Category Archives: Women of Colour

Just Us by Claudia Rankine

The pandemic is denying us so much that we value: travel, spending time with friends and family, being part of an interest group, drinking in pubs after 10 … But from time to time we can find things that have opened up new experiences. Many arts organisations have worked very hard to bring people experiences that they would otherwise miss. Some of these are not new, like transmitting performances from before Covid-19. Others are new: on-line courses, workshops and seminars. And also lectures and Q&A sessions.

I miss living in London for the distance it put between me and experiences such as readers’ talks, courses at City Lit as well as lectures and special viewings and my friends. So I bought a ticket to the South Bank Centre session featuring Claudia Rankin, talking about her newly published book Just Us: an American conversation about racism in the US.

Claudia Rankine, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 7, 2016

Claudia Rankine on-line

After technical difficulties – where would we be without those? – I enjoyed the conversation she had with Gary Younge. There he was, spot-lit in the darkened Festival Hall, and she was at home on the East Coast somewhere and I was looking in at my kitchen table in Devon. This is so civilised, and unlikely to have happened without the current restrictions.

I had read a little of the book in advance and already had my interest alerted by its unusual layout. The main text of the book is printed on the right hand page. On the left-hand side are notes, fact checks, illustrations, references to points in the text, indicated with a red spot – side notes. In response to a question she made it clear that this was part of an attempt to be conversational, not put off readers with footnotes or notes at the end of the book. Some are included without either comment or correspondence indicted to the main text. Others show up precisely what she is referring to. In the current speak it allows for intersectionality and makes more personal, more individual the experience of living with racism and how racism operates.

Claudia Rankine also made clear that she is not providing solutions to the problems of racism in America (or the rest of the world). But she has produced a book to counter the divisiveness of current discourses on racism, many of which force people into opposing positions. She suggests that demanding defensiveness or justification does not move us forward. Let’s understand together and see how it works, is the invitation to the reader.

She reminded us that racism serves a purpose for some people and they have an interest in promoting the ideas and structure that keep it operational within society. Sadly, education cannot, therefore, be the whole answer. But conversations are essential, and hence the title of the book, which looks at conversations the writer has witnessed or had reported, and invites us into a conversation about it.

The title is, of course, a riff on justice, possibly also just US?

Just Us: an American conversation

Since the evening of the on-line conversation with Gary Younge I have returned to the book, Just Us, several time. Engaging with a book is such a privilege, feeling myself being challenged, and enlightened. It reminds me of studying for an MA some years ago, stimulating and opening my mind.

The book invited such interactions, as I have suggested, through its structure, placing sources and other material alongside the text. The style of the writing is also invitational: poetry, many questions, doubts and inner thoughts, accounts and reflections on events and interactions. 

Color blind?

I have returned to two of these in particular. One concerns white male privilege and how white men understand it, and sometimes defend it, and sometimes defend it aggressively. She explores several incidents in airports when white men, and occasionally women, push in the line for first class boarding. And she decides to ask men about the experience of privilege, trying not to be confrontational. One man tells her about diversity training at work and adds, “I don’t see color.”

All I could think to say was “Ain’t I a black woman?” I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth? Or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people’s understanding of black intelligence? “Aren’t you a white man,” I then asked. “Can’t you see that? Because if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” I repeated that sentence, which I read not long before in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. (51)

It seems we are about to enter the debate about privilege and race and possibly gender in the UK as a result of the government’s ludicrous claim that teaching pupils in schools that ‘white privilege’ is an uncontested fact is breaking the law. There needs to be a balanced and impartial treatment of opposing views, according to  Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, herself a woman of colour. See Guardian report on Tuesday 20thOctober.

to name the problem is to become the problem

The other episode in About Us to which I return concerns a social situation, the dinner party. Claudia Rankine has suggested to the other guests that, rather than an unpredictable electorate, racism played a large part in the 2016 Presidential Election, sometimes under cover of other issues, such as Obamacare, immigration and ‘the Wall’. But the discussion is diverted when another guest tries to move the conversation away from the issues raised by the author, with a reference to beautiful brownies. And she questions whether she should have created this social awkwardness through her challenge or followed the path as invited and thereby colluded by staying silent or accepting a brownie. She reminds us of what Sara Ahmed says: 

to name the problem is to become the problem. [introduction to The Cultural Politics of Emotion]

‘Am I being silenced?’ wonders Claudia Rankine. ‘I understand inadvertently causing someone to feel shame isn’t cool,’ but she concludes this section with these observations.

