When Discussing Diverse Books: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

twitter1Guys, Twitter is kind of a terrifying, brilliant, and secret place.  Sometimes, I sit there wondering if this is the only place most people have a voice, even journalists in today’s political and economical climate. In just the ten days where I transitioned from a full-on teacher Twitter account to one for bookish and Cassie things I’ve watched the following: people harassed for days over one ill-worded (or even just ill-timed) tweet.  Authors berated for being pro-Trump. I’ll be honest, in my personal life, I had no clue that Trump would be elected because I had literally not one single person in my circles that would ever vote for that man.  Like last female on the planet shiz. However, I’ve been a little horrified.

Here are the things I know:

*People lash out because of their collective memory on injustice that their background (whatever that may be) has faced due to abuse, bigotry and ignorance across time and space.

shame-gif-1465520937*While shame and guilt are very real feelings, sometimes that isn’t the way that sways people to  see another side. Particularly when you’re going all Game of Thrones walk of shame on them.  Getting a posse of others like you to gang up on this Twitter person and tweet abuse and harassment towards them probably only makes them believe further in their own bigotry.

*We do not have enough diversity in books to justify quieting any voice that speaks out for diversity in books.

*Some of the comments on writing diverse books really rub me the wrong way.  Things like, “I don’t think white people should write about other races at all, keep your mediocre hands off of that literature.”  With the same person tweeting things earlier in the day like, “if your world in your book is full of only white characters then your book is in a bubble that doesn’t exist.” (That last one I definitely agree with, but both of these tweets cannot exist in the same book).

All of this has made me do some serious soul searching.

homegoing_custom-09de3d52d3ab0cf5400e68fb358d53da9c78afe6-s400-c85I pride myself on reading diverse books. A lot of the times because I want to learn, but more importantly because I want to listen.  In fact, I listed my favorite authors out for a student the other day and every single one was a woman + Junot Diaz. I also try really hard to not just read bestsellers (or books graciously and eloquently thrown down our throats by the NY Times Best Seller’s List or Kirkus Reviews).  I’m not saying this because I have something to prove in my small corner of the internet. On the contrary, it’s because I’m about to review the book Homegoing by 27-year-old Yaa Gyasi from a white female perspective, probably really close to what the world has come to know as white feminist perspective.

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If I ever sound like this, CALL ME OUT. 

See the following for a clearer definition of white feminism: Tilda Swinton’s emails, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift and her adult cheer squad, and all of the Huffington Post tags.

I’m owning it because I have to in order to write about diverse literature.  In every solid academic research paper, the author must spell out their limitations, and this one is mine. I come from a place of white feminist baggage. That’s what I’m carrying to your table, and what I’ll try to leave behind as I grow in perspective and curiosity.


I’m not going to lie, halfway through this book I tweeted the following:

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I feel bad for this tweet. It sucks. No one liked it, and they shouldn’t have. (And I actually think I got the wrong publisher too, to top it off. Sorry, Alfred A. Knopf).  At the 48% mark  (thanks, Kindle for always making me feel great about my reading speed) I just didn’t get it.  I didn’t get the magic of what Gyasi was doing here.  Twisting two family trees, coppicing.

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I’m obsessed with the UK cover. 

Now there were times in the novel when I got lost. When I left it for two days and came back to the middle telling of a new character’s story and I would have to read a few pages to know where we stood in time and place, but taking two families from African diaspora all the way through the millennium is a feat that I’ve never seen before in literature. And for that I will forever be in awe of Gyasi’s breakthrough in an art that doesn’t always adapt easy to change.  Maybe this is why so many avid readers had troubles with this book though.

The plot did move very slowly and although we knew the person intimately who came before the character we would read about next, I’m not sure the connection was enough to sustain a reader who needed action.  Akua brought the action, so did H and Ness, but characters with gritty stories came at strange moments.  A reader on Twitter said he believed the book should have been split into three parts and not two.  He never responded to me when I asked where he would have broken the third part, but it did have me curious.  If we read this book and immediately have questions about structure, does that mean that Gyasi didn’t perfect her rhythm here?

5e0190c717c99df3c8a4b610e72b19c1I’m not sure how I feel. This multigenerational history of the world through the eyes of African American families moved me almost to tears at times, but there were other times when the characters just weren’t real enough for me, and these moments alternated regularly.  The raw moments, in Ghana, Willie in Harlem, H imprisoned and sold into mining, and “the Crazy Woman” all made for characters that “lived inside me” as Marjorie learns from her teacher in one of the final chapters.  But other characters didn’t come alive until I knew what they bred or brought into the world in later chapters. I almost needed their children to open my heart towards them.  That came a little frustrating when I just wanted to continue with one of the family lines, but had to read the alternating. I also had to look at the family tree a lot, which made reading on a Kindle difficult.

(Still, thank you so much for the arc, Alfred A. Knopf).

I do understand that to span 300 years in 300 pages is not an easy task, and there’s very few moments to take a breath, but I still sit here not one hundred percent sold. One of the things I did love was all the beautiful, beautiful language moments.

“That night, lying next to Edward in his room, Yaw listened as his best friend told him that he had explained to the girl that you could not inherit a scar. Now, nearing his fiftieth birthday, Yaw no longer knew if he believed this was true.”

And all of the commentary on society that was subtle but powerful:

“The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effie did not understand.  In her village, everything was everything.  Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

“That I should live to hear my own daughter speak like this.  You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

“This is the problem of history.  We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves.  We must rely upon the words of others.”

