books, LGBTQ, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“Lily and Dunkin” by Donna Gephart and “The 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater

Included in today’s post are brief reviews of two quick reads with long-lasting impact, their residue lingering in my mind weeks after I’ve finished with their pages.

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     “‘I’ve dressed like a boy all the way through seventh grade.’
     Dad nods. ‘That’s right.’
     I test the water. ‘For you.’
     ‘For me?’ He shakes his head. ‘You mean for you, Tim.’
     I hold my collision of words back and let Dad talk.
     ‘Did you get beaten up? Attacked?’
     I don’t tell Dad how much I’m made fun of, teased, bullied. I don’t tell him it’s a small torture every time I have to dress and act like someone I’m not, like playing a role in a movie I don’t want to be in. A role I wasn’t born to fill. I simply shake my head side to side.
     ‘See,’ Dad says. ‘Then you did it for yourself, Timothy, to keep yourself safe.’ Dad’s words are tight and thin. Dad’s words are the wrong ones. They are full of untruths.
     ‘Look,’ I say. “I know I was born with boy parts. I get that. And it makes people comfortable if I dress and act like a boy. It’s what they’ve learned to expect. But remember when I was little and word Sarah’s dresses?’
     Dad nods. ‘But you outgrew that phase, Tim.’
     ‘No,’ I say quietly, my fingernails digging into the flesh of my palms. It was never a phase. You only choose to believe that, even when the truth is staring you in the face.
     Dad lowers his head and runs a hand through his hair again. ‘You can’t do that, Tim. You can’t go out of this house like that. It’s not right. You’ll get…’
      I’m silent and give Dad a chance to finish, but he doesn’t. ‘I’ll get what?’ I can’t imaging anything harder than going out every day as someone I’m not.
     Dad presses his palms on his thighs and looks straight ahead. ‘You’ll just have to try harder, son.’
     His words crush me. I’m not your son! I want to shout. Try harder for what? For whom? ‘I have tried,’ I say, my throat constricting, voice sounding pinched. ‘I have and I have and I have.’ For you. ‘But it’s not who I am. Every day, every single minute of every every single day, I know that I …am…a…girl.'”

In a heartbreaking and yet deeply restorative story, Donna Gephart weaves the dual narratives of two preteens – Lily Jo (nee Timothy) who has known for as far back as she can remember that she is a girl and has bravely fought to be able to show the world who she is, and Norbert “Dunkin” Dorfman, a recent transplant from New Jersey who is searching for stability and safety within his new life and within his bipolar disorder. These two rising eighth graders are both remarkable outcasts and the epitome of adolescent vulnerability. With kindness and struggle that will crack you wide open, Gephart explores the challenges of being a transgender child in a gender binary, heteronormative world; the wondrous and sometimes monstrous ways our mental health can threaten our very existence; and the extraordinary importance of finding your place and letting the world see you.


Written with little embellishment, great clarity, and with an attempt at neutrality, “The 57 Bus” also deals with two teenagers from different worlds, one of whom presents with gender fluidity. This work of non-fiction, long-form journalism delves into the story of Sasha, an agender 18 year old from Oakland, CA whose skirt was set afire while they slept aboard the 57 bus in 2013, and Richard, the bumbling black youth goaded into lighting the fire, thought at first to be a ‘harmless prank’, which causes third degree burns across more than 20% of Sasha’s body.

Slater gives a fair amount of background and character study on each of these teens before exploring both the tragic event itself and its consequences. The book is clearly written in a journalistic style, broken into bite-sized sections which read more as article subheadings than chapters. To me, its great value is as a case study, both for those with little familiarity of LGBTQ issues (though I wonder what impact it would have on folks from that camp) and perhaps more directly for progressives who are faced with a case in which they must consider LGBTQ rights, anti-discrimination, and hate crimes balanced against the issues of racial justice and mass incarceration. “The 57 Bus” provides powerful tools to spark deep and difficult conversations about civil rights and restorative justice .

 

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books, LGBTQ, People of Color, Reading

“When We Speak of Nothing” by Olumide Popoola and “Speak No Evil” by Uzodinma Iweala

Late winter and early spring brings the publication of two novels – which I coincidentally read in succession – which have significant thematic as well as tonal overlap. “When We Speak of Nothing” by Olumide Popoola and “Speak No Evil” by Uzodinma Iweala are both novels about young, black, and queer characters whose parents are of Nigerian descent. They embrace the intersectionality of privilege and oppression, highlighting tensions which are resonating at the surface of modern life.

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In “When We Speak of Nothing”, Popoola features Karl, a young man coming of age in the council flats of London where his chronically ill mom virtually shares custody of Karl with his best friend Abu’s family.

