This review sucks but this book was worth it.

Last night I read this tweet thread about writing as a POC.  Here are two of the tweets:

screen-shot-2017-02-18-at-10-18-41-am

You can read the thread for the gist, but the writer was discussing hearing Lori Ostland talking about writing for yourself vs. writing for society, publishing houses, or editors. What Brandon said hit home for me because this is an experience that I haven’t had as a white woman.  I write about my experience without the baggage that comes from knowing I’m also writing for the people that came before me who weren’t able, or writing for the movement, or writing for the opportunity to continue building towards equity.  I just write because it’s what my hands do when my thoughts are too much to be bottled.  (Writing this does make me want to mindmap all my writing purposes in my journal though because I’m sure there’s baggage and lines leading to baggage).

chains_novel_coverI’ve promoted diverse literature since I could read.  My parents both pointed me towards books that taught me about the wholeness of the world and didn’t feature characters who looked and sounded just like me.  When I quit reading suddenly and drastically in high school, I think it was because the only literature that I could find in the school library was Charles Dickens or The Notebook.  There wasn’t much between idealized romance and the dead white guy classics. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her Ted talk “Danger of a Single Story,” she was only given the opportunity to read about British children.  The world of “ginger tea” in books did not match the world of Africa in sounds, spirit, lifestyle, function. I knew this in high school, it was an undercurrent of my reading habits as a middleschooler and teen.  I read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson over and over again because it was the only book I could find on the story of my nation without a white narrator. However, Anderson is a white female author.

Sometimes though,  I think that my need to promote diverse literature doesn’t come from the seed of social justice sprouting in my childhood, but comes from a selfish place to be on trend.  Like Brandon was saying, he feels that he’s afraid to be tokenized and without his marginalization then his success would look, feel, or be different.  Right now, the hashtag #MSWL features agents and editors who are constantly looking for POC both in story and telling.  This makes me feel closer to satisfied that my students will have more literature that they can see themselves in, connect with, and learn from, something that wasn’t even there, truly, when I was in high school. It also makes me wonder the effect of publishing a marginalized author has on the book itself and the narrative.

I believe in the cause of promoting authors with every race, sexuality, political stance, income level, geographic location, culture, background, upbringing, and belonging, but I don’t want any of those reasons to define why it’s getting published.

20702546This brings me to the book Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  I really wanted to like this book, and it wasn’t because of lack of connection, or not a strong enough voice as to why I didn’t like it.  Until I saw Brandon’s tweets, I couldn’t even put my finger on it.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is about Gabi, a Mexican-American girl from NYC in her senior year of high school.  It’s written in journal format.  Side note, I’m extremely tired of this for YA literature, but this book had a narrator who was also interested in writing poetry so unlike other teens, she probably would keep a journal.  It turned out to be an interesting plot choice because not only did Gabi have to write about her feelings after an incident, but also the effect of those feelings on the incident, herself, and whoever else was involved.

I have a few reasons why I didn’t love this book.  The first is that every single high school problem imaginable (-suicide) is within one degree of separation from our narrator.  Here are the things that she deals with in a year: pregnancy, coming out, sexuality (both boy on boy and girl on boy), drug addiction, jail time, suspension, abortion, body image, rape, religious expectations, weight, societal ideas of what boys can do vs. societal ideas of what girls can do, lying, cheating, death, being an American immigrant, and mother-daughter relationships.  That’s a lot for 284 pages.

While all of these things definitely go on in a normal high school, I’m not sure they’re all so close to one person.  It happens, I’m sure of it, but I felt like this novel stigmatized the experience of this character a little bit.  Because she’s ____________, she’s also got to deal with _____________. Nat and I have done this lesson with our students a few times to prep them for Slam Poetry.  “Just because I’m ______________, doesn’t mean I’m ________________.”  This novel for me went a little against this exercise.  Even though, Gabi is constantly telling her mother this phrase, “Just because I’m best friends with the pregnant girl, doesn’t mean I’m jumping in bed with Josh.”

There were moments in this novel I did love.  Gabi’s voice is perfectly done.  Her reactions to experiences like those mentioned above were completely believable, especially for a girl who’s a senior in high school.  She was also just a character that you want to hug by the end of the book.  Towards the end, and what I would argue is a sort of climactic event, she creates a zine on body image for girls.  The Female Body should be created and  published by  Cinco Puntos Press to go with the book (or at least be a separate book entirely).  Booklist called Gabi “universal” and not “defined by ethnicity, class, weight, or lifestyle,” which I completely agree with.  None of these things would give us Gabi on paper, and she’s so easy to love and cheer for.

Quintero really tried to give the reader genuine and real experiences of teens everywhere.  I enjoyed most the beginning of each of these stories.  When Sebastian comes out and is telling Gabi that “he started at boobs and tried,” or Cindy and Gabi cry together over Cindy’s backseat pregnancy.  I loved these small details that made what was happening less fiction and more true to teendom.  What was missing for me was tracing those narratives through.  There was so much going on that by the time Gabi experienced death, I wasn’t worried about how Sebastian’s dad still refused to let him come home and how he was going to gay conversion therapy.  By the time we found out about the rape, it got three pages and we had to move on to the next life-altering moment.

This is also why I stopped watching Glee.

funny-glee-memes-santana-7

And why Brandon is right.  I just felt like the book didn’t give enough to all the stories it wanted, it probably needed, to tell.  I still highly recommend it for what it achieves across barriers, and very real difficulties, but I worry that I only feel that way because of its “diverse” label.

 

Nobody Warned Me.

30091914Halfway through this book, I tweeted about the nightmares it was causing me.  And I’m not talking about Stephen King ghosts or monsters, but live human cruelty.  They weren’t dreams like others I have had, revolving staircases, or sudden drops into homes I knew, but had been subtly changed by my dream space.  These dreams were as visceral as the words on the page.  I felt the steel copper bullet – plunge –  slow motion into my rib cage.  Each bone flex forth and open like a cracked fence post.  When I woke up each morning, I had stones in my belly, and gnarls in my gut.  This story uprooted me.

p14-kingston-gwangju-a-20140518-870x659

Photo from The Japan Times

And I wasn’t warned, so I’m warning all of you.  This story conveyed the human capacity for cruelty so well and so often that I almost couldn’t finish it.  While I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and a history that should not remain hidden, I want to scrape at the pieces of it that stayed in my mind for days afterwards.  For a full three pages, Han Kang describes some of the Gwangju boys’ torture, the crisp sizzle of a cigarette to an eye.  If you winced at that sentence, then I can’t recommend this book for you.  It caused me physical pain to read.

(And I know some of you will roll your eyes and say that this is nothing to the physical pain that the people of Gwangju felt resisting and standing up to their traitorous government, but feelings are allowed to be felt).

