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.

 

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

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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.

 

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

She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Date Read: September 10th 2018

Published: September 2018

Publisher: Graywolf Press

Pages: 312

The Blurb

Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond. Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.” In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.

 

Review –★★★★ (4 stars)

Prior to reading She Would Be King, I was a newbie when it came Liberian literature – I still am! I only knew about Nobel Peace Prize winner and writer – Leymah Gbowee, and her feature in the amazing documentary film – Pray the Devil Back to Hell (which I watched and deeply enjoyed for a Women’s Studies class in college). This debut had me wanting to know more about Liberia and the work of Liberian writers, such as – Helene Cooper, Hawa Jande Golakai, Vamba Sherif, Leymah Gbowee, Bilphena Yahwon (Gold Womyn) and others. While reading, I actually found a YouTube video where Liberian writer- Vamba Sherif, talks about Liberian literature in an interview. Enjoy!

She Would Be King is a beautiful mélange of historical fiction, magical realism and coming-of-age. Moore skillfully develops the three main characters of this novel: Gbessa – a Vai girl who is cursed and exiled to the forest; June Dey – the child of the strongest rebel on the Emerson plantation in Virginia; Norman Aragon – the child of Nani who was a gifted Jamaican Maroon and a British anthropologist/colonizer (such a terrible man!) . These three characters are guided by the wind and use their gifts – which are considered curses to ordinary people, to save present-day Liberia from its many hidden troubles. I always knew Liberia was the land where some freed slaves and freeborn African Americans made a living, but I had no idea freed slaves from the Caribbean also settled in present-day Liberia, making the nation a flavorful melting pot of indigenous and Diaspora folk.

The first three chapters of this debut explore these three main characters. I loved delving into the characters’ storylines and witnessing their evolution through the years. While African-American June Dey and Jamaican Norman play key roles in the establishment of Liberia through their gifts, Gbessa is the shero of this novel (this is not a spoiler, relax!) . Gbessa, who is described as a dark-skinned woman with wild red long hair, grows immensely in this story, to the point where her layered identities begin to haunt her. I’m itching to discuss Gbessa’s evolution, but unfortunately it would require divulging spoilers – and that wouldn’t be right!

[Images via Wayétu Moore’s Instagram for her US book tour dates; illustrations by Art Therapy Houston, PLLC]

Wayétu Moore’s writing felt light and magical in this debut. While reading, my heart raced as I could feel Gbessa’s loneliness and isolation, June Dey’s anger and power, Norman’s intelligence and bravery. The many issues in this story come together beautifully as Moore explores the legacies of slavery and colonialism as well as love, friendship, womanhood and independence. The sisterhood between Gbessa and Maisy – the wonderful woman who plays an immense role in Gbessa’s ‘civilization’ was so heartfelt!

I enjoyed the brotherhood between June Dey and Norman, but I wished their relationship was explored more. These men spent most of their time fighting invaders so there wasn’t enough dialogue between them. Also, it took me a while to finish this book thanks to school work, but also because I got bored of June Dey and Norman’s chapters, which were heavy with magical realism and lots of action. It wasn’t easy keeping up with the wordiness of their fighting scenes which required me to imagine all of their complex, superhero stunts. I really just desired some more depth to June Dey and Norman’s relationship and their connection to the settlement of Monrovia.

What I loved most about this novel was reading about the tensions between members of the indigenous tribes and former enslaved African Americans/ free-borns from the United States. I always knew these two groups had difficulty in seeing eye-to-eye, even in present day Liberia, but I didn’t realize how deep that tension was.

“But… some of them don’t think all of us the same. Some of them think… some of then think they smarter and better fit to lead than those who were already here” pg. 173.

