Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The last Oprah Book Club book I read was a recent translation of Anna Karenina, and that was only because I had been meaning to read the book for awhile. Beyond that, I'm persnickety about what I read because I believe writers should be as exciting for their readers as possible, and we can't do that if we're reading what others are reading. I also haven't made up my mind about whether I think reading is fundamentally public or private, though I lean toward the latter.

As a result, I actively ignore bestseller lists. It's easy for me to do since I've collected advanced reader's copies as a book reviewer now for more than 10 years, and my friends all know about my bookish ways, so they give me more. Part of how I chose where I live has to do with the library branch that isn't far from my home.

But every now and then a book comes along that I'm so curious about that I can't wait to read and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie intrigued me from the start. 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the first novel I've read since Salvage the Bones. There's been a lot of creative nonfiction and memoir since then - Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, bell hooks Writing Beyond Race,  Ruth Behar's Traveling Heavy and I just started Mary Karr's The Liar's Club.  Fiction is a luxury, a way to visit somewhere else without packing up and heading out of town. Tribes is anchored in Philadelphia, though it wanders through the South.

It's been called an allegory of race that draws on Biblical symbols. There are natural comparisons drawn to Toni Morrison because of the depth and reach of the characters in Tribes. The matriarch, Hattie Shepherd, is a tortured soul. She makes peace with her failings, but only after she's had 11 children, a lover, a no-good husband who finds his solace, eventually, in the Lord and her share of heartbreak. Writer Edward P. Jones comes to mind, not just because Mathis shares his skill re: imaginative detail, but because she homes in on what is most interesting about Hattie's children while also finding ways to render their failings beautiful.

Like Jones, Mathis has a strong grasp of history (she acknowledges Isabel Wilkerson's important and necessary book, The Warmth of Other Suns), but she is not overbearing. She makes us feel the lack of humanity in racism before one couple crosses the Mason-Dixon Line and encounters a group of menacing white men who steal the China they use for their picnic at a rest stop. Instead of simplifying the scene into a trite display of bad white men versus a virtuous and victimized black people (think Crash in book form, as much as I loved the book) her skill shows us in the aftermath how fear and loathing as a result of bias can drain and warp a black American's spirit.

There is sexuality and sensuality in the novel, but not as a plot device as much as a characterization of failing in other areas. The beauty of the story is that is a people's narrative, and no one is left out. I'm certain more women will read this than men, but I respected the way she brought to life complicated men who were trying to make ends meet, to be good friends to their women and other mates, how they were trying to repair irreparable damage done to their bodies or their spirits in spite of adversity.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a good read. Its popularity and praise for the book is all well-deserved. I'm excited to read what Mathis publishes next.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

13 More Black History Titles You Rarely Hear About

It helps to have really smart friends who also love books. And since we only have a few days left in February, I hope you'll use this list well beyond the confines of February.

By the way, my informal call for other books that should be on a list like this one led to the question, "What counts as modern?" To me, a modern black history book is one that was published in the past 20 years and is frequently overlooked in stories about black literature that are passed around during Black History Month.

Here are some of the titles that came up:

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall (And I would add that anyone interested in black masculinity and its challenges also read Cool Pose : The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America and Manchild in the Promised Land.)

To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter

Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class by Robin D.G. Kelley

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture) by Barbara Ransby

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage International Original) by James Baldwin

Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought Edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (For related books, specifically anthologies, I also recommend The Black Woman: An Anthology and Daughters of Africa)

Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition Edited by Patricia Liggins Hill

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis

Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings

I would be remiss if I didn't recommend Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, the first in a trilogy of books about America during the King Years. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

5 of my favorite multicultural books on love

It's been 20 years since the publication of Like Water for Chocolate. Let's just let that sink in for a minute.

OK, so now that I've made some of you feel really old, what I loved about the book and the movie was that I hadn't read romance from the perspective of anyone but white writers for pretty much all of my young life back then with the exception of Nikki Giovanni's Love Poemsand Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar.

