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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Bailey's Prize, books, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“Miss Burma” by Charmaine Craig

“‘You must understand,’ Saw Lay explained as he and Benny walked one evening in April. ‘The loyalist bond we share with the Brits … what made it stick was our mutual security. Their takeover of the country wasn’t easy. It happened over time, with several wars. We welcomed them because we’d been persecuted by the Burmans for centuries, we’d been their slaves – our villages perpetually attacked, our people perpetually preyed upon, stripped of everything from our clothing to our lives. This is a reason that we are characteristically afraid. Our tendency to be shy, to be modest, to avoid confrontation, to be cautious – all of this comes from our long history of being intimidated. And the Brits, well, they made use of that history. It didn’t hurt that we populated strategic territory. It behooved them to make nice with us, as they say. And, well, it behooved us, too.'”

IMG-0303I’ll fully admit to being woefully ignorant of Burma (now Myanmar) and its complicated history of ethnic conflict and colonization, a fact which made my reading of “Miss Burma” by Charmaine Craig all the more important and enlightening. “Miss Burma” is the story of Benny, a Burmese man of Jewish and Indian descent, and his wife Khin, a striking young woman from among one of Burma’s ethnic minorities, the Karen. Khin and Benny speak no common language; they are both virtually alone in the world and both adrift in a country that is at once home and hostile.

“It wasn’t that this rabbi had spoken to her as a Burman might; anytime a Burman engaged with a Karen, it was with the posture of superiority – intellectual, spiritual, racial. No, this rabbi hadn’t condescended to her, but had treated her as something alien. He was fighting to preserve his people in a country, it so happened, that was ceaselessly obliterating hers. And she saw that much as she wanted to find someplace to take root with Benny, she would never not be a lost Karen. She would never not be wandering in the desert, homeless, unwanted – except by some of her own. Except by equally rootless Benny.”

Beginning in the late 1930s, “Miss Burma” follows this young couple through decades of struggle and conflict. Burma is fighting both global threats of imperialism – Britain, Germany, Japan – and endless internal ethnic conflict, dominated by the asserted supremacy of ethnic Burmans – “to be Burmese – meaning to be one of Burma’s natives – but not to be Burman was, in Burman terms, to be distinctly undesirable.” Benny and Khin, too, in their own ways, fight for a place in their country, for the safety of their people, and for a secure sense of home neither has ever truly known.

Craig’s writing is sometimes spare, often vivid, and always visceral. From the fecund forests through which Khin and her children must flee to the graphic and inhumane torture Benny and others face at the hands of various militant groups, Craig’s writing had me covering my eyes, unable to resist reading between my fingers. Like its main characters, “Miss Burma” is deceptively soft-spoken, a mildness which thinly disguises its strength and unbending will. With its under-celebrated subject matter and its understated tone, “Miss Burma” is an excellent addition to the Women’s Prize Longlist and a strong contender for the 2018 prize.