South Africa in 1976 was boiling over with racial tension and discrimination. With the system of apartheid in full swing, Black South Africans endured pass laws limiting their mobility, segregated services, shameful educational systems, and undeserved, extreme violence on a daily basis. This is the backdrop for Arushi Raina’s powerful novel When Morning Comes.
The author, Arushi Raina.
Black South Africans defied the oppression of apartheid at every turn. Perhaps the most intense resistance events occurred in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg. The main characters of When Morning Comes are four very different young people who become entwined in turmoil as networks of students secretly plan to protest discriminatory educational policies. One of Arushi Raina’s strengths as a writer is how effortlessly she weaves South African history into an intriguing and entertaining coming-of-age narrative. The Soweto Uprising in 1976 was one of the most violent and tragic events in South Africa’s history and Raina’s historical novel teaches the reader about this turbulent history in a way that is gripping and personal.
I was excited to read this book because of my love for South Africa. As a youth, I followed apartheid resistance movements closely in the media and was always struck by the fact that in South Africa, people my age were fighting and dying for the freedoms I took for granted every day. As an adult working on my doctorate, I was able to travel to this beautiful country many times as I was researching libraries in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. During these travels, I was able to visit many sites of historical significance, including the site where the uprising took place. The time I have spent in South Africa has given me some of my fondest — and most challenging — memories.
When Morning Comes provides a vivid portrayal of this explosive era in South African history. It is an engaging narrative of friendship, loyalty, and political resistance. Well-written and descriptive, Arushi Raina creates multidimensional characters challenged to make decisions beyond their years. It should spark interest in readers to learn more about the apartheid era of South Africa’s history, as well as speak to those who recognize parallels to today’s world. Highly recommended.
Title: When Morning Comes Author: Arushi Raina Publisher: Jacana Media Pages: 232 pages Publication Date: April 1, 2018 Tags: South Africa, women writers, YA, historical fiction, friendships, coming of age, #OwnVoices My Rating: Highly recommended
Dosun Adeleye’s Hearts of Clay follows the journey of Grace, a young woman living in the United Kingdom who travels to Nigeria in search of the answer to her life’s mystery. Grace finds herself in some wild situations that test her strength and resolve. While intelligent and independent, Grace’s emotional spirit can get the better of her especially when it comes to love, sex, and secrets.
The author, Dosun Adeleye.
Dosun Adeleye is especially adept at describing her characters; it is clear that she is passionate about writing them. Our main character sets out to find the question to a lifelong question. Not only does she receive her answer but she gets caught up in adventures that are at times thrilling and at times romantic. To keep this review spoiler-free, I will say no more but let the reader discover the excitement and emotion on their own.
I especially appreciated reading from the perspective of a woman caught in several dichotomies: between life in the UK and life in Nigeria, between familial relationships and her own autonomy, between living life as expected or life as she wants. The protagonist is smart yet impulsive; Grace is not perfect and Adeleye ensures we can see ourselves in her, faults and all. Adeleye’s challenging of social stigmas and gender roles in her writing is admirable.
To be honest, I’m not usually into romances or thrillers, so I am a tough sell in these genres. For me the book was a bit unconvincing and rudimentary at times. Despite this, I don’t doubt that many readers will enjoy this book. The story is one of secrets uncovered, one of trust and abandonment, one of obstacles and ambition. From the outrageous twists to the steamy love scenes to the family drama, Hearts of Clay will appeal to those who appreciate adventurous reads and romantic thrillers, especially those in international settings. Recommended.
Hawaa Ayoub’s chilling debut novel centers on 14-year-old Eve who, after being taken from her home to remote Yemen under the pretense of a temporary visit, is forced into marrying a man over ten years older than her. The story is terrifying, infuriating — and that of Ayoub herself.
The author, Hawaa Ayoub
Eve, a schoolgirl in the UK, is extremely intelligent, has plans to attend university, and is focused on a bright future. Her father takes the family on what he said would be a brief visit to Yemen, the family’s country of origin, but the truth is that he intended for the family to stay. Worse yet, he forces Eve to marry a man much older than her.
