Mommy issues among the free Blacks of Kings County, New York

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

r/suggestmeabook: I want a coming of age story of a young Black woman whose mother had very specific dreams for her.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 336

Publisher: Algonquin Books

ARC provided in exchange for honest review.

Second half of the 18th Century

From the publisher: Coming of age as a freeborn Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson is all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, has a vision for their future together: Libertie is to go to medical school and practice alongside her.

Ah, mothers. Easy to blame, and often justifiably, but it’s always so much more complicated than daughters anticipate. Not always an excuse, but often an explanation. Kaitlyn Greenidge does a great job of explicating the difficulties between a mother who wants her version of “the best” for her daughter when the two have different ideas of what is the best.

There is a greater comfort in being unseen than being understood and dismissed.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

This relationship is explored in the context of the years just before, during, and after the American Civil War, beginning with an eleven-year-old Libertie witnessing her mother’s first failure (at least that’s she’s seen) as a respected doctor, simultaneously becoming cognizant of her mother’s role in assisting people escape from slavery. Libertie is ready to part of the solution, and she resents anyone’s cold shoulder of her mother, even while she feels coldness radiating from her mother.

It was sad and cold to be outside her caring. It had scared me as a smaller child, made me cry.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

The evolution from idolizing daughter to a more complex adult is well conceived and believable. Libertie evaluates her mother first from how she is situated within their New York community, populated with many free Blacks, to how her mother is situated in the broader US where whites are openly contemptuous, and then Haiti, where Libertie wrestles with various ideas about what it is to be free and Black.

A daughter is a poem. A daughter is a kind of psalm. You, in the world, responding to me, is the song I made.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

Among the books I’ve read this year set in this general period with a Black protagonist, this is the first one where the political and racial situation was mostly in the background, although slavery and racism pervade and inform the actions of Libertie as well as others. What would it be like to spend your life free when the color of your skin is the same as that condemning others to slavery? How does it affect your world view when your interactions with whites begin with violence and end in contempt? The different answers to these questions of Libertie and her mother are inseparable from the quality of their relationship.

I had grown up free, only around colored people, and I could not fathom their scrutiny. And Mama chose them over me, every time.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

But instead of directly focusing on slavery and racism as in The Underground Railroad, or even on the social structure of freed blacks, as in The Conductors, Libertie focuses on intimate relationships, first of Libertie and her mother, then of Libertie and her singing friends, then of Libertie and her husband (and his family) in Haiti. Sometimes Libertie and those around her seem to exist in a parallel world where whites are not a factor, but that illusion is sometimes crushed suddenly, and other times the outside world is only visible through the cracks it leaves.

Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

The other theme that’s explored through these relationships is that of colorism. Libertie is darker than her mother, who is light enough to pass, if she should so choose, which she emphatically does not. But Libertie’s life is shaped by that difference in shade, from how she’s perceived by other members of the Black community as well as by whites. It’s a less heavy-handed approach than The Blacker the Berry, yet still manages to make the same basic point of the insidious effects of colorism.

Mrs. Grady had taken to calling to me, as I left for class, “Go on, Black Gal, make me proud,” and though I smiled at her each time she said it, knew she meant it with love, I could only hear a lie in her voice.

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Libertie

Kaitlyn Greenidge explores all of these issues and relationships with delicately drawn with thoughtful details, and the resulting book is a pleasure to read.

For more on the significant historical event that I’m not talking about because, well, spoiler, check out this link.


Finding freedom in British Guiana

A Review of Song by Michelle Jana Chan

 Random Things Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to experience British colonialism from the perspective of a Chinese boy trapped in a racist system. And lots of birds.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 480

Publisher: Unbound

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

British West Indies Colonial Fiction

From the publisher: Song is just a boy when he sets out from Lishui village in China. Brimming with courage and ambition, he leaves behind his impoverished broken family, hoping he’ll make his fortune and return home. Chasing tales of sugarcane, rubber and gold, Song embarks upon a perilous voyage across the oceans to the British colony of Guiana, but once there he discovers riches are not so easy to come by and he is forced into labouring as an indentured plantation worker. 

Michelle Jana Chan has delivered a world that I was not familiar with, British Guiana (Guyana since 1966), a colony where power resided in the planters. The British Empire outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but emancipation didn’t occur until 1838, and the sugar cane planters replaced their slaves with what were nominally indentured servants. They might have well have been slaves, given that they were often transported under deceptive term with the cost of the transportation supposedly to be worked off, but it was a goal that moved ever away as the planters charged the indentured servants’ cost of living to their remaining debt.

