfect book for someone…just not me.

This was something I never thought I’d say about a book, but here it is: I think Snow was the wrong choice for the protagonist.

This is one of the hard things about writing prequels. It’s not easy to build tension when we already know how Snow’s story ends. Whatever happens to Snow in this book, whatever dangerous situation he’s put in, he’s going to survive. He’s not just going to live to the end, he’s going to reign over Panem for decades.

Snow’s also hard to sympathize with. In many prequels starring the main series’s villain, we usually get a character who wants to be good and do the right thing. Typically, dire circumstances cause the protagonist to make hard choices, and lead to their inevitable moral downfall. We usually like this prequel protagonist, and feel sad knowing how things are going to end badly for them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like Snow, even from the very start of the book. From the outset, he’s obsessed with status and regaining his family’s lost wealth, and cares for no one but himself. When he shows kindness to others – most notably his ostracized classmate Serjanus – he only does so because it will benefit him in some way. Snow was a sociopath from the start, and I didn’t find anything likable about him. Even his family’s poverty didn’t make me feel more sympathetic for him. Every time he complained about how he hated eating lima beans or cabbage, I wanted to shout at him that Katniss and her family almost starved to death in District 12, decades after Ballad takes place.

Actually, I just wanted to shout at him a lot throughout the book, but that’s largely because of the writing style.

Suzanne Collins has never been known for her subtlety. One of the main complaints I heard about the original Hunger Games books were that they spoon-fed the audience too much. I think that’s a fair criticism. Since Ballad was written in the third-person, I’d hoped that Collins had gotten away from shoving information down the reader’s throats. Unfortunately, just the opposite of that happened. It got way, way worse. Large portions of Snow’s inner monologues are about the “Three C’s”: chaos, control, and contract. He has deep discussions with one of the antagonists, Dr. Gaul, about human nature and the purpose of the Games.

The didactic nature of the prose ruined the character of Serjanus for me as well. I was certain that I would like him at the beginning of the book: a District-born boy who was raised in the Capitol. But by the end, everything that came out of h is mouth was so preachy, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t cheer for him trying to rebel against the Capitol. Much like Snow, I just wanted him to shut up.

The unwanted philosophy discussions weren’t the only things with the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Collins made sure that her reader would never have to think for a minute to figure out what was going on. Take the folks songs that District 12’s tribute, Lucy Gray, sings. Snow’s inner monologue explains the meaning of each verse while she explains the songs. The lyrics themselves offer insights and clues, but they’re not that hard to figure out.

That’s far from the only time something like that occurs. Shortly before the tributes go into the arena, Snow drops a hint to Lucy Gray about how she might bring a weapon, of sorts, into the arena to help her.

She noticed the empty well where the cake of powder had sat an hour earlier. ‘Did there used to be powder here?’

‘There did, but–‘ began Coriolanus [. . .] ‘I thought you might want to use your own.’ [. . .]

Maybe he’d broken a rule or two by giving her the compact and suggest she fill it with rat poison, who knew?

I did cut out some of the above quote, but in less than two pages, it’s already revealed what the plan is. There’s no chance for the reader to guess at Snow’s hint or figure it out on their own. And for people who wouldn’t catch that hint, they’re robbed of the surprise.

This was just one of many examples, so I was really happy to see a scene where everything that happened in it was left implied. Snow gets caught cheating in the Games to help Lucy Gray, and is then expelled from the Academy and forced to enlist as a Peacekeeper. He gets called to meet with the dean of the Academy, thinking he’s going to be reward. When he gets to the meeting, however, he sees that the evidence of his cheating has been found.

There, arranged on the table like lab specimens, were three items: an Academy napkin stained with grape punch, his mother’s silver compact, and a dingy white handkerchief.

The meeting could not have lasted more than five minutes. Afterword, as agreed, Coriolanus headed directly to the Recruitment Center, where he became Panem’s newest, if not shiniest, Peacekeeper.

There. Perfect. The reader already knows the details of how Snow cheated, and the consequences he would face if he was caught. I was so happy that we were finally given a scene that doesn’t spell everything out for us. Something that finally left something to the reader’s imagination.

In the very next chapter, two and a half pages are dedicated to the details of the meeting between Snow and Dean Highbottom. Nothing left implied, nothing for the reader to wonder about.

The pacing really bothered me. For a series known for its action, this book is slow and plodding. There’s such a long wait before we even get to the Games, which was something that drew a lot of people into the series. A large portion of the book is taken up with pre-Hunger Games prep. While interesting at times, it also felt bloated, and I was chomping at the bit to get to the Games themselves.

When the Hunger Games finally begin, they’re disappointingly boring. Since we’re seeing this through Snow’s eyes, not Lucy Gray’s, we don’t see half of what goes on in the arena, and hear from the tributes even less.

After the Games, Snow becomes a Peacekeeper. He gets assigned to District 12, which is where the last third of the book takes place. It was a totally new setting, and the main conflict was so different from the first two-thirds of the story, it felt like a different book. It was just a slog for me to get through.

There were also the callbacks. For the most part, I didn’t mind them. At least, not the little ones, like lamb stew, or Snow’s grandmother mentioning that a news story will “catch fire”. It was the ones that were beaten over my head that annoyed me. Snow’s utter hatred for mockingjays, for example. Also, the song “The Hanging Tree”. We get to see its inspiration, and Lucy Gray write it. Some fans may have really liked these parts, but for me…well, I’ll just leave the wise words of Patton Oswalt here (NSFW video):

I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!

All that said, I don’t want to end on an entirely negative note. There were plenty of things that I did like about the book. Lucy Gray was a really good, colorful character. There was some ambiguity if her feelings for Snow were actually genuine, and her ultimate fate is left unknown. It gave the reader something to wonder about, even be hopeful for. Whatever happened to her, I’m squarely in her corner.

Despite my complaints about “The Hanging Tree”, I really did like some of the song lyrics. I’ve always been a fan of folk music, even if the narration felt the need to explain every verse to me. The only reason I might watch the inevitable film is to hear how those songs sound, instead having them awkwardly read to me by my audiobook’s narrator.

While I thought the pacing wasn’t great, it was also interesting to see life in the Capitol through the eyes of its citizens, not just the Hunger Games tributes. It was neat to see how the Games evolved, when tributes were treated like criminals, not superstars.

It even improved on something that really annoyed me in the original Hunger Games series. In the original, Katniss frequently fell unconscious and then was rescued by allies. Once she woke up, her allies would explain what she missed. It came off as a bit of a lazy way to move the plot forward. But that never happens to Snow, even when the situation would have absolutely warranted him being knocked unconscious. I can appreciate that Collins actually wrote the full scenes out for the readers to see, rather than getting information fed to us after.

I didn’t love this book, and it was disappointing for me in many ways. But if you read it and loved it, great! Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it can’t be the perfect book for you.

52 Children’s Books in 52 Weeks

This isn’t a proper blog post, so much as an accountability booster for a reading project. I’ve never set goals for pleasure reading for myself before, this the only thing I had closely resembling a “goal” was “read all the books!”

I do have a career goal, though, which is to become a youth services librarian. One thing that’s important for me to do is to know what kids are currently into. The books I loved when I was 10 are not necessarily books kids today will love. To that end, my goal is to read 1 book from The New York Times best sellers for children each week.

