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Lift Every Voice and Heal – Review of When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an essay arguing against affirmative action in the college admissions process. Rooted in the belief that non-white students deserve to be treated exactly the same as white students, I argued that the only true way to achieve this kind of equality was through a merit-based system. I competed in the original oratory event at forensics (public speaking) competitions several times that year, and I contended each time that affirmative action was not beneficial because it wouldn’t actively undo the oppression my peers’ ancestors had gone through. It was an inadequate apology at best, and at worst, a reduction of hardworking students to statistics on the page. I won 3rd place at the state-level competition that year, and I reveled in my win.

I didn’t know then how naive I was.

I was educated, both in the classroom and outside of it, to believe that I lived in a post-racial country, and that oppression and segregation were relics of a bygone era. The movement for racial equality started and stopped with the acquisition of new amendments and laws in my mind and in my textbook. I truly didn’t understand that many of my peers were held back because they didn’t have access to the resources I did, and that this lack of resources was a deliberate attempt by those in power to keep other groups down. When I graduated that spring with a handful of medals and trophies from various forensics competitions, throughout which not one adult called me out on the inaccuracy of my argument, I didn’t know what Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ story asserts in When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir: that Americans “rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact.”

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Written by Patrisse Khan-Cullors,  who founded the Black Lives Matter movement with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, and asha bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist is an unapologetic indictment of this country’s culture and a rallying battle call for all of us to step out of our comfort zones and into the truth of black America. The memoir focuses in on pivotal moments and relationships in Khan-Cullors’ life and how those shaped her into the activist and artist she is today.

Art and Health = Vital to Movement & Healing

In their discussion of the origins and evolution of Black Lives Matter, Khan-Cullors and bandele take you behind the scenes in Ferguson, just weeks after Michael Brown is shot and killed in August 2014. Many of us remember reading and hearing about the protests that erupted there and all around the country, but what wasn’t visible to us on the news and online were the deliberate efforts to take care of the protesters, to ensure their mental and emotional well-being after weeks of intense grief and anger.

The organizers of Black Lives Matter not only coordinated a Freedom Ride into the city for their first in-person protest, they created a “healing justice space” for protesters to recover in a church basement. This converted basement offered therapy, an art station for people to express themselves silently, a physical place to just rest. bandele and Khan-Cullors write that “…in the fullness of our humanity, we need this, too, along with protests.” They needed a “place to restore.”

The fact that BLM took the time and energy to create such a space is a testament to the depth and power of this movement and its extraordinary leadership. Every organization, professional or volunteer, should prioritize this type of creative restoration for its members, particularly when there’s trauma involved. After working for several years as an educator, I’ve seen that the most impactful teachers and school leaders are the ones who actively encourage our students, regardless of their behavior in the classroom, to express themselves emotionally. Every human needs this kind of deliberate emotional healing, and I love that Khan-Cullors and Black Lives Matter made it a key part of their first in-person protest.

Consumable Yet Uncomfortable: A Non-Fiction Surprise

I have to admit, reading non-fiction and writing about it is a challenge for me. It usually takes me weeks to get through any non-fiction read, regardless of subject matter. As a child, I read books to escape the gloom of adolescence and school, so I naturally gravitated to fiction, a genre that allowed me to easily surrender myself to completely foreign worlds. Non-fiction does not allow me to do that. I find my feet firmly planted in truth and reality, both revelatory and uncomfortable, and I can’t inhale it in a matter of hours. So while I’ve started reading more non-fiction, in an attempt to understand things about the very real world around me, I would usually much rather pick up a good fiction book instead.

It took me less than 24 hours to finish When They Call You a Terrorist.

While their writing is dotted with historical anecdotes, documents, and statistics, very much in the vein of Morgan Jerkins’ This Will Be My Undoing, Khan-Cullors and bandele create a searing and profoundly lyrical story about the birth of Black Lives Matter, and more particularly, about the life of one of its founders. They draw beautifully intimate portraits of the people in Khan-Cullors’ life, from her brother Monte to her biological father Gabriel, and by the time I finished the book, not only was I more fully invested in the movement, I simply wanted Khan-Cullors to be happy. I wanted everyone in her life to be happy and successful. Isn’t that the mark of any great book, whose characters and words you fall in love with? This memoir invites empathy, because it does what any good piece of popular fiction does – it brings you into the story, and it breaks your heart.  

When They Call You a Terrorist is not a comfortable read in any sense of the word, but it’s not supposed to be. bandele and Khan-Cullors know what they’re doing with their words, and they’re not here to sugarcoat the fact that black men, women, and children still suffer daily at the hands of modern American systems and structures. They’re here to remind us that the idea that “black lives DON’T matter” is pervasive in the way we depict black Americans in the media, the way we discuss their culture, and a myriad of other ways. I was upset throughout the book, and while I did have to put it down a few times during those 24 hours to digest and temporarily recover, it was only a matter of minutes before I picked it back up again. When They Call You a Terrorist isn’t comfortable, but its writing and storytelling draw you in on every page.

My Verdict:

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is an incredible and profound read. Read this book. Buy this book. Share this book. If this past year of American life and politics has taught me anything, it’s that we need to be sharing and uplifting the perspectives and narratives of marginalized citizens, especially when they’re saying something that causes us discomfort. Thank you, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, for giving us this story.

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Let’s Joyfully Destroy That Patriarchy: Review of Sister Outsider

The best recommendations I’ve ever gotten for new books or writers have come to me not from fellow readers, but from the authors whose stories have stayed with me over the years. I had heard Audre Lorde’s name before as an English major at UVA, but I never sought out any of her work until I read that two of my favorite poets, Joy Harjo and Adrienne Rich, both listed her as one of their favorite writers. Rich and Lorde have had multiple conversations discussing writing and racism, and Harjo dedicated a typically gorgeous poem about survival to Lorde. Seeing both of these women, whose works have inspired me so much, endorse Audre Lorde drew me to the incredible catalogue of writing that Lorde created in her lifetime. And I thank them so much for it.

