Voicefull

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.

 

communion pic

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

Advertisements

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.

americanah-550x848

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.

always-and-forever-lara-jean-9781481430487_hr

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

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, or to not give so many fucks.

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

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 fuck 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.

munaweera

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

#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

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.

Brown People Can Have Sex Too! A Review of The Bollywood Bride

I adore romance. And when I say adore, I really mean “I unabashedly live for all romantic storylines and romantic chemistry and romantic everything.” This obsession is not surprising. I grew up on a healthy diet of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, both classic and new, and a bombardment of Bollywood melodrama from the 90’s. From Tom Hanks’ heart-eyes at Meg Ryan at the airport in Sleepless in Seattle, to Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s sultry waltz in that rain-drenched gazebo in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I go absolutely gaga for all kinds of love stories. Believe me when I say that from a very young age up until I met my husband, I had always imagined myself meeting the love of my life against a gorgeous backdrop and a soundtrack sung either by Savage Garden or Sonu Nigam.

So just imagine my pure rapture when I stumbled onto The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev. A Persuasion-esque love affair for the ages, The Bollywood Bride contains absolutely everything an avid reader AND a romance fanatic could want. The story follows Ria Parkar, a Bollywood film starlet who, after years away from her family, gets sucked back into the pain of her non-public life when her cousin Nikhil decides to get married in Chicago. And the great source of this epic pain? Among other things, a slighted, long-lost lover by the name of Vikram.

The best novels about love aren’t just about love – they’re about the messy, heartbreaking, and often painful lives of the people who happen to fall in love. And from the first page of The Bollywood Bride, Dev’s alluring, vibrant language coupled with her ability to construct such authentic and complex characters seduced me out of my own world and into Ria’s.

Dev channels Jane Austen with her uncanny skill to adapt the Indian immigrant community in America in an authentic and consumable way. She immediately thrusts Ria back into a world of wedding prep and preening, yet loving, Indian aunties who all color-coordinate their saris. And as someone who has grown up surrounded by uncles and aunties who have somehow become family through our shared Indian-American experience, I can tell you that I have never seen my community described in such a real and hilarious way.

You also get a happy yet completely unexpected taste of Charlotte Bronte in this novel as Dev deftly unwraps the secrets of Ria’s past, and how those secrets caused her to break Vikram’s heart prior to the events of this novel. The story is steeped in secrets and secret-keeping, which only heightens the tension between Ria and Vikram, as they simultaneously explore and avoid the nostalgia of their childhood together and the realization that their love for one another hasn’t disappeared, but evolved.

But the most tantalizing aspect of this novel was one that I did not see coming at all. I was drawn to The Bollywood Bride mainly because it was a romance novel written by an Indian woman about two Indian/Indian-American characters. Yay. And I expected there to be sex, because it was a romance novel, and that’s what the genre usually entails. But as I approached the final consummation of Ria and Vikram’s physical and emotional journey, i.e. their first round of really enjoyable and completely worth-the-wait sex, I realized that I had never before encountered such a raw and uninhibited depiction of Indian intimacy in fiction. And in that moment I realized: BROWN PEOPLE CAN HAVE SEX TOO.

One fact about Bollywood movies that you might not know is that they never ever show two characters having sex. Like, in a bed together. They rarely show two characters entering into a bedroom, or even making out on screen. The best you get is like a really seductive dance in the rain with extremely suggestive song lyrics. I could get into the traditionalism and conservative values and why there’s no onscreen lovemaking, but the point I’m trying to make is that realistic Indian intimacy is all but invisible in Bollywood cinema. And since #HollywoodSoWhite, there’s no Indian intimacy in films over here either.

So the fact that Dev gifts us with two unmarried Indian/Indian-Americans having delicious, well-deserved, tantalizing but not gratuitous sex is freaking groundbreaking. Instead of shying away from human sexuality, or neutering it by cutting away to a more G-rated scene, Dev revels in it, and gives her characters a sexual agency that I have only ever seen given to non-Indian characters. And for that, I am eternally grateful to Ms. Dev, and to her beautiful novel.