So the discovery of Like Water for Chocolate and Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel was amazing. I could finally read love stories that I saw myself in. There's an impact that fiction in particular has on the reader, and I loved developing empathy and understanding for protagonists in love as a nerdy romantic.

The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel
I'm not ashamed to tell you that I loved this book very much, although in retrospect it was more Harlequin-like than literary. It was all New Agey and unrequited love. It was also my first multimedia experience, but only because the paperback came with a CD in the back that I never listened to. I lost the original hardcover, but found the paperback on sale and I still have it in the house. I don't know why. But it should give you some indication of the romantic nature of the title, at least.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 
If you don't know the story of Janie and Teacake, please don't tell me that you saw what you needed to see if you watched the Halle Berry reproduction because it just doesn't do the love story that Zora crafted justice. This was my first experience with a romantic story written from the purview of a black woman in love as she came of age and I feel lucky that I get to say that.

The Captain's Verses: Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
My perpetual crush on poetry began with Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde, but it completely soared when I was somehow introduced to Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. My Spanish still leaves a lot to be desired, but somehow, when I read his poetry in English or Spanish, it hardly matters. If you haven't seen it, Il Postino will make you love Pablo Neruda even more. (Should you need further evidence of my obsession with him, here you go.)

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The first book of Murakami's that I read was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running , which is very entertaining, but not nearly as beautiful as this endearing and funny love story. I'm reading it now and I have a feeling I'm about to fall down the Murakami fiction rabbit hole. I can't even think about that last 1,000-pager he just published without needing to sit down.

What are you favorite love poems and books? For even more, check out my twin-book-brain strong cookie's list from the 15 authors meme. She includes Paulo Coelho, Sandra Cisneros and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among many others that I'm also big fans of.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Next Big Thing: The Beautiful Darkness

My writing sister Vanessa Martir, who I met at VONA last summer, my first writing conference, mentioned the Next Big Thing Meme to me in an email a couple of weeks months ago, so I thought I'd try it out.

1) What is the working title of your book?

The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. The subtitle will likely be A Memoir of the Seasons or something like that, since it's a little more accurate. As I've been writing it, I've realized that A Handbook for Orphans would make a better fiction collection.

2) Where did the idea come from for your book?

I've written a couple of drafts of the memoir over the past decade but it wasn't until I had the opportunity to read Mira Bartok's great book, The Memory Palace, that I saw in the manuscript a description of winter in another part of the world referred to as The Beautiful Darkness.  Since the book is about survival and overcoming adversity and grief, it seemed like the most appropriate title. I believe that there is something beautiful about coming through darkness and working our ways toward light. For me, it's a tall order but a very worthy endeavor.

3) What is the genre of your book?


4) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

I would love it if the great Quvenzhane Wallis played the younger me, since I saw so much of my younger resilient self in Hush Puppy (from Beasts of the Southern Wild). I admire the elegance and grace of Angela Bassett, so that would be my first choice for me as an adult. I've been told I favor everyone from Tracy Chapman to Whitney Houston (I miss her) to Lauryn Hill, so I'm not sure who would play the adolescent version of me. I'm quite the actress, so I could do it.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Beautiful Darkness is the story of how one survives without a traditional safety net.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

When I'm done with the writing process, I'll look for an agent for awhile. If nothing shakes out, I will self-publish it as both an ebook and as a print-on-demand title.

7) How long did it take to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I've written several drafts of this memoir in one shape or another for 13 years. So the truest answer is 13 years. The most recent answer to that question is that it took me about six months to come up with a fresh draft that was closer to my final vision for the book.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I didn't think about it until after I fell in love with my title, but I enjoy Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing and I think there may be some similarities to his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. My hope is to write a classic coming of age story about a young black girl overcoming adversity in a crosscultural way - so Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars by Lauralee Summers meets The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls meets I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou meets Claire Bidwell Smith's The Rules of Inheritance.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've had so much inspiration over the years, but I have to say that the death of my parents - my father in 2010 and my mother in 2012, was the catalyst for a new urgency and a better understanding of the narrative arc of my life. What really helped me survive more than anything else was reading the work of great women writers like Alice Walker, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde and many, many more. I'm inspired both by my ancestors and by the well-crafted work of my memoirist peers, as well as by a number of black musicians and filmmakers who have offered up narratives that have elements of what I'm working on that have helped me craft a more cohesive story.

