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.

#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.

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.

NOLA Gals

Before I get into NOLA Gals, I need to apologize for posting late. I’d been traveling, and also began my grad program last week. Luckily, I still managed to find enough time to finish this novel.

NOLA Gals by Barbara J. Rebbeck gives us Essence and Grace, two fourteen-year-old girls brought together by Hurricane Katrina, and Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Essence and her little sister Chardonnai are poor Black refugees from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They go from their flooded home to the Superdome, then to the Astrodome. There, they meet Grace, a rich White teenager, who’s volunteering with her dad. Grace and Essence bond over To Kill a Mockingbird. Soon, Essence and Chardonnai are taken in by Grace’s family while hoping to reunite with their own.

Reading that summary, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was: two girls from different worlds become friends and bridge the race and class gap between them. And that does happen, but the novel feels more like a love letter to Harper Lee than a coherent novel. Even the author’s Afterwords was about Lee’s book, rather than the story I’d just finished.

I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird twice and seen the movie multiple times. It’s a fantastic work and I really enjoy it. The constant references to Mockingbird were frustrating because readers who aren’t familiar with it would get as much out of the out of Nola Gals as they could. It also reminded me that I could be reading a better book.

After a promising start, I found myself losing interest in NOLA Gals. It wasn’t a hard book to read, and natural disaster stories fascinate me. I had to learn to manage my expectations. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but I had come into the book with certain assumptions that didn’t get fulfilled.

The first issue I met with was that NOLA Gals was listed as a young adult novel. The term “young adult” puts me in mind of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. I expected it to be both accessible, but have depth. As I read, though, I realized that NOLA Gals isn’t what I normally think of YA fiction. It read more like a middle-grade novel. There’s nothing wrong with that; even now I read middle-grade books. It just meant that I had to change my expectations about this book, and once I did, found it more enjoyable.

One of the biggest tells was the lack of subtlety on the part of our antagonists, the elitist families whose children attend the prestigious St. Catherine’s high school. These parents and students don’t believe that the Black refugees from Hurricane Katrina belong at their school, and they have no qualms about showing it.

‘This whole New Orleans business…these strange girls…” Mr. Townsend said, putting his arm around his wife.

‘Now honey, don’t sound like a southern bigot. As long as they keep their distance and don’t really mix in with our girls.’

‘You know they call themselves ‘gals.’ That New Orleans is as corrupt as the day is long. Some say Katrina was a fitting punishment for their sins,’ Mrs. Booth said, stroking her husband’s arm.

‘I thought the Woodsons had more sense than to take those girls in. I hope they are checking to see if the little brats have stolen them blind yet.’ [. . .]

‘You know there are black students at Saint Cat’s already,’ Mrs. Townsend said. ‘I saw a couple the last time I was there for a bake sale.’

‘Oh, yes, but you can’t compare them to those NOLA kids. Their dads are all professional. They almost belong. At least they can pay the tuition.’

We’re living in a weird time when it comes to race, with, unfortunately, more people feeling comfortable sharing their true racist rhetoric. However, most racism tends to be subtle. In a conversation like this in real life, you’re going to get more dog whistles that someone straight up saying, “The Black kids don’t belong here.” Especially in 2005 and 2006, when we didn’t have actual White supremacists marching through the streets.

I even remember Kanye West’s outburst during a Katrina telethon when he told the world, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people!”

Watching with my mom, we were both stunned, jaws hanging open. “Even if it’s true,” my mom started, “you can’t just say that!”

Sad to think that was a more innocent time.

I could get over the blatant hate – managing expectations –  but I had a harder time getting past some of the writing itself. Writers are so often told, “show, don’t tell” to the point where it’s become cliché, but is nevertheless advice the author badly needed to hear.

I’ll give you the most egregious example. Essence and Chardonnai were separated from their family, and their grandmother died in the hurricane’s aftermath. They have no idea if their mother is alive or dead. When they finally reunite for the first time in more than a month, this is what we get.

The doorbell rang and there was Dr. Woodson and my mama. I was so happy I jumped into her arms.

 

That’s it. There’s no emotional payoff for what should be a moving scene. I’d been looking forward to the girls’ reunion with their mother. There should be a lot of different, possibly conflicting emotions here: joy, relief, sorrow, anger. Instead, we get a couple sentences that make what could have been a touching and memorable moment totally forgettable.