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future.  And, if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

And my personal favorite:

“She stopped walking.  For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine, a grave for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there.  It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it.  To have felt it.  How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it, not apart of it, but inside of it.”

I feel like I’ve been a little hard on this book because it is truly a literary first for me.  I recommend it to everyone who needs diverse literature, who wants to support a debut author, and who is interested in structuring writing in new and profound ways for their readers.

The List: Bookish Edition

If you’ve been following for a while you know that every year I do a Bookish Christmas List.  This year, I’m a tad late, but for all of your procrastinating shoppers, I have the list for all the book lovers, cat ladies, school teachers, and hipsters in your life.

For the Gilmore Girl in all of us:

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  1. “Gilmore Girls Helvetica” T-Shirt (multiple colors) | $31.95 @ Red Bubble
  2. “Mama Kim” Sticker | $2.40 (buy 6, get 50% off) @ Red Bubble
  3. Rory Enamel Lapel Pin | $13.00 @sweetandlovely
  4. Luke’s Mug Vinyl Logo Decal | $18.00 @ The Party Palette
  5. The Rory Reading List | $19.47 @ Neighbourly Love

For those Witty (W)itches in Our Life:

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  1. Okay Ladies, Now Let’s Get Information T-Shirt (multiple colors) | $27.65 @ Red Bubble
  2. Be Pretty Driftwood | $34.00 @ Peacelovedriftwood  on Etsy
  3. Ceramic Coffee Mug with Quote | $13.95+ @ Vitazi Designs on Etsy
  4. Olde Book Messenger Bag | $34.99 @ Think Geek
  5. Olde Book Pillow Cases | $14.99 @ Think Geek
  6. Banned Book Match Set | $8 @ Tiger Tree (How very Fahrenheit 451 of them, har har).
  7. Nancy Drew Pillows (these are my fav) | $24 @ The Sleuth Shop
  8. Internet Grammar Is Ruining Everything | $16+ @ Kathy Weller Art on Etsy
  9. Bibliophile Girl Scout Patch | $7 @ Storied Threads on Etsy

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  1. Lit Cap | $2.40 @ Red Bubble
  2. 52 Lists for Happiness | $16.99 @ Modclot
  3. Narnia Coloring Book | $15.99 @ Think Geek
  4. Disney Princesses: a Magical Pop-Up World | $65 @ Amazon by Matthew Reinhart
  5. Diagonal Alley Coat | $139.99 @ Modcloth

For the Editor in All of Us (that we want to murder):

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  1. Talks with the Editor Letterpress | $15 @ RD1Vintage on Etsy
  2. Books & Eyeglasses Earrings | $20 @ Uncommon Goods
  3. Whom T-Shirt | $25 @ GrammaticalArt on Etsy
  4. Seven Year Pen | $8.95 @ Seltzer Goods (they even have one dedicated to cat ladies.  CALLING ALL OF YOUUUUUU).
  5. Vintage Oak Desk Set | $32 @ InglenookMarket on Etsy
  6. Hand Engraved Compass Necklaces | $140 @ Uncommon Goods

Feministing:

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  1. Feminist Enamel Pin | $10 @ Stationerybicycles on Etsy
  2. Working Women: The New Pinup Collection | $12.95 @ Chronicle Books
  3. Shattered Glass Ceiling Necklace | $68 @ Uncommon Goods
  4. Parks & Rec Pawnee Poste | $11.99+ @ Genuine Design Co on Etsy
  5. The Future is Female T-Shirt | $14.90+ @ DesignDepot123
  6. Frida Kahlo Paper Dolls | $9.95 @ Chronicle Books

Teachers of all Kinds:

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  1. Staple Free Staplers | $16 (set of two) @ Uncommon Goods
  2. Scratch Map | $26-$40 @ Uncommon Goods
  3. Blue Book Personalized Pillow | $36 @ Uncommon Goods
  4. Microbiology Wax Seal | $29.95 @ CognitiveSurplus on Etsy
  5. Sometimes I Go Off on a Tangent T-Shirt | $25+ @Boredwalk on Etsy
  6. Moon Phases Notebook | $5.14 @Newtonandtheapple on Etsy

And Dudes:

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  1. Tesla Circuit Building Kit | $100 @ Uncommon Goods
  2. 3d Printed Bowtie | $32.70 @ 3different on Etsy
  3. Iron Coin of the Faceless Man | $14 @ ShirePostMint on Etsy
  4. The Hydra Smart Bottle | $59.99 @ Think Geek
  5. Build on Brick Mug | $2.99-11.99 @ Think Geek
  6. Medieval Knight Hoodie | $49.99 @ Think Geek

I know it’s pretty close to Christmas and you’ll need expedited shipping.  I hope I made it a little easier on ya for finding your bibliopiles the best presents.

I’m ready to make the argument: Beyonce loves Beloved.

I want to construct the theory that Beyonce was directly referencing Beloved, the book by Toni Morrison and the haunting character reincarnated in the novel with her video “Formation.”

Reasons for these beliefs are as follows:

  • Cover art of Beloved hand-in-hand with stills from Beyonce’s video for “Formation.”