The book opens with the terrifying marriage scene with Eve being dragged through the process, begging for it not to happen. From the start of the book, the reader experiences Ayoub’s talent for description and detail. From clothes, to traditions, to smells and sounds, the author’s descriptions of life in Yemen are — frighteningly at times — brought to life.
We follow Eve’s story throughout the next 15+ years. The circumstances she endures are heartbreaking and infuriating: rape, abuse from her father and in-laws, losing her right to education and autonomy. But while our heroine surrenders to her new (temporary) life, she never agrees to it or stops fighting for her freedom.
Throughout her entire marriage, Eve demands to be free. She asks to return to Britain, or at the very least to a more urban center of Yemen or to Saudi Arabia. She constantly schemes for ways to escape the situation and begs for a divorce, all to no avail.
While she is adept at sharing its horrors, Ayoub also provides an honest portrayal of the daily life of a young girl forced to marry. She describes the isolation, the boredom, the repetition of her days, and the relationships with her husband’s family. The conflict and guilt Eve feels as a young woman who enjoys sex but despises the situation she’s been forced into is described as only one who has been there can. While a bit protracted at times, I appreciated these candid reflections. Ayoub is particularly skilled at providing her readers insights into the dichotomies of Yemen: experiencing a beautiful land surrounded by strong traditions and people but all the while being held prisoner there where the traditions are particularly vicious towards women and girls.
After 19 years in Yemen, Hawaa Ayoub now lives in London and shares her story to help fight against child marriage in Yemen and throughout the world.
Rich and descriptive, When a Bulbul Sings is an important book that candidly describes one girl’s harrowing experiences being forced into marriage and her seemingly unending drive for freedom. The book is well-written and well-edited. I highly recommend it to those fighting violence against women and girls, those who enjoy reading international women writers, and those interested in creative non-fiction and memoirs.
I have a few close work colleagues—friends, really—who I go to for support, consolation, venting, and laughs. The group of us get together regularly for tea or lunch to discuss the usual work topics, to compare notes about the latest gossip, and to exchange advice.
Most of the time our discussions are lively, positive, and proactive. But we have found that when we allow ourselves to sit in our frustration with a climate that we find challenging at times, our meetings can devolve into more bitching and less action. We all recognize we need to vent but also that it’s important to not walk away feeling defeated or full of negativity. So when one of these colleagues suggested we read Shola Richards’ Go Together: How the Concept of Ubuntu Will Change How You Live, Work, and Lead, I was intrigued.
While not for everyone, self-help-type books do have a place on my bookshelves. I am always looking for new ways to manage my depression and anxiety, practice mindfulness, declutter my home, or grow my leadership skills.
The book stood out to me because it is based on the concept of ubuntu, which I became familiar with in 2009 when I first traveled to South Africa. As Richards explains, ubuntu is often translated as. “I am, because we are” (page xv). It is also related to the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” (page xiv).
One of my screensaver photos, which captures the spirit of ubuntu.
In his book, Richards applies this philosophy of compassion, kindness, and unity to both personal and work lives.
Shola Richards is a speaker, writer, and trainer who is all about positivity. While I consider myself a pretty positive person and open to these types of methods, I knew a couple members of my group would be tougher sells than me. And as is true for many self-help books, this one toes the line of becoming a bit too saccharine at times, especially for those who tend towards skepticism (or sarcasm). But just as the book is about to descend into a refrain of “Kumbaya,” Richards brings it on back with realistic suggestions about applying ubuntu to work, like doing more of what toxic colleagues hate most and not being as asshat, especially when in a leadership role.
The author, Shola Richards.
