Water Street

If you’ve followed me on here for a while you know there are two things I’m not so keen on reading.  The first one is series and the second one is short story collections.  Now it seems as if I’m turning over a new leaf with the later.  Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson is my third attempt at reading them and they seem to be getting better and better.  I dare say I’ve been lucky or I just know how to choose a good book. Whatever it is Water Street is a short Water Streetstory collection you must check out.

The overall themes are about everyday feelings and problems – race, love and family relationships, mental health, getting older, coming of age, among many others.  The characters in the book range from all different types and you’ll want to hear their story during the day and their inner secrets.  You’ll sympathize with them even if you won’t necessarily agree with the decisions they make.  The thing that made this collection stand out for me was the way these middle-class black characters are connected to each other through living in this Kentucky town called Stanford in a community around Water Street.

Wilkinson brilliantly tells each story with emotion, description, and realism.  The stories don’t necessarily finish all tied up neatly and that’s because it’s real life.  That feeling is what drives the book.  This is the first time I haven’t felt like I needed more from a short story collection I finished.  I believe a lot of it has to do with Wilkinson’s first-rate writing and her idea of linking the characters.

Crystal Wilkinson is an African-American author from Kentucky who is one of the founding members of Affrilachian Poets, which is a grassroots organization of writers of color living in the Appalachian region.  She grew up on her grandparents’ farm in eastern Kentucky where they were the only black family.  Wilkinson uses this as inspiration for writing her short stories.  She was a 2003 Long List Finalist for The Orange Prize for Fiction with Water Street and has written other works such as:  Blackberries, Blackberries (2001), and individual works like Holler (2013), My Girl Mona, Terrain, and First Sunday Dinner on the Grounds.  I’ve already read Blackberries, Blackberries and Holler and liked them as well.  I haven’t heard anyone talking about this author and I urge you to give her a try if you’re interested in these themes.  Wilkinson is another outstanding black woman writer is going unnoticed and that’s a real shame.

#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 15

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Day 15 – Novel Set Abroad:

Easy choice for me today novel set abroad, I immediately thought of  Kinky Gazpacho:  Life, Love & Spain by Lori L. Tharps.  It’s an autobiography/memoir of Tharps discovery of Spain when she goes to live and study in Salamanca.  Eye-opener. Funny. Frustrating.  Confusing.  Those are a few of the emotions TharpsIMG_1425 goes through.  It’s written light-heartedly while at the same time being pertinent on issues of race, relationships, culture differences among others.  Learning about Spanish culture was very interesting through the eyes of a young African-American girl, who can’t wait to get to a European country where race doesn’t matter.  So, she thinks.

“It had been a month and I still felt like I had those first two weeks in Casablanca.  Alone, isolated, and uninspired to do anything about it.  I hadn’t anticipated feeling culture shock in a Western European country, so it hit me much harder.  Most of the other Americans in my program didn’t seem to share my problem….I wanted to change immediately.  I wanted to be Spanish for the entire year but didn’t know where to begin.  The Spaniards in my classes, who I thought  would become my tour guides into la vida española, didn’t even seem to notice me, much less attempt to be my friend.” (Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love, & Spain, p. 80)

 

 

#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 5

Day 5 – A historical fiction:

Historical fiction is a genre I usually enjoy reading so I thought it would be easy to choose something from my shelves.  Well it really took time.  In the end, I decided on Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.  This controversial novel definitely got people talking.  I remember reading some rich blog posts about it and those were what convinced me to read it.

Perkins-Vladez has painted a story that focuses quite closely on slavery in a way that hasn’t been explored IMG_1345in literary fiction before. This is mainly because of the taboo nature of the novel. She was inspired to write this book after reading the biography of W.E.B. Dubois where he mentioned slave masters taking their slave mistresses to a resort in Ohio. So, Tawawa House really existed. Although she could never find any documented specific stories about this place, she began to imagine what it would be like to be one of those slave mistresses. It’s a known fact that these unusual arrangements were existent and widespread among slave owners, but the resort adds a new facet, which allowed her to explore and focus on the slave mistresses.