Today, Amnesty International reported hangings of over 13,000 in Damascus.  These hangings have been done secretly after victims are tried for under three minutes in a basement after being told they are being transported elsehwhere.  We sit around arguing on Twitter over what’s fake news, or how many alternative facts will be spun in the administration currently in office, and in Damascus, Syrians are being targeted and wiped out by the thousands in Civil War.  Until this moment, no news of these hangings had been released.  This is probably not the fault of our news media, but the fact that this is happening in our modern world – after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Tinneman Square and now after the Gwangju uprising, maybe we need to be a little more “woke.”

I listened to this story on NPR having just finished Human Acts.  I had been contemplating the number of stars I could give a book that I was hesitant to recommend, that I was angry no one had warned me about (most reviewers just said, “it has beautiful writing”) and disgusted with the bottom dark of human capacity put into elegant words on the pages of Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-4-36-42-pm

Screenshot from Amnesty International Report

No where in my life have I had to contemplate the snap of a rope bruising and twisting my pale neck. Never the butt of a gun.  Never a protest that could end in the spray of shrapnel.  Comparing one’s life to another never makes anything easier, but I have been both lucky to be who I am, where I am, and lucky to read a book that makes me understand that luck is a physical phenomenon and not just a mental/emotional privilege.  I can only speak for myself, but all I really wanted to do in hearing that report was spit it out so it couldn’t become a part of me, of my existence.

“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.  Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there” (202).

In the last chapter of this novel, the author becomes a character.  She describes her journey seeking out information on the massacre itself, but also on the family written throughout.  She is indirectly related to this family.  They lived in the house she moved out of at a young age, and they lost a brother to the Gwangju uprising while living there.  The narrator talks about her nightmares while researching the novel.  I know why.  I experienced nightmares as well.  I texted my best friend, and Korean scholar, Seth and asked him about what was told to him about this while he was in South Korea.  His first response when I began describing the book was “they don’t tell tourists those stories.”

I wonder how many stories are left dark in the world.  How many shoved into corners, buried against one another, corked.  This is no longer one of those cave stories, this mosaic novel of different voices interwoven.  It is really a connection of short stories, some more difficult than others to get through.  I believe Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do, make it so no one can desecrate these memories again.

“Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again” (214).

In the beginning, I found hope in the short anecdote about the chalk erasers and board spray from middle school between the loving sister and brother in the novel.  I hung onto that for the rest of the novel because there isn’t much redeeming about the human spirit here.  This is a novel that very much lacks the bud of hope.  It doesn’t make it less true, it just, for me, makes it more sad.  If we believed the world ended like this, I don’t think any of us would continue letting it fester.

“Isn’t he your friend, aren’t you a human being” (43).

Raise Your Hand if You Need the Last Word.

montoya“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Over lunch the other day, a few of my girlfriends and I mused over how we grew up on The Princess Bride.  I mean literally like an after school snack. A drug of choice for hip 90s girls who knew we’d grow up and really want to be more like Robin Wright on House of Cards, but for a little while, we could love Wesley and his sexy bandit costume.  There were two movies that I obsessively watched as a child, Grease and Princess Bride.  I feel like between these two movies PLUS Clarissa Explains It All, I can be discovered.  This may or may not be true for most girls, we shall see in the comments section, but I think a lot of girls found themselves binge-watching The Princess Bride because it wasn’t your normal “princess story.”  Sure, she had to be saved several times from Humperdinck, but Princess Buttercup was no pansy.  What I love most about this movie is that it convinced me that there’s such a thing as a final word.

52057_01362150665

I have sought that final word to the point of damage a few times.  I’ll argue until the height of high-pitched yelling.  There’s a moment when I say something despicable that I know can’t be taken back, but I still release it into the world like it’s a clattering truth.  I never remove myself from arguments.  I have a hard time walking away.  And even when someone is trying to give me the hint that there’s no place for me in their life, I pursue them until the ache grows softer and I, too, can let go.

It’s a downfall for sure.  I’m no hero.

shrill-lindy-west-magnumBut with that all said, I think Lindy West’s first book is doing just what I’ve done my whole life, just what Inigo Montoya does with every man who even narrowly looks like his father’s killer.  It’s what a lot of feminists do when they realize that maybe they’re being heard (the sound) but they’re not being listened to (the meaning).  They keep going. Shrill, West’s memoir really encapsulates this idea that silence isn’t golden, it’s boxy and the only way out of it, is to keep on talking.

hqdefaultI knew this book was going to pack a punch when in the beginning she lists out every “Fat Female Role Model” that existed for her as a child.  Characters like the Queen of Hearts, Mrs. Trunchbull, Lady Cluck, Mrs. Piggy, and Ursula were the most prominent according to my notebook. I listened to this on audiobook, so I had to pause to write down little tidbits I wanted to remember forever.  In Chapter 2, she says, “There is not a thin woman inside me awaiting excavation.  I am one piece.”  With this quote I began to realize that we were going to witness every bit of Lindy West, whether she thought it appropriate to show or not, she was nothing but transparent and relatable for the entire book.

17slxz1dl5u14jpg

This image is from Lindy West’s article in Jezebel “How to Make a Rape Joke”

(If you don’t know who Lindy West is, she came for Tosh.0 in Jezebel with a piece called “How to Make a Rape Joke.” And she rocks).  She has been trashed by internet trolls, even one impersonating her deceased father, and she married a man who in her words is “conventionally attractive” who plays the trumpet.  The reason why I say her book is a final word of sorts is that it gives all of the baggage (and I don’t mean this as a negative) to the stories that everyone else construed about her.  These stories created by trolls, comedy show hosts, feminist bloggers, newspapers and magazines, and her blog were in some ways all fabricated.  While I blog my life blood into everything I write at Books & Bowels and Almost an Independent Clause, that doesn’t mean I owe every single one of my followers a pound of flesh.

1375497575684929684

Internet Troll image from Kotaku

But in the eyes of the public, Lindy West did.  She was trolled, tattered, and left on the defense over really important issues like fat shaming, rape jokes, abortions, periods, and privilege.  At one point, during the comedy chapters, she says something like, I can easily name 20 white male comics, but … “Name 20 female comics.  Name 20 black comics.  Name 20 gay comics.”  Early in the book, she writes so unabashedly about her abortion when she was dating a guy that she loved, but didn’t quite like very much, that I heard every woman who walked the women’s march sigh in relief.  It wasn’t some grotesque tale like the biblical posters of “baby waste” will have you think, it was a real woman’s life trial, true to each hard step.  She even at this point in her life (what I would argue is probably a low point for some women) thought about her privilege, about the way it was so easy for the owner of the Abortion Clinic to let her pay later.

“Privilege means it’s easy for white women to do each other favors.”

I’m not going to lie, I found the chapters rehashing her experience of Tosh.0 kind of boring, but I knew they needed to be said.  I’m not going to put words in Lindy West’s mouth (like everyone else has done before me), but I get the need to have one last say, to make sure people understand your point, to make one even when all corners are trying to silence you. For me, what she said had value, is valuable, and should be repeated even if the “shrill” is deafening.  Especially in today’s political climate.