Throughout the book, Richards gives the reader concrete examples, often telling anecdotes from his own life. The sharing of his own imperfections, fears, and vulnerabilities is effective in gaining the reader’s trust and understanding. Richards also provides pragmatic suggestions for the solutions he champions, including ways to build empathy, to practice ubuntu, and to act instead of standing by and letting fear take over. His advice centers on “Eight Keys to Unlocking Ubuntu at Work,” which are straightforward reminders like “Address It,” “Honor It,” and “Own It” with helpful explanations of each.
Richards sets the stage for the book by recounting a 2017 survey about civility in America which found that “Ninety-four percent of Americans believe that they are always/usually polite and respectful to others” (page 8). The same survey uncovered that respondents believed “…the state of civility in America has never been worse than it is currently,” with 75% of Americans believing that incivility has reached crisis levels (pages 6-7).
While not shocking considering our current political climate, these sentiments illustrate the disconnect between belief and practice, or perhaps the lack of self-awareness and individual responsibility, in the US today. Richards encourages the reader to reflect upon their own participation in incivility, to explore their pain and reactions to it, and to use ubuntu to find the unity and togetherness necessary to build a better world.
Overall, the book sparked a discussion for my group that was valuable to me. It offers practical suggestions for ways to improve work relationships and empowers the reader to try them. With chapters on healing yourself, being present, becoming a kind leader, building resilience, managing bullies, and more, there is something for everyone in this book. While the message of the book — be a decent person to build a better world — is not new, the concept of ubuntu may be to many readers in the US and may impact them in ways previous frameworks have not.
I would recommend this book to those looking to improve the culture and climate at their workplaces. Reading it with a group can be a proactive way to apply the suggestions in your daily work life and to have a support system in place for the journey. You may also want to check out Shola Richards’ first book, Making Work Work: The Positivity Solution for Any Work Environment.
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is a wickedly comedic story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola. Despite their differences, the sisters couldn’t be closer. And while critical of her sister’s decisions and often jealous of the attention she receives from men, Korede is still the protector of Ayoola’s secrets–no matter how deadly.
Set in Nigeria, this story is one of family and loyalty. Ayoola is beautiful, enchanting, and has a problem keeping her boyfriends alive. Korede is the responsible, self-deprecating older sister. As a nurse, she is used to taking care of others and her sister is no exception. As she continually cleans up Ayoola’s messes, Korede begins to question her loyalty to her mischievous sister.
How long can this go on? Can she keep Ayoola’s secrets forever? Should she? What is she getting out of it and would her sister do the same for her?
The author, Oyinkan Braithwaite.
This was a fast-paced story, accessible and entertaining. Braithwaite allows us to peek into life in Lagos, including interactions with police that have Korede worried. I almost felt like I was a friend of the sisters, even though they only truly trust one another.
I was immediately drawn into the fray with Braithwaite’s brisk pacing, short chapters, and darkly humorous writing style. Her subtle hints allow the reader clues into how Korede and Ayoola grew up; reminders of their lives with a violent father and detached mother.
There’s a seditious pleasure in its momentum. At a time when there are such wholesome and dull claims on fiction — on its duty to ennoble or train us in empathy — there’s a relief in encountering a novel faithful to art’s first imperative: to catch and keep our attention.
It’s not that the book isn’t deep; it does encourage reflection about family loyalty, courage, right and wrong. But it doesn’t force you into it. You could just read the book purely for entertainment and we need that right now. Somehow reading a book about a serial killer and her enabling sister and enjoying it without judgment feels subversive… and I am here for it.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Nigerian authors continue to offer us lithe, clever, and original fiction–add Oyinkan Braithwaite to this list. Highly recommended.
Title: My Sister, the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Pages: 228 pages
Publication Date: November 20, 2018
Tags: Nigeria, fiction, women writers, debut My Rating: Highly recommended
When I picked up Washington Black, the latest novel by Esi Edugyan, I prepared myself for a challenging story about slavery, violence, and injustice. What I got was something much more layered and original. There’s a reason this book has received the accolades it has: it is a surprising and outstanding book.
