Category Archives: Women of Colour

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

How do we categorise the people we meet? By what we see? By ethnicity, colour, gender, age and in the UK those tiny indicators of class. Whole systems of exploitation have been built on the genetic features, especially ethnicity and gender. 

In recent years we have been encouraged to believe that our genetic composition determines our characters. Think of those people who look for criminal genes, or speak about inheriting certain characteristics from their parents, such as sporting ability. Think of the tv programme Who do you think you are? in which ancestors are traced, implying they can explain the person featured. 

The Vanishing Half questions these ideas about inherited attributes. It challenges how people are identified by ethnicity, or gender, and looks at some people who choose to ‘pass’. And it does this through a moving story of twins who ran away and their daughters.

The Vanishing Half

Twin girls, Desiree and Stella, are born in Mallard, a small town in the southern state of Louisiana. Their father was light skinned, and was murdered by white men in front of the twins. The town of Mallard is inhabited by light skinned African Americans, and its population values lightness above all. The consequences of maintaining the lighter skin tone in the town creates an oppressive environment. It was 1954when the twins ran away but 14 years later Desiree, returns without Stella. This is the starting point of the novel, for Desiree is escaping a violent marriage and is accompanied by her very dark skinned daughter, Jude. Stella has disappeared. Early Jones is a tracker paid by her husband to trace Desiree, but they become lovers and his attempts to trace Stella on her behalf produce no results. 

The story shifts down a generation. Jude suffers from her dark skin in Mallard and escapes as soon as she can, to LA on a university athletics scholarship. Stella lives in an exclusive, white neighbourhood, ‘passing’ as the white wife of a rich man, with a beautiful pale skinned fair haired daughter called Kennedy. They too live in LA and of course the paths of Kennedy and Jude cross. 

Stella, living as a white woman, is perpetually in fear of discovery. She is oppressed by  the consequences of her decision to be seen as white. She must be secretive about her early life, and does not mix socially. When her neighbours discover that a Black family will move into their exclusive community she leads the campaign of resistance. But she cannot resist befriending the wife of these incomers when their daughters play together. Kennedy does not know her mother’s secret, but when the cousins meet Jude works it out and tries to convince her.

Jude, in the meantime, has fallen for Reese, who has his own secrets. And they are friends with Barry, who has a successful drag act, while being a teacher in his day job. So many lies. So much acting.

There is no happy ending to this novel. Each of the characters must find their own way to live. Stella returns to Mallard to visit her mother and her twin only once and then resumes her wealthy, secretive, white life. Her daughter becomes a soap actress, recognised as the character she plays, not as herself.

Kennedy’s role in Pacific Cove as girl-next-door Charity Harris serves her well when she retrains to become a realtor:

A model home was nothing but a set, if you thought about it, the open house a grand performance directed by her. Each time, she stood behind the door, bowing her head as jittery as the first time she had ever taken the stage, knowing that her mother would be out there in the audience watching. Then she put on a big Charity Harris smile, opening the door. She would disappear inside herself, inside the empty home where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, backsplash, high ceilings.
‘Imagine your life here,’ she said. ‘Imagine who you could be.’ (319)

So what is identity? Can you make up your own identity? Does your genetic heritage determine who you are? Or are you who you choose to be? It is not only the actors who have to pretend a role in life. Don’t we all have to do this to some extent? 

It’s a good novel that can pose pertinent, important questions and carry a compelling story at the same time. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published in 2020. I read the paperback edition from Dialogue Books. 366pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My spotty teenaged informant seemed to think his information in some way mitigated the wickedness of the slave trade. I was at school, half a century ago, and he informed me that, in case I didn’t know, Africans ‘themselves’ sold Africans to the White traders. Last week I read a tweet by the historian David Olusuga.

Literally everyday someone too lazy to read my books accuses me of ignoring the African slave traders that are explored in my books in detail. Black historians are routinely accused of being ‘activists’ rather than historians – an attempt at delegitimisation and a form of racism (11.6.21)

Then and now the involvement of Africans makes no difference to my opinion that the slave trade was an abomination, that it tainted those who came into contact with it and that we still live with its problematic outcomes today.

Homegoing

Homegoing is an ambitious account of the long history of the slave trade and its outcomes. A Ghanaian by birth, raised in the US, Yaa Gyasi has chosen to show the reader stories of individuals from this long history, the damage to their lives, relationships and bodies. The novel is the story of the descendants in eight generations from Maame. She gave birth at the end of the 18th century to two sisters, who never met. One marries a white trader and lives in the white castle on the Gold Coast. Her descendants remain in Africa. The other sister is transported across the ocean from the same castle, and her descendants are enslaved, then imprisoned and finally become educated African Americans searching for their history and roots.