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  • Beloved (the character) comes from the water, a symbol of “New Life” and purity. Beyonce sinks into the water as a comment on the government’s reaction (and the people of America, we’re all complicit) to New Orleans after Katrina.  But also, she makes a call to justice and a call to new perspective on race relations in America, particularly with white police officers and black men.
  • School Teacher, who comes for Sethe in the book, could be seen as the police in Beyonce’s video.
  • Both texts reference “baby hair.”  “Formation”: I like my baby heir, with baby hair and afros. Beloved: “Instead she gazed at Sethe with sleepy eyes. Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested–good lace at the throat, and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat…her feet were like her hands, soft and new” (62).
  • Beyonce seems “haunted” in the scene at the plantation house where she wears all black and is surrounded by men in black suits.  She keeps bobbing her head up and down to the beat in a ghostly fashion.  Beloved is a ghost that haunts the house and is known as “crawling-already.” Then, returns from the grave.  A reincarnation much like the rising up of New Orleans after Katrina — on its own mind you — because our government sucks sometimes.
  • Sethe doesn’t really understand her own history, but her husband Halle comes from Baby Suggs who is well-known as a priestess in the community.  Beyonce references her heritage several times in the story.  While Sethe doesn’t know her heritage, Beloved comes back from the dead to honor her mother, her heritage.
  • Beyonce claims to “twirl on the haters.”  It can be argued that Sethe, by slitting the throat of her daughter, “twirled on” School Teacher who thought that he could take Sethe and all her children in as runaway slaves.
  • In the scene below, Beyonce acts as a “Mrs. Garner” of high class woman of the South who gave Sethe the only thing she ever truly owned, diamond earrings.

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  • Beyonce repeats “I Slay,” while Sethe literally slays her child by slitting her throat in a hurried effort to save her from slavery and School Teacher.
  • Both women also take great pride in their children, Sethe to the point of saving them by murdering them and Beyonce by having her daughter dance in her highly-acclaimed music video.
  • Beyonce says at the end of the song, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” while Sethe is the talk of the town after her behavior with School Teacher and Baby Suggs in front of her sons and family.
  • Red Lobster is where Beyonce takes her man, letting him also take her chopper to the mall for some j’s while Sethe is completely supportive of Paul D in the novel.  To the point that she supports him before he can get back to work and sleeps with him regularly.
  • The men in the background of the actual song also sound an awful lot like Paul D and his “baby, baby, baby,” neediness. He even calls Beloved’s sexuality her “shine,” while today we have “glo up” (not mentioned in Beyonce’s video, but just a correlation).
  • At the end of Beyonce’s video there is a congregation worshipping at church.  This could be a direct reference to Baby Sugg’s forest homily’s in Beloved.  Baby Suggs manages to conjure the spirit for the people of her community the same way the spirit finds its way into Beyonce’s video.

There you have it. As much argument as I can puzzle together for Beyonce making a direct connection to Beloved by Toni Morrison.  If so, those are some powerful allusions, if not, it’s fun to try to prove it.

Update:

*Here’s an article on what to read after watching “Lemonade.”

*Also, the speaking intro of “Hold Up” is basically Beloved, yet again where Beyonce says things like, “Tried to be soft, prettier, less … awake.  Fasted for 60 days. Wore white. Abstained from mirrors. Abstained from sex. Slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair I grow past my ankles. I slept on a mat on a floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. I went to the basement. Confessed my sins and was baptized in a river. Got on my knees and said amen and said I mean. I whipped my own back…” This is eerily similar to Beloved by Toni Morrison. Check out the stills from the video:

Milk also commented on how much Toni Morrison influenced Beyonce even commenting that “Lemonade is like seeing her words come to life.”

Vox too.  Man, I had no idea people thought this.

Because That Mom Wants to Ban TKAM

Books are challenged all the time.  The political state of America is just (and always) getting hotter.  In a time where we need books more than ever, particularly books that foster discussion of racial barriers, gender barriers, and sexuality barriers, a school system has decided to ban two books that illuminated (and still do) the American experience.  And I would put “in the South” after that last sentence but I feel like that doesn’t take into account all the reverberations from Southern attitudes and culture on the rest of our nation, and really, the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I can think of several reasons to not teach To Kill a Mockingbird.  The one I most often use is that while this book is a true “coming of age” tale, that doesn’t mean it was written that way.  The narrator of this novel is an old woman looking back on her childhood. It’s not written from the child, or high school perspective, it’s written from the perspective of a woman who has lived a whole life and is flipping to which scrap book page story she will tell.  Although I don’t love teaching this book to students (not true, I loved it one year), would I ever ban this book from a classroom or institution of literacy, hell no.

To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably one of the most important books written about the South.  There’s an idyllic father, a neighborhood of interesting people, and a family built on the moral code of a saint.  (See: Go Set a Watchman for what I believe is more of the truth).  This part of the book is set against the part of the book that contains the trial of Tom Robinson and a look into not only the class system of the novel but the racial prejudice of the community. Tom Robinson, likewise, is a family man, idyllic in his own way, but due to lack of means (thanks to the community he lives in and the history of the US) lives in a community of people who hate him. One could argue, and I will, that this festering belief has sparked where we are today with #blacklivesmatter because black people are damn tired of being hated (in action AND words).

Love this poster for Banned Book Week from ALA

Love this poster for Banned Book Week from ALA

The problem I have with banning this book is the reasoning behind the parent’s wishes. She says her son “struggled to read the racist language,” furthermore, “There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that.” And finally, “Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.”

I could seriously give her some slurs right now, but we all know that solves nothing.

The problem with the mentality of this mother, and her son because he’s learning this wacked-out belief system, is that if we don’t give students the space to learn the context and scope of these words then they will always see them as “those that shall not be said.” I don’t want kids going around calling other kids n-words, but I also don’t want students to understand the implications behind language like this.

The belief, and I’m not sorry at all for this Donald Trump, but that words FUCKING matter.  And they are much larger than “curse words.” Words that appear in this book have connotations that could have potentially changed throughout times, that certain groups of people own and certain groups of people can never respect, words that have not only historical meaning, but meaning to our current world as well because the full mouth of their history has carried through to today.

