An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Date Read: April 9th 2020

Published: January 2018

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Pages308

The Blurb

Newlyweds, Celestial and Roy, are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is artist on the brink of an exciting career. They are settling into the routine of their life together, when they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

This stirring love story is a deeply insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward- with hope and pain- into the future

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Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I finished reading An American Marriage yesterday. I usually take my time with my current reads, but I devoured this book in two days because I just wanted to get the pain over and done with. A book hits differently when you read it once the hype has subsided. My heart!

I initially wanted to give up on this book after the first 40 pages, but my Mom encouraged me to finish it (the book was a gift to her last year, and she loved it even though it was a painful read). I wanted to stop reading because the story was laden with a type of grief I didn’t want to deal with, especially not during this anxious time of Coronavirus. The events that led to Roy’s arrest were traumatic, painful and heartbreaking to read – especially with him being innocent. While the couple’s arguments prior the arrest were probably normal, I wasn’t encouraged by their relationship, as a whole. Reading the letters Celestial and Roy wrote each other while Roy was in prison was heavy. Their relationship before and after prison was just heavy! *sigh*… Andre, really sir?

There are no good or bad characters in this story – I’m on everyone’s side. I love that Jones showed how all the characters in this book came from imperfect (loving) families and how messy their relationships were. But I sympathize with Roy the most. Jones definitely highlights Black masculinity in all its forms, through poor Roy’s character, as well as the other men in this story – Andre, Big Roy, Carlos, Franklin, Uncle Banks. An American Marriage definitely reminds readers of the terrible effects of mass incarceration – not only for the people imprisoned, but also the friends and families involved. The last 50 pages of this book were probably the best! My heart raced as I was eager to know how the story would end. I quite liked how it ended, really. One thing that stuck out for me was how history repeated itself – with regards to how Celestial’s parents got married and Roy’s biological father in prison…

Jones made this book as Southern as possible and I loved that! Readers are acquainted with Georgia (Atlanta) and Louisiana (Eloe) via the landscape, the soul food, the accents and the lifestyles. It’s hard not to crave shrimp croquettes and blackberry jam cake while reading!

An American Marriage reminded me of Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and Ava DuVernay’s documentary ’13th’ – both tragic explorations of the serious systemic issues America is slow to rectify. Jones’ beautiful writing kept this story captivating, emotional and very human. I know this novel is a love story at it’s core, but ultimately, I found the story to be an intimately devastating tale that exposes the effects of America’s humongous issue of mass incarceration. Read this, if you have the heart.

Last thing! Maybe its because I’m almost a Dentist, but I can’t seem to get over how pained I am about Roy’s tooth… what’s the significance of the whole tooth thing? Someone please enlighten me!

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

Purchase An American Marriage on Amazon

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Date Read: February 22nd 2020

Published: May 2nd 2019

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Pages: 453

The Blurb

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood.

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

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Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Whew! It’s been a while since I read and reviewed a 5-star book. Girl, Woman, Other is probably really 4.5 stars, but I’m giving this novel 5 stars purely because of how this book made me feel. Yes, believe the hype!

Girl, Woman, Other is an inter-generational novel that follows 12 different characters in the UK. The book is divided into 5 parts, with each part containing 3 chapters/character storylines.

Part 1 follows – Amma, Yazz and Dominique; Part 2 follows Carole, Bummi and LaTisha; Part 3 follows Shirley, Winsome and Penelope; Part 4 follows Megan/Morgan, Hattie and Grace; Part 5 is the Epilogue (which I found a bit unnecessary). Each chapter in this book is dedicated to a character and the characters are mostly woman of color (either Black or bi- or multiracial), with one character being non-binary.

Readers follow characters through their lives, as their stories oscillate from past to present. All characters and stories are interconnected in such a fascinating way. Even in this book, readers see just how small the world is. Bernardine Evaristo’s sharp wit and ability to fabricate such nuanced characters, displaying all their idiosyncrasies is such an awesome feat! The writing style of this novel is unique. It’s so unique that you might need some patience getting used to it. Once I got acclimated to Evaristo not using punctuation marks, I was easily able to vividly hear the voices of the characters.