There’s no one single list for children’s best sellers. Rather, NYT divides them into categories: picture book, children’s middle grade hardcover, children’s series, and young adult hardcover. For this, I’m just sticking to picture books, middle grade, and series.

Some ground rules for this project:

1. I will read from a different list each week. In order: picture book, middle grade hard cover, children’s series. Wash, rinse, repeat.
2. I will read the first* book on each list.
3. If I have already read the first book on the list, I will move to the second, and so forth.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back next year and report back with observations, and perhaps micro-reviews of each book.

*Except The Ickabog.

#1000BlackGirlBooks: Amber and the Hidden City

For my next pick from the #1000BlackGirl book list, I chose Amber and the Hidden City by Milton J. Davis. After reading some pretty heavy books, I wanted to get something a bit more light-hearted. I also opted for a middle-grade book so I could read it a bit faster than some of the other novels I’ve covered on here.

And I’m really glad I did! I liked the titular Amber right away, and the writing is solid and easy to get into. Perfect for a middle grade book. There’s also not a ton of waiting around for the plot to start, which I like.

Thirteen-year-old Amber is at a crossroads in her life. After summer break, she’ll be going to a new high school that none of her friends are attending. This is especially daunting because her blunt personality makes it hard for her to make new friends. To top it all off, she just used magic for the first time in her life.

Amber visits her grandma, Corliss, during her summer vacation, hoping to figure out all these changes in her life. Corliss finally tells Amber the secret she’s hidden her whole life: she is from Marai, a magical city that has been hidden from the outside world for thousands of years. The leader of Marai, the Sana, is dying, and nobles are vying for power in attempts to become the next Sana. The villainous Bagule is a strong contender for the title, but his rule would likely spell disaster for the city. He wants to open up Marai to the world, something that other nobles strongly advise against.

You’d be forgiven for making comparisons between the book and Black Panther, even though Amber and the Hidden City was published before the Marvel film. Fortunately, other than both works featuring a mysterious African city, the stories are quite different.

Corliss reveals how she and Amber can stop Bagule’s rise to power. Amber is a seer, and her powers are just beginning to wake. They must travel to Marai, whereAmber can use her gift to select the next Sana, someone who will protect the city and help it prosper. They travel from the United States to Paris to Senegal to Dakar, and finally pass through a magical veil that brings them to Marai. Along the way they are pursued (and sometimes aided) by Aisha, a deadly shape shifter. As they travel, Amber learns to use her powers as a seer to see the inner truth of the people she encounters.

One thing I am always conscious of in fiction is how women are treated as characters. Are they shrinking violets? Are they balanced characters? How much “screen time” do they have when compared to male characters? I know that many male (but not all!) authors have difficulty portraying women in ways that female readers would find authentic.

I was absolutely delighted that female characters played a central role in the story. Amber and Corliss have their moments of doubt and fear, but that’s totally normal in the situations they’ve been thrown into. They also display courage and compassion. Amber also acts like a thirteen-year-old girl actually would. For example, when she has to share her bedroom with a boy, Amber’s pretty freaked out about it. She spends too much time in the bathroom to avoid seeing him and texts her best friend, asking what she should do in this situation.

I also really liked Aisha. She’s definitely a “true neutral” character, who puts her survival ahead of everything else. While others in the book have their own goals — Amber wants to get to Marai, Bagule wants to be Sana — Aisha only wants to do what’s best for herself. Even if this means betrayal. That’s a fine villainous trait to have, but she was just so cool that I could never make myself hate her.

That’s not to leave out the male characters, though! Amber’s great-grandfather is a source of wisdom; his apprentice, Bissau, is crucial to bringing Amber and Corliss to Marai; Bagule is appropriately despicable.

There are a couple things that I didn’t love about this book. The first is that there were still several places with grammatical issues, but nothing that some editing wouldn’t be able to fix.

The second is that we’re told over and over again that opening Marai to the rest of the world is a terrible idea. This is Bagule’s plan, and this is why he cannot be made Sana. Somehow, opening the city will bring ruin to Marai and the world.

We never find out why this is, though. Towards the end of the book, Amber’s great-grandfather implies that Marai is a cage for some dark, evil force. However, no one ever mentions it again, or even says what it is that Marai’s protecting the world from. After waiting so long for an explanation, I was a bit miffed when that was all we got. I imagine it will be expanded on more if there’s a sequel.

At this point, there is one thing left to talk about. You guessed it, it’s race!

I’ve just finished a Multicultural Literature course, and one of the first things we learned in it is basic ways to classify multicultural books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) classifies diverse books in the following ways:

  • By and about – the work is by a member of a specific culture or group, and about someone in that culture or group (ex. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi)
  • By and not about – the work is by a member of a specific group or culture, but not about that specific group or culture. (ex. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats)
  • About but not by – the work is about members of a specific culture or group, but not by a member of that group (ex. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot)

Additionally, books can be classified as “culturally neutral”, “culturally specific”, and “culturally generic”.

I would classify Amber as “by and about” – the same category that I’m trying to read more from. I’d also say that it’s “culturally generic”. It features diverse characters, and the cultures of these characters affect their decisions and reactions to events. Even so, the story is not about African cultures that Amber and Corliss encounter. The story is about their journey to Marai.

One other thing worth noting is that all the characters in the book are Black, even the most minor ones. I thought that was pretty cool. Though I’ve tried to read more diverse books, I’m not sure I’ve ever noted ones that have casts entirely made up of people of color.

When I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Spectacular, one of the interviews I got to watch was a conversation with authors Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone. Along with sharing their writing process, they talked about interacting with kids, Black Lives Matter, and writing diverse books. When talking about doing a reading, Jason Reynolds told this story:

This young kid raised his hand and he said, ‘how come you never write White people in your books?’ …He’s not being sort of provocative, he’s like, ten. This was an earnest question. ‘How come you never write White people in your books?’ And I said, ‘You know, in my world, sometimes I believe it’s okay for Black children to live a life uninterrupted, and that’s fine, you know?’ And then I said, ‘does it bother you?’ And he said, ‘Of course it doesn’t bother me, because they’re not that different from me.’ They’re kids! It’s all the adults who are hung up.

Jason Reynolds, 2020

I’d never thought about it like that, but now that I have, it makes sense. I’m glad I found a book with only Black characters, where they can have their adventure, uninterrupted.

Books I Didn’t Pick: How Fires End

How Fires End by Marco Rafalá is a family drama, following the life of Salvatore Vassallo using three different perspectives.

Salvatore was born in Melilli, Italy, where he lived during World War II. Salvatore’s younger brothers were accidentally killed during the war, and their deaths destroy Salvatore’s faith, and bring ruin to his family. With the help of an Italian soldier with fascist ties, Salvatore and his sister, Nella, leave Italy and immigrate to Connecticut. A generation later, Salvatore’s American-born son, David, seeks to discover his overbearing father’s secrets, with devastating consequences.

Since other “books I didn’t pick” were disappointments for me, I was a little wary coming into this one. I also don’t read a lot historical drama fiction. When I started How Fires End, the only other novel I could think to compare it to was Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides. Both tell a multi-generational story of a family of immigrants. The family heads keep secrets from the next generation, which change their children’s lives forever. There’s a historic fiction element to both, but that’s really where the similarities end. In recent memory, the only family dramas I’ve enjoyed and felt invested in were Downton Abbey and The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. While I am familiar with the family drama/historical fiction genre, it’s not something I seek out frequently.

