bell hooks’ “Feminism is for Everybody”

5109u+GlqZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_-2

 

“Mostly they think feminism is a bunch of angry women who want to be like men. They do not even think about feminism as being about rights – about women gaining equal rights. When I talk about the feminism I know – up close and personal – they willingly listen, although when our conversations end, they are quick to tell me I am different, not like the ‘real’ feminists who hate men, who are angry. I assure them I am as real and as radical a feminist as one can be, and if they dare to come closer to feminism they will see it is not how they have imagined it.”

Oh, how I wanted so much to appreciate and enjoy this book. Sure, I didn’t go into it thinking it was a going to be poetry and romance, but it is bell hooks and feminism, so I had expectations. bell hooks herself states at the onset of this book that it is intended to be an approachable, conversational review of feminism. Unfortunately, it felt stodgy and pedagogical, and that’s coming from a reader and a feminist. Ah, well…

 

 

 

Jaqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming”

browngirldreaming

“How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me, I breathe them in and let them out over and over again.”

I wholeheartedly concur. And “Brown Girl Dreaming” is a warm summer breeze. Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiographical novel in verse is stirringly beautiful. Her words float and flow together with beauty and ease, taking the reader by the hand and refusing to let her go until the last page.

Woodson tells the story of a brown girl (Jackie) and her siblings growing up in the 1960s, with personal and often radically different experiences with race and prejudice in the old South and in New York City. Some march in protest while others rely on church and prayer, but all of Jackie’s family is firm in their philosophy of nonviolent resistance. The grandfather “Daddy”, to whom Jackie in particular is deeply attached, imparts his wisdom:

“This is the way brown people have to fight, / my grandfather says. / You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist on something / gently. Walk toward a thing / slowly. / But be ready to die, / my grandfather says,  / for what is right. / Be ready to die, my grandfather says, / for everything you believe in.”

For Jackie, what she most readily and passionately believes in is storytelling. From a young age, her family sees this gift in her, fighting to get out before she is even able to consciously form the words. Jackie is drawn to stories, inhabiting them until they inhabit her. When her choice of reading material is criticized, it is like a core part of herself is called into question.

“But I don’t want to read faster or older or / any way else that might / make the story disappear too quickly from where it’s settling / inside my brain, / slowly becoming a part of me. / A story I will remember / long after I’ve read it for the second, third, / tenth, hundredth time.”

As it turns out, Jaqueline Woodson, using herself as the protagonist, is the perfect spokesperson for the Year of Reading Women and why highlighting women’s voices is so important.

“If someone had taken / that book out of my hand / said, You’re too old for this / maybe / I’d never have believed / that someone who looked like me / could be in the pages of the book / that someone who looked like me / had a story.”

We NEED stories, to find ourselves and our place in the world and to experience a rich diversity of cultures, voices, and ideas. I am so grateful for Jacqueline Woodson for sharing hers.

 

Octavia Butler’s “Unexpected Stories”

51bhk32cr+L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

This project – the Year of Reading Women – and the subprojects such as February’s Black Women’s Voices, is about exploring women’s writing with new intention, focus, and purpose. It is about discovering new voices and expanding the scope of my reading. I hope to cover a broad swath of personality, background, and genre, stretching my comfort zone and opening myself up to literary works that might otherwise escape me. And so, I come to  Octavia Butler.

Science Fiction is generally not my bailiwick, but given my self-imposed directive to expand my horizons, I dipped my toe in the waters. Brief research led me to a quick conclusion – Octavia Butler would represent the perfect ambassador. Butler was quite prolific, successfully bringing fresh perspective as a black woman writing in a genre dominated by white male voices.

“Unexpected Stories”, published posthumously, presents two very different imaginative worlds in two novellas. In “A Necessary Being” the reader meets a world populated by anthropomorphic creatures whose coloring dictates social order; “Who led in a liaison, in almost any activity, was determined by whose coloring had more blue.” These creatures fight for survival in a desolate world ruled by an overt caste system. Though “Childfinder” is peopled by…people, theses psychic characters, too, live in a world not unlike my own where race plays a pivotal role in determining social status. Even in these made up worlds, one can’t help but sense that racism is ever present.

Though her stories showed great imagination and fantastical detail, often the writing felt both heavy-handed and overly simplistic. These stories lacked nuance, the words lacked fluidity, leaving me with a book that read more like a script for a B movie than a memorable bite of literature. I did, however, appreciate Butler’s point of view and her skepticism for our culture, thinly veiled though it was in her imaginary cultures. The voice of Eve in “Childfinder”, whose name is as subtle as the rest of her character, may well be speaking the thoughts of Butler: “After a few years of watching the human species make things unnecessarily difficult for itself I have little hope that it will do anything more than survive and continue its cycle of errors.” Butler’s role in infiltrating the white man’s world of Science Fiction, and doing so with resounding success, is her legacy. Unfortunately, I doubt the writing itself will have much of a shelf life.

 

Delores Phillips’ “the darkest child”

51N14fU5oYL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_How can someone come seemingly from nowhere, deliver a devastating, masterful blow, and then once again disappear from the literary stage? I know next to nothing about Delores Phillips, but this, her only published novel, makes me fear what her dreams must be like. This story isn’t “horror”, it is a work of chilling, relentless despair.