Having all 12 characters interconnected made this book so enjoyable for me! I’ve always been a sucker for inter-connected short stories (Edwidge Danticat does this well!) and family sagas. I felt like I was part of the wonderful community Evaristo created. Each character has her/their own set of issues and the icing on the cake for me was analyzing how each character viewed themselves, and others. I loved the way perspective and our views/opinions/feelings about people play a huge role in this book. Evaristo did an incredible job of showing us how the characters viewed themselves and others from different angles.

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Anyway, that’s enough gushing over how much I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other, as a whole. Let’s now delve into 9 of the characters I loved/disliked.

NOTE – kindly tread lightly. I do my best not to include spoilers in my analysis of these characters. But also, just know that whatever I say here can’t even do the actual characters justice. You really get the full scope of the characters when you read the book!

Yazz: she’s the daughter of Amma Bonsu – a badass lesbian playwright and Ronald Quartey – a pissy, arrogant gay professor (sorry, but I hated his arrogance and self-hate). Yazz’s chapter was second in this book and really had me revved up to continue reading. She almost embodies the modern day enlightened teen. She’s a 19 year old super ambitious University student who is open-minded, opinionated, self-assured, woke (conscious of social issues and inequalities in the world) and not down with the bullshit. I had fun witnessing her trying to find herself and maintain a solid friend group, while dealing with her annoying, yet hilarious parents.

Dominique: poor Dominique! Her chapter was almost the most frustrating to read. Dominique is Amma’s bestie and the duo started a production company as young adults, while navigating their broke lives in London. She’s a lesbian of Caribbean heritage and from a family who disowns her after she comes out as a lesbian teen. Dominique follows an African-American woman to the States and almost loses herself. That’s all I’ll say on Dominique. I loved how her chapter shed light on abuse that happens within relationships and how oblivious the one being abused can be.

Carole: I think Carole’s character was complex. I liked Carole as I read her chapter, but when I read her mother’s chapter – Bummi, and even her school teacher’s chapter – Shirley, I realized how trash Carole actually was! I think she was a victim of her circumstances. As a young teen, Carole followed the wrong group of girls and had some unfortunate events happen in her life. She excels as an adult, but throws away her heritage. What made me dislike Carole was how negative she was. Her actions and views on innocent folks who had good intentions towards her were just off! I wonder if other readers saw her to be an opportunist… She’s a brilliant young lady, but the self-hate she displays was quite disappointing (but so real in many peoples’ lives today).

Bummi: what a woman! Bummi is Carole’s mother. Her chapter brought tears to my eyes – tears from feeling her pain, struggle and joy, all at once! Bummi is a heroine.

LaTisha: she’s Carole’s childhood friend, who isn’t the brightest of the bunch. As a teen and young adult, LaTisha’s dysfunctional family led her to fall into the arms of many men. I was shocked at how fertile she was and how dumb she was every time she slept with a man that lied to her. Like the great J. Cole once said: ‘Fool me one time shame on you; Fool me twice, can’t put the blame on you’. Given that LaTisha was fooled sooo many times, who is the fool here?

Shirley: she’s another one of Amma’s friends, but from childhood. Shirley’s a plain Jane teacher of high school students. She starts out teaching with a passion, but burns-out as the years go by. I personally think she has a perfect family – her loving husband, Lennox, is perfect for her (or so I thought….); her daughters are wonderful and Shirley’s parents are well-off pensioners with a beach house in Barbados. Like I said before, Shirley’s chapter made me see how ungrateful Carole was. But Shirley is a complainer! Her life really had no problems, but she saw problems with most things, which was hilarious and annoying at the same time. Oh, and she might be a closeted homophobe…

Winsome: she’s Shirley’s mother. Her chapter will make your jaw drop! What a wild, deprived, shameless woman! She’s the epitome of the Ghanaian phrase – ‘onipa yɛ bad’ which literally means ‘human beings are bad’ but actually means – ‘be weary of people/ you can’t trust anyone’. Period. 

Morgan: They are the non-binary character, who was initially called Megan. I didn’t find their chapter convincing, to be honest. I didn’t like the flow of their storyline and found their eventual fame so random and misplaced.

Grace: she’s Morgan’s great-grandmother. I ended up loving Grace especially when she snapped out of her postpartum depression. Flossie’s (Grace’s maid) unsympathetic attitude towards Grace was unfortunate, but so real! People are quick to judge other mothers, without knowing the misery and sadness mothers who’ve experienced multiple miscarriages, or just had zero luck in seeing their babies survive after 3 months. Grace’s chapter tackled tough motherhood issues so beautifully. Grace is definitely an MVP.

