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

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 fucking 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

Making Reading Magical Again: A Review of Wintersong

There is nothing more magical than diving into another world when you’re a child, whether it’s through a good movie, a video game, or for me, a really great book. In his book Why Write?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the particulars of reading as a child. He writes that reading when you’re young is a completely immersive experience, one in which the mundane norms of real life fall away in their entirety and you’re fully transported to another time, place, or body.

The slightly depressing thing, Edmundson continues, is that this complete immersion doesn’t continue into adulthood, especially for writers.  We have to shed books as a form of true escapism when we grow older, because when we turn to books as writers, we read to analyze HOW our contemporaries or literary heroes are writing, not just what. Of course we still enjoy reading, but it becomes a rare thing for people who decide to devote their lives or parts of their lives to the written word to truly fall into a story, free of criticism or analysis, like we did while we were young.

And I’m sorry to say that Edmundson is completely right. When I pick up a book, any book, these days, it takes all of five minutes for my inner English major to rear her annoying head and start pulling apart the text in front of me. But sometimes, if I’m really lucky, a certain book comes along and completely knocks me back to my childhood, to days spent curled around stories that pulled me out of the bunny-covered walls of my bedroom and into other worlds. And the first book that’s done that for me in recent times? Wintersong by Korean-American author S. Jae-Jones.

Wintersong is a triumph of storytelling. Set in the German state of Bavaria, the events of the Wintersong spin into motion when Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is captured by Der Erlkönig, the legendary and mythical Goblin King. Desperate to retrieve her sister from his clutches, Liesl becomes swept up in a Romantic quest that turns out to be about more than just physically rescuing her sister from the underworld. Her ambitions, family relationships, and desire to live an unrestrained life all come to a head as she pursues the Goblin King underground.

First, Jae-Jones crafts incredibly human characters that you immediately identify with. She does what writers like George R.R. Martin are getting lauded for these days – she builds a fantastical world full of real, flawed human beings, all of whom have their own motives and agendas and wishes for their lives. There are no outright heroes or villains in Wintersong, not even the trickster Goblin King, who becomes an incredibly alluring love interest for Liesl. You end up sympathizing with every single character in the novel at some point, except maybe the goblins. And for a first time novelist like Jae-Jones, that is freaking masterful.

Not only does Jae-Jones create a brilliant cast of characters, she writes a lead character that has a creative agency that I haven’t really ever encountered before in YA literature. Liesl may be young and figuring her life out, but one thing she is sure of is her passion for creating and composing music. This passion, along with truly mesmerizing passages detailing Liesl’s composing, drives the novel and, of course many of Liesl’s missteps. But seeing this young woman so completely certain of her passion and her desire to freely create music is one of my favorite things about Wintersong.

The best thing by far about this novel is the mental landscape Jae-Jones draws for the reader. The Goblin King is first and foremost a trickster, and under his influence, the characters literally get caught in a haze of belief versus disbelief, real versus imagined. Liesl remembers something important and true on one page, but she forgets it by the next. She questions her reality, and somehow you find yourself trying to remind Liesl of what’s really happening. Jae-Jones’s interplay between a captivated narrator and a truly invested reader constructs a world of whispered magic that you can’t easily get home from. As Liesl falls prey to the magic of Der Erlkönig and his kingdom, you too fall under Jae-Jones’ spell.

My verdict:

If there’s any book that completely subverts the stigma about YA novels being somehow less complex and captivating than novels written for adults, it’s Wintersong. From a group of gorgeous, multifaceted characters to an inspiring lead protagonist who convinces you to live a more creative life, to a spellbinding landscape of questioning what’s real and what’s not, Wintersong unapologetically throws you into a deeply immersive and mesmerizing world that you’ll never want to leave.