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Archive for the ‘African American Literature’ Category

I discovered Jason Reynolds sometime back and I decided to read this book of his, ‘Long Way Down‘.

Will is talking to his friend Tony when they get caught in the middle of a gangfight. When the smoke clears, Will discovers that his big brother Shawn has been shot dead. In Will’s world, there are three rules. Or The Rules. They are 1. Don’t cry 2. Don’t snitch 3. Take revenge. So Will decides to follow the Rules. He feels he knows who killed his brother. So the next day morning, he takes his brother’s gun with him and decides to kill his brother’s murderer. He gets into the lift which goes down. On the next floor someone gets in. This new guy stands behind Will and keeps staring at him. Will gets uncomfortable and asks this guy whether they know each other. And this new guy smiles. And Will suddenly recognizes this guy. And his whole world turns upside down and amazing, unexpected things happen after that.

Long Way Down‘ is a novel written in verse. I thought it will be challenging to read because of the format, but the poetry flows smoothly and the pages move fast. The story is gripping and we can’t wait to find out what happens next. Jason Reynolds has written it in free verse which seems to be the format favoured by poets today, but occasionally he experiments on the way the poem appears on the page, in the style of e.e.cummings, and it is fascinating and beautiful. I’ve shared one of my favourite pages below, which has this style. Hope you like it.

The ending of the story is surprising, and not at all what I expected. One take on it could be that it is open-ended, but the other take which seems to suggest something totally unexpected and makes us go back to the book for clues, that looks more fascinating. I can’t tell you more. If you read the book, I’d love to discuss the ending with you.

I loved ‘Long Way Down‘. So happy I got to read my first Jason Reynolds book. Hoping to read more.

Have you read ‘Long Way Down’? Which is your favourite Jason Reynolds book?

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I stumbled upon Ann Petry’s books sometime back and decided to read her first book ‘The Street‘.

Lutie Johnson is a single mother. In the first scene in the story, she is looking for an apartment to rent. It is in a street which doesn’t seem to be nice, but that is the only place where she can afford to rent an apartment. She doesn’t like the Super of the apartment building, she doesn’t like her potential neighbours, the apartment building and the apartment she looks at are both dark without many windows and not good ventilation, but she takes it. We learn that Lutie used to have a husband and they were happy, but then he lost his job, and she found a job as a maid in a rich household, and she could visit home only once a month, and unfortunately, her husband cheated on her and this led to the breakup of her marriage. Since then, it has been hard for her. How Lutie navigates life as a single mom living in a poor neighbourhood, with weird and dangerous neighbours, when the street is everyday trying to get its hands on her and her kid, and whether she is able to triumph over the street and over her circumstances, forms the rest of the story.

The Street‘ is a powerful, moving book. Watching Lutie trying to protect herself and her kid from the street and from their neighbours and from their economic circumstances, and watching her work infinitely hard to achieve small gains, and seeing her efforts stymied by people who hold the reins of power in her little world is heartbreaking to read. When I reached the end of the book, I couldn’t stop crying.

I’ve seen heartbreaking movies during my teens in which a woman is trying to do her best to keep her head above water and is trying to progress in life in small ways and the system crushes her. I can see now where the inspiration for those movies came from. Ann Petry’s book was first published in 1946 and it was a bestseller when it came out. It was the first book by an African-American woman writer to sell more than a million copies. It is a pioneering book, because of the way it describes the life of a black woman who is a single mom who struggles in life and fights against the system. Ann Petry’s prose and the way she describes events is fresh and contemporary and it is hard to believe that the book was published in 1946.

One of the things I loved about the book was the way Ann Petry depicted the characters. None of them were black-and-white but were complex and fully fleshed out and flawed. Even one of the characters whom I regarded as a proper villain had a side which was unexpectedly childlike. The characters were just people who were thrown into difficult circumstances and each of them had a complex story and they were just struggling to survive and some of them were kind sometimes and not-so-kind at other times, while others were just plain ruthless because that was what was required to survive in the street. It was hard to love many of them, but it was hard to hate them too. Lutie, of course, towers above all of them, and she is one of the great heroines of 20th century literature. I loved her and cried when things didn’t go well for her. There were two other characters whom I found fascinating, Min and Mrs.Hedges. I loved Min and her small acts of rebellion and was happy when she won sometimes. Mrs.Hedges showed that even in these difficult circumstances one can be a kick-ass person, and can also be kind.

I loved ‘The Street‘. It was moving and heartbreaking, but I loved it. When I’m feeling brave, I’d like to read Ann Petry’s ‘The Narrows‘ next.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is featured on the first page, and it is a premonition of the things to come and it is what pulled me into the book.

