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.”

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.

Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo- Ntozake Shange

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“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.”

 

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

Woman at Point Zero- Nawal El Saadawi

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“A new world was opening up in front of my eyes, a world which for me had not existed before. Maybe it had always been there, always existed, but I had never seen it, never realized it had been there all the time. How was it that I had been blind to its existence all these years?”

I was told by a friend (thank you, Amina!) that the German title for this book is translated as “I Spit on You,” and it makes a lot of sense after you read the book, because that will probably be your reaction to most of the characters. This is my second El Saadawi book and I wish I’d written a review for the first book of hers that I read, The Innocence of the Devil, because I thought both books were excellent, similar in their approach and very powerful in how they portrayed patriarchy, sexism, hypocrisy, and misogyny.

I love Firdaus, our protagonist, and I think she’s a character who’ll stay with me for a very long time. At the beginning of the novella we find her on death row for killing a man and as she recounts her story to a female psychiatrist who is sent to visit her. We learn more about her. And it’s shocking. It wouldn’t surprise me if many women are able to see themselves in Firdaus, despite the fact that we might not be Egyptian, Muslim etc, like she was. Parts of her story are surely the stories of many women.

The tone of the book starts off so innocently and simply; the change in describing brutal incidents caught me by surprise. From every single man Firdaus encounters she experiences abuse or exploitation of sorts. Firdaus changes because of her experiences and we see how strong she becomes, despite encountering such awful things.

Despite the tragic story, Firdaus has moments of agency and emancipation. This woman who nobody wants, who’s abused time and again, who isn’t helped when she should be, comes up with her own definition of truth based on what she sees and experiences, not what she has been indoctrinated with.  El Saadawi exposes the hypocrisy in religious and patriarchal societies with men using tradition for their own purposes:

“I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. Thus, the truth about them was revealed only after their deaths, and as a result I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy.”

She compares and contrasts marriage and prostitution, and she is often very blunt about what she perceives to be the position of women in society:

“All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows.”

But there is the hope when women like Firdaus realize the truth but also the power they actually have:

“How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?”

And ultimately though the telling of Firdaus’ story, I found myself changed as well, and more understanding of Firdaus’ journey and evolution.

 “A man does not know a woman’s value, Firdaus. She is the one who determines her value.