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And the problem with our society is that instead of talking about, instead of asking @shishirose her definition, we push it under the rug, for the seven hundredth time and hope our little Chris or Patrick or Jean keeps that word to the confines of his own house, or his own friend group, or just keeps it locked away silent in his brain somewhere never to be used. We say it’s okay “as long as you don’t say it to those people, or we say “it’s never okay, it’s a dirty word, don’t say it.”  But if a child never gets educated on the context, the scope, and let’s not forget the HUMANS that this word has shaped, refined, developed, and trampled, then what is the point in any conversation ever? What are you protecting them from … life?

This isn’t life, people. This isn’t how we educate students on how to have a conversation. How to speak not to, but with people who are different from them so that they don’t end up with one token “different” friend because they’re too scared to love anyone who doesn’t agree with them, have the same upbringing as them, or understand the connotation of the words the same way they do.

You Don't Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent

I’ve been reading the book You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent.  In the very beginning after the introduction, she discusses her growing up and having to choose a side because biracial wasn’t accepted (I’m not sure if I should have said that sentence in the past. You know how America loves its binaries).  She came to call herself a “mutt” in between figuring out who wanted what side of her.  Nugent goes through the realization that if she just discusses her white side she can get a job, a better paying job. But at what cost? She says, “My identity comes from how I feel.” and “We have to speak, in all our different voices, to tell our unique stories.  I will always tell mine” (30).  This is what I mean about words.  When we start banning books.  Wait, when we start banning words. Then, what else are we banning?

Words come with culture too. And the way we use them waves our beliefs in the air (like we just don’t care).  To ban a book is like banning a historical moment, blipping out that time period for your child.  To ban a book is like a blacking over, smudging out a whole culture of people who have come to either own that word, be known by that word, or despise that word because of the historical or societal weight it carries. To ban a book for a word is leaving out a narrative that could have educated your child on how to live in a world, a world in our “current political climate” and navigate it so that instead of hurting other people, they love them. With their words, because what else do they have?

 

Children’s Books That I’m Going to Write Because of Election Results

In the shock stage of grief that I am in, I don’t have an eloquent way of stating my feelings. What I do know what to speak is books and lists. So … in an effort to put something forth in a meaningful way, here is a list of all the children’s books I would like to write now that we have unfortunate election results.

  1. Grey Matter: It would star a little brain named Carl and his pineapple best friend named Smother and be a book that talks about all the other factors that hum around opposites with the moral that “Almost nothing is black or white.” (Words would also fall into grey matter. Sorry, Trump).

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-5-37-59-pm2. Tuesday’s with Morrie: (Children’s edition). And it would include mostly the quote to the right as the moral. And Morrie would be the cutest old man who wore sweater vests and hunched over a little when he walked.

Glass Slippers

Glass Slippers

3. Hillary’s Glass Ceiling which would be composed of patterned pantsuits, Hillary rappelling the Washington monument (because let’s be honest, the children could look back at this book and study the phallic symbols when they’re in English 101), and glass slippers. I’m not really sure how the slippers come in, but I feel like they fit.

Pantsuits

Pantsuits

4.  Blaze(r).  This one would be illustrated by Maira Kalman and Rachel Maddow would write it.  It’s a superhero comic about a women in a fierce patterned pantsuit (similar to Mrs. Frizzle) that takes on the world for girls everywhere. (And there would obviously be villains).  Bernie Sanders would also totally be in the spin-off comics as part of the super squad. His superhero name would be Suspanders.

5. Construct: would be a children’s book about building different architecture and would at some point become a metaphor for systemic issues in our society.  This one might now be a children’s book, but an adult book that has pictures.

6. Biggertry: which would be all about being the bigger person.  It would totally  be about a boy named Glee.  It would kind of be inspired by the poem “Guidelines”  and how a reaction to bigotry can change the bigot’s perspective.

7. Fences: This would be a book full of metaphors about breaking down walls.  This one is the most formed in my mind, it would have two neighbors and be a hodge podge of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” and “The Interlopers” by Saki, and a mashup of quotes from this election talking about Trumps BIG PLAN to build a wall. (Hmph).  It would also be part grammar (about how paragraphs are just sections of a text that have fences around them).  The book would probably be two sets of neighbors.  I’m actually inspired by my neighbor who finished off our fence out of the goodness of her own heart and didn’t even tell us she was doing it. PS. She’s a Muslim. I feel like this is an important part for you to know if you’re full of judgment right now. (If you are, I hope you can shit it all out later).

Donald Trump Mouth Cartoon / Scranton Times Tribune / Artist: John Cole

Donald Trump Mouth Cartoon / Scranton Times Tribune

8. The Man Behind the Mouth: Obviously, this would have a guy with a comb over and a red tie on the cover.  (Not naming names).  And he would say all kinds of ridiculously terrible things and people would correct him, maybe correct is the wrong word, but they would kindly and respectfully rephrase his points and give him reasons to change them. And the crowds correcting him would get bigger and bigger until he no longer fit on the page.  And then on the very last page, they would all hug. (This one’s my secret favorite).

Let me know your titles and ideas.

On why I’m deplorable due to my dislike of Fates and Furies

President Obama said it. Claire said it. (She’s up there with Obama in my book recommendation circle).  Brianna said it, too.  My own gut intuition said it.  And then the fates (or the sirens) decided, all the saints from Riverhead decided, that I would be awarded an advanced copy on that funny little shell called Instagram where I house various pictures of my dogs, my sweats, and my open pages. (@bookishcassie).