Cape Coast Castle via WikiCommons, Kwameghana, February 2015

The structure of this book allows Yaa Gyasi to consider a broader perspective than, say Beloved by Toni Morrison. Reading the accounts of the generations on either side of the ocean, we note some key moments: American Civil War, Britain’s colonisation of the Gold Coast, the struggle for independence. She avoids the trap of taking key moments in Black history, rather explores the impact of the previous generation upon the individual in each section as they struggle with their own lives. Her skill is in creating 16 very different but nevertheless authentic characters with contrasting strengths, attributes, beliefs, sense of identity and so forth. One sings beautifully, another has great physical power, a third has beauty, a fourth has terrible scars and so on.

For example, there is H. He is the eighth child of Kojo and Anna, but she had been seized as a runaway while pregnant and died after giving birth, so H never knew his parents. The reader does, however. H is a huge and powerful man, angry that he has been picked up by the local police, falsely charged with studying a white woman, and as a convict sold into another form of slavery in a local mine. His strength helps him survive, and he becomes known as ‘two-shovel’ because he uses his strength to protect another man who was struggling to fulfil his quota. 

And there is Abena, from the same generation but living in Africa and falling foul of the marriage practices of the time. Abena is rejected by the man she hoped to marry because he was forced to promise to pay the bride price for another woman as part of a deal to save the village by planting cocoa. Pregnant, she leaves her village and seeks shelter with the white missionaries in the nearby town of Kumasi. Her decision to seek shelter there has consequences for her daughter Akua.

It is not necessarily better to have stayed in Africa. The wars between Fante and Asante are bitter, and the area’s prosperity is reduced by the war with the whites. They suffer too as the whites behave more and more badly, especially in the name of Christianity and colonialism.

The reader often knows more that the characters about their antecedents. This is not a smooth full narrative. Stories are broken off, never to be narrated to their conclusion. But the reader can develop a kind of rhythm as they progress. Each episode has subtle differences in the way it is told: reported by a character, straight forward third person narrative, episodically, and so on. Form reinforces content. Separation and disruption are key themes in this novel. And it ain’t over yet.

Yaa Gyasi

This novel has garnered much praise. I used the Penguin paperback and there are no less than 46 little blurbs of praise included on the endpapers. It also won some awards. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was published last year.

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991.  Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’ and this novel certainly did those things for me. With its long sweep of history, I was made more acutely aware that this is not over. Today in the UK, as well as the US, we have a disputed history (see David Olusuga‘s comments at the start of this post, think of the statue of the Bristol trader Edward Colston) and a government that issued a report denying institutional racism. Stop and Search impacts disproportionately on Black youth. The #BlackLivesMatter protests of last summer are treated as an anomaly of the Covid Lockdown, rather than the voicing of a legitimate protest from people who want a change. 

I can recommend Homegoing for this long perspective, but also for the humanising of the very dehumanising practise of trafficking people of colour.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi published in 2016. I used the paperback edition published by Penguin Books. 305pp

Related post

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

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Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In the last year I have been promoting books by women of colour on this blog. Every month I have read and reviewed a book and every week I have promoted a post from this blog about a book by a woman of colour on my twitter account. My intention is to amplify the marginalised voices, contribute to the discussion generated by these writers. 

I recently read an article by Yaa Gyasi that got me going, made me question my motives and effectiveness, as I expect she intended. It was published in the Guardian in March 2021 and headlined

White people, black authors are not your medicine

You can read the article here

What does Yaa Gyasi say?

Yaa Gyasi is the Ghanaian-American author of Homegoing (2016) and Transcendent Kingdom (2020). She lives in the US. In her article she argues that white people are not moving quickly enough, are still imbued with racist attitudes. In the US ‘they have failed to contend with the legacy of slavery’. I would say that in the UK we have failed to deal with the legacy of colonialism.

Public interest in her work was revived by the Black Lives Matters movement last summer and Homegoing appeared on anti-racist reading lists. But she found this very disappointing for the questions being asked of her at literary events had already been answered, she claims, by James Baldwin in the ‘60s and Toni Morrison in the ‘80s.

She concludes that white people are responding inadequately when they just buy books by black authors. The ‘just’ refers to not going further and reading them.

So many of the writers of colour I know have had white people treat their work as though it were a kind of medicine. Something they have to swallow in order to improve their condition, but they don’t really want it, they don’t really enjoy it, and if they’re being totally honest, they don’t actually even take the medicine half the time. They just buy it and leave it on the shelf. [Guardian article 20th March 2021]

I’m going to note in passing that she cannot know that white people treat the books in this way, although many of us might. More important is the question she goes on to ask:

What pleasure, what deepening, could there be in “reading” like that? To enter the world of fiction with such a tainted mission is to doom the novel or short story to fail you on its most essential levels. 

This tokenism – look at the shelves behind my face on zoom and you can see lots of books by black writers! – this taking your medicine – I’ve bought the books, I’ve done my bit – is clearly an inadequate response. She quotes Lauren Michelle saying

Someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading.

Yaa Gyasi declares

… I also know that buying books by black authors is but a theoretical, grievously belated and utterly impoverished response to centuries of physical and emotional harm. 

I must point out that that sentence I have just quoted begins with this clause:

While I do devoutly believe in the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change, I also know …

I am not sure how the two parts of the sentence are connected unless she is saying that she knows that the books aren’t read, because things are not changing, the power of literature is not being realised.

Promoting books by Women of Colour

I too believe in the power of literature to challenge, expose, provide alternatives, to deepen understanding and even to change. I will continue to buy, put on my shelves, and read books by women of colour and blog about them. I don’t regard it as taking my medicine. I will enjoy reading the books because they are books, and many of them are excellent, revealing, eye-opening and brilliant. 

I hope to read them without believing they were written for me and people like me, a white middle class woman of a certain age. Recently I read and reviewed Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988). She is a Zimbabwean writer, and this was her first published book. The introduction made it clear that one of its notable features was that it did not assume a European reader. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019), set in Ethiopia at the time when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (as it was known), also makes few concessions to European readers in its use of indigenous vocabulary and names. 

I hope to see beyond the story to the deeper currents. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) keeps peeling back the layers to expose the damage done physically, psychologically, socially, financially, politically, even lexically by slavery. Her ‘highly vocal ghosts’ must be heard.

Some writing provides joy. In Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016) I was pleased to meet Morayo da Silva, a flamboyant, generous, educated older woman born in Lagos, living in San Francisco, created by a Nigerian-American. You should meet her too.

I loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019) and the richness of the characters in her multi-layered novel. The novel is innovative in form and structure, her restless style reflecting life in the city. The best book I read in 2019.

And so on.

These are great books, not medicine, not tokens, books worth reading for their own merits. I treasure their challenge, what they give me in depth and how they contribute to my determination to be part of change. 

So, I have bought a copy of Homegoing, and it is not on my shelf yet, but in my tall pile of books to be read. I’ll go on reading and reviewing and promoting books by women of colour. I know this alone will not bring about the change I want, but it’s a step and, at the moment, it’s the least I can do.

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Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

It is so often the case that if you are female your childhood will be tougher than your brother’s, especially if you are also Black and born into a rural setting in a colonial country. Nervous Conditions is set in Zimbabwe when it was still Southern Rhodesia and under British rule. Rural poverty is a real impediment to Tambudzai; as a girl she has responsibility for collecting water, cleaning latrines, laying the dung floor, child care. Her cousin Nyasha has spent some of her childhood in London. She has forgotten her first language, Shona, and many of the ways of her family. Both girls live with nervous conditions, despite their differences. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga quotes Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as the novel’s epithet and source of her title:

The condition of native is nervous condition.

Nervous Conditions

Tambu is born and lives her early childhood in the rural homestead of her family. She has two younger sisters and a brother. Her mother finds life hard and her father is feckless. Her brother is privileged, receiving education at the local school. Her UK-educated Uncle provides fees for her brother and when he is older takes him to the mission school where he is headteacher.

Meanwhile Tambu had to give up schooling because the family don’t have the money for her fees. She is so keen to go to school that she begs mealie seeds from her father raises her own small crop to sell. Her brother steals the mealies. Later he dies while away at the mission school. Tambu now becomes the privileged sibling.

I was not sorry when my brother died. (11)

This is the rather shocking but realistic opening sentence of the novel. It pitches us immediately into the different trajectories of girls and boys.

Tambu takes her brother’s place at the mission school, leaving the homestead behind. Tambu and her cousin Nyasha become friends and allies in their Uncle’s very fine house, even though their attitudes are so different. Nyasha questions everything, but Tambu is grateful to her uncle for the opportunities he provides. 

We see how her education takes Tambu away from her rural roots when she returns to the homestead for holidays and family gatherings. These provide the setting for some great drama and humour. A dare takes place, a kind of council of men, to discuss the difficult problem of Lucia. Lucia is a splendid character, full of self-worth, and undaunted by the menfolk. She undermines the dare and achieves her aims of employment and education.

Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia are all beholden to Bamabukuru, the headmaster uncle, for the advantages they gain. Tambu is especially torn when he opposes her ambitions to enter the White Catholic Convent in Salisbury. She depends upon him for her advantages, but chafes at his rule. This is the fate of peoples who are colonised and patronised everywhere. 

Nyasha, with her UK experiences, finds his most pompous pronouncements and rules unbearable and defies her father, while also seeking to improve her future through education. After Tambu leaves for the convent, Nyasha declines into bulimia. 

Tambu’s mother finds it hard that daughter’s aspirations and Bamabukuru’s patronage will remove Tambu from her family roots. 

‘Tell me, Tambudzai, does that man want to kill me, to kill me with his kindness, fattening my children only to take them away, like cattle fattened for the slaughter? Tell me, daughter, what will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time. He-e, Mummy this, he-e, Mummy that. Like that cousin of yours. I have seen it happen – we saw it happen in our own home. Truly that man is calling down a curse of bad luck on my head. You have survived the mission so now he must send you even further away. I’ve had enough, I tell you, I’ve had enough of that man dividing me from my children. Dividing me from my children and ruling my life. He says this and we jump […] If I were a witch I would enfeeble his mind, truly I would do it, and then we would see how his education and his money helped him.’ (269)

This is the cry of the colonised to the colonial power, caught in a dependent relationship that mostly benefits the colonizer. This novel was set only a few years before Zimbabwe fought a bitter battle to end colonial rule and written after Independence was gained in 1980.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I read this book for three reasons: it is the first of a trilogy whose third volume This Mournable Body has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. My second reason is that I spent a month in Zimbabwe when it was still young, in 1986. It was a country of such hope and possibilities at that time. I heard Tsitsi Dangarembga interviewed recently and that too inspired me to read the trilogy: Nervous Conditions (1988) The Book of Not(2006), This Mournable Body (2020).

She was born in Matoku in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1959, and spent some of her childhood in England, her childhood resembling Nyasha’s more than Tambu’s. She had planned to read medicine at Cambridge but returned to Zimbabwe University to read psychology and become involved in theatre and film as well as writing fiction. Last year she made international news when she was arrested for taking part in a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Zimbabwe. 

She says of Nervous Conditions

I wrote it as a fugitive. A fugitive from my first memories and of what my life had become. [from Guardian 27th March 2021.]

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, first published by the Women’s Press in 1988. I read the Faber edition published in 2021. 298pp 

The BBC poll of 100 books that shaped the world placed Nervous Conditions at #66.

You can find Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 10 reading recommendations here.

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The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

The American Dream – anyone can make it if they work hard enough. Bart Judson is the son of freed slaves, who makes a good living in Boston selling fruit. His speciality is bananas. He married another southerner, Cleo, who is very pretty and very light skinned and very ambitious. Boston is a city that prides itself on its liberal attitudes to its Black population. 

Some of Cleo’s ambition is shared with Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry’s novel The Street published two years earlier than The Living is Easy in 1946. These two novels offer a complementary view of trying to make it in the US as a Black person in the first half of the 20th Century. Lutie belongs in the poor Black fiction of the time. Cleo has the advantage of money. However, in both novels the American Dream is shown to be a chimera, offered in good times to everybody. 

The Living is Easy

The novel begins in Boston at the turn of the century. Cleo is married to a rich black businessman, and they have both made their way from the South. In Boston, they pride themselves on treating their black brethren decently. However, race pervades everything. Passing, if you can, is normal, the lighter your skin the more acceptable your social status.

Cleo is ambitious for herself. In the opening chapters we see how she successfully rents a larger house in a higher status district. Dependent upon her husband for money, we see how she will manipulate the situation to skim off a little of the rent money every month. She conceives a desire to recreate the close family ties of her childhood and schemes to bring her three married sisters to Boston, leaving their husbands behind. 

While Cleo continues to lie and plot to gain every advantage from every situation the economic environment is changing. In Boston immigration is changing the city. More and more Black families are coming to the city, many of them poor, in contrast to their predecessors who were doctors, lawyers and business men. In addition a large number of Irish families are also changing the population.

The First World War begins to have an effect on trade, especially trade that relies on shipping as Bart Judson’s does. There is less money, the sisters have to go out to work, Cleo has to resort to inadequate repairs on the house. Bart ends up broke after the war and must go and seek his fortune in a new place.

Despite Boston’s pride in its attitudes to its successful Black residents, racism lies close to the surface. One of the most shocking moments in this novel is when Cleo agrees to rent the house and its owner Mr Van Ryper explains why he is leaving it.

“Best house on the block. Sorry to leave it, but I’m too old to temper my prejudices.”(45)

Cleo assumes a poor Black family has moved in next door and asks where in the South they come from. Mr Van Ryper clarifies matters.

Mr Van Ryper rose to his feet. His face purpled with anger. “Madam, my father was a leader of the Underground Movement. I was brought up in an Abolitionist household. Your accusation of color prejudice is grossly impertinent. I believe in man’s inalienable right to liberty.” (46)

He lectures her for a while and then, when she says it’s nice that he isn’t prejudiced, he contradicts her again.

“Madam, I am distinctly prejudiced against the Irish,” Mr Van Ryper said wearily, thinking that colored women, for all they had had to endure, were as addlepated as their fairer-skinned sisters. “The Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians. They did not come here in chains or by special invitation.” (47)

So Mr Van Ryper is happy to be prejudiced against the Irish and all women. The difficult position of women is referred to again later when Bart is asked for funds for two of the sisters to return to the South to bury their father.

He saw with bitter clarity his situation and theirs. Cleo could not go to her dead father nor Serena to her doomed husband unless he gave them a few miserable dollars for train fare. The dependency of women had been the thing he cherished them for. Yet in this moment he was sharply aware of the brutal weapon dependency wielded.  (277)

Cleo has caused a great deal of damage and suffering with her scheming and manipulations. Her sisters’ marriages are destroyed, their husbands abandoned, and throughout her marriage she has seen her husband as an enemy to be thwarted. She’s a hard character to like, but women and especially Black women might respond as she did to the limited lives they could live. 

For some of this novel she was living an easy life, but change brought by economic forces, to the demography of Boston, to her husband’s business, meant that a life built on lies and deceit could not remain easy. I doubt whether a life built on good principles could have stood against the pressures she endured, and there are examples of people of integrity in this novel, not least Bart Judson who sees his business fail. The Living is Easy shows the reader that the American Dream has no more substance for Cleo and Bart Judson than it did for Lutie Johnson.

Dorothy West

Dorothy West was born in Boston in June 1907 and died in Martha’s Vineyard in August 1998. Her parents had been born in slavery. Dorothy West wrote and was published from an early age and was educated at Boston University and Columbia. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance, mixing with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other writers of the time. She visited Russia with Langston Hughes and edited a literary journal. She worked on a federal writers project during the war.

She began spending more time on Martha’s Vineyard and wrote both her novels there. She contributed stories to the local paper and issued collections of short stories. Her second novel The Wedding was not published until 1985. She was included in the Daughters of Africa collection in 1992. 

At a time when people were writing about poor Blacks, she provided a new perspective from more prosperous Black lives.

The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, first published in 1948. I used the edition from Virago Modern Classics from 1987. 362pp

Related posts:

The Street by Ann Petry (1946)

Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Margaret Busby and Daughters of Africa (1992)

Feminize Your Canon: Dorothy West by Emma Garman in The Paris Review, July 2018

Whatever happened to Dorothy West? by Diana Evans in the Guardian, August 2019

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today. 

The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)

After slavery ended (1873-4):

The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.

Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.

I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby. 

[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)

This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.

“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987

Toni Morrison in 1998

When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to  Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. (122-3).

Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)

While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)

And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.

I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)

I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.

The present day

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded.  She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.

Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021. 

And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?

My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

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The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

This book bowled me over. We chose it for the January meeting of our book group, and the next day I found it on the shelf at our new (yes NEW) bookshop, and began reading it immediately. The Shadow King tells a great story, especially of the women warriors who fought against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Because I have visited Ethiopia and because the history of the first half of the twentieth century absorbs me I was predisposed to like this book. 

What I found was a novel, worthy of the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize, and all the critical acclaim it has garnered. In addition it is written by a woman of colour from Ethiopia. 

The Shadow King

The Shadow King tells a very good story, and all the better for being based in truth. It has some very appealing elements: such as the ultimate success of the underdogs. When Mussolini invaded, a latecomer to the European scramble to colonise Africa, he brought his mechanised army to defeat the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians had very little with which to prevent the invasion. They did have the memory of the successful campaign against the previous Italian invasion in the 1890s, as the weapons retained from that struggle. They also had a determination not to be conquered, inspired by their Emperor Haile Selassie. And they knew the terrain, and how to work with the people who lived there. 

The story begins in a very small and restricted setting. Hirut is a young girl, an orphan, who has been taken in by Kidane, who owed her parents. She lives in a tiny shed with the cook, and under the watchful and jealous eye of Aster, Kidane’s wife. 

Hirut hears Aster shouting her name, calling for her in a voice threatening to break from strain. Hirut looks up from the slow burning fire she is tending in a corner of the courtyard. She is hunched into a stool, next to a pile of onions waiting to be peeled. The cook is behind her in the kitchen, chopping meat for the evening meal. Aster should be drinking coffee in bed, tucked inside a soft blanket, perhaps looking out the window and gazing at her flowers. This should be a quiet morning. Hirut stiffens at the intrusion. (11)

The quiet morning is interrupted by more than Aster’s slightly deranged attempts to implicate Hirut in the theft of a missing necklace when Kidane returns from recruiting troops. He takes an old rifle from Hirut, the only thing she has from her father, because the Emperor needs all the weapons he can get. And we can see that her life, Aster’s, Kidane’s and even the cook’s will be upended and broadened by the campaign to drive back the Italians. 

Aster and Hirut join Kidane’s army to support their men by caring for the wounded and providing food. When things go badly and the Emperor leaves Ethiopia for exile in Bath, it is Hirut who suggests a way to provide the people with the inspiration of a shadow king. Hirut and Aster become his bodyguards and when needed take up arms with other women to fight the Italians. 

The story also is told from the point of view of a photographer in the Italian army. His commanding officer is known for his ferocity, and his cruelty is shown to the reader early in the story. But Ettore is Jewish and as anti-Semitism is promoted in Italy he becomes more and more detached from the official view and the actions of his commander, while powerless to refuse commands.

The climax of the story comes when Fucelli has captured Hirut and Aster, and waits for Kidane’s army to come to rescue them.

At times the novel is hard to read because of the atrocities committed. No one who survives comes out of the war without damage. Everyone has had to compromise themselves.

The telling of the story

While Hirut is the central character and the person we see gradually changing from that insignificant servant girl into a strong warrior, we also see the war from the perspectives of other people. What is clear is that the opposing sides have little understanding of each other. Here is Ettore looking at Hirut, who is in prison and refusing to respond to her captors.

That he has not managed to see more than a resolute and stubborn girl is proof of the Ethiopian native’s unfamiliarity with all that he finds commonplace. She has no reference points that intersect with his: no myths or fables, no ideas on science or philosophy. She is unlearned and unschooled, illiterate and limited. Unknowing and thus, unknowable. She lacks the imaginative capacity to consider an existence beyond her frames of reference: these mountains, her village, the hut where she was born. What rests behind that face and in that mind are sturdy, thick thoughts of survival and routine, and nothing else. (339)

Hirut has been stubbornly refusing to respond to Ettore, or any of the soldiers. She has been studying the enemy’s routines and waiting for signs of the rescue. She has her pride too.

Because this is one thing that neither the ascari [African soldiers in the Italian army] nor Fucelli nor this stupid soldato staring at her with a gaping mouth will ever know: she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Gerey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her. (338) 

Many scenes are framed by the photographer, and in the final battle by a film crew. This device, showing us photographs, describing the way the light falls, what Ettore captured in his images, is powerful way of telling of the story. It reminds us of the fascist dictators’ love of images. But it also has the effect of putting a distance between us and the most difficult passages. Two photographs bookend the text, but while they are both of women it is not clear why they were chosen. The narrative based in Ethiopia is interrupted every now and again by sections on his meditations on leaving his country. The only section that I found jarring was a long vision by Haile Selassie towards the end of the novel.

For the most part, Maaza Mengiste’s narrative is skilful and even lyrical. Her prose has rhythm and pace, even littered with Amharic and Italian words. She manages to convey what matters to the characters, the stories of the Ethiopian characters, the conflicts of Ettore and even Fucelli’s fears. These are people living through the upheavals of the 1930s. 

The plotlines wind around each other, and details are revealed, small actions and major battles without reducing the tension: the action of spies, the cook, the ascari, Haile Selassie in exile, and Hirut’s part in the armed struggle. The themes are played out at an individual level, Hirut and Ettore, but also at macro level: Italy vs Ethiopia, evil against humaneness.

Maaza Mengiste  

The author published her first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze in 2010. She was born in Addis Ababa in 1974, but has lived most of her life outside Ethiopia, and now teaches in New York. Her own grandmothers were involved in the war and her researches were extensive as she revealed in this podcast from History Extra (link here. )

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp

Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

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Celebrating Margaret Busby

This is a post in celebration of Margaret Busby and her work in promoting Black female writers.

Margaret Busby is a ‘cultural activist’. This is how the Booker Prize described this year’s chair, Margaret Busby, in its short bio on the website. I suppose this is meant to describe the relentless efforts she has made to promote good Black writing throughout her career. Culture works as a code word for Black. But such a narrow description belies her contribution to culture, and literary culture more generally. Sure, she has a deserved reputation for supporting Black female writers, but she supports good writing including, but not limited to, Black or female writers. 

So what has this ‘cultural activist’ done that deserves so much praise?

Publisher

Born in Ghana in 1944 into a family that believed strongly in education, Margaret Busby was sent to England to boarding school at 6 years old. She was a member of a very diverse school community and she boasted that she could ‘count in Farsi, swear in Mandarin and sing in Spanish’ as a result. She grew up amongst book lovers and writers. She stood out, but as ‘one of the little black girls’.

