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.


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).


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).

Some Commentary + Ocean Vuong

Any review I generate here is not going to do this book justice. At all. Ever. If you can stand that idea, then keep reading.

23841432I know that Copper Canyon Press produces again and again significant and deeply meaningful poetry collections, but Ocean Vuong’s poetry in Night Sky With Exit Wounds is like nothing I’ve read before.  I went through some Goodreads reviews to see if everyone else thought this was fatal magic like I did, but there are some pretty critical men reviewers.  I found that kind of interesting because, like I’ve talked about in other blogs, I always wonder how much who we are when we come to a book impacts our feelings about said book.  Obviously, I have only ever read this book as a late-twenties-white-female-fan-of-beautiful-words.  No, seriously, when the guy at the desk next to me asked me what kind of books I read last week I said, “the ones with pretty words.”  I think I lost all credibility in that moment, but there’s really no other definition.  I could try to be more thoughtful with it, but what’s the use when I could be spending that time reading poetry like Ocean Vuong’s.


This one, up here, was my favorite review.


Notes on Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds

That’s the funny thing about reviews.  I loved this book, I wanted to eat it and share it with everyone I knew who would just “get it.”  I underlined hundreds of lines, wrote six pages of notes, was inspired to write poems about my grandfather on my mother’s side, and have post-its galore sticking neon from the pages.  I have a tender spot for poetry about heritage because in my long list of “writing territories” I write a lot, and I mean A LOT about womanhood, generations, passing down, and my grandmother.  Lately, I’ve been writing about my Dad, but my grandmother, the place that she’s buried, and what I can remember of her in the hospital after her stroke come up often on the page.

But reviews are sometimes more about the person who read the book than the actual book.  If you read them seriously, if you devolve into a book blog spiral the same way you can rabbit hole on X-factor videos, you can learn about a lot about people, specifically bookish people.  Sure, we have things in common like a lot of us prefer cats, or we drink enough coffee to not mind it black, or when we get overwhelmed we are in desperate need of pockets of quiet, but in reviewing books we are wholly ourselves.


I also love this review…

I’ve never read a book review that didn’t have the voice of the person who wrote it.  Whether that be scene child, literature critic, NY shower curtain separated apartment dweller, or me, that girl who goes on tangents that I find a little funny, like quips.


I thought this Google example was particularly funny.

Lately, on Twitter, I’ve been seeing people attacked for their reviews.  For all kinds of things about books, but most recently, for not liking the voice of a novel.  The reviewer used some choice language and called the book’s language “slang.”  Someone with a follower count above 500 read it and a bunch of people decided they would “educate” the blogger through harassment about their knowledge of AAVE.  (I’m really not sure AAVE is even the correct term for the colloquialism in this book because I have no idea what the book was). Whether the reviewer was correct or not, their opinion is now only solidified by the swarm of others who join in on the bullying.

When someone calls them out on it (which wasn’t me by the way, but should have been), they passive aggressively discuss how there’s a difference between being “critical” and “harassing.”  (I know, I realize by talking around it I’m being passive aggressive right now too).  The thing that bothers me the most about this is that when confronted, the Twitter mob will say things like, “I’m uncomfortable and I’m hurting by what was said so if she feels just an ounce of the my hurt as a POC, then I’m sorry, but I don’t regret it.”

previewI get that. But I also get that my Mom always told me “two wrongs don’t make a right.”  I get that literature needs diverse books (DUH).  I get that readers want books to be both mirrors and windows and that the amount of white authors, and white people on covers far out number that of any other race.  It’s actually pretty disgusting.  This makes me desperately sad. As a reader, I try to support publishers that support diversity.  I buy books about the experiences our world is facing so I can better understand how to help and when to stay quiet (shut up and listen).  I read, more than anything else, to be culturally responsible.

Thus, Ocean Vuong.  Thus, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Thus, the other side of the face of the Vietnam War.  Because war always has a face and it’s always bleeding no matter what side you’re on.  And those that win, they pronounce that win in the books of history and own not just the “win,” but the content, the stories, the shape of the culture behind that win.  This has led us to where we are today.  I don’t believe that by capturing a snip-it of a review and calling someone a racist on Twitter, and encouraging others to do the same helps people heal or understand.  I also don’t believe most people go into the world hoping that they can expose their own ignorance, their own racism, their own blatant disrespect for other human beans.  I believe people, at their core, understand like a solid 3% of what other people, like them or not, go through on a daily basis.

douchecanoeWe were all brought up to believe something. Given a life, we are able to either uphold or upend those beliefs. It is our choice whether that comes from books, or experiences, or understanding a counter culture, or holding tight to a historical wrong, or writing our way out of all of it. I think we have to remember that people aren’t choosing to be assholes (most of the time).  Now, some people, yep, full throttle douche canoes, but most people just have no understanding of your uncomfortable, your misunderstanding, your belittlement, your poor treatment.  So, to educate, recommend them a book.  Recommend them a song or its lyrics.  Point them towards the most truthful perspective of the history they don’t understand.

Hate that authors who write bisexual characters always use “likes girls and guys?” Then email them, email the publisher, write a letter, talk more openly so that people hear the right thing more often.  Hate that a chick says there could be no characters with disabilities in Lord of the Flies because that wouldn’t work? Write a new chapter on Scribd, on Live Journal, on your blog.  Make the case that Piggy wasn’t able-bodied.  Write a book with characters who live in the real world and not a bubble of it.  Talk to someone at school, at lunch, at work, in the street that isn’t able-bodied and learn their perspective.

wenger-howapoetnamedoceanmeanstofixtheenglishlanguage-1200So, here. Here is Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection.  Here is a collection of poems dedicated to a heritage, a gene pool, and a man who loves other men, and his life shone back to him in a notebook. Here is a life on a page, like every life, that’s worth reading.  And it’s beautiful.  The repetition, the word play, the imagery, I couldn’t even breathe sometimes while I was reading.

I didn’t even realize that I was holding my breath.

I’m going to link to some of his poems down here. And then I’m going to expect you to buy this book from Copper Canyon.  Once you’ve read through every page like its a track slick with grease, I want you to read each one slowly.  Then, I want to talk to you about it in the comments because I just don’t have the “stuff” to even review this one.

Because the middle-aged white guys didn’t love this book, I went through the recommendations they made in their reviews.  And I will read them (Sarah Howe and Andrew McMillian).  Because maybe it’s me that’s missing something about Vuong and in order to justify that it’s not, I’m going to read their recommendations.  At the end of the day, my life is about how well I understood, cared for, and tended to other people.  So, I’m going to do that with as much respect as I can muster.

I also have A LOT of feelings about this article, but they’re probably for a whole other blog. If in our need to rectify histories, we discount other histories that impact the histories we’re trying to protect, then what the hell?


I’m ready to make the argument: Beyonce loves Beloved.

I want to construct the theory that Beyonce was directly referencing Beloved, the book by Toni Morrison and the haunting character reincarnated in the novel with her video “Formation.”

Reasons for these beliefs are as follows:

  • Cover art of Beloved hand-in-hand with stills from Beyonce’s video for “Formation.”