Song is a boy who endures the cost of that deception as well as the racism that fuels a system dependent on a powerless labor class. British Guiana used Chinese and then Indian workers after the former enslaved persons of African descent wanted nothing to do with the plantations.

The character of Song is well realized, as well as the rest of the cast: the despicable Mr. Cameron, the progressive Father Holmes, the hearts-of-gold ladies, the ruffians of Bartica, the friendly Amerinds, and the snobbish “civilized” folk of Georgetown. There are some heart-tearing moments of racism and violence, and the questions of what will you do to be safe and how to combat the status quo are reckoned with.

The pacing is a little uneven. It took me a little while to get into it, then I was completely absorbed in the story until, even though it’s a sad commentary on how my attention works, things got better for Song for a while and there seemed to be little conflict. This oasis for him was sweet and helped build for the next push of crap to be thrown at him, but it was much slower reading. However, I cared enough about Song by that point that I stuck with it.

In addition to the themes of power and privilege, racism and activism, Chan explores some other very interesting ideas in this novel: how much property does one need, what dreams are worthy, how do we deal with repeated losses, and how much does education remediate class differences? She doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but she illuminates portions of the spectrums.

A fascinating study in the book is that comparing Bartica, a rough frontier town, to Georgetown, the heart of colonial government. The overt premise is that the evils of the former are all on the outside, and less in aggregate, than those of the latter, hidden, insidious, and greater. There may not be stabbings on the street or whores every few blocks in Georgetown, but Song is assailed more frequently and pointedly in Georgetown than Bartica. And therein lies what seems to be the implicit story: that racism is more pronounced in “civilized” areas where power congregates and evil is disguised than in a rough place where most are scrabbling to survive.

My biggest complaint is about the ending, which is always a tricky thing to complain about without some spoilers. Let me simply say that it felt like it trailed off rather than ended, which is often a choice on the part of the author, but part of what I enjoy about fiction (as opposed to real life) is the possibility of closure, of a sense of completion. I’ve heard some critics talk about the need to meet the expectations that have been set, but those expectations are set by Western storytelling conventions, so I’m not saying this is wrong or bad, just that it’s a type of ending I don’t care for.

However, it’s largely a compelling read and an intriguing slice of life in a part of world history that many Americans have probably never heard of, and I appreciate the guided tour.


Exiled between worlds

Big 4+ prepublication review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

r/suggestmeabook: I want a political novel seared by the trauma of colonialism as experienced by a woman of color acting as an officer for the colonizing power.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 442

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 3/23/21

Series: Magic of the Lost

From the publisher: Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought. Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne. Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

This novel, graphically demonstrating the ills of imperialism, made me dream of the Amritsar Massacre and the Sepoy Rebellion (which was the name given back when I first learned of it) when I was in the midst of it, not sure which way the story was going. However, there are little frills of French, so I probably should have been thinking the Battle of Algiers. C.L. Clark’s book is that vivid, thrusting you into the point of view of what it would be like to feel trapped between a world that had trained you and an unremembered land that gave you birth.

The Balladrians could—would—flay them all alive. Or whip them just as near. It baffled her, how stupid the rebels were about the balance of power: The Qazali had nothing. Balladaire had numbers, equipment, supplies—they were winning, had been winning for decades.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Touraine has long been caught between her ambition to make something of herself in the Baladaire empire for which she has fought in many wars and her desire to protect her fellow Sands, other conscripts from her homeland. That tension is pulled to its utmost when her unit is deployed to the land of their birth, Qazal. No one wants her—not the country she’s bled for or the country she was pulled from with no say in the matter. Sometimes you just want to shake her to see things as they are (and occasionally yell at her for some ill-considered choices), but you can’t help feeling for her predicament.

Always, always someone weighed her. Always, someone looked for the flaw.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Luca, princess and arguably rightful ruler of the empire, has been sent to deal with local disturbances. I had less sympathy for her and her inability, at times, to empathize with the colony she’d come to. Having a disabled protagonist who was quite functional despite the condition that made walking or dancing difficult was a plus, but her self-centeredness was a bit off-putting. She can dress it up as beneficial to all her subjects, but those claims felt hollow.

It made Luca wonder what new boundaries people would have to make in the future—how they would call themselves, what they would find to separate themselves from each other.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It’s an absorbing story, full of devious actors. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, and the otherness that Touraine always feels is convincing and heart-rending. There’s also a lot of questioning about who is responsible for what and how to handle competing priorities and loyalties. There are some occasional abrupt shifts in pace, and times when the motivations for actions seem less than convincing. The mood is grim most of the time.

People like you and me have to remind people like her the difference between what’s important and what’s possible.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

As well as the unusual storyline, The Unbroken features a cast that’s overwhelmingly female. They all have their own quirks and personalities, and almost all of them are strong (and fragile) in unique ways. Lesbian relationships are taken as a matter of course, a pleasant feature in an alternate reality.

They never chose this. They’re not getting rewarded for valor with ribbons and raises. We just die, and when we die, we’re not even worth the wood to burn us.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Another interesting feature is that Balladaire has eliminated religion, if not by law, by a pervasive social view that it is “uncivilized.” The imperial view is in opposition to the religious nature of most of the subject countries, although the religions portrayed remind me more of the contractual types of religion (do this for me and I’ll do that for you) rather than any mystical-type connection.

Magic was a tool, perhaps even a weapon. Religion was folly dressed as hope.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It takes a while for any fantasy aspect (other than an imagined reality) to appear, and it may be too limited for some fantasy junkies. But I found it a compelling, if at times disturbing, read.


Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.


Fiction most truthful

Big 4+ review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a reimagined history of slavery that illuminates individual and group brutality as seen through the eyes of a young enslaved woman.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Audiobook: 10 hours and 43 minutes

Publisher: Doubleday

2017 Pulitzer Prize: Fiction

From the publisher: In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.

I decided to read this book after seeing it on a list of historical fiction must-reads and didn’t look into it any further. For a change, I decided to try the audiobook (and it was available sooner from my library). Bahni Turpin is an amazing narrator. She did a great job with the voices, making each character distinct. She got through all the brutality without ever overdoing it and turning it into a mockery, which would have been tempting, as harsh as it gets at times. And the writing? Gorgeous.

Sometimes such an experience bound one person to another; just as often the shame of one’s powerlessness made all witnesses into enemies.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The first section of the book, about 1/5 of the overall text, is straight historical recreation. Colson Whitehead makes sure that we’ve adequately toured the degradation of field hands in Georgia’s cotton fields. What was unexpected was that, unlike other books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, Whitehead delves into the relationships between the enslaved—not the typical house vs. field, but among those working the fields—and how the cruelty of their environment poisoned the relations among them. Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained didn’t go nearly this far, so be prepared for a shit ton of violence. Is it unwarranted? I think not, given what the reality was.

Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than the one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America, the quirk was that people were things.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So imagine my surprise when I get to the part where the railroad is literally carved underground. It’s not like they hide it in the description, so it’s my bad for not knowing. Not knowing that this was going to be more along the lines of alternate history, it was like taking a bite of what you thought was gravy and finding out it’s pudding. It’s not that you dislike the pudding; it’s just that you weren’t prepared for it.

The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating patter. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I do have some issues with the literal underground railroad, just because the world is so literal in most ways that it’s a strain on the suspension of disbelief. Creating tunnels that reach from Georgia to Indiana would be a feat of engineering far past the ordinary abilities of untrained labor, even today. In the period, the technology was just being invented after early attempts to tunnel under the Thames demonstrated the hazards of doing so–it’s not just a matter of enough brute strength to pick your way through the stone or earth.

But even that didn’t bother me so much as what anyone who watched enough WWII POW escape movies (or even Hogan’s Heroes) knows: What would they have done with all the debris? That’s always a big thing for those movies–or of prison escapes by tunneling. You have to have someplace to put the dirt you’ve taken out of the hole to avoid suspicion. So where the hell did they put the debris? It bothered me more than it should.

The cabins radiated permanence and in turn summoned timeless feelings in those who lived and died in them: envy and spite.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

But, okay, I got past that. The writing is beautiful, in contrast to the horror it invokes, and the pace is generally on point. I’m not crazy about the digressions into other points of view that don’t really lend themselves to moving the plot along; only two of them seem at all necessary to the story.

White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The use of other historical assaults on the health and integrity of Blacks in this country, although displaced in time and place to be included in this narrative, integrates the narrative of racism in an effective way. It’s not just evil slaveowners on the plantation, but reaches out across to those who are purportedly looking to advance Blacks.

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always—the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tine moment across the eternity of her servitude.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

As a result, it’s easy to enter into the feelings of Cora, the protagonist, when she is suspicious of whites who say they’re going to help. It’s easy to say; hard to do. Even seemingly helpful whites offer betrayal at times, so it’s hard to know who to trust. But Whitehead doesn’t then elevate all Blacks to sainthood; there’s treachery there as well. Whitehead’s world in The Underground Railroad, bent and distorted by slavery and the concomitant racism, is a stunning feat of imagining oneself into another reality, informed by facts but turned into an immersive experience through his artful use of them.

As the years pass, Valentine observed, racial violence only becomes more vicious in its expression. It will not abate or disappear, not anytime soon, and not in the south.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

So, on the balance, I am in favor of this alternate reality, as it shines a light on truth through fiction. It’s not quite perfect, but, damn, it’s close.


A Harlem ghost story

A Little in Love with Death by Anna M. Taylor

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella about a deadly haunted house that came between lovers.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 97

Publisher: Self

Series: Haunted Harlem

The woman in the banner photo is Hazel Scott, who doesn’t actually appear in the novel, but the photo is from the correct time period. She shouldn’t be erased, as she was a pioneer, the first black woman to host her own television show.

From the publisher: Ten years ago no one — not even the man who said he loved her — believed Sankofa Lawford’s claim she had been brutally attacked by a ghost. Ten years later an assault on a new victim brings her back to Harlem to a mother going mad, a brother at his wits’ end and a former love who wants a second chance. Sankofa longs for her family to be whole again, for love to be hers again, but not if she must relive the emotional pain created by memories of that night.

This is the story of a couple haunted by the past—more literally than most. Sankofa and Mitchell were the loves of each other’s lives until the incident in haunted Umoja, the house Sankofa grew up in. Reunited at Sankofa’s mother’s bedside, they have to decide how to confront the past, which includes confronting some ghosts.

The pain of the separated lovers provokes any pain of separation in your heart, as Anna M. Taylor’s skillful descriptions burrow in past your defenses. It’s hard not to root for the couple to reunite, even though you can feel the frustration of each side’s point of view. In many ways, this novella is more romance than ghost story, although the ghost story is intrinsic to the couple’s problems.

I didn’t believe you before, but I do now. Is that apology enough?

Apology enough for calling her loony when she tried to get him to see the spirits she saw? Apology enough for laughing when her mother and aunt alike tongue-lashed her for hearing voices, for repeating information she had no business knowing?

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

The shifts of point of view from Sankofa to Mitchell were occasionally a little abrupt, but overall served the story well. The atmosphere of the haunted house is evocative. However, despite the fact that the characters fear the house, I never was afraid; there’s more of a sense of uncovering mysteries than facing unknown terror.

Its gothic facade contrasted majestically with the soulless brick, glass, and steel make-up of the neighboring buildings. Umoja’s four-cornered tower looked between two four-story wings topped with crenellated walls. Arched windows framed in contrasting white keystones gave the gray-stone exterior a bejeweled aspect. However, unlike City College and Cannon Pres, no amount of sunlight dispelled the exterior bleakness Umoja retained.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Themes of faith and rationalism are deftly explored with an apparent attempt to reconcile them. I’m not convinced by the recitations of faith, but I can respect them. The notion of family secrets and who should be told the truth is more intriguing to me; a refrain through the book is the saying, “Them that tell don’t know, and them that know don’t tell.”

Mitchell dry scrubbed his face. Could he accept his answer wasn’t the truth? He studied his friend. A scientist and an evangelical believer, John Mortimer was Mitch’s bumblebee: the thing defied all the reasons it shouldn’t exist by its very existence.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Mental health issues are also explored, in particular the stigma it creates. Can someone who has mental health issues be trusted? The novella raises the question through the mouths of various characters, most notably Sankofa’s brother, but never quite resolves the question.

As always the memory of the attack thrust Sankofa into the wintriness of insanity. She shuddered, despite the sunshine bathing the spot where she stood.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Overall, this novella is an absorbing story demonstrating how ghosts, both figurative and literal, affect the people that live with them.


Diversifying the voices in our heads

Inspired by Shut Up, Shealeas post on Diversity 101

I’ve always loved fiction that takes me other places, whether other times, cultures, or realities, so looking to include diversity seems a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you want fresh voices?

Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, and actively promoting diverse reading is required to help broaden our understanding of the human experience. It’s incumbent on those of us with white CIS hetero Protestant privilege to be good allies.

Shealea of Shut Up, Shealea posted an amazing primer on diverse reading, giving a call to action as well as definitions and suggested readings.

The larger call for diversity is a call for equal accessibility and opportunity for stories about marginalized lives *and* a publishing industry that reflects the diversity of the world that we live in.

Shealea, Shut Up, Shealea

Since I’m not in the publishing industry, anything I can do is indirect. I’d read awhile ago that self-publishing was one of the ways to help promote voices that aren’t getting taken up by traditional publishers. As long as we’re a capitalist system, the main way to create diversity is to make it a market demand. Buying, borrowing, and talking about those books is important.

If you’re an author considering self-publishing, promoting diversity can also mean affirmatively seeking out diversity in those doing the editing, cover art, layout, e-book formatting, etc. Now sometimes that’s tough—people have to self-identify first, as you don’t want to ask “Excuse me, are you nonwhite, non-Western, disabled, neurodiverse, or LGBTQA+?”

One of the people who helped me think about the question of representation in literature is Ian Hancock, a Romani linguist and activist. He pointed out was that the Romani, still frequently referred to as gypsies (considered pejorative by most Roma), lost the same percentage of their population as the Jews, but the Porajmos, as Hancock and other activists refer to the Romani share of the Holocaust, is not spoken of as often. Part of that is because the absolute number of Jews is much higher.

Hancock and others also point to the differences between the populations. The Roma have been systematically oppressed for generations, and are poor and largely illiterate, as opposed to the Jews, who have also been systematically oppressed, but are largely literate. As a result, there is no mindset for record-keeping, nor, as Hancock has put it, a Romani elite.

For him, it was necessary to have a percentage of Romani who became well educated to have representatives whose speech would be respected by the dominant Western white cultures. It’s kind of like the concept popularized by W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth.

Although there are controversies about some of Hancock’s opinions, the salient point is this: Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters. The Romani experience of the Holocaust illustrates that. The sheer number of deaths suffered by the Romani was not enough to raise awareness of the Porajmos; authors were needed to bring that forward. There is no diary by a young Romani girl; there is no parallel to Night by Eli Wiesenthal.

Literacy matters. Stories matter. Representation within the literary sphere matters.

As literacy grows, the barriers should be lower for those underrepresented voices to express themselves in ways that others can read and empathize with. It shouldn’t be about an elite—it should be available to help pave the way for people of all types to “live their best life,” to use a cliche. That doesn’t happen, though, without conscious thought, because the powers that be are still overrepresented in every aspect of publishing.

So it’s incumbent on all of us to read diversely and to demand diverse voices in our books, and to promote those voices. However, as an ally and reviewer, I’m sometimes in a bind—I’m not an authority on any of the experiences of these communities, but I’m passing my admittedly subjective judgment on books. My goal is to look at the writing as writing when looking at books by members of those communities—not addressing the validity of the experience so much as how well it is communicated to an outsider.

However, it’s trickier when it comes to characters from those communities. Who am I to pass judgment on the authenticity of the characters, particularly if there’s no overt self-identification by the author? Again, I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to the experts in the community. I won’t spot them all as I don’t have that finely honed sensitivity one gets about their own issues, but I feel that when a book starts rubbing me the wrong way about its depiction of a person of color or a LGBTQ character, then I should point it out.

I have a goal: to be aware of potential issues and point them out, but defer to Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Because, of course, even members of any of these communities will have different perspectives on their experiences which will shape their feelings about the characters in question. Subjectivity is inherent in how we consume any art, but inclusiveness and diversity are still something to be sought after, even if never quite achieved.

Shealea posed two great questions that stopped me because I rarely think of casual or nonreaders in this context, despite their existence in my immediate sphere:

  • How can you encourage other readers (and even non-readers!) to pick up diverse books?
  • Do you think that accessibility plays a large role in a person’s ability to read diversely?

The second issue is probably easier—yes, there is so much noise out there that finding diverse novels takes more effort than simply picking up whatever is on a rack in the drug store.

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

As to the first question: Is it a matter of providing “gateway” books (like comics or graphic novels)* by underrepresented communities to places where people are more likely to pick up a book? Or has the ubiquity of cell phones crowded out the possibility of someone picking up print places where we used to: doctor’s offices, hospitals, garages, or anyplace else where you’re trapped waiting on someone else?

I want to act, not just talk, but I want to act effectively and appropriately, so talking comes first. What should a concerned ally do?

If you’re ready to read, go to Shut Up, Shealea and find a book to broaden your frame of reference. Or, if you’ve exhausted her list, or need some other places to check out, try some of these sites:

Comments much appreciated!

(Many thanks to S., Fabienne, and HermitCrone for their assistance in helping me think through this post; however, no blame attaches to them for opinions expressed herein.)

* Not meaning any disrespect to comics and graphic novels, but they seem to be less intimidating that walls of words.

Train ride to the precipice

The Salt Fields by Stacy D. Flood

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella-length character study of a Black man during his transition from a life full of tragedy in South Carolina to an uncertain future up north.

Post WWII

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 128

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Publication date: 3/9/2021

Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss

From the publisher: On the day that Minister Peters boards a train from South Carolina heading north, he has nothing left but ghosts: the ghost of his murdered wife, the ghost of his drowned daughter, the ghosts of his father and his grandmother and the people who disappeared from his town without trace or explanation.

This beautifully written novella is a close study of the interior life of a man who has had to compartmentalize all his various tragedies. Some are particular to him; some are sadly endemic to being a southern Black man in 1947.

Some things we lose should be irreplaceable, and the thorns of the past or the future should always pierce the skin.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

If you want plot, there’s not going to be much for you; it’s a ridealong with the protagonist on a train ride from his lifelong home along the South Carolina coast toward the promised(ish) land of the north. He’s not even sure of his destination—just away from the ghosts that haunt his days.

I was longing to pass the time until the train until the train until the train actually moved us away, as if, at any moment, a cop or spirit or storm could come and trap us here in a pile of bruises or thick mud or regret.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The book resonates with a regret that Minister can’t quite articulate, although his observations of the world around him are acute. This is a rational man trying to deal with an irrational world, and his coping style is one of dissociation, to the detriment of himself and those he loves.

Mass graves didn’t surprise us. We believed in horror, and horrible men.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The style is elliptical at times, where the meanings of the interactions must be guessed at. Minister will tell you, in this first person account, of his interactions, of the facts, of what may be seen, but not always what is meant.

But I suspected it wasn’t just one thing, one argument, one slight, one memory, one word. We’re human beings. It rarely is one thing.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The other characters are deftly drawn: the disillusioned former soldier, the hyperactive man-of-the-world, and the elegant woman with an agenda. The protagonist only spends a short time with them, but they affect the remainder of his life in a way that’s surprising, given the tragedies that he endured before he met them.

An affecting, wistful, and tragic story of a life of alienation and of the consequences of choice, The Salt Fields may haunt you with its ghosts.


Fear and loathing in the Stillness

A Big5+ review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

r/suggestmeabook: I want a gut-wrenching tale of the end of a world that has enslaved its most powerful magicians.

Apocalyptic climate fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 378

Publisher: Orbit

From the publisher: This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

You probably already know all this, but some of us are perpetually late.

The Fifth Season is of those reads where you’re so blown away you can hardly form the words to discuss it immediately after finishing. It’s searing and beautiful and tragic. I’m sure a fictional world has affected me like this before, but I can’t think of one. It’s more like after the first time I saw Schindler’s List, where the horror, strength, and beauty of humanity so potently mixed.

Essun, a mother who has tried so hard to live among the stills (the normies or muggles of this reality), is reeling from unspeakable tragedy. Damala, a young girl whose world has been shattered by her unexpected power, is betrayed by bigotry allayed with fear. Syenite, a young woman who has scrabbled for each jot of dignity, who is ordered to do something all her work should have exempted her from, but her talent is too precious to waste.

The world building is exceptional, mortared stone by stone. The characters are fully realized. The magic functions in a coherent way. The world is true to itself–none of those moments where you are pulled out of the story by internal inconsistency.

And it does what fantasy and science fiction are uniquely suited for: it holds up our societal ills in a way that enhances our view of reality through carefully planned fiction. The Fifth Season illuminates the realities of ignoring our environment as well as the cruelty of an oppression which masks itself as protection, but does it so artfully that you are compelled to keep reading through to the conclusion.

An amazing, emotional read, but not for the faint of heart. Will I read the two remaining books in the trilogy? I am equal parts desire and fear.