Angel of Harlem- Kuwana Haulsey

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“Sometimes Harlem would just do that, you understand. It would open up and reveal itself in a rigorous display of scents, various and commanding, floating its sounds around and above you, where they swirled generously, like autumn colours. In  a while, you couldn’t tell what was what, really, or where the sensations came from.”- Kuwana Haulsey, Angel of Harlem

This is one of the most beautifully-written books I’ve ever read. Inspired by true events, it’s the story of Dr. May Edward Chinn, the first black woman physician in Harlem (in the 1920s). While reading the story, it’s natural to be amazed by how tenacious people can be, especially marginalized women.  Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about hearing about the first person to do something, to gain some sort of achievement. Even now there are always firsts but it’s not until I read this book that I thought more deeply about what being the first black female doctor in Harlem entailed. Not only is she black, she’s also a woman, so the question that entered my mind was this: How do marginalized people, women in particular, continue on despite society telling them from all angles that they are not supposed to be there?

The story begins with May’s struggles with education, and the barriers she faces from both black and white communities, and from her own father, who doesn’t understand why women need to be educated. He brings up the age-old discussion about how educated women won’t find men:

“Don’t no man want to marry someone got more education than them. Even those college-educated boys don’t want that. Can’t have two men trying to run the same house.”

I think of the genius this woman had, genius that wasn’t nurtured because the world she lived in did not make any room for her. This is a lady who became a doctor and yet was initially in a music program that she was forced out of due to racism:

“The music soothed me. In fact, it flooded me. Music became my joy, my spirit, the bulk and the width of my memories. The notes became integral to me in a breathing way, a way that only my mother’s presence had ever occupied my soul.”

Her foray into music was very important because she came of age during the Harlem Renaissance era. She becomes Paul Robeson’s accompanist and meets a lot of the Harlem Literati. I adore how Haulsey got Zora Neale Hurston’s  and Langston Hughes’ voices down so well on paper. It was interesting reading of a doctor who was in the Harlem Literati group, particularly because the Harlem Renaissance is often seen as a very masculine era, and the women in it were, until recently, not acknowledged as often as the men (see Cheryl T. Hall’s Women of the Harlem Renaissance). Hurston was an important voice in this book as a black female member of the Harlem Literati who also had her own struggles in education. Back then any woman who wanted to do something that was deemed “white” or “male” had a struggle on her hands, and tenacity was a must. So with her musical background, being accompanist for Robeson, and hanging out with the Harlem elite, how did she ever become a doctor?

“The only way a Negro woman had ever gotten inside Harlem Hospital was if she’d been shot, stabbed, beaten or poisoned. I think one or two may have been cleaners, but even those jobs were reserved for the Irish and German women who trekked over from Riverside and farther north up in the Bronx. I was the first. The only.”

Discussion between Zora and May: “First of all, I belong everywhere I am. That’s obvious. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. I figure it this way–I didn’t get into Barnard by accident. That being the case, I’m not gonna let anybody play me close. Especially not when the bottom line is that all they want to be is me anyway. They wish they had my nerve. They won’t admit it. Not in so many words. But a cat is still a cat, whether it’s got long hair or short.”

One dimension to the story that was helpful to me in understanding human nature was the story of May’s father, a man who had escaped from slavery.  If you think about the era this story was taking place in, and realize that in the 1920s the memory of slavery was very fresh, then you realize slavery  was the memory her father carried. It can’t have been easy for him to dream, therefore how could he see more for his daughter? His relationship with his daughter reminded me of that of James Baldwin and his stepfather, and how Baldwin was able to understand his step-father a bit better after he considered his life history and the society he was a part of.

 

My review doesn’t do the book enough justice. This is an amazing book written by an extremely talented writer. I’m so glad to have read it and I hope you will too.