Published in 1984, Sister Outsider documents a collection of speeches and essays curated by Lorde over an eight-year span. I can’t articulate how seminal of a collection this is. Chimimanda Adichie wrote that We Should All Be Feminists, and if you consider yourself a feminist who wants to upend the racist patriarchy we live in, you should read Sister Outsider. Lorde’s experiences as a black lesbian poet and activist inform every moment of this volume. Sister Outsider serves as a crucial reminder that even in the 30+ years that have transpired since its publication, we have a lot to learn from Lorde and other visionaries of her time.

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Erik Killmonger Should Have Read This Book

Yes, Lorde is so relevant that her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” applies to the core philosophical debate in Black Panther. It’s one of the shorter essays in this volume, and in it Lorde discusses the tendency of American academics to separate women’s experiences into categories like race, age, class, sexual orientation, etc. Lorde cuts through this tendency immediately by demanding intersectionality, and argues that in our country, “racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable,” as are the experiences of race, age, class, and sexuality. If we want progress, we cannot use the tools of an oppressive patriarchy (racism, etc.) to take down the patriarchy. Lorde maintains that instead, we must “recognize difference as a crucial strength” and create new tools. New tools include understanding each other because of our differences and not in spite of them, and accepting that the existence of differences does not mean one group is more dominant than the other. These tools are the way to take the patriarchy down.

(minor spoilers for Black Panther ahead that you can probably glean from movie trailers, so just keep reading)

So now, Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it yet, WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE. The primary antagonist (not villain) of the film is Michael B. Jordan in the role of Erik Killmonger. Killmonger wants to take the vibranium-rich technology of Wakanda and give it to all the oppressed peoples of the world, so they can rise up and oppress their oppressors. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, king of Wakanda, wants to continue with tradition and keep their advancements safe from the general shittiness of the world. Since Killmonger grew up in the United States and witnessed the centuries-long crimes against his black brothers and sisters, it’s easy to understand how and why he developed his agenda (and there are other spoilery reasons for his anger as well). And even though Killmonger’s intentions are good, because he chooses the tools of the master (oppression) rather than cultivating new tools, the movie sides with T’Challa. Because director Ryan Coogler KNOWS Audre Lorde, or at least this particular argument, he knows that if you want to take down the master’s house, you’re going to need a whole new toolbox.

Eros as The Ultimate Creative Force (Nerds, Unite!)

The relevance of Sister Outsider not only extends to modern-day conversations about America’s racial inequality, it bleeds into discourse about we can improve our daily, personal lives. Lorde unexpectedly upends our understanding of the erotic and addresses the lack of creativity in our society in “Uses of the Erotic.” The traditional Greek concept of eros is defined as romantic or passionate love. Lorde argues that by historically attaching this idea to only personal, sexual relationships, we have created a world in which we feel less joy. By opening the bedroom door and unleashing eros from being chained to only sexual pursuits, Lorde recreates a world in which we are passionately in love with all aspects of our lives, “whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.”

Despite the number of affirming coffee mugs and hashtags we use every day, I can’t say that I know too many people who actually live their lives with this kind of passionate love. I know that I don’t, for a number of reasons. We are socialized not only to respect fear, as Lorde iterates, but also to accept a sense of painstaking boredom. We push the passionate and the romantic to the fringes of society, and deem them obsessive and “other.” For the longest time, our pop culture icons and idealized heroes have been haughty and aloof, uninterested and therefore “cool.” It hasn’t been acceptable to be passionate. Thankfully, the tide is changing. Shows like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory are bringing nerds to the foreground of our culture. Nerds in my mind are the ultimate passionate players, because they do what they do simply because it brings them joy. It’s a lot cooler now to be passionately in love with our lives, whether they involve cosplay or not. I’d like to think that Lorde would celebrate nerds as highly erotic beings. So, feel more joy, friends. Read that book. Sing that song. Climb that mountain. Do it with the same level of passion and intensity we associate with the boudoir.

My Verdict:

There are thirteen other pieces in Sister Outsider, and Audre Lorde’s genius is radiant in every single one. Her writing transcends her time period and provides specific and prolific insights on how to live intersectionally and joyfully. If you, like me, want to live that kind of life, read Sister Outsider. We still have a lot of work to do.

 

Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash

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There’s A New MJ in Town: Review of This Will Be My Undoing

Reading is highly subjective. We all know this. So for me, the stories that I love most are those that allow the ordinary, everyday experiences of human life to commune with the divine. Writers whose stories oscillate easily between micro and macro, and who center their characters, real or fictional, with feet firmly rooted in history and the present-day are the ones I return to again and again. In her first essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins intricately unfolds formative moments in her life and grapples with the decidedly non-monolithic concept of a “black woman,” and is the most extraordinary voice I’ve come across in a long time.

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An Education for EVERYONE

Near the end of her first piece titled “Monkeys Like You,” Jerkins tells us that this collection of ten personal essays is for everyone. “It is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary.”

I know what you’re thinking. A lot of authors say this. Every modern artist creating today wants their work to be consumed and appreciated by as many people as possible. They try and craft an experience that is marketable to every audience.  But from what I’ve read and seen, very few artists are actually able to do this, because the artists want to be marketable, they also want to be unique, and their endeavors to be unique often box their art into niches that can only be accessed and enjoyed by a select few. But like I told you in the title, there’s a new virtuoso in town, because Morgan Jerkins is one of those artists.

This collection is obviously about an experience of being black and female in America. Jerkins says so in the title. Each essay is a personal endeavor into deeply intimate moments of Jerkins’ life, from being called a monkey after trying out for her elementary school cheerleading team to her stepfather’s death, and each one incorporates Jerkins’ black and female identities and their shaping of those experiences. But her prose is so elegantly consumable that she transcends any barriers of understanding that might exist between her words and the reader.