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I hope my brief discussion of some of the characters whetted your appetite to pick up this book! While there are a ton of characters in this book, their storylines are not hard to follow and appreciate. Bernardine Evaristo managed to make this novel modern and timeless and I really wish she didn’t have to share the 2019 Booker Prize with anyone.

This is an apt book to enjoy during International Women’s Day, which is today! Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo celebration of Black British womanhood.

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

Purchase Girl, Woman, Other on Amazon

A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin

Date Read: August 30th 2019

Published: August 6th 2019

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 272

 The Blurb

A stunning debut novel, from Rhodes Scholar and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Tope Folarin about a Nigerian family living in Utah and their uncomfortable assimilation to American life.

Living in small-town Utah has always been an uneasy fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in and find his place in the world, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.

Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.

But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief from the demons that plague her; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection—to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.

Sweeping, stirring, and perspective-shifting, A Particular Kind of Black Man is a beautiful and poignant exploration of the meaning of memory, manhood, home, and identity as seen through the eyes of a first-generation Nigerian-American.

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Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

I was so excited when Simon & Schuster sent me Folarin’s debut. I’m a fan of Folarin’s Caine Prize shortlisted stories – Miracle and Genesis and I had been waiting for this debut since 2016 – when he was shortlisted for the second time for the Caine Prize.

A Particular Kind of Black Man is a coming-of-age tale that follows Tunde and his family, in Utah and later in Dallas. Throughout the novel, Tunde is trying to understand himself while enduring various changes that emotionally rock his family.

While reading this debut, I was hoping it wouldn’t be the cliché immigrant story of the first-generation American character trying to strike a balance between their American-ness and their African-ness – I’ve honestly read ENOUGH of such stories over the years. This novel did touch on those identity issues, but Folarin gave us more. I love that Folarin shed light on the importance of a mother’s love in the development of the boy child; the effect a mother’s abuse and absence have on the boy child’s psyche. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that Tunde childhood with and without his mother affected him in a plethora of ways. I always knew mothers/mother figures were important in families, but this novel somehow made me see their importance from a whole different angle, especially with Tunde’s lack of his mother’s love.

Tunde’s dad is such an important character in this book – if this debut is ever read for a literature class or discussed in a book club, soooo much can be said about him! He was a loving, strict father, who was deeply affected by the demise of his marriage(s). He was a proud Yoruba man, yet desired to assimilate into American culture (especially in his need to acquire an American accent) just so he could keep a job. Stress gets the best of him and readers see hints of depression, as he fought to stay jovial and positive for his family. Reading and relating to his character felt so real, because in real life, many immigrants don’t always achieve the ‘American dream.’ I wish Folarin gave more insight into Tunde’s dad’s life towards the end of the novel, because he just vanished when Tunde went off to college.

Folarin made this debut more exciting for me with how he played with perspective and memory throughout the novel. At one point, the novel is written in first person (Tunde’s voice) and in some chapters it’s written in the third person. With chapters that are written in first person, Tunde admits to readers that the re-telling of various events discussed in the book may be false, as he seems to suffer from double-memory. I found this both upsetting and fascinating, because Tunde himself isn’t sure of anything anymore, to the point where he thinks he possesses symptoms of his mother’s Schizophrenia. Tunde steadily tries to be a particular type of black man, and Folarin’s use of various perspectives help us witness Tunde’s performance from various aspects.

What I’ve always liked about Folarin’s writing is how lucid and artfully descriptive his stories are. This debut shows Folarin’s poetic and funny side, as various passages display bits of humor and poetic melodies. I will continue to read anything Folarin writes! Read this book if you can.

Special thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book!

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

Purchase A Particular Kind of Black Man on Amazon

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

Date Read: July 21st 2019

Published: June 4th 2019

Publisher: House of Anansi Press

Pages: 272

 The Blurb

Kara Davis is a girl caught in the middle – of her Canadian nationality and her desire to be a ‘true’ Jamaican, of her mother and grandmother’s rages and life lessons, of having to avoid being thought of as too ‘faas’ or too ‘quiet’ or too ‘bold’ or too ‘soft’.