Why is why I was pretty surprised at how quickly I got sucked into this novel. A big part of that is just for the way that the book is written. The prose is beautiful, even poetic. The first section of the book, “David”, was a prime example of this. Throughout it, the author uses extended metaphors to show the relationship between David and his father.

Imagine an object so massive that not even light could escape the pull of its gravity. If light could not escape, nothing could. That was how my father loved me.

The metaphors in Part 1 are often related to black holes or planetary orbits, which makes sense, because David has a strong interest in astronomy. I really enjoyed them, mainly because I’m a space nerd. If they had been based on some other topic, I could see the constant metaphors getting annoying, but they worked well for me.

David’s section of the book was easily my favorite, but there was one issue I had with it. The novel is told using first-person perspective, so David is our narrator. He’s thirteen years old, but the narration doesn’t have the voice of a young teenager. Of course, thirteen-year-olds can have deep thoughts and come up with clever metaphors about their lives. But this entire section reads like an old man looking back on his life, not as a kid living it.

This is most obvious when it comes to David’s relationship with his only friend, Sam. Vincenzo says that Sam and David are paisanu.

‘They are saying, the saint is one of them, a paisanu. You know what that word means? It’s like the way you and David fought for each other. You understand? It’s the same thing.’

Sam really likes this, and calls David paisanu as an affectionate nickname. For any thirteen-year-old, especially a lonely one like David, that would be a huge deal. Later, Sam excitedly discusses his summer plans for the two of them. He talks about going to the beach, starting a band, and girls.

Sam had unspooled a thread for me to follow–a way out of the labyrinth–and I held onto it even as I knew our Ray Harryhausen days couldn’t last. Nothing did.

This just drives it home for me that David’s narration is not that of a thirteen-year-old. When you’re at that age, you often feel closer to your friends than you do to your family. No thirteen-year-old would refer to his friend as a brother, but also fully believe that their friendship will come to an end.

It’s a bit paradoxical – the prose is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. What this novel struggled with most was distinguishing the voices of its characters. The second section of the book is narrated by Salvatore, and the final part is told by Vincenzo. Salvatore’s and Vincenzo’s stories focus on the past: their lives in Italy, and early life in America. Though their life stories are different, the prose doesn’t change to match them. There’s no stylistic difference between David’s, Salvatore’s, or Vincenzo’s narration.

Salvatore’s section was probably the hardest for me to get through. Part of it was the aforementioned issue with voice, but it’s also just kind of a bummer. This makes sense when it comes to the three-act structure commonly used in fiction. Salvatore’s section is the second act, which is usually a downer. There were no light-hearted moments or hope spots, and getting through it was a slog for me.

At that point, I’d also become pretty attached to David. I wanted to know more about what happened after his part in the novel was over. There’s a little bit of an epilogue, but I really wanted to see more than what I got.

My one other complaint might be the dearth of female characters. David, Salvatore, and Vincenzo all have romantic interests, though they aren’t all that well fleshed out. Of them, David’s mother, probably has the most characterization, but she died when David was young. She doesn’t appear “on screen” as much as she appears in David’s faint memories of her. Salvatore’s sister, Nella, does play a significant role in the novel, yet she doesn’t appear to have any sort of life of her own outside of Salvatore and David. Of course, the first-person perspective is limited, and can only tell us how the narrators see her.

On one hand, I would have liked to see the women in this book have a stronger presence. However, the novel doesn’t feel incomplete because of that lack. It’s a very masculine novel, a book about fathers and sons. The writing style and excellent prose help hide this absence. I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers didn’t notice it at all.

While How Fires End did have its flaws, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. This is Marco Rafalá’s first novel, and I’d be interested in reading more from him.

#1000BlackGirlBooks: Americanah

First of all, I’m sorry about the late post. I was incredibly busy working on my finals, but I’m happily on my winter break right now!

The other reason this post is late is because…well, it’s kind of a mess. I’ve written, edited, and re-written, but Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a complex work. I don’t feel qualified to write a nuanced, in-depth discussion about this novel, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I started reading #1000BlackGirl books to learn, and the experience has varied so far. I’ve gotten way more out of The Hate U Give and The Color Purple than NOLA Gals and Sound. So when I read the description of a young Nigerian woman going to America to continue her education, and learning what it means to be Black in America, I was here for it.

The first thing I learned from this book is that I don’t know shit about Nigeria.

I only knew very vague facts about Nigeria before I started this book – something about tribes and a military government, and that it was densely populated – and not much else. When one of the characters, Aunty Uju, begins and affair with someone known only as “The General”, I decided it was time to learn a little bit more about the country. I don’t have a ton of free time anymore, but I do have enough time for a couple Wikipedia articles, and read through some about Nigeria’s political history.

This was a new experience for me. I’ve done research on things I’ve read about in stories because they piqued my interest, but I’d never done research to better understand the context and setting of a novel. Even after I did, I still felt like there was a lot for me to learn. But that’s kind of how all of  Americanah made me feel.

Americanah follows Ifemelu and Obinze, a young Nigerian couple. When constant strikes impede their university education, Ifemelu decides to go to America to complete her Bachelor’s degree. Later, Obinze tries to move to America as well, but is denied a visa in the aftermath of 9/11. Instead, he goes to London, hoping to start a new life and someday make it to the United States.

This book covers so much that I’m not sure I’ll be able to touch on everything here. t also took me a year to read this book, grad school frequently halting my progress. There’s things in the beginning that I’ve probably forgotten, or things that I meant to take notes on and didn’t. It chronicles the immigrant experience for both these characters, while Ifemelu – and her blog – discuss race in America.

In trying to plan this blog post, I felt very much out of my depth. I have very few experiences in common with Ifemelu and Obinze. I’ve never had to use another person’s social security number to get a job, have never left my home country for reasons other than vacation, and I can’t say that I have any real idea what it means to be a Black person in America, or in England. I know what it means to be a well-meaning White person, like Kimberley, one of Ifemelu’s employers. Trying my best to be inclusive and empathetic, while knowing that I will never truly “get it”. I’m on the outside, looking in, and hoping I’m doing more good than harm.

I suppose I’ll start at the first thing in the book that struck me: a realization of my White privilege in a way that I’d never thought of before. Near the beginning, Ifemelu goes to get her hair braided, and the hair dresser tells her the process will take six hours. Six hours?! You’d need to take a day off work to get your hair done! I sat in a salon chair for three hours a couple times, and I hated it. It looked nice when I was done, but three hours of making uncomfortable small talk was torturous. I can’t imagine was six hours of that would be like.

One chapter in the book is actually dedicated to Ifemelu’s hair. As she starts searching for jobs in America, she uses relaxers to make her natural hair more acceptable to White interviewers. After she gets a job, she wonders if she would have been hired if she’d worn her natural hair. Ifemelu’s immigrant aunt, Aunty Uju, also gets rid of her braids and relaxes her hair so her patients take her more seriously. The relaxers burn Ifemelu’s scalp and she eventually forgoes it, joining online communities for natural hair, and wearing her own natural hair as well.