 

 

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs- Grace Jones

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“I decided from an early age that the best form of defense was attack. and that taking on the world and living life to the fullest was how I would deal with setbacks and problems. This means you leave behind quite a trail. What you do gets noticed.”- Grace Jones, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

Grace Jones is a model, singer, actress, and many other things. She threw eggs at cabs in Paris that didn’t stop for her, hung out with Andy Warhol, lived as a nudist for a while, and is the kind of woman who will try anything once. Ms. Jones lives by her own rules, so I knew this book was going to be a fascinating read.

To me the most fascinating memoirs are those in which people have so many seemingly impossible  barriers to overcome, but somehow they do it. I’m drawn to the type of memoirs that show how the human spirit can overcome, whether the spirit is a quiet one, or a feisty one like Jones’. When I was much younger and watched documentaries on famous people’s lives with my family I never really understood why childhood was so impressed upon. I used to hear people say that you spend  your adulthood trying to reconcile and get over your childhood, and I never really understood what that meant until I was older. When I read the recount of Jones’ early life, I’m not surprised she ended up taking the unconventional route. Jones was raised in Jamaica by her sadistic step-grandfather, Mas P,  in an extremely conservative (Pentecostal) religious environment that basically sucked all the joy out of her. Reading about what she had to endure at the hands of Mas P was really disturbing and invites plenty of discussion on conservative religion and how stifling, controlling, and cruel it can be, especially to women and children. Constantly being monitored and not having the opportunity to have a real life, so it’s no wonder that when Jones left Jamaica for the US, she let loose and became a rebel of sorts:

“Jamaica is a land of growth–things grow so fast; it’s nature in spectacular, bewitching overdrive–so it is weird to be in a situation where spontaneous personal growth was frowned upon.”

The era she came up in was hard, especially as a black woman who, in her words, didn’t have a “wholesome” look. Jones worked hard! It’s amusing but also important for me to see how she demanded respect. This was such a powerful manifesto by a powerful woman who knows her worth:

“I had to be a bitch to maintain any kind of authority. Well, if I were a man, I wouldn’t have been considered a bitch. If I were a man, I would simply have been in charge, however aggressive and demanding I was. I wouldn’t have had other people running about filming things behind my back. A man putting his foot down is in control. It’s strong. A woman putting her foot down is out of control. She’s weak.”

I loved reading all the gossip and exploits. Maybe it’s just nostalgia speaking but celebrities back in the day just seemed to be more interesting than most of present day ones. And Jones met a lot of them. I laughed more than once. Jones is a funny lady and so candid at times. It’s really refreshing. She has her standards when it comes to entertainment and she strives to authenticity. She talks about the disco era and how, even then, she was picky about the songs she sang:

“Can you imagine me singing Boogie Wonderland? Preposterous. That song needs a twinkling Tinker Bell to sing it, and I’m much more of a witch with a smear of blood on my cheek.”

Reading this I got a similar feeling to when I was reading Questlove’s memoir a few years ago: Jones and Questlove are both people who have so much expertise and knowledge of their worlds, and have seen historical and technological developments taking place, so they are the perfect cultural critics. Jones’ insights on the gradual commercialization of the arts was really interesting:

“I am disco but I’m also dada. I’m a sensualist but also a surrealist. That underground spirit–from the Beats, hippies, civil rights pioneers, punks; from the experimental artists, technicians and designers–dissolved into what became known as independent, as alternative, and that’s become less and less subversive, and less resistant to a co-opting commercial pull.”

Jones names names (she called Kim K a “basic commercial product”), and at times she is quiet about which celebrities she’s talking about. Clearly so many female entertainers look up to her and try to emulate her, but unsurprisingly Jones isn’t too taken by the attention, because:

“It all backfired on me, because I set out to inspire other people, but those I inspire tend not to be inspired in that they do their own thing, but in that they do my thing, a little their way, but not too much.”

This will go down as one of my favourite memoirs ever! I for one am glad Jones did decide to write her memoirs.

