At the moment, I’m trying to start writing ~for real~ which means working on longer pieces and submitting them to publications. Thom and I have decided to stay in Indianapolis long term, which means I have the environmental stability to really test my writing (i.e. rejection) stamina. It’s daunting, but I’m psyched. (See Thom’s blog for more details.)
I have already sabotaged my writing hours by adopting up a kitten from the Indianapolis Humane Society. I did this approximately one day after I committed to a new, more focused writing plan. Chickpea is a needly little thing, with major keyboard-envy. But she’s also cute and cuddly and livens up our home-office with her kitten antics.
So as I lift Chickpea off my desk for the 20th time this hour and return her to the floor, I thought I’d keep this writing exercise short and sweet. Below are five books I’ve read and enjoyed in the last few months. What’s more, these are all written by women or people of color:
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Girl, Woman, Other is a great, lengthy, relational novel. Evaristo brings together every kind of non-straight-white-male character imaginable. The book is set in the UK, which I found very fun. The London setting centers on the National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, which allowed me to reminisce about studying abroad in that very spot five years ago as a junior in college. It’s also interesting to read about the history of the Black community in the UK, insofar as it is similar to and different from the experience of Black citizens of the United States. Particularly after the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, this novel offered me a way to contemplate race that was new and slightly removed from the current content of Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/etc.
My only criticism of Evaristo’s novel is that I found the flow a bit choppy. My reading was slowed, especially in the first half, by the continual introduction of new characters and new perspectives, and the complete dropping of the previous characters. (Until in the end, that is, when all of the times, places, and people prove to be intertwined, as in one of those ensemble rom-coms from the 2000s.) One might compare the reading experience to driving down a residential road with a stop sign every-other block. Come to a full stop, then rev the engine to get going again. But ultimately, Girl, Woman, Other was worth the reengagement effort. The characters and relationships Evaristo packs into this 400+ pager, with their widely variable racial, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual dynamics are a fascinating study in humanity’s complexity and the spectrums of identity. And frankly, these are the kinds of stories I have not read anywhere else.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half is a recent release — one I had been anticipating ever since I finished Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers. The novel has a fascinating premise: it’s the 1960s in a fictional light-skinned Black town called Mallard in Louisiana, and a pair of twin girls comes of age. Progressive skin-lightening was a goal of the town’s founders, who established Mallard after they were freed post-Civil War. One twin grows up to live as a Black person, the other leaves her family behind to start a new life passing as white. This creates a rift between the sisters and their offspring, and shows how the ideal of whiteness permeates and causes destruction in all American communities — whether Black, white, or mixed-race. Bennett reveals race for what it is: America’s foundational caste system, and she exposes the system’s relational consequences across decades, cities, and within families.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime is falls into the same category as Girl, Woman, Other insofar as it provides a slightly removed context in which to understand and examine racism. I’ve found that sometimes its easier for me to see evil clear-eyed when the U.S. is not directly involved. But unlike Evaristo’s novel, Born A Crime is a nonfiction story — Noah’s own. Noah is brilliant, funny, and informative as a narrator of his life and the history of apartheid in South Africa. As a “mixed” person (Black mother, white father) whose existence was technically illegal, Noah did not fit into any of the racial categories where he lived. Consequently, he has a fascinating perspective on how race, culture, and language function to either divide us or to bring us together.
I listened to Born A Crime on audiobook, which turned out to be a great choice. Noah is a wonderful narrator, and the voices he does for his family members, his younger self, and others make the book come to life. He’s both earnest and hilarious. It’s also helpful to hear him read aloud the many South African language phrases that appear throughout his story. (By the way, this is one of those annoying “Audible exclusives” — so you can’t get it from the library on Libby. Annoying, but worth it.)
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
I picked up Such A Fun Age shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement resurged with new vigor, making a promise to myself to read more books by BIPOC (a new acronym for me: Black and Indigenous People of Color).
My favorite thing about Reid’s novel was the main character Emira. She’s about my age, in her mid-20s, and in a similar state of confusion regarding her career, her future, and her ambivalence about seeking the kind of worldly achievement everyone is supposed to want (and everyone else wants for her).
I felt affirmed by her suspicious, measured view of American values, and the genuine fulfillment she finds spending her days babysitting. I also enjoyed Reid’s engagement with the idea of boundaries: between employer and employee, between white woman and Black woman. Alix (the mom, white woman, employer) thinks of Emira as hers; she transgresses boundaries, assumes ownership over Emira’s time, personal life, and decisions, and tries to establish a friendship where there is a pervasive, obvious power imbalance. As someone who has held several assistant jobs in my life, I found Reid’s portrayal of the boss-employee dynamic to ring true, and I was glad to engage with the additional layer a racial power imbalance. Overall, Such A Fun Age is a great read. It’s not as heavy as The Vanishing Half, (the characters seem happier), but it’s just as powerful.
I was able to get Such A Fun Age from the library (I use the Libby app) and read it on my kindle. Often, with popular books or new releases, the Indianapolis Public Library will offer me a 7-day “skip the line” e-book loan shortly after I place a hold. This is my favorite pandemic discovery; an unexpected system that makes it possible for me to actually get new books from the library relatively quickly, and with proper social-distancing.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
I read City of Girls months ago and was surprised at how much I loved it. The novel features an all-women cast of characters whose lives revolve around the 1940s New York City theater scene. There are playwrights, songwriters, costume-designers, and showgirls. Gilbert creates a vivid, exciting picture of this alternative life — one without husbands, kids, catalogs, and midlife depression. Gilbert’s characters are fascinating, well-rounded, creative, and free. As most of the books about women in the late 1800s and early 1900s in end in the bored, miserable protagonist having an affair or committing suicide (looking at you, Kate Chopin and Anna Karenina), it was such a joy to read a novel set in that time that is so full of joy.
Chickpea has fallen asleep in the back of my chair, where my lower back leaves a kitten-sized gap. Today I started reading Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, which has a plot suspiciously similar to Such a Fun Age (career woman is lonely and sad, resigned to a new suburban life away from New York City, staying home with with young kids, and tries to befriend babysitter). But I have high hopes, because I’ve loved every single book by Sullivan. Her last one, Saints of All Occasions, was her best novel yet, in my opinion. She writes about women navigating complex lives and relationships (familial relationships, mainly) which never gets old for me. And I’m particularly excited because I bought this book in hardback, after spending about three months exclusively consuming kindle library rentals. It feels good to hold a book again.
Okay, one more Chickpea picture.