Set in Little Jamaica, Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood, Kara moves from girlhood to the threshold of adulthood, from elementary school to high school graduation, in these twelve interconnected stories. We see her on a visit to Jamaica, startled by the sight of a severed pig’s head in her great aunt’s freezer; in junior high, the victim of a devastating prank by her closest friends; and as a teenager in and out of her grandmother’s house, trying to cope with the ongoing battles between her unyielding grandparents.

A rich and unforgettable portrait of growing up between worlds, Frying Plantain shows how, in one charged moment, friendship and love can turn to enmity and hate, well-meaning protection can become control, and teasing play can turn to something much darker. In her brilliantly incisive debut, Zalika Reid-Benta artfully depicts the tensions between mothers and daughters, second-generation Canadians and first-generation cultural expectations, and Black identity and predominately white society.

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Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

The title of this collection is so cool! Everyone loves fried plantain, so the title is truly inviting (Fun fact – fried plantain is called kelewele in Ghana (when diced & spiced), dodo in Nigeria, alloco in Cote d’Ivoire). Frying Plantain is a coming-of-age collection of interconnected short stories that follow Canadian-Jamaican girl, Kara Davis. Initially, I thought with each successive story, I’d be engrossed into Kara’s journey as she went through childhood into adolescence. But now, a part of me feels a little disappointed by this collection. While reading, I felt like I was drowning because I found the characters relentlessly toxic, hence making my reading experience a bit sour.

The collection commences with a story called ‘Pig Head.’ In ‘Pig Head’, we’re introduced to Kara who is on holiday in Jamaica with her family. While on holiday, Kara is sent to get something from the freezer and is terrified by the sight of a huge severed pig head stored there. Kara goes back to her 4th grade classmates in Canada and tells fibs about the pig head. She brags about how she helped kill the pig and gives her classmates gory details of the killing, which eventually land her into trouble with her school’s principal and her mother. Kara fabricates the story in an effort to seem unique and to claim her Jamaican roots even though her neighborhood friends call her ‘stush’ (posh/boujee).

Throughout this collection, Kara tries to fit in by either lying, falling prey to peer pressure or staying quiet to keep the peace. As a child, she spends a lot of time with (toxic) neighborhood friends, who are also of Caribbean heritage. Among her group of friends, some are even straight from the Islands and they impose their Caribbean authenticity by constantly reminding others within the group – including Kara, of how un-Jamaican/Caribbean they are –

Miss Canada gwine fi bust out the patois? Yuh need to stop Ja-fakin’ it, Kara – pg. 32

I enjoyed the short stories that explored Kara’s relationships with boys and wanted more! I found the descriptions of her first kiss so cringey yet hilarious, as Reid-Benta aptly portrays the awkwardness –

I told him he could kiss me, and then he inched forward and meshed his lips with mine… My own lips were still puckered when he started to open his mouth. He pressed the tip of his tongue against my teeth until I unclenched and allowed him access. I couldn’t figure him out… I hunched my shoulders instead, trying to show eagerness, and twirled my tongue around his, but he got excited and shoved his tongue so far down my throat I gagged. I pulled away – pg. 116

But Kara’s mother’s sharp gaze always marred my joy of witnessing Kara find love (or have fun, in general). Kara is raised by a single mother – Eloise, who seems pretty miserable. Initially I didn’t feel any love between mother and daughter, but later I realized Eloise’s brash, over-controlling manner was driven by fear. Eloise raises Kara on her own but with the help of her own parents, who come with their own set of issues. *sigh* Eloise’s relationship with her parents (Kara’s grandparents) is tragic – there is a lot of emotional abuse, verbal abuse, manipulation and gaslighting between Eloise and her parents, but also between Kara and her grandparents. Eloise’s parents also have a dysfunctional marriage – but I don’t even have the energy to get into their marriage. Kara’s family dynamics in this book are just A LOT.

Since Kara is raised in an over-controlled, stern environment, her personality is unassuming and quite unclear. She comes off as meek, subdued and repressed; but she can defend herself or react to unfair treatment when pushed to her limit, which is often.