  • Beloved (the character) comes from the water, a symbol of “New Life” and purity. Beyonce sinks into the water as a comment on the government’s reaction (and the people of America, we’re all complicit) to New Orleans after Katrina.  But also, she makes a call to justice and a call to new perspective on race relations in America, particularly with white police officers and black men.
  • School Teacher, who comes for Sethe in the book, could be seen as the police in Beyonce’s video.
  • Both texts reference “baby hair.”  “Formation”: I like my baby heir, with baby hair and afros. Beloved: “Instead she gazed at Sethe with sleepy eyes. Poorly fed, thought Sethe, and younger than her clothes suggested–good lace at the throat, and a rich woman’s hat. Her skin was flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead so fine and thin they seemed at first like hair, baby hair before it bloomed and roped into the masses of black yarn under her hat…her feet were like her hands, soft and new” (62).
  • Beyonce seems “haunted” in the scene at the plantation house where she wears all black and is surrounded by men in black suits.  She keeps bobbing her head up and down to the beat in a ghostly fashion.  Beloved is a ghost that haunts the house and is known as “crawling-already.” Then, returns from the grave.  A reincarnation much like the rising up of New Orleans after Katrina — on its own mind you — because our government sucks sometimes.
  • Sethe doesn’t really understand her own history, but her husband Halle comes from Baby Suggs who is well-known as a priestess in the community.  Beyonce references her heritage several times in the story.  While Sethe doesn’t know her heritage, Beloved comes back from the dead to honor her mother, her heritage.
  • Beyonce claims to “twirl on the haters.”  It can be argued that Sethe, by slitting the throat of her daughter, “twirled on” School Teacher who thought that he could take Sethe and all her children in as runaway slaves.
  • In the scene below, Beyonce acts as a “Mrs. Garner” of high class woman of the South who gave Sethe the only thing she ever truly owned, diamond earrings.


  • Beyonce repeats “I Slay,” while Sethe literally slays her child by slitting her throat in a hurried effort to save her from slavery and School Teacher.
  • Both women also take great pride in their children, Sethe to the point of saving them by murdering them and Beyonce by having her daughter dance in her highly-acclaimed music video.
  • Beyonce says at the end of the song, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” while Sethe is the talk of the town after her behavior with School Teacher and Baby Suggs in front of her sons and family.
  • Red Lobster is where Beyonce takes her man, letting him also take her chopper to the mall for some j’s while Sethe is completely supportive of Paul D in the novel.  To the point that she supports him before he can get back to work and sleeps with him regularly.
  • The men in the background of the actual song also sound an awful lot like Paul D and his “baby, baby, baby,” neediness. He even calls Beloved’s sexuality her “shine,” while today we have “glo up” (not mentioned in Beyonce’s video, but just a correlation).
  • At the end of Beyonce’s video there is a congregation worshipping at church.  This could be a direct reference to Baby Sugg’s forest homily’s in Beloved.  Baby Suggs manages to conjure the spirit for the people of her community the same way the spirit finds its way into Beyonce’s video.

There you have it. As much argument as I can puzzle together for Beyonce making a direct connection to Beloved by Toni Morrison.  If so, those are some powerful allusions, if not, it’s fun to try to prove it.


*Here’s an article on what to read after watching “Lemonade.”

*Also, the speaking intro of “Hold Up” is basically Beloved, yet again where Beyonce says things like, “Tried to be soft, prettier, less … awake.  Fasted for 60 days. Wore white. Abstained from mirrors. Abstained from sex. Slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair I grow past my ankles. I slept on a mat on a floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. I went to the basement. Confessed my sins and was baptized in a river. Got on my knees and said amen and said I mean. I whipped my own back…” This is eerily similar to Beloved by Toni Morrison. Check out the stills from the video:

Milk also commented on how much Toni Morrison influenced Beyonce even commenting that “Lemonade is like seeing her words come to life.”

Vox too.  Man, I had no idea people thought this.

I don’t know how to talk about Charleston, so I come to this discussion with a list of books, and an open-heart.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.” George Washington Carver

Superbowl prompted students to discuss race relations. Link when you click picture.

Superbowl prompted students to discuss race relations. Link when you click picture.

In some ways, we all share the same history. Histories are interwoven.  No one person lives a solitary history, yet one person can claim a history as their own.  Historians have called it a quilt, a melting pot, a cycle, a river, a tree, a labyrinth, a pathway.  I’m not sure any of these have done it justice.  I almost want to call my idea of history a garden.  I believe this because in order for a garden to grow, it must grow together in the square patch it has been built.  However, one drought, one “bad apple,” one certain pesticide, one rodent, can ruin that small, homely-built wealth that’s trying to be cultivated.  And plants grow towards both light and voices.  They lean with the life that surrounds them.  If they’re given love, they’re watered, maybe even they listen to some soft classical; they thrive.

My own history is both wicked and profound.

At least two of my great-great-greats were confederate soldiers out of Georgia.  Few people could read in their homes. One may have owned slaves.

Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo by Me)

Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo by Me)

While I can’t understand this history from just looking at documents, I do understand that this part of history is a part of my garden of history.  My future existence depended on the people in that frame.  I do not know them, I can only see army medical records and dig at Louisiana State University for love letters, I do not know if they fought to keep slavery alive, if they believed in the hoopla of the Southern way, if they followed a religiously democratic majority, if their brothers were fighting and they took up arms, if the choice was their own. I can’t even speculate.

What I can say is that I will never be silent about this part of my history.

In a recent survey out of NY Mag, Sean McElwee makes the claim that millennials may be just as intolerant as the older generations, but because they believe that racism no longer exists (to an extent of noticeability) in America, that they have no need to discuss race and race relations.  In fact, Gene Demby, backed up this point on NPR this weekend by stating a few of the following statistics:

  • [In a discussion about millennials thinking a color blind world would be a better one] “most of those respondents said they also grew up in homes where they didn’t talk about race at all.”
  • “A big study from the Public Religion Research Institute from last year showed that three-quarters of white people had entirely white friend circles”
  • “…Because they’re not interacting nearly as much as we would like to think that people are these days.”
Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo By Me)

Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo By Me)

I use the they because while I’m a millennial by definition, I believe something entirely different than these surveys show.  I believe race should always be a discussion.  I know that I will never understand or know the struggle of raising a young black man.  I know that I will never be able to undo the fact that until the 1950s, African American people were not allowed to own houses, and were practically shunned from the business world.  When my best friend, who is mixed (and was called an Oreo by his white friends, and a boy who “acted white” by his black friends in high school) watched a Katy Perry video he nonchalantly said, “she’s so cute with her insistence on promoting black culture,” but then when Nicki Minaj does a similar pop anthem, with just as much ass as Katy Perry displays boob (weapons) it is hated by the critic community, and by white parents who would gladly buy Katy’s pop-pink album off the Target shelf.

If you asked Taylor Swift (who I adore) who invented twerking (as she – most purposefully I believe – placed an African American woman at the head of the twerking line as she crawls beneath their legs in “Shake it Off”) would she claim Miley Cyrus as the winner or acknowledge that New Orleans is the first place that the word was heard.

There are so few television shows about African American families that Deadline wrote an article claiming that the “Ethnic casting trend has hit its peak in 2015” which I’m not sure is doing good by acknowledging the racial gap on television, while simultaneously using the word “ethnic” in a sentence which makes “ethnic” sound “non-american,” or “other.” The Daily Beast had to criticize Empire for showing blacks as criminals.  Pink is the New Blog wrote a whole blog on whether or not white audiences would watch Black*ish calling into question the idea that a white girl who may watch every single other Housewives of, will refuse to watch Atlanta because the show features only black castmates.