The story begins with an 11-year-old slave, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, on Faith plantation on the island of Barbados. Faith is run by Erasmus Wilde who is vicious and violent. His brother, Titch, is a scientist, naturalist, and abolitionist. When Titch arrives at the plantation to work on his hot air balloon (you heard that right) that he calls a cloud-cutter, Wash is assigned as Titch’s personal servant. Over time, Wash develops a trust for Titch and a complex friendship develops between them.
But this is just the beginning. Titch and Wash leave the island abruptly but Wash is left to find his own way after Titch later disappears without a trace. The adventure that follows takes Wash to the US, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, Europe, and Morocco. He learns about the world and himself while uncovering surprising, and sometimes painful, truths along the way.
The author, Esi Edugyan.
Esi Edugyan is masterful at developing characters that are full yet flawed; even our protagonists are human and selfish, they make mistakes, hurt others, and desire understanding and forgiveness. The settings are nuanced yet striking, almost as if they are additional characters in the story. There are whole lives packed into this book but it never feels overwhelming or too much. Edugyan lovingly offers us a world of brotherhood, invention, discovery, and freedom.
The depth of Washington Black was what I enjoyed most; there are many layers to this story that the reader can peel back to discover its powerful messages. There is a robustness and bold yet subtle movement to this book that draws you in. Incorporating elements of fantasy, horror, history, and adventure, Washington Black is remarkable in its marriage of terror and beauty, weight and subtlety, heartbreak and hope.
I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy adventures, historical fiction, full character development, and multilayered plots. Or to anyone because it really has something for everyone.
As a fan of Transparent, I was excited to score an uncorrected proof of Jill Soloway’s (they, them, theirs) new book She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy from NetGalley. Soloway is also an alum of University of Wisconsin-Madison and queer, so I have always been curious about them. I was quickly hooked after the first few pages of reading about their childhood, their family, and their feminist awakening via a crush on a particular UW women’s studies professor who was a “k.d. lang-lookalike.” I couldn’t wait to hear Soloway’s words of wisdom about toppling the patriarchy.
The author, Jill Soloway.
From the start, I found the book to be smart, sharp, and witty; Soloway would be someone to go have a drink with, to be sure. I laughed out loud a number of times. About getting older, Soloway relates the universal truth of parenthood: you have some kids, you never sleep, your kids bring home germs, and
Then one day you will realize that you have been sick for six weeks and then six months, and that the feeling that used to feel like a “light cold” is now just what it feels like to be alive. This will keep happening until you are old, actually old, and then you will die.
I enjoyed reading about Soloway’s kids, their career and the fight to get Transparent made, as well as the journeys Soloway and their parent went through regarding their gender identities. I also appreciated Soloway’s candor and bravery in sharing these stories as well as those concerning their own learning processes.
Having Lady J on the staff transformed things. It was impossible to believe that we had written the show for an entire year without any transfeminine gaze in the room. I realized how awful it was that we hadn’t put in more effort sooner. With Lady J there, Maura’s story line started to come alive.
Unfortunately, I was left a bit unfulfilled waiting for Soloway’s inspirational calls to action on fighting the patriarchy. Soloway explains the “Topple Principles” that were created to guide the development of Transparent. These included, “Our revolution must be intersectional,” and “Be brave.” They describe the formation of #TimesUp but with a generous sprinkling of name-droppings. Soloway tackles traditional gender roles and feeling as though they had fallen short of being the good mother, the good wife, the good daughter. These moments of vulnerability are powerful but too few.
Soloway carefully confronts the sexual harassment allegations some trans co-stars made against Transparent lead Jeffrey Tambor. While candid about Tambor’s moodiness and downright aggression on set, Soloway relays the sexual harassment situation with an arm’s-length treatment that surprised and disappointed me.
But in his own self-assessment, Jeffrey separated the culture of occasional sex jokes from his anger and displays of immense moodiness. His rages. His power. He didn’t see how, when layered together, that he became someone that some people were afraid of.