“We live in a culture that actively tries to shrink the definition of sexual assault.  That casts stalking behaviors as romance.  Blames the victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood…Convicts in less than 5% of allegations that go to trial” (Chapter 13).

lindy

Lindy West, Fierce AF at KUOW.org

I loved this book because it didn’t ask for anything.  You know how sometimes you read memoirs and you can feel that the writer is asking for pity, or asking for understanding, or even just asking for love and adoration? This wasn’t like that.  This was just a girl, standing in front of a really bookish crowd (with a pack of Lena Dunham’s behind her) telling a few truths about life.  She wasn’t asking for you to understand why your fat joke is sorry, why rape jokes aren’t funny in any contexts, why free speech isn’t necessarily free, or why feminist voices matter, she was just telling you an experience in a life of a human being.

If we could find more writers that do this, our world might open up a little.  Internet trolls might apologize more and Lindy West may have a twitter full of quips that crack a girl up while she’s at a boring desk job.  We haven’t gotten there yet, but if Lindy West keeps publishing, we just might. I liked Slate’s review here.

Because Everyone is Reading Rebecca Solnit.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-9-23-13-pm

This is totes me on a day when I just couldn’t take anymore news.

I’ve crowned this year, “Year of Essays.”  And while I’d also really like to dedicate some time to the Outlander series and the free audiobooks I got when I cheated the system and got Audible for only as long as it took me to choose four free books — I may have stolen BJ’s too — approximately four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, I still want to read more nonfiction in the form of the essay.  I want to finally unpack Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Proulx from my shelf. Basically, I want to read more women who fought back.  I’ve read A LOT of memoir and can swallow a short story in a sitting, but the form that always eludes me is the essay.  Maybe because I’ve tried to write several about the same ex-boyfriend? And maybe because I’m not sure how to know when to stop writing an essay?

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-9-24-29-pmI think it’s only fair then that I start with Rebecca Solnit.  She is the new age queen of the nonfiction essay. You may have seen her book Men Explain Things to Me all over Subways and feminist Instagram posts.  Her latest Hope in the Dark is on my reading list for this year so that I can try to make it through a Washington Post Twitter feed without crying in the morning before I’ve even had coffee.  However, I started with A Field Guide to Getting Lost. If you follow me on Instagram (@bookishcassie, shameless plug) then you know that I’ve felt very lost lately.

I actually think I’m losing brain matter, teaching kept me sharp. And I’ve always loved the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art.”  During my worst year in college, the frustration came out in the form of locking my keys in my car.  Even once overnight, while running in the rain, I lost my keys to a dead engine. I cried to the last triple A guy, on the twelfth time.  You read that right, 12 incidents in a year of losing my mind long enough to leave my keys enclosed somewhere I wasn’t. In the beginning of our relationship, BJ was constantly losing things, or leaving them somewhere and forgetting them until just the right moment of overtime when we were walking out the door.  He doesn’t do this anymore, but I remember it being a test for me, I thought.  The little things we can handle due to love.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-9-23-25-pm

Reading last week. It took me 10 days to read this book which is long for me. 

And I imagine these scenes of oddly connected things is what leads an essay.  At the deconstruction of an essay, if demolished, it would be these strange miscellaneous tools and objects that we’ve weaved together, not like a loom, but like shaking-hand crochet, to make meaning.  I think, at least, this is what Rebecca Solnit is doing in A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  There were moments where it worked for me so hard that I was furiously underlining passages and moments where this read more like a text book than a thoughtful process of braiding moments.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-9-23-36-pm

Saturday trying to finish it, not even close. 

In the beginning she loiters over the idea of distance and the color of distance, blue.  We walk through mountains, towards an island on a dry lake, and through paintings — the amusement of painters in flight. This idea that distance and going towards it is a way of getting lost guides the reader through Solnit’s dreams from her childhood home.  Memories from this place haunt her dreams although she left the place in her late teens. There’s the distance between men and gold, the distance of extinct animals who both come back and remain undone.  This long-form essay is both a love letter to the distance of the desert and to a home that we can’t go back to.  All of these geographically lost things given new homes on the page. What we can know, what we pretend to know, and how our previous knowledge fills in gaps that we shouldn’t fill in is all also a part of this.  It’s our minds mixed with our place if I could describe it in the weakest terms.

“I survived not the outside world, but the inside one” (90).

I know this just sounds like some weird gak of nonsense, but it was beautiful at times.  There were moments where I could have licked the words to hold them in and moments where I was falling asleep reading.  I didn’t understand the ending on the Gold Rush trails, it all felt very boring-Oregan-Trail to me, but I think the message stands firm.  One must get lost to know oneself.  I’m sure some philosopher has said that well before me and in better form. We all do have something to find after all, right?

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-9-23-47-pm

Image from the Women’s March Raleigh, the rest of my images are on AlmostanIndependentClause.com

There were moments too when I was like “YAS, GIRL” because what she was saying was so true to what we’re currently living.  If you wake up devastated to the news you read, then you are feeling somewhat lost in a place that no longer looks like the home we’ve built as a nation.

“In these terms, even nostalgia and homesickness are privileges not granted to everyone” (123).

If you don’t read that quote thinking about refugees that have been further displaced by new “Executive Orders,” then you need to pick up a newspaper, or phone a friend.

“Such moments seem to mean that you have surrendered to the story being told and are following the story line rather than trying to tell it yourself, your puny voice interrupting and arguing with fate, nature, the gods” (134).

This, the time we finally decide to stand, against any odd.

“Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable. One of those in-depth local or state atlases that map ethnicity and education and principal crops and percentage foreign-born makes it clear that any place can be mapped infinite ways, that maps are deeply selective” (160).

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-9-22-48-pm

Today when Fro and I finally finished this one. 

I’d be lying if I believed that where you were born didn’t immediately dictate about fifty-percent of your life choices.  As a privileged American woman, I face the idea of sliding into complacency and believing I’m owed what I’m given.  The other option is realizing my own privilege and trying to narrow those gaps by fighting side by side, and listening to those who are faced with far less than I. I think Solnit finds that deep connection to geography, to home, to the memories that we apply to every landscape we press feet to. I think Dr. Seuss and the mantra “Oh the Places You Go” would be the child version of this idea.

I can’t argue that this is a perfect book by any means.  But the ideas in it, the way they’re imperfectly balanced against and for one another made this such a meaningful read.  I will read the rest of Solnit this year and I will eat each word like a delicacy because I know not everyone, and especially not all girls are given that right.

And words are everyone’s right.

 

“There Are Great Holes in Your Newspapers. Nobody Sees Them. God Sees Them”

Because I need a few more days to mull over what I’m going to say about the new President on this blog, I thought I could review one of my already favorite books of the year.