“Six slaves sat in a triangle, three women, three men, the men half nestled in the sticky heat of thighs, straining their heads away from the pain of the tightly woven ropes. The six chatted softly among themselves, about the Ohio weather, about how they didn’t mind it because they all felt they were better suited to this climate.  They were guarded in their speech, as if the long stretch between them and the resort property were just a Juba dance away.” (opening paragraph of Wench, p. 3)

Ruby

IMG_1147I hate expecting great things from a novel but as every page gets turned I feel a little let down.  Ruby, not at all what I expected,  is Cynthia Bond’s debut novel that explores the life of an African-American woman called Ruby Bell, who has mentally and physically broken down from plenty of neglect and abuse past and present.  Ephram Jennings is the man who loves her and has done so since they were children.  He’s described as being a simple man.  He has never forgotten her.  And so the story begins…..

The first 60-70 pages seemed to be fairly uneventful and many characters were being introduced into the story, at times I thought too many.  Then things started to happen but it all felt too over the top.  Everything seemed to be too intense and at times I questioned some scenes in the novel that I felt were unnecessary.  Reading about sexual abuse is hard enough but when it involves children it’s insupportable.  There were scenes in Ruby that pushed me to some extremely uncomfortable moments, so uncomfortable that they made me physically ill.  I really do question if one scene in particular absolutely needed to be written in the way that it was.  After much thought, I’m not convinced it was.  Some scenes could have been written in a way that would be more suggestive and I’m sure that would have passed better and given a greater effect to the novel.

Magical realism is used throughout the novel which almost symbolises her insanity from all the abuse Ruby’s been through.  At least that was what I thought.  There is constant mention of the Obeah and the Dyboù.  The Obeah is Igbo religious practice, folk magic, and sorcery.  The novel being deep-rooted in religion and voodoo, the magic realism seemed to work really well.  Until it seemed that Ruby was actually being possessed by the Dyboù.  That’s when I really started to not take that part of the story line as seriously.  Not to mention, I couldn’t understand how in such a small town more people didn’t know about this group of prominent church men participating in these voodoo rituals. That was not realistic at all.

The symbolism in the story is strong and consistent.  It is the underlying thread that Bond runs through the story as a common denominator.  For example one of the most obvious symbols is the name of the town where the story takes place, Liberty.  It is a town of total contradiction.  It’s a place where no one is really free,  They are all locked up slaves to their demons – religion, sex, voodoo, social/racial condition, etc.  The colour red is always mentioned – red dust, Red bus, red velvet pouch, red rope, red roses, red beacon,…  Red brings text and images to the foreground.  It is a colour that intensifies and exudes strength.  It also symbolises love.  It’s unbelievable  but this novel is more a love story than anything else, while at the same time being the story of a woman coming to grips with her demons.  (apparently real and metaphorical)  The crow can symbolise many things but in Ruby, I felt it symbolised  personal transformation and destiny, which refers to both Ruby and Ephram.  In order to be able to love Ephram, Ruby must overcome her demons and return to a somewhat normal life, even though it’s clear that Ephram is willing to wait for her.  Ephram must break away from his sister/mother to become a real man.

Lastly, the structure of Ruby is overly complex at times and misleading.  The main characters’ backstories are narrated towards the second half of the book.  They are told as a succession of erratic scenes jumping from past to present, and in the end I felt that took away from the power of the book.  It just made things more difficult to piece together.  The reader is faced with having to put all of those puzzle pieces together in order for better understanding.  For example it took me a while to figure out how much time actually passed in the novel.  What tipped me off that the story took place over about twenty years was when I heard Ephram played Killing me Softly for Ruby. I knew that song was sung by Roberta Flack in the early seventies, maybe 1973 and earlier in the novel we know that Ruby goes to New York in the 1950s.  Nevertheless, I’m still not sure of Ruby’s age.  In spite of everything I disliked about this novel, Bond’s writing is very good, containing some excellent, creative one liners and at times rich descriptions.  I rated Ruby 3 stars on Goodreads.  It will be interesting to see where Bond moves this poignant, complex love story, which is to be a multigenerational trilogy.