My verdict:

Sonali Dev’s The Bollywood Bride is an unadulterated delight. She crafts a narrative that whispers secrets on every page. She details a deeply authentic depiction of the Indian immigrant experience. And best of all, Dev opens up readers to the sexual side of Indian romance. Go read this book, and be prepared to frantically fan yourself on every single page.

Seeing Myself: A Review of The Star-Touched Queen

Growing up in the nineties and early 2000’s, I didn’t encounter many young characters of color in the novels I perused. The majority of my favorite books had white male protagonists. I reread books like Tangerine by Edward Bloor, and Holes by Louis Sachar, because they featured outcasts trying to find a home for themselves, and despite the friends and relationships I had, I always felt a little on the outside growing up as well. The closest I got to really loving a heroine for everything she was and stood for was Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women trilogy. She was passionate, obsessive, and didn’t embody the ideals of womanhood typically on show in 19th century New England.

As a child of Indian immigrants, I often felt torn between celebrating my Indian culture at home and on the weekend, and embracing my American-ness at school during the week. No one person or group is to blame for this inner divide – I attribute this now to a complete lack of representation of Asian kids in the media I consumed, and in the reluctance of our society to discuss diversity in an open and frank manner while I was growing up. Despite my voracious love of literature, I never once encountered a novel with a complex and non-white girl whose culture is embraced and explored. I never once read a story about an Indian girl whose culture reflected mine.

For this reason, I am so excited to share my review of The Star-Touched Queen, a YA novel written by Roshani Chokshi. Chokshi comes from an Indian and Filipino household, and she chooses to focus on her Indian heritage, and its vast mythology, in this fantasy novel. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, princess of a fictional kingdom called Bharata, which happens to be the original Sanskrit name for India. Maya grows up on the outskirts of royal life, since her horoscope indicates that all her future holds is a dangerous marriage that will bind her with destruction and death. Her family does not willingly embrace her, either emotionally or physically, and the only real relationship she has is with her half-sister Gauri.

Maya’s real story begins when a sexy but aloof stranger named Amar whisks her away from the destruction of Bharata and makes her the queen of Akaran, the underworld. For the rest of the novel, Maya learns to navigate this new world while still struggling to understand what she really wants. For the third act of the novel, an unforeseen villain forces Maya out of Akaran, and Maya ultimately makes the choice to return, save her love, and resume the throne.

Chokshi’s writing is beautiful and intoxicating. She creates a world that is kinesthetic and touchable, and so weaves a visceral experience for her reader. You feel a part of the destiny tapestry that becomes so essential to Maya and Amar’s story. As the reader, you are not a witness to these proceedings – Chokshi’s vibrant storytelling pulls you into the narrative and makes you a silent character holding on to Maya’s hand throughout the whole story. I loved the physical experience of this novel, so gorgeously crafted by Chokshi.

The Star-Touched Queen highlights the time-old struggle between fate and personal choice as its primary theme. Maya struggles to break free from the foreboding narrative written by her astrological charts, and she is often pulled between accepting her destiny as queen of the underworld and questioning why Amar really brought her there. As a feminist, it would be easy for me to dismiss this book as yet another YA novel which inexplicably and inextricably ties the fate of a female character to that of a male character. But, I have to remind myself – The Star-Touched Queen does this deliberately and with purpose. This is a novel rooted in ideas of astrology and reincarnation, and to Chokshi’s immense credit, her character Maya fights these ideas on every step of her journey. Furthermore, the “star-crossed lovers” relationship isn’t perfect and free of conflict – Maya and Amar are vulnerable and immensely flawed characters, which ultimately makes their romance more palatable and interesting. Chokshi navigates the parameters of the fantasy romance genre with incisive choices about the strength of Maya’s character. Maya is determined to think for herself and question her situation, and her choices allow her to explore her own identity as well as save Amar from evil. Empowering? Check. Still romantic and fun to read? Double check.

