Tag Archives: Woman of Colour

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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Kindred by Octavia E Butler

Every now and again someone I respect recommends this novel. It has a reputation of being a sci-fi story, and indeed Kindred is based on time-travel. Dana, the main character is a Black writer living in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself pulled back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War. The story is narrated by Dana, and the reader follows her story as she tries to negotiate her way back to 1976 from the experiences of the Weyland Plantation on which she finds herself. Her colour determines her fate.

I delayed reading it because it was labelled as sci-fi, but I should not have delayed. It is a convincing and fearsome exploration of the practices and tools of enslavement and racial inequality.

Kindred

When Dana finds herself thrown back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War, she takes with her the experience of racially integrated California in the ‘70s. Much of the novel, therefore, is a contrast between Dana’s contemporary life and the experience on the Maryland plantation in the early part of the 19th Century. One of the first contrasts is the language, for she is routinely described using the N word. The Black people she meets are mostly enslaved, and even the free Blacks are in danger of being forced into slavery one way or another.

I found the first few chapters rather wooden as the scenario was set up. She is at home when goes dizzy and comes round to find herself rescuing a small redheaded boy from the river. She gives him artificial respiration so that he is saved from drowning. She returns to 1976 when the boy’s father is about to shoot her. Not long after, she returns to find the same boy, but older, in mortal danger from a fire. And so it goes on. Dana – and on one occasion her husband – spend longer and longer in the past saving Rufus. As a Black woman with no papers she is assumed to be a slave as she repeatedly visits the Weyland plantation and treated as such. 

No explanation or mechanism is ever revealed to explain this time travel, but the first few chapters must convince the reader that Dana is going back in time. As the story progresses, we get more caught up in Dana’s experiences and her time on the plantation. After a few visits to the Weyland Plantation, Dana realises that her visits are arranged to keep Rufus Weyland from death. Dana realises that one of Rufus’s slaves, Alice, may be her ancestor. She also must keep Alice alive to ensure that she will be born. The mechanics of her travel became less important than seeing slavery through the eyes and experiences of a woman from the ‘70s. 

Her contact with the Black Power Movement led Octavia E Butler to investigate why the black people of the past apparently acquiesced to their enslavement. One of the strands of the novel is to show how different characters made choices which meant adapting to the conditions to avoid whipping, sexual assault, their family being ripped apart, or being sold to passing traders: choices for their survival. 

Kindred is a searing explanation of how the slave economy was maintained, highlighting the violence, dehumanising violence, and for Black women there was the added threat of sexual violence. Slaveholders were not required to pay any attention to family ties, and children and partners could be sold away from the plantation to coerce or to punish or for economic benefit. 

Another form of control was to keep enslaved people in ignorance, prohibited from learning to read or write. Dana, as an educated woman, in ante-bellum South posed a great threat to the white masters. In secret she taught some of the children to read.

Octavia E Butler’s sources for Dana’s experiences were the many accounts by enslaved people who escaped. She felt she had to tone down these narratives to make it more believable to her readers.

Eventually Rufus is killed, and Dana loses an arm in her final return to 1976, which reminds us of the physical danger that reaches out from the past. Today’s readers have to add their own present day to their understanding of Dana’s time travel. How much have things changed for Black people in the half-century since 1976? The past continues to provide a legacy of physical damage and social and economic inequality. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a testament to that. What this novel said to me so bitterly was that those instruments of enslavement and repression were still employed in the US in the ‘70s are still used today. The violence, the sexualisation of black women (and men in a different way), the economic differences (starkly revealed by the Coronavirus epidemic) still exist. Poorer housing, poorer health care, poorer education and violence. 

Octavia E Butler

Born in California in 1947, Octavia E Butler was raised in Pasadena, Ca which was racially integrated, although the lives of the inhabitants were very different based on race. Her mother worked as a maid, and her father died when she was eight. She was a shy child and took to writing and visiting the library. She had early success as a writer and met both encouragement and challenge. 

One of her achievements was to widen the scope of sci-fi stories to include the experiences of woman and people of colour.  She claimed, ‘I began writing about power because I had so little’. She won Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, and Kindred, in particular, is regarded as a classic.

First edition cover of Kindred 1979

Kindred by Octavia E Butler, first published in 1979. I read the paperback edition from Headline, published in 2018. 295pp

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The writer of Confessions, Sara Collins, came to my attention last year because she presented and interviewed writers in several on-line events that I attended during lockdowns. She interested me because she was chosen to interview some well-known writers. I also noticed that she has been playing a part in the identification of young writers the Futures Award, by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping promoting young women writers.