There are no throwaway sentences in this book. Each word is precisely chosen and weaved into a narrative that is both a history lesson as well as a portrait of an artist as a young woman. Jerkins is a writer reminiscent of bell hooks, whose intellect shines on the page. She pores over and pours into her ideas with a depth of a woman three times her age (she graduated from Princeton in 2014), but her stories remain accessible and grounded in a language that anyone can read and enjoy.

A Journey through Time and Space

It’s challenging to write about this essay collection without giving away all of the interesting bits of Jerkins’ work (which is honestly all of it). She writes a beautiful letter to Michelle Obama in “A Lotus for Michelle” and thanks her for giving her an “actual image of black ascendancy,” all while enduring years of ridicule rooted in racism against black female bodies. She unapologetically embraces her own body and hair in “The Stranger at the Carnival,” and delves into the historical implications of language surrounding black hair, with loaded words like “kinky” and “nappy.” She exquisitely navigates the black identity politics of inhabiting the physical space of Harlem after growing up in white-centric New Jersey in “Human, Not Black.” And while these are all topically fascinating, it’s Jerkins’ abilities as a true artisan of language that makes her stories extraordinary.

Jerkins’ writing undulates inward and outward constantly, from her own microcosmic existence as a black woman just trying to emotionally and physically survive to the macrocosmic, centuries-long trajectory that led her mind, body, and spirit to this time. The historical oppression of her ancestors and the modern-day ramifications of that oppression exist side by side on the page, but it’s never burdensome for the reader, because Jerkins doesn’t allow it to be. She dexterously moves between time and space in her storytelling, and conveys a wisdom that is both educational and inspiring.

In “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace,” Morgan Jerkins creates a step-by-step guide for black women on how to maneuver through this world while preserving their mind and spirit. At one point, she reminds them that they are not alone, and that there is always someone out there rooting for them. She says, “There is a cosmic wavelength of our universal spirit” that binds black women together. Jerkins taps into that wavelength with every word of her outstanding essays.

My Verdict:

Every great genius has her beginning, that moment of introduction when everyone else looks up and says, “Whoa. We’ve never seen this before.” This Will Be My Undoing is Morgan Jerkins’ beginning, and you owe it to yourself as a citizen of this world to read her words.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

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Black Readers Matter: Review of The Hate U Give

Some books don’t need an introduction, an engrossing connection to “my life” as a reader/blogger and what I’ve been doing with it. The Hate U Give is one of those books.

(very mild spoilers ahead)

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Written by first-time novelist Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give opens with protagonist Starr Carter at a party in her Garden Heights neighborhood. What begins as your average high school party quickly devolves into the worst situation imaginable: Starr screaming in a car as she watches a police officer shoot her childhood friend Khalil three times in the chest. Khalil dies of his wounds, and Starr and their community are left reeling. The rest of the novel follows Starr as she tries to grieve for and do justice by her friend and navigate a world that has just gotten a lot bigger.

Thomas started writing this story following the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009, whose final day was chronicled in Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station. And while many writers, politicians, activists, and global citizens have written in response to and because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formally established four years later after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Thomas’s direct and powerful appeal to the black youth of this country sets her words apart from the rest.

Confronting Friends When They’re Being Offensive

Most of the young and older people I know, including myself, have little to no idea how to confront their friends about things that bother them. Most of us are not trained to have constructive and direct conversations with our peers, and we tend to hide behind our screens and rely on passivity to convey our frustrations, even if our frustrations are minor. So I was mesmerized and impressed when Starr, whose prep school friends have no idea that she was the witness to Khalil’s shooting, decides to assert herself and ask her white friend Hailey about her offensive behavior and language about people of color.

The resulting conversations are fraught and painful, but are so incredibly essential to the message of The Hate U Give: the only thing that will move this world forward is speaking up and out about injustice. Starr very easily could have ignored her friend and cut her toxicity out of her life altogether, but Angie Thomas instead creates a protagonist that chooses to reflect on her friendship and faces everything that is uncomfortable and painful head-on, which gives younger readers everywhere a character who is both relatable and inspiring.

Choosing Languages

Starr Carter belongs to two very different worlds in The Hate U Give. One is her neighborhood, Garden Heights, which encompasses the majority of her family and their predominantly African-American community. The other is her mostly-white, affluent prep school, where she fits in by suppressing any part of herself that makes her seem like a stereotypical black girl. For Starr, this means speaking one language in Garden Heights, and a completely different language at school. Starr says early in the novel “Slang makes them [her non-black classmates] cool. Slang makes [me] hood.” Starr “holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the angry black girl.”

As someone who grew up hearing and attempting to speak Bengali at home and switching to English at school, this internal rift created by language really resonated with me as a reader. There are some ideas, to this day, which I feel can only be expressed accurately with Bengali words, and I find myself stuttering to reorient my brain to explain myself in English. But while Starr’s struggle resonates with my bilingual brain, her conflict is much more rooted in racism and the way we as a country determine what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” for public consumption.

As a teacher who worked for primarily Hispanic and black kids, I can’t tell you how many times I was instructed or encouraged to make sure that they expressed themselves “professionally” at school. I learned quickly that “professional” didn’t just mean no cursing or demeaning language, it meant no cultural slang. I disregarded this for the most part, and stuck to ensuring that my students felt safe and comfortable being themselves in my classroom. While these instructions might sound well-intended, because of course we want students to be successful in school and in the real world, asking them to change the way they speak when their words aren’t harmful is just another way of ostracizing them.

Starr censors herself because she’s already not like most of the kids in her school, in terms of her race, cultural background, and financial means. But Angie Thomas is hitting on something here that is prevalent across the United States: we are telling kids, both through implicit and explicit messaging, who aren’t white that their language isn’t normal or acceptable, even when it’s still English. This is mind-boggling, because how can we expect students to actually attain success and feel that success when they’re not being themselves?

