Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is a small gem of a memoir. Jacob combines different media to discuss a number of issues and topics. Jacob transports to the page the difficult conversations she’s had with her son about race, while also recounting her own experiences growing up as a first-generation Indian-American.

Much of Good Talk takes place against the 2016 election, which doesn’t necessarily make for easy or enjoyable reading material, especially when we discover that her white in-laws are Trump supporters. Jacob struggles to ‘gloss’ over their political stance, especially when her son begins asking difficult questions about Trump and racism. While her husband, who is white, also struggles to make sense of his parents’ behaviour he does at times minimise Jacob’s experiences with discrimination and racism (chalking these episodes to misunderstandings or claiming that supporting someone who is openly racist and misogynistic doesn’t mean you are those things too). While many of the conversations that are depicted in Good Talk have to do with America (or at least view these topics through an American lens) certain, Jacob does also touch upon colorism in India.
In addition to discussing Trump and 9/11, Jacob also gives us insight into her private life, from talking about her family to her experiences moving in predominantly white spaces and to the everyday microaggression that results from that. The dialogues populating this memoir always rang true to life, so much so, that I felt as if I was truly listening to people talking. While Jacob does discuss serious topics, such as racism, sexism, islamophobia, discrimination, colorism, she often injects humor in these discussions. I especially loved her talks with her son and her parents. I’d happily revisit this and I’m looking forward to reading more from Jacob.
Candid, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving Good Talk is a quick read that is a must-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

 

 

“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead. It still didn’t help him much, my love, she told me. But I saw her do it all the same. That’s how I knew she was magic.”

 

I was hooked by Libertie’s opening paragraph. Set during and after the American Civil War Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel is narrated by Libertie the daughter of a Black female doctor. As the child of a free-woman Libertie is born free at a time when slavery was yet to be abolished. But whereas Libertie’s mother, who is a light-skinned woman and was able to study medicine by ‘passing’, Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and because of this experiences both racism and the prejudices of those who are ‘colorstruck’. Cathy, although not a demonstrative mother, clearly cares about Libertie and has trained her since a young age in the medical arts. But, as Libertie discovers, some conditions and or people cannot be cured. When one of her mother’s patients, a man Libertie had grown fond of, fails to recover, Libertie begins to question her mother’s abilities and grows increasingly disillusioned by her profession. Sensing her daughter’s detachment, Cathy enrolls Libertie at Cunningham College in Ohio where she will be the only female medical student. Libertie, who by this point had already begun to chafe against her mother’s expectations, is far more drawn by the music department, and in particular, by the voices of Louisa and Experience, also knows as the Graces.

“Music at night, music after dark, music finding its way to you across sweetgrass, can feel almost like magic.”

Libertie longs to belong to them, but, in spite of her attempts to form a friendship with the Graces, the bond between the two women is impenetrable. Greenidge’s articulates Libertie’s loneliness and yearning with lyric precision. It was easy to understand and sympathize with Libertie, her wish to be free of other people’s visions of who she should be. We also understand how complex her relationship with her mother is: having grown without a father or other relatives Cathy is everything to Libertie.

I found this first half of the novel to be but poignant and engaging. Greenidge does not shy away from discussing the realities of slavery, racism, colorism, or sexism. Yet, her narrative does not dwell on pain and suffering. There are many moments of beauty and empathy, and I found Libertie’s voice to be utterly captivating.