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

And now it’s sitting, dainty and prudish in its cove of the library hutch.  I would take a picture but that would really only represent the true amount of neglect that this book has seen across spring break pools, ocean sands, hotel rooms with fancy wooden stumps, suitcases, backpacks, and now the library hutch (which also regrettably hasn’t been dusted since its moved in).  This book, Fates and Furies, by one of my favorite authors, Lauren Groff.

I read her short stories with reckless abandon.  I made it through Arcadia, not really her best work but characterization was “magical at times,” as I tell my AP kids their essays need to be (not so sarcastically).  I quit Monsters at Templeton about forty pages in.   I’m pretty much a quitter if a book doesn’t grip me in some way or I don’t owe someone for the reading.  So, it’s probably safe to say, I should stick to stories by her published in The New Yorker.

Truth is though, I really wanted to like it.  I kept reading ahead because I couldn’t stand the drawl of this marriage.  All one-sided from the perspective of Lotto.  I just had to Google that name which shows how much I really got involved with this narcissistic asshole. Sure, there were things to love about Lotto, how he was always a bit half-baked like all men we meet in our twenties (can I get an amen?) And how he half expected Mathilde to just shell out her female superpowers and own that whole house until he managed to write a decent play.

This just was and wasn’t the life that I knew of anyone ever.  Like, sure, marriage sucks sometimes, and those little tabs of deception, poked through receipts of burnt out anger, and the tips of sadness, adds up and amounts to some sort of heated disgust with our partner, but I don’t know anyone who just makes up for that (and their sordid childhood of fuckedupness) to become a famous playwright.  Does this really happen? REALLY?

If this was a movie, you would see REALLY get bigger and bigger across the screen and get shouted louder and louder.

I think I made it through a few pages of Mathilde’s section because I got to the point that Lotto just kills himself.

Fates, Furies, and Tobacco in Cameron, NC.

Fates, Furies, and Tobacco in Cameron, NC.

And then I was outtie, five thoughty.  Seriously, Lotto, you’re going to put us through your griping for (at a guess) one hundred and seventy pages and then kill yourself? Am I really ruining it for anyone who was late to this show and was going to pick it up a solid year after its big bestseller list extravaganza? I couldn’t even read Mathilde’s section because I. DIDN’T. CARE.

I felt for the woman. I did. Her character gets scraped off the pavement after being known as ghostly and definitely only sexy to Lotto who cheats on her (I think, can’t really remember since May) a lot.  But then Lotto, who she’s spent so much gas on just up and kills himself.  And I gotcha, I’m supposed to make the connection to that chick from his childhood and realize that grief tanks all of us in minuscule and big picture ways, but come on.

Matilda (spelled correctly, maybe?)

Matilda (spelled correctly, maybe?)

The only Mathilde I want to know is the one who watches that large boy eat the whole chocolate cake and gets taught by Ms. Honey.

I can’t. I couldn’t. I refuse. I won’t.

I probably should though since I have such strong feelings.  I may have even fake reviewed this at some point? But that’s not really my style so I doubt it.

I’m not saying I won’t read all of Lauren Groff’s other books, because I will, probably the second they come out, but I am saying that I feel lonely on this island of deplorables that just didn’t enjoy reading Fates and Furies.  (Notice we got out of the basket though).

(And come on, the metaphorical Greek / Roman tragedies abound here). ALLUSIONS!

No, really.

No, really.

Really, all I want you to get out of this blog today is that you need to go vote. And not because I disliked a book that everyone else liked, BUT because the people who are the most deplorable are those that don’t use their democracy when there are people around the world who get no voice at all. You’re given one, a tiny one on a piece of white copy paper that goes through a scanning counter that’s approximately seventy-two years old, but you get one nonetheless.  (Shhhh. #Imwithher).

A Soundtrack for Beloved

Beloved By Toni Morrison

Beloved By Toni Morrison

I’ve been reading Beloved, which is my third Morrison book in a year.  I’m mildly obsessed, if by mildly you mean I have a purple marker on the ready for every awkward star I need to draw in the margins.  Plus, during the Halloween / Day of the Dead / All Souls Day time of the year, a good ghost story always comes in handy, even if it is incredibly sad.  Actually, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward reminds me a lot of Beloved.  Both books lead the reader slowly into high tension, like a pot boiling water for tea.  Before you know it, you’re in the dense heat waiting for the quake.  I haven’t hit the quake yet in Beloved, but Sethe does know what’s going on and Paul D has returned to whatever vagabond life he led pre-Sethe.

In studying lyrics with my AP Literature class, I’ve thought a lot about Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize in Literature award (of which he was silent about for days and then came out like a young crowned prince in a rare interview).  I think lyrics are really accessible for students in this generation, but I think anytime we read something that’s so moving we can’t really put it into words, it deserves a soundtrack. Thus, the Beloved soundtrack, as best I can do.

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President Obama's Playlists

President Obama’s Playlists

In creating this post, I discovered that President Obama makes Spotify playlists. The last three songs are definitely after a few rounds of listening to his playlists.  With the upcoming election results coming in just four short days (with an extra hour for daylights savings), it’s interesting to look at the emotional state of these songs as President Obama campaigns for Clinton and the end of his eight years in the White House (which brings me a lot of sadness as I would vote for that man and his family about twenty more times.  In fact, can Michelle run in the next four years?)  This is exactly what I tried to do with Beloved and my emotional state when reading and researching this book. If you’ve never read anything by Morrison, I highly recommend it.