While still an undergraduate at London University she met Clive Allison and on finding that they shared a taste in all kinds of literature they agreed to set up a publishing firm. Allison & Busby was established in 1967. They published writers from all kinds of backgrounds, which included Black writers. Many famous names were on their list: Rosa Guy, Buchi Emecheta, Nuruddin Farrah, JG Ballard, Jill Murphy are some names you might know. After twenty years the company was bought by WH Allen, and although Allison was given a post there was none for Margaret Busby.

Journalism and other activities

Since that time she worked as a freelance editor and critic, and also as a journalist in theatre and the world of books. She was also included on judging panels for various prizes. She has been called ‘the doyenne of Black British publishing’ and a ‘literary supernova’. You could take her inclusion and appointment as chair of the most prestigious literary prize as a recognition of her significance and influence. She also has many awards in recognition of this, including an OBE 

Black writers appreciated her support and have acknowledged it. For example: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the accolade of winner of winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction a couple of months ago, said this recently:

And Aunty Margaret – thank you for your grace and for everything you have done for Black writing. 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie answering a question from Margaret Busby about prizes [Guardian 4thDecember 2020]

Aunty is a respectful, intimate and loving term, and I imagine that it does not come lightly or disparagingly from the pen of the author of We Should all be Feminists.

And Zadie Smith acknowledged what Margaret Busby had done for her by saying

[She] helped change the landscape of both UK publishing and arts coverage and so many black British artists owe her a debt. I know I do. [Zadie Smith, quoted in Guardian piece check]

Her connections in the Black cultural and creative community are extensive to this day. 

Daughters of Africa

Perhaps her most impressive achievements are the two collections of writing by Black women. The first was called Daughters of Africa and was published in 1992. It included 200 or more Black women writers with African ancestry.

In 1992: If anyone talked about black women writers, you would think there were just three of them, maybe four: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, maybe Maya Angelou or Terry McMillan. (These days that list tends to be Morrison, Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.) Daughters of Africa is a 1,089-page rebuttal.

And then last year she edited a new collection. New Daughters of Africa is an international anthology by more than 200 other women writers of African descent.  It’s a door stop of a book, but very interesting to dip into. Some contributions were specifically written for this volume, other writers have provided extracts from existing work. No fees were charged. Proceeds from the sale of this volume will go to fund a bursary to study an MA in Literature or Translation at SOAS, London. 

Not only does the size and scope of the achievements included in the second volume provide evidence of the quality of Black female writers at this time, but it is also a volume to be dipped into and read with great pleasure and appreciation. 

New Daughters of Africa: Edited by Margaret Busby, published in 2019 by Myriad Editions. 934pp.

Sources and further reading:

On Meeting Margaret Busby by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Granta, October 2020)

Margaret Busby: how Britain’s first black female publisher revolutionised literature – and never gave up by Aida Edemariam  (The Guardian, October 2020)

Booker Prize 2020 Chair: short biography of Margaret Busby

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The Winner of Winners of the Women’s Prize

Which novel is the winner of winners? There have been 25 winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction up to now. When asked to pick their choice of overall winner readers voted in their thousands, according to the Women’s Prize website. The most popular book from all 25 prize winners of the annual Women’s Prize for Fiction is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner in 2007. 

Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s haunting novel, originally won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (then the Orange Prize) in 2007. Set in Nigeria during the Biafran War, the novel is about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class, race and female empowerment – and how love can complicate all of these things. (Website)

Does this mean it’s the best book written by a woman in the last 25 years? Of course not. There is no such thing. But it does mean that this novel, along with many others is a good book.

The Women’s Prize for fiction

Why do I support a prize for women’s fiction? Examine the list of 25 winners (below) and notice that it includes many excellent titles, all by women of course.

I like the way the prize features novels by women in a literary landscape that favours men: from the books that get accepted for publication, to those that get reviewed, those that get dismissed (as ‘women’s fiction’}, to those that get bought. Each year a number of books by women have a spotlight shone on them: the long list, then the shortlist and then the winner. 

To be honest I am not much concerned about which one wins, don’t enter the speculation as the announcement draws near, and didn’t vote for a winner of winners. I haven’t always read the winning novel. And I have been disappointed by some that have won. But there is always at least one excellent read on the longlist every year, and often more.

So each year I dedicate a post on this blog to the longlist and the previous winners, which usually adds up to nearly 40 books written by women that are worth noticing.