 

 

Maya Angelou a Phenomenal Woman

I was reading when a notification popped up on my iPad.  It read “Maya Angelou dead at 86”.  I dropped everything in search of the article.  I just couldn’t believe it.  I still can’t believe it.  Maya Angelou will be greatly missed.  I heard someone say “My black feminist heart is weeping.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Maya Angelou was a jack of all trades, but most of all inspiration for everyone.  Her quotes give advice on love, liberation, freedom, women, men, education, and on many other dilemmas of life.  She will live on through these quotes, her poems, and novels.  I can say I was one of the lucky ones to have had the pleasure to see and hear this intelligent, wise beyond centuries woman speak in person.  I remember how captivated the audience was when she spoke.  The air was light and our spirits were lifted.  The silence in the room was devoted to that special moment of sharing her poetry, her expression.  I’ll never forget it.  As a tribute to Maya Angelou writer, poet, educator, actor, director, producer,  historian, activist, playwright, and….

PHENOMENAL WOMAN

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size       Maya-Angelou
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou

Kindred

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Kindred takes place in 1976 and in 1815.  Dana a young African-American woman periodically experiences dizziness and black outs which enable her to go back in time to 1815.  The experience of going back to the slave days is shocking and terrible for her in the beginning.  She is extremely distressed since she has no idea how this happens.  Divided between the fear of having to live life as a slave and helping Rufus, who she saves from drowning on her first trip, she is driven down a perilous journey of truth about her family and herself that will change her and her husband Kevin forever.

Kindred reads as a historical fiction novel with a twist of science-fictional time traveling.  I never thought these two could work so well in a novel but they do.  The novel is written in a simple style, and reads very quickly.  However, Butler delves deeply into themes like race, violence, family, and home in a manner that is quite intense .  In addition, she explores the theme of power and how it can become a  corrupt tool of  influence and cruel manipulation.

The first quarter of the book we are trying to understand like Dana, how and why this is happening.  Unfortunately, that is never really addressed, so quickly what will happen to Dana and how she relates to all the different people on the plantation becomes the primary plot of the novel.  Things get messier when Kevin, her white husband grabs on to her and winds up back in slavery times with her.  The awkwardness of the situation is frightening.  There Butler makes Dana and Kevin face this difficulty head on like a slap in the face.  The mounting tension and horrific violence from whippings, rapes, hangings, and dog attacks, Butler is forcing the reader to see the reality of the time period along with Dana.  Many times I kept putting myself in Dana’s shoes and wondering how I’d react.

Dana was a trooper in the beginning trying to think of everything and to prepare for things, but what she didn’t realise is that she fell slowly but surely into the role of a sort of modern-day Mamie.  She is bound to the past not only physically but mentally since she seems unable to break the link between herself and Rufus.  We see Rufus grow from and innocent boy into an unsparing, conniving man.  A man who is meant to run a plantation although he does it through being cruel and by making people fear him.  Dana finally grows at the end with much difficulty and mostly because she feels she understands what she sees happening in 1815 more than she really does.  The trap is there.  The psychological manipulation that Rufus uses on her his criminal.

If you haven’t read this story you should definitely check it out.  Octavia E. Butler really knew how to turn a story and this one has many twists and turns that will make every reader think.  Butler began writing at 10 and writing science-fiction at 12.  Her love for writing came out of her boredom for she was an only child.  It was the science-fiction movie Devil Girl from Mars which made her attempt to write science-fiction.  She was quoted as saying she knew she could write a better story and that she did.  Happily for us, Butler overcame dyslexia and went on to write many novels and short stories, such as Fledgling, Lilith’s Brood, and Parable Seed.  She won the Hugo Award twice, once in 1984 for best short story with Speech Sounds and in 1985 for best novelette with Bloodchild.  She also won the Nebula award twice for best novel, once for best short story, and best novelette.  In 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  Does it sound like I’m pushing Butler?  Yes, I am.  Well the next Butler book I’ll be picking up will be Fledgling.  I’m dying to see how she wrote about vampires and I’m not that keen on vampire stories either.  To be continued…..  Check out the link below to hear more about Octavia E. Butler.  Brilliant!

