City of Lies- Ramita Navai

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From above, Tehran has an ethereal glow. An orange mist hangs over the city, refracting sunrays: a thick, noxious haze that stubbornly clings to every corner, burning the nose and stinging the eyes. Every street is clogged with cars coughing out the black clouds that gently rise and sit, unmoving, overhead…- Ramita Navai, City of Lies

I’ve always been intrigued by Iranian history and this book was fascinating. It’s a collection of stories from various Tehranis, giving us lots of insight into Iranian society. These are the stories of Tehrani citizens, told to the reporter/writer, citizens including a prostitute, an assassin, an exile, and a closeted Islamic militia member.

What I’ll say is this: people who are obsessed with morals and laws are often the least moral (and the most abusive). Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching and so unfair. The hypocrisy of life within a very rigid religious society was so obvious from these stories, particularly the hypocrisy around sexuality.

I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about Iran; for example, I had no idea that in the 1970s lots of Iranians provided cheap labour to Japan, doing the ‘3K’ jobs ; kitanai (dirty), Kitsui (difficult), and kurushii (painful). Nor did I know about the chronic drug problem in the country.

Iran seems to be a place of contradictions, and a place where people, young women in particular, seem to be oppressed. Take Somayeh whose family believes that “religion means living by the words of the Koran and the Supreme Leader’s fatwas to earn a place in paradise”:

Somayeh and her friends strongly believed that the hejab should be enforced. They agreed with the law, which states that if your make-up and clothes are contrary to public decency and you intend to attract attention, you can be arrested and taken straight to court…The girls were not to blame for their misogynous views. They had been fed the regime’s line on hejab, which was usually touted around the city via huge billboard advertisements, since birth.

 

I’m always interested by how oppressive regimes use children to further their agendas, and how they program them to do so. For example:

Morteza’s own views were not changing so much as being formed for the first time. The lectures were having an effect. Islamic scholars thundered about the dangers of moral decay, titillating the boys with enough morsels of lascivious detail to keep them interested and entrusting them with enough responsibility to keep them excited. The boys were wide-eyed with pride when they were told tha they were the guardians of their citizens’ virtue.

I was incredibly frustrated by the limitations such regimes put on its people, the hypocrisy which unfortunately hurts the women and children the most, and how people have to often hide who they truly are. Navai did share some important stories though, and regardless of how oppressive the regime is, people do their best to live, and I’d say that’s pretty inspirational.

The book did remind me of Persepolis, the feminist graphic novel set in Iran, and it’s no wonder because the women in these stories were treated abysmally.

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Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto- Jessa Crispin

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Making feminism a universal pursuit might look like a good thing—or at the very least a neutral thing—but in truth it progresses, and I think accelerates, a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement: the shift of focus from society to the individual. What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with our concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward.- Jessa Crispin, Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

There’s something that Martin Luther King said that I read a few years ago that stuck with me, which is about the importance of reading widely, including reading views that you don’t agree with. I learned that is true and that we can learn a lot from people who think differently.  In the past this isn’t the sort of book I’d have picked up, I mean so many of my readings are feminist-focused; as a black woman I’m interested in feminism, and how to make my life, and the lives of the women in my life, better, so my defenses were slightly up when I read this one.

From my perspective, this book is a critique of feminism, and in my opinion every movement should be critiqued. As Crispin says, “Feminism is—should be—a movement, not an excuse to stand still.” She makes many good points and gave me food for thought. Overall she did make me think about labels and how important it is for us to understand what we are claiming when we take on any label. Basically, this requires self-reflection, and Crispin assumes that feminists do not self-reflect.

Being confronted almost daily with pinkwashing  capitalism, I was really glad that Crispin addressed how feminism is used in advertising.  Crispin says “ It is often supposed that acceptance of the feminist label will also result in the acceptance of the meaning behind it, but the meaning has been drained away by this psychotic marketing campaign. A woman can now take up the feminist label without any true political, personal, or relational adaptations whatsoever. It’s just another button on her jacket, another sticker on her bumper. The inner contents remain unchanged.”