This becomes one of the main themes of the book: Ifemelu’s identity as a Black woman, juxtaposed (and sometimes in conflict with) her identity as an American. For example, she practices an American accent, until someone compliments her on not sounding African, after which she switches back to her Nigerian accent.

I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be Antiracist as I work on this post. In it, he writes about “dueling consciousness”, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois ideas of “double consciousness”.

They joined other Black people trying to fit into that White space while still trying to be themselves and save their people. They were not wearing a mask as much as splitting into two minds.

The conceptual duple reflected what W.E.B. Du Bois idelibly voiced in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,’ Du Bois wrote. He would neither ‘Africanize America’ nor ‘bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism’. Du Bois wished ‘to be both a Negro and an American.’ Du Bois wished to inhabit opposing constructs. To be American is to be White. To be White is not be a Negro.

Kendi, I. X. (2019) How to be an Anti-Racist, p. 28

Ifemelu’s story is largely built around this dual consciousness. So many of her experiences in America are affected by her skin color, even as Americans around her say they don’t see race. A perfect and all too real example is when Ifemelu goes shopping with her friend Ginika, shortly after Ifemelu arrives in America. When buying clothes, they get helped out a sales associate, but can’t remember her name when asked by the cashier. The cashier asks what color the employee’s hair was, but it doesn’t help, since they both employees had the same hair color. After they leave, Ifemelu asks why the cashier didn’t just ask if it was the Black girl or White girl who helped them. Ginika laughs, and says in America, people pretend race isn’t real.

This is something I have done. Once at work I was trying to point out a customer to my boss, struggling to remember what she was wearing. After he found the customer, he asked me, “Why didn’t you just say she’s the only Black person here?” It had never occurred to me, even if it would have made finding the person easier. Why is it so hard to say, “She’s Black/Latinx/White/Asian” and use race as a neutral descriptor?

Here’s the thing: I’m uncomfortable doing that, and many White people I know are as well. It’s hard for me to say why that is. Part of it, for me, was because I spent most of my life living in majority White cities, where diversity was more of a vague idea than something I had to think about every day. I have this notion that describing someone by their race, no matter the reason, is inherently racist.

And while I don’t know if that’s “okay” or not, as I reflect more on current events, I’ve come to realize that discomfort is a problem. If we’re going to make any progress towards justice and tearing down racist systems, we have to be able to have discussions about race. Just as you can’t have a conversation if the other person isn’t listening, you can’t have a conversation if the other person is too afraid of being wrong or feeling uncomfortable to talk.

Then there’s Kimberly, one of Ifemelu’s first employers in America. When I wondered before what benevolent racism looks like, I now understand that it looks like Kimberly. Kimberly dotes on Ifemelu not only because she’s a good nanny, but because she’s Nigerian. She shows Ifemelu souvenirs she’s collected from second- and third-world countries, saying things like, “the poorest people we saw were also the happiest.” It sounds so patronizing, especially when you consider how Ifemelu’s family often struggled to pay rent. Ifemelu was definitely not happier for her poverty. Kimberly is a tourist in the cultures of others, but sees it only at a surface level, rather than engaging with it in a deeper, more meaningful way.

If I’m being totally honest, I’m guilty of this, too. I was very skeptical when I first read about cultural appropriation, because I didn’t want someone telling me the way I was enjoying things wasn’t right. I got a little defensive. I had to learn and reflect, and become more aware of my actions and the things I say. For example, I used to love the misapproprated phrase “spirit animal”. It was a fun, jokey thing for me, and I didn’t want to give it up. Whenever I said that something was my “spirit animal”, I was ignoring and disrespecting Indigenous cultures. I’ve since learned better and stopped doing that, and I try to be aware of cultures not my own. I’m going to keep making mistakes, and I’ll keep getting things wrong until I know better. The best I can do right now is keep learning, and to change my ways based on what I’ve read and experienced.

And, as I’m now seeking out anti-racist reading material, as above, some of it has been hard for me to take. There are things that I’ve read in Kendi’s aforementioned book that I’ve initially taken issue with or had a hard time getting behind. It’s only by reminding myself to keep an open mind and that I have no place telling a Black author what’s racist and what isn’t. I need to shut up, listen, learn, and grow.

I feel like this post is kind of a mess, and there’s so much in Americanah that I won’t be able to cover the whole novel properly. But before I finish up here, I think I need to talk about Ifemelu’s American boyfriends.

Her first is Curt, one of Kimberly’s relatives. Ifemelu is hesitant about dating him at first, and Curt tells others that it was because she didn’t want to date a White person. This isn’t true; she just wasn’t sure about dating a relative of her employer. There’s a couple ways I interpreted this. The first is that Curt couldn’t believe Ifemelu wouldn’t want to date him, and had to make the excuse that it was about race. Or, by saying that he’s the one who doesn’t care about race, he appears to be more progressive and open-minded. Of course, if he really doesn’t care about race, then why bring it up? Curt is using his relationship with Ifemelu to virtue signal, so it’s not a huge surprise that their relationship doesn’t last.

The next is Blaine, a Black university professor and activist. Though he and Ifemelu are both intelligent, passionate people with similar interests, they have several conflicts in their relationship. A large part of this is because Blaine tries to stifle or change Ifemelu’s voice throughout their relationship. This is most apparent when it comes to her blog. By this point in the novel, Ifemelu makes her entire living on her blog. Blaine constantly badgers her to make it more professional or academic, citing the responsibility she has due to her high levels of readership. She resents this, and the pressure Blaine puts on her.

Blaine’s sister, Shana, is another hurdle to overcome. In a book with a lot of asshole characters, Shana is easily the most self-centered. Along with that, she’s jealous of Ifemelu for getting so much of her brother’s attention. She also belittles Ifemelu’s experiences in America, and says that she can’t fully participate in discussions about race in the United States, because she isn’t American.

There is so much going on in this book that I can really only cover a little bit, and these are some of the things that stuck out to me. In some ways, I feel like this post is a good representation of where I’m at right now, in trying to learn more about race and be better than I am. I’m scratching the surface, and I’m more in tune with the obvious stuff that’s easy to notice and understand. There’s an ocean of information to swim in, and I’m still splashing in the shallow end. I’m glad that I have books like this to help open my eyes, and teach me how to swim in the deep end. I hope I get there some day.

Books I Didn’t Pick: The First Girl Child

Picking out a book for someone else can be a challenging task. Everyone has their personal tastes, and it can be hard to find something that suits that person well. Take me, for example. I love sci-fi, but I couldn’t make it though the sci-fi classic, Dune. Other people love it, but it just wasn’t for me. In this not-so-creatively titled series, “Books I Didn’t Pick”, I’ll be looking at books that were chosen for me, most of which I would probably not pick if left to my own devices. Even so, I try to be open to different writers and genres, hoping to find something new that I enjoy.

For the very first edition of “Books I Didn’t Pick”, we have The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon, which was sent to me as part of a writer’s subscription box.

The First Girl Child was billed as a historical fantasy romance, and I figured that two outta three ain’t bad when it came to genres I was interested in. Reading through it, though, I came to discover that it failed at being any of those things.