Another reason to read her book is that she is a woman of colour, born in Jamaica, brought up in Cayman. This is her first novel, but not, I suspect her last, because it has already done well, for example winning the Costa First Novel Prize in 2019. And because the screenplay of this novel has already been filmed and released on Disney channel.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

The story has mystery, suspense, and being set in Jamaica and London in the early nineteenth century, has a strong historical background. There is romance, and anger and truly awful physical experiments of which Josef Mengele would have approved. 

The story is framed by Frannie’s trial for murder in 1826 at the Old Bailey and told mostly as her deposition in her own defence. Some additional documents and testimony are presented to fill out her story and to give an added perspective.

You could read this book as a mystery, a well told story. But Sara Collins has placed the action at a significant moment, especially for black people in England. The barbarous trade across the Atlantic had been ended for British ships at least, in 1807. But enslaved peoples still provided the labour on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, such as the one Frannie was born on. 

It was also the time of enlightenment, when men with means were pursuing knowledge about everything related to humans. Mr Benham, one of the murder victims, is one of the finest minds in England, writing as a moral philosopher. He is interested in the physiological aspects of blackness, and in the study of the black body. 

While this is the period of Rights of Men and Woman (Mary Wollestonecraft published in 1792) it is also the period of Frankenstein. This is the story of a human being cobbled together from body parts, and then abandoned by its creator, the Frankenstein of the title, when his monster became a liability. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft published her novel in 1818. The ethics of experimentation and research into humans is a theme of this novel, along with the question, are some humans less worthy of education, position, rights, than others? And is this due to skin colour, gender, sexuality, class or something else? What could possibility justify the enslavement of another human?

Frannie Langton was born in Paradise in Jamaica. Paradise is the plantation owned by Langton. He owns everything, the slaves, the crops, the profits, the house, his wife. You may remember that Paradise was the name of the plantation in Beloved. Frannie is brought by Mr Langton to the house, to serve his wife. She is taught to read, and eventually to help Langton in his experiments, his investigations into blackness and its physiological consequences. Even Frannie’s education, it emerges, is the result of a wager, to see if a black person can be educated. 

Frannie is a mulatta, that is she is mixed race and in the course of the novel she discovers the identity of both parents. Langton brings Frannie to England and gives her to Mr Benham, with whom he is trying to curry favour, his endeavours in Jamaica having collapsed. Mt Benham will no longer support Langton as he suspects his experiments have gone too far. Mr Benham is known for his reformist views on slavery.

Frannie forms a close bond with Mrs Benham, and they become lovers. There are several twists and turns to the plot before Mr and Mrs Benham are found dead. It is not surprising that Frannie is accused of their murder, for she is black, female and a lesbian. 

Reading The Confessions of Frannie Langton

It was a pleasure to read this novel; the story is well-told with pace and wit. There are many characters as suits a novel set in this period in London. There are the other servants in the house, the people on the streets, those who wish to live in the orbit of the Benhams, and the men who make use of the services of the women at the School House. The indolent and luxurious life lived by the Benhams, and people of their class can only be sustained by the poorly paid work of a range of servants, a parallel to the profits that were made on the sugar plantations of Jamaica, which sustained so much of the plantation owners’ way of life.

Frannie has been endowed with a good eye and a ready description. For example, when she is taken into the Langton’s house at Paradise she meets the cook Phibbah and she plies her with questions.

… but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear. (13)

While the story is fictional, the setting and the themes of the novel are not. Black servants were not unfamiliar in London households. For example, Francis Barber was brought to England by his ‘owner’ when he was seven, educated, freed and then he worked as Samuel Johnson’s manservant and companion. Johnson bequeathed Francis enough money that he could set up as a draper in Litchfield. 

It is not quite clear whether Frannie is free or not, and the circumstance of her being given to Mr Benham suggests that the men did not consider her to be free.

Gothic is a word used in the blurb to describe this novel. Lush, lavish, an exposé of the worst of early nineteenth century British society, where behind the ornate and detailed veneer lies a mess of exploitation and sin. The paperback’s cover beautifully captures this masking. Sara Collins takes her time, however, to reveal what lies behind the curtain, the lies, the attitudes, the grimness of life in Paradise or in London for the underclasses and what happened in the coach house.

The manner of the Benhams’ deaths is hardly shocking given all that. And although there is a twist at the end, the verdict is not long in doubt.

I was interested to see a short clip on YouTube where Sara Collins identified three books that had been important to her. They were: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. You can find my reviews of Beloved and Frankenstein by following the links.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, published in 2019 by Penguin. 376pp

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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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