Moments like these make me understand that the noncomprehension of what is known on the part of whiteness is an active investment in not wanting to know if that involves taking into account the lives of people of colour. And the perceived tiresome insistence on presenting one’s knowledge on the part of blackness might be a fruitless and childish exercise. Do I believe either of these positions enough to change my ways? Might as well stop the weather from coming. (156-7) 

I also especially enjoyed the section on women with dyed blonde hair and what people see when they look at blonde women. (complicit freedoms)

I found Just Us compelling and erudite while not offending or challenging aggressively my white privilege. I was invited.

Just Us: an American conversation by Claudia Rankine, published in 2020 by Allen Lane. 342pp

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In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

#BlackLivesMatter has encouraged me to promote novels by women of colour on my blog and on twitter with more vigour. Wanting to highlight such books I looked through the 600 or so posts on Bookword and found fewer than I expected. There have been more in recent months. When I reviewed Girls, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo in June I included her list of recommendations on the Penguin site in March 2020

In Dependence appeared on that list. I was attracted to it because I had hugely enjoyed Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and included it in Bookword’s older women in fiction series. The main character in that novel is an older woman from Nigeria, a professor of English Literature in San Francisco. She is a very attractive character, as flamboyant as the title, as she faces up to the social and physical consequences of a fall. You can read about that novel here

In Dependence

The story of In Dependence follows two friends who meet in 1963 at Oxford University. Nigeria has recently become independent. The politics of the time is allowing young people to control their destinies more, at least in Europe, and to feel more independent. In 1963 Tayo arrives in Oxford from Nigeria. He is handsome, intelligent but not naive or superior. He meets other African students, including Christine with whom he becomes enamoured. But they quarrel when he meets Vanessa, a white woman with ambitions to become a journalist in Africa. Tayo and Vanessa become lovers.

I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A Game of Hide and Seek, which also follows two people who were once in love and meet each other over the years, finding their lives cannot be entirely disentangled. Such long-term relationships cannot be easy for they involve changes in two people as well as the involvement of others.

The story unfolds over the years up until the end of the 20th century when Tayo receives an honorary degree from Oxford. In the meantime, Christine has committed suicide, Vanessa and Tayo split up when he got another (Nigerian) woman pregnant. He married her. Vanessa adopted a son in Senegal from a good friend who was killed, and later married an older man, a mutual Oxford acquaintance.

Tayo and Vanessa are apart but continue to think of each other. The book explores themes of extended and mixed families in the diaspora, how love does and doesn’t endure, changing Nigerian politics, dependence on children and partners and longstanding friendships. The implications of the title become clear, we are interdependent.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. She has written two novels and several short stories as well as many articles. 

Also by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) from older women in fiction series in 2018.

In Dependence Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published in 2008 by Legend Press and more recently reissued by Cassava Republic Press. 271pp

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Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

I am in awe of people who can turn their skills to many different art forms, especially if they are young. And there is a bonus when they are female and black. Here is a memoir/fiction from Zawe Ashton. Many people will know her as an actor as well as a writer, a poet and a theatre producer. How had I never come across her name before she appeared in a list of recommendations from Bernardine Evaristo (see below)? 

Character Breakdown is a fictionalised memoir or a biographical fiction or neither: about being an actor, taken from her own experience but fictionalised. The title is a play on her state of mind as well as the resumés sent via agents to actors for their auditions. 

This is a work of fiction.
But mostly fact. [epigraph]

Character Breakdown

Zawe Ashton was Hackney born and bred and educated at two local girls’ schools: Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and Parliament Hill School. She also attended the Anna Scher Theatre School. She began acting very young, and has had a busy career. 

She was nearly derailed from her career by the bullying behaviour of a bunch of girls who befriended her, she thought, when she appeared on tv. But they planned to beat her up after school.

Mum has to come and get me. They can’t send me home alone. I sit and stare at the motivational quote posters for young women.