Historical fiction isn’t something I got into until I was an adult, but I can appreciate the difficulty of writing it. It needs to feel grounded enough that even if the events and characters never really existed, you believe that they could have happened at some point. As I’m writing this, I recently finished a historical fiction unit for one of my classes, and discovered that I’m very picky about historical fiction that I actually enjoy. It either needs to be from an era I have an interest in, or feature spunky girls going against societal norms. The First Girl Child at least had the former: it’s a story about Vikings!

The First Girl Child takes place on the fictional island of Saylok, home of five fierce Viking tribes. I was here for it: high seas, adventures, shield maidens and fierce warriors. At least, that’s what I wanted to see. I got next to none of that. Viking raids are mentioned in passing, the only female warrior we actually see is almost immediately killed off, and most of the book takes place at the main temple on the island. Instead of seafaring exploits, we get shallow politics that feel like they were lifted from A Song of Ice and Fire without the nuance, or compelling characters to carry it through. Aside from an occasional reference to Odin, there is virtually nothing to separate Saylok’s culture from any other generic Medieval group.

It also bothers me that the author only had the characters pray to Odin or her OC Norse god, Saylok, and completely neglected Freya and the Vanir. The book is centered on the island’s residents being unable to conceive female children, but no one ever has the bright idea to pray to a fertility goddess.

Okay, so the historical fiction element was lacking. Maybe the fantasy aspects would be better? They definitely started out strong. In this world, magic comes from drawing ancient runes, and then activating the runes with blood. In the prologue, Dagmar and his sister Desdemona discover they have “rune blood” after entering a cave with runes carved on the walls. Runes are powerful forms of magic, and Desdemona uses them to curse all of Saylok. She also prophesies that no one but her son will be able to break the curse.

Aside from the set-up, the runes are hardly ever used. Dagmar uses them to pray for protection for Bayr, but they never make a meaningful appearance until the end. Because the runes are underutilized, the resolution felt like a deus ex machina. The book justifies this by saying that rune magic is dangerous, and its secrets are guarded closely. Even so, I’m a bit miffed about the lost potential.

Women were also forbidden from using rune magic. In doing some research for this post, I found that siedh, or a type of Norse magic, was often associated with women rather than men, so there’s another big X in the historical fiction column.

Then last, but not least, comes the romance.

Oh boy, here we go.

I’m not sure how fair it is for me to discuss romance as a genre. I’ve reviewed some romance manga here, but it’s often not something I’ll typically go for. Still, I tried to keep an open mind. Amy Harmon is the author of several romance novels, and she has a following. Thus, I expected the romance between Bayr and Alba to have some of the strongest writing in the book.

The relationship between them just strikes me as rather icky, though. Bayr sees Alba for the first time when she’s an infant and he’s a young child, and immediately says that he loves her. I chose to interpret this as platonic love, because Alba had just been born. It’s not as squicky as, say, Jacob imprinting on Renesmee in Breaking Dawn, but it’s in the same ballpark.

Bayr sees himself as Alba’s protector, and the two have a brother-sister relationship when they’re growing up. Bayr leaves the Temple Mount where they both live when he’s around twelve, and returns years later as and adult man. When he sees Alba again, they are suddenly in love, despite (a) not seeing each other in years and (b) being raised as brother and sister. In fact, Bayr’s lowest point in the book is when he believes Alba to be his biological sister. She isn’t, but it drives the “icky” factor home even more.

Even if I put that aside, I don’t see this as a great romance. There’s no build up; you don’t see them gradually fall in love. They meet, they’re in love, that’s it. Sometimes that’s okay, but we don’t see their relationship grow in any meaningful way. It’s just banal, and what should be the driving force of the book its least interesting aspect.

As far as characters and pacing go…

In my experience, good characters can save a mediocre plot, and vice-versa. I thought the plot itself was fine, though clumsily executed. As far as the characters go…I honestly don’t remember a thing about them. In writing this post, I tried to think of some key traits of each one. Bayr is strong and protective. His uncle, Dagmar, is intelligent and protective. Alba is…demanding of Bayr’s attention? If the only thing I can remember about the heroine of a romance novel is their connection to another character, that’s a problem. Even the antagonist was generically evil in a way that made him neither compelling, nor someone that I loved to hate.

The pacing bugged me. The novel starts with Bayr’s birth, and ends once he (spoiler!) becomes king of Saylok, so it obviously can’t capture every moment of his life in the book’s 400 pages. A lot of Bayr’s life is done in a sort of written montage, with important, specific scenes written out in detail. I think this works well when Bayr’s a kid, but not so much when he’s an adult. Most disappointing for me was when he leaves the Temple Mount where he was raised, and joined his grandfather’s clan. Apart from one scene that depicts his (admittedly badass) initiation into the clan, a lot of his skill and character development during those years is covered in just a few paragraphs. I want to see how he changed from the shy, stammering “Temple Boy” into a leader and warrior, but I never got more than a glance at his journey.

I was obviously pretty disappointed with this book. Even though I have my favorite genres and authors, I like stepping out of my reading comfort zone and trying something new. It can be hit and miss sometimes, and this book was clearly a miss.

I don’t want to end on an entirely negative note, and there were some things I liked about the book. First, despite my complaints, it’s well-written. I may not have cared for the story, but the prose was pretty good. I also think that it started out strong, and the magic system was cool, even if it wasn’t used to its full potential. I also liked the character of Desdemona, despite the fact that she was barely in the story.

In S.R. Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science, laws 2 and 3 are:

2. Every reader her or his book
3. Every book its reader.

This was not my book, and I was not its reader. But if this sounds like a novel you would enjoy, by all means, check it out! You might be the reader it needs.

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas follows Starr, a sixteen-year-old Black girl living in two worlds. She attends an expensive and mostly White prep school,  Williamson High School, while her family lives in the dangerous lower-class neighborhood, Garden Heights. Starr feels like she has two identities: Garden Starr, and Williamson High Starr. When her Black friend Khalil is shot and killed by a White cop and Starr is the only witness, she finds her identities clashing as she decides whether or not to speak out about what happened.

It’s a great read with memorable, vivacious characters, and hard to put down. It was also notably one of the most frequently challenged books in 2018. The reasons given for the challenges were fairly standard: sexual innuendos, drug references, profanity, things you can find in a lot of YA books. But what made this different from others on the list was because the book was deemed “anti-cop”.

I’m against censorship in general, while at the same time I understand its uses. I don’t think young children should be exposed to gratuitous images of sex and violence, or have the vocabulary of Deadpool. But I don’t like when ideas themselves are censored. Trying to ban a book because it has themes you don’t agree with doesn’t sit well with me. I think it’s insulting to readers that someone else will try to decide for them if they should or shouldn’t have access to a book, or if a reader is mature enough to handle the contents. It also makes me think that those who try to ban books don’t have faith in the people they’re trying to protect. It’s important to give adolescents opportunities to grapple with challenging material. Banning books denies teenagers a chance to engage with it, and limits their ability to learn and think critically about the issue at hand.

The Hate U Give certainly made me do some grappling with myself, starting with Starr’s two versions of herself. This isn’t something I’ve ever had to deal with personally. I have to change my behavior for the setting that I’m in – I don’t act like I do at home when I’m at work – but that’s something everyone has to do.