To me, a great novel needs solid prose, interesting, well-developed characters, and a plot I can really sink my teeth into. It’s okay if a book is lacking in any of these aspects; great. characters can make up for overused tropes, or a gripping plot helps me ignore bad writing. Since we’ve already looked at the writing, let’s take a look at the characters.

Grace is a spoiled fourteen-year-old who loves sipping stolen drinks poolside with her friends, American Idol, and her forbidden MySpace page. She’s very much a typical teenager at the start of the book. After volunteering at the Astrodome to help Katrina refugees, her world opens up. She befriends Essence and Chardonnai, welcoming them into her home and school. Grace goes from a bratty teenager to a conscientious, hard working girl over the course of the novel.

Then there’s her counterpart, Essence. Unfortunately, the main trait I would use to describe her is “scared”. “Scared”, however, isn’t a personality type so much as a reaction to her situation. The hurricane left her traumatized, and we don’t see much of her before Katrina strikes. We do know that she’s protective of her little sister, a bit stubborn, and feels out of place after she leaves New Orleans. Most of Essence’s story is spent worrying about her family, and wishing she were home. But apart from that, I don’t know if there’s much left to day about Essence.

And that’s where our plot comes in. It meanders about like a slice-of-life story, but doesn’t feel cohesive. Grace and Essence’s paths diverge and become disconnected with one another. There are plot hooks that never get resolved. But the characters lack something that makes them, and the story, compelling. They lack any agency of their own. Both girls are swept along by circumstances outside of their control: Essence by the hurricane, and Grace by pressure from her school and family.

This would actually be fine for Essence, at least for awhile. Being adrift and losing her family would make anyone feel helpless and vulnerable. It’s a major part of her character arc. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go anywhere beyond that, apart from making a couple surly comments. I kept waiting for Essence to have her big moment, to take a stand. But it never happened. She was dragged through the story without taking an active role in it.

Grace’s treatment is a little better as we watch her develop into a kinder, more worldly person. The experiences she has that help her grow are thrust upon her for the most part, usually at the behest of her parents and teachers. To be fair, that’s true for most fourteen-year-olds. She also has a moment of courage in the climax, defending Mockingbird in front of the racist parents who want it removed from the school’s curriculum.

At another critical moment, though, Grace fails to act. Essence and Chardonnai are taken back to New Orleans by their estranged father, and no one in Houston knows where they’ve gone. After a few weeks, Grace receives a letter from Essence. In it, Essence tells Grace where she is, but asks her not to tell anyone. After about ten seconds of feeling guilty, Grace decides that she’ll keep Essence’s secret.

Which brings me to my final disappointment with this book: the important stuff happens off-screen.

The resolution of the climax for both girls – missing Essence and Grace’s defence of Mockingbird – are written as afterthoughts. In the last chapter, Grace and Essence meet again in New Orleans. In just a couple sentences, we’re told that Mockingbird will remain a part of the school’s curriculum, and that Grace finally told her parents about Essence’s letter. Instead of potentially interesting internal conflict, a lot of things get hand-waved away for a suspiciously happy ending.

NOLA Gals started out promising, and there were parts of the book that were genuinely moving. The short chapters written from the point of view of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were fantastic, and even a little frightening. It was a book that had a lot of ideas that never quite fed into each other smoothly. Although I must concede that this book wasn’t written with me in mind. If it’s something you think you would enjoy, check it out for yourself.

At this point, I have to ask myself: did I learn anything from the book? To be completely honest, I didn’t think it gave me much insight until I started reflecting on dialogue choice while writing this. I feel like, when I was growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, racism was treated kind of like sex. You could assume other people were engaged in it, you would whisper about it, but you’d never just straight up talk about it. Or if you did – and this is still the case – you hedge your controversial statements with, “it was a joke!” or, “I’m just sayin’.” Maybe that’s not how things really were, and I was ignorant. But that’s how I perceived it.

But I look around me now, and there’s less hedging. People feel bolder, safer in saying what they mean without a qualifier. Things are becoming more like the party scene, where racists – surrounded by their friends – feel comfortable to expose their hate. They feel justified in having it.

I want to say that I don’t like the direction that we’re going in with this. But, looking around me, that’s not fair to say. It’s not a “direction”. This is where we are right now.