The main title, She Wants It, is spot-on as the major theme throughout the book is Soloway’s persistent quest for creative (and commercial) success. But based on the subtitle of the book, I wanted a deeper examination of the patriarchy from Soloway’s perspective as a (albeit white, privileged, and famous) nonbinary queer person in the entertainment industry. While I found the book intriguing as an entertainment memoir, it fell short as a manifesto on toppling the patriarchy. And this is okay – to be fair, Soloway never calls this a manifesto and they have more than enough juicy stories to fill a memoir as a heavy-hitter in Hollywood – but I wanted more. I was left wishing that Soloway had imparted more of their thoughts about how the reader can join the fray against the patriarchy.
A quick read, the book is enjoyable overall. I would recommend this book to fans of Transparent or Jill Soloway’s other works; I could see how those who haven’t watched Transparent may not get as much out of the book. It’s also recommended for those who enjoy celebrity memoirs or those who crave reading nonbinary voices.
This post contains affiliate links; I write what I like. Thanks to NetGalley, Jill Soloway, and Crown Archetype for the complimentary copy.
Quotes are based on the uncorrected proof and may or may not reflect the final text.
While others may be more familiar with Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji as an example of classic Japanese literature of the time, I chose The Pillow Book instead – I always lean towards bucking the trend and I was intrigued by what I had read of Sei Shonagon’s attention to detail, unflinching honesty, and acerbic wit in her quest for the perfect comeback.
According to Dr. Meredith McKinney, an expert in Japanese literature and translator of this edition, Sei Shonagon might have been born around 966 and the last known reference to her was in 1017. She was a member of the court of Empress Consort Teishi (Sadako), where she served as a gentlewoman or lady-in-waiting beginning around 993 until Teishi’s death in 1000.
Sei Shōnagon, drawing by Kikuchi Yosai (1788–1878). (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=626326)
While specific details about Sei Shonagon and her book are difficult to confirm, it is believed she completed the book around 1002. It is the oldest book on my classics list. There are several editions of the book; it has been copied and recopied multiple times. I read the Penguin Classics edition which includes an informative introduction written by Meredith McKinney and is full of notes throughout. Well-researched and thorough, it also includes appendices such as a glossary as well as explanations of colors and clothes, social statuses, and more.
ThePillow Book is akin to a diary; Sei Shonagon mostly tells us stories of her daily life, gossips about her peers, comments on fashion and the seasons. It provides a perspective on imperial culture in all its luxury, privilege, and poetry and is considered a masterpiece of Japanese literature. According to Sei Shonagon, the book was supposed to have been kept private but started to circulate among the court members when it was discovered after she accidentally left it out on a mat one day around 996.
I have never read a book quite like this before. While I enjoyed it for its unique content and perspective, it lacks the cohesion I was used to as it jumps around throughout time periods, thoughts, and miscellany. At times, Sei Shonagon uses the pages to list examples of seemingly arbitrary topics of her choice, sometimes as ordinary as naming peaks, plants, or bodies of water but at other times are more thoughtful. Here are some of my favorites:
Though it’s the same it sounds different ~ The language of priests. Men’s language. Women’s language.
Rare things ~ A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly. A person who is without a single quirk. Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.
Times when someone’s presence produces foolish excitement ~ A mother who’s pampering and praising her spoilt child, who is actually nothing out of the ordinary. The little introductory cough you give when you’re about to address someone who overawes you.
Things now useless that recall a glorious past ~ A fine embroidery-edged mat that’s become threadbare. A painter with poor eyesight. A switch of false hair seven or eight feet long, that’s now fading and taking on a reddish tinge. A man who was a great lover in his day but is now old and decrepit.
While I took these as fascinating insights into the life of an elite Japanese court woman at that time, I can see how some readers may become tired of the gossipy tone or her whiny judgments. I feel as though many readers would be satisfied with a summary of the book and a sampling of representative passages. But I would encourage others to read it precisely because it often doesn’t conform to modern (Western) writing conventions – and this is a good thing. The Pillow Book provides accessible entry into a slice of Japanese culture, history, and literature in a form that is swift, smart, and sharp.