Let me tell you what though, NeNe Leaks can rule the world.

Confederate Flag outside of SC State House @ ABC News

Confederate Flag outside of SC State House @ ABC News

Diane Rehm discussed racism, the confederate flag, and gun violence in America, on one of her shows this past week and it was one of the most educational radio hours that I’ve heard in a long time (in general).  In the talks, it was determined that racism was not dead.  One man called in claiming the confederate flag was a deeply rooted part of his heritage as a Southerner.  However, this flag was used not once, but twice as a weapon of propaganda against African Americans.  The first time, as a symbol of the confederacy during the Civil War, which if the South would have won, the entire existence of the United States would have failed to be a union and who knows where we would be as a developed country.  Propoganda number two as a weapon against the Civil Rights Movement, popping up precisely after the horrifying deaths of the four Birmingham girls.  Finally, finally, after not one single Republican candidate was able to openly state that they believe the confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina capitol, the Senate in SC has called for removing the flag.  They have a freaking confederate museum in Charleston anyway, just put the flag there.

But now, to me, this flag is a symbol of keeping a certain people down.  It’s a hateful reminder of a past that no one is trying to erase, but people are trying to overcome, to do better, to be understanding, to acknowledge the importance and the struggle of African Americans in American culture, but not further this struggle by flying a cloth of propaganda.

Woo, got a little political there, sorry.

What I’m trying to say with all these links, and facts, and things that probably only two people will get through, is that racism has not ended.  We can all, always do better.  I taught for the last three years in a predominately African-American school and I will continue to do this at my new school.  I can say honestly that I have loved my students regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or views on the world.  They are growing, learning, and understanding.  I can honestly say that if a large black man is walking on my side of the road that I will not cross in fear, or in generalization, but I will wave and smile.

Does this mean that I don’t joke with my best friend Seth about black people time, or that he didn’t text me yesterday and tell me that USC is “100 years of white people money?” No, it doesn’t mean that.  I have work to do and I’m willing to acknowledge it, but I think it starts with a conversation.

Slave Mart Museum in Charleston (Photo by Me)

Slave Mart Museum in Charleston (Photo by Me)

I think about what happened in Charleston, and I can’t deny that I felt that the city was racist just on principal.  There’s a three-story Forever 21 on the curb of a street where cobblestones were laid by forced labor only one-hundred and fifty years ago.  The lack of respect that this city has for its rich history and heritage kind of made me sick, but what makes me sicker is that a twenty-one year old boy was convinced of white power from a computer screen.  What makes me the sickest is that he considered not killing those people because of their very kindness, a kindness that all races try to instill in their children and hope that it sticks, the way kindness is a honeysuckle stem.

In order to start the conversation (like those nine other paragraphs I just wrote weren’t heated starters), here are a few books in different categories that I believe really reach across racial gaps and made me look inside myself to see the ways that I needed to learn.

Adult Fiction:

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison: If anything, just read the first chapter.  The phlegm disgust in your throat afterwards should teach you something.

  • Native Son – Richard Wright: I just think this has to be on the list. Period.
  • A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry: I never really understand the housing situation that faced African Americans across the US, but specifically Chicago in this play, until I read this book.  It has so many race relations, gender, relations, and just a group of characters that are working on discovering where they fit in a culture that is constantly trying to shove them into a hole.  Even within the family, there are relations that show how this discovery varies between genders, and varies between African-American cultural identity.
  • There Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston: In our school library, Zora Neale Hurstons biography was labeled “Ethnic Section” and wasn’t removed from this category until she was being given away in the front of the library.  I grabbed her up and kept the sticker because I think it’s important to see how ideas are changing and broadening.  Please just read this book if only because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and Zora Neale Hurston was a character of a human being who died in utter poverty with an unmarked grave until her work was rediscovered later after her death.
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

    Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

    Toni Morrison in general.  Read everything the woman ever wrote.  When you’re finished, read Sula again.

  • Virgin Soul – Judy Juanita: This book is newer than most books on this list.  It tells the story of a woman in the 1960s Black Panther Movement.  She’s forced to the fringe of the movement due to her gender, but it’s a worthy read just for her interior struggle. It’s a good pairing with Malcolm X speeches.
  • Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck: I think the most important storyline in this book is between Lennie and Crooks, because Lennie is mentally-impaired and he shows nothing but adoration towards Crooks, yet the other members of the Steinbeck tribe looked on Crooks as an other, all those, you know, mentally-average people.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee: Because how can you discuss race without discussing this book.
  • Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward: The most tension I’ve ever felt in a book.  The storms coming, the air is thick and ornery.
  • Othello: Every book list needs a Shakespeare.
  • White Teeth – Zadie Smith: Hated this book, love what it stands for, love Zadie Smith.

YA Lit:

  • Bluford Series - Paul Langan

    Bluford Series – Paul Langan

    Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson: It’s poetry that’s real, and current, and just won a Newberry Medal.

  • Chains (Series) – Laurie Halse Anderson: It tells a story of slavery in a beautiful way.  Laurie Halse Anderson is the Taylor Swift of YA.  She can do no wrong in my eyes.
  • The Bluford Series – Paul Langan: My students would hate it if I made this list without this series on it.  They straight stole them off my bookshelf and devoured them.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith: It’s one of my Mom’s favorites.


  • Black Boy – Richard Wright: This book literally hurt my heart.  It was so hard to read.  I would pick it up and read three pages and have to put it down. It took me WEEKS to read. Its importance in the discussion is outweighed by none.
  • A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J. Gaines

    A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines

    A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines: I think this is nonfiction, but I’m not one hundred percent now that I think about it.  Ernest Gaines could sell you a car that doesn’t even work.  His writing is beautiful and meaningful and everything.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander: Truth is sometimes hard to read, but it’s even harder when it’s not in the past and you’re living it.


  • The Essentials of Etheridge Knight

    The Essentials of Etheridge Knight

    The Essentials of Etheridge Knight– Etheridge Knight: Because he can tell you how he’s “feeling fucked up.”

  • Blood Dazzler – Patricia Smith: Because even if she just watched the news from her comfortable home to write this collection, the feeling is a damn hurricane in your soul.
  • Head Off and Split – Nikki Finney: It has nursery rhymes that you can’t even speak anymore after reading the poems.
  • Langston Hughes – Whether you’re young or your old.  He matters.
  • Lucille Clifton – Because she has the first hips that I ever wanted.
  • Copper Canyon - Countee Cullen

    Copper Sun – Countee Cullen

    Countee Cullen – This was the first poet that I ever used that had the n-word (and we say ninja in my classroom because I can’t handle much else) written on the page.

  • Claude McKay – His name might be the most used name in textbooks for American Lit (that or Whitman, and what does that tell you).
  • Natasha Tretheway – Poet Laureate 2012.

While I wish this battle was over, and I wish that each race in America, each race listed on the census and each person that has to bubble-in “other” and write their race out, was equal, I can’t actually say that and believe it. We have a world of work to do, and lucky for us, we have a lifetime, and the ability to teach the next generation.  There is always power in knowledge, power in forgiveness, and power in discussion.  Anyone who comes to my table with an open-mind, I will greet them likewise and we will begin both bare, and plain-spoken.