And while I felt that NOLA Gals could use some polishing, I’ve got to give credit where it’s do. To characters like Grace and Essence, like Scout and Atticus, and to people like Barbara Rebbeck and Harper Lee.

The Color Purple

I decided to dive into #1000BlackGirlBooks by starting with The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It’s one of those many classics that I’ve never read. In fact, the only Alice Walker I’ve ever read was her short story, “Everyday Use”. For such a famous author whose work is so well known, it’s a shame that I’ve read so little of her work.

Going into this, everything I knew about the story itself could be written on a post-it note:

  1. It’s about sisters, I think
  2. Oprah was in the movie
  3. Something about shaving an abusive husband

When I got the book from my library, I was surprised at how thin it was. I’d been expecting something thick, a door stopper of a novel, because isn’t what the classics usually are? I was honestly afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish it in a timely manner, so I was a bit relieved to see that it wasn’t even 300 pages long. The Carl Hiaasen novel I’d just finished was longer than that, and Hiaasen isn’t exactly high-brow reading.

The second thing that surprised me was the readability. When I think classic novels, I usually think of long, flowery prose and hard to follow sequences. As much as I love reading, I do struggle a bit with purple prose and old timey novels.

Here, there’s two distinct voices telling the story. The first is Celie, whose passages are direct and often sparse, especially towards the beginning of the book. Nettie, Celie’s younger sister, is educated, and her letters reflect this. Through their letters – some received, some unsent – we learn the story of their lives over the course of decades. This is another remarkable thing about the novel to me. It covers such a long span of time, but it doesn’t waste words or drag it out. It never feels like a slog.

Alice Walker doesn’t pull any punches, either. On the first page, Celie is raped by the man she thinks is her father. By the second page, she’s had two children by him.

From what little I knew about the book before I read it, I knew Celie had an abusive husband. I didn’t know that she was abused long before he came into her life. Celie’s narration is concise in the beginning, but even so, I can feel her suffering and how trapped she is. For a long time, she lives in a world dominated by violent men with no way out. This is evident in even the way Celie refers to her husband, as only “Mr. _____”. He’s a source of fear and pain for Celie. It’s only near the end of the book, thirty years after it begins, that she calls him by his first name. Before she was able to forgive him, Mr. ____ had to show that he could change and do right by the woman he tormented. Celie also had to find her courage to leave him and start a life of her own. She wouldn’t be able to do this, though, without the help of Shug Avery.

There’s a lot of themes in the book: racism, sexism, spirituality. But the theme that spoke to me most was that of sisterhood and female empowerment.

Celie’s life with Mr. ____ is fraught with abuse, a cycle that continues when her step-son, Harpo, get married. Harpo loves his new wife, Sofia, but doesn’t know how to make her “mind” him. Celie tells Harpo to beat her. I initially thought this was Celie’s advice because abuse is all she knows. Later on, though, she tells Sofia that it’s because she’s jealous of her, because Sofia can fight back. And she does, frequently, hitting Harpo harder than he hits her.

Celie’s life only starts to turn around with the arrival of Shug Avery, a singer and Mr. ____’s former lover. Celie takes care of her while she’s sick, and they fall in love with each other. Shug intervenes and stops Mr. ____ from beating Celie, and helps her find the courage within her to defy Mr. ____ and eventually leave him for good. Celie starts a life of her own, making a living selling pants – Shug’s suggestion – and has her own house and store by the end of the book. Celie was in such a dark, hopeless place that she could hardly conceive of a way out. Shug’s love raises Celie up and gives her a new lease on life. Towards the end of the book, Shug leaves Celie for a younger man. Celie is heartbroken, but it doesn’t stop her from living her life.

Shug’s role really can’t be understated in this book. She’s a catalyst for so much in Celie’s life. Shug helps her find her long-lost sister (and her children, by proxy), leave her abusive husband, and stand on her own two feet.

But she also encourages Celie to rethink her views on God and religion.

Ain’t no way to read the bible and not think God white, she say. Then she sigh. When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest. You mad cause he don’t seem to listen to your prayers. Humph! Do the mayor listen to anything colored say? [. . .]

Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.

It? I ast.

Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

But what do it look like? I ast.

Don’t look like nothing, she say. [. . .]

She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.

