Sunday, October 25, 2015

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Broadway, the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; and narrow was the way that lead to life eternal, and few there were who found it.  But he did not long for the narrow way, where all his people walked; where the houses did not rise, piercing, as it seemed, the unchanging clouds, but huddled, flat, ignoble, close to the filthy ground, where the streets and the hallways and the rooms were dark, and where the unconquerable odor was of dust, and sweat, and urine, and homemade gin.  In the narrow way, the way of the cross, there awaited him only humiliation forever; there awaited him, one day, a house like his father's house, and a church like his father's, and a job like his father's, where he would grow old and black with hunger and toil.  The way of the cross had given him a belly filled with wind and had bent his mother's back...

I remember listening to a conversation, which I didn't feel like taking part in, where a woman, who was not black, expressed her confusion about the popularity of Christianity among black Americans.  Why adopt the religion of your colonizers, she reasoned, the religion of those who oppressed and enslaved you?  Considered from a distance, it's a fair point.  But I couldn't help wondering how absurd that reasoning might have seemed in an actual conversation with a black Christian.  As if people tried on religions like hats, rather than believing in them as truth.  And worse: as if black American Christianity, the cradle of abolition and gospel music, was nothing but a hand-me-down from European whites.  In the end, though, I didn't say anything, because it didn't seem like my case to make.

I thought of that conversation a lot while reading James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, which is all about the relationship between black Americans and Christianity.  Its protagonist, John, despises his abusive father, who is a preacher in Harlem, and secretly chafes under the assumption that, as the oldest, he must inherit his father's work.  In the novel, it's John's birthday, which is marred when his wilder brother, Roy, is badly wounded in a fight.  After unleashing hell upon each other, John, his mother, his father, and his father's sister go to church for a prayer meeting.  Baldwin dedicates a chapter to each of the adults' prayers, which serve as flashbacks, telling us that, among other things, John's father isn't really his father at all.

Baldwin treats black Christianity in all of its complexity.  Sometimes it's an excuse, as when John's father seduces and impregnates a neighbor; sometimes it's a torture, as with John's miserable relationship with his father.  Elsewhere it's a comfort, or a necessity.  Baldwin puts religion in context of the black American experience, not as a forced ritual (although maybe there's a hint of that in the way John is forced to it by his father), but as a vital response to historical inequity:

Yes, their parts were all cut off, they were dishonored, their very names were nothing more than dust blown disdainfully across the field of time--to fall where, to blossom where, bringing forth what fruit hereafter, where?--their very names were not their own.  Behind them was the darkness, nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire--a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness!

Look how carefully Baldwin stitches together the familiar stories: the parable of the seeds, Proverbs' insistence that "[a] good name is more desirable than great riches," turned here into another instance of colonial plunder, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  Together, they become a narrative which finds the resonance between traditional Christianity and black struggle.  Baldwin's prose, consistently terrific, finds a source in the most beautiful parts of scripture, which are always about the marginalized, the frightened, and the lost.  And yet Baldwin recognizes, as in the great passage I posted up top, which cleverly associates the "broad way" of Matthew with Manhattan's Broadway, the way in which Christianity can also recycle the same injustices.

At the end of the novel, John has a kind of vision at the prayer meeting, and a conversion experience.  Are we meant to feel happy, that John has finally reconciled to the religion of his father?  Or sad, that John's chances of true freedom seem to have diminished?  Baldwin is too nuanced, and perhaps too conflicted himself, to give us the easy answer.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

“My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right…I know there are ways to match [my brain and body] up, though I have no access to any of those ways right now, plus everything costs a ton of money, which sucks...I also know people think I'm an ISSUE, and that gets really old. Any time THOSE SCARY TRANS PEOPLE come up, everybody flips out...I get it, it's the craziest thing in the world, but it's not gross and wrong, it just is, so why do people lose their minds over it?"

This Stonewall award winning novel centers on Gabe at the end of his senior year of high school. He has recently come out as transgender (he was born female but identifies as male) to his family and best friend, but is still trying to navigate coming out to his radio mentor, John, and the rest of his small town community.

The novel is a self-aware first person narrative, which is helpful for people who may be less familiar with being transgender. Gabe’s coming out process is the center of the action, so the tension between not wanting to care what the world thinks of him with actually facing society – a society that is often scary, violent, prejudice, and ignorant – is central. Being in the middle of coming out and transitioning allows the reader to gain knowledge as Gabe discovers more about himself. For example, Gabe describes using a chest-compression binder, buying a stand-to-pee prosthetic, and thinking about the gender presentation of his voice and mannerisms. The most insightful part of the novel is Cronn-Mills’ various depictions of people’s reactions, particularly Gabe’s mother. After calling Gabe "Elizabeth" (it’s unclear whether it’s accidental or purposeful), they get into an argument that shows the pain his mom is feeling and the misunderstandings about each other they have each been holding inside.