Letter To Jimmy- Alain Mabanckou

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“People would argue for a long time about the real reasons behind your “exile” in France. But the truth is that there is nothing more disheartening than the imprisonment of a creative person, nothing worse than the feeling that the world collapsing before you will swallow your dreams in the end.”- Alain Mabanckou, Letter to Jimmy

I feel this book is many things at once: it’s a sort of biography, a homage to a great writer, and at the same time it’s a sort of guide to the search for one’s inner self through the works of someone who has clearly influenced us. It was a beautiful recapitulation of James Baldwin’s life by someone who is clearly a great admirer and knows a lot about him. At times Mabanckou is speaking to James Baldwin, at other times he is addressing us, the reader, filling the gaps in our knowledge and giving us interesting tidbits and interspersing the book with book reviews.

To me, the title of the book illustrates a closeness between the writer and James Baldwin, and it’s no surprise the admiration and reverence Mabanckou feels to Baldwin because I, and so many others, feel it too. An enigmatic individual, insightful, brave enough to take his life into his own hands, eloquent enough to dissect and present the race problem in an accessible and very incisive way.One of the chapters is entitled “black. bastard. gay and a writer”, I believe the first three words basically sum up the complexity of his identity, especially in the era in which he lived, and yet he managed to become one of the best writers of the 20th Century despite so many obstacles.

I also like that Mabanckou talks about how Baldwin’s words are needed, even now (or maybe especially now); he means so much to marginalized folk and also people searching for their own identities, and so many of his words are timeless and are still very relevant to this day. He has a lot to teach all of us:

“At a young age, we end up accepting what is said about us, especially when it comes from adults. It remains this way until something comes along to contradict those early notions, to make things right, even if only superficially.”

Since I recently reread Baldwin’s own essay on sentimentalism, I thought it was interesting that Mabanckou seems to have the same, or similar, ideas about African literature. It surprised me to see that parallel but Mabanckou makes a pretty good argument, I’d say:

“A variety of African literature known as “child soldier” literature– or as “Rwandan genocide” literature, when it was created more in protest than in an effort to truly understand the tragedies– convinced me definitively that we were not yet free of the vortex of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that the sentimentality and moralizing current that runs through some of these works does harm to African literature.”

All through this read I was thinking about how our  favourite author influences us and plays the role of guide in our journey. Regardless of the gender, ethnicity, era, country of origin, etc, writers can reach out to so many people, just like Baldwin clearly reached out to Mabanckou.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood- Fatima Mernissi

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“When you happen to be trapped powerless behind walls, stuck in a dead-end harem, you dream of escape. And magic flourishes when you spell out that dream and make the frontiers vanish. Dreams can change your life, and eventually the world. Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head, and you translate those images in words. And words cost nothing!”- Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

I just recently came across Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi and was sorry to learn that she passed away late last year. I’m so grateful to her for this text, for  hearing her story. Someone once told me we are always born into the right place at the right time and Mernissi definitely was. Born in Morocco in 1940  during the transition between tradition and modernity, she was a witness to the war and colonialism by the French. As a sociologist, most importantly a feminist, she is able to present her story in a coming of age story situated in history. I believe she was meant to write this story and she writes it well and so beautifully, even inserting funny yet profound childhood observations:

“We knew that the French were greedy and had come a long way to conquer our land, even though Allah had already given them a beautiful one, with bustling cities, thick forests, luscious green fields, and cows much bigger than ours that gave four times as much milk. But somehow the French needed to get home.”

The concept of freedom, especially when it deals with women,  is interesting to me because it means different things to different people. Is freedom about physical barriers? Do we have to construct our own freedom and how do we do so? Do we see freedom in the other?  And even more interesting is to  learn about feminists from non-Western countries and how other women practice feminism in cultures that might not even have that word in their vocabulary. I was quite struck by how feminism was done within the harem walls,  in what people would say is a very unlikely place to practice feminism.

