Tag Archives: racism

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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Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Dear Reni Eddo-Lodge

Please do not stop talking about race. Please do not stop talking about race to me (a white person). And please do not stop talking about race to anyone. I can see your arguments, and understand why you may need a break every now and again, but please do not stop talking about race. We need to talk.

Best wishes Caroline

The Argument

The argument of the book is that white people on the whole do not accept that racism is structural; that to be a person of colour means you are cumulatively disadvantaged; that by default people are assumed to be white unless indicated otherwise. To be black is to be different. Moreover, racism and discrimination are seen as belonging to a fringe group, or to those rather nasty people who aren’t a bit like us.

And because this is the reaction, it’s hard to go on beating your head against that proverbial brick wall, repeating the arguments, noting the small victories but seeing very little change in the big picture.

It began as a blog. Feeling oppressed and tired with it all Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote her blog called Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race in February 2014.

So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others? (xi)

It proved to be provocative, after all white people do not like being excluded (any more than black people do) and not addressed by stroppy bloggers. And to allow that a system benefits one group at a cost to others implies the necessity both for action and for a possible loss of privilege.

What other people have said

It’s only a small minority of people who are racist. The fringe groups such as the BNP, Combat 18, National Action are just that – on the fringe, some proscribed.

I’m not part of the problem. I’m not a racist. I’m colour-blind.

Many black people are very successful in British society and life. If one can be successful all can be successful.

Structural disadvantage is a myth. Remember Mrs Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’? In 1985 Oliver Letwin, one of her advisers and now a Tory MP, said much the same: ‘Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes.’ (53). Which is a way of saying that bad people cause problems not poor social conditions.

My reactions

I did not find the argument about structural disadvantages by Reni Eddo-Lodge new. In part, this is because so much of my adult life has been conscious of the structural disadvantages endured by women. And because I have worked in inner-city education for most of my professional life.

Even so I accept that being a white feminist puts me at an advantage over black women/feminists.

And Reni Eddo-Lodge is right to be critical of those who do not act. Above all action should be taken by you and me, our institutions, organisations and our mouths should be forever open.

I got into political commentary because I wanted to change the consensus, to widen the narrow confines of political ideas that were deemed acceptable. But over the years I have realised the futility of this job. Attempting to challenge the racism deemed acceptable in political discussion istacitly tolerated, but making white people feel uncomfortable is impermissible. (220)

And there will be pushback when action is taken. The book was published before the recent Penguin Books incident. Lionel Shriver made some doubtful comments about Penguin’s actions to improve diversity in their publishing. It caused a furore. But it’s a classic. There were suggestions, by Toby Litt for example, that it was a bit much to dilute quality to satisfy some perceived need to diversify. Did someone say political correctness gone mad? The dilution argument ignores the possibility that current practice excludes many excellent black people from the publishing (and other worlds and other achievements). And that this exclusion operates at many levels. Penguin are choosing to act at their level.

I repeat, according to Gunter Grass, it is the job of citizens to keep their mouth open. That includes you Reni Eddo-Lodge. Write on.

This book, Why I’m no longer taking to white people about race is a prizewinner.

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE BRITISH BOOK AWARDS NON-FICTION NARRATIVE BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018
FOYLES NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR

BLACKWELL’S NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE JHALAK PRIZE 

LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION
LONGLISTED FOR THE ORWELL PRIZE
SHORTLISTED FOR A BOOKS ARE MY BAG READERS AWARD

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. I used the updated edition, which includes a chapter on the election of Trump and the EU referendum. 261pp

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).

The novel The Grass is Singing

The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.

In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.

From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.

She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.

Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.

Reading the novel

Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’

But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but

[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)

And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.

Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.

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