Here are some reasons:

  1. She’s considered an author in The New Canon. 
  2. Her books always have strong female characters who are often forced to walk through oppression, trauma, and historical blindspots.  (My personal favorite is Sula).
  3. If you need an introduction, her essay “Strangers” is one of my favorites. (Can be found in the Norton Reader).
  4. She holds her own Nobel Prize in Literature.
  5. She knows why she writes, “I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding people — people who can’t be faked, people who don’t need to be patronized, people who have very, very high criteria.”
  6. She’s the queen of historical fiction (except she doesn’t really fit any “genre”).

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My favorite Morrison book is Sula and I think it’s one of the easiest to start with.  I think I read in two days.  What are your favorites? Have any of her books been on your To Read lists forever? Do you have any favorite quotes from her novels? If you have a great reason to recommend Song of Soloman or Paradise, I will hear it because those are the two I haven’t read yet.

I can’t breathe /

I believe we need to talk about race.

My longest friend is a mixed race, homosexual man.  This is if I reduce him to his census data. Although “mixed race” is a term we constructed to make sure the one drop rule stands.  And homosexual is a nice dot on a spectrum of sexuality that has ranges larger than four categories and connotations stronger than a dictionary term.

The rest is just unused data.

Because America designates that you must be this, or you must be this. I can’t speak for the world because I haven’t visited it, but I can speak for what I see in my country.

“You are this. You aren’t this. You can sit at the table. You may not break the bread.  You ride in this seat.  You are allowed to use this water fountain. You can participate in gender specific olympic events.  You have too much testosterone. You can be medically reconfigured into a woman. But you were a man first, always remember. You stay in the closet. You stay in your own head. You don’t speak of the police’s interactions. You mourn the loss. You side with the white man holding a gun. You believe in thugs. You don’t. You think school is a pipeline to prison.”

I could write this list for days, through tears, and still not get to some root, or meaning, or end to the categorical boxes we’ve placed ourselves in.

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward

And this is why I took up The Fire This Time when Clint Smith wrote about its publish date on his Twitter.  I requested it from the library because I’ve studied Baldwin.  I’ve read him to students in American Literature. My gut was filled with tension at the climax of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and in my most intimate friendship of seventeen years we spent an evening on ice, skating around race after he posted on Facebook pictures of Oakland protests, and called out white people for their misunderstanding of why African American’s are covering highways.  And he still has not told me about his own encounter traveling west this summer with a white police officer somewhere over Kansas, maybe? I don’t even know because I am not someone he chose to talk to about it.

It could be because I grew up in Suburbia with literal picket fences in my neighborhood.  And that our high school had to bus in non-white students from downtown so that they could call themselves “diverse.” It could be that I once said something that made him feel like I could never understand the walk in his shoes and that race is not something that should enter this friendship because it could inevitably end it.

And I can’t live like that, and I don’t think he can.  I can’t be sure, but I think we’re ready for some critical conversations, and not just the two of us, but the communities we live in.  Race can be a hot burner that we avoid or it can be discussed beyond the reaches of Twitter.  So, I brought it to my classroom.

Clint Smith

Clint Smith

I read this quote in The Fire This Time, “Who I am is who I must be: a flawed human striving to live in a state of becoming.” Mitch Jackson in his essay “Composite Pops.”  When I got through the first part of The Fire this Time and was well into The Reckoning, I read Clint Smith’s poem “Queries of Unrest.” I had followed him on Twitter for some time, retweeting his educational reform tweets (@ClintSmithIII), and liking almost any reference to SLAM that he posted.  I had never read any of his poetry unless it appeared on youtube. But this poem, with its allusion to the classic children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein was where race would enter my classroom this year.

Citizen | Claudia Rankine

Citizen | Claudia Rankine

Last year, I used excerpts from Citizen by Claudia Rankine in my refugee unit and encouraged my students to buy it, but we didn’t do enough open dialogue with the book and ourselves. I find it interesting that I used a collection of writing about the black experience in America to talk about refugees due to Edwidge Danticat’s final essay “To My Daughters” in The Fire This Time where an immigration lawyer discusses the fact that “African Americans living in the United States could easily qualify as refugees.  Citing many recent cases of police brutality and killings of unarmed black men, women, and children.”

(If you’re reading this like “this girl is only seeing one side,” then you should know that I’ve read the other side too. And I’ve read the academic journals. And I’ve studied the cases enough to be at a point where I need to talk about it to be okay with the person that I hold inside this body).

Where the Sidewalk Ends | Shel Silverstein

Where the Sidewalk Ends | Shel Silverstein

This year in our first unit for perspective we did it. “Queries of Unrest.” Step by step: We analyzed “Where the Sidewalk Ends” for its lessons to children and its lesson to adults.  A lot of my students said it looked like the edge of where childhood ends. Or it looks to be a new beginning after a dark period. Or for adults, the sidewalk could end in death. Or for children, they could be forging a new path.  There were many interpretations which is the proof of the power of words, and the power of poetry, and the power of English.  We then read “Queries of Unrest.”

I just asked for meaning.  Few annotations. A little interpretation. Initial thoughts.  I didn’t need them to drown the poem. (Due to the fact that I don’t want anyone to have the ability to write my students off in this discussion, I teach in a high-poverty Title 1 school with a ton of students who are first generation college students.   That’s not to say I don’t have students who live in neighborhoods straight out of middle class America where everyone rides their bike to the pool in the summer and stays there all day until their mother’s are home to make a meal prepped with every piece of the food pyramid.  They do know the meaning of sidewalks ending though).