Non-Black People, This Book is Not FOR You (and That’s Okay)

They say that once you write a book, the work is no longer yours. It belongs to whoever is reading it, and those readers will shape what the book becomes in this world. I love The Hate U Give it for its humor, for its completely raw emotion, for its insights into a community that isn’t mine but is American. I love everything about this book, but it’s not mine. Angie Thomas didn’t write it for me. She didn’t write it for the mostly white publishing industry who gave it rave reviews. Angie Thomas wrote it to validate and uplift the black kids living in fear in America today.

Starr Carter tells us in the second chapter of the book that she had two big milestone conversations with her parents when she was twelve. One was about sex, and the other was about what you should do if a cop stops you. When I read this, I knew this book doesn’t belong to every reader, it belongs to black readers. My parents never had to sit me down and tell me, “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.” This conversation, like the one about sex, is one given out necessity. But I would bet everything that I own that this conversation isn’t a rite of passage in every American household.

The Hate U Give literally gives space to African-American readers to exist and breathe without fear. Thomas validates the complexity of this community with every word that Starr speaks or shouts, and each chapter of this book reminds her young, black audience that they are worthy of being seen and listened to. Simply put, Thomas is telling her readers that she sees them, she hears them, and that they matter.

My Verdict:

Anyone, regardless of race, creed, or origin can read this book and find something to love about it. Thomas draws a brilliant protagonist that we can all learn from in Starr Carter and makes you think about what we define as acceptable language in this country. And while I hope you all take the time to read this book, don’t forget what Thomas is trying to tell us: black readers matter, and so do black lives.

Photo by Sticker You on Unsplash

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All You Need Is Self-Love – Review of Communion: The Female Search For Love

It physically pains me to say this, but I used to hate feminists.

I can distinctly recall talking on the phone with my sister while at college one afternoon. I remember rolling my eyes at the word “feminist” – like, why weren’t we all just equalists? Or humanists? What was the point in dividing people further with words like feminist?

Yeah, I used to be that person. Not in an overt way, but I used to think that we were past the point of fighting for basic rights, and for dignity and equal treatment under the law and in the eyes of our fellow humans. I didn’t think the feminist struggle was relevant anymore. I leaned away from the idea that I was inherently set up to fail in comparison to my male peers. After taking a slew of gender studies courses at UVA, I began to understand the systemic barriers, both social and political, that society has constructed over the past centuries. I will be forever grateful to those classes and those teachers, because without them, I don’t know if I would have ever realized that our fight to dismantle gendered norms and systems is far from over.

Thankfully, I have seen the light. But I’m troubled by the fact that I existed for 20 years on this planet and didn’t have this knowledge. I don’t want the next generation of children, whether they’re mine or not, to not have this knowledge. So, it is one of my many goals to share what I have learned with everyone I meet, especially young people. And now, having read Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks, I feel better equipped to do just that.

 

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Written as the conclusion to a trilogy all about the act of love, Communion chronicles hooks’ journey through the inception of the feminist movement in the United States and seeks to expand how feminism directly impacted the way men and women think and act about love. As is obvious by the subtitle, hooks focuses specifically on the way women perceive and react to love, and how our patriarchal culture subverts women from even being the caregivers and nurturers that they are “supposed” to be.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Communion offers extraordinary insight on every single page, and I could write for days about what I have learned from hooks and the wisdom she has accrued throughout her life. But, for your sake and for my own, I’ll stick to talking about the things that really shook me to my core, and transported me back to the good ol’ days of having my mind blown in gender studies.

Men Were All For Feminism – Until They Got to the Bedroom

hooks unleashes her wisdom carefully and precisely throughout her book. You learn about her upbringing with different types of male figures, and also about her romantic relationships with men when she grows older. She details the different strengths and weaknesses of those sexual relationships, and lets loose a cold, hard truth about even the most progressive male partners in that era of female revolution: men, for the most part, did NOT like hearing no in the bedroom. They could deal with women climbing the ranks professionally and demanding equal pay, but as soon a woman expressed a desire to, I don’t know, actually have ownership over her sexuality and her body, men were no longer on board with the whole feminism thing. After revealing this insight, hooks begins repeating her manifesto of “There is no love without justice” – meaning that if you’re not able to make sexual choices, as well as all other choices, freely and without interference from your partner, you are not in a loving relationship.

Growing Together = The Whole Freaking Point of Love

I have to admit, there is a LOT to unpack in this volume. Each chapter is its own spiral of ideas, and while hooks is making excellent and interesting points on every page, it can be easy to get lost along the various twists and turns of her story. I found myself wondering several times through my reading of Communion: “When is she going to tell me what love is?” And friends, you have to be patient, because hooks’ answer is not in boldfaced letters, or the title of a chapter, or even the title of a section within a chapter. hooks’ understanding of a truly loving relationship is one in which “mutual growth and development [are] the primary agenda.”

This isn’t necessarily the most earth-shattering revelation. Romantic or otherwise, I think that most people become aware, at some point in their lives, that the best relationships in our lives are the ones in which we grow and the other person grows too as a result of being together. But in the case of Communion, hooks discloses this in context of the patriarchal society in which we live. The patriarchy assigns the dominion of love and caregiving to women, but then doesn’t actively value those ideals, so women don’t even know how to be the caregivers we’re “supposed” to be. hooks is positive that women want to love and be loved, but because the patriarchy doesn’t take those things seriously, women don’t know how to go about doing those things in a healthy and adequate way. There is no handbook for women on how to fulfill these patriarchal expectations, and men certainly aren’t trained to be emotional paragons either. So hooks’ main question is not the definition of love, as I thought it would be. Her main question is: how can women learn to love?