It also has all the things familiar to all YA novels: loving the wrong person, not understanding how sex works or if one should be having it, picking a path for the future, and trying to escape a small town. For a reader looking for a realistic young adult novel, there are definitely better ones out there. For a reader looking for a realistic young adult novel about a FTM trans guy, this is a great one to pick. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

"And that brings us to you, Sunny...Your name reflects the sun, like the color of your skin, no? ... An ugly, sickly color for a child of pure Nigerian blood. Everything about you is 'wrong'...What has the Supreme Being endowed you with, eh?" 

"So, because I'm a Leopard albino, I can - "

"Yes. Certain attributes tend to yield certain talents. Very, very tall people tend to have the ability to predict the future through the stars. Very, very short people tend to make plants grow. Those with bad skin usually know and understand the weather. Abilities are things people are able to do without the use of a juju knife, powders or other ingredients like the head of an ebett. They just come naturally." 

I have read 20 young adult novels this year - some for Teacher Land, some for myself, and some for Library School. Akata Witch is one of my absolute favorites of this year.

Sunny is between worlds. Nigerian, but American-born. Igbo speaker, but English is her first language. Black, but albino. Then she discovers she is even more inbetween than she ever realized: she is a Leopard Person, one with the ability to perform magic, in a Lamb (non-magical) family. Some people have called this the Nigerian Harry Potter, and while the description is apt, it also fails to give this novel and the world Okorafor created its fair due. Sunny's character is initiated into the Leopard world by Chichi (a powerful loudmouth who is homeschooled by her magical priestess mom) and Orlu (a quiet respectful boy who steps in when Sunny gets jumped). They are quickly joined by Sasha, the American bad boy sent to Nigeria to keep him out of trouble. 

As Sunny starts leading a complicated double life with academic school with uniforms and corporeal punishment during the day in sharp contrast with dangerous magical school at night, she and her friends must learn to work together while avoiding the ritualistic serial killer who has been taking children and mutilating their bodies. 

The world-building is incredible and the characters are engaging and relatable. Although I read a fair amount of Nigerian literature, this is my first young adult and/or fantasy novel that takes place in Nigeria, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can't wait for the sequel, Kola Nut, to come out in 2016.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of his candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last forever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand.

In a way, it seems like no one can ever read Proust the right way. The books, thick and numerous, which make up In Search of Lost Time are really the work of a man’s entire life—he never really did anything else of note, because he spent so much of his existence on this one narrative. But also, it feels like an attempt to capture a life in its totality, not just what happens within it, but the various impressions, images, feelings, and ineffable sensations that really characterize what it is like to be a human being. Seeing some of that stuff in print—stuff that you never imagined it was even possible to even put into words—is what makes Swann’s Way so fulfilling. Proust meditates on these experiences as he describes how a piece of music reminds Swann of his beloved, Odette:

Even when he was not thinking of the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind the same way as certain other notions without equivalents, like the notion of light, of sound, of perspective, of physical pleasure, which are the rich possessions that diversify and ornament the realms of our inner life. Perhaps we will lose them, perhaps they will fade away, if we return to nothingness. But as long as we are alive, we can no more eliminate our experience of them than we can our experience of some real object, than we can for example doubt the light of the lamp illuminating the metamorphosed objects in our room whence the memory of darkness has vanished… Maybe it is the nothingness that is real and our entire dream is nonexistent, but in that case we feel that these phrases of music, and these notions that exist in relation to our dream, must also be nothing. We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate. And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps less probable.

The famous symbol of Swann’s Way is a cookie—the madeleine which the narrator eats which brings the memories of his childhood, flooding back. The first section, “Combray,” is a compendium of these memories, which are as much feelings of the “divine captives” of impressions as they are of people and places. The second section, “Swann in Love,” is a more traditional narrative, which abandons the consciousness of the unnamed narrator to tell the story of his parents’ friend M. Swann, who falls deeply in love with an unsuitable woman named Odette. “Swann in Love” is one of the realest depictions I’ve ever read of what it’s like to be really in love. It seems undeniable that

[o]ur belief that a person takes part in an unknown life which his or her love would allow us to enter is, of all that love demands in order to come into being, what it prizes the most, and what makes it care little for the rest.

I read once that the best literature puts words to ideas you possessed but had never articulated—I think that’s true here. That’s from “Combray,” but it’s proven true in “Swann in Love” when a friend tells Swann he saw Odette walking around Paris:

This simple sketch was greatly disturbing to Swann because it suddenly made him see that Odette had a life which did not belong entirely to him; he wanted to know whom she had been trying to please with that outfit, which he did not know she possessed; he would promise himself to ask her where she had been going, at that moment, as if in the whole of his mistress’s colorless life—almost inexistent, because it was invisible to him—there had been only one thing apart from all those smiles directed at him: her walking under a Rembrandt-style hat, with a bunch of violets in her bodice.

In a way, Swann’s Way reads like an attempt to make real the lives of others, which are so often colorless and inexistent. We know the narrator, and we know Swann, not because what they do or say is plausible—the discerning eye of realism—but because their inner lives seem as rich, mysterious, and conflicted as our own. The prose is overstuffed, circuitous, digressive, but only because people are that way. Swann’s Way, you could say, is more real than realism.