Sei Shonagon, by Unknown (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3616093)
One aspect that kept me reading was noticing the way women were talked about in the book. Now while the type of life represented in the book was not that of most women of the time, it was interesting to examine how court women were thought of and treated. It seems that mainly women were hidden away, in several palace rooms, behind curtains or screens, or in carriages. That being said, it didn’t seem that these court women minded this. The court was the center of their worlds and according to Sei Shonagon, they seemed fairly satisfied with it. Beauty and comfort were central themes of the book and Sei Shonagon spends time describing clothing, fabrics, festivals, the weather, sounds, and colors; all in a signature poetic style that makes for lovely backdrops to the stories she tells.
In this polygamous, polyamorous time, Japanese court women of the Heian period enjoyed taking multiple lovers, seemingly without shame or judgement. Sei Shonagon even discusses how a man should be sure to not overstay his welcome in his lover’s chambers after a night of pleasure as well as the importance of a well-written (and prompt) “morning after” note.
Sei Shōnagon, illustration from an issue of Hyakunin Isshu (Edo period) (By user:Ultratomio, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=164427)
Those who are interested in learning about this era of Japanese history or life would find this book compelling. I would also recommend this book to poetry lovers, as poetry was an integral part of court society during this period. One’s knowledge of poetry indicated their intellect, wit, and social standing; not only was one expected to know the greats but also to come up with original poetry on the spot. Communication between friends, colleagues, and lovers often took place via notes sent by messenger and these notes were often written in poetry, so one needed to be able to read, interpret, and create poems full of flirtation and puns for attention and glory. This was one of Sei Shonagon’s talents; she aimed to delight and surprise with her poetry and humor.
Overall, I am glad I started my Classics Club journey with The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. It was unlike anything else I have read and I learned more about a culture about which I know very little. I would recommend it to readers of poetry and women writers, those interested in Japanese or women’s history, or anyone who is looking for a unique classic read!
Title: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Author: Sei Shonagon
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 404 pages
Publication Date: 2006 (this translation edition)
Tags: Japan, women writers, memoir, history, poetry, classics My Rating: Recommended
Ogenna Ojukwu’s debut novel, The Teacher, the Seamstress and the Pianist, is a multilayered story of intertwining lives and the effect that love and loss in the past can have on the present.
The story takes place in Lagos, Nigeria, in the early 2000s and centers on Onyeka, the teacher. Onyeka is married to Arum but after years of trying to have a child, to no avail, their marriage begins to suffer. Onyeka instead cares for her nephew, Anieto, and Chidiebere, her housemaid.
But this was before Chidiebere and Anieto began living with her, before she would see them as the children she never had, before they would resuscitate in her, a renewed urging to live.
The author, Ogenna Ojukwu.
Chidiebere is from the local village and at the beginning of the story we see her travel back there to attend the funeral of her estranged father, who died under violent circumstances. Onyeka had offered to take Chidiebere in and send her to school; Onyeka’s dream for Chidiebere was for her to go to university but Chidiebere longed to be a seamstress.
Anieto, too, had lost his father to violence; after that, he moved in with Onyeka while his mother moved to England to build a new life for them. And perhaps you guessed it: Anieto is the pianist.
The book follows the three main characters, their hopes and their challenges. The characters in Ojukwu’s story are well-developed. I felt empathy for them at times but also frustration when they made decisions I didn’t agree with. It is a talented storyteller who can create characters in this way, and Ojukwu is such a storyteller.
The author adeptly illustrates the complexities of family relationships and takes on some traditional gender norms regarding marriage and childbearing. We see Onyeka struggling because the responsibility for getting pregnant and having children seems to fall squarely on her; so of course when she doesn’t get pregnant, she is blamed and carries the shame of it.
It was her fault. It was all her fault; it was she who let his love slip away with her childlessness.