Women Have to Love Themselves and Each Other

 hooks says it best in the middle of Communion: “Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin.” And I think we all can agree with that idea pretty easily, especially with phrases like “self care” being thrown around all the time. But agreeing with the idea isn’t the issue for hooks. We have to implement and practice this self love daily, and constantly, because guess what? We still live in a deeply problematic patriarchy, where female self-care is still seen by some as an indulgence rather than as a necessity. hooks actually uses the words “constant vigilance” when describing the degree to which women have to watch them and the way in which they speak and act about their bodies and spirits and minds. Professor Moody would be proud.

Female self-love doesn’t end with the self. The book is called Communion for a reason, because hooks asserts that women who truly love themselves also surround themselves with others who are doing the same thing. She doesn’t deny the value of romantic relationships with other women, or heterosexual ones for that matter, but hooks is clear that a circle of love where you “come together and share your gifts” is the only way in which to experience life, and ultimately, fight back against that damn patriarchy.

My Verdict:

Y’all, read this book. Thanks to the depth and intricacy of hooks’ argument, Communion is like Game of Thrones for anyone who is interested in understanding patriarchy, the role of women and men in the feminist movement, and how we can use feminism to better our country and ourselves.

 

Cover photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

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Mandatory Reading for All American Citizens: Review of Americanah

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversations lately, namely the conversations Americans are willing to have and not willing to have with their fellow citizens or residents. Conversations about politics and Confederate statues and race relations and a million other crucial topics. Sure, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are alight with these discussions, with various pundits or concerned citizens adding their voices to the backlit void. But what happens when we turn off our phones and return to our off-screen lives, to our jobs and our bills and our personal struggles?

Maybe this is a rhetorical question. But I know that I wrestle with verbal incoherence every day, especially in regards to these kinds of charged exchanges. I believe deeply in the necessity of speaking about our experiences and perspectives, and listening to others’ narratives. Only through these dialogues can we overcome the illusion of our differences and begin to understand each other’s struggles. Despite this fervent belief, I still find myself without words these days, and I turn to books to help me find them. And if I could create a syllabus with the intent of spurring American citizens, including myself, to finally engage with each other and talk about everything that we need to be talking about right now, Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie would be at the top of the list.

There are some books that are simply unclassifiable, because they do so much that shouldn’t be possible within the covers of any one novel. Americanah is one of these books. Ostensibly a love story between Nigerian-born Ifemelu and Obinze, both of whom find themselves on different immigrant journeys to America and the UK, Americanah takes readers on a deeply moving journey between continents and the barriers that we construct to protect ourselves and our hearts.

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A Living Stream of Consciousness

Adichie’s writing is absolutely transportive. She creates a narrative rooted in memory and conversations, and weaves seamlessly between past and present so well that you feel that your mind is Ifemelu’s or Obinze’s. Adichie centers the reader firmly in the sensory and mental experiences of her protagonists, and manages to pull you into their consciousness, without pause or apology. She pulls off the feat that every writer is trying to accomplish – she makes you walk around in her character’s skin, and feel what they’re feeling. And the wonderful thing about this? You forget that you didn’t grow up in Lagos, Nigeria, and you forget that you’re not the immigrant struggling with the acquisition of blackness in the United States. This forgetting is not insignificant or commonplace – you are truly able to relate to Ifemelu and Obinze through the incredibly nuanced and detailed world that Adichie builds. She invites you to join in the ultimate human act – empathy.

Not Just Any Love Story

It would be easy to reduce this book to the romance between Ifemelu and Obinze, because their relationship is beautiful. Their immediate, soulful connection begins when they’re both in secondary school, and they have a deep appreciation of the other from very early on. When political upheaval in Nigeria prevents them from getting the education they need (due to a series of strikes at their university), Ifemelu and Obinze are forced to part ways – Ifemelu immigrates to the U.S., and Obinze finds himself in London.

 As a proud connoisseur and avid lover of love stories, I find myself always waiting for the two romantic leads to find their way back to each other and resume the magic of their love affair. The remarkable thing about this particular story, however, is that Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s journeys back into each other’s lives are vastly better and more interesting than their actual romance. Reading about Ifemelu navigating America’s complicated avoidance of race, watching Obinze get caught up in the complicated wealth structure in Lagos, experiencing them both traverse romantic and familial relationships – that’s where this novel shines. So yes, hooray for love and pining and the one that got away, but I’ll take Adichie’s searing insights into race, personal identity, and assimilation over romance every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Intersectionality At Its Finest

Great storytelling is good storytelling on drugs, because it takes an already good story and textures it with layers and layers of the most inexplicable yet essential facets of human life on this earth. Americanah is great storytelling. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie is at her best in this novel when she’s leading you through Ifemelu’s life. Simply put, she is a Nigerian immigrant woman trying to sustain a life and get an education in the United States. Adichie never tries to extricate Ifemelu from these different “labels” or “identities,” because she understands that to be human, you must be a deeply complicated combination of layers, each of which is more convoluted and treacherous than the last.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary added the word “intersectionality” to its pages this past April, and defines it as “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect.” The dictionary goes out of its way to iterate that this term especially relates to “the experiences of marginalized people or groups,” – and this distinction makes this idea especially relevant for Americanah and the conversations I wish we would have more often in America.

Adichie’s story is both intersectional and provocative, because it’s not just about the female experience (with all of its glories and woes), or about the experience of being/becoming black in America, or about the immigrant experience. Americanah is about all of these elements working together to both impede and nourish people of color. Adichie makes it clear that no one narrative is correct or complete on its own, and we should use this novel as a tool to navigate our own dialogues in this country.

My Verdict

Americanah is a transformative, life-changing novel. It transports you into the very bodies that inhabit its pages and compels you to breathe with and live inside of Obinze and Ifemelu. It reminds you that love is good, but learning how to live and learn as an individual self is necessary too. And finally, Americanah lays the groundwork for understanding the diverse world that we live in, and helps us accept the sometimes ludicrous notion that the only way to understand others is to listen to others, without superimposing personal belief or judgment.