A Come Of Age Time Capsule

“I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them/
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is an oration to the art of writing, the idea that writing is something inherent and must be done because stories will not just tighten around us like a belt, they will nag until they are told.  Brown Girl Dreaming is a seance to the old south, the South that had rules and regulations that were never discussed over polite dinner conversation, but posted like shouts over bathrooms, water fountains, bus seats left written-wordless.  And it is original in that it is a voice to the old (south) house through the eyes of a child that is now old enough to understand her childish notions.

“I do not know yet
how sometimes the earth makes a promise
it can never keep.  Tobacco fields
lay fallow, crops picked clean.
My grandfather coughs again
and the earth waits

for what and who it will get in return.” by image July, 1914 case against the Forum Theater owner AM Renne’s segregated seating. (Creative Commons)

I just don’t know what to say about this book.  It’s a perfect time capsule of childhood seeded in history.  We are living in history every moment of our life, even if it’s not necessarily happening to us personally (or it doesn’t feel that way).  Right now, I feel like I’m living the debate for marriage equality (which I believe in all equality in all ways), but I’m watching the treatment of LGBTQ people be questioned, be acknowledged, and be studied for understanding. Search by image Photo under Creative Commons from:

In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shows the juxtaposition between Greenville, South Carolina, living with her grandparents who had a heavy hand in raising her, and New York where her mother kept her and her siblings until summer time.  She not only captures my current south extraordinarily; honeysuckles for taste, door-to-door ‘good news’, people who are the salt of the earth, and dusk porch talk, but she also credits the south with deep racism that remained long after the law accepted equality.  For instance, she tells stories about riding in the back of the bus with her mother, and only riding at night, swiftly through the expanse of crops to the city of “looking up.”

Jacqueline Woodson Jacqueline Woodson was born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson was born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

At one point in the story, she captures my childhood of lying and storytelling so well that I stopped reading and tapped my boyfriend, “This, this here, this captures how I felt as a child, this is it. This book, it has me.”

“I am not smart like Dell so I watch her press
the silver moons into her ears
I say, I know a girl ten times as smarter than her.  She gets diamonds every time she gets a hundred on a test.
And Robert looks at me, his dark eyes smiling, asks
Is that something you made up? Or something real?
In my own head,
it’s real as anything.

In my head
all kinds of people are doing all kinds of things.
I want to tell him this, that
the world we’re living in right here in Bushwick isn’t
the only place.”

Lie Creative Commons

My mom tells stories about my childhood lies.  I lied compulsively until seventh grade when I learned that you can’t lie or you get kicked out of the lunch table with all the popular girls, and their blonde highlights, and cheerleading pleats.  Until then, I made up all kinds of things – where my siblings were going to college (had they even?), why I needed a little bit more money, where Toe Jam comes from, I probably could have catfished on Myspace before cat fishing was even an MTV thing.  I was intense. It’s because I had stories, and they wounded me from living in a reality where regular everyday just didn’t seem as wonderful as the things I could make seem true.  This is the same for Woodson.  She spoke untruths because she wanted to write the truths for characters.

And she did.

Creative Commons National Book Award

She wrote the truth of the South in a middle grades, National Award Winner.  I would pay to have this book printed for every single student I’ve taught the last three years.  It’s pure magic in that it tells a story that is so electrifying, but in the voice of a child, and in the form of poetry.  It takes all the scare out of poetry.  It has meaning, it has rhythm, it has purpose, but it doesn’t cause fear over whether or not the reader will be able to understand.

Woodson’s poetics work so well.  There are clear shifts in most of the poem sequences, and there are repetitive smaller poems (How to Listen series) throughout the book that remind the reader of Woodson’s lessons for herself, and her reader, and the future.  I’m amazed at what she was able to do in this book and I’m so excited about the future of young adult publishing after reading this.  Sometimes I don’t pursue young adult literature because I feel that it can be “dumbed down” when it shouldn’t be.  It should be just as well-written and meaningful as adult fiction is, but that’s not always the case.  With Woodson’s collection of moment-poems in her childhood, I am confident that young adults can attach to this narrator, her story, and the story of their history through her child’s eyes.

One of my favorite resources for teaching. And such a great message.

This is a beautiful, and fresh, telling of the Southern register in history, as well as the classic tale of coming of age for a girl who isn’t sure who or what she wants to, or should be.  I know that that is a concept that crosses all races, all genders, all sexualities, and all cultures.  Who will we be? And when will we get there? This story answers that question in one of the best ways that I’ve seen.  Be you, and arrest any idea that goes against that.

Mad Woman Wasting

“Don’t waste your love on somebody, who doesn’t value it.” 
— Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

From The Land of the Moon by Milena Agus @ Goodreads

The question is: who determines what’s wasted?

In one of my new favorite books, From the Land of The Moon, Milena Agus answers this question.  At first, I thought this was just a simple story of a typical (Sardinian) woman.  The only interesting part was that the grandmother thought herself mad.  She had a bit of Alice and a bit of Sexton with a pinch of history.

“And later, when she lost the babies in the first months of pregnancy, she said that she would not have been a good mother because she lacked the principal thing, and her children were not born because they, too, lacked that thing, and so she shut herself up in her world of the moon.”

Early in the grandmother’s life, her entire family was upset with her especially when she chased away suitors writing them love poems like a mad Dickinson (aren’t all Dickinson’s mad)?.  I should probably tell you that this family is Sardinian (a small island in the Mediterranean, don’t feel bad, I had to Google it too).  I find it really interesting that all over Google, it says that Sardinian women are the most beautiful women in the world, and that they age most gracefully and beautifully as well, living longer than most other cultures. This book shows them as so much the opposite of that.

It’s narrated by a granddaughter looking back at her grandmother’s life.  Her grandmother had a very secret life, not because she held a lot of secrets, but because she stayed mostly within her own head.

Sardinia, Italy (Wikipedia Commons)

“In fact she thinks we should be grateful to grandmother, because she took on herself all the disorder that might have touched papa and me. In every family there’s someone who pays the tribute, so that the balance between order and disorder and the world doesn’t come to a halt.”

When she’s already a rotten egg according to the fairytales and her family no longer believes she’s going to be married, a man comes to stay in their house after his whole family is killed in a bombing during WWII.  It might be worth reading the book, just to read the story of the birthday cake.  The family signs her away to this unknown visiter and for the rest of her life, she questions their love.  At first, she’s afraid to bring him his morning tea and just sets it in the floorboards below before he wakes up.  Then, she convinces him to no longer attend the “happy ending” houses in their neighborhood.  I think this is one of the more true love stories of our generation.  There wasn’t ever a complete 180 in acknowledgement that this was a true love, one that stood the test of time, and wasn’t made of superficial conversations, Facebook photos, and no compromise.

This relationship really begins when she is sent away to get well after continually carrying kidney stones instead of children.  Her husbands sends her to a spa escape where she rarely eats, watches men read newspapers on a balcony overlooking the sea, and buries the stones where they can’t block her children from coming any longer.

Friedrich Kellner diary Oct 6, 1939 (Wikipedia Commons)

I wasn’t a believer in this relationship until the very end of this book when I was tearing up.  There’s a parallel love story that I can’t really tell you anything about, which makes it really hard to review this book, but also makes it one of the most complete works of fiction (imagination).  This book examines the truths of diaries.  Even I sometimes wonder whether I should actually write what I’ve written into my diaries.  Or should I sugar coat some of the parts.  As I write, I imagine a future daughter reading it and sometimes I crumple a little bit, lack courage in my actual thoughts.  It displays my real insecurities.  My mom asked me yesterday if I had already asked a friend to burn them after I die like Oprah, but I’m not sure I can.  There’s so much raw truth of myself in those diaries.  I think it would be unfair to that part of myself that leaves nothing unsaid.