News25817493 of the World by Paulette Jiles was a quiet simmer, a rustle, a murmur. I hadn’t read anything about it other than it was a finalist for the National Book Award and that there were 73 people on the library waiting list before me.  That’s an accurate portrayal, not a fudged number.  I can tell now, why, and why it has such a catastrophically high Goodreads score.  Usually, even my favorite books tap out at 3.2, maybe 3.4 if there’s an influx of smart, beautiful readers, but typically all books stay average, even the good ones.  (I don’t have any stats on this, this is just sheer user interpretation).

Right now, News of the World has a 4.23 star score on Goodreads. I’m going to make the argument that it’s all about the characters (and then the setting, and then the pacing, and then the softness, in that order).  There’s two main characters and then a handful of townspeople that we meet as they travel through Texas.  The two main characters are Cho-Henna and Kep-Dun.  Captain Kidd is a former military messenger and Johanna is a girl who was captured by the Kiowa Tribe at a young age and only knows that life.  However, at the beginning of the book, Kidd accepts guardianship of returning her to what’s left of her family (an aunt and uncle) and thus the book begins.

cwsites1

Map of Civil War Sites in Texas (Fort Tours)

The entirety of this book is their journey on just a few roads. Kidd is stopping in towns to read the news from local and international papers, a former print shop owner, he likes to create fairytales of far-off places in the minds of Texans, and while doing that he teaches Cho-Henna a few “house rules” without changing who she is at the core.  I fell in love with both of these characters.  By the end of the book, I could actually hear the peep of Cho-Henna’s voice saying “Kep-Dun” from behind a flour barrel, or underneath a blanket.

She was so quiet, almost silent, and yet the sound of her stays with me.  It wasn’t the voice of the character that was so moving in this book, it was the subtle sounds of everyday life that she made.  The way she patted the captains arm, or handed him dimes to be used as bullets, or ripped the lace from her skirt.  Those sounds that create a live-action movie in the reader’s heads.  I knew that countryside while I was riding, and although we had to listen for the sounds of danger, it was so easy being with Captain Kidd and Johanna just a little while longer.  I feel the same soft spot for Johanna that Kidd grows in this story.

And although we know from the beginning that this will end tied with a bow, I don’t fault Jiles for the conclusion being that neat.  This was a feel-good story from the very beginning.  I eased through the way Captain Kidd treated Johanna like she didn’t need to be anyone but herself in order to get along in the world.  He could only teach her this through his own ways of being in the world, just a visitor, always in motion, and always with a message.  At one point, he thinks the following:

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.  Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed” (121).

bfgdreamcatcher

BFG and Dreams

I think this was just the most perfect instance of how life is made.  Whether we’re Captain Jeffrey Kidd making life after the Civil War, or we’re a child with two visions of the world that collide and collapse at random.  I’ve harped about this idea of purpose for the last several months.  I’m a pray-er, I don’t know what you guys believe, or what religious doctrine you follow, if any, but I like to send open words out into the air and hope someone is catching them (kind of like The BFG and dreams).

For a long while, every time I prayed about being a teacher, I got a solidified answer as to why I needed to keep doing it.  Even in my most desperate, cry on the side of the bed as I slide down the post, moments.  Where a whole tissue box wasn’t enough, and neither was the constant heaving, I got a sign the next day, or a word, or a moment.  When I decided to quit teaching, those signs that I was holding like small weapons against any stray ideas, went dark.  I couldn’t find anything telling me to “just keep swimming.”  I was carrying a message, but I didn’t think it was the right one anymore.

I’ve had a lot of nights where I manically mindmap my purpose.  Where I talk to myself about podcasts, and blogging, and editing, and reading, and making life. Not making a living, but just making life. I’ve tried to find goals and make them into something.  Truth be told, I’m lost as hell. But with all of that, I’m also in a moment of creation.

“To go through our first creation is a turning of the soul we hope toward the light, out of the animal world.  God be with us.  To go through another tears all the making of the first creation and sometimes it falls to bits” (56).

bigstock_failure_grunge_text_3728194-1In situations like this there’s that constant nag of failure.  It creates a lot of fear.  And that’s what wasn’t in this book.  Neither character was tied to a certain message, a certain town or person or purpose.  Both were just between living.  Sure, their road had an end.  Captain Kidd had a goal and a $50 gold coin to show for it.  He had a mission for Johanna that wasn’t of her choosing, but was still a mission they both partook.  And so maybe, it’s corny, but maybe it’s true – it’s about the journey.  I know this book was.

This was one of those moments where I hit the just right book at the just right time.  So what if the goal isn’t clear? So what if we’re reinventing all the time? If people know us as a chameleon or a lover of adventure or just someone that can’t stay focused? So what? Make life.  Make it with people who don’t have to speak because the thud of their feet in the hallway and the click of a radio button and the morning voices of Mike & Mike  are the only reconciliation you need. (Thanks, Beej).  This is true for these two characters and I would argue that it’s true for most of us.  If we gave up speaking, we would still make love with sounds.  If we lost our voices, we would still show pity, embarrassment, joy with the soft strokes of being human.

28119237News of the World is that subtle reminder that we all need.  I highly recommend this read because it will seriously melt your heart.  In many book clubs they’re recommending it be paired with Tribe by Sebastian Junger. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy of that next.  Get both from the library and dog-ear every page you love for the next person.  Leave that muted symbol, imagine the rubbed sound of crisped page against their thumb.

You’ve Reached: My Feminist Agenda

THE GREAT GATSBY, from left: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, 2013.I’ve always been on that weird middle line with feminism where I can’t jump over the fence and burn my bras because those things are DAMN expensive and sometimes kind of pretty, but I also am definitely not on the side of “all girls should sit and be pretty.” I can’t say that I’ve always been on the side of women, I’ve talked my fair share of smack and I’ve always kind of felt (and always loathed) Daisy in Great Gatsby:

“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'”

Some of my judgment: For too long we’ve lived in a world where women who play dumb and look pretty get ahead. It doesn’t matter if they’re legacy makers in every right (See: Kim Kardashian or Jessica Simpson), but the way women are still supposed to portray themselves for the public is to be just what Daisy said.  What these woman actually are, are bosses. Big men on campus, but it’s the “beautiful little fools” they play.

61w6r0fl1wl-_sx329_bo1204203200_After reading You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism by Alida Nugent, I have to agree that it isn’t my call to judge them for how or what they present, but what they can represent for feminism and girls everywhere. Nugent says “There are other words, too.  Bossy. Bitchy. Rude. Fat. Ugly. Stupid. Whore. I used these words when I had an agenda.  I was always looking for ways to frame other women in a way that made me seem better and more appealing.  I was a cool girl, not her, don’t you see?”  And for the record, I don’t just mean girls who are born biologically girls, but also the ones who decide / choose to come to the dark side as well.  You’re all girls in my Barbie World.

