“Streets in Charleston wind the way old ladies’ fingers crochet as they unravel the memories of their girlhoods. One thing about a Charlestonian female is her way with little things. The delicacy of her manner. The force of ritual in her daily undertakings. So what is most ordinary is made extraordinary. What is hard seems simple.”- Ntozake Shange; Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
What a beautiful, lyrical book. A tribute to black women trying to find themselves, black women who are trying to live outside the box, clearly not an easy feat.It’s a very honest book about three sisters, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo from Charleston, South Carolina. The book seems to be a patchwork of all sorts of things, such as poems, journal entries, letters from the traditional mother with unconventional daughters whose life trajectories end up being so different from hers, and even some great recipes. The inclusions of all these things made the book into a very sensory, rich experience.
My favourite sister was Indigo, the youngest, whom we unfortunately only meet at the beginning of the book. Indigo talks and communicates with her dolls. She’s a reminder of those people who see the world in a different way, who are perhaps misunderstood by others because of it. I found her to be a very beautiful spirit:
“The South in her, the land and salt-winds, moved her through Charleston’s streets as if she were a mobile sapling, with the gait of a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction. Indigo imagined tough winding branches growing from her braids, deep green leaves rustling by her ears, doves and macaws flirting above the nests they’d fashioned in the secret, protected niches way high up in her headdress. When she wore this Carolinian costume, she knew the cobblestone streets were really polished oyster shells, covered with pine needles and cotton flowers. She made herself, her world from all that she came from.”
The other sisters, who are older and living away from home, have a lot more than Indigo to contend with, it seems. Sassafrass is a weaver and a writer who is in a very tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, Mitch.Reading the part about weaving gave me an a-ha moment of sorts:
“…because when women make cloth, they have time to think…So Sassafrass was certain of the necessity of her skill for the well-being of women everywhere, as well as for her own. As she passed the shuttle through the claret cotton warp, Sassafrass conjured images of women weaving from all time and all places…”
One of my favourite sections regarding Sassafrass was when Billie Holliday’s ghost comes to talk to her about the blues and to encourage her to keep writing:
“Who do you love among us, Sassafrass? Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Freddie Washington, Josephine, Carmen Miranda? Don’t you know we is all sad ladies because we got the blues, and joyful women because we got our songs?”
The last sister, Cypress, is a dancer. Her story seemed to be the most complex to me:
“Cypress was always smiling. She had made amends with her living, and thoroughly expected everything to happen to her, given time and the way her luck ran. She was round and sturdy, but elastic like a gathering of sunflowers in a balmy night. Cypress liked sweet wine, cocaine, and lots of men: musicians, painters, poets, sculptors…photographers, filmmakers, airplane pilots.”
The book contained lots of conversation about art and black spirituality. The art discussion in particular was interesting, given the eurocentrism of art, and the microaggressions in the art world (“You don’t need all that ethnic flourish, Leroy, you are too good to work in the Negro idiom.“)
I don’t think I can write a review that does this book any justice without a reread but I will say that as a black woman this touched me deeply, and it showed me how difficult it is sometimes to live outside of the box particularly when so much is expected of you. I think this book respects individuality and honours our journeys into becoming the women we were meant to be. I’ve been reading a lot of books by black women and the commonality is that they present us with multifaceted black women with deep thought lives who have to struggle more than most, but manage to do so. The exploration into the lives of these women was wonderful. This is a book I’ll definitely be rereading.
“Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits.”