From the very beginning of the story, Phillips seemingly tries to warn the reader against hope. When one of Rosie Quinn’s ten children is subject to unspeakable maternal brutality, the children react with rehearsed calm and dread: “We all begin to move, fetching water, tearing bandages, pouring our love onto a wound that will never heal. We work as a silent, defeated army, beaten down by our mother, tending our wounded. We do not retaliate for our victory is inconceivable.”

Rosie’s children, growing up in abject poverty, in segregated, racist Georgia, under the maniacal rule of their mother, possess a resilience that is unfathomable and exhausting. Though much of her efforts are to keep her children submissive and subservient, each finds his or her own, very different mode of survival and by the end the family is as shattered and dispersed as their hopes and dreams. Tangy Mae, the middle child and the story’s protagonist, deftly describes her ambiguous feelings towards a mother she both loathes and can’t resist loving.

“Sometimes I believed that she did not mean to hurt us, but could not help herself. She was, after all, the same gentle woman who had once, long ago, taught us to love, and I had learned to love with every part of my being. …I was baffled by the ambiguities of my mother’s emotions and behavior. She denied and feared God in the same breath. She allowed our actions to shame her, and yet she was void of shame. I truly believed that there was something unnatural about her – a madness that only her children could see. My yearning was not to understand it, but to escape it.”

Delores Phillips shares with her readers a story that is deeply, heartbreakingly heavy. But her writing is also crushingly beautiful and poetic. This story is a resonant, moving elegy; it is like a body-wracking cry with someone holding your hand. Here are two small samples of the way Phillips employs metaphor with an expert hand:

“And the silence began. And the sound of the silence was frightening. Rain pounded the tin roof like a thousand demons marching for their master, and the roof yielded. Liquid curses splashed down upon our heads and into the waiting vessels. In the gray shadows of a rainy dusk, then clock on the table ticked rhythmically, but the hands never moved. They were stuck.”

“People passed, spoke, and waved with no idea that innocence had sloughed from my body and lay in a heap at my feet.”

“the darkest child” speaks of poverty, racism, violence, family, and females. Women in this story, particularly as poor black women, have so few opportunities and nearly zero social standing. Women are seen as disposable objects, useful for sexual release and domestic servitude, but little else. Tangy is a gifted girl with dreams of a better future, but her mother and many of her siblings see those dreams as naive and selfish. Even Tangy’s best friend has internalized the message, presented overtly to her by her own father, that black women shouldn’t waste effort on ambition and dreams. She has decided to drop out of school, like most of the children in their town, and mocks Tangy’s hopes of graduating.

“After you finish school, what you gon’ do? You’ll get a job doing the same thing somebody doing that ain’t never went to school. My daddy say a colored woman ain’t shit. He say they ain’t good for nothing. Can’t do nothing but stand around putting a whole lot of weight on a man.”

I am so moved by and conflicted about this book. It is a captivating, stunningly wrought story that weighs heavily on the soul. Delores Phillips has created something masterful that deserves careful, thoughtful, and widespread consumption.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus”

imagesIn this, her first novel and the fourth of her works that I have read, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche tells the story of a Nigerian girl raised by a father who is equally a great and generous community leader and a tyrannical and brutal family man. Adiche, even this early in her career, is a master with language. Where some of her other works employ more fluidity, “Purple Hibiscus” is often spare and clipped. The restraint in its language, however, seems very true to the narrator’s voice and steeps the reader in an atmosphere where one must be ever cautious, ever vigilant, ever restrained. Adiche’s careful metaphors are beautiful and simple: “Papa looked at me and then at Mama, searched our faces as if looking for letters beneath our noses, above our foreheads, on our lips, that would spell something he would not like.”

Kambili grows up in a home with such rigorous discipline and such colossal expectations that she lives in constant fear, tongue-tied around classmates, cowering in her father’s shadow. Her sense of failure when she is ranked second in her class is devastating and poignant:

“I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me that I was fulfilling God’s purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to whom much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside of me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.”

Kambili has internalized her father’s demands; she is driven by fear and by an aching need for her father’s approval that smacks of Stockholm syndrome. When she sees first hand her Aunt’s way of parenting, she is struck by how different their methods are.

“It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.”

As she approaches womanhood, Kambili can not help but note the vast difference in her two female role models. Her mother, battered and nearly broken, is so afraid to offend or overstep that her life is but a whispered apology. In contrast, her Aunt lives life out loud, as a woman comfortable with her strength and her voice.

“When [Aunt Ifeoma] barged into the dining room upstairs, I imagined a proud ancient forebear, walking miles to fetch water in homemade clay pots, during babies until they walked and talked, fighting wars with machetes sharpened on sun-warmed stone. She filled a room.” 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a unique command of language. She speaks of culture and gender with eloquence and ease. Her books provide insight not just into Nigerian life, but into our own inner lives. My admiration of her grows with every work I read, and I look forward to continuing to nurture this literary love affair.