I loved this essay collection like it was a time-tested musical number or a Pablo Neruda ode. Nugent didn’t have to shout at us with her torch and teeth barred, instead she spoke feminism like a soft wave from a wet kayak.  One chapter would have the punch of lemoncello and the next would be a little quieter, but just as brave and equally meaningful.  Towards the end of the book she smacks the reader around with her to do lists on masturbation and porn, but in the middle, the soft stuff like female friendships (that are never, ever soft by the way) and virginity are breached.

mac-the-matte-lip-1When everyone else in a girl’s life is silent on these topics, Nugent is educated and sassy.  I tweeted multiple times about stalking her and becoming real friends.  One imagining even got very real: we were in the grocery store, knocking on cantaloupes because aren’t they one of those fruits when you just never know the ripeness?  Some people flick, some people tap, some squeeze slightly like the first time you touched Nickelodeon Gak, but Nugent and I, we are two in the same.  With full chapters on lipstick and the haven’s of bliss that are women’s restrooms in a crowded club (other than the pukers and the ones that have to hold their hair), I couldn’t get enough of Nugent’s perspective on feminism.

yourresponsetomybodyIn her world, and mine now that I can stop secretly torturing myself for “Hm”ing every time a dude makes a mild sexist joke, feminists can make mistakes.  They can disagree, but support all the same.  They can understand their bodies, their moral lines, but also accept everyone else’s bodies and moral lines. I finally get what all the tweets are talking about when they bash Teen Vogue or Cosmopolitan for “fat-shaming.” To be a feminist, it doesn’t mean you have to be pure as a saint or reeking of sex 23/7 (no one can have sex for an entire day, we’d all die a slow and maybe only half painful death).  It means that you – at the bottom of everything – you have to believe in other women, and believe they should get the same treatment as any man.

That means it’s okay to suck at that too sometimes.  It doesn’t mean you have to show a nipple once in a while and it doesn’t mean that you have to have a vagina pin on your backpack and it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to be angry with all the dudes in your life, because some of them are kind of cute, ya know? In Nugent’s feminism, you just have to be knowledgable and accepting.

feminism20definition

635891019852257512-1248180650_il_fullxfull-367509095_dltlI literally, full-on, laughed out loud at work reading this book.  And it wasn’t a cute laugh, it was one of those wide mouth laughs that has you burying your face into your elbow while people kind of stare at you. To the point where I had to almost make up a reason that something would be that funny in a book.  It was.  It totally was.  I almost cried a little bit too, but mostly I laughed.  A lot.  Nugent’s voice is like listening to your girlfriend tell you a drunken story except she’s really smart so it still sounds smart, but there’s tangents of nonsense and hilarity.

I texted my best friends paragraphs of text from this book.  We joked for a few minutes about how much she “knows” us.  This is one of those girl’s girl books. If that’s not enough to pick it up and read it, I don’t know what else to tell you.  I especially liked the chapter on losing your virginity because I think someone needed to say it.

It opens:

“I did not lose my virginity.  I know exactly where it went.  It went on top of a futon in a basement that you could enter through a sliding door.  Nobody took my virginity, because my virginity wasn’t a landmass that Columbus entered and then ruined.  Nobody took my virginity, because my virginity wasn’t a number-two pencil somebody asked to borrow during a Scantron test and never gave back.  Nobody took my virginity at all.  I had sex for the first time in a condo with a sarcastic dude whom I sort of liked.  I don’t feel like this is a sad story.

mjaxnc02zdk3ntg1ztzhogvmztdjIt’s enough to feel shame about your public smile, about the way you look in a tankini, about the amount of tortilla chips you ate for … linner. It’s enough.  It’s enough to feel shame of not living up to parental expectations of “being a good girl.”  No one needs to feel shame for the way they use their body if they wanted to.  If there were 2+ consenting adults and they chose to make moves.  My religion makes me feel some shame, I think it comes with the Catholicism though and so I accept it as part of the “Catholic guilt.”  I can’t save anyone from that because it’s a lingering sort.

What Nugent can save you from is digging holes against other women (or just people) and burying yourself.  She can save you from judging someone’s past because it doesn’t match up with their present, or judging someone period because your idea of “rightness” does not align with there idea of “learning.”

Everyone always says, “think before you speak.” Maybe instead we should be saying, SPEAK. and in equal measure LISTEN, and while you’re listening don’t judge, degrade, downgrade, take back to another dinner table and spill about with giggles. Support your fellow woman and make good decisions. When they aren’t good, own them and learn.

That’s a feminist if I ever saw one. (Except I haven’t seen her even though we could totally be best friends.  This is definitely an awkward “Call Me, Maybe” moment that I will own and learn from).

PS. I kind of also wrote about Nugent’s book here when I went on a rant in support of Planned Parenthood.

No Goodreads Goal? BIG PROBLEM.

I get jealous sometimes of the people who can just steam through YA fiction all year, blog every two days, and create this center of magic.

I am not that person.

And this year without a Goodreads goal, I was even more of a flailer. This is me December of last year:

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-8-46-17-am

See how I’m SO not held down that my hair is blowing straight in the wind?

ec0cd6edfb857e67f375ea3221ac3206

Knock Knock even made a fancy pro/con list.

I’ll take Flounder-er’s throughout history for 200, Alex. Because that’s what I was this year.  Unlike Book Stacks Amber, I didn’t just lower my goal, I got rid of that sucker altogether for a year. I took the advice of countless blogging sages who have come before me like Jessica Pryde at Book Riot and Broke By Books.  Surlymuse got into my head a little bit too and like any good working gal, I made a pro / con list. Countless ex-boyfriends have been through this routine and someone could have just saved me if they said, “If you have to even write pro / con about a boy on a piece of notebook paper, he’s not worth your time.” However, I take the Ben Stiller approach (in Along Came Polly) and like to know exactly what I’m getting into, with both books and boys.

The list had more cons because I wanted it to and so I didn’t write in a goal this year. Surlymuse called the way Goodreads tracks books is, “some kind of perverse commodity” and I felt that too.  For too long, I had avoided books over five-hundred pages because I wouldn’t keep up with my Goodreads goal in the long run. And Goodreads is such a gem for telling you how far behind you are every year.  In 2015, I got seven books behind and felt like I was turning circles at sea. I turned to short children’s books to fill the gap, or poetry chapbooks, or even just those one-off story collections from Vintage American that Goodreads totally counts as a full book.  I’m also a Goodreads librarian so I can add those short, sad, totally not books to Goodreads as if they were.

Is this abusing my power or are there people like me out there?

Whatever short, probably not as fulfilling as long drawn-out works, I could find would be on the list. They just fit so well into my Goodreads goal catchup list. It’s worth it if you can just maintain the goal.

The goal would say, “How could you only read three books in September when you know you must read five to even be in the running?” WHERE IS YOUR MOTIVATION, SOLDIER.