According to other readers on Goodreads, this collection is very Canadian. I wasn’t sensitive to the Canadian-ness of this collection, as I wouldn’t even know where to catch the nuances. I’ve only visited Canada three times (Toronto when I was about 5 years old, Montréal as a sophomore in college and Windsor when I was a senior in college), so I didn’t have the eye for spotting the Canadian vibes from the collection. I did like the mention of poutine though, when Kara and her friends trekked through a snow storm just to eat some.

I thoroughly enjoyed Zalika Reid-Benta’s writing style. She has a beautiful way with words such that I vividly saw Kara’s quiet awkwardness; I could hear Eloise shouting at Kara to stop crying; I could feel Kara’s desire to fit in with her fellow Caribbean friends. Zalika Reid-Benta’s writing is the reason I finished this collection. She has a gift with words, and I surely admire that!

I think I would have enjoyed this collection more if I was new to African Diaspora literature. But I’ve read countless stories like this, so it didn’t really stand out to me as super unique. I just find it very interesting how Caribbean women writers always seem to touch on strained mother-daughter relationships in their work. I haven’t read a ton of work by Caribbean women writers, but so far Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Naomi Jackson, Alexia Arthurs ALL touch on this strained relationship in their stories. Why is this type of relationship so prevalent in their work? Anyway, even though I wasn’t blown away by this collection, I look forward to reading more of Reid-Benta’s work! She’s a pretty damn good writer.

Thank you to House of Anansi Press for sending me a review copy of the book!

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

Purchase Frying Plantain on Amazon

You Too Will Know Me by Ama Asantewa Diaka (Poetra Asantewa)

Date Read: July 16th 2019

Published: June 11th 2019

Publisher: Akashic Books

Pages: 30

 The Blurb

“Here is a poet whose practiced weaving of talk and song is a testament to her devotion to language and her clarity of vision. Those of us who have encountered Diaka with excitement invite you to listen with us as she offers us a new song, one which will surely not be her last” – Tjawandwa Dema

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Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

You Too Will Know Me is a chapbook that reads like a series of confessions, in an effort to better love and accept oneself. Through the sincere truths and feelings revealed, Diaka shows that ‘any day is a good day for redemption’, that there is joy in the morning and we can all start over again. Most of the poems speak to the challenges of adulthood, abandonment of lovers, unrequited love, (un)forgiveness, feminine strength + beauty and more.

Diaka’s writing style is bold – bold enough to have the words ‘God’ and ‘blowjob’ in the same stanza! Bold enough to capture the essence of what it’s like to be deeply disappointed in your home country for not loving its citizens enough (from my favorite poem – And I’ve Mastered The Art of Receiving Hand-Outs Because I Come From This Place).

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Favorite quotes from various poems in the chapbook:

‘how do I distract myself from myself in order to free myself?’ – Before The Gag, page 12

‘What’s the English word for someone who still has hope in lovers who cause too much anxiety?
Tell me so I can spit it out.’ – Spit, page 13

‘Damn everybody!
Do they not know
that the sun borrows light from your fingertips?
Do they not know
that you give color to the rose?
Do they not know
that your breath is studied by the highest of connoisseurs
to make the best perfumes?
There’s something about you
that makes looking away impossible’ – Suicide Sarah, page 15

‘I am hungry for a love my country cannot afford…
I want a love
that doesn’t require me to be ridiculously multifaceted
in order to have a fraction of an equation at being equipped for survival;
a love that doesn’t wait for another suitor to sing the praises of my genius
before recognizing my worth,
or worse, only after I’m dead.
I am hungry for a love my country cannot afford,
the way white lusts for a backdrop to outshine.

And I’ve Mastered The Art of Receiving Hand-Outs Because I Come From This Place, page 18

‘I have been fretting over things that God shakes his head at
toying with faith as if it were a disappearing act.
One minute I’m full of it,
the next, I don’t exactly know the shape of it.
I fret over now and tomorrow,
giving myself and God a headache.
Spoon feed myself faith,
and come up hungry again…’ – Let It Be, page 22

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Bloom is an unapologetically Ghanaian poem, that reads like a vivid short film. In the poem, the narrator takes readers to Accra, Ghana- Labadi, to be precise. The narrator describes the ordinary Ghanaians she sees on the road, simply living. The laugh and smiles of a porridge seller – Ms. Atta, keeps her customers coming for more, despite the deep pain and hurt she feels within.