I’d like to tell you a little but about about my relationship with God and religion, though it’s constantly a work in progress. I was raised Catholic, went to mass every Sunday and volunteered at Sunday school. My parents put me in Catholic school when I was seven, not for religious reasons, but because my parents weren’t happy with the public school my sister and I attended. I went to Catholic school for ten years straight, and I was a believer. I said my prayers every night, got the sacraments, got confirmed.

And, of all things, it was the night I got confirmed – when the Holy Spirit is sealed within my heart – that started to shake things up. I’d received a book of “prayers for teens”, and out of curiosity, opened up to a prayer for non-believers. It asked Jesus to convert all non-Christians to Christianity so they wouldn’t go to hell. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but this certainly wasn’t it.

This really rubbed me the wrong way. I had non-Christian friends who were kinder, more generous and all around better people than some of the Christians I knew. But they couldn’t get into heaven just because, as George Carlin put it, “they pray to a different invisible man than the one you pray to”?

Yeah, no.

After that, the Catholic church’s doctrine started chafing me. Jesus preached love and tolerance, and so often the church’s teachings felt exactly the opposite of that. Then a tragedy occurred in my family that shook me and my faith to the core. I couldn’t understand why God would let this happen, what was the point of allowing it to happen? I was angry and confused and felt betrayed. After yelling, “Hey God, fuck you!” I declared myself an atheist.

I missed having that faith. But years later, when I tried to reach for it, there was nothing there. Praying was like talking to a wall, or having a conversation on the phone with no one on the other line.

I found my own faith instead, inspired by the loving connections I’d made with my friends. I prayed to my aunt and grandma for guidance. I’ve sent wishes and hopes and dreams out into the universe, and seen more of God and miracles in fog rolling in over hills, or hidden depths of kindness in strangers.

What I believe now is a grab bag: a mix of agnosticism and spirituality, praying to saints and ancestors, thumbing rosary beads while keeping God the Father out of it. There’s no set doctrine, no homilies, no guilt for breaking an arbitrary rule put down by an organization built two thousand years ago. What I do and do not believe in have boundaries that are constantly changing, and I float somewhere between them.

All this to say, I felt Shug’s speech about seeing God in all things – not just a bearded White man in the sky – more personally than I thought I would. When I first picked up this book, I thought it would strike a chord in me, but I never imagined it would be this chord.

There was something else that stuck to me, too. Because with the theme of female empowerment, I cannot forget the other half of this book: Nettie, and Sisterhood.

I tend to be drawn to sister stories. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. My only other sibling is my older sister, who I’ve mentioned in the blog quite a few times. It’s pretty obvious that she’s been a huge influence on my throughout my life. We’re exceptionally close, best friends or worst enemies and not much in between. When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like her, and do whatever she did. I was her shadow, and I let her get away with way more than I should have.

I did so because I loved her and admired her. If someone hurt her, it hurt me, too. No matter how much we fought, and the end of the day, I wanted to protect her.

That was one of the first thing that struck me, in the very beginning of the book. Celie has been raped by her stepfather, and notices that he is now turning his attentions to Nettie. At the same time, Nettie is seeing someone else, a potentially dangerous man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Celie pushes Nettie to accept her suitor. She tries to protect her sister as best she can, even if it means sending Nettie to someone else who could hurt her. It doesn’t work out, and Celie is, essentially, sold into a marriage with Mr. ___ instead.

Celie only sees Nettie once during the early years of her marriage with Mr. ___. Nettie has run away from home and her abusive step-father, seeking safety with her sister. Mr. ___ sends her away, and Celie tells her to look for the preacher’s wife, Corrine, to help her. While she’s leaving, Nettie fights off Mr. ____’s rape attempt, and he vows to punish her and Celie for it. He hides all of the letters Nettie sends Celie, which go unread for years.

I was already pretty hooked when I got to this point. When Celie finds Nettie’s letters, I knew I was doomed. There was no way I’d be able to put the book down until I saw the sisters reunited.

Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa, and in her early letters, she’s so excited. She’s traveling, meeting people, and getting an education. She also truly believes that she and her new family will succeed as missionaries where others have failed for one reason: they’re Black. But when Nettie reaches the Olinka tribe, she finds that she’s still the “other”. She may be the same race as the Olinka people, but she’s still an American with a very different culture. Part of Nettie’s story is her and her family becoming accepted in the tribe, while at the same time challenging the tribe’s traditions.