And I gave that all up.

blog250113-michelleAnd what happened was sort of disastrous. Without a goal, I was flying solo. I was a Beyonce without Destiny’s Child, at least I felt that way in the beginning, until I was Michelle without Destiny’s Child.

But now I have the gift of looking back on my reading this year and it is a sad, sad state of affairs.  I’m not even sure I can do a Top 10 books list (or 5 if you’re stingy) because I read so few books, that were so random, that I can’t even equate them within the same lists. There are months under my “Read in 2016” where I had to write something like “I did not read a single book this month (because I’m a heathen).” That was a statement written in fear of leaving a whole month blank.

ywmqvkfsMostly, I can sum up my reading this year in one statement: I read what I had to teach to my AP Literature kids. Which, thank goodness for my own choosing, wasn’t just the Western Canon. Towards the end of the year, I hit up some #diversebooks hashtags on Twitter and found that I had actually read a lot of literature, and nonfiction about the African American experience. I think subconsciously as an educator, and consciously as a human, I wanted to be both less ignorant and more thoughtful. My best friend is a mixed white and black man and I wanted to really understand when he told me to “use my privilege.” I needed to understand my current world a little bit better, but … I think I would have still done that with a Goodreads Challenge. I think I would have done more of it and been better at it actually.

Instead, this year, I read a lot of half books. If you asked me how many books I didn’t finish, but I got to a juicy part, I could tell you it’s over one hundred.  There were too many book piles on the floor next to my bed, in the currently reading bookshelf, the to be read bookshelf, and the bookshelf in the home library.  Plus, I took frequent trips to the library and we live within two miles of a used bookstore.  It’s all unhealthy actually.  So, this all led me to finishing hardly anything.  I was a snacker of books. I grazed and got too full and moved on before even the finale of anything. If I read the whole thing it’s because I had to or I was drawn to.

22822858I was flailing. I still am flailing. I started This Little Life and talked to my friend Sage about reading it together and then after one Book List with the first book of calamity leek as an undiscovered gem, I immediately switched back to reading that. I haven’t touched it since the plane to Iceland. I’ll pick it up like no time has passed like I’ve done all stinking year.

So for the sake of sanity, and for an anchor, I’m going back to the Goodreads Challenge this year. I’m just giving in and admitting that as a Capricorn gone Sagittarius, sticking to Capricorn (Thanks, NASA), I need a goal to keep me driving, but to also keep me on the damn road.  No tangents, no veering, no “OU, Squirrel” moments for my reading schedule next year. I will be pushed once again by the man, that is Amazon Goodreads.

What are ya’ll’s plans for the Goodreads goals?

(I just wanted to use ya’ll’s in a sentence … twice).  Will you keep them and be held down or will you let go and float in space and see what happens to your reading happens.   I would love to hear from you (no, seriously, lack of comments gives me anxiety).

If you need some more goals, check out this year’s reading challenge: Book Better

There’s a Goodreads group: Book Better and a Twitter: #bookbetter2017. Details on the Book Better Challenge Page.

When Discussing Diverse Books: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

twitter1Guys, Twitter is kind of a terrifying, brilliant, and secret place.  Sometimes, I sit there wondering if this is the only place most people have a voice, even journalists in today’s political and economical climate. In just the ten days where I transitioned from a full-on teacher Twitter account to one for bookish and Cassie things I’ve watched the following: people harassed for days over one ill-worded (or even just ill-timed) tweet.  Authors berated for being pro-Trump. I’ll be honest, in my personal life, I had no clue that Trump would be elected because I had literally not one single person in my circles that would ever vote for that man.  Like last female on the planet shiz. However, I’ve been a little horrified.

Here are the things I know:

*People lash out because of their collective memory on injustice that their background (whatever that may be) has faced due to abuse, bigotry and ignorance across time and space.

shame-gif-1465520937*While shame and guilt are very real feelings, sometimes that isn’t the way that sways people to  see another side. Particularly when you’re going all Game of Thrones walk of shame on them.  Getting a posse of others like you to gang up on this Twitter person and tweet abuse and harassment towards them probably only makes them believe further in their own bigotry.

*We do not have enough diversity in books to justify quieting any voice that speaks out for diversity in books.

*Some of the comments on writing diverse books really rub me the wrong way.  Things like, “I don’t think white people should write about other races at all, keep your mediocre hands off of that literature.”  With the same person tweeting things earlier in the day like, “if your world in your book is full of only white characters then your book is in a bubble that doesn’t exist.” (That last one I definitely agree with, but both of these tweets cannot exist in the same book).

All of this has made me do some serious soul searching.

homegoing_custom-09de3d52d3ab0cf5400e68fb358d53da9c78afe6-s400-c85I pride myself on reading diverse books. A lot of the times because I want to learn, but more importantly because I want to listen.  In fact, I listed my favorite authors out for a student the other day and every single one was a woman + Junot Diaz. I also try really hard to not just read bestsellers (or books graciously and eloquently thrown down our throats by the NY Times Best Seller’s List or Kirkus Reviews).  I’m not saying this because I have something to prove in my small corner of the internet. On the contrary, it’s because I’m about to review the book Homegoing by 27-year-old Yaa Gyasi from a white female perspective, probably really close to what the world has come to know as white feminist perspective.

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-7-01-10-pm

If I ever sound like this, CALL ME OUT. 

See the following for a clearer definition of white feminism: Tilda Swinton’s emails, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift and her adult cheer squad, and all of the Huffington Post tags.

I’m owning it because I have to in order to write about diverse literature.  In every solid academic research paper, the author must spell out their limitations, and this one is mine. I come from a place of white feminist baggage. That’s what I’m carrying to your table, and what I’ll try to leave behind as I grow in perspective and curiosity.


I’m not going to lie, halfway through this book I tweeted the following:

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-6-27-04-pm

I feel bad for this tweet. It sucks. No one liked it, and they shouldn’t have. (And I actually think I got the wrong publisher too, to top it off. Sorry, Alfred A. Knopf).  At the 48% mark  (thanks, Kindle for always making me feel great about my reading speed) I just didn’t get it.  I didn’t get the magic of what Gyasi was doing here.  Twisting two family trees, coppicing.

wcajcy8

I’m obsessed with the UK cover. 

Now there were times in the novel when I got lost. When I left it for two days and came back to the middle telling of a new character’s story and I would have to read a few pages to know where we stood in time and place, but taking two families from African diaspora all the way through the millennium is a feat that I’ve never seen before in literature. And for that I will forever be in awe of Gyasi’s breakthrough in an art that doesn’t always adapt easy to change.  Maybe this is why so many avid readers had troubles with this book though.

The plot did move very slowly and although we knew the person intimately who came before the character we would read about next, I’m not sure the connection was enough to sustain a reader who needed action.  Akua brought the action, so did H and Ness, but characters with gritty stories came at strange moments.  A reader on Twitter said he believed the book should have been split into three parts and not two.  He never responded to me when I asked where he would have broken the third part, but it did have me curious.  If we read this book and immediately have questions about structure, does that mean that Gyasi didn’t perfect her rhythm here?