Gathering of Waters

I can’t say I’ve read lots of books by Bernice L. McFadden.  Actually I’ve only read two, Glorious and 11225026Gathering of Waters.  Glorious was a story about a Harlem renaissance writer, which I enjoyed until it ended abruptly and left me searching for more.  I embarked on Gathering of Waters for three reasons; 1. because it was written by Bernice L. McFadden, 2. because it was the 2013 Clutch Reading group on Goodreads title choice for the month of May, and 3.  after I read the inside flap of the book with this stunning cover, I was immediately sold and knew I had to read it.

The story basically follows three generations of women from 1900 to 2005.  So, it covers life leading up to the week before Emmett Till is murdered and goes on beyond that.  I found this story beautifully recounted and that dash of magical realism that makes the entire story come to life unexpectedly.  There are a range of engrossing characters who are defined and developed perfectly.  The book isn’t very long so McFadden was successful in depicting the characters in particular situations and with rich, moving, and sassy dialogue.  Gathering of Waters, has that bold, direct storytelling style that makes African-American literature so thought-provoking.  It’s stuffed full of excellent one liners that mean so much.

Now I have to mention the debate I’ve been hearing about the usage of Emmett Till in the story.  There are people out there who think McFadden is using the Emmett Till murder to plug her book.  I can see how people would think that but it’s not the case.  If you read the inside flap of the book, that is basically a short synopsis of the story that you will be reading.  What McFadden does is set Emmett Till in a real space of life so that he becomes more than just a murdered young black man.  There was a before, a now, and an after and McFadden explores all that.  The fact that she decided to write this book is also edifying.  There are people out there who don’t even know who Emmett Till was and I’m not just talking about white people.  This incident was one of  many stains on American history that hasn’t made it in the history books.  How did I learn about that tragic night for Emmett Till?  – Of course from my mother and my grand-mother.  Oral discourse, the oldest way to pass on family traditions, history, and cultural habits.  Gathering of Waters is a perfect example of that.

Money, Mississippi is the narrator.  It lets you in on all the workings and secrets of this microcosm.  The ‘gathering of waters’ is more than a place that’s squashed between bodies of water, a place called Mississippi.  It is also symbolic of that fine line that separates blacks from whites.  It is the place where they meet like bouncing molecules off one another.  They come together for a moment only to separate soon there after.

Bernice L. McFadden has been writing since she was eight years old.  Her first novel, Sugar, which is part of a duo, was published in 2000.  She’s written other compelling novels like Glorious, This Bitter Earth (second part of Sugar), Nowhere is a Place, Loving Donovan, and others.  She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Warmest December.  She is strongly influenced by authors like Toni Morrison, Ann Petry, Alice Walker,  J. California Cooper, and Rita Dove.  McFadden describes writing as something that comes to her and a necessity.  McFadden says, “I write to breathe life back into memory.”

Title: Gathering of Waters

Genre:  African-American Literature/Historical Fiction/Southern

Published:  2012

Edition:  Akashic Books

Pages:  252

Language:  English

My rating:  * * * * 1/2

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Wench

I’ve wanted to get my hands on this book for quite some time and the Clutch 2013 reading group on 6751356Goodreads gave me the shove I needed.  Wench is the four-part story of Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu.  They are more than wenches.  In the beginning, before the novel really starts, Perkins-Valdez depicts the change in meaning of the word wench.  “In the middle ages the word wench simply meant a girl, maid, young woman; a female child, but in the United States from 1812-1832 a wench was a black or colored female servant; a negress and by 1848 the definition became a colored woman of any age; a negress or mulattress, especially one in service.”(Wench)  This sets the lugubrious tone of what is yet to come in the novel.