‘These people teach me,
that if you are from Accra and you are placed anywhere in
the world,
there’s no way you won’t know how to bloom’ – Bloom, page 24

This collection is meant to be read more than once. Multiple readings will reveal different truths – about the poet and even you, the reader! Diaka’s work allows readers to meditate and examine their feelings towards their present lives. You Too Will Know Me is honest, visceral and necessary. Also, it’s Ghanaian AF!

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

You Too Will Know Me is part of a series published by Akashic Books in collaboration
with the African Poetry Book Fund:
New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Sita) (African Poetry)

Purchase it on Amazon

How To Love A Jamaican: Stories by Alexia Arthurs

Date Read: March 5th 2019

Published: 2018

Publisher: Picador

Pages: 256

 The Blurb

Tenderness and cruelty, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and regret—Alexia Arthurs navigates these tensions to extraordinary effect in her debut collection about Jamaican immigrants and their families back home. Sweeping from close-knit island communities to the streets of New York City and midwestern university towns, these eleven stories form a portrait of a nation, a people, and a way of life.

In “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands,” an NYU student befriends a fellow Jamaican whose privileged West Coast upbringing has blinded her to the hard realities of race. In “Mash Up Love,” a twin’s chance sighting of his estranged brother—the prodigal son of the family—stirs up unresolved feelings of resentment. In “Bad Behavior,” a couple leave their wild teenage daughter with her grandmother in Jamaica, hoping the old ways will straighten her out. In “Mermaid River,” a Jamaican teenage boy is reunited with his mother in New York after eight years apart. In “The Ghost of Jia Yi,” a recently murdered student haunts a despairing Jamaican athlete recruited to an Iowa college. And in “Shirley from a Small Place,” a world-famous pop star retreats to her mother’s big new house in Jamaica, which still holds the power to restore something vital.

Alexia Arthurs emerges in this vibrant, lyrical, intimate collection as one of fiction’s most dynamic and essential authors.

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Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)

My 4 stars rating for How To Love A Jamaican doesn’t mean I loved all the stories. In fact, out of the 11 short stories, I absolutely loved just 4 of them. But I give this collection 4 out of 5 stars because I LOVED how this collection made me feel. I carried this book everywhere with me for the two weeks it took me to finish it. I was always eager to pick it up again and didn’t mind re-reading some stories just to be in the world of the characters again. It took me a while to finish this collection mostly because of school (this is ALWAYS my excuse, have you noticed?), but also because I wanted to take my time and imbibe myself into the stories! It took me forever to get my hands on this book, so I just wanted to savor every word. Special thanks to my friend Kobby from @bookworm_man on Bookstagram who initially lent me his copy, then later allowed me to keep it 🙂

While some stories fell flat for me – especially ‘Bad Behavior’, ‘Mash Up Love’, ‘Shirley From a Small Place’ (I wasn’t fond of how Shirley’s story resembled Rihanna Fenty’s career trajectory), I mostly enjoyed how accessible Arthurs’s writing was – especially the patois. At the beginning of the book, she makes it clear that this collection is ‘For Jamaicans’ and she is true to her words. Reading stories about Jamaicans, mostly IN Jamaica or Jamaicans who were born and bred in Jamaica without migrating out of the Island, was definitely refreshing and inspiring.

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My favorite stories were:

Island – This story is excellent. Island is about three girlfriends who travel to a Caribbean island for a wedding. One of the girls in this group is a lesbian and her friends subtly malign her throughout the trip. The tension within the friend group was palpable and maddening. It had me thinking about friendship – why we call certain people our friends and how our choice of friends reflects who we are, or who we aren’t.

On Shelf – This story was pretty ordinary from beginning to end. But Arthurs’s ability to just tell a normal story about an academically successful 40 year old Jamaican woman in the US, settling with a man below her standards in order to move forward with life and bear a child felt very real.