5e0190c717c99df3c8a4b610e72b19c1I’m not sure how I feel. This multigenerational history of the world through the eyes of African American families moved me almost to tears at times, but there were other times when the characters just weren’t real enough for me, and these moments alternated regularly.  The raw moments, in Ghana, Willie in Harlem, H imprisoned and sold into mining, and “the Crazy Woman” all made for characters that “lived inside me” as Marjorie learns from her teacher in one of the final chapters.  But other characters didn’t come alive until I knew what they bred or brought into the world in later chapters. I almost needed their children to open my heart towards them.  That came a little frustrating when I just wanted to continue with one of the family lines, but had to read the alternating. I also had to look at the family tree a lot, which made reading on a Kindle difficult.

(Still, thank you so much for the arc, Alfred A. Knopf).

I do understand that to span 300 years in 300 pages is not an easy task, and there’s very few moments to take a breath, but I still sit here not one hundred percent sold. One of the things I did love was all the beautiful, beautiful language moments.

“That night, lying next to Edward in his room, Yaw listened as his best friend told him that he had explained to the girl that you could not inherit a scar. Now, nearing his fiftieth birthday, Yaw no longer knew if he believed this was true.”

And all of the commentary on society that was subtle but powerful:

“The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effie did not understand.  In her village, everything was everything.  Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

“That I should live to hear my own daughter speak like this.  You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

“This is the problem of history.  We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves.  We must rely upon the words of others.”

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future.  And, if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

And my personal favorite:

“She stopped walking.  For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine, a grave for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there.  It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it.  To have felt it.  How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it, not apart of it, but inside of it.”

I feel like I’ve been a little hard on this book because it is truly a literary first for me.  I recommend it to everyone who needs diverse literature, who wants to support a debut author, and who is interested in structuring writing in new and profound ways for their readers.

On why I’m deplorable due to my dislike of Fates and Furies

President Obama said it. Claire said it. (She’s up there with Obama in my book recommendation circle).  Brianna said it, too.  My own gut intuition said it.  And then the fates (or the sirens) decided, all the saints from Riverhead decided, that I would be awarded an advanced copy on that funny little shell called Instagram where I house various pictures of my dogs, my sweats, and my open pages. (@bookishcassie).

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

And now it’s sitting, dainty and prudish in its cove of the library hutch.  I would take a picture but that would really only represent the true amount of neglect that this book has seen across spring break pools, ocean sands, hotel rooms with fancy wooden stumps, suitcases, backpacks, and now the library hutch (which also regrettably hasn’t been dusted since its moved in).  This book, Fates and Furies, by one of my favorite authors, Lauren Groff.

I read her short stories with reckless abandon.  I made it through Arcadia, not really her best work but characterization was “magical at times,” as I tell my AP kids their essays need to be (not so sarcastically).  I quit Monsters at Templeton about forty pages in.   I’m pretty much a quitter if a book doesn’t grip me in some way or I don’t owe someone for the reading.  So, it’s probably safe to say, I should stick to stories by her published in The New Yorker.

Truth is though, I really wanted to like it.  I kept reading ahead because I couldn’t stand the drawl of this marriage.  All one-sided from the perspective of Lotto.  I just had to Google that name which shows how much I really got involved with this narcissistic asshole. Sure, there were things to love about Lotto, how he was always a bit half-baked like all men we meet in our twenties (can I get an amen?) And how he half expected Mathilde to just shell out her female superpowers and own that whole house until he managed to write a decent play.

This just was and wasn’t the life that I knew of anyone ever.  Like, sure, marriage sucks sometimes, and those little tabs of deception, poked through receipts of burnt out anger, and the tips of sadness, adds up and amounts to some sort of heated disgust with our partner, but I don’t know anyone who just makes up for that (and their sordid childhood of fuckedupness) to become a famous playwright.  Does this really happen? REALLY?

If this was a movie, you would see REALLY get bigger and bigger across the screen and get shouted louder and louder.

I think I made it through a few pages of Mathilde’s section because I got to the point that Lotto just kills himself.

Fates, Furies, and Tobacco in Cameron, NC.

Fates, Furies, and Tobacco in Cameron, NC.

And then I was outtie, five thoughty.  Seriously, Lotto, you’re going to put us through your griping for (at a guess) one hundred and seventy pages and then kill yourself? Am I really ruining it for anyone who was late to this show and was going to pick it up a solid year after its big bestseller list extravaganza? I couldn’t even read Mathilde’s section because I. DIDN’T. CARE.

I felt for the woman. I did. Her character gets scraped off the pavement after being known as ghostly and definitely only sexy to Lotto who cheats on her (I think, can’t really remember since May) a lot.  But then Lotto, who she’s spent so much gas on just up and kills himself.  And I gotcha, I’m supposed to make the connection to that chick from his childhood and realize that grief tanks all of us in minuscule and big picture ways, but come on.

Matilda (spelled correctly, maybe?)

Matilda (spelled correctly, maybe?)

The only Mathilde I want to know is the one who watches that large boy eat the whole chocolate cake and gets taught by Ms. Honey.

I can’t. I couldn’t. I refuse. I won’t.

I probably should though since I have such strong feelings.  I may have even fake reviewed this at some point? But that’s not really my style so I doubt it.

I’m not saying I won’t read all of Lauren Groff’s other books, because I will, probably the second they come out, but I am saying that I feel lonely on this island of deplorables that just didn’t enjoy reading Fates and Furies.  (Notice we got out of the basket though).

(And come on, the metaphorical Greek / Roman tragedies abound here). ALLUSIONS!

No, really.

No, really.

Really, all I want you to get out of this blog today is that you need to go vote. And not because I disliked a book that everyone else liked, BUT because the people who are the most deplorable are those that don’t use their democracy when there are people around the world who get no voice at all. You’re given one, a tiny one on a piece of white copy paper that goes through a scanning counter that’s approximately seventy-two years old, but you get one nonetheless.  (Shhhh. #Imwithher).

I can’t breathe /

I believe we need to talk about race.

My longest friend is a mixed race, homosexual man.  This is if I reduce him to his census data. Although “mixed race” is a term we constructed to make sure the one drop rule stands.  And homosexual is a nice dot on a spectrum of sexuality that has ranges larger than four categories and connotations stronger than a dictionary term.

The rest is just unused data.

Because America designates that you must be this, or you must be this. I can’t speak for the world because I haven’t visited it, but I can speak for what I see in my country.

“You are this. You aren’t this. You can sit at the table. You may not break the bread.  You ride in this seat.  You are allowed to use this water fountain. You can participate in gender specific olympic events.  You have too much testosterone. You can be medically reconfigured into a woman. But you were a man first, always remember. You stay in the closet. You stay in your own head. You don’t speak of the police’s interactions. You mourn the loss. You side with the white man holding a gun. You believe in thugs. You don’t. You think school is a pipeline to prison.”