Half of a Yellow Sun

And I have an admission to make. I did not finish Half of a Yellow Sun when I first picked it up in 2007. The reason was simple. I loved the first part with its description of a Nigerian family and their life. But I had been told that it became very dark after that, even violent. Well, the war in Biafra was violent. But I have never wanted to subject myself to reading that would stir up emotions that I can’t control. So I am sorry to report that I stopped reading it at p146 (I know this because the bookmark still keeps the place). Perhaps now it has been voted the winner of the winners I should take my courage in my hands and try again? And because it is by an author I admire, and a woman from Lagos Nigeria, a woman of colour, I have found my copy and add it to my tbr pile.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2007 by Harper Collins, and winner of the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. 435pp

All Winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet (2020)

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Related post

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 (September 2020)

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama became the First Lady of the United States in 2009. She came from humble Chicago beginnings and through hard work and determination took the first steps on a successful career in law. Is this a story of the American Dream? 

Her autobiography brings into question the whole idea of the American Dream for African Americans, and especially for African American women. Is she unique, or is she leading the way?

Origins

She was born in January 1964 into a family who lived on Chicago’s South Side. They were not well off, her father maintaining his job at the local water plant despite advancing MS, her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She had an elder brother Craig. The family was tight knit, and surrounded by a large community of relatives and friends. The South Side was increasingly suffering from White Flight, but it was a good place to grow up. Michelle worked hard at school and followed her brother to Princeton. On graduating she was accepted into the prestigious Harvard Law School and returned home to take up a post in a high status law firm in Chicago. 

Up to this point she had approached her career by working very hard at her studies and by volunteering with various community groups. She was a woman with a mission, successfully managing by working long hours and planning every detail of her life.

Marriage

Barack Obama came to her as an intern, to some extent following her career path. But his background was very different, with mixed parents and a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia. He also had a very different attitude to life.

I found this part of her memoir the most fascinating. As she reflects, she was succeeding in the life she had envisaged for herself: a well-paid job, with prospects in a law firm, and yet a dissatisfaction with her life. She took what she calls a ‘swerve’. Not only did she marry Obama, but she decided to leave behind the private law firm to go into work that supported the public good in Chicago, community projects in Health Care and the University. 

When the children were born she continued to work, finding support from other working mothers and from her own mother, who deserves her own biography. Pretty soon Obama was launching himself into his political career, having cut his teeth in community projects, writing and editing the Harvard Law Journal. 

Now she had to decide how to be married to this ambitious man, raise her two children and manage her own professional life. Again, this required some swerves in her attitude, to what it meant to live and work in such a marriage, alongside all the other issues women meet, while also encountering prejudice against Black women (and occasionally against tall women too).

The ‘swerves’ are not presented as sacrifices, more that she accepted the role to maintain their family. They both worked at it. He was more driven than her, having a great ability to manage huge amounts of information and to keep his eyes on the higher ambitions and ideals and to work for them.

The White House and FLOTUS

The section of her memoir about her time in the White House reveals the ambiguity of the position of First Lady. She had no constitutional power at all, but very high visibility and some influence. She decided to use the power she had in three main areas: children’s health, military families and promoting the aspirations and the prospects of young women. 

But the costs were very high. The Obamas were committed to bringing up their girls in as normal way as possible, in the face of extreme secret service security measures and extreme fame and exposure. They were also set up to be criticised by anyone who cared to, on any grounds. And it became increasingly obvious that much of their legacy would be lost after the 2016 election.

“When they go low …”

I often find that I have provoked a negative reaction in people through my opposition to the accepted norms, to political assumptions, especially about feminism and women. So, I try to keep in mind her exhortation given high publicity in her speech at the Democratic Convention in 2016 in the face of some brutal events in the Presidential campaign:

Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always an easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high. (407)

I did feel sorry for the enclosed, bubble life, of the White House, and the trappings of fame and security. Her own actions to support better child health through healthier eating (garden in the White House), the military families (with Mrs Biden) and the promotion of girls is all laudable. And all a terrible contrast to the administration that followed.

Making a difference

Having read the book, I watched the film (Becoming on Netflix), which focused on the tour to promote the book, interspersed with illustrated extracts, with additional photos and comments from her family and staff. Huge numbers turned out to hear her speak, and she also made time for small groups: young people from reservations, young Black women, all young people, and my favourite section was the group of older Black women who told Michelle Obama how proud they were to see a strong Black independent and intelligent woman in the White House. The film made it clear that she has given courage and inspiration to many people in the US and beyond. 

And now, with Kamala Harris gaining the position of Vice-President elect, it seems that the American public learning to embrace these inspiring women.

Remember Ann Petry’s novel The Street, published in 1946 (Virago reissue 2019).

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) published by Viking. 428pp. Thanks to Anna for the loan of her copy.

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