And that’s what this book does.  It leaves it all on the page. It leaves letters, truths, disappointments, madness, sexual rebellion, sexual expectation, desires, looming memories, distant travels, and the wants of an everyday woman that are so similar to some of my wants, it’s odd.  Milena Agus knows her women and knows what they hide in the folds of their aprons, and the locked drawers of their desks.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book and it’s a book that I may have wanted to write in the future, but I was lucky enough to be a reader instead.  I’m wondering now which life the grandmother chose to lead, the one of her imagination or the one with a man who would walk through the snow without a scarf, missing his local potato ravioli and porchetto.


Coffee Binging a few weeks ago.

And which man is more real to the woman feeding them?  You’ll have to read this one.  Short enough to read during afternoon tea at only 108 pages, if you’re in Britain, or if you’re american one of those all day coffee binges like I’m having now.

Binge on books. Binge on coffee.

The Epigraph, one of my favorites.

The Epigraph, one of my favorites. LOVING my electric blue nails.

“…her husband was a lucky man, really, and not, as she said, unfortunate, cursed with a poor madwoman; she wasn’t mad, she was a creature made at a moment when God simply had no wish for the usual mass-produced woman and, being in a poetic vein, had created her.”

What are the truest love stories you have read lately? What love stories may have changed your idea of love? How do we determine what is world literature and what isn’t, or what deserves to be a vintage book? Do you plan on reading this one or did my review not do it justice? Talk below. 

Favorite Poetry Exercises for Teenagers and Those Who Are Still Teens At Heart

Sometimes the only way to get a highschooler to like poetry is by showing them people who do it dramatically really well (slam poems) or Tupac, who put poems to music, or for that matter, any lyrical, or rap artist, arguably any musician (except maybe Ke$ha).  That’s not always the way I do it.  All I hear when I break out that first poem, because it is definitely a break, and not a nudge, or an “approach” to poetry, is squawking.  I break my students in like those good shoes you’ve had forever and your dad accidentally bleached one time in the wash.

Poetry is one of those times I like the static in my classroom, when I can actually feel the buzzing of their lips on the beats, or the clicks as they tap their pencil along each syllable because the best answer to this ADHD dilemma we have in schools, is poetry.  Memory, rhythm & blues, permeable words, the answers to life tough questions.  If I don’t open poetry with a slam poem, I open it with an exercise.  I make them write the first one.  I teach them that the stanza is the paragraph of the poem, the picket fence, the razor wire, the metal gate that they have to push open to find their way out into the next stanza.  Gosh, even explaining poetry is a metaphor.

I don’t care if they start the year saying, “I hate poems,” or “I just don’t get poems,” as long as once in that year, some line has caused a tightness in their chest, or some confusion of something they thought they held firmly in the palm of their hand, stray specks of dirt that fall out when they’ve broken it open, gather somewhere as a wet pebble in their mind. These are some of my favorite ways to sift the dirt.  I don’t need 97 poetry lovers, I need 97 unique individuals who can think for themselves, create something for themselves, or are just able to rake dirt, and plant flowers.

Here are a few of my favorite exercises, please use these at home.

Jamaica Kincaid @ Community Bookstore

1. If I know they’re going to read a poem, I give them 15 words from that poem and ask them to try to find some thematic way to structure these words together in a set number of stanzas, or lines.  If they can’t connect them together to find some theme, I just go for tone.  Then they create their own poem using that theme, tone, or a way to make the words rhythmically work (this is for my future rappers). My favorite poems to do this one with is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid (touted as fiction in the NY Times, but we all know that’s poetry) and “Exile” by Julia Alvarez.

Here are the word lists in case anyone wants to write a poem:

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid list:

  1. clothesline
  2. slut
  3. bent
  4. crease
  5. flies
  6. throw
  7. away
  8. fall
  9. always
  10. behave
  11. girl
  12. sweep
  13. wash
  14. someone
  15. button

“Exile” by Julia Alvarez

  1. highway
  2. deep
  3. knew
  4. wrong
  5. curfew
  6. worried
  7. fled
  8. frantically
  9. America
  10. visitors
  11. respect
  12. father
  13. stay
  14. Ford
  15. sisters

We Heart It @ Tumblr

2.  Hanging Fire by Audre Lorde: This poem just kicks teenage poetry haters’ butts.  I might have one kid in my class every year who doesn’t connect with this poem and that’s because that kid is actively trying not to connect with life. It’s about a fourteen year old girl who just has no side.  She is a conglomeration of everything around her.  I have my students read this poem and then write one of their own versions.  What betrays you? What does no one think about you? Who defends you and who doesn’t? Who cares the most about you?  Where are you neglected and where are you praised? What is unfair and unjustified? If there’s anything that teenagers want to do, it’s argue about their own life.

3. Golden Description Chart (THANK YOU, 826 National & McSweeney’s)

#obsessed (HASHTAG OBSESSED) The Eggers version is in the link, but I make my students create a chart, and we usually do this chart within the first week because I want them to start thinking about senses, which leads to imagery.

Chart looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 10.00.24 PM


After the chart, I tell them to give me a golden description of their favorite place.  They have to use all the senses to describe the place and I tell them I want to feel like I’m there if I close my eyes and someone reads this to me.  Then, I actually have people close their eyes and a student reads about their favorite place.  The person with the closed eyes tells the reader what they could best feel/see/hear/smell/taste and what they had a hard time feeling/seeing/hearing/smelling/tasting.

This is the best part though, I make them then write a dialogue between the smelly old person (who has become blind in a matter of seconds) and they have to explain their favorite place to the older, blind, smelly person.  This is fun because they have to use so much creativity.  They have to give detailed descriptions to someone, while using correct characterization of themselves (and how they talk), but also how an old person might question things.  My favorite example is that one of my students has a Chief Keef poster in their room.  They had to then describe Chief Keef to the older person because the older person didn’t know who that was.  It’s very interesting to see what you get, but I think this is one of those beginning poetry stages that you have to do because imagery is a killer in poetry.



Holy Smoke @ Thejaswi – Creative Commons

4. McSweeney’s Poetry Prompts That Don’t Suck aren’t half bad either…

(Trees and shit ALWAYS hooks my students).  Don’t worry, I got permission to cuss in the poetry parts of my classroom. Speaking of cussing…

5. Twitter Poems

Twitter poems are like technological found poems.  For the first time, I just have my students get on their Twitter feed and write down ten random tweets.  Then, they can only use these words in their poem.

I step it up when I want them to write a poem with a specific theme and I send them on the hunt to find tweets that will help them develop something around that theme.

I step it up again when I just ask them to write a poem that relates to the novel, short story, or informational text that we’re studying and then write me a few paragraphs on how the two live simultaneously in a one bedroom apartment.  What is their relationship, are they married and bitter, are they deeply in love but not allowed to seal the deal, are they sister and brother.  Tell me the connection. OU, KILLED ‘EM.

6. Historical Poems: For this students have to research the historical time periods and characteristics of their chosen characters before they can write a poem.  Then, they write in the voice of that person.  I had a kid once write as Ted Bundy and it might have been the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.