Cover photo by Dc Lovensky on Unsplash

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Finding the Extraordinary in Everyday Life: Review of Always and Forever, Lara Jean

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t realize that today’s eclipse was a serious thing. I mean, I believed it was happening because I believe in science, unlike some people in our government, but I missed the fact that solar eclipses don’t come around very often and today is a pretty big deal. Don’t worry, I borrowed my husband’s eclipse glasses (which are seriously so unimpressive), caught my glimpse of the moon passing over the sun, and successfully avoided #fomo.

But how did I almost miss this? How did I not realize that #SolarEclipse17 is important and not just some other day in human history? Because I feel like every day of this year has somehow become a huge deal. I have become so caught up in the batshit craziness that is American politics, and I feel like every single day adds a new item to the mile-long list of Crazy Important Things I need to keep track of in my head. These past few weeks in particular have been absolutely ridiculous. I’m not that surprised that I kind of brushed this eclipse aside, because honestly, it was just another extraordinary thing happening in a world that has been wracked by the abnormal and insane recently.

I’m a little tired of thinking about rare eclipses and impending nuclear war and white supremacists marching across the grounds of my alma mater, because it’s just too much. I also believe that the best stories explore what is extraordinary about mundane human life, which, if this were any other year, would be the norm. So I’m here to share my review of a deliciously delightful YA novel which does just that. Jenny Han unfolds the special and completely inimitable time that is high school senior year in her novel titled Always and Forever, Lara Jean.

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This novel is the third installment in a trilogy that includes To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You. The three books follow Korean-American Lara Jean Covey and her romantic entanglements growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia. I highly recommend reading the first two books before diving into this one, because not doing so would be a reading sin, but this book is particularly special and is such a satisfying and realistic finale to a beautiful series.

Boys are Great, But Sisters Are the Best

Lara Jean meets her boyfriend Peter Kavinsky in the first novel of the series, and let me tell you, Han really knows how to create an absolutely charming romantic lead. Peter is handsome, silly slash witty, and complements Lara Jean’s quirkiness with his effortless charisma. Their chemistry has you rooting for them as they navigate the stress of senior year together.

But where Jenny Han really shines is in her ability to root Lara Jean in her sisterhood. Lara Jean’s relationships with her younger sister Kitty and her older sister Margot completely trump her romance with Peter. I loved reading about how these three young women who have completely different personalities work through family life together, whether it involves their dad getting remarried to a neighbor or supporting Lara Jean when she doesn’t get into the University of Virginia. As someone who has two sisters, I rarely read about sibling relationships that are just as complicated and important as romantic relationships, especially in YA literature.

Young Adults Are People Too

As a former teacher and as a proud consumer of YA novels, I hate it when writers or people in general treat young people as if their concerns and their values aren’t fully evolved and thus aren’t that important. I hear more often than not about teenagers and how obsessed they are with their phones and social media and they’re not ready for the real world. And it’s so irritating, because it’s as if we’ve all forgotten what it really means to be young.

Jenny Han hasn’t forgotten. In fact, she cherishes her characters and their youth. She gives them authentic teenage voices, curse words and all, instead of giving them John Green-esque monologues that make them sound like aged professors. Han also revels in the sparkly excitement of senior year. From fun class trips to New York to dancing at prom, Lara Jean’s enthusiasm about it all shines on the page, and it’s because Jenny Han knows that teenagers are actual people and are allowed to feel what they’re feeling without judgment.

So What’s Next? A Fear of the Unknown

Jenny Han knows how to create amazing characters and relationships, and her love for them breathes on the page and makes the reader love them too. But the most important thing that she does in this book is expose the fear and anxiety about the future that lurk behind the excitement of senior year. Lara Jean plans on going to UVA with her boyfriend Peter, and she is thrilled about the prospect of being with him and living near home during her college years. But as we all know, the universe doesn’t really care about your plans. She doesn’t get into UVA, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s world is completely turned upside down.

I cannot give Jenny Han enough credit for this plot choice. It’s such an ordinary and real problem that real students go through, but you don’t necessarily encounter it that often in YA literature. Lara Jean’s fear of the unknown has nothing to do with vampires or fighting to the death in the Hunger Games – her fear is not knowing what her life will be like without her boyfriend and her family nearby because she didn’t get into her first choice school. And reading about that and her anxieties about making sure she’s making the right choice for herself is extraordinary because it’s not extraordinary. It’s a situation that thousands of kids across the country go through every year. And I love that Han makes that the “obstacle” of this novel, because it’s a real one, and it’s a surmountable one.

My Verdict:

 Always and Forever, Lara Jean wins on so many levels. You’ll fall in love with Lara Jean, her cute boyfriend and her even more awesome sisters. You’ll remember that being young isn’t so bad. And you’ll realize that there doesn’t have to be an eclipse or a tweetstorm from the leader of your country in order to make your day extraordinary. Sometimes you’ll find the extraordinary in the everyday lives of real people, with their very relatable problems.

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash

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High School Just Really Sucks: Review of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

It is a truth universally acknowledged that attending high school in the United States just completely blows. The best, and by best I mean the least harsh, description I’ve heard of someone’s high school experience is “meh, it wasn’t too bad, but I wouldn’t go back for anything.” If THAT is the top of the totem pole, then I think I’m right in saying that no one truly leaves high school completely unscathed. It is a damaging, annoying time to be alive. Everyone cares too much about completely everything, even about the smallest things that shouldn’t matter. We haven’t learned yet to let things go.

At that ripe young age, right before you’re able to spread your wings and figure out who you really are and what you want, everything matters. What you wear, the grades you get, the friends you have – it ALL matters SO MUCH. Kids walk around, stuck in their heads, so aware of how they’re being seen, and they’re bouncing off their classmates who are all doing the exact same thing. High school is a swirling vortex of hormones and other people’s opinions, and you’re lucky if you get out with a “meh, it wasn’t too bad.”