It made me think of my non-White friends, especially those who weren’t Christian and attended my Catholic high school. Did they feel like they were living in two different worlds? I wondered if I’ve ever said or did something to make them feel like that. I know I’ve said the wrong things in the past, and I’m sure I’ve committed many microaggressions without realizing it.

Other differences between my life and Starr’s life are made clear very quickly. In her narration, Starr says that Black kids get two versions of “The Talk”. First there’s the birds and the bees, and them there’s the cop talk: what to do if you’re stopped by a cop.

I want to tell you a bit about my hometown, so you can understand the attitudes I was taught about the police. I was born and raised in a small, conservative city that was part of the rust belt. Our main industry was our two prisons. Everyone I knew had at least one relative working in the prison system. This meant that many families of inmates came to live in my city, and many ex-cons stayed after they were released. From when I was growing up to graduating high school, crime increased. News stories about meth labs – and meth lab explosions – became commonplace. Shootings became a regular occurrence. The city that had always been regarded as safe was becoming scary.

Seeing that, we loved our cops. The police force budget was always a hot topic in mayoral elections. Hell, even our hockey team’s mascot is a police officer. If a cop was in my school, he was there to warn us about drugs and alcohol, as part of the DARE program. No resource officers, no metal detectors to worry about.  I was always raised with the idea that cops are there to protect you. It stayed with me for a long time, even after I heard stories of police brutality and racial prejudice in the police force.

I’ve written, edited, and re-written this entry, because this is something that I still struggle with. To be totally honest, it took me a long time before I was able to figure out why “All Lives Matter” was a phrase my woke (for lack of a better word), liberal friends disapproved of. It was only after learning more about the mantra of “Black Lives Matter”, police brutality, and actually talking to my non-White friends about current events that I was able to figure it out.

I’ve heard of “The Talk” from Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and in podcasts, but it’s something I never had to experience.

I hadn’t paid attention to the Trayvon Martin case when it happened. Part of my privilege, I understand now. But I did pay attention to Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, and watched Michael Brown’s murderer get acquitted on TV.

Then Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. It happened again. And again. It was hard for me to accept that the people who are supposed to protect us could be killers.

And if I ever got pulled over, I wouldn’t be shot based on the color of my skin.

This is where Starr’s story really begins: in a car with her friend Khalil, pulled over by a White cop. Khalil is shot and killed by the cop, and Starr witnesses the event. The story then follows Starr as she decides whether or not to talk – to the police, to the media, to her friends – about Khalil’s death. At the same time, she’s trying to live in a neighborhood ruled by gangs while navigating complicated friendships and romantic relationships.

After Khalil is killed, Starr doesn’t tell her prep school friends that she knew him. Her Garden friends, though, are frustrated by how Starr doesn’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t trust the police force to handle the investigation well. She does eventually agree to give the police a statement, because her uncle is a cop. She trusts him, if not the police force as a whole. Starr’s decision to talk the police, to give witness testimony, and to appear on a national news program about the killing are a major part of her internal conflict, and so much of that ties into her two different identities.

The people that Starr surrounds herself with factor in to which Starr she’s going to be. Most notably, there’s her Dad, Maverick.

I love how supportive Starr’s parents are. I’ve talked about how parents in YA novels are usually unimportant, out of the picture, or totally incompetent. In The Hate U Give, Starr’s family play a huge role in her story. They offer her advice, protection, and endless love when she needs it most.  Maverick is a proud Black man, and understands how discrimination and prejudice affects him and his family. He’s a powerful figure throughout the book, that Starr and her brothers look up to.

There’s also her mother, Lisa, who supports Starr through the hardest times and offers Starr advice about a troubled friendship. She’s a momma bear, incredibly protective of her kids. Her marriage hasn’t always been perfect – Starr’s half-brother is the product of Maverick’s infidelity – but she is able to forgive him and set boundaries. That implies a depth of their relationship that you don’t often see in YA fiction. Lisa helps Starr navigate the aftermath of Khalil’s death, supporting her choices and advising her when she’s conflicted.

The book’s relatable in a lot of different ways, and it was definitely written from a teenager’s point of view. Starr and her friends quote vines, fangirl over Drake, and the book’s full of pop culture references. I have to wonder how well those references will hold up in years to come, like mentions of The Beatles and Elvis in The Outsiders, or the out-of-date maxi pads in older editions of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

One of the things that really struck me was the character Hailey. Hailey is one of Starr’s White friends from Williamson Prep, but they’re drifting apart before the book begins. It started with Hailey unfollowing Starr’s Tumblr after the latter posted a picture of Emmett Till.

Hailey drops some timeless classics when it comes to justifying racism. She tells Starr to pretend a basketball is fried chicken, and asks her Asian friend if her family eats cat at Thanksgiving. When she gets called out on it, her defense is, “it was just a joke! Why are you so sensitive?”

I’ve heard that one a lot, most recently when I heard someone say, “Ugh, Jews,” in reference to a Jewish person who’d missed a bill payment. money. A glance and a “Wow” from me, and the speaker immediately jumped to this. “It’s a joke!”

However, discerning students of comedy will note that (a) it’s wasn’t actually a joke, and (b) “jokes” like that are usually scratching the surface of a deeper held prejudice. Humor is a powerful tool. It helps make things that are ugly or scary palatable. We use humor to let out things that aren’t always socially acceptable to let out: fear, or self-esteem issues, or our prejudices. It’s a tactic I use a lot to deal with things that I’m worried about, or to defuse tension.

Hailey also drops a good, “it’s not about race”, another argument I’ve heard far too many times. Once, I heard someone absolutely livid over the story about two Black men being arrested at Starbucks…for the exact wrong reason. “You can’t go into a store and not buy anything! But they had to go and say it was all about race!”

Which is funny, because I can sit at coffee shop and wait for my friends to get there before I order anything, and miraculously not get arrested.

Hailey’s final insult comes when she says that Khalil deserved to be killed. She says Khalil was a “gangbanger” and drug dealer, and the cop did the world a favor by shooting him. This is a narrative that’s easy to get caught up in.

In Psychology, there’s something called cognitive dissonance, and it’s something you’ve probably experienced. In short, it’s when our behavior or values clash with new information. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, so we try to relieve some of that dissonance through changing our thoughts or behaviors.

I’ll give you an embarrassing example from my life, when a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show came to my university. If you’ve never been to a live performance, you’re known as a “virgin”, and go through a ritual to pop your Rocky Horror cherry. I’d gone up onstage to get de-virginized, doing an embarrassing task with the other Rocky Horror virgins. I was so mortified, I didn’t have any fun at the show that night.

After, when anyone brought up Rocky Horror, I jumped in the conversation with a huge grin. “It was so much fun! I loved it!” I kept saying that, even though I did not enjoy the show. Why? Because I’d voluntary embarrassed myself in front of dozens of people. I needed to justify that somehow. I tried to make myself believe that my embarrassment wasn’t for nothing, and that I’d had a great time.

I bring this up because I want to think Hailey is experiencing cognitive dissonance when it comes to Khalil’s murder. If she was raised like I was, she probably grew up thinking that cops are heroes, not potential threats. The people who are supposed to protect us doesn’t fit with the notion that they can kill innocent people. It’s easier for Hailey, and many like her, to write Khalil off as criminal scum and nothing more. Hailey doesn’t know the desperate, sad circumstances that led Khalil to become a drug dealer. She just saw the end product.