The harem was defined as the place where a man kept his family and sheltered them. It was both the place and the members. We are introduced to proxemics and boundaries within the harem, and we also learn more about the harem of  Mernissi’s grandmother, Yasmina, in the countryside. The harem is a boundary for women and the boundary symbolizes something to overcome somehow in search of freedom. Some boundaries are invisible, others are concrete (or metallic) like the harem’s walls (or gate).

One of the ways feminism was practiced was through storytelling, often intergenerationally. In particular, Scheherezade seemed to be a very important literary figure in this world:

“However, words would save the person who knew how to string them artfully together. That is what happened to Scheherezade, the author of the thousand and one tales. The King was about to chop off her head, but she was able to stop him at the last minute, just by using words. I was eager to find out how she had done it.”

It was timely that I  read this book  just before reading Steinem’s “My Life on the Road.” In a sense, their lives are opposites, one grew up on the road, one behind a wall. Mernissi talked about the importance for women to not be restricted in their movements and I think Steinem would agree:

“I knew that if you moved around, your mind worked faster, because you were constantly seeing new things that you had to respond to.”

All in all, this account reiterates how powerful words are, how women do have that power to transform their own lives.

“You are going to transform this world, aren’t you? You are going to create a planet without walls and without frontiers where the gatekeepers have off every day of the year.”

A special thank you to Julie Feng at https://mintandink.wordpress.com/ for introducing me to this amazing writer!

Also, a book was mentioned that I might read: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist by Huda Sharaoui

Widow Basquiat: A Love Story- Jennifer Clement

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 “He smells of leather, oil paint, tobacco, marijuana and the faint metallic smell of cocaine. He wears handmade wool sweaters and long Mexican ponchos. He never walks in a straight line. He zigzags wherever he is going.”- Jennifer Clement, Widow Basquiat

The 1980s in New York were some interesting times, and Basquiat had maybe one of the most colourful lives I’ve ever read about: shopping  with Madonna, hanging out with Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol, selling paintings to Debbie Harry.”Widow Basquiat” is a very unconventional love story, then again Basquiat, from what I’ve learned about him, epitomized unconventionality.

The “widow” in this case is Basquiat’s great love, Suzanne Mallouk, and the book goes into the strange, unique, often abusive relationship they had.  Suzanne seems to have been Basquiat’s muse and perhaps one of the few people who got closest to really knowing him. We get a sense of who Basquiat was through his “widow’s”  short reminiscent vignettes.

I guess from my vantage point where I’m exposed to black art and have some knowledge of black artists, it might be easy to forget that black artists were rarely accepted in the mainstream, very white, art world not so long ago (and there are obviously still structural barriers). One line regarding representation said by Basquiat himself really spoke to me: “This is why I paint,” he says.”To get black men into museums.”A lot of this book goes into the issues Basquiat experienced with racism in the art world.  There is talk on the double standards of white versus black artists, for example:

“He is furious because people are writing about his ghetto childhood and call him a ‘graffiti artist’ and ‘primitive.’ “They don’t event a childhood for white artists,” he says.”

I could see his internal struggle: on one hand he was trying to make black art mainstream and respected, on another hand not wanting to accept labels. But he always remembered his past and his influences.

“His paintings were inspired by the jazz musicians and he felt akin to them. A lot of the early jazz artists, of course, couldn’t even walk through the front door of the hotels and clubs they were playing in and had to enter through back doors and kitchens, and I think Jean felt this was a metaphor for his place in the white art world: he had entered through the back door. He broke into the white art world in a way that had never been done before by a black.”

This is a very intense book, it really is. I’m not used to reading books that are very heavy on drug content and self-destruction, and despite already knowing the outcome to Basquiat’s story it was really a tough story to wrap one’s head around. My heart especially went out to Suzanne and what she was forced to go through.

What I got from this book is what I already knew and then some; Basquiat was a multifaceted, complex spirit. This book didn’t try to make excuses for him, it just stated the facts.  Definitely a must-read for any Basquiat fans.