They gave me that.

We didn’t discuss it because they would discuss it in silent writing in a chalk talk.  The chalk talk has three pieces of chart paper and three question bubbles.  The questions are as follows:

  1. If every piece of writing is manipulation, then how is this poem doing that?
  2. What is your strongest interpretation of this poem?
  3. What does power have to do with justice and fairness?

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-26-56-amThe silent hum of markers on paper was monumental, but it wasn’t until I started getting single questions that I realized the tension was bubbling.  A white student had written “people of color” as an umbrella term to categorize everyone that isn’t white in a statement.  While this is the “politically correct” term deemed by media (who are mostly white and in power), the question should be asked that a. why do we even have a term that is for everyone not white, and b. how does the historical background of the word “color” in that phrase impact an African American.

And the answer came in the form of my students. The word color was unacceptable for some, particularly one of my more vocal students who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and I’m so proud of her for that.  Others wanted to use it as something to embrace.  At one point the idea of the phrase “I see no color,” came up, similar to “I don’t see race,” and in unison the agreement was that that’s not even possible and it disregards the great diversity of the classroom.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-10-amI’m not going to lie, it was heated.  At one point, one girl stepped towards another, using her body as a signal of disruption.  BUT it was a critical conversation.  Sometimes in society, we don’t realize that people don’t come from a place of understanding or even knowledge, they come from a place of ignorance.  And when that’s not the case, and they’re coming from a place of flat-out untruths then it is a responsibility of the other human beings (in my mind) to crack that “truth” wide open until it’s questioned.  Sometimes all we can ask is that people question their own beliefs.  Sometimes that’s a beginning.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-26-amMy students came to the conclusion that the only acceptable truth in my classroom, for “umbrella terms” is that we call everyone “people of multiple races.”  This was accepted and has been used since by all parties, even when those parties are in disagreement.

It is my belief that in the classroom, and in the street, we have to discuss things that are controversial and we have to be the cause for understanding.  I tweeted this. I believe it. And I think it can take us down a path of knowledge and not ignorance. I believe it starts with more knowledge, and thus I believe that The Fire This Time is the strongest and most powerful book I’ve read this year.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-37-amI got a copy from the library and now it is dog-earred to oblivion for the next person.  This book is strong because we are weak humans that often put blame where we like to keep it, in boxes that are tight and narrow and inescapable.  We like to look at our side of the picture without viewing the whole thing.  We like to have a perspective, and clutch it tight in our fists and never let it turn to liquid and move.

This book showed me where I’ve failed, where I’m still failing.  It showed me my own bias.  It looked in my face and told me I was wrong.  This is the same thing that happened in my classroom on Thursday and the same thing that should be happening across America until the discussion is so loud, and so filled with every form of rhetoric, and has the voices of every American.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-45-amIt is no longer valuable (and not acceptable) to sit in indifference.

I know that this isn’t “a book review.” But how do you review a collection of human truths? You can’t. You can only recommend it be the most borrowed book at the local library.  It enters classrooms. It enters conversations.  It breaks down the tight-knit boxes that we have shut so tight no air gets through / “I can’t breathe” /

 

Mudbound: In a Genre I Like to call “Grandma Literature”

This whole section is my story of coming to this book:

I was recommended this read by Sunday night #APLitchat teachers so it’s fitting that I finished this book over the weekend and have a keen need to address it.  Plus, big news, I’m officially out of a book slump.  I can’t say I was in a reading slump because I was constantly reading the news, articles, short stories, and anthologies, but I haven’t read a book all summer.  This, from the girl with the blog about books.

I wasn’t aware when I started the story, because who reads the author discussion at the beginning, that Hillary Jordan’s grandmother, and real life farm, Mudbound was what inspired the novel.  Everyone here today knows that I’m a sucker for grandmother literature.  Lucy Calkins advises her writers to keep a running list called “Writing Territories.” I think Ms. McClure outlines what these look like the best.  When I was still teaching at Scotland, I wrote my own writing territories to introduce the concept to my creative writing class.  This was probably two years ago, but I think they still ring true today.  I love using my grandmother’s stroke tone, the virginity of southern girls and its harness, clotheslines and Carolina red mud, widows on grand second floor terraces with handkerchiefs, and rain, too much rain, rain so caked with mud, it can no longer be known as two separate things.

This whole section is the story of this book coming to me (and hopefully you):

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Which is why I wish I wrote Mudbound.  Mudbound is the story of land and the people that reside on that land, both owned and unowned.  It is the story of a full crop season, a pair of families deeply interwoven with poisonous roots and it’s told from the multiple perspectives of the farm. I love a book where narration changes every chapter, but it’s not often that those books turn out so well, when every character given the opportunity to speak bends the influence of the one that came before.

I think the best way to describe it is by using my favorite idea from the book.  The voiced men are full of “bone-sense,” something that comes from an “older, darker place.”  They move, make decisions, and crack white like scars all in the physical sense.  They drink to soothe their mind.  They take from the body what they believe is taken from the town’s moral conscience.  They think with the turning of the land, the seeding of the crop, and the thrust of rain.  The women, however, are “head-sense,” moving with passion built on daily wear and tear desire.  Florence, my favorite character, is described as all body – a rough, tall woman, with the force of a “Delta Storm.  However, she handles the inequities with her mind and then uses those churned thoughts for the utility of her body.  She is a character that women can be proud of.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 7.10.07 PMThis book is also one of those books that leaves the cliffhanger on the tip of every chapter.  The “if I just would have known then…” or “that’s the last time I heard his voice..” takes the reader through a slow burn.  When the great moment comes, and even when it has left the land, the anticipation of hearing the angle of every character still heightens the book through its end. Ronsel, my second favorite character gets the last word (which is significant due to the big scene. He ends with what I believe is Jordan’s great social commentary of the book:

“But to make the story come out differently I’d have to overcome so much: birth and education and oppression, fear and deformity and shame, anyone of which is enough to defeat a man” (322).