“There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street. It rattled the tops of garbage cans, sucked window shades out through the top of opened windows and set them flapping back against the windows; and it drove most of the people off the street in the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues except for a few hurried pedestrians who bent double in an effort to offer the least possible exposed surface to its violent assault. It found every scrap of paper along the street—theater throwaways, announcements of dances and lodge meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that had enclosed sandwiches, old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the curb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street…It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the sidewalk and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins. It wrapped newspaper around their feet entangling them until the people cursed deep in their throats, stamped their feet, kicked at the paper. The wind blew it back again and again until they were forced to stoop and dislodge the paper with their hands. And then the wind grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies. The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald, for her hair had been resting softly and warmly against her skin. She shivered as the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck, explored the sides of her head. It even blew her eyelashes away from her eyes so that her eyeballs were bathed in a rush of coldness and she had to blink in order to read the words on the sign swaying back and forth over her head.”

Have you read Ann Petry’s ‘The Street‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Melissa Valentine’s memoir ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘ recently, through Olga’s recommendation, and I just finished reading it.

When Melissa Valentine moves back to Oakland after being away for many years, she gets in touch with her childhood friend and they catch up. Then this friend’s brother and their cousin also join and Melissa looks at this friend’s brother and remembers her own brother, whom she calls Junior, whom she loved very much, who was shot dead by unknown assailants when he was nineteen. The rest of the book is about Melissa and her family, and especially her brother Junior, the good times and the bad, and how things happened which ended in this heartbreaking tragedy.

Melissa is biracial – her mom is black and her dad is white. Her mom’s side relatives treat her and her siblings as one of their own, and they even accept her dad as a part of the family, while her dad’s side relatives attempt to show affection, but it looks like condescension. This adds to the complexity of her and her family’s experiences, because frequently they are treated as outsiders, both by the black and the white community, and so things are doubly hard and challenging for them. It is especially hard for the kids, especially Melissa’s brothers, and her favourite brother Junior gets beaten up in school for not being black enough. The book starts with this complex background and gives a perceptive and sensitive depiction on what it means to be a black teenager in today’s America. Melissa’s love for her brother Junior shines through in every page, and Junior comes through as a complex character, someone who is happy and cheerful to start with, but whom the system and society harass and pigeonhole into a box, and when Junior tries protecting himself by any means possible, it all ends in tragedy. It is moving, poignant, heartbreaking. I cried after I finished reading the book.

I loved ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘. I can’t wait to find out what Melissa Valentine will come up with next. This book is published by the Feminist Press and they continue to rock – this is the third consecutive amazing book by them that I’ve read.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Dad is a poet in the way he believes in life, the growing of things, of children. But his poetry is the kind people don’t understand, maybe he doesn’t either, the way it grows out of control, the desire for life so great it escapes even him; he cannot control this life. He loves children, which are another kind of life. I have observed the way he admires babies. He holds them awkwardly, kind of like the way he dances, as if his joints do not easily bend, moving choppily to a rhythm only he can hear. Instead of the normal way of holding a baby—bringing it to your chest, rubbing its back, smelling its skin—instead of the cooing and pleasantries most people make in the presence of babies, he stares into the child’s eyes lovingly, with reverence, while holding its head in his sandpaper palm. I have seen him do this with my baby cousins in Alabama. I have felt the discomfort of the people around him, wondering what this white man is trying to transmit into the skull of this black child. It is usually a black child he holds up with this kind of reverence.”

“She warns us not to show our true colors, warns us regularly—before we go to the neighbors’, before we go to school, before we go to Grandma’s. What color is that? Sometimes it is the color of desire—don’t show hunger, don’t show need or want of any kind to outsiders. But often it is something else—the color of the city, the color of the cement, the color of the curse words that often slip from our mouths, the blackness of our bodies that mixes with the white to make us what the little Southern kids call bright. “Why are you so bright?” they ask in earnest, and I look at them bewildered, wondering with my literal city ears what brightness they see in me. Bright, but still very much not white. Is that the color Mom means? The not-white? Or is it another color? She would prefer we act like we don’t come from the city, like our feet were born dusty, like we came from roads, not streets. She would prefer we act full, satisfied. Junior doesn’t care; he always shows his truest colors.”

“I know by now that nice and good are myths. There is no good, no nice. And if there is, it is impermanent. There is proof all around me : a homeless summer and a burned-down house full of trash that was masquerading as good, as nice; a brother whose bad follows him wherever he goes, no matter how nice—there is no protection from black boyness. Good and nice are only illusory feelings, but, at least for a moment, I enjoy wrapping myself up in the illusion.”

Have you read ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘? What do you think about it?

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