*Write as someone who was beheaded

*Write as a person who died on the Titanic

*Write as an Egyptian Pharaoh

*Write as a woman during the Salem Witch Trials

*Write as a founder of our country, or a dead president

*Write as a school shooter (this one makes me really sad, but it really puts their ideas of school security out there)

*Write as a soldier in a war of your choice

*Write as a Disney Princess

*Write as a gang member

*Write as a famous musician

*Write as a hippie (or a protestor of some sort)

*Write as female leader before the 20th century

*Write as someone just before they experienced Pompeii

*Write as someone from The Bible, or another famous work.

There are too many choices, seriously.  I just love the research aspect of this prompt and the fact that students get so into giving me the true voices of their characters.

Mona Lisa @ Wikipedia (Wiki Commons)

7. Paintings: In this prompt, students have to research famous paintings (or graffiti) and tell the story behind the paintings in poem form.  What is the true story of how this came to life.  I had a student write about the Mona Lisa (just for your information, Mona, was a blocked search term on google on my school’s internet) and he wrote about how everything in the painting points toward her cleavage (the river in the background, etc) and how, therefore, it must have been her lover who painted her Mona Lisa smile.  Only a junior male would come up with that one.

8. Broadsides: Students just take a line, section, or whole poem and create a visual display of the poem.  I haven’t actually done this one in my classroom, but I’ve watched a veteran teacher’s poetry cafe using broadsides and it was unbelievable.

9. Neruda Odes/Neruda Questions

For Neruda’s Odes, students will study an Ode by Neruda and see how he twists language to do how he pleases ,and then they write an Ode to something.  There’s obviously more effort done in the analyzing stage of this, but the Odes to things are always interesting.  I had a student write an Ode to his brand new oxfords at the beginning of a class, and then at the end an Ode to his dirty ass shoes.  See, poetry, makes you see the dirt.

*NOTE: When we read Odes, I have students just randomly read a line and then the next student who feels summoned to read reads the next line until the poem is finished.  If more than one student starts reading a line they continue, like a kind of chorus.  By the end, they’re all reading every line.  It’s pretty fantastic.

Sample Odes:

Neruda Questions is a little more difficult.  Neruda had a sort of series called The Book of Questions.  They’re really unanswerable questions about the human experience.  I like them because it takes my students a while to come up with a question.  I love, “Tell me, is the rose naked or is that her only dress?”  Students can come up with some really wonderful questions.  Then, some genius wrote a book called Talking to Neruda’s Questions and I showed them some of his responses to Neruda’s thoughtful questions.  So, after they’ve written questions, I have the groups switch questions and they have to answer the questions poetically.  This would be so much fun if we had poetry clubs like we have book clubs.

T.S. Eliot Book


Why Write in a “Preachy Tone” When You Could Just Write A Memoir?

“What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?” (Cole 97).

Photography by Teju Cole

Anytime we read something my students have questions.  Yesterday, they questioned me about the reason they can’t stand up and yell something in class because of the first amendment that we had just gone over.  What do Facebook comments have to do with free speech.  Why is it that the school can have a Christmas tree if the idea of the Christmas tree comes somehow from Christ and we have separation of church and state.  Sometimes I have answers, and sometimes I have to send them out into the world to discover the answers for themselves because I still don’t have them yet.  Some, I’m not sure I ever will.

Teaching literature through the historical context is one of my favorite things to do in my class.  I’m teaching Of Mice and Men through the historical context of the Great Depression with connections to immigrantion (not that Lennie and George are immigrants, but migrant workers and immigrants have great ties in my student’s knowledge of what is an immigrant today.  In their eyes, and the eyes of many southerners I would think, – immigrants living in the ride along mower state of North Carolina are picked up by farmers at Lowes Hardware, paid under the table, and can be kicked off the truck if they complain.  My students are also from a very high poverty county, they understand not planning for the future when you only have enough for today.  The American Dream themes of migrant workers and immigrants are very similar to the way my students see success and their own goals and dreams.

I’m getting off track though.

Every Day is for The Thief by Teju Cole

One of the biggest things I like to teach my students is that you can only in very few cases teach history through race.  Right now, in a school that is truly the mosaic that America is, they are very in tune to the racial barriers set before them and around them.  They simultaneously try to break these barriers and keep them up, when it’s convenient or they’re pushed.  However, history is not viewed through the lens of race.  There is no collective “white history.”  We couldn’t teach “white history” if we wanted to.  Someone would always be an outlier.  There is no collective “black history.”  There is no story that fits all the people that were born with and without pigment.

It is difficult for my students to grasp this because they want to put all their eggs  in the African American history basket.  This history is and is still not quite grasping the total history although it is getting closer to history as geographical which is how we study it today.  The label “African American History Museum” (opening in July of 2015 in Washington DC) not only furthers the barriers between our collective American history, but it eliminates the idea that people should understand and acknowledge all of their mixed histories, American, African, Dominican Republic, Mexican, Puerto Rican, European (and that’s a butt load of histories in itself), Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Native American by tribe, etc.  I understand this is how history labels us, there must be a label for every questionnaire, every time someone asks, “So, where are you from?” some sort of answer.

Teju Cole @ NY Observer

It’s a complicated spectrum, made even more complicated by Teju Cole’s new book, Every Day is for the Thief.  In his book, which is more diary travelogue of life in Nigeria then it is fictional story (in fact there’s not much story at all other than the story of escape, or the story of corruption), Cole paints a picture of Nigeria that would cause Italian trained pickpockets to avoid the place.  Now I’m no expert on Nigeria, in fact, my knowledge of Nigeria is very limited, but the unveiling in this book, even fiction, made me disappointed.

I don’t care what anyone says, when there’s a work of fiction about a specific country, people still believe there’s truth in bits of the fiction even when they’re told otherwise.  My best friend Seth stayed on the Southern coast of Africa (where I’m not sure anymore) for a summer and he lived in a house where he had to barricade his host family into their section of the house and then barricade himself in the other section so that if thieves did target that house, they would only be able to get through to the kitchen and all else was guarded by metal latch and key.

Nigeria @ Global Education Center

This is the Nigeria that Cole writes about.

Police stand guard on roundabouts looking for reasons to stop motorists and be bribed from taking them in.  Teenage purse snatchers are burned alive in the market place.  Everyone is out for that extra dollar.  Gangs both serve the government and are killed in rounds by the government.  The face of Nigeria is a smile with a Jafar (Aladdin reference) rubbing his chin hair evilly behind it.  How can they make the fastest dime.  How can they swindle and sell.  What words do they put in the subject of an email to get someone’s uncle to wire money.  How much do the corruption signs cost that will never be looked in the eye.  This Nigeria is terrifying.  The people are no better, and around every corner is a thief who is serving a higher thief until the chain of command meets a man with fat pockets at the top with no need of the starving children snatching purses in the market.  Lose a finger in the third world, burned alive in a car tire in Nigeria.

Nigeria @ Wiki Commons

I can tell as I write this that I was moved while reading the book, but only due to subject matter, not due to voice, plot structure, or writing style.  Cole did not let the reader in.  Everything was at a distance.  This is a book about a man that walked around a country he knew he was allowed to leave and looked at the people who were not and wrote down his observations.  I could go to a mall and write this story. I couldn’t photograph the moving black and white pictures that close out chapters, but I could people-watch in order to find the lack of sincerity in the faces of everyday American people, the same way Cole put out a book judging the country where he was raised with a facade of fiction attached by a colon to the title.