Light-skinned girls and Kelly Rowlands – I love that the collection commences with this story! It kept me wanting more and I eagerly anticipated reading the rest of the stories, thanks to this one. This story follows two young women in college – NYU, who become friends unexpectedly. Cecelia is dark-skinned; upper class; only dates white men; of Jamaican heritage but was born and bred in California. Brittney on the other hand is from a low/middle-class family; prefers dating black men; was born in Jamaica but moved to Brooklyn when she was six years old. I loved the sisterhood these friends shared, but I also despised the tension between them, especially when they had disagreements. I felt Brittney constantly tried to undermine Cecelia’s Jamaicanness/Blackness, because she was more or less an ‘oreo’ and had never been to Jamaica before. The ending of this story just reminded me of gnawing issues I have with folks born and raised in their native lands versus pure Diasporans.

The recurrent themes in this collection include: good ole’ problematic Jamaican pigmentocracy (aka- colorism), mother-daughter relationships (I find many Caribbean women writers love writing on this theme! So far Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid and Naomi Jackson all touch on this theme and always suggest a fraught relationship between mothers and daughters in their writing), mermaids, being haunted by ghosts, love & relationships. I especially LOVED when queer characters and issues surrounding members of the LGBTQ spectrum were introduced into stories – they were the most compelling.

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

Purchase How To Love A Jamaican on Amazon

Period Pain by Kopano Matlwa

Date Read: January 20th 2018

Published: 2017

Publisher: Jacana Media

Pages: 188

 The Blurb

Period Pain captures the heartache and confusion of so many South Africans who feel defeated by the litany of headline horrors; xenophobia, corrective rape, corruption and crime and for many the death sentence that is the public health nightmare. Where are we going, what have we become? Period Pain helps us navigate our South Africa. We meet Masechaba, and through her story we are able to reflect, to question and to rediscover our humanity.

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Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Dr. Kopano Matlwa is a writer and doctor I truly admire! I remember purchasing her debut – Coconut, back in 2011. But I never got around to finishing the book that year, thanks to never-ending college papers. I hope to rectify this soon and possibly finish reading Matlwa’s debut this year!

Period Pain follows Masechaba (aka – Chaba), a young house officer/1st year doctor fighting through tough working conditions in a South African hospital. Not only is Chaba struggling to work in under-resourced hospital conditions, but she’s also dealing with her own health issues – severe menorrhagia, depression, PTSD; while trying to aid in the fight against xenophobia in the nation. I’m yet to read a novel set in South Africa where violence isn’t one of the main characters of the novel. *sigh*

While Period Pain is raw and agonizing, it’s not all depressing. I had many good laughs while reading this short novel! Chaba is humorous and her (only) friend we encounter in the novel – Nyasha from Zimbabwe, is such a bitch – but a ‘woke’ one, I suppose! The exploration of Chaba and Nyasha’s friendship felt very real. Nyasha was such an abrasive, ruthless person, while Chaba was the complete opposite and almost depended on Nyasha’s approval to feel good about herself. The trajectory of their friendship was quite sad and left me almost hating Nyasha, despite the fact that everyone hated her as a foreigner in South Africa.

Besides Matlwa’s exploration of female friendship in this novel, I especially related to the many helpless incidents (and the medical jargon) Chaba faced on the wards, as I’m a dental student. I’m truly starting to love novels that intersect with my medical/dental education. Such stories make me feel less alone in the struggles of the training.

Kopano Matlwa’s ability to blend heavy issues such as: suicide, sexual assault, xenophobia, depression, violence, Christian hypocrisy etc. with humor made me love this novel! The book is written in the form of a diary/journal, where Chaba talks to God about anything and everything. Her conversations with God felt like the conversations very close friends have with one another – light, needy, lonely, confused, desperate. I like that the book is laced with Bible verses and showed how Chaba meditated on the verses, but practiced the opposite of what the scriptures instructed. It sort of mirrored the lifestyle of many Christians of today.

Matlwa’s writing style was deeply compelling and made me wonder how much of HER life is part of Chaba’s story. Matlwa’s ability to make you feel Chaba’s pain, confusion and victories were visceral. I would have rated Period Pain 5 stars, but the ending fell a little flat. It felt predictable and was tied up a little too neatly for me, hence my overall rating of 4.5 stars.

Side note – Upon finishing the novel, I now see why British publishers (Sceptre) decided to name this book Evening Primrose. But I don’t understand why they thought a change in the title (from ‘Period Pain’) would sell the book better. Period Pain as a title is loud & severe, and simply embodies the essence of this novel. I’m glad I purchased this South African edition (published by Jacana Media). Supporting African publishers is necessary + I like the book cover too!