Cuban-American author Meg Medina transports you back to this unforgettable time in Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Her lead character Piddy Sanchez undoubtedly does not escape the horrors of her high school experience with a “meh.” Piddy, short for Piedad, finds herself at a new school and immediately the object of  an unknown girl’s (Yaqui Delgado) attention. A classmate tells Piddy on page 1 that Yaqui most likely doesn’t like that Piddy “shakes her ass” so much (a side effect of too much dancing with her mom’s BFF Lila), and that Yaqui, well, wants to kick her ass.

Yaqui book cover

What follows this revelation is Piddy’s anxiety-ridden journey, a deft navigation through the horrors of modern-day bullying, the power of female friendships, and Medina’s insight into a colorful, vocal chorus of beautifully individual voices.

A World of Fear

Medina does something incredibly crucial in her portrayal of Piddy’s harassment in this story – she focuses on Piddy’s atmospheric fear rather than on the physical violence she endures. Piddy’s fear of Yaqui and what she or her friends might do permeates every part of her life, and lurks behind every conversation or thought that she has. It doesn’t stop when she leaves school and gets home, or when she decides to skip school to avoid Yaqui – the terror hangs around her, constantly.

It’s really easy to tell kids that are being bullied to “move on” or “ignore it,” but many kids don’t have the emotional equipment yet to ignore bullying AND deal with their anxiety about it. Meg Medina reminds you that bullying is not an isolated thing in a young person’s life – it is systemic and is a physical weight that victims carry with them everywhere. Piddy is no exception, and while the violence she goes though is horrific and follows her everywhere (especially when her tormentor uploads a video to YouTube), her emotional fear hits you the hardest. This depiction of anxiety as normal is so important, especially for younger readers who might be dealing with something similar to Piddy’s struggle.

Thank God for Salón Corazón

While Piddy’s journey with being bullied is the crux of this story, Medina does a wonderful job of juxtaposing that storyline with Piddy’s relationships outside of school. You get to experience Piddy’s evolving friendship with Mitzi, her best friend who now attends school on Long Island and is living a very different life. There is of course a cute love interest by the name of Joey, who plays a small but important role in the story. But for me, the shining jewel of these relationships comes in the form of Piddy’s mother Clara, Lila, and the cast of Latina women that frequent Salón Corazón.

Real Voices Having Real Conversations

My favorite thing about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is Medina’s command of how her characters sound. This novel is bursting with unique and complex women, and none of these characters sound alike. You can hear the lives the women at the hair salon have lived in their conversations. Lila is as vivacious as Clara is restrained, and the way they speak reminds you that they are real women who exist in our world. Their shared community exists in complete contrast to the clique-filled, competitive halls of Piddy’s school. For me, this other world that Piddy inhabits is a crystal ball that shows how much better and more interesting life becomes after you’re out of high school, and it shows the unparalleled power of female friendships.

My Verdict:

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass does what all YA novels should do. It highlights the pervasive struggle of being bullied, which is something that all young people have either witnessed or experienced for themselves, and it reminds them that their anxiety and emotional well-being are just as crucial as their physical bodies. But this book also reminds older readers, like me, of what it means to be young, and how happy we should all be that we are no longer in high school.

Cover photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

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The Most Unhelpful Book Review You’ll Ever Read: A Review of What Lies Between Us

Have you ever read a book that you knew would completely mess you up? Like, you’ve gone in knowing that the journey through the pages would be worth it, but your soul might not make it through to the final destination? Friends, I’ve read two of those books in recent times. One was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it on my honeymoon, and let me tell you, nothing puts a damper on marital bliss like a dystopian horror story that strips women down to their biological functions and wipes away their humanity. Probably not the best idea of mine, in hindsight, considering the very real implications of a Gilead-like future for the U.S., but oh well. A girl’s gotta read.

And the other book that destroyed me for a good few days? What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan-American writer who also wrote Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I inhaled this gloriously horrific and anxiety-inducing novel in all of three hours, and then spent the next few hours being considerably stressed out. Tainted visions of my future children and my relationship with my husband all swirled around me in a storm of blue, as I lay in bed, petrified, at 2 a.m. Again, another poor life choice that I will hopefully not be repeating any time soon.

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Let me tell you what this extraordinary novel is about before I turn you off of reading in general. Munaweera’s tale is a tragedy that begins in her protagonist’s white prison cell. The woman tells us that she’s been imprisoned for committing the most monstrous of crimes, and that this story is her attempt to reveal why she did what she did. Instead of outlining a confession, the unnamed protagonist unravels her life’s story in a series of memories and images, beginning as a young girl in Sri Lanka to an immigrant’s journey in America. Love, loss, and grief ensue in the pages that follow.

If that summary was too vague, I’m sorry, but as a reader who believes deeply in the experience of reading and unspooling the nuances of a story for herself, that’s literally the best, un-spoilerly paragraph about this novel that I can give you. But, what I can attempt to do is tell you why this novel had such a huge impact on me, and why I’m still feeling that impact a week later.

Munaweera unwraps the experience of being a young, non-white immigrant in this country with exquisite precision. Upon entering the hallowed hallways of school in the 1980’s, our nameless protagonist lives on the outskirts of American life, and feels more like an exotic animal at the zoo that no boy wants to date. When she grows into adulthood, and happens upon a great guy who happens to be white, she confesses to feeling a little bit lucky just to be “chosen by one of them.”

As someone who can relate deeply to both of those experiences, I can tell you that for many non-white immigrants or children of immigrants, the fact that you’re non-white and therefore other is an insistent part of your life, even if you’re not fully aware of it. Munaweera captures that slight feeling of ostracism so well, and What Lies Between Us managed to remind me about a lot of the racial and ethnic anxieties I endured and still endure to this day.

