You read a book like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and you get to thinking some bleak thoughts. Published in the 1970s, the ‘fantasy’ novel follows Dana through a time travelling slave narrative. Opening in the 1970s the reader is immediately hooked as Dana travels back in time to the pre-civil war South and finds herself – a black woman – among slavery. The mechanics of time travel in the novel are explained by virtue of the ‘kindred’ connection between Dana and her 1800something ancestor, Rufus: Dana is called back to the past each time Rufus is in danger of dying so that she can save his life; Dana is called back to the present each time her own life is in danger. Continue reading
I first heard about Ta-Nehisi Coates on an episode of This American Life. The story was about what happens when your friend makes it big and you… don’t. [Relevant episode for you to listen to as you’ll all have to deal with this question when I make it big…hahaha] I asked for his book Between the World and Me for Christmas not with any real enthusiasm for the book (after all, it’s non-fiction) but with curiosity about what kind of book could propel an author and his work to such consistent and widespread consideration, conversation and celebration. Heralded as the voice of black America, bazillions of reviews called it the book everyone should read – especially white liberal America: here, here and here. Another bazillion of reviewers are disappointed: here and here that it doesn’t go far enough, or isn’t hopeful enough, or speaks to the right people or the wrong people.
I know enough to know I don’t know enough to comment on the content of the book with any nuance or authority. I can only comment on the experience of reading it and that was the entire time felt like I was reading something urgent. Not written for me (the book is addressed to his son -though the people-who-think-they-are-white, liberal audience is called forward throughout) the book does the work of educating on systemic racism and the material effects on black bodies. It also straddles a frustrated pessimism and a call to action: articulating the intractability and pervasiveness of structural racism and nevertheless urging his son/the readers to struggle. While the explicit call to action isn’t included (nor does it need to be), the reflection it demands and the likelihood you will both tell someone else to read it and talk to them about it is it’s own kind of clarion call.
I have been known to get carried away in recommending books. I have said out loud on more than one occasion ‘this is the best book you will ever read.’ About different books. And I was going to start this post by saying Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune is the best book I’ll read in 2016. But then I picked up H is for Hawk this morning and now all bets are off. It’s probably better to stop ranking things (this is good advice all round, actually) and accept that there might just be many books that are very, very good and worth pausing whatever you’re doing in order to read (just as there are many pies worth eating and why do we need to have a best one? Because best lists are the best that’s why. And obviously raspberry. Oh fine, let’s carry on with having bests).
ANYWAY. So the book. Continue reading
I wish the back of the book hadn’t given away the turning point of the novel. But it did, and so I will, too: Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird follows our protagonist – Boy – as she flees the home of her ratcatcher father, marries a jeweller with a daughter, Snow (“white as snow”), has a baby – Bird – who is black. Her husband, Arturo, has been passing as white. That’s the first half of the story. The rest of the book is taken up with how this trifecta of Boy, Snow, Bird experiences the world, family and identity. Mixed up with the questions of what to do with her own sense of familial history and desire (what are the scales of secrets?).
I didn’t love the novel. I wasn’t taken with the quasi-mystery and fantastical tone. I didn’t particularly like Boy, and so found it hard to care about the complexities of being her. Maybe I’d have liked the book more narrated from Snow or Bird? Actually, to be honest, I stopped reading three quarters of the way through and so maybe there is a sudden shift in point of view that makes the whole thing that much better? I’ll never know (unless you tell me in the comments!), but I do know that it wasn’t the book for me. (Though if you take your reviews from the New York Times – it’s the book for many, many others).