But writing and thematic elements aside, the real beauty of this novel is that it gifts younger readers a completely new mythology that is accessible and fascinating. We have plenty of novels that are rooted in Greek mythology and Norse mythology – Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson universe are a prime example of the lasting power of those mythologies in the Western psyche. And I happen to love those novels. But Chokshi gives life to a world of bhuts and rakshsas, words that don’t have Wikipedia pages like centaur and minotaur but are just as interesting. She exposes this beautiful Indian mythology to a Western audience, and the fact that she is now a New York Times bestselling author means that Western audiences are ready for a new mythology.

All in all, I had a grand old time reading The Star-Touched Queen and whole-heartedly recommend it to any reader. If you’re looking for an intriguing romance, then Maya and Amar’s will sweep you off your feet. If you love the old tales of Apollo and Odin and all of their antics, this narrative teems with fantastic Indian mythology and will give those gods a run for their money. And, if you’re a young Indian girl looking for a story of a powerful heroine who makes her own choices and who just so happens to share your cultural roots and skin color, then The Star-Touched Queen is absolutely the book for you, and for me as well. Maya is the heroine I wish I’d had when I was younger and trying to feel that my brown skin was just as relevant as white skin. I am so grateful that she exists for readers now.

 

 

Resistance

Today is a scary day for me, and for many Americans. I am full of fear, and I honestly can’t say that I am being buoyed by hope and love and friendship. Because I’m not. I’m not comforted by people, including my own husband, telling me that “everything is going to be okay.” I know that these words are full of love and the best of intentions, but they have no impact on me right now. I am terrified. I was legitimately afraid to take my dog on a walk this morning, because I didn’t want to face the outside world and the horrors it holds. I went to bed in tears last night, and I woke up with them as well. I am terrified.

I don’t know what our country’s future is. I don’t know if our President-elect will actually follow through with his hateful rhetoric. I don’t know if the policies and Supreme Court decisions and laws that preserve my choices as a woman and a person of color will be upheld or tossed aside. Hell, I don’t know if I can go to yoga anymore because it’s full of strangers who might have voted for hatred yesterday instead of hope, and I don’t know if I can handle that.

But, even as I give a voice to my very real fears and my lack of knowledge of what is to come, I do know one thing. I MUST RESIST. And I must give my resistance, and myself, a voice.

Yesterday, many white Americans voted for Donald Trump. Not because they are evil, not because they support authoritarian regimes, not because they want to watch the world burn. The majority of white Americans who voted for Trump voted for him because they literally have NO idea about what marginalized people go through every day. They have no idea. They don’t understand that everyday racism and sexism aren’t as explicit as “Grab them by the pussy” or dummies being hung by a noose on Halloween. Racism and sexism in America are implicit. They are ingrained within our language and our behavior, when we use words like “thugs” to refer to unruly black children or when we whistle at women in the street like they are dogs. We have learned these behaviors over time, internalized them, and have deemed them appropriate and normal. Trump’s white voters don’t see these behaviors as social constructs, they see them as objective, biological truths. And for me, right now, that is our biggest problem.

So my resistance today is finally starting a blog dedicated to reading and analyzing books written by women of color. I’ve been putting this off for months, because I didn’t think anyone would care about my words or read them. But today, I realize that my voice is important. I realize that I have to work even harder now to shatter all of the implicit biases we hold inside of ourselves. I want white Americans to understand that women and people of color are so much more than the stereotypes that we have assigned them. I want to help dismantle the ways we think about color and gender in this country, because last night proved that many of our citizens need this. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to work to find them. This is the best way I know how.

I am scared, I am worried, I am repulsed. But I have a voice, and I’m going to use it to resist. You have a voice too, and despite all of the horror and fear I am feeling right now, I hope you join me in using it to fight the fight of our lives.