There are also messages in the book that encourage the reader to reflect upon cultural expectations concerning employment, class, education, village versus urban life, traditions versus modern ways. It also made me think of the role violence plays in some cultures, families, and relationships. Ojukwu takes on many issues in this book but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by this; I felt as though I was getting a look into the lives of a modern Nigerian family which, like any family, has its ups and downs, its celebrations and its secrets.
I read books written by international authors in part because of the things I learn about the country and culture while enjoying the story. In this case, Ojukwu includes details from the language and traditions of Nigeria that adds authenticity and make the settings come alive. In a few places, the book could’ve used a bit more editing but it isn’t much and it doesn’t distract from the the story. Overall, I appreciated the arc of the story and the trust Ojukwu places in his reader, to open up his world and let us in.
I am enjoying the Nigerian fiction I have been reading lately; I am no expert but from what I have been reading (see links below), this latest generation of Nigerian writers has shifted in focus a bit with regards to nationalism, sharing and challenging their culture, and framing their stories through Nigerian traditions with a modern twist. In a recent interview, Ogenna Ojukwu described contemporary African literature with great admiration:
Reading [Chimamanda Adichie’s] novels always left me with a yearning to pick up the pen, the laptop, a phone and just write. And of course there are a lot of other writers off this promising stable, doing great things. Ayobami Adebayo had an impactful debut. There are Taiye Selasi, Yaa Gyasi, Chibundu Onozu, Nnedi Okorafor, Helon Habila and Chigozie Obioma, all producing phenomenal works. Note that many of these wonderful writers are female and so there is a challenge of sorts to male African writers to produce work of matching prominence.
On the whole, this was an enjoyable book. The story held my interest and I felt invested in the characters. While based in Nigeria, The Teacher, the Seamstress and the Pianist has something for anyone who appreciates family dramas, complex women main characters, and layered plot development. I look forward to reading more by Ogenna Ojukwu and other Nigerian authors. Recommended.
This year I have committed to reading and reviewing books mainly by womxn writers but when I received an advanced proof of Kevin Powell’s latest book, My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man., I decided to make an exception.
Despite Kevin Powell having authored 12 previous books, this is the first one of his I am reading. I initially encountered Powell during his time on The Real World in the 90s and kept loose tabs on his writing career since. I have enjoyed some of his essays in Vibe and other outlets throughout the years so was excited to read this new book.
The author, Kevin Powell.
The book is a collection of 13 of Powell’s articles and blog posts from the last couple of years. The essays are cogent reminders and reflections of events from pop culture to politics, from Tupac and Prince, to gender and masculinity, to mental health and police brutality, all through the eyes of Kevin Powell.
And Powell doesn’t let us forget who he is: born and raised by a single mom in impoverished Jersey City, no father figure, university dropout, drunk, suicidal, and burnt out by 30 and against all odds now a sober and accomplished writer, committed activist, and desired speaker who has visited all 50 states and 5 of 7 continents. While overcoming the barriers he has is impressive, if there’s any part of Powell’s writing that loses me, it is this slip into self-indulgence that sometimes occurs; Powell has a way of inserting himself and his experiences into almost any subject he writes about.
Part of this, I believe, is just his writing style; people write about things they know and things that resonate with them. It may also be that Powell is still working through past transgressions – his own and others’ – and this is his way of making sense and making amends. Because these essays were originally published as stand-alone pieces, it is understandable that he would provide context in each one.
In the end, I found this quirk of Powell’s to be a minor distraction against the overall strength and passion of this writing. In fact, there are times when the confessional style really works, such as in “JAY-Z and the Remaking of His Manhood. Or, the Crumpled and Forgotten Freedom Papers of Mr. Shawn Carter,” where Powell strives to understand manhood and gender-based violence through the relationships of his mother and father, Beyoncé and JAY, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
On the whole, I really dig Kevin Powell’s writing and certain elements really resonate with me. One is the variety of styles with which he is willing to experiment, be it a conversational blog style as in “Why is Baltimore Burning?,” a letter format as in “Letter to a Young Man” and “A Letter to Tupac Shakur,” or an impassioned essay like his “Will Racism Ever End? Will I Ever Stop Being a Ni**er?”