I could write this list for days, through tears, and still not get to some root, or meaning, or end to the categorical boxes we’ve placed ourselves in.

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward

And this is why I took up The Fire This Time when Clint Smith wrote about its publish date on his Twitter.  I requested it from the library because I’ve studied Baldwin.  I’ve read him to students in American Literature. My gut was filled with tension at the climax of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and in my most intimate friendship of seventeen years we spent an evening on ice, skating around race after he posted on Facebook pictures of Oakland protests, and called out white people for their misunderstanding of why African American’s are covering highways.  And he still has not told me about his own encounter traveling west this summer with a white police officer somewhere over Kansas, maybe? I don’t even know because I am not someone he chose to talk to about it.

It could be because I grew up in Suburbia with literal picket fences in my neighborhood.  And that our high school had to bus in non-white students from downtown so that they could call themselves “diverse.” It could be that I once said something that made him feel like I could never understand the walk in his shoes and that race is not something that should enter this friendship because it could inevitably end it.

And I can’t live like that, and I don’t think he can.  I can’t be sure, but I think we’re ready for some critical conversations, and not just the two of us, but the communities we live in.  Race can be a hot burner that we avoid or it can be discussed beyond the reaches of Twitter.  So, I brought it to my classroom.

Clint Smith

Clint Smith

I read this quote in The Fire This Time, “Who I am is who I must be: a flawed human striving to live in a state of becoming.” Mitch Jackson in his essay “Composite Pops.”  When I got through the first part of The Fire this Time and was well into The Reckoning, I read Clint Smith’s poem “Queries of Unrest.” I had followed him on Twitter for some time, retweeting his educational reform tweets (@ClintSmithIII), and liking almost any reference to SLAM that he posted.  I had never read any of his poetry unless it appeared on youtube. But this poem, with its allusion to the classic children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein was where race would enter my classroom this year.

Citizen | Claudia Rankine

Citizen | Claudia Rankine

Last year, I used excerpts from Citizen by Claudia Rankine in my refugee unit and encouraged my students to buy it, but we didn’t do enough open dialogue with the book and ourselves. I find it interesting that I used a collection of writing about the black experience in America to talk about refugees due to Edwidge Danticat’s final essay “To My Daughters” in The Fire This Time where an immigration lawyer discusses the fact that “African Americans living in the United States could easily qualify as refugees.  Citing many recent cases of police brutality and killings of unarmed black men, women, and children.”

(If you’re reading this like “this girl is only seeing one side,” then you should know that I’ve read the other side too. And I’ve read the academic journals. And I’ve studied the cases enough to be at a point where I need to talk about it to be okay with the person that I hold inside this body).

Where the Sidewalk Ends | Shel Silverstein

Where the Sidewalk Ends | Shel Silverstein

This year in our first unit for perspective we did it. “Queries of Unrest.” Step by step: We analyzed “Where the Sidewalk Ends” for its lessons to children and its lesson to adults.  A lot of my students said it looked like the edge of where childhood ends. Or it looks to be a new beginning after a dark period. Or for adults, the sidewalk could end in death. Or for children, they could be forging a new path.  There were many interpretations which is the proof of the power of words, and the power of poetry, and the power of English.  We then read “Queries of Unrest.”

I just asked for meaning.  Few annotations. A little interpretation. Initial thoughts.  I didn’t need them to drown the poem. (Due to the fact that I don’t want anyone to have the ability to write my students off in this discussion, I teach in a high-poverty Title 1 school with a ton of students who are first generation college students.   That’s not to say I don’t have students who live in neighborhoods straight out of middle class America where everyone rides their bike to the pool in the summer and stays there all day until their mother’s are home to make a meal prepped with every piece of the food pyramid.  They do know the meaning of sidewalks ending though).

They gave me that.

We didn’t discuss it because they would discuss it in silent writing in a chalk talk.  The chalk talk has three pieces of chart paper and three question bubbles.  The questions are as follows:

  1. If every piece of writing is manipulation, then how is this poem doing that?
  2. What is your strongest interpretation of this poem?
  3. What does power have to do with justice and fairness?

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-26-56-amThe silent hum of markers on paper was monumental, but it wasn’t until I started getting single questions that I realized the tension was bubbling.  A white student had written “people of color” as an umbrella term to categorize everyone that isn’t white in a statement.  While this is the “politically correct” term deemed by media (who are mostly white and in power), the question should be asked that a. why do we even have a term that is for everyone not white, and b. how does the historical background of the word “color” in that phrase impact an African American.

And the answer came in the form of my students. The word color was unacceptable for some, particularly one of my more vocal students who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and I’m so proud of her for that.  Others wanted to use it as something to embrace.  At one point the idea of the phrase “I see no color,” came up, similar to “I don’t see race,” and in unison the agreement was that that’s not even possible and it disregards the great diversity of the classroom.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-10-amI’m not going to lie, it was heated.  At one point, one girl stepped towards another, using her body as a signal of disruption.  BUT it was a critical conversation.  Sometimes in society, we don’t realize that people don’t come from a place of understanding or even knowledge, they come from a place of ignorance.  And when that’s not the case, and they’re coming from a place of flat-out untruths then it is a responsibility of the other human beings (in my mind) to crack that “truth” wide open until it’s questioned.  Sometimes all we can ask is that people question their own beliefs.  Sometimes that’s a beginning.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-26-amMy students came to the conclusion that the only acceptable truth in my classroom, for “umbrella terms” is that we call everyone “people of multiple races.”  This was accepted and has been used since by all parties, even when those parties are in disagreement.

It is my belief that in the classroom, and in the street, we have to discuss things that are controversial and we have to be the cause for understanding.  I tweeted this. I believe it. And I think it can take us down a path of knowledge and not ignorance. I believe it starts with more knowledge, and thus I believe that The Fire This Time is the strongest and most powerful book I’ve read this year.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-37-amI got a copy from the library and now it is dog-earred to oblivion for the next person.  This book is strong because we are weak humans that often put blame where we like to keep it, in boxes that are tight and narrow and inescapable.  We like to look at our side of the picture without viewing the whole thing.  We like to have a perspective, and clutch it tight in our fists and never let it turn to liquid and move.

This book showed me where I’ve failed, where I’m still failing.  It showed me my own bias.  It looked in my face and told me I was wrong.  This is the same thing that happened in my classroom on Thursday and the same thing that should be happening across America until the discussion is so loud, and so filled with every form of rhetoric, and has the voices of every American.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-27-45-amIt is no longer valuable (and not acceptable) to sit in indifference.

I know that this isn’t “a book review.” But how do you review a collection of human truths? You can’t. You can only recommend it be the most borrowed book at the local library.  It enters classrooms. It enters conversations.  It breaks down the tight-knit boxes that we have shut so tight no air gets through / “I can’t breathe” /