I do agree with this, and additionally I agree with the importance of not celebrating someone just because they are a woman. See this article: https://www.buzzfeed.com/doree/feminist-hypocrisy-is-the-new-trend-in-startup-narratives?utm_term=.ouOegWxX4#.gsZo0K4xQ

Throughout the book I found myself disagreeing with plenty, and part of that reason was Crispin seems to be focusing on white middle-class feminism, which clearly I have little to no connection with at all. Crispin also uses examples from feminism online, and that makes me think that her data is skewered towards the West, as so much else is. I find that  it’s so easy to forget that there are worlds out there outside of the West, and the citizens of those places might not have the word “feminist” in their vocabulary, may not have access to the internet and other resources, but they are still fighting to improve the lot of women, and in very diverse ways, ways that are not mentioned in this book. Crispin also made several sweeping assumptions that surprised me, such as that feminists hate men.

But still, despite Crispin’s sometimes arrogance and blanket statements, I feel this is an important read. It’s a quick one too, and you can probably skip over a few of her essays as some of the stuff is repetitive.

 

White is for Witching- Helen Oyeyemi

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 “I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home, I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read–I tell you where you are. Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look.”- The house in Helen Oyeyemi’s “White is For Witching”

Although I bought an Oyeyemi book a few years ago, this is actually the first book of hers that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it although reading the review from the Toronto Star that referred to Oyeyemi as a “kin of Morrison” really rubbed me the wrong way as very lazy and misleading because Oyeyemi’s writing is really not like Morrison’s at all and it’s clear to me that she’s carved her own niche and did so well.

This was a great story, one which I admittedly found it hard to follow at first. However, it’s a story I was rewarded for not giving up on. There is a very unusual stricture wherein a new character starts speaking IN THE MIDDLE OF A SENTENCE! I personally found this brilliant after I got over my initial confusion. Once I got used to that quirk and realized that more like it were coming, it was a fun read. It’s essentially a neo-gothic storyline featuring a demented house which is one of the characters in the book, a pair of strange twins, the spirit of a deceased mother, and a Nigerian housekeeper who watches Nollywood movies. It has some contemporary storylines that focus on refugees and immigration detention centres in England:

You come without papers because you have been unable to prove that you are useful to anyone, and then when you arrive they put you in prison, and if you are unable to prove that you have suffered, they send you home.

I’m really looking forward to reading more from Oyeyemi, i don’t think I’ve ever come across a writer like her, and as young as she is it will be great to see how her craft develops. Definitely recommended.

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.

 

 

A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

Love- Toni Morrison 

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“Young people, Lord. Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty.”– Toni Morrison, Love

It’s almost September and I’ve managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. Eight Morrison’s later and she never fails to surprise me, even though these are rereads. I enjoyed Love, a well-written  book with a lot  of fodder for discussion. The strange thing is I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention it. I wonder why it doesn’t have the same appeal as some of her other books?

Love begins with our narrator introducing us to the coast community the book is set in; she talks about the past in nostalgic tones,  how things have changed, and how things haven’t changed. The main story itself is centered around the legend Bill Cosey, a black entrepreneur, and the women in his life who fight for his attention: his (very) young wife, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and a few others. Even though Cosey has been deceased for a couple of decades, he is still a very strong, disturbing presence in the lives of these women.

This is a sad  story  of misunderstandings,  bitterness, cruelty, hurt and anger. The three women share a house and we aren’t sure why there is so much hatred between them.   Morrison reveals things slowly and in a non-linear manner, and I’m left wondering how on earth women’s lives can be fulfilling if they are centred solely around men, especially when this competition is encouraged, which, in this book, resulted in very strong feelings:

“Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” 

“Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness….Like friendship, hatred needed more thank physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.”

When it comes to Morrison’s writing, what stands out to me most are her descriptions of things, in particular how she uses colour; it’s often a short poetic respite from the tough subject matter she writes:

“Jade and sapphire waves fight each other, kicking up enough foam to wash sheets in. An evening sky behaves as though it’s from another planet– one without rules, where the sun can be plum purple if it wants to and clouds can be red as poppies.”

This was an emotional whirlwind of a book and Morrison takes us in so many different directions, down many paths of discoveries. There is plenty of food for thought in this one: families, their secrets and their hurts.

 “The problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer. Shortsighted, though.”

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.