This made me think of Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use”. You can read the full text here, but I’ll give a quick summary. In this story, a woman named Dee comes home with her new boyfriend to visit her mother and sister. The story is about heritage: Dee’s trying to get closer to her African roots, while her mother believes that her daughters’ heritage is all around them. You can read the story in a few different ways, but I always felt a little sorry for Dee. She’s reaching and trying to connect to a culture that isn’t her own, which doesn’t have a place in her family’s world. While we can’t know what happens to Dee at the end of her story, we do know that Nettie comes to embrace the Olinka tribe while at the same time fighting against cultural practices that hurt the girls in the tribe.

To be totally honest, I didn’t connect with Nettie’s story the way I did with Celie’s. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t come back into the story for a long time after she disappears. Or that her story is quite different from Celie’s, more about finding family than finding herself.

After she and Celie separate, Nettie is taken in by the preacher, Samuel, whose family includes a wife and two adopted children. They bring Nettie on their missionary trip because Samuel suspects the children are actually Nettie’s, which stirs some jealousy in Corrine. Years later, Nettie uncovers the truth: the children are Celie’s that they both had thought were killed by their step-father. When Nettie, Samuel, and the children finally return to America, Nettie writes that she is bringing “our children” home.

There’s a lot that I could say about this book, talking about Nettie’s journey or Sophia’s time as a maid to a wealthy White family. But I’m sure that’s been discussed time and time again by people both more well-read and worldly than me. Instead, I want to focus on the relationship between Nettie and Celie. Celie puts herself in harm’s way to protect her sister. In return, Nettie brings Celie’s children back to her. Alongside that, she gives Celie knowledge about the world through her letters, and endless, consistent love.

That’s important. Because Mr. ___ and his children don’t love her, and her allies don’t stay by her side forever. Even Shug leaves her for a young man at one point. Nettie writes Celie letters that go unread for years, that she knows her sister might never see. But she also never stops writing them, even if Celie doesn’t reply. At least, not on paper.

The novel opens with two words, “Dear God.” Celie used to write letters to God in her head, until she finally finds Nettie’s letters. After, her letters all begin with, “Dear Nettie,” indicating both her newfound spirituality, and a connection with her sister that she thought she’d lost.

These aren’t the only things worthy of discussion in the novel. There’s so much that I could get into, but these were the things that made The Color Purple so compelling to me. It’s a story of changes, of family, and sisterhood lost and found. It’s about becoming your own hero, with the ones who love you raising you up.

And I wish I could just end this post with, “it’s a wonderful book, go read it,” but I won’t get away with that. It’s time to talk about that elephant in the room: race. And it’s going to be uncomfortable for me to do, especially because I’m fairly sure I’ll be sticking my foot in my mouth. But I wanted to start reading these book to broaden my figurative and literary horizons, and I think I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about race in some capacity.

This is going to sound strange, but I can’t help draw comparisons to the way I treat race to the way others might treat sex or death. That is, it’s something that you don’t talk about. Or if you do, you only talk about it with confidantes. Most people have little formal education about the above topics; a lot of your knowledge on the subject may come from entertainment, if you don’t have any experience with it. And when you finally do engage with it, it’s not easy. It can be scary. And it can definitely leave you feeling like an idiot.

That being said, let’s talk about race in The Color Purple.

One of the first things I’ve noticed is that the characters aren’t explicitly described as Black until Nettie goes to Africa. As the Writing With Color blog points out, authors will often only describe a character’s skin tone if they’re not White, as though White is the default race for every character. And without that description, it seems likely many readers will picture that character as White. I’m curious to know that if I had read this book without knowing anything about it, would I have pictured the characters were Black? Maybe it’s an experiment I’ll test out some day.

Another thing that struck me was Sofia’s role as a maid to the White mayor and his family. As I mentioned in another post, Roxane Gay’s review of The Help really made me think about what I’d taken away from that book and movie. In The Help, the maid Abileen loved the children she took care of, and the main character, Skeeter, was deeply attached to the maid who raised her. But Sofia isn’t Abileen or Minny. She describes being a maid as slavery, and she goes for years without seeing her children. When she is finally released, the mayor’s daughter, Eleanor Jane, continues to visit Sofia. Eleanor Jane brings her young son to visit Sofia as well, cooing over the baby and asking Sofia how much she loves him. Sofia snaps that no, she doesn’t love the baby.