Here’s a link to the documentary:  The Radiant Child

Decolonising the Mind- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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“Education, far from giving people the confidence in their ability and capacities to overcome obstacles or to become masters of the laws governing external nature as human beings, tends to make them feel their inadequacies, their weaknesses and their incapacities in the face of reality; and their inability to do anything about the conditions governing their lives.”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind

I’ve never seen colonialism described as succinctly as in the following passage:

“The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.”

I read this book with my experiences in Africa, conversations with my relatives and friends, and my education at the back of my mind. Trying to make sense of history and my place in it made this book invaluable to me, and helped clarify and reiterate a lot of things. The more I  read books on Africa, be they about art, language, history, or politics, the more I’m amazed how the continent is seen, in many people’s minds, as a homogeneous  country. This passive thinking really masks the  complexity of issues in the continent. Even without colonialism Africa would have been quite intricate but  colonialism has truly caused mayhem in the entire continent. And in many ways, language is one of the biggest weapons the colonialists used to do so.

I like wa Thiong’o a lot. Not only is he a great writer, but it’s also clear he is a very passionate person with a lot of  love for his country, his continent and his language, and a great advocate for the traditional arts. He is very blunt and I admire that a lot. Nobody is safe from his criticism,  even a few of my personal favourites such as Achebe, Soyinka, Cesaire. In a sense he thinks they were brainwashed for putting the language of the colonizers on a pedestal. I think it’s an interesting argument to be had but it’s hard for me to pick a side because I’m admittedly colonized myself and English-dominant, although it’s not my first language. I found it useful to read wa Thiong’o’s perspective regardless.

And wa Thiongo’s perspective is important. He grew up during colonialism after all, so he, unlike me, had the opportunity to study in his native language and unfortunately had to endure being forced to assimilate into the English language.He details how the British tried to suppress local languages in Kenya, how they arrested those who tried to encourage cultural proliferation, and controlled the gathering of people in places.  He sees the differences in himself and his society before and after English language education was forced on him, and his explanations and insights are very precise and often personal.

wa Thiong’o is very thorough in how he discusses the role of language as a carrier and transmitter of culture, and what happens when that language is taken away from people. This is such a common story, not just in Africa but even here in Canada, and I think we’re beginning to understand just how damaging it is to suppress and devalue language. In what planet does it make sense that a Kenyan student in colonial Kenya would be punished for speaking Gikuyu or Swahili instead of English? Personally I remember how I was often treated better than my cousins just because I could speak English and they couldn’t; I learned early on how language can be elitist:

“I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages– that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya– were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment.”

Another great thing about wa Thing’o is how he respects the peasantry (his choice of word). The other day I was reading about the Third Estate in France during the 19th Century revolution and this reminded me of how in Africa the peasantry are the majority, and that’s where the culture comes from. Who makes the oral stories, who upholds the culture? It’s nice to see the peasantry being accredited with maintaining culture and tradition:

“These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa on the whole.”

I was struck  by the violence caused by colonialism. Colonialism was celebrated, and that’s the world I grew up in: gratitude to the colonialists for “rescuing” us. But what we know now is that it was very very violent and the wounds are still there. If, like wa Thiong’o said, in 1984 the president of the West German Federal Council visited Togo in order to celebrate the centennial of Germany establishing Togo as a German colony,”to commemorate not the resistance to colonisation but the glory of colonisation,” then clearly we haven’t learned much and dialogue still needs to be had.

The constant unlearning, the decolonizing, that needs to be done because we were lied to, is something that I thought of throughout this book. And it’s only now that I’m realizing in more detail just how horrific colonialism was, just how much we’ve lost. What I aim to do myself, how I aim to decolonize my own mind, is by reading more of my history. I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve been influenced by other cultures so I wonder how far I can be decolonized. This got me thinking about globalization and how that has affected us, I would be interested to hear Thiong’o’s thoughts on this. This is definitely a must-read for everyone, there is so much we don’t know or realize about the impact of the actions of those who came before us, and this is a great start.