The latter half of the novel is where things get a bit messy. Libertie becomes entangled with Emmanuel, a young man from Haiti. While their first interactions had both chemistry and potential, their romance happens way too fast. Libertie’s feelings toward Emmanuel aren’t clearly addressed, which was weird since up to that point readers were privy to her innermost feelings and or thoughts. And then, bam, all of a sudden Libertie is in Haiti with Emmanuel and things there take a vaguely Jane Eyresque turn.
While the descriptions of Haiti, from its history to its physical landscapes, were vivid, and there were many thought-provoking discussions on religion and culture, I remained unconvinced by Libertie’s motivations to move there. I wish the story had kept its focus on her and Cathy or her and the Graces, as I did not really feel the ‘love’ between her and Emmanuel. Their relationship was rushed and once in Haiti it never truly develops or progresses. His family drama steals the limelight, and although it did allow the narrative to touch upon some compelling issues, I just could not bring myself to believe in Libertie or Emmanuel’s motives. Cathy’s presence is relegated once more to letters that Libertie chooses not answer. The finale was both predictable and left a few too many questions unanswered.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed Greenidge’s writing. I found that the inclusion of poetry, music, and fragments from Libertie/Cathy’s letters added a layer of depth to the story.
While I wasn’t blown away by the latter half of the novel nor its conclusion I would still recommend this as it is written in lyrical prose and it presents readers with a nuanced mother-daughter relationship while also delving into America’s history, racism, colorism, sexism, grief, and, as the title and heroine’s name suggest, freedom.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

“Every day in this new city I was trying to live in the purity of the present, free from context. Contexts, I knew, were dangerous: Once you put them into the picture, they took over.”

As with her latest novel New People, Symptomatic presents its readers with a claustrophobic and disquieting narrative that becomes increasingly surreal. Both novels are set in the 90s in New York and follow light-skinned biracial women whose white-passing often results in them feeling on the outside of both the white and Black communities. Senna’s razor-sharp commentary on race in America holds no punches as time and again she identifies and dissects everyday slights, aggressions, and hypocrisies. Symptomatic is narrated by an unnamed young woman in her twenties who is interning as a journalist. As she ‘passes’ as white she begins to feel alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated when she witnesses her white boyfriend—who believes she is Hispanic—guffawing at a friend’s racist impersonation. Our narrator is not close to her parents, each of who has embarked on a mystical or religious journey—nor her surfer brother. Senna portrays her feeling of aloneness with incisive precision. The main character feels so severed from her surroundings that she often feels or sees rather disquieting things that may or may not be there. The imagery Senna provides is unpleasant, unsettling, and even grotesque: a “raw chicken wing” lying in the gutter is the narrator’s eyes, however momentarily, a “pink fetus”, a “steak fry” transforms in a “severed finger”, a woman’s “pregnant belly” pokes out “like a tumor”.

A colleague of the protagonist helps her in her hour of need. After breaking up with her boyfriend the narrator needs a new place and this colleague, Greta, hooks her up with an apartment that has been temporarily vacated by its actual rentee. The narrator and Greta become close as they both happen to be light-skinned biracial women. In spite of their age gap, Greta is in her forties, they feel united by their experiences (of others assuming they are white, of being told they are not really Black, of being seen as ‘neither here nor there’). Their thoughts and feelings on race, on white and Black people, can be vicious, full of vitriol, and give us an understanding of them (of the way they have been treated or made to feel). Time and again the narrator is told that there is something about the way she looks, there is an “unsettling” “dissonance” to her that makes others feel uneasy, unable to place her.
As the two women spend more time together it becomes clear to the narrator that Greta is a deeply disturbed and perturbing person. When Greta’s obsession with her forces the narrator to cut ties with her, she soon discovers that the older woman is not willing to let go so easily.

“I felt ill. My symptoms were mild and vague. They roamed my body, like tinkers searching for new temporary homes where they could not be caught.”

Senna’s prose is as always terrific. I was hypnotized by her words, however uneasy they made me feel. Her commentary on race and contemporary culture is both illuminating and provocative, and, weirdly enough, I also appreciate the cynicism of her novels. The world she presents us with is ugly and so are the people inhabiting it. The oppressive atmosphere of her narratives is made all the more stultifying by the perturbing direction of her storylines. Simple interactions between characters are anything but simple as they are often underlined by a sense of anxiety.
Alas, Senna does have an Achille’s heel and that is the final act of her novels. Here there is a reveal which I definitely did not buy into, if anything, it made this one character seem less fleshed out than they were. The character’s spiraling into alienation is halted by witnessing someone who has already embarked on this path of self-destruction. The final confrontation also, as noted by other reviewers on GR, was a bit too reminiscent of Passing. As with New People the ending had a touch of bathos that made me reconsider the novel on the whole.
Still, in spite of this, I do love Senna’s writing. Her prose is mesmerizing and the content of her stories is both disquieting and eye-opening. If you like authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh you should definitely try reading something by Senna.