“Those two? Like twins. The funny thing? Abu’s parents already had twins and they were a sweet-but-annoying seven years old. Was almost as if Abu had needed to fins his own match, so he had someone to leave the house with. Even funnier? His mother, and later the dad, accepted Karl as the brother from another mother. Meaning Karl was in and out of their house like trains out of St Pancras station. More in than out actually. “

As a transgender and biracial man, Karl faces daily oppressions, from microaggressions to all out assault.

“Karl. Abu. The neighbourhood. Karl got beaten less because Abu stepped into the line of fire. It had become a thing of pride for Abu. You don’t leave your bestie to be attacked. You take care of that shit, as he liked to say. Not that he could; one dreamy Karl and one Abu against a bunch of haters … too much even for Abu’s big mouth. But still. You tried. Best friend’s honour.”

When Karl is contacted by his father’s brother, suddenly a world which has been totally unknown to him opens up. Unbeknownst to his mother and with the help of his social worker, Karl flies to Nigeria to get to know his estranged father. In Nigeria, Karl’s eyes are opened to a different culture, to political struggles, and to a sense of belonging he has never felt before. Unfortunately, he also faces the violent rejection of his transphobic father and the real dangers of being discovered in a society with no tolerance for differences in gender identity nor sexual orientation.

Popoola is a beautiful writer taking on a fascinating topic. Hers is one of several novels I have read lately from the perspective of a transgender main character, and the simultaneous normalization and empathy her story evokes strikes a welcome tone in a climate of fear and hate.


“My life was supposed to be different. Niru and I were supposed to go to Harvard together. He was supposed to become a doctor, the cool kind – a trauma surgeon who saves lives in difficult places. I was supposed to become a lawyer, the cool kind like Amal Clooney, who prevents genocides while wearing Louboutins. We were supposed to live in an apartment in New York, then a row house in Dupont Circle, and settle in Foxhall or Kalorama with our beautiful biracial children, an older girl and a younger boy. We would name them Nigerian names and use our one car to take them skiing in Vermont. But then I kissed him and that loosely woven fantasy unraveled. Most of my life since has been a mystery to me.” 

In “Speak No Evil”, Uzodinma Iweala presents his readers with the “model minority”, the son of high-achieving, assimilationist Nigerian immigrants in a well-to-do neighborhood in Washington, DC. Niru is a senior at an elite private school, destined for the Ivy League and all it’s promises. Niru is used to being the lone black kid in his classes, the only one to face microaggressions daily from his classmates and the real fear of moving in white spaces as a young black man, as someone seen as a threat even by those who are tasked with serving and protecting.

“The white kids used to touch me all the time when I was younger, like they owned me. They’d call me Velcro Head and press things to my hair to see what would stick. I let them play around because there were always more of them than me and because back then I didn’t know the difference between ignorance and malice. Then there was that time one of the girls came up to me after school and asked if she could look down my pants, just a peek, you know, to settle a debate they had after sex ed. I pretended not to hear, but I walked around the rest of the day staring at the floor with my fists clenched.”

Niru’s parents are notoriously strict, with high expectations and a steely reserve.

“He says congratulations, and holds his hand out to shake mine. I accept and his rough palms grip my hands tightly. Your mother had to go back to work, he says. She’s proud of you, we’re proud of you, I’m proud of you. My stomach flutters. My parents do not say things like I’m proud of you or I love you often – my mother more than my father, which is almost never. They show their love by paying our tuitions, OJ says, and by putting food on the table. They show they are proud by demanding even more than you think you can do.”

Niru is gay, but he is barely even able to admit it to himself, let alone to the outside world. He only tells his best friend Meredith when she tries to kiss him and he doesn’t reciprocate. But when Niru’s parents find text messages on his phone from a love interest and discover that he is gay, they are panic-stricken and furious. Soon, Niru’s father has bundled him off to Nigeria for an intervention of sorts in order to ‘fix’ him.

Iweala deals with incredibly heavy topics – race, sexuality, parental expectations, bias – with respect and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. His witticisms are often simultaneously deeply specific and somehow broadly relatable, like his description, in Niru’s words, of how Niru’s father is transformed upon arrival in his home country.

“My father becomes an entirely different man when we come to Nigeria. OJ cam up with a term for the condition during a trip we took the summer after his first year in medical school. He said Daddy had a bad case of Nigeriatoma, an acute swelling of ego and pride that affects diaspora Nigerian men, rendering them unable to accept the idea that a true home might exist outside of their birth country. Symptoms may vary but are exceptionally pronounced upon return to native soil and include hyperactivity, elevated mood, grandiose thinking and increased aggression.”

“Speak No Evil” was often quiet and understated, sometimes slow and then off at a sprint, and surprisingly unpredictable. It is relevant in ways that are deeply affecting and effective.


Thank you to Harper for “Speak No Evil” and to Cassava Republic for “When We Speak of Nothing” in exchange for fair and honest reviews.