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

Purchase Period Pain on Amazon

Mini Reviews | Houseboy & Tropical Fish

Hey everyone!

In an effort to reduce the growing backlog of book reviews I owe this platform, below are mini reviews of two excellent books I read a couple of years ago.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono

Date Read: September 22nd 2017

Published: 1991

Publisher: Heinemann

Pages: 122

The Blurb

This book is written in the form of a diary kept by Toundi, an innocent Cameroonian houseboy who is fascinated and awed by the white world, the world of his masters.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

*sigh* Oyono’s Houseboy is such a painful, humorous, tragic tale.


Toundi – the main character (the houseboy), is naïve of the realities of his world in the French colony of Cameroon. While he’s is a good natured boy with a pure heart, the French exploitation of native Cameroonians cause the demise of Toundi (this isn’t a spoiler, trust me!).

This book really highlighted how fearful French colonialists were of native Cameroonians and Black Africans, in general. They were so fearful, insecure, ignorant and mentally fragile that they constantly exerted their supposed superiority over natives with hateful, brutal abuse. Toundi’s innocence gave this novel so much humor. The ways he misunderstood the lifestyle of white people was hilarious and sad at the same time. The ways the natives spoke about the French gave me some good laughs as well.

No, it can’t be true, I told myself, I couldn’t have seen properly. A great chief like the Commandant uncircumcised… I was relieved by this discovery. It killed something inside me… I knew I should never be frightened of this Commandant again. (pg. 28)

This was actually the 1st African novel I’ve ever read (I was initially in love with African-American fiction before I ever started reading books by African writers… well, besides Anansi stories). My Mom encouraged (or forced?) me to read Houseboy back when I was about thirteen years old. Back then, I didn’t enjoy this book at all and found it difficult to understand the myriad of proverbial phrases this story is blessed with. Today, I finally appreciate this novel as a superb, underrated classic within the African Writer’s Series.

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

Purchase Houseboy on Amazon

 


Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana

Date Read: September 16th 2016

Published: 2008

Publisher: Cassava Republic Press

Pages: 158

 

The Blurb

In her fiction debut, Doreen Baingana follows a Ugandan girl as she navigates the uncertain terrain of adolescence. Set mostly in pastoral Entebbe with stops in the cities Kampala and Los Angeles, Tropical Fish depicts the reality of life for Christine Mugisha and her family after Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Three of the eight chapters are told from the point of view of Christine’s two older sisters, Patti, a born-again Christian who finds herself starving at her boarding school, and Rosa, a free spirit who tries to “magically” seduce one of her teachers. But the star of Tropical Fish is Christine, whom we accompany from her first wobbly steps in high heels, to her encounters with the first-world conveniences and alienation of America, to her return home to Uganda.

As the Mugishas cope with Uganda’s collapsing infrastructure, they also contend with the universal themes of family cohesion, sex and relationships, disease, betrayal, and spirituality. Anyone dipping into Baingana’s incandescent, widely acclaimed novel will enjoy their immersion in the world of this talented newcomer.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

After reading Doreen Baingana’s short story entitled ‘Tropical Fish’ in African Love Stories: An Anthology at the beginning of 2016, I knew I had to find her book.

I loved how nuanced this collection of interlocking stories were. Readers get a good feel of life in Entebbe, Uganda during Idi Amin’s ruling. I enjoyed the three sisters: Patti, Rosa and Christine Mugisha. I had wanted more insight into Patti’s life; she had a gentle, holier-than-thou demeanor that I wished was explored more. Rosa’s chapters were quite hilarious and poetic. I admired Baingana’s uncommon perspective on HIV/AIDS and sex through Rosa’s promiscuous lifestyle. Christine’s life (the youngest sister) is more closely followed in this book – from her days as a little girl playing in her parents’ bedroom to when she is twenty-nine years old and a recent ‘returnee’ from the States.

Baingana’s attention to the littlest things/feelings/observations we overlook in our daily lives made me love this collection. The writing was not overly descriptive; the commentary was witty, clever and overall, the exploration of life in Entebbe and the US was just heartfelt. I’m very fond of Baingana’s writing and it’s no wonder she was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Africa region and has garnered other literary awards for her writing. I hope she writes a new novel very soon.

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

Purchase Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe on Amazon