‘Young women, young futures.’
‘I am strong, I am worthy, I am beautiful.’
‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’

I don’t want to be anyone.

On the car ride home, I decide to stop acting for ever. Nothing good comes of being visible. I have to watch my back, and learn to walk in new shoes. (62)

She gives us the life of a young black female actor in a series of character breakdowns and playlets, sometimes phone conversations with, for example, her agent, or a journalist or a director. The breakdowns are followed by conventional narrative that sheds light upon the character being cast and her response to the role. Some of it is horrific, and some cringe-worthy and there are some challenging roles. There are red carpet moments and humiliations too, like the time she thought she had started a very heavy period while appearing in a West End play. And the moment when she loses her voice.

Sexism and racism permeate her account. Her necessary concerns with her appearance emphasise both of these. 

The very enjoyable narrative drive is found in the quick sequence of episodes, her successes and her failures. We are shown her world, where everything is a little distorted, where actors strive for reality through making stuff up. A bit like fiction. 

Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton published in 2019 by Vintage. 311pp

This book appeared in a list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020.

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Not all jolly hockey sticks then!

During Lockdown many readers have become quite nostalgic. Some even pine for their schooldays. Not me. But it turned my mind to the wealth of adult fiction that involves girls’ schools and more specifically girls’ boarding schools.

The setting provides a number of useful features for an author:

  • Action is confined in space (the school grounds) and time (the school terms)
  • Action is set against a routine of lessons, games and prep
  • Relationships are intensified 
  • Contrasts between girls of the same age are brought into relief
  • Parents are absent
  • Power relationships play out: older-younger pupils; teachers-pupils; boarding-day pupils; established-new girls
  • The outside world is both alluring and a danger
  • The girls are usually in a state of transition into adulthood.

And it is perhaps this last feature that has inspired so many writers to explore those vital school years.

Boarding Schools Books

Here are six including some with links to posts on Bookword:

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)

Mollie and Joan meet at Allendale School. The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband. Joan can see that she will need to earn a living and Mollie’s father turns out to be a crook so the girls learn to rely upon each other.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Loyalty is a key theme.

(Published by Blackie & Sons)

Frost in May by Antonia White (1933)

Somehow I had neglected this book, even though it was frequently quoted in the education literature. It’s nearly a textbook on how not to educate a girl, is liberal education, how to ‘break’ the child’s spirit. 

It’s a beautiful evocation of childhood and that moment when a child is poised to take on the world, but not yet powerful enough to get her own way, and which is actually a good thing. The child, Nanda, in the end falls foul of the convent and her convert father. One cheers. 

Lovely introduction by Elizabeth Bowen (in 1948) who calls it a work of art.

(Published in Virago Modern Classics)

Consequences by EM Delafield (1919)

Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and she is the oldest child of 5. Her parents hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. She develops a ‘pash’ for fellow student Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

On her return she still receives no guidance but is introduced to the social scene in London and becomes engaged to a selfish and boring young man. When she realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right she runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude. It does not end well for her.

Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth, including from her school, to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

(Published by Persephone Books)

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970)

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2020)

A long book but a gripping story. It is 1943 and Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. So a father sends his daughter away to school. How will Georgina survive the separation? How will she fit in as she offends the girls with whom she must live? The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: has personal possessions, for example.

The father, the General, has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if she is found. He heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. It turns out that the children’s guardian angel (Abigail, a statue with a pitcher in which you place your letter of request in the garden)  and the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with his network they manage to save Gina. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

Gina has to learn to trust others and that danger can be found outside the school she longed to escape from.

(Published by Macelhose Press)

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Who could forget Lucy Snowe who goes to work as a teacher in Belgium and falls for M Paul Emanuel, an esteemed teacher at the school? Lucy is a passive young woman to whom terrible things keep happening, and I have never thought much of this heroine.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Lowood is a charity school for poor and orphaned children to which Jane Eyre is sent when her aunt tires of her. The headmaster Mr Brocklehurst is cruel and the girls suffer under his rule. Jane befriends Helen, who dies in a typhus outbreak at the school. Jane spends six years as a pupil and two more as a teacher in Lowood before she goes as a governess to Thornfield Hall. 

Lowood is important in Jane’s development, especially because of the example set by her friend Helen and the guidance of one teacher, Miss Temple.