“Coal-Is-Dirty.com”

And isn’t this true when a system is built to keep the land in the hands of the generation before.  An ownership passed down like a belief.  A tenure of laws built on the justice of making a profit.  A claim and a title that cant be read.   But those other hands, calloused and bruised, glued together so they can’t sign a name, hold another, or shake on it – we’ve used those to defeat a man before he can even grip that system to tear it down.

And this is what I like best about this book.  It’s set in WWII, two of the male characters face different life circumstances at the hands of the war, but it is not a book about WWII.  It’s a book about raising an unsettled loss into a belief system that rides one side at the helplessness of another.  I think sometimes it’s hard to see that timeline and be able to look in the mirror.  While men, good and bad, were fighting Nazis, we had laws that pursued the disregard of human beings that I would argue still dilute our waters today.  Our hands weren’t clean either.

Art by Darling Christie @Deviant Art

This book is not only brilliant because of the many voices that ring true and relentless, but because of the deep history that our society tends to neglect until it’s a major motion picture that’s not nominated for any awards.  Or until a young and powerful gymnast chooses to honor her country with her hands behind her back instead of on her heart.  Or when the media feeds 24 hour news of shootings until the cases no longer affect the populace and we just call it “another one…” Maybe this book will remind us of who belong to, each other.

(Thanks, Mother Teresa).

This Blog is My Composition Book.

Syllabus by Lynda Berry

Confession: I hate composition books.  I find them hard to keep open unless you lean your elbow on them just the right way which seems incredibly awkward. The lines are almost never college rule, but wide, and it makes me feel like my handwriting is some behemoth come to mammoth the page with its dense, dark script. RAWR!  In high school, my Mom bought me the “special” comp books that had a more rad design, but the still hard cardboard front with the scientific table in the beginning.  I always wanted to be “unique,” which really just meant against everything else that was boxed.  If she did buy the marble cover, because it was ten cents at Target, and “what a deal,” I would color weird designs into the marble until they all just blended to black together.  Hey, maybe I do like a composition book.  Maybe what ruined it was that Target started carrying Green Room notebooks and I was hooked by the subtle dotted lines.

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Breakfast with Lynda Berry

Now, everyone keeps a bullet journal.

Or a planner.

Enters a challenge on Instagram.

Takes up calligraphy.

Never doodles in the margins.

Only around the top of the page or just enough next to the amount of water you drank that day.

Copies doodles from pages of Pinterest flower doodles.

Fro, Age four, sleeping on my (note)book.

Fro, Age four, sleeping on my (note)book.

I’m not making fun of these people because I am one.  I totally google font alphabets and try to write like those talented enough to create them.  I practice fonts and get disappointed when the pen smudges, or I mess up the a in the second word, three letters in and I have to turn the page and start over.

My small human heart is full of unfinished notebooks.

And then I read Lynda Berry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.

Image from Open Culture (on Lynda Berry’s book)

In the way that I’m constantly trying to get my students to view the world in a thousand different ways, letting go of their bias (and mine) and being thoughtful global citizens, so is Lynda Berry in syllabus.  It is kind of a working syllabus for her art class that blends memory, drawing, and writing as one immovable force and that we use all three when dealing with any creative juncture.  She teaches students to to go back to childhood before our inner egos took over the page.  She draws robots, Star Wars characters, monkeys with bandanas, smoking skulls, miniatures who talk, shouting angels, all over the pages of these notes in a composition book that she then leads and leaves with her students.  She taught me that we draw the best, and the most clear, and we write the best, and the most clear, when we are forgetting completely that we are drawing or writing.  She has students draw spirals while they think about something the need to remember or watch a film.

Image from chapmancommunityoutreach.wordpress.com

Truly, she is my bow-down queen of doodling. Doodle without thinking about it.  If it ends up as a toucan in a dress with flower petal hands, let her grow.  She says we don’t know what’s there until it appears fully on the page. And that the art doesn’t care whether we’ve assigned it a title like “ugly” because it doesn’t know, it just keeps on flexing. (I wish humans could take a notion from art, brush it off, literally and figuratively).

I love how she seamlessly blends the mind with the art. She has students memorize Emily Dickinson poems, watch films on the sides of the brain, draw people using only simple shapes.  I think this is a great book on philosophy, on art, and it’s a fabulous book to use in the Language Arts classroom.  That is the debate though, isn’t it, what part of English (study) is language and what part art? Are they equal? What would that pie chart look like?

My favorite image because I feel like Lynda Berry and I are two of a kind.

My favorite image because I feel like Lynda Berry and I are two of a kind.

Lynda Berry also has a quirky little Tumblr for this class (that she currently still teachers) called The Near Sighted Monkey.  I love all the exercises for writing and drawing on here.  I plan to doodle my syllabus this year for my class.  Anyone truly interested in their own art should read this book.  It’s a book on quieting that inner critic, and returning to childhood where everything you drew, that mass of green circles, turned magically into a spinning bird before the eyes of the beholder.

Ps. the pages are chaotic and the might make you near-sighted, but it’s worth reading every little smidgen of the page.