The phrase ‘All My Skinfolk ain’t Kinfolk’ gnawed at me as I read how the African American settlers blatantly disregarded indigenous Liberians. It was eye-opening (and disappointing) to witness how settlers from the US treated indigenous folk similar to the ways slave masters treated them back in the US. Imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy emigrated with the African American settlers to Monrovia, where they imposed their power and discriminated against the natives. Indigenous folk had little say in the governing of their land, as the mayors and key thinkers of Monrovia were predominently the African American settlers. I had to do quite a bit of outside reading on Liberian history and the role of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in Monrovia’s complete independence. It was so intriguing to read on the motives of this society and I think I now understand why the election of Liberia’s current president- George Weah, was such a big deal.

There’s so much to say about this book! While I’d like some clarity on the use of language (pidgin) in the novel and Gbessa’s (unrealistic) infatuation with her childhood friend – Safua, this debut is pretty solid. I’d love to know what Liberians and Liberian-Americans think of this novel, as they would probably better understand the nuances of the story. I can confidently say I will read anything by Wayétu Moore, and that this debut is a lovely ode to the country of Liberia and Liberian womanhood, through Gbessa’s complex characterization.

[Today is pub day! Special thanks to Graywolf Press and Wayétu Moore for an Advanced Review Copy of this debut]

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

Purchase She Would Be King on Amazon

Lizard & Other Stories by Marcelle Mateki Akita

Date Read: December 27th 2016

Published: December 18th 2016

Publisher: Marcelle Mateki Akita

Pages: 63

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

Follow the stories of five young characters who try to make sense of loss, sex and sexuality in Lizard & Other Stories. Marcelle Mateki Akita explores how topics such as broken family and romantic relationships, sexual violence and masturbation impact a young girl and woman’s development. The collection’s short stories and flash fiction focus on girls and women of Ghanaian and mixed heritage. Written in an imaginative and sobering style, Lizard & Other Stories will unsettle and surprise you.

 

Review – ★★★ (3 stars)

How cute is the cover art of Lizard & Other Stories? The beads are truly attractive! Lizard & Other Stories is the good debut of short stories by reader, researcher and co-founder of Afrikult. (a literary platform that discusses, explores and celebrates the diversity of African literature) – Marcelle Mateki Akita. The collection consists of five stories that focus mainly on girls and women of Ghanaian or mixed heritage. The stories in this collection are vivid, bold and told in a calm manner. Once I started reading, I was drawn into Marcelle’s comfy, calm writing style, which allowed me to get to know the characters at relatively good paces. Some issues explored in this collection are: coming of age, religion, family, sexuality, (domestic) violence, naivety and betrayal.

What makes this collection special is the ambiguous nature of all the stories. If you read this collection more than once – which I highly encourage, you will realize that there are various interpretations and extra, juicy details you probably missed during the first reading. When I got the chance to discuss Lizard & Other Stories with Marcelle during Christmas break, I realized I interpreted the stories, especially the final one, entitled Kwesi, in a completely different way than she did. It takes talent to pull that off, even if it’s never a writers’ intention to give stories various meanings. Another thing that’s great about this collection is the unpredictability of the stories. I felt really cozy while reading the first story, entitled Ama, until the story took an unexpected turn and left a sour taste in my mouth. From the way the stories commence to their finality are polar opposites, which was refreshing!

I would’ve been more satisfied with these stories if the characters were developed a little further for readers to fully understand their actions. Also, some passages in this collection seemed overly descriptive, which isn’t my preference when reading short stories and flash fiction. But I must say, the vivid descriptions certainly allow one to picture exactly what is being observed, which was appreciated.

If you want to indulge in bold, unpredictable stories written in a calm voice, definitely look into reading this collection! I eagerly look forward to Marcelle’s future projects – a novel soon, maybe? Pretty please?

Special thanks to Marcelle, for the free copy of Lizards & Other Stories, in exchange for an honest review 🙂


To get a feel of her writing, check out Marcelle’s story that was published by AFREADA last year – Cassava’s Finest

Read more of Marcelle’s work on her websiteShe posts wonderful musings of the mind and soul every Monday and 100 word stories every Wednesday.

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

Purchase Lizard & Other Stories on Amazon