My 2016 in Books 

I love books. I hope when I grow up to be able to have lots of them.- Lucy Maud Montgomery, aged 15

So the final figures for this year are 125 books read, considerably less than last year. I read 18 poetry collections, 30 non-fiction, and the rest were fiction.

This year was my year of reading Toni Morrison and I  read a Morrison every month in chronological order. I managed to keep up with writing a review a month until the autumn, but with my new job I’ve had less time and energy for reading. Next year I’ll write a more detailed post of my findings and experiences through this journey.

2016 was a tumultuous one for several reasons. It was hard to focus sometimes but poetry always comes through in hard times, and I read a lot of it. Some of my favourites were Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems, Czeslaw Milosz’s New and Collected Poems,  Marge Piercy’s The Crooked Inheritance, and  Mahmoud Darwish’s Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? And for those who missed it, earlier on in the year I compiled a list of diverse poetry. You can find it here

I found some great diverse graphic novels, for example Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, the Aya series from Ivory Coast by Marguerite Abouet, and Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan series.

I usually read a lot of biographies , and although this year I only read a few, I managed to find some good ones. My favourites were both 5 star reads. Mohammed Ali’s The Soul of a Butterfly was a good one to read after his death and be reacquainted with his legacy. And Grace Jones’ I’ll Never Write my Memoirs  is one of the most fascinating reads I’ve ever come across.

Reading women’s literature is so essential and I’m glad I’ve made a conscious effort to read more of it over the past few years. Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Maryse Condé and Ntozake Shange are women I read a lot of this year and they gave me so much strength.

I also read some good Black satire from Nigeria: Igoni Barret’s Blackass and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; they are definitely worth reading.

I’m still finishing up a few reads that I’m really enjoying, for example, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor (RIP), So Long Been Dreaming (Eds. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan), Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K.  Le Guin.

Some of the great non-fiction I’ve read this year has included Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, The Media is the Message by Marshall McLuhan, and The Deep Zoo by Rikki Ducornet.

My ten favourite reads, in no particular order, are:

The Gathering of Waters– Bernice McFadden

The Sympathizer– Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Blue Castle– L. M. Montgomery

Dreams of Trespass– Fatima Mernissi

Beauty is a Wound– Eka Kurniawan

-The Big Sea- Langston Hughes

A Map to the Door of No Return– Dionne Brand

-A Small Place- Jamaica Kincaid

Sassafras, Cypress, & Indigo– Ntozake Shange

Woman at Point Zero– Nawal El Sadaawi

Next year I plan on continuing my theme of the last few years of reading more diversely and reading more women writers. I also plan on exploring  sci-fi more, and reading a lot of Lucy Maud Montgomery as I really enjoyed her this year. 

Thanks to everyone who reads my blog and engages with me on twitter and Goodreads, you are all very much appreciated<3 Wishing you all a great 2017. Happy reading!

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Art on my Mind: Visual Politics- bell hooks

“Does man love Art?
Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts.
Art urges voyages-
and it is easier to stay at home.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks

hooks sees a dearth in the area of black art critique and she issues a call to arms for more critique and also for a new vocabulary for this to happen.This book is such a great look into the state of black art, especially as it relates to the dominant male Eurocentric art. Although the book was less accessible than hooks’ other books, the relatively slow speed that I read it at meant I took more time to ruminate on what I had read and think about the role that art has played in my life.