Boarding schools especially religious ones, do not come out of this brief survey very well. Or perhaps it is the parenting that is the focus of the criticism. Unloving parents and guardians who pack their awkward girls off for someone else to put them right.

Other novelists have their heroines teach themselves: Mary Oliver: a life by May Sinclair, for example. 

Can you suggest any more girls’ school novels? What have I missed?

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Does Queenie deserve its reputation? A recommendation by Bernardine Evaristo is a reliable endorsement. This lively first novel has also been doing well in those literary prizes: Fiction Book of the Year 2020 in the British Book Awards, longlisted in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, shortlisted for the First Novel Award by Costa, Blackwell’s Book of the Year 2019.

Stig Abell, former editor of the TLS, and a judge of the British Book Awards described its merits in this way:

This is a novel of our time, filled with wit, wisdom and urgency, and unafraid to tackle life as it is being experienced by a young, single black woman in the city. This shouldn’t be filed away as simply a funny debut by a brilliant writer (though it is that); this is an important meditation on friendship, love and race.

It is funny and brilliant and accessible and powerful.

Queenie 

Queenie, 26, is a journalist living and working in London and the narrator of this story. It begins as she and her white boyfriend separate. She believes it will be temporary. The reader knows that it is likely to be permanent, but we understand hope. While she waits for him to decide she embarks on a series of short-lived relationships with men, mostly white, mostly found on-line and including a colleague. 

She is usually somewhat reluctant to get into bed with them, but is persuaded by drink and because they are insistent and she likes to please. Life gets harder for her as the weeks turn into months and she is worried that Tom has not been in touch; that her sexual health may be in danger so she visits a clinic; her work is being neglected and her boss is noticing; and she slips further and further into debt with a friend.

Queenie’s life comes to a terrible halt when it emerges that one of sex partners is actually the boyfriend of one of her best friends. All at once she loses her friend, her job, her accommodation. Not all of this is directly her fault, as some of the men treat her very badly indeed. 

She gradually restores herself and her life with the help of her Jamaican origin grandparents, her friends and a counsellor. Her experience of abuse and neglect in her past is revealed and much of her response to her situation is explained by this. She emerges wiser and bruised.

Reading Queenie

This is a fast-paced book, and one which is easy to read, to keep turning the pages. I liked the way that emails and text messages were included. The Corgis who provide a chorus of comment and advice on her actions are an excellent device. And the interactions of the Jamaican grandparents are very funny: I loved the way they shout out at night if Queenie gets out of bed, and how they are won over to supporting her receiving counselling.

The most endearing quality of this novel is Queenie herself: spirited, doubting, reflective and both revealing and guarded at the same time. Her character is well drawn and develops through the novel. Reading it, I certainly felt that Queenie deserved much better from the men that cross her path and has a valuable, loving resource in her friends.

The story of Queenie is suffused with inescapable racism. Her counsellor, Janet, reminds her that she can’t carry the pain of the whole race.

‘It’s not a burden I’m taking on, it’s one that’s just here.’ I could feel anger building in my chest. ‘I can’t pick it up drop it.’
‘Is that how you see it?’ asked Janet as calmly as she could in an attempt to counter my distress.
‘That’s how it is.’ I started to get louder. ‘I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet. On the bus, on the tube, at work, in the canteen. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy.’
I listed off all my usual descriptions on my fingers.
‘There are ones people think are nice, though: well spoken, surprisingly intelligent, exotic. My favourite is ‘sexy’, I think. I guess I should be grateful for any attention at all. […] Do you know how that feels, Janet?’
‘No. Queenie, I don’t.’ (325)

All the black characters are subjected to racism, in subtle or overt ways. I responded to this passage by remembering how outspoken women are treated. Queenie is responding with the multiplier of ethnicity. And her experience is that she is frequently seen as sexually available for all men, much more frequently than white women are. So like Janet, I don’t know how that feels. Which is one reason why novels such as this one are important for white readers.

Like a mantra, throughout the text the message is repeated: We are enough. Each of us is enough. Each person is enough

I look forward to Candice Carty-Williams’s next novel.

Women of ClourQueenie by Candice Carty-Williams (2019) published by Trapeze. 392pp

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