This is no redemption story for Nigeria.  If this is the truth, it baffles me that this book has been out in Africa since 2007 and is just now reaching the US.  Wouldn’t a US citizen who likes to think of Africa as a hot bet of mischief be more inclined to read a book that proves it so, rather than a literate Nigeria who is facing his country everyday with hope at a new type of freedom. If the people of Nigeria are shopping at bookstores where the collection of King James is the most sought section, why would they choose to read about the scarred face of their own country.  This is the perception of a New Yorker, sizzling with his idea of what a good museum should hold only to find the ones in his home of Lagos are bad replicas of state visitor’s centers on the way through Virginia.  That’s what this book was, the way through, in all ways.

Lagos, Nigeria @ Wiki Commons

It was the way this man’s life took him through to a new world where everything glimmers (like we have no corruption in America or something).

It was the way through Nigeria in the eyes of a person who obviously is no longer attached to the people, the sights, or the ways of life.

It was the way through a market, a public transport station, a town without running water, a police barricaded roundabout.

It was the way through (and a cop out) to not writing a beautiful memoir that actually gripped the reader’s t-shirt at their chest and made them look at the non-bloody massacre that Nigeria has become. If you’re going to bash the country you were raised, do it through the truth, not through something masked as fiction and put on shelves for Americans to believe even though that dirty f-word is on the front.

Nigeria @ Ekoakete (Creative Commons)

If you’re going to teach me some history, teach it without guise, and without the informative tone of a textbook.  Tell me a story.  Make me curl up on the outside of your voice with my crossed legs and just listen.  History is after all just the story we tell ourselves, no matter what we label it or how that label defines us.  Maybe next year, I’ll get to teach history through the perspective of all the losers, and I’ll try to include Nigeria in that list since Teju Cole made it abundantly clear that this country of flaws and humanity has very few redeeming qualities.  Let me clear that I am not upset that there might be some truth about Nigeria in this book, I am upset that it was sold to me as fiction and not as truth if that’s the case. I am upset that this collection will define how Americans see Nigeria if it is all the discovery we try to make.  This truly makes me want to go interview the people myself and pass down their stories.


“What We Have In Common Are The Words At Our Backs”

My Great Grandparents

My Great Grandparents

I wonder how my grandmothers took their tea.

I wonder what women influenced them to have strength.  I actually wondered this one today when I put a temporary tattoo on my mother’s wrist.  It was a blue bird with a banner that said “strength” in bold black letters.  There was a station at my nephew’s birthday party.

I wonder if my great-grandmothers had cold feet and an affinity for tall, or bulldog-like men.

My Aunt June

My Aunt June

I wonder what my great, great, great, great grandmother did with the house and the eight out illiterate members of this house when my grandfather was shot in the arm and died during the Civil War.  I have great ideas that she didn’t just shrivel up and set all her worries into a far off gaze while resting her chin in her palm and her elbow on some window mount.  My great, great, great, great grandmother may have worn aprons, but a later census shows she kept the house running, possibly with or without a wealthy gentlemen heir.  I can’t know because these stories have been lost in the clouds of perfume and cigarette smoke that my grandmother’s wafted out.

All I have for those later women in my family tree are census records and collected data of years of birth, years of death and household numbers.  I do have a lot of heirlooms from my grandmothers, but beyond that it’s black and white photos and the last whispers of “talk-story” that my Aunt June still has left.

The Woman Warrior | Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts @ Book Critics

This gets me to the pinnacle of my jealousy over Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir The Woman Warrior | Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts.  I don’t know if it’s the Chinese culture, or just this woman, but her writing was insane, literally and her cultural stories and history were both whimsical and brilliant.  I feel like I would know her sitting at a dinner table after reading this collection of narratives about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Asian-American and what it means to know your own voice based on the voices that you’ve come from.

Fa Mu Lan Woman Warrior @ Chinese Swords (.net)

I’m a bigot in the sense that I don’t believe we’re ever just who we make ourselves, and I will NEVER believe that.  There will be no change of opinion.  We’re an odd conglomeration of the histories kneaded into our hometowns, the deep-seeded truths of how our parents or guardians were raised, even if we go against those truths, our family trees, and the people we encounter in this lifetime (if not other lifetimes that we may have lived).

Off topic branch:  I believe in old souls, not necessarily reincarnation, but I meet people sometimes and they’re my people.  I’ve known them before.  Grey’s Anatomy said it best, “You’re my person.”  One of my closest friends at school is a 60+ year old woman who owns a horse farm and hunted foxes when she was younger.  We should be the least likely people to form close bonds (I’m deathly afraid of horses and I can shoot a gun, but definitely not hunt anything) and yet I love her and I’ve known her forever.  The same goes with my best friend, Seth, who couldn’t break up with me if he tried, and my boyfriend right now who has the thigh muscles of a Greek champion so we must have been sea-faring lovers.  There are ancient traditions of my history with these people, but I can’t tell you what they are because I have very little knowledge of my own family history in order to puzzle these things together. It’s not a miracle of science, just a miracle of miracles and being the Catholic (with a few twists) girl that I am, I have to believe that God purposely put each of these people in my life because they make me comfortable and they’re my partners through the journey.

Orchid for “Brave Orchid” @ Envy GFX

I bet Marie Hong Kinsgston would know all the answers to my questions about this because she has the rich stories of her kin to explain life’s trials, life’s expectations and life’s roads.  I could read four more books on her history without batting an eye, that’s how inspiring this work of literature was.   She has the major story of three women that determine what she believes it is to be a woman with an Asian-American background.  There’s the story of a woman fighter (who I think is the inspiration behind Mulan) and Kingston takes the soul of this fighter on within herself.  Then there’s the history of her Aunt and Mother who in my eyes belong to one single history of womanhood.  Her mother is a doctor in Asia only to “escape” to America and run a laundry mat. Her Aunt is not brought to America until late in her own life because her husband never sent for her, and she is over saturated.

Maxine Hong Kingston @ UCLA International

Then, there’s the history of Kingston which I believe is a weaving of the last three histories and the idea of “talk-story” which is this idea that women in the family pass on … well everything.  Any knowledge of her mother’s past, of Asia, of heroic tales from Asia, comes from the elder women in Kingston’s life and whatever they determine the girl’s should know, they know.  It’s an odd coming of age because when this memoir was written (and probably still although publicly dormant), it wasn’t bountiful to have a girl and girls were assumed to be mostly worthless as far as aging parents were concerned.  At one point, Kingston’s Mother, Brave Orchid, talks about cutting her daughter’s talk so that she can “talk story” which is probably my favorite part of this story because she literally raised a daughter who “talked-story” enough to write an award winning and eye opening memoir.  I really liked Brave Orchid because I think she knew how to live the dichotomy without being found out, she managed to make a living as a medical doctor but still follow the deeply embedded codes restricted to women within in Asia.  I think, even though she comes off abrasive in the book, she influenced her daughters to do the same in their own ways and through their own narratives.  I definitely can appreciate a strong women who must live inside boundaries, but has discovered ways to approach and climb the fence.

“Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound” (23). 