re-read: a truly disturbing piece of fiction. The mysterious shadows and symptoms haunting our protagonist are truly disturbing.

my rating: ★★

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Passing by Nella Larsen — book review

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“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

At once alluring and disquieting Nella Larsen’s Passing presents its readers with a piercing examination of the interplay of race, gender, and class in 1920s New York.
Clare and Irene, the women at the centre of this novel, grew up in the same Black neighborhood. Both are light-skinned and can ‘pass’ for white but whereas Irene now lives with her husband, who is a doctor, and two sons in Harlem, and seems to enjoy a respectable middle-class existence, Clare left their community and rumour has it that she is now passing for white.
Irene has never paid much attention to the talk surrounding Clare’s ‘disappearance’ from their neighbourhood. A chance encounter in Chicago reunites the two women. Clare, now living as a white woman and married to a white supremacist, views Irene as a link bank to the Black community and culture that she abandoned. While she’s clearly made the most of the privileges that come with being white, Clare feels a lure towards her ‘old’ identity. Irene too may be more dissatisfied than she’d liked to believe and begrudgingly rekindles her friendship with Clare.

The fraught dynamic between Clare and Irene brought to mind that between Sula Peace and Nel Wright (from Toni Morrison’s Sula). Both sets of women used to be childhood friends, Clare and Sula leave their community only to return years later. Their beauty and insouciant attitude arouse jealousy and envy in their old friends.
While Clare is using Irene as her ticket to re-enter and re-connect with her Black community, she does seem to be genuinely happy to be spending time with Irene. Irene, on the other hand, grows resentful of Clare’s careless vacillation between a white and Black identity. When Irene perceives a new strain in her relationship with her husband she attributes this to the ‘change’ brought by Clare reappearance in her life.

“There were things that she wanted to ask Clare Kendry. She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.”

Desire and jealousy cloud Irene and Clare judgments. They seem drawn to each other, perhaps because they are in many ways polar opposites. There is an intensity to how Irene thinks about Clare and to how Clare looks at Irene that seemed almost sexual (or maybe that’s just me).
Yet, underlining this mutual attraction is something closer to animosity. Irene judges Clare for passing and for being with a boastfully racist man, while Clare, in her unrelenting efforts to latch onto Irene and her lifestyle, is much harder to pin down. Much about her remains a mystery to us. Irene’s growing hostility towards Clare could also be seen as a defence mechanism, as in this instance aversion may be preferable to attraction.

Larsen’s naturalist approach to her characters’ behaviours and feelings reminded me of Edith Wharton (“Brought to the edge of distasteful reality, her fastidious nature did not recoil. Better, far better, to share him than to lose him completely. Oh, she could close her eyes, if need be. She could bear it. She could bear anything.”) . Larsen, similarly to Wharton, can be incredibly perceptive—in her social commentaries, in her honing on the subtleties of certain feelings, impressions, and thoughts—while also allowing for a certain opaqueness to surround her characters, their motivations and actions. This sense of ambiguity, although present from the novel’s opening scene, soon seems to dominate the narrative, so that the more I read, the more uneasy I felt towards the characters. Larsen’s disillusioned portrayal of marriage and domesticity also made me think of Wharton’s (the two also have a penchant for tragedies). The oppressive unease permeating Irene’s story called to mind authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Danzy Senna.

Larsen doesn’t lose herself in the ethics of passing, rather she portrays the system of white supremacy which seeks to control and undermine people of colour (regardless of their class).
As Larsen navigates themes of race, gender, and identity, she brings to life 1920s New York from its norms to its social hierarchies. Larsen’s commentary on race feels modern and all-too relevant to today’s society.

“The social, psychological, and economic motivations for passing, they also perform acts of literary trespass in exposing the cultural and legal fiction of race.”

Through her elegant and contemplative writing, Larsen captures the discordance between self and society. The tension between Irene and Clare results in a fraught atmosphere, one that makes Passing into a work of psychological suspense. If you are looking for a novel about transformation, liberation, jealousy, and betrayal, you need not look further.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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