I just don’t understand, say Miss Eleanor Jane. All the other colored women I know love children. The way you feel is something unnatural.

I love children, say Sofia. But all the colored women that say they love yours is lying… Some colored people so scared of whitefolks they claim to love the cotton gin.

Despite Eleanor Jane’s insistence that her son won’t grow up to be racist, Sofia knows otherwise. No matter how much Eleanor Jane cares for Sofia, her son is still going to learn the prejudices of those around him. Saying that he’s not going to be racist is a nice idea, but it’s not going to happen.

What this made me think of is something I’m a little more familiar with – benevolent sexism. Put simply, benevolent sexism is the idea that women are beautiful, amazing creatures that are to be cherished and protected. It’s more palatable and subtle than your “get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” hostile sexism, but it’s still sexism. So I wondered: what does benevolent racism look like?

So I did what I do best: read. I found a few scholarly articles on the topic, and I’m making my way through them. In the meantime, though, I’ll leave you with this definition of benevolent racism from the first paper I read:

[B]enevolent racism is not predicated on the usual process of de-racialization. That is, rather than invoking the liberal idea of “neutrality” or color-blindness as a way to dodge, deny, or defend the racialized social system that supports White privilege (as with other types of post-civil rights racisms), benevolent racism ostensibly acknowledges and often condemns a system of White privilege. However, it does so in a way that further legitimizes and reinforces racist attitudes, policies, and practices in the name of “benevolent” aims–i.e., in the name of supporting, empowering, and/or defending the Black community (Esposito, Romano, 2014).

Other than The Color Purple, work cited:

ESPOSITO, L., & ROMANO, V. (2014). “Benevolent Racism: Upholding Racial Inequality in the Name of Black Empowerment.” Western Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 69–83.

Tithe 13: Changing Lanes

It turns out that Kaye and I have a lot in common, apart from our shared name. For starters, she’s a terrible driver.

Kaye and Roiben go to see the Seelie Queen, thinking that Nephamael and Corny will be with her. To get there, Kaye “borrows” Corny’s car (with the keys conveniently hidden under the visor) and drives for the first time. At first she can’t figure out how to make the car go forward. Once she does hit the road, she’s scared to drive on the highway, has no idea how to merge, and can’t manage to park the car in just one space.

I think this, more than anything, takes me back to my teenage years. At least Kaye does much better her first time on the highway than I did.

Let me put it this way: I got pulled over for going too slow. Yeah, that’s a real thing that can happen.

Apart from that, the main similarity I saw between myself and Kaye was how she deals with her grief. This chapter is a whirlwind of emotion. She has to deal with Janet’s death (which she feels guilty for) at the beginning. When they reach the Seelie Court, she has to see Roiben admit that he loves the Seelie Queen, even if he no longer wants to be with her. There’s also anxiety when they learn that Corny and Nephamael aren’t with the Seelie Court, and Nephamael could have already killed his new “toy”.

But the emotional blow that intrigues me the most is Kaye seeing herself. Or, rather, the girl whose life she stole. As a changeling, she was given to her human mother, and the real Kaye stayed with the faeries. The human Kaye still looks like a child, even though the swap was made years ago. Pixie Kaye has no idea what to do with this, and finally runs out of the Court and waits for Roiben to meet with her.

This is one of the most compelling moments in the book for me. How do you face someone whose life you stole, even if you had no say in the matter? It doesn’t go beyond this in Tithe, but in the sequel, Ironside, Kaye has to return the stolen child to her mother.

There’s a lot that happens in this chapter, and Kaye can’t really get a grip on her emotions. Totally understandable, considering everything that’s on her mind. Her sadness and anxiety turn to anger, that she takes out on both Roiben, and Corny’s car. Her focus is only on getting Corny back, saying that he may very well be dead if they don’t get a move on. Which is true, but she also uses this as a distraction so she doesn’t have to think about everything else going on. If finding Corny takes priority, she can postpone figuring out her feelings and delay her grief.

What I noticed about the book now that I didn’t pick up on years ago was how disconnected this new quest feels from the first. For a book named Tithe, I expected the titular event to be the climax, not a second inciting incident. When Kaye escapes, we’re sent on almost a whole new journey. We’ve got a different villain and different goal. The latter part of the story feels like an entirely different book from the first one.