I was struck by quite a few of bell hooks’ quotes, primarily about the politics of seeing. hooks says how we see things  and relate to them depends on our worldview. hooks laments  the fact that art is often seen as superfluous in so many black people’s lives just because there might be so many other pressing issues at hand. She finds that worrying for a number of reasons, primarily because of the transformative power of art.
Reading on hooks’ own experiences with art, I thought of my own. Seeing as the majority of the art I’ve viewed is European art, that probably formed the lens through which I view art. It doesn’t help that black art, African in particular, is often called “folk art”, a term that devalues the art both intrinsically and price-wise. Having visited several African countries on vacation with my family and wanting to buy African art for souvenirs,  I was always looked at with some  bemusement as the art was created for (Western) tourist consumption, not for a “local” such as me. I find it interesting that without this Western demand for art, perhaps the art would not have been created but it does beg the question of how authentic the art is as African art as it was created with a western audience in mind. Either way, I liked it and I bought a lot of it.  When I bought batik in Zimbabwe or malachite carvings in South Africa, what I saw was its beauty and the fact that I could buy art I could actually touch, art that wasn’t hung in a gallery somewhere, and art I could relate to on a deeper level because of my heritage.

I have seen some great African diasporic art collections in Toronto and Vancouver and I’m often left thinking why aren’t the artists better known, and why aren’t more journals and magazines writing about their work?  I attended Chantal Gibson’s art talk at the Vancouver Public Library during Black History Month and her discussions on her works Tome and Historical In(ter)ventions: Altered Texts and Border Stories were truly insightful, although it needed her explaining her vision, process etc before I fully understood what she was trying to portray.

Black artists as “image-makers” was a profound point for me. About photography hooks says: “I think about the place of art in black life, connections between the social construction of black identity, the impact of race and class, and the presence in black life of an inarticulate but ever-present visual aesthetic governing our relationship to images, to the process of Image making.”

Photos are seen as a “disruption of white control over black images.” I think of the gollywog on Robertson’s jam labels when I was growing up and  how amazing it is that giving a black person a camera lets them create their own images to counter the negative ones:

“The camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentations well as a means by which alternative images could be produced.”

hooks touches on black male art, but her focus is on the feminine. I enjoyed her thoughts on Lorna Simpson‘s work in particular, an artist who uses images of black female bodies that counter stereotypes:

 “Whereas female bodies in this culture depict us as hard, low down, mean, nasty, bitchified, Simpson creates images that give poetic expression to the ethereal, the prophetic dimensions of visionary souls shrouded flesh.”

Although bell hooks is talking mainly about African-Americans and their experiences with art, I feel it’s very similar to the African diaspora’s experiences with, and perceptions of, art.In fact, there is a lot in the book about collective memory of the diaspora. It’s definitely not an easy read but I personally found it very rewarding.

Some Diasporic art:

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Recycled South African art from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. No artist’s name was available.
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The Merger- Mario Miguel Gonzalez, Niels Moleiro Luis, and Alain Pino “Remember” (2012) Museum of Anthropology
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“Aguas del Rio” (2009)- Manuel Mendive Hoyo Museum of Anthropology
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Malawian mahogany art on display at my aunt and uncle’s house. Unfortunately no artist names are available. The one on the left is a candlestick holder, and the one on the right is a popular abstract rendition of the African mother and child.
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El Anatsui, a Ghanaian contemporary visual artist who created this piece using recycled bottletops. On display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
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More Malawian art: tea coasters.

Let the Black Woman Live

FROM A LETTER WRITTEN TO DR. W.E. B. DUBOIS BY ALVIN BORGQUEST OF CLARK UNIVERSITY IN MASSACHUSETTS AND DATED APRIL 3, 1905.

“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears…”

The above excerpt, that I was alerted to on Twitter the other day, helped me think about something that has been on my mind for a long time. So it appears that a century ago, the black person was a borderline mythical creature who the rest of the world were unsure about and therefore came up with ridiculous comments like the above. I’d like to take it a step further and state that from my observations and personal experiences it appears that people think black people – particularly our women – don’t have feelings or are incapable of experiencing the world as every other human being does. This is the sort of thing I would have been very uncomfortable to write a couple of years ago because people don’t like to talk about race and its very real consequences, and so many of us believe that bringing up racial issues will cause us to confront the bubble that we live in. Well, I decided not to allow myself to be censored, and also to be honest about my feelings. And what I feel is this:

Like many others, I am really tired of negative depictions of black women in media and elsewhere. Black women are dehumanized in our society and I’ve come to realize the many ways that black women have it tougher than others. The facts are, and this is very clear when you look online, watch the television or just observe black women in public, black women are expected to attain a higher standard than others, not only that, an unattainable Eurocentric one, simply to prove our worth as human beings. It looks like we are not good enough as we are and as we come. This constant criticism of our appearance and our behaviour is exhausting.