Powell published his autobiography in 2015.
I appreciate the repetition, timing, and poetic phrasing in his work which is reminiscent of the cadence of his heroes Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, or of the musical qualities of Black preachers I heard one chilly Sunday morning in Alabama. I covet the pure and unabashed passion with which Kevin Powell writes. He’s not afraid to show his sensitivity which gives me hope for the future of (cishet men’s) writing. I also appreciate Powell’s ability to write broadly and deeply about a subject, taking his time to display his detailed and thorough understanding, while still making it accessible to the general public.
There is usually a lot of meat to what Powell writes. He ties personal experiences in with his subjects; he refers to other events, current and historical, and he weaves in music, art, politics, and more so that his pieces can feel like experiences. The essay, “Hamilton, OJ Simpson, Orlando, Gun Violence, and What the 4th of July, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas and Baton Rouge Police Shootings Mean to Me,” is so much more than a summary of his experience attending the play Hamilton on Broadway and what it meant to him. And there is a paragraph (pages 146-147 in the advanced proof copy) in his piece about JAY-Z’s album 4:44 that is the epitome of how I wish I could pen a review. Powell not only entices you to understand where he is coming from on a topic, but he challenges you to critically reflect on where you stand on it and why.
It probably won’t be surprising that one of the essays I most enjoyed is entitled, “Re-defining Manhood: Harvey Weinstein and How his Toxic Manhood is our Toxic Manhood, too.” In this piece, Powell takes responsibility for his own transgressions – that time he pushed a former girlfriend into a bathroom door – and explains how male privilege takes hold of boys early on and subsequently develops into ubiquitous notions of toxic manhood as they grow up. He discusses the #MeToo movement and how actions of men like Harvey Weinstein, men like Kevin Powell, and all men, can harm and wound women in ways that must end and can only end when men take action to help support women and fight against sexual violence and harassment.
And this, finally, is where I believe real change must start, with me, with Harvey Weinstein, with all men: a willingness to listen to the voices of women and girls, and a willingness to take ownership of our behavior, to say we are sorry, that we want to learn, that we want to heal and do better and be better (page 222).
Throughout the book, Powell doesn’t shy away from the exploration of his own manhood and calls on others to do the same.
Until the final essay of the book, Powell mentions the current president of the US only briefly in several of the essays, despite his name being included in the book title. I found this essay, after which the book is named, one of the most intriguing. He begins with an honest yet delicate reflection on his mother, his absent father, how the two fell in love, and how the history of violence and mistreatment of Blacks in the US has shaped the present. He goes on to explore politics and the presidency of Barack Obama as well as how this systemic oppression makes change infuriatingly slow in this country. All of this led to the election of current administration which, while a tragedy, is by no means a surprise to black and brown people of the US.
Because this is not really about the American people, this is really about a system that is built to protect a few at the expense of the rest of us (page 266).
Now it is incumbent upon all of us to work towards permanent change which, according to Powell, won’t come without people being as outraged by injustices done to others as they are when they are done to themselves. It won’t come until we begin to follow the leadership of Black women and women of color; it won’t come until White women admit to and challenge our own racial and class privilege; it won’t come until we all rethink how we view and treat women, people of color, poor people, LGBTQ people. This essay is the best example of why Powell calls this book “the autobiography of America” (page 261).
Kevin Powell’s latest book is a collection of reflective and impassioned essays from a veteran observer and chronicler of music, politics, race, gender, and current events. It will appeal to wide audiences and may be most enjoyably read in multiple sittings so the reader can digest and reflect upon each piece. Individual readings could readily be assigned in special topics or intro courses covering race, and other sociocultural issues, politics, and gender and women’s studies. This book is recommended.