To me, it’s not as intriguing as the first part, either. What drew me in to Tithe in the first place was the urban fantasy aspect. It was the mystery of Kaye’s fae friends and the enigmatic Roiben, and Kaye learning what it means to be a faerie.My favorite elements of the story are the magical world bleeding into the real, non-magical one, with the protagonist belonging fully to neither. But towards the end, that idea is abandoned, with the story taking place almost entirely in the magical realm. It becomes a gender-swapped “save the princess” story. I’m not saying that Tithe‘s new direction is going to be a bad one, but I do expect the climax to be pretty big to beat “human sacrifice escaping from fae ritual”.

Tithe 6: Put A Spell On You

I’ve always liked etymology, but I’ve never studied it in any kind of capacity. I wish I knew a bit more about it now, because of the various spellings of the word “faerie”. Tithe was the first time I encountered the word spelled as such, and I assumed that it was the British spelling, never mind that the author is American. Thanks to this book it became my preferred spelling, because “fairy” felt a bit childish to me. But I always referred to the race of supernatural beings as “fae”, while Holly Black uses “fey”. I had to get to the bottom of this spelling mystery.

A quick Google search led me to this Wikipedia page which states that “fairy/faerie” comes from the Old French word “faierie”, a modification of the word “faie”. I was a little surprised; I had thought the word would be Gaelic in origin, considering how much I associate fae with Ireland. It seems that either spelling of “faerie” would work, though I have a harder time seeing how you would get “fey” out of “faie”.

If the previous paragraphs were being read out loud to you, I apologize for any confusion.

This is my long-winded way of saying I’ll be using the spelling “faerie” and “fae”, no matter how they’re spelled in the book. But it doesn’t really answer my question as to why Corny would spell “faerie” with the e, rather than the more commonly known “fairy” spelling when they try to Google it. I know some people hate search engine montages in their fiction, and it’s totally understandable. It’s lazy writing, and half the time the author doesn’t know how the internet actually works.

But if I suddenly found out I was a non-human, the first thing I would do would be to Google exactly what it meant to be a faerie. Kaye and Corny don’t find out a lot of useful information. Rather, trivia, which Corny finds amusing, but it’s not helpful. But there’s one other thing about this scene that hits me right in the nostalgia.

‘Can I use your phone?’

He nodded. ‘Do it now. You can’t use it while I’m signed on. We only have the one line.’

Land lines. Getting your slow internet through your phone line. When Tithe came out, my family had recently switched from AOL to EarthLink. Remember EarthLink? For the first time in our house, we could use the internet and be on the phone at the same time. It was life changing.

Eventually, Kaye remembers the kelpie that she summoned to help Roiben, and wonders if it can help her as well. Here the internet does come in handy and gives them (and the reader) some information about how dangerous it is. In short, the horse-shaped kelpie will try to lure riders on to its back, then drown and eat them. The kelpie is also one of the fae I knew about prior to reading this book, because it was a rather memorable entry in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book.

When Kaye and Corny do meet the kelpie, it wants something in trade before teaching Kaye magic. Kaye isn’t sure what it would want, but Corny is more open to the idea of actually drowning people.

‘Well,’ he said after a moment’s hesitation, ‘actually, there are a whole lot of people I wouldn’t mind feeding to that thing.’

She laughed.

‘No, really,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that there are a whole lot of people I wouldn’t mind seeing drowned. Really. I think that we should go for it.’

Kaye looked up at him. He didn’t look particularly fazed by what he’d just proposed.

This is more in line with Corny’s introduction, where he imagines himself as a murderous psychopath. Corny has a lot of anger, he wants to be bad. But he’s never gone for it. Early on, he even acknowledges that this game of him pretending to be a dangerous man is getting boring, and worse, pathetic. With the kelpie, he finally sees an opportunity – and a reason – to be that person. Fortunately, Kaye won’t let him.

After reading that conversation, I began to wonder if there was anyone I’d lead to a kelpie. I know a lot of people that I’d rather not see again, but very few I would think deserve to get eaten by a demonic water horse. What disturbed me most, though, was when I realized there were maybe two people on that list that I’d be okay with getting eaten. And from there, I had to ask myself: of those two people, would I be able to lead them to the water’s edge?

If I could, it wouldn’t be as easily as Corny could.