10) What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

As a side note, I'm so happy that you spelled pique right, meme-starter!
There is no other memoir that I've been able to read that writes deeply about how young black women in particular, but people in general who are self-parented can navigate the many complicated factors that come with the territory. In my case, that was mental illness, resentment, poverty and to some extent racism, sexism and anti-intellectual boosterism as I found mentors, friends and angels along the way to help me along the path. We know much about self-reliance and the Horatio Alger narrative in our culture as it relates to the white male hero's journey, but very little about people of color who manage to cultivate the same kind of individualism and rugged determination that is so praised in other races and/or groups. We have all been, in one way or another, abandoned or left to fend for ourselves, either figuratively or literally, at some point in our lives. The Beautiful Darkness is about learning to lean into that pain, to transform it into something light enough to carry without letting the burden weigh us down, to know that darkness is only the temporary absence of light.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mark Anthony Neal: Love in the Stacks

I am a fangirl for Mark Anthony Neal's scholarship. This started over ten years ago when I first read his work at PopMatters and continues as I get to read his posts on his blog at NewBlackMan (in exile) and on Tumblr and everywhere else. Like he writes here, I fell in love with black history at the library - first the New York Public Library, then at boarding school, then when I worked in the stacks at Vassar. Bibliophiles will feel him on this:
I still have vivid memories of my first Black History Month in 1984, which was highlighted by speeches from Chicago educator Marva Collins and writer, poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti, who had just published his collection Earthquakes and sunrise Missions:Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973 – 1983 (Third World Press). That book began a constant companion; decades later there are still cadences of Madhubuti’s writing in my own. My immediate response to meeting and reading Madhubuti (the former Don L. Lee) was to track down his earlier works like Don't Cry, Scream! (1969) and We Walk the Way of the New World (1970),m many of which I found in the E 185 section of the library. It was then that I began a life long love affair with E 185, which within the Library of Congress’s call system is the “Black” section.
It was not unusual in those days to find me on lazy Sunday or Saturday afternoons on the floor in the stacks—the E 185 section of my campus library—literally pulling books from the shelf onto the floor, as if I was pulling pieces together of some giant puzzle—and indeed I was; In the absence of a Black Studies curriculum and even Black professors, E 185 was my Black Studies Department. Years before Google and Youtube, E 185 was my search engine, and sitting on the floor in that space, Black History Month was indeed every month, everyday.
The discovery of those books now is different, less tactile than I'd like it to be. But I wonder if there are other kids out there making space for those narratives the way some of us did back in the day. I hope so.

Jamaica Kincaid on See Now Then: It's Not About My Life

Novelist Jamaica Kincaid, whose spunk I admire even if her work sometimes loses me, is interviewed by Felicia Lee at the New York Times. There are parallels between her and the main character of her new book -- it sure sounds a lot like her -- but, alas:
“I’m so used to being misunderstood,” she said. “They say, ‘She’s angry.’ ‘Her sentences are too long.’ One reviewer accused me of not dealing with race and class. I think in my next novel I should say, ‘They’re black and they’ve been beaten,’ something like that.”
The words “See Now Then” are repeated throughout the 182-page novel, which is as much mythological as domestic. There is little dialogue and no real plot. The Sweets’ home life and the earth itself are unpredictable. Mrs. Sweet, like Ms. Kincaid an avid gardener and writer from the Caribbean, at one point reads her son, Heracles, a story about 100 million years of rain.