 

Bernice L. McFadden’s “Sugar”

51IYPr9ccWL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

Oh the breathtaking beauty and the relentless, quiet strength of Bernice L. McFadden’s writing and the women she has created here. I am so grateful that this Year of Reading Women project and my desire to highlight black women’s voices for the month of February led me to this brilliant author, yet I am abashed that it took this project for me to find her. McFadden, after slugging through “jobs”, came to her “profession” in 2000 with this stunning debut and has since published eight more novels, all beloved and praised by her readers, as is evidenced by the fact that they all hold an average rating of 4 out of 5 or higher on Goodreads. I am cowed that such a prolific and expert voice escaped my (apparently narrow) notice.

McFadden’s writing is masterfully understated and yet filled with vivid imagery. Her descriptions of the simplest, meaningless scenes are lush and palpable.

He was asleep on the sofa, the television watching him, a half-empty glass of Coke sitting on the floor, the ice melting loudly within it, a half-eaten bologna sandwich on a plate next to the glass. Sunday afternoon found him snoring in his second favorite snoozing place, after the far side of the middle pew in Bigelow’s First Baptist Church, the part that was hidden by a column.”

The depth of McFadden’s vision for and understanding of her characters is awesome. Her protagonists are fully formed and in the round, which makes their growth and transformations all the more stark. Pearl, a quiet pillar of the small Arkansas town in which she lives and a picture of true Southern decorum, possesses an innate feminine strength that drives her to fiercely protect her own. In a pivotal scene McFadden teases the reader with a glimpse of Pearl’s smoldering core:

“It was now obvious that they had pushed Pearl to the edge, she was ordering them to leave her house, to get out. Not feigning a headache or claiming that she had to rise early for church. No excuses this time, they had taken her way past courteous and dropped her off somewhere near I don’t give a damn!”

Sugar is often presented as Pearl’s foil, in the sense of the Yin and the Yang – two parts of a whole. Where Pearl is proper, shy, and retiring, Sugar is brash, caustic, and fiercely independent. No one is shocked more than she, then, when she finds herself smilingly embracing life and setting aside her steely armor. At this moment, McFadden’s language for such sudden, transformative love are a perfect outtake of her craft.

“Sugar was caught up in that joy. She had become a living, breathing part of it. [He] had become another limb she never knew she needed. The hours she spent away from him were crippling and made it, if not impossible, extraordinarily difficult to hold a teacup or flick a light switch. He was a third lung. Her breathing was labored without him. He made it possible for Sugar to see the beauty she possessed inside and out.”

Bernice L. McFadden doesn’t need my accolades or my fandom, but she absolutely has them. I dare to mention her name next to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I will devour more of her work, and I look forward to the imprint her characters will make on me. I suggest you do the same.

JoJo Moyes’s “After You”

AfterYou-2

In this sequel to “Me Before You”, Jojo Moyes deftly deals in grief, trauma, love and moving on. Her characters are charmingly flawed and their extraordinary plights somehow make them feel ordinary and believable. Her protagonist Lou, who is very much in the depths of grief-ridden despair, speaks rather eloquently about her struggles to navigate between delving into her memories and burying them.

“Sometimes I felt as if we were all wading around in grief, reluctant to admit to others how far we were wading or drowning. I wondered fleetingly whether Sam’s reluctance to talk about his wife mirrored my reluctance to discuss Will; the kind of knowledge that the moment you opened the box, let out even a whisper of your sadness, it would mushroom into a cloud that overwhelmed all other conversation.”

As Lou bumbles her way through her feelings loss, the reader also gets a vivid sense of the guilt she feels, not just about her role in her loss but in her strides towards moving on.

In addition to providing the subject of grief with levity, Moyes also deals quite humorously with the topic of feminism and the arising consciousness of a middle-aged, working class woman. Lou’s parents, true characters in their own right, undergo a battle of gender roles and lifelong expectations sparked off by Lou’s sister that has Lou’s father apoplectic and floundering.

“‘She’s trying to tell her I should be doing the cooking and cleaning and making out I’m some fecking caveman. But if I dare to say anything back she keeps telling me to ‘check my privilege.’ Check my privilege! I told her I’d be happy to check it if I knew where the hell your mother had put it. … Your mum was happy, I’m happy. We know what our roles are. I’m the one with hairy legs. She’s the one who fits the rubber gloves. Simple.'”

In my opinion, Moyes dances perilously along the line between “serious” literature and “chick lit”, a genre that is more guilty than pleasure for me. The book-snob in me often begrudges even Moyes’s visual presentation; the picture-less, loopily lettered covers bring to mind cheap grocery store novels ala Danielle Steele. Luckily, Moyes’ pluck and charm keep her from totally being sucked over to the dark side in a manner similar to Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and Allison Pearson’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” These are novels that are not destined for history or critical acclaim, but they do bring a certain amount of joy in those times when your brain simply needs a good situational comedy. The dramas are well constructed but not visceral; the readers investment is intellectually and emotionally minimal.

With biting wit and sharp dialogue, all in a modern British vernacular, Moyes creates a story that is compelling and enjoyable, if perhaps on the “easy listening” end of the spectrum.