Not only is our appearance critiqued, our behaviour is subject to scrutiny and contempt too. There are SO many stereotypes. My “favourite” is the mad–or angry–black woman, though what on earth is the matter with expressing emotion, why is it a problem when we react to things that hurt us? Isn’t it better than being passive and a doormat?

 “Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don’t want to hear about it, nor us. I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized.” — Audre Lorde

And let’s not forget that we are sexualized constantly. Here is an excerpt from Lorraine Hansberry’s informal autobiography that perfectly articulates the sexualization and fetishization of the black woman:

…I could be returning from 8 hours on an assembly line, or 16 hours in Mrs. Halsey’s Kitchen. I can be all filled up that day with three hundred years of rage so that my eyes are flashing and my flesh is trembling— and the white boys in the streets look at me and think of sex. They look at me and that’s all they think… Baby, you could be Jesus in drag— but if you’re brown they’re sure you’re selling!”

These standards of perfection and respectability we are expected to attain are ridiculous. We are supposed to look perfect – read: proper – all the time, our kids are not supposed to have a hair out of place (hello? They are kids!). If we have something amiss, we are torn to shreds, even by our own people. We are the least supported group of people in the world. The black woman is seen as a joke and people forget that they are dealing with the lives of actual people. Every year there are ridiculous articles trying to dissect the black woman, and almost all of them are negative. At times, it feels like we’re living in Foucault’s panopticon, always being observed and monitored. It gets to you after a while, somehow being a representative of your entire race, and not being good enough to escape criticism.

 “All too often in our society, it is assumed that one can know all there is to know about black people by merely hearing the life story and opinions of one black person.” – bell hooks

The title of this post was inspired by a song by the group Queen; a line from that song goes, “Let me live, leave me alone.” I would like to know what it feels like to live without being under the constant glare of a microscope. I’m tired of the double standards. I’m tired of having to be the representative for my entire race.

Does the black woman need to be compartmentalized and understood (and perhaps controlled)? What is the world’s sick fascination with us? Whitman said “I contain multitudes”, and I believe we all do, so why these same old tired tropes? How about acknowledging that we can be strong but we can feel weak too? How about we don’t have to look cover ready all the time? How about we’re allowed to express ourselves without the fear of being criticized? Society has one thing to do for the black woman, and that is to allow her the complexity of humanity.

While I’m writing articles on race, I always imagine the comments I’m going to hear from people because I’ve heard them all before. People will say things are better now than they were in the 1960s, some will say I’m over-reacting and being too sensitive, others will say that I should just ignore the negativity. In my opinion, the majority of these comments are not helpful at all because they are putting the onus on me to change my ways of thinking when the problem isn’t me, it’s the systemic racist foundation our society is built on and the self-hatred perpetuated by white imperialism and colonialism that are to blame for the ways that people in society behave. I believe I’m doing my part by refusing to remain silent about my feelings and experiences, and I will continue to do so.

And when I come across things like the Twitter hashtag #YouOkSis that was set up to raise awareness of street harassment towards women, and that soon noted that  black women experienced the more virulent attacks, it makes me realize just how pervasive the abuse is and how we should ALL be speaking out.

The black women I know are amazing. There are too many to list. They work hard, they work harder trying to exhort their kids in this crazy world that tells them that they are subhuman. I just wish for peace and quiet, and less finger-pointing and cruel jokes. When you think about it, it really isn’t too much to ask.

And a special THANK YOU to Joan for the inspiration ❤