Tawawa House was a resort built in the free state of Ohio.  It was built for the white Northern elite to partake of the natural spring water which was deemed good for the health, but over time Southern slave owners began frequenting the resort accompanied by their slave concubines for the summer.  Here these women bonded with each other  in their own way through their condition of utter servitude.  At Tawawa House the women were subjected to all kinds of mistreatment, sordid situations, and persistent promiscuous sex in an animalistic way.  It’s obvious that the author is trying to show the backward thinking of the period,i.e. that slaves were like animals and extremely promiscuous.  “I felt that given the sexual servitude of my female characters, this word would most accurately evoke the set of cultural expectations they were entangled within.” (Wench About the author, p. 4)

Lizzie was the only one of the four that didn’t seem to understand her place as a slave.  She loved Drayle, her master, and she seemed to believe that he loved her.  It is very hard to imagine that to be true, but I believe this is the main controversy of the story.  At times she even imagined herself dressed as if she was a lady and tried to adopt their mannerisms.  The only time she thought of freedom was for her two children, Nate and Rabbit.  Mawu, however, was head-strong and determined.  She didn’t mind saying what was on her mind and it was clear that freedom was on her mind from the beginning of the story.  She spoke of how she tried to devise ways to discourage her master from sleeping with her.  Sweet was pregnant with her fifth child, the embodiment of motherhood, whereas Reenie was the oldest of the group, trying to hide herself anyway that she could.

Surprisingly, Tawawa House was not the only resort around but low and behold existed another resort not very far away for free coloreds.  The slaves’ first encounter with free blacks, other than the blacks working in Tawawa House’s kitchen, was a moment of freedom in itself, yet darkened by a large dose of fear.  It opened Pandora’s box.  In spite of the fear, the visit sparked a desire for freedom that never stopped growing.  It compelled them all to reflect on their individual situations.  It was like a disease seeping into their veins for which there was no cure.  How did this all affect them?  You’ll just have to read for yourself and find out.

The writing style was beautiful and sensitive.  The descriptions were detailed, realistic, and poignant.  In my opinion, the characters were endearing, but for me Lizzie was a total enigma.  I didn’t feel very sympathetic toward her as a character and I was always anticipating the worst to happen when she was involved.  Her character made me uncomfortable.  The controversy around Wench lies there.  Could there have actually been love between a master and a slave?  What kinds of horrendous stereotypes go through the minds of people today when they see white men and black women in relationships? And, why? Perkins-Valdez definitely has a way with words; so much so that there were scenes that made me want to cry.  Wench is heart-rending.

Perkins-Valdez has painted a story that focuses quite closely on slavery in a way that hasn’t been explored in literary fiction before.  This is mainly because of the taboo nature of the novel.  She was inspired to write this book after reading  the biography of W.E.B. Dubois where he mentioned slave masters taking their slave mistresses to a resort in Ohio.  So, Tawawa House really existed.  Although she could never find any documented specific stories about this place, she began to imagine what it would be like to be one of those slave mistresses.  It’s a known fact that these unusual arrangements were existent and widespread among slave owners, but the resort adds a new facet, which allowed her to explore and focus on the slave mistresses.

Unfortunately, I have to talk about what I didn’t like about Wench. There were two things in particular.  The first problem was sometimes when she switched topics within the story, it was sometimes done with no warning.  That threw me off guard at times and I found myself rereading certain passages.  The second real disappointment was the ending.  It fell totally flat for me, while leaving so many unanswered questions.  It was as if she had no idea how she was going to end  the story, especially since she’d worked so hard to spin an interesting one.  Perkins-Valdez wrapped the package up, but forgot to put ribbon and a card on it.  That really killed me.

This is Dolen Perkins-Vladez’s first novel.  She was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee.  She is a Harvard graduate and has written essays appearing in the North Carolina Literary Review and The Kenyon Review.  She is currently working on her second novel.

Title: Wench

Genre:  Women’s/African-American/Historical Fiction

Published:  2010

Edition:  Harper Collins Publishers – Amistad

Pages:  290

Language:  English

My rating:  * * *  1/2 

My favorite quote:  ”Don’t be afraid to say how you feel.  Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts. ” (Wench, p. 288)

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