Bound Feet @

Last thing, my favorite story in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering At The Creek is “Salvador, Late Or Early.”  I always start my students off with this reading at the beginning of the semester and then I have them do a fill in the blank to learn how much they know about figurative language and to see what they reveal about themselves based on what they say in the blanks.  Some students take this very seriously, some students joke about it, and some students just plain hurt me with their raw descriptions of themselves and who cares about them most (or least, unfortunately). In this story, Salvador’s brother drops his cigar box of crayons and I always told my students that that was because he was so poor that he had to hold his crayons in a cigar box.  However, I was reading Woman Warrior and found this quote, “After American school we picked up our cigar boxes, in which we had arranged books, brushes, and an inkbox neatly, and when to Chinese school from 5:00 to 7:30” (194).   I love when cultural things blow my mind a little.  I originally thought that this was a hispanic way of carrying school supplies, but obviously I was wrong.  This is just a little bit of proof that we’re constantly being educated by literature.  It doesn’t matter what country, what language, or what source, books can teach about our world in big or small ways, we just have to want to read between the lines.

How Much Power Is In Light


My original plan was to cheat the system and read every word, but the last whole page of words in, We, The Drowned.  However, I started that book like four weeks before Christmas and couldn’t even finish it.  It’s a colossal whale of 700 and some pages about shipping in Norwegian territories and the dramas of the seas, both on the plank and off.  Holy Shoe Horn, I’m only 300 pages of the way through.  That plan plummeted to the ground rather swiftly when I decided not to even pack the book for the mountains for New Years.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946, The Arrival 1913.

Instead some singing angel made it possible that TransAtlantic was finally available for me in the library system.  I think I waited almost five months to read this one, so long that I had forgotten that I even requested it at the time of that little email saying it was ready for me to borrow for only SEVEN days.  If you saw my reading speed last year, then you know that I hardly ever read a book in seven days.  I read a book a week if you look at the sheer number of books (58), but that was because some weeks my Maury drill sergeant of a professor didn’t assign as much reading as others for American Lit.   Colum McCann was all mine through the new year, with his rave reviews and historical fiction, how could I not be completely enthralled with how he mapped American history with Irish history.  As an Irish/Belgian/Cherokee American I am deeply interested in those cultures through the eyes of literature both nonfiction and fiction.  I haven’t read Let The Grade World Spin (feel free to harangue me in your nicest sarcastic voice within the comments for this serious blunder) or any of his other wildly imaginative stories so I had no real gage of what to expect.  I feel like I’m leading up to how great this book was, but in fact, I felt it dud like a pebble in a well.  It was unexpectedly boring at times, actually.

Colum McCann, Transatlantic

Well, that’s not really fair.  It was boring in parts and deeply interesting in others.  I think when McCann was focused on the inner lives of the women that are tied together by (come to find out) one letter that has crossed the fogged seas, I was much more interested than the generalities in other chapters.  In the beginning, I was pretty involved with the first flight of Brown and Alcock.  Being a native of NC, I think I have to be interested in flight as we claim to have the “First in Flight” on our license plates.  However, I think this was more so that I love when authors take something that I know nothing about and give intricate details of how those things work.  It’s much like Roth’s description of making gloves in American Pastoral (which I’m still not over if anyone asks). I was hushed when the men were in the density of cloud without any gage or compass to secure whether they were in sky or herding just above the land.  It was engrossing.

Frederick Douglass Reading, Tumblr

The next part is a perspective on the life of Frederick Douglass, which in my eyes, you just don’t touch.  I like Frederick Douglass from his own writing, with his own tone and not in some fictional debut of Douglass for new generations (although I appreciate reintroducing his importance and in this book, celebrity, for the younger minds).  I found Douglass to be dislikable in this telling, and I’ve never thought that before.  Especially, in the later chapters when the girls go to see him speak and Lily talks about his new white wife, who seemed a bit of a trophy (especially when his African American wife is told from the perspective that she isn’t necessarily anything but a marker of where he’s come from – slavery).  I don’t know, I had a bad taste with this section.  I was fascinated by Douglass’ barbells and will be researching those for my own dorky curiosity.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 10.51.36 PMThe women in this novel were the true stars.  Lily was inspiring just in the fact that she believed in the American Dream, some dormant seed growing within her, inspired by a man who didn’t even remember her name over dinner, yet knew that her face was familiar in its sweet modesty.  I immediately responded to her view of American culture and I think all of us want to know a bit of where we’ve come from.  That is the power in this collection of interweaving stories from one woman, Lily Duggen, to her daughters for generations.

By Pseudolibrary @ Tumblr

The girls have such fascinating lives.  You wouldn’t think that ice chunks, and moving ice chunks across a lake, and growing ice chunks from a frozen lake made perfect by drilling holes, not for baiting, but for icing, would be the most interesting thing in a novel, but it seriously was.  Lily’s inner life with her son during the war and her husband in the ice harvesting and manufacturing business was the best part of this novel for me.  It was also the showing of true triumph over self and country.  Lily moved to America on Douglass’s word that it was a county moving towards greater freedom, and come to find out the soldiers she sewed up didn’t ever speak of freedom, but just of war.  Women were objects, which is what history tells us we should be, though we have clearly proved to be immovable in our strength and move than moving in our ability to “get shit done.”

July 19, in 1848, Frederick Douglass attends the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. He speaks in defense of its organizer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

After working as the laundress of a war hospital (and an almost-nurse) she meets her husband who has an ice trade and a carriage and for some reason, I thought this one of the sweeter marriages in literature.  It was a marriage of convenience, but still one of love.  The women that follow in the line of Duggen’s all had this unbalance in their lives of expectations.  Nothing was all true, or all untrue for any of them.  Each suffered a full life; loss, hardships, floating, sarcasm and grandeur.  None of these women lived perfectly, loved perfectly, or expected “perfectly.”

I think I really learned the true value of this book only at the end because the final daughter with the last paper-eaten letter was my favorite character in the whole story.  She cloaked wetsuit and swam belly-up in her lough, caked in debt and grimy dog fur, and lived as a broken single woman in the shell of her family’s legacy. Yet, she wasn’t a victim.  She had struck this almost perfect, and strange, cord of rebellion with defeat.  Some of the best quotes are in this final section and some of the best characterization throughout the whole book.

“How had he ended up here, at the edge of the Irish Sea? What was it that brought us such distances, rowing upwards into the past” (283). 

“I am not in the opinion that we become empty chars, but we certainly end up making room for others along the way” (267).

“As a boy Tomas loved the notion that the light hitting our eyes might be coming from a star that had already disappeared” (255). 

“It’s hardly wisdom, but the older I get the more I believe that our lives are built not out of time, but light.  The problem is that the images that so often return to me are seldom those I want” (254).

Colum McCann – The Millions – Tumblr Quote

It’s true this is a slow one.  It was a hilled read, there were sections that I would completely high gear and there were sections that I just had to drudge through to get to the next.  I think I can safely say it was worth trudging through.  That would only be fair to the famined mother, Lily Duggen, the child of Brown, and the constellations of Tomas’s decisions.  It was a good first read for the year, a solid one.  Not overwhelmingly good, like it’s all down hill from here, and not bottom rung so that I have to make sure the next one is glowing.

Lastly, the end of my Fall Semester with these first students is January 17th.  I am a blubbering baby when it comes to Of Mice and Men, that book completely broke me, but I know that it’s not everyone’s favorite read.  There are two options below for what my students should read entirely next semester.  Let me know what you think.