Kaye at least finds something the kelpie will like: the broken carousel horse she found early in the book. I’m a fan of Chekov’s guns, and I was glad to see that the horse was used for more than just hinting at Kaye’s true nature. The car ride to pick it up is harrowing for her, however. With her glamour off, all of Kaye’s senses are enhanced, as is her sensitivity to iron. While she’s in the car, the metal she’s surrounded by burns her lungs and makes her sick.

One thing that can be difficult for a writer to get across to a reader is an experience that the reader will never be able to have. Sorry, guys, we’ll never be able to smell the chemicals in our soda or have the crazy vision of a hawk. But we do all know what it’s like to be queasy and puke your guts out.

Holly Black also makes sure that we know what holding magic in your hand feels like, by using another sensation that we’ve all felt before.

Kaye cupped her hand and imagined the air in her hand thickening and shimmering with energy. After a moment, she looked up in surprise. ‘It feels like when your hand falls asleep and then you move it. Prickly, like you said, like little shocks of energy shooting through it. It hurts a little.’

Admit it: you just tried to gather energy in your hand.

No? Just me? Okay.

Tithe 3: YA Parenting Tips

After a run-in with magic and a literal faerie knight, Kaye’s life returns to the mundane. For the most part, anyway. The majority of this chapter gives us a snapshot of what Kaye’s life looks like now that she’s in New Jersey. There’s only a few hints of otherworldly fae in this chapter at all. The first comes at the beginning of the chapter, when Kaye dreams of the old faerie friends that visited her as a child. It’s a weird and eerie scene, and I’m still not sure what some of the images in it are supposed to represent. But, it’s a dream, and doesn’t have to make sense.

The only other instance of magic is when Kaye receives a note from her old friends, delivered via acorn. The note informs her that one of her fae friends is “gone” and that “everything is danger”.

One thing I realized I liked about this book as that Kaye never really stopped believing in her so-called imaginary friends, Spike, Lutie, and Gristle. When she comes back to New Jersey, she still looks for them and wants them to come see her. Janet has accused Kaye of making up stories about them, saying they weren’t real, but Kaye never says they were fictional. This saves us a lot of time: she doesn’t need to be convinced they are real so that she can start the adventure. There’s no point in denying them, since the reader already knows that this is a fantasy story that will involve faeries at some point.

Throughout the day, Kaye contemplates the note, but mostly ends up daydreaming about Roiben. This is something I would normally give a female protagonist crap for, but I was a sixteen-year-old girl once, doing the same kind of thing. Coming home giddy after finding common ground with a boy and quickly developing crushes were just part of my repertoire of tricks. But I think Kaye is balanced out better than other lovestruck teenage girls in YA novels. Her romance with Roiben is the B-plot of the book, and there’s enough pushing her – finding out what happened to her friend Gristle, for instance – that her story’s interesting, and not all about the boy. So I’ll allow some daydreaming on her part.

And though Kaye acts like a teenager, so does her mother. This is a trend I’ve noticed in YA novels: the majority of the time, the protagonist’s parents are totally incompetent, out of the picture or distant, if they even bother appearing in the story at all.

I paused while writing this to take a look at the YA and middle-grade novels sitting on my bookshelves and think about the protagonists’ parents in each one. In several of them, the parents are dead or mysteriously absent throughout. In fact, the only novel I could find (though I’m sure there are others) which heavily featured parents was The Book Thief, where Liesel’s strong bond with Hans is one of the book’s main themes.

Kaye’s father is absent, but Kaye’s mom doesn’t really fit any of the aforementioned categories. She loves her daughter and stays in her life, but she’s also selfish and immature. She’s been drunk or drinking in all her appearances so far, and still dreams of the day she “makes it” as a musician. She even looks down on old friends who have gone “respectable” by starting a business of their own and leaving music. In some ways, she’s more childish than her teenage daughter. That said, I do like her relationship with Kaye. She obviously cares for her daughter, even if she doesn’t understand just how to take care of her.

I only noticed this trend after a friend (who is also a mom and a YA author) asked just why so many parents are so bad at taking care of the protagonists. That is, if they haven’t died horribly before story begins. The best answer I could come up with is that parents who are really paying attention to their kids lives are not going to let them go off to magical danger zones so they can save the world.

Dead parents are a catalyst for adventure, neglectful parents allow the adventure to happen, and dedicated parents are obstacles.

So if you discover that your child is part of some world-saving prophecy, just leave ’em alone. They’ll be fine.