I’m focusing on Hailey, probably a little too much, because I’ve been Hailey. Not just in terms of cognitive dissonance, but because I’ve made those “jokes” and those ignorant comments. Sometimes I’ve been justifiably called out on them; other times it’s been a longer process to figure things out. Everyone has implicit bias, but it’s not until we know we have them that we can change them.

This is a very in-depth look at a relatively small character, but the tension between Starr and Hailey is only one of the book’s conflicts. There’s Starr’s inner turmoil, family drama and the outside pressures from both of Starr’s worlds. There’s the King Lords, Garden Heights’s powerful and dangerous gang, the press, the cops…and a teenage girl trying to figure out where she stands in all this mess.

There’s a lot more I could say about this book. It’s well-written and gripping from start to finish, with memorable characters. It very much made me think of how my own privilege affects me every day, and helped open my eyes to both of Starr’s worlds. This is an important book, and all too reflective of current events. If you haven’t read it yet, do it.

Before I end this, I want to add that there are some ways to see your implicit biases without having to be called on it. Project Implicit has a number of Implicit Association Tests that you can take that may reveal your unconscious thoughts. Plus, they’re kind of fun to do.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

The best books are the ones that make you see the world a little differently. This is one of them.

#BlackLivesMatter

BlackLivesMatter
Showing Up for Racial Justice
The National Bail Project
American Civil Liberties Union
NAACP Legal Defense Fund

We Need to To Talk About J.K. Rowling

Trans Peer Support Lifeline (US): 877-565-8860
Mermaids Helpline (UK): 0844 334 0550

Before reading: If you’re not already aware of the controversy surrounding JK Rowling, I recommend looking up some of it to contextualize this post. This article is the most up-to-date one I’ve found.

I love Harry Potter. The book series has influenced my life in so many ways. It was a place to escape to during hard times, it gave me deeper bonds with my friends, and set my imagination ablaze. I grew up as the characters did. Shortly after my fifteenth birthday, I remember holding the recently-published Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in my hands and thinking, with slight awe, about how we were both now 15. To say that this series has meant a lot to me is an understatement.

I was pretty disappointed when it came to The Cursed Child, and only read it once. This is pretty telling for me–I knew the main series’s books so well that I could tell which lines of dialogue in the films had been lifted straight from the novels. I stopped following much of the Wizarding World updates after The Cursed Child. I didn’t see either of the Fantastic Beasts movies, even though that was a part of the Harry Potter universe I was always interested in. At that point I was tired of the expanded universe. Eventually, I just stopped caring about what J.K. Rowling had to say about the series. It was great for a time. I could enjoy the books and the universe in my own way, and not have to be bothered when Rowling said things like “wizards used to poop anywhere they wanted” and “Harry Potter has ED”.

Yes, these are two real things that Rowling said.

Then something changed. While discussing Harry Potter at the beginning of the year, one of my friends told me that J.K. Rowling was a TERF – a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I didn’t believe it at first. Rowling not only wrote my childhood, but at the time, I thought she was an LGBTQAI+ advocate. She’s donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, including charities for human rights. I did some digging, and found, much to my disappointment, that my friend appeared to be right. After I read Rowling’s tweet about Maya Forstater, I had hoped that it was a mistake or misunderstanding, and that Rowling would offer some kind of apology. I wanted to continue to like this author that I’d previously admired so much.

Instead, Rowling doubled-down on her transphobic beliefs in a multi-thousand word essay, confirming what so many of her fans already knew. I’m not going to re-hash everything she said on Twitter and in this essay; by the time you read this, there will already be a million think pieces online that can give you the history of Rowling’s downfall better than I can. But I am going to say that I feel hurt, disappointed, and betrayed by this author I once loved. If I feel this way, I can’t begin imagine how trans and non-binary Harry Potter fans feel.

I want to use this post as a way to get some thoughts down on something that I, and probably many others, have been grappling with. That is, separating the art from the artist.

This didn’t used to be something I worried too much about. Chik-fil-a hates gay people? Fine, I won’t spend my money there. Hobby Lobby denies medication to its employees and its founder loots artifacts from the Middle-East? Good thing Michael’s is just down the street, and not entirely despicable. It used to be easy to not support celebrities or businesses that I didn’t agree with.

Of course, nothing stays that simple. One of the first times I really had to make a choice to not support an artist happened to me a couple years ago. My sister and I both love the show The Office, and we exchange mix CDs for Christmas every year. Yes, mix CDs, because we want to pretend it’s still 2005. Two years ago, I decided to make her an Office themed CD. I included the most prominent songs from the show, even finishing it with Hunter’s infamous “That One Night”. But I encountered a dilemma when it came to including “Forever” by Chris Brown. It’s a catchy song, and it plays during one of the most iconic and heartwarming scenes in the show.

On one hand, $1.29 for a song is such an insignificant amount of money that it would make no difference to Chris Brown’s success or wealth. On the other, Chris Brown has a history of assaulting multiple women, most famously Rihanna (who he then said provoked him into hitting her). In the end, I decided not to buy the song. I couldn’t justify supporting this abusive singer, even in a minimal way. It went against everything I stood for.

Things are easy to get cluttered. Should I still listen to Michael Jackson’s songs if I bought them years ago? Is it ethical to buy from Amazon, knowing how terribly its workers are treated?

Should I read The Ickabog?

I wanted to when it was first announced. It was originally published for free online, and I’ve heard really good things about it. But I couldn’t forget it was written by a TERF.

No, I eventually decided. Even if it was free to read online, I didn’t want to give Rowling any more page views than she already had.

I obviously can’t speak for every Harry Potter fan who feels betrayed by Rowling’s hurtful beliefs. It’s more of a struggle than I would have imagined for me to accept that someone I admired can hold such hateful beliefs. This was compounded for me when I took her philanthropy into account.

In psychology, there’s something known as schemas. Schemas are mental ways that we categorize the world. For example, “dog, cat, bird” could be in a schema for pets, animals, or maybe even, “things that have bitten me”.

When we encounter new information, we have to create a new schema for it, or expand an existing schema for the new information. For example, we might put “bird” in the schema of “things that fly”. Then, after seeing an airplane, our “things that fly” schema now needs to include airplanes. People, however, aren’t so easy to categorize. It’s very difficult to change our schemas when it comes to both complex concepts, and things that are firmly set in your mind.

We like to put people in boxes that are simple to categorize and explain. This is one of the reasons why it’s so easy to fall into stereotyping others. In general, I would put a TERF in the “bad people” schema, a philanthropist in the “good people” schema, and a favorite author in the “people I admire” schema. The problem for me – and, perhaps, many people – is that JK Rowling has become harder to define.

I can’t ignore that she is using her considerable platform and online presence to spread false and harmful information about trans people and share her transphobia. On the other hand, I also can’t forget what the Harry Potter books mean to me.

In the end, I decided that I will not consume any more Harry Potter media than I already have. I’ve unfollowed Rowling on all my social media platforms. I won’t be supporting anything that J.K. Rowling puts out in the future, nor will I visit the Harry Potter theme park again (which doesn’t sound like a huge sacrifice, but I only live 3 hours away and could go). Even when it comes to recommending books for kids, Percy Jackson or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are just as much fun as Harry Potter. And there will be a certain amount of guilt when I say what my Hogwarts house is.

And yet, I will always love the books.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you already know that Rowling being a TERF goes against everything that Harry Potter is about. It’s a story about how love is the greatest weapon we have, and that your real family and home may not be the one you’re born into. It’s a story that says however you’re born – poor, rich, Muggleborn – doesn’t determine the person you’ll be.

I grew up with these, and they grew up with me. The values at the core of the Harry Potter series: love, bravery, friendship, have never dimmed for me, even if the author has forgotten about them. These books will always be a big part of my life, and I can’t give that up entirely.

Of course, this is just the decision I have come to. This is something every Harry Potter fan has to figure out on their own. It’s okay if you can’t overlook Rowling’s transphobia, and give up on her and her work entirely. It’s okay if you’ve struggled with this. It’s okay to get rid of all your Harry Potter stuff.

If you do continue to support Rowling’s work, please think critically about what you are supporting and endorsing.

Remember that that greatest weapon we have against evil is love.

Trans women are women.
Trans men are men.
Trans rights are human rights.

If you want to help in the fight for the rights, safety, and health of trans people, please consider donating to a non-profit organization that supports trans people.

National Center for Transgender Equality (US)
Trans Lifeline
The Transgender Law Center
The Trevor Project
Mermaids (UK)

p.s., I’m not saying that you should donate and have the thank you note sent to JK Rowling’s publisher at:

J.K. Rowling
c/o Bloomsbury Publishing
PLC50 Bedford Square
London WC1B 3DP
United Kingdom

….but you totally could.

Sound by Alexandra Duncan

Before I get into this, I want to say that I read the novel and wrote this post before I heard about the controversy surrounding Alexandra Duncan’s novel, Ember Days. I am planning on commenting on it in the future, but this post is just about her novel Sound. 

After reading some pretty heavy stuff, I wanted to try something a bit lighter. I chose Sound by Alexandra Duncan, a standalone novel in her Salvage series. According to the description on Amazon, Salvage was praised as, “brilliant, feminist science fiction” that would appeal to fans of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. I like all of those things, so I eagerly dove into Sound.

I really wanted to like this book. But I couldn’t.

It has everything I would normally love: strong female characters, a well thought-out and unique sci-fi setting, and a protagonist with PTSD who overcomes her fears to save the day. It’s well-written, and I sped through the first five chapters. But the main character, Miyole, makes a choice that drove me crazy, and I could never quite reconcile with it. Spoilers below.

Sound opens on Miyole, a sixteen-year-old research assistant on board a Deep Sound Research Institute (DSRI) spaceship. She researches pollinators like butterflies and bees for the purpose of terraforming and colonizing other planets. Right away I like the opening, how it centers on the small things in science fiction that you wouldn’t normally think about. Her ship is also organic and grown, made of of self-healing nacre. I love the idea of biological ships, and it’s an idea I’ve only seen used in a few sci-fi stories.

I also loved how much detail and thought was put into this story’s universe. A filthy, abandoned space station, or a city built of spindles under the sea of Encladeus. Like the need for pollinators, small aspects of life in space make the setting memorable.

The story really begins after a ship crashes into the Raganathon, the DSRI ship Miyole lives and works on. Pirates have attacked a trader vessel, and the survivors of the attack are taken on board the Raganathon. The survivors are a teenager named Cassia, her niece, and their cat. Cassia’s brother has been captured by the pirates, and likely sold into slavery. Cassia wants the DSRI ship to give chase and find her brother, but they refuse. They can’t change their entire course and mission for one person, who’s unlikely to be found. Cassia is furious about this, and Miyole is frustrated by her commander’s lack of action.

Working together – and accidentally taking the pilot Rubio along with them – Miyole and Cassia steal a shuttle and set out to save her brother.

It sounds really exciting, but this was the point where the book started getting really frustrating for me. Since she was twelve, Miyole’s dream was to join the DSRI, which is incredibly selective, and only launches new missions every few years. She had to be at least 18 to apply for a position with the DSRI, and she’s only sixteen. Desperate to be aboard the next mission, Miyole enlists her brother-in-law’s help to hack into government databases and change her birth year. This is a very dangerous and illegal thing to do. If Miyole gets caught, it’s not just the end of her career. It would also ruin her life, and the lives of her brother-in-law and his wife.

Stealing a shuttle and (more or less) kidnapping a pilot is going to land her in some serious trouble, and authorities looking closely at her records. But she doesn’t think about any of this, or consider the consequences until more than two-thirds of the way through the book.

I know that every story needs a jumping-off point, and this is where the adventure really begins. There’s some justification for it: Miyole’s  frustrated by DSRI’s inaction, and she has a crush on Cassia. But after seeing how much risk she took just to apply to the DSRI, and how much she wanted this job, I wanted to see more than that.

At one point in the book, Cassia is badly injured, and may not survive. I actually hoped that she would die, because then Miyole would be caught in space. If the person she risked her life and career for was gone, what would she do? Would she keep going to find Cassia’s brother, or return to DSRI with her tail between her legs? Or something else entirely? I would have loved to see how Miyole would justify leaving everything behind for Cassia, only for her to die.

But, Cassia lives, and the story continues.

The novel has the overarching plot of rescuing Cassia’s brother, and it’s tied together by a string of different adventures. Sometimes it felt like each step they took on their journey could be its own short story. Along with an eerie, abandoned space station, they have to deal with Cassia’s shady contacts, carbon dioxide poisoning, space pirates, alien monsters, and being enslaved themselves before they reach their goal. There were a lot of cool, detailed settings, especially the seas of Encladeus.

My main problem with this book was the characters. We first meet Cassia after she’s taken aboard the DSRI ship, so we don’t get to see what she’s like when she feels comfortable. Cassia is angry. She’s a cold survivalist, and will do whatever it takes to get her brother back, including murdering others. That’s where Cassia starts, and that’s where she stays. She has so few redeeming qualities I could never actually bring myself to like her. Miyole falls for her though, and likes her enough to steal a shuttle.

So when Cassia breaks Miyole’s heart, Miyole could very well be left with nothing. No career, not future, and not even a girlfriend to explore the stars with.

Since I chose this book from the #1000BlackGirlBooks list, I feel like I can’t end this entry without talking about race. Miyole is Haitian, but grew up in Mumbai after her home “the Gyre” was destroyed during a hurricane. She survived the hurricane, but her mother was killed, and Miyole was left with physical and psychological scars. Miyole’s mother made sure her daughter knew about her Haitian heritage, particularly the slave rebellion. It’s a source of strength for her, as is the memory of her mother. She often wonders if she can be as brave as her mother.

I am sad to report, though, that racial prejudice will still exist in the future. Miyole doesn’t really fit in with her Indian friends, which is one of the reasons she wants to get off the planet. Her accidental traveling companion, Rubio, also refers to her as “memsahib”, much to her annoyance. There’s still a decent amount of “othering”, even aboard the DSRI ship, but it’s largely microaggressions. As the story progresses and Rubio travels with Miyole and Cassia, he does learn the error of his ways and changes accordingly.

There was a lot to like about Sound, but unfortunately for me, I had a hard time getting into it. Even so, I may check out Sound‘s preceding novel, Salvage, which focuses on Miyole’s adoptive family.