A House of My Own: Stories from My Life- Sandra Cisneros

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“I have always been a daydreamer, and that’s a lucky thing for a writer. Because what is a daydreamer if not another word for thinker, visionary, intuitive–all wonderful words synonymous with ‘girl.'”

It’s official: I’m a Sandra Cisneros fan. This is the first book of hers that I’ve read and over the last few years I’ve found that reading a writer’s non-fiction before reading their fiction has helped me better get into the writer’s mind, understand their influences and what drives them. for a long time. This collection of essays and  book reviews span 30 years of Cisneros’s writing career and go into stories of her life, including her meeting Gwendolyn Brooks and others, her travels, and relationships with her family and friends.

I’m always looking for certain words to detail my experiences of being raised in different cultures and looking for a place to call “home.” I pick  up a lot from different writers and books, but through language and content, I got closest to my feelings through this book .All these essays are excellent, so warm, and relatable. Cisneros inspired me to write and to talk about my own experiences, she showed me these stories are important:

“For those of us living between two worlds, our job in the universe is to help others see with more than their eyes. . . . Our work as bicultural citizens is to help others to become visionary, to help us all to examine our dilemmas in multiple ways and arrive at creative solutions. Otherwise we all will perish.”

I loved Cisneros’ thoughts on writing, inspiration, and her need for her own space. I could relate to this and I often think of how, due to my introvertism, I desired lots of time alone. It that was impossible due to my culture, being an introvert created some suspicion it seems. So I’ve always loved the night time:

 ” When I was young and still living at home, my father would call me vampira for writing at night. I couldn’t tell him the night was my own private house.”

Very prevalent were the themes of a house/home, not only the importance of a home as a place where you live which contains memories, but also as your own place in which to organize and decorate as you wish, based on your wants, needs, etc. There was an interesting essay in this where Cisneros was talking about her love of bright colours and how her neighbours did not take too kindly to her periwinkle purple-coloured home in San Antonio:

“Colour is a story. An inheritance. Were the San Antonio missions rascuache because they imitated the elaborate Moorish tiles they could not afford? Nobody wants to live like they’re poor, not even  the poor. They prefer to live like kings. That’s why they paint their houses with the only wealth they have–spirit.

       Mango yellow, papaya orange, cobalt blue. When colours arrive from the ‘nobodies who don’t create art, but handicrafts, who don’t have culture, but folklore,’ as Eduardo Galeano sardonically says of the poor, they don’t count, they’re not available until a Rockefeller or a Luis Barragan borrows them and introduces them into the homes of the rich and gives them status.”

One essay in particular stood out to me,  one in which Sandra Cisneros talks about a graduate seminar she attended on memory and imagination. The books assigned in seminar were Speak, Memory (Nabokov) , Out of Africa (Dinesen), and The Poetics of Space (Bachelard). This is what she said about the seminar:

“I went home that night and realized my education has been a lie– had made presumptions about what was ‘normal.’ I wanted to quit school right then and there, but I didn’t. Instead, I got mad, and anger when it’s used to act, when used nonviolently has power. I asked myself what I could write about that my classmates couldn’t. I didn’t want to sound like my classmates; I didn’t want to keep imitating the writers I’d been reading. Their voices were right for them but not for me.”

And there, I believe, is the strength one eventually has when they realize that what makes them different makes them unique and is a good thing. And we can celebrate our culture and experiences through our writing, and that’s what Cisneros did without worrying about how her work would be perceived by those who didn’t know, or didn’t care to understand, her culture and experiences. This unapologetic writing is what I’ve come to associate with feminists of colour such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua, and it’s so refreshing to see.

 

I read a library copy of this book but I will definitely be buying myself a copy.

To end this review, a link to Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion.

“I think Piazzolla’s music demands you dance alone, preferably under the stars.”-Sandra .Cisneros

Astor Piazzolla- Oblivion