Another incredible thing about this novel is that even if you’re not an immigrant or a child of one, you’re still able to fully empathize with Munaweera’s protagonist because of how she tells the story. Munaweera breaks the story into vivid and palpable images of life, which teem with lust on one page and fear on the next. She roots her story in the experience of being human, and through this, What Lies Between Us becomes the best type of evidence against the wall-loving, divisive voices in our country right now. It reminds us that people are people, no matter where they’re from or how they’ve grown up. All people share the same fears and anxieties, and all people just want to love and be loved in return.

But the most incisive and, for me, gut-wrenching highlight of this book is its discussion of motherhood. What Lies Between Us is, at its core, a story about motherhood, and how being a mother changes and defines a woman’s life. In the first few pages of the novel, when the protagonist begins to tell her story in her cell, Munaweera unleashes an absolutely lethal description of being a mother in the United States. She writes that there is absolutely no way to be a good mother in this country, because to be a good mother, you have to be perfect. For the protagonist, even the smallest of failures or mistakes as a mother will indict you. She continues by reminding the reader that being a mother is essentially giving yourself entirely in the pursuit of a higher, more important end goal. And she lands the final punch by telling you that she is essentially in prison because she refused to do just that.

Like, damn girl, get out of my head! Somehow, Munaweera reached her hand right into my body and pulled out exactly what I fear about motherhood. And the fact that she is able to do that is incredible. The power of this novel is that it reveals the anxieties and implications of motherhood in such a real way. From beginning to end, Munaweera details everything that is glorious AND terrifying about being a mother. And for someone who is a bit tired of hearing that I’ll figure it out and that I don’t need to worry so much, I am so grateful to see my anxieties in print. Munaweera’s words remind me that my feelings, true or not, are valid and acceptable, and that is the hallmark of a really important book.

My verdict:

I have told you very little about what happens plot-wise in this book, but I am telling you that What Lies Between Us is SO worth the read on so many levels. One, you get to glimpse what it means to be a young immigrant in this country. Two, Munaweera immerses you in gorgeous images that burst with humanity. And three, if you have concerns about what it means to be a parent, then What Lies Between Us will assuage your fears by giving them an important voice.

Go read this book, because my review does not do it justice.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

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#ThursdayThoughts: The Burden of Diversity

When I decided to blog my venture into reading literature written by women of color, I did so for many reasons:

  • To expand my own reading past a library dominated by white men,
  • To understand myself better and to contextualize my position as a woman of color living in the U.S., and
  • To actually understand intersectionality and the experiences of women who don’t share my ethnicity.

All of these reasons are valid and well-intentioned, in my opinion. So, feeling proud of myself and my own growth as a human being, I began Googling and assembling my Avengers-esque lineup of WOC authors. Side note: who would YOU rather have at your side in battle – the Hulk or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri?

My pile of books grew, and I threw myself into learning and reading with abandon. I lived a day in the life of a soon-to-be-deported Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. I learned what it means for a Nigerian woman to become black upon arriving to the United States in Americanah. I was pumped about my learning and sharing that learning with the world. And then, I read Wintersong.

After finishing S. Jae-Jones’ first novel and reveling in the wonderful story that she told, I found myself asking, “Why did she choose to write about a German girl and her encounters with the underworld?” S. Jae-Jones is Korean-American, so for some reason, I had assumed that her novel would be somehow related to that experience. The real question I was asking was, “Why didn’t she incorporate her ethnicity into this book?” And with that assumption, I unintentionally placed an all-too familiar burden on this author and her writing.

The literary world and society at large expects people of color, and especially women of color, to enlighten them about what it means to be marginalized or oppressed. To share some insight about their “ethnic” or “cultural” experience as someone who is NOT a white man. So if you’re brown or black, it somehow becomes your job to teach white people about your life and your experiences.

This is an egregiously unfair and completely unrealistic burden. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a person choosing to write about those experiences. We need more diversity in literature – diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, experience, etc. But we cannot box POC or WOC into a corner and expect that all they have to offer the world perfectly aligns with their marginalization. People are much too complex and interesting to be suffocated in this way.

I only realized that I too was adding to this systemic burden when I read this article on Fantasy Cafe, written by the author of Wintersong herself. Jae-Jones perfectly articulates the expectations we place on artists who happen to be non-white and non-male. She discusses the different cultural and literary influences that led her to write Wintersong.  And she also writes about how despite the fact that this story was hers in the sense that it was a beautiful amalgamation of so many stories and aesthetics she had grown to love, readers still questioned her authenticity, and ultimately her adequacy as a Korean-American woman. Somehow, she became less in the eyes of some of her readers, because she wasn’t writing a Korean-American story.

S. Jae-Jones is allowed to write a story about a German girl falling into the clutches of the Goblin King, because that is the story she wanted to write. That’s all that matters. She is more than just a Korean-American – she is a human being who has been deeply shaped by all of the books, movies, relationships, and experiences in her life. Who hasn’t? She shouldn’t have to justify what she writes about to anyone. And that includes me!

I am grateful for her story and the time that she took to eloquently educate me and the literary community about the burden of being a female writer of color, which she calls an “albatross about [her] neck.” And I also thank her for reminding me of my own complexity, and of the many varied and seemingly paradoxical influences in my life.

Just like S. Jae-Jones was shaped by Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I can name W.B. Yeats and Joy Harjo as some of my biggest literary inspirations. I’ve also been equally molded by my love of romantic dramas and time travel. Maybe my first novel will be some great fusion of all of the above, or maybe it’ll be about an Indian-American girl growing up in Virginia Beach. Who knows?

All I do know is that it’s time for us to relieve people of color of this enormous weight. Artist or not, people of color are not responsible for educating or enlightening anyone about their marginalized experiences. We need that education, for sure, but we CANNOT demand it.

What do you think about this issue? Leave your comments below, and happy Thursday!

 

Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash