A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Date Read: May 19th 2017

Published: 2000

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages: 81

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright, A Small Place magnifies our vision of one small place with Swiftian wit and precision. Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay candidly appraises the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up, and makes palpable the impact of European colonization and tourism. The book is a missive to the traveler, whether American or European, who wants to escape the banality and corruption of some large place. Kincaid, eloquent and resolute, reminds us that the Antiguan people, formerly British subjects, are unable to escape the same drawbacks of their own tiny realm—that behind the benevolent Caribbean scenery are human lives, always complex and often fraught with injustice.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Where do I even begin with this book? A Small Place is… brutal. It’s brutal for the reader (especially if you’re a white reader), for Antiguans, the Antiguan government and it’s tourism industry. A Small Place is a short book of 81 pages, full of vitriol, which is somewhat justified. Kincaid gives harsh criticisms on her native island’s dishonest and disappointing leadership and ultimately views the poor governing of Antigua as an extension of colonialism; neo-colonialism, if you will.

In A Small Place, Kincaid takes readers to Antigua in four chapters. In the first chapter, Kincaid describes the picture-perfect beauty of her country and juxtaposes the island’s beauty to the not-so-pretty issues everyday citizens endure. In subsequent chapters, Kincaid critiques the essence of travel, tourism and even tourists – who are mostly white. At some point, I began to wonder if Kincaid condoned xenophobia, because the way she describes how fellow Antiguans and other folks from the Caribbean dislike tourists (to the point where she actually insults imaginary white tourists), it could be seen as quite hateful –

An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way they look); the physical sight of you does not please them; you have bad manners (it is their custom to eat their food with their hands; you try eating their way, you look silly; you try eating the way you always eat, you look silly); they do not like the way you speak… (pg. 17)

Halfway through reading, I also began to wonder if this book was banned at some point – it had to be! The bold quote below explains my curiosity –

Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than what it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them? How did Antigua get to such a state that I would have to ask myself this? For the answer on every Antiguan’s lips to the question ‘What is going on here now?’ is ‘The government is corrupt. Them are thief, them are big thief.’ Imagine, then, the bitterness and the shame in me as I tell you this. (pg. 42)

I’d fear for my life if I ever published anything like this! I doubt A Small Place is even sold in the Caribbean because Kincaid spews sharp, controversial opinions on (former) Prime Ministers of Antigua, Grenada and Haiti. She’s really a ball of fire, this Kincaid woman!

I think it’s important to read this book/memoir as a satire. If you take Kincaid’s frank critique to heart, you’ll be missing the point completely. Reading Kincaid lament over the corruption and misappropriation of Antiguan government funds felt all too familiar to me. A Small Place mimics the same issues Chinua Achebe had with Nigeria, as seen in The Trouble With Nigeria and mimics the SAME issues we face in Ghana as well. For example – for years, the Chinese have been mining gold in Ghana illegally (locally referred to as ‘Galamsey’) to the point where most of our water bodies (like River Pra & River Ankobra in the Western region, Enu River in the Ashanti Region, The Black Volta in the Upper West Region, River Densu in Accra, Birim River in the Eastern Region) within the country are contaminated with mercury and other toxic metals. While the current administration is trying to put a halt to the illegal mining, allegedly, previous administrations were benefitting from the illegal act. In A Small Place, Kincaid speaks on how ‘The government is for sale; anybody from anywhere can come to Antigua and for a sum of money can get what he wants. (pg. 47).’ Many citizens in Ghana feel the same way! Supermarkets, coffee shops/restaurants, various corporations and even land, are owned by foreigners. Government officials rarely have locals in mind and seem to be easily swayed by money-making foreigners who are slowly taking over our natural resources,

How does a food importer on a small island have enough money to lend to a government? Syrian and Lebanese nationals regularly lend the government money. Syrian and Lebanese nationals own large amounts of land in Antigua, and on the land they own in the countryside they build condominiums that they then sell (prices quoted in United States dollars) to North Americans and Europeans… (pg. 62)

A Small Place is an important book and a wake up call. It reveals a lot of truth, exposes the bad leadership of her native island (well, I don’t know if the government of Antigua has changed much today) and ties all the complex issues Antigua faces to our imperfect human nature. Kincaid’s writing style is direct yet lyrical in this brutally honest account of this small place. This book was originally published back in 1988, but sadly, it’s still relevant to several countries in Africa and the Caribbean today. When will the greed, lies, corruption and dishonesty from people in positions of power ever end? While this book reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria, Kincaid’s sour wit and sarcasm are 100 times more piercing than Achebe’s. Read A Small Place and marvel at this woman’s heroism.

★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

[My Kincaid collection thus far. Image via the Instagram page]

Purchase A Small Place on Amazon

What We Lose: A Novel by Zinzi Clemmons

Date Read: March 18th 2017

Published: July 11th 2017

Publisher: Viking Books

Pages: 224

 

The Blurb

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love. 

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

Laden with meditative, intimate and at times unsettling vignettes, What We Lose will leave you in a pensive state. Thandi – the heroine of this novel, is the only child of her mother (a coloured South African) and father (a light skinned African American) who is very aware of her privileges & multicultural background. Readers follow Thandi on her journey from childhood to adulthood as she navigates what it means to be a black woman in America and South Africa, dealing with the loss of a loved one, motherhood and love.

What We Lose is based on Zinzi Clemmons’s life, BUT it isn’t her life. If you’ve been following Clemmons’s work online, especially her 2013 piece –  A Geography of Hurt, you’d find the subject matter in this novel familiar. While there isn’t a clear-cut plot to this novel, Clemmons successfully portrays Thandi’s life through short vignettes. The vignettes reflect Thandi’s complex thoughts – private, absorbing and heartfelt thoughts, that one probably wouldn’t even share with their closest partner. Some bits of the text feel philosophical which was confusing at times, but appreciated. I love how pictures and graphs and random news articles are scattered throughout the book, as it gave the storytelling an unconventional feel.

Johannesburg, South Africa plays a vital role in this novel. The world is so absorbed in American politics (aka: Trump) that we forget about the intense and ever present racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Thandi and her family are coloureds and wealthy, so readers experience a different account of racial dynamics in South Africa through their lens, which is refreshing. It was intriguing to see how American racial relations and South African racial relations were juxtaposed and how they impacted Thandi’s life and even play a role in her grieving process and the important decisions she makes in her life.

Anyone whose lost a parent will deeply resonate with this novel. I initially thought this novel would be morbid and sorrowful, but I was glad to find that it reads more as a visceral novel – deep feelings and black psyche are articulated so aptly!

Quotes that made me think about blackness and grief:

To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours. Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson. Martin Lawrence… We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational… But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance… I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be(pg. 26)

I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. (pg. 31)

Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing – not sickness, not suffering, not death – could change that. (pg. 82)

This is the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it. (pg. 95)

I’m not sure how this book is being marketed to the public; but for me, What We Lose tackles so much more than the issue of race. This coming-of-age novel reminds you that we are all human. We are all dealing with our personal struggles. We are all trying to thrive and heal and survive. Illness, love, race, mental health, motherhood, sisterhood and social class dynamics are wonderfully weaved into the overall themes of grief and the quest to belong.

Read the book chat I had with Zinzi Clemmons on What We Lose, her favorite black writers, her relationship to South Africa, self-care tips, who’d play Thandi if the novel ever made it to the big screen and more.

Special thanks again to Zinzi Clemmons and the team at Viking Books for the ARC!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase What We Lose on Amazon

A Bitter Pill To Swallow by Tiffany Gholar

Date Read: February 15th 2017

Published: 2016

PublisherBlurb Books

Pages: 315

 

 

 

 

The Blurb 

Winner of the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.

On the edge of the Chicago medical district, the Harrison School for Exceptional Youth looks like a castle in a snow globe. Janina has been there since she was ten years old, and now she’s fourteen. She feels so safe inside its walls that she’s afraid to leave.
Devante’s parents bring him there after a tragedy leaves him depressed and suicidal. Even though he’s in a different place, he can’t escape the memories that come flooding back when he least expects them.
Dr. Gail Thomas comes to work there after quitting her medical residency. Frustrated and on the verge of giving up on her dreams, she sees becoming a counselor as her last chance to put her skills to the test.
When he founded the school, Dr. Lutkin designed its unique environment to be a place that would change the students’ lives. He works hard as the keeper of other people’s secrets, though he never shares any of his own.
But everything changes late in the winter of 1994 when these four characters’ lives intersect in unexpected ways. None of them will ever be the same.

 Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

A Bitter Pill To Swallow is a young adult novel set in 1994 Chicago that closely follows three characters as they battle with various stresses life brought them. Devante is a young black high school student, suffering from intense PTSD; Janina is a quirky young black high school student, who has been diagnosed with some features of schizotypal personality disorder; Dr. Gail Thomas is a determined young black women who is finally a medical resident after taking a break from her residency program, due to family issues. All three characters have their own bitter pills to swallow and eventually meet at a therapeutic boarding school- The Harrison School, run by a kind and gentle psychiatrist, Dr. Lutkin.

Each chapter alternates between the three characters’ or Dr. Lutkin’s point of view; no, it’s not confusing – Gholar does a great job at allowing the story to flow quite nicely. The characters have their own storylines, which eventually merge towards the end, making this an absorbing, suspenseful read. Dr. Gail’s chapters were bold and readers see black girl magic at work in her character. In my opinion, she’s the heroine of this novel – you’ll have to get your copy to find out why!

The Harrison School is not your average therapeutic boarding school. It is an ideal environment for anyone – not just students who battle with mental illness. Tiffany Gholar’s palpable descriptions of various rooms decorated in tones like amethyst purples, sapphire blues and emerald greens as well as descriptions of students having their own comfy bedrooms with medical staff always on call, made me wish this sanctuary actually existed. Since Tiffany Gholar is an artist (she designed the four different book covers for this novel), writer and interior designer, trust and believe that her descriptions are impressively vivid and vibrant. Vivid descriptions + great storytelling sprinkled with suspense made this an enjoyable read.

Tiffany Gholar’s A Bitter Pill to Swallow is a reminder of why we need to support more Indie writers. I would give this novel 5 stars, but the words ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ were over-used for a story of this nature. Maybe the use of these words were intentional, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. One theme that’s constant in this novel is the theme of mental health awareness. Each character is dealing which his/her own stresses that have an effect on their mental and emotional health. From reading the blurb, one may think this novel is super heavy and dark, but it’s not at all. Readers will encounter a blossoming romance, crazy pharmaceutical politics, issues surrounding race, funny commentary on various students and events. Be prepared to enter a time-capsule as you travel back to 1994 when singer Tevin Campbell, Digable Planets (hip hop group) and the film ET were still popular. The novel isn’t bogged down with excessive depressing happenings – trust me on this one!

Lately, there is more and more talk in the Black community around mental health and ‘self-care’ to the point where it’s even (unfortunately) commercialized. Black/African communities rarely used to speak on the issue of mental health because they/we think everything can be prayed away. But I strongly believe seeking help through psychotherapy or finding a counsellor can be the first step towards healing – Devante, Janina, Dr. Gail and Dr. Lutkin are proof of this! I hope this novel gets the attention of various middle and high schools because Gholar’s sensitive writing is a great tool for discussing various personal issues, with young adults of color.

Special thanks to Tiffany Gholar for sending me the Dr. Gail Thomas edition of the book!

 ★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!

Purchase A Bitter Pill To Swallow on Amazon

Poetry | soft magic. & Questions for Ada

Hey everyone! At the end of my review of salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, I listed a bunch of contemporary poets and expressed my keen interest in reading their work in the near future. Poets – Upile Chisala and Ijeoma Umebinyuo were on that list and I finally purchased their collections (for my birthday last year) and enjoyed them at the beginning of this year. Below are mini reviews of their respective poetry collections.

(this is African Book Addict!’s 100th post by the way!)

soft magic. by Upile Chisala

Date Read: January 7th 2017

Published: September 2015

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Pages: 122

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

soft magic. is the debut collection of prose and poetry by Malawian writer, Upile Chisala. This book explores the self, joy, blackness, gender, matters of the heart, the experience of Diaspora, spirituality and most of all, how we survive. soft magic. is a shared healing journey.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

soft magic. is a decent collection, Upile (who is a young storyteller and ‘artivist’ from Malawi) has done well. I liked that soft magic. was healing and self-helpish, but this collection is more of a 2.5 stars rating, for me. It’s hard to rate and review a poetry collection you aren’t really fond of, because poetry is so personal to the poet and his/her journey – who am I to have an opinion on anyone’s journey?

This collection could have benefitted from more editing- the typos were quite annoying to spot. I hate to compare (especially since Upile recently went on a rant on Twitter about how discouraging it can be when people compare African writers to Chimamanda Adichie) but in my opinion, some of the poems felt like a knock-off from ‘salt.’ Also, I felt Upile overused the word ‘darling’ in this collection. I rolled by eyes so hard at every poem (which is about 80% of them) where ‘darling’ appeared; there are so many other words of endearment that could have been used in this collection. On a lighter note, I do appreciate how pro-black this collection is. The poems that expressed Upile’s unapologetic pride for her heritage and blackness were the most powerful.

My favorite poems:

being this ebony.
having this name.
carrying this language in my mouth.
there were times when I only wanted
to blend in
to sit unnoticed,
un-special,
but blending in is fading out

 

here we are,
black and in love with ourselves
and they spite us for it

Even though this short poetry collection is very pro-black, I wouldn’t highly recommend it. I just didn’t find the poems compelling or wholesome. Like I stated before – it is difficult to rate and review a poetry collection, because poetry is very personal to the poet and his/her journey. But you never know – give this collection a try, we all have different tastes! Upile recently published a new collection called Nectar, which I hope is a bit more polished than soft magic. I might purchase Nectar in the near future but until then, I will continue to enjoy Upile’s thoughtful commentary on Twitter and her lovely photos on Instagram.

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase soft magic. on Amazon


Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Date Read: January 27th 2017

Published: August 2015

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Pages: 216

 

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

The artistry of Questions for Ada defies words, embodying the pain, the passion, and the power of love rising from the depths of our souls.  Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s poetry is a flower that will blossom in the spirit of every reader as she shares her heart with raw candor.  From lyrical lushness to smoky sensuality to raw truths, this tome of transforming verse is the book every woman wants to write but can’t until the broken mirrors of their lives have healed. In this gifted author’s own words—“I am too full of life to be half-loved.”  A bold celebration of womanhood.

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

THIS collection right here is pure gold. Questions for Ada by Nigerian poet – Ijeoma Umebinyuo, is full of strength, vulnerability and pride. Every word in these poems is heavy with meaning and purpose. These poems show you that all your emotions are valid and must be felt. Many poetry collections published nowadays feel lazy and words just seem to be thrown onto the pages. But Questions for Ada is a collection that was carefully crafted with love and full awareness of self. I’ve dog-eared sooo many of the pages in this book because the poems truly resonated with me. I found myself reflecting after reading a couple of poems at a time. I love when a piece of writing makes you reflect on your life and society and allows you to think about them critically. Ijeoma did the damn thing with this poetry collection!

My favorite poems:

Your mother was your first mirror.
tell me,
didn’t she carry herself well enough
to make you feel like a God?
(pg. 16)

Freedom-

Your feminism
wears a wrapper,
cooks for her husband
changed her surname
(pg 33)

you are not alive
to please the aesthetic
of colonized eye
(pg. 117)

You asked your father
how you should say your name.
He said if they cannot say your name
then they must try,
but you will not soften it,
you will not break the magic apart,
you will not be ashamed of it.
(pg. 160)

 

Questions for Ada –

Ada, are you in love? Yes.

Is being in a relationship hard work? Yes

Do you write love poems for your lover?

Every day.

Does you lover believe in you?

Yes, but sometimes I fear my lover does not

comprehend her light.

What do you do on those days?

I bathe her, I play some Jazz,

I fed her, I weep for her.

Describe her in a sentence.

Her eyes carry strength,

her words scratch, she speaks love.

Ada, are you in love? Yes.

Is being in a relationship hard work? Yes.

Who is your lover? Myself.

(pg. 78)

If I could quote all the poems in this collection, I would – but I have to respect the writer’s copyright terms! Please purchase the book to enjoy the rest! A couple of weeks ago, AFREADA featured Questions for Ada in their weekly #AFREADS recommendations on Instagram and used my short review from Goodreads as the caption for the post. I was elated to see that Ijeoma appreciated my words (which don’t even do this collection’s excellence justice).

I had to screenshot this before it got deleted 🙂

Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo is beautiful work. I like to believe her target audience is women of color/ black women in Africa and the Diaspora; the poems speak on blackness, womanhood, relationships, brokenness, Africa, Diaspora, heritage, loving thyself and others. But I wholeheartedly recommend this collection for everyone to experience these poems, even if you aren’t a woman or a person of color – you would still appreciate Ijeoma’s artistry and even learn something about yourself. We’re only in the month of May and I’ve already re-read the whole collection for a second time; I plan on re-visiting and mulling over certain poems throughout the year.

If you don’t plan on reading many poetry this year, please endeavor to add Questions for Ada to your 2017 reads! And if you’re not really a fan of poetry, be assured that this collection will make you understand the beauty of poetry, as a pure literary form.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase Questions for Ada on Amazon

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Date Read:  February 22nd 2017

Published: February 14th 2017

Publisher: Tin House Books

Pages: 80

 

The Blurb

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé uses political and pop-cultural references as a framework to explore 21st century black American womanhood and its complexities: performance, depression, isolation, exoticism, racism, femininity, and politics. The poems weave between personal narrative and pop-cultural criticism, examining and confronting modern media, consumption, feminism, and Blackness.

This collection explores femininity and race in the contemporary American political climate, folding in references from jazz standards, visual art, personal family history, and Hip Hop. The voice of this book is a multifarious one: writing and rewriting bodies, stories, and histories of the past, as well as uttering and bearing witness to the truth of the present, and actively probing toward a new self, an actualized self. This is a book at the intersections of mythology and sorrow, of vulnerability and posturing, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence.

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé was one of the top poetry collections released this year that I was eager to read. I have been following Parker for a while and I love this short documentary (from 2015) that explores a bit of Parker’s life as a writer and her relationship with Brooklyn, NY. I’m simply a fan of any black woman writer with a unique, quirky character – hence my love for Morgan Parker.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is more of a 3.5 stars book for me though. Initially, I wished Beyoncé wasn’t Parker’s muse because it made the poems that were named after her (Beyoncé) seem trivial and nonsensical. BUT, after meditating on select poems, I realize Parker uses the poems as political commentary on the criticism Beyoncé has received over the years, and how these criticisms spill over into how society views black women as a whole.

This collection explores Black American womanhood, performance, oppression, loneliness, power, sexuality and mental health – but in a whiny way. I like to believe Parker wrote this collection targeting (black) women, millennials and true poetry lovers as her audience. To be honest, only a few of these poems will actually stick with me. I think I’d love this collection more if they were read out to me, maybe at a reading and with some background to the randomness of it all. Don’t get me wrong, these poems are well-thought-out and layered with lots of (black) pop culture references, but the wordiness of it all could go over your head if your mind isn’t alert while reading.

Above is a screenshot (from my Kindle app) of one of the poems that’s oh-so relevant to the times, which I especially loved –13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl’. The haphazard display of the words spilled unto the pages, in and of itself, is telling of how society regards black women. Are words like ‘thick, diva, nappy, flawless, loud, sex, wifey, chocolate, sassy, carefree, strong, exotic, slut’ accurate depictions of how people view black women? From whose lens are black women regarded in these ways? (please click on the image above to get a closer glimpse of the poem).

I’m in awe of the artistry of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, but most poems may seem abstract and meaningless to the oblivious reader of the times. I wouldn’t highly recommend this collection to anyone who isn’t a hardcore poetry fiend, but I personally admire this body of work for its eccentric nature.

★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.

Purchase There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé on Amazon