Readers, what’s one book that’s made you want to learn more about another culture?
While one can never know the true depth of a culture from reading just one novel, Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah offers a rarely seen intimate portrait of life in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of her characters, Muneer, Saeedah, and Hanadi, over 40 years.
Quotah tackles heavy topics, such as parental abduction, women’s rights in patriarchal societies, how one can lose their identity when separated from their culture, and the mental toll of being estranged from family by choice and through force. The richness of Quotah’s writing, her attention to Jidda’s setting, and the detailing of the messiness of her characters’ life drew me in as a reader. However, I couldn’t help feeling as if there was a considerable chunk of Saeedah’s story missing and a lack of a climax when I turned the final pages of Bride of the Sea that kept me from truly loving this book.
The fact that Quotah’s story was an #OwnVoices narrative was apparent in how much attention to detail was paid in scenes where the author shows the transplanting of Muneer and Saeedah from their lives in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to Cleveland, Ohio. For example, I loved the scene where the young couple is trying to learn to cook and spend “a month’s rent on phone calls to their mothers” to get cooking tutorials.
These scenes were relatable and drew me in since they reminded me of learning to cook family recipes over the phone from my parents doing my college and graduate school days. The same is true of Quotah’s attention to the mental strain put on Hanadi as she forms her identity and works through the trauma of being abducted and becoming a mother and reunited with her father. This deep dive into the characters’ emotions is where Quotah shines where Muneer and Hanadi are concerned.
Saeedah’s character, though, never feels fully formed compared to Muneer and Hanadi. As honest and plausible as these two’s actions feel, Quotah seems to skirt around what motivates Saeedah to abduct Hanadi and keep her away from her family for over seventeen years. There are moments when readers are given glimpses of Saeedah’s erratic behavior. But, the lack of a first-person perspective for this character leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and keeps the story from ever climaxing.
For instance, when Muneer is in Jidda looking for Saeedah and Hanadi, I was invested in his quest because I was shown why he wanted to reunite with his family. Even Hanadi’s choice to reunite with Muneer in Jidda and the subsequent fallout in her life makes sense because I heard her reasoning in her own voice. Saeedah’s choices, on the other hand, are a mystery to me because she’s never given a chapter to explain herself, and her inner dialogue is shielded from readers. Everything we know about this character comes to us filtered through other characters’ perspectives of her.
After finishing this book, I was curious about this writing decision and researched Quotah’s process for developing her characters. In her author interviews, she pointed out that she was never really clear about Saeedah’s motivation for abducting Hanadi when writing her novel. This gave me pause since I was always under the impression that an author needed to understand their character’s intentions to help bring about the actions of their novel to life. While the motivation for Hanadi’s anger is obvious, hearing how Saeedah felt in this moment would have added another layer to Bride of the Sea. It also would have let out the tension in the narrative to give closure to Quotah’s story, in my opinion.
Overall, I am appreciative of how much care Eman Quotah took in writing Bride of the Sea. This is one of those rare novels where a reader comes to understand that every book is not meant to have a nice, neat ending. Yet, the lack of closure to Saeedah’s narrative and omission of her point of view from the novel left me thinking, “is that it?”
If I could suggest one novel that compliments Bride of the Sea, it would have to be Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Divakaruni tells the story of three generations of women in a family: Sabitri, the matriarch of a family who grew up poor in rural Bengal and dreamed of going to school; Her daughter, Bela, who flees to America with her husband, who is a political refugee causing strain on her relationship with her mother; and Tara, Bela’s daughter, who feels the weight of the other two women’s choices as she tries to forge her own path.
Like, Quotah, Divakaruni explores mother-daughter relationships perceptively as she relays each woman’s story. However, where Quotah relied so heavily on others to tell Saeedah’s story, Divakaruni allows each woman to speak for herself within Before We Visit the Goddess. This balances out the narrative and allows readers to understand the frustrations each woman has with their mother.
Disclaimer: All opinions that follow in this review are my commentary on the fictional characters I name and not the social groups that the characters represent regarding gender identity or ethnic cultures.
I checked Felix Ever Afterby Kacen Callender out from the library almost four times and tried to finish it to no avail and eventually ended up DNFing it at about 57% because through Felix’s actions and verbal and internal dialogue made this character out to be a horrible person as a friend and a son.
How Felix was able to idolize the parent who left while treating the one who stayed and sacrificed so completely for him was beyond me. This character treated his dad like crap and didn’t allow him the grace that Felix so readily demanded for himself, and that made me so angry at Felix since his dad was literally jumping through hoops trying to give him the most comfortable lifestyle (e.g., expensive tuition & hormone therapy) he could on a limited budget.
Unlike Felix’s mom, the dad stayed and was tryingso hard to support Felix every step of the way. He made onemistake in mentioning Felix’s dead name through a Freudian slip, and Felix went off the deep end. Int hat moment, Felix didn’t offer his father the grace of trying to understand that just as he was questioning his new reality, his dad was also getting used to having a son who had transitioned. The dad even immediately apologized right after making a mistake, but Felix leaves the house and doesn’t until chapters later and the discussion is never really resolved.
Callender also does this thing where diversity appears to have been inserted into their novel to check boxes as opposed to adding depth to their story which causes the characters to be caricatures and only written at surface level.
For example, Felix’s best friend is a “Patel.” This allows him to make him generically rich, as is the stereotype in America for people with this last name (at least where I live). They add that the BFF is also generically pansexual and just “bonds with the soul” of his lover while being promiscuous. This promiscuity bleeds into the stereotype the author writes into the LGBTQ+ characters in their book. Here, Callender leans heavily into making most of the queer characters they write avid drug users and has them all swapping sexual partners within their friend group throughout the book. These tropes all feel very generic and lazy when executed in Felix Ever After because the author doesn’t examine any of these topics further in the narrative and just leaves it up to readers to chalk these tropes up to teenage angst.
My biggest issue, though, is nothing about Felix feels concrete ethnicity-wise. He’s supposed to be Latinx and African-American. Yet, the way he back talks and runs away constantly without his dad even trying to put boundaries on him or at the very least acknowledging the disrespect of the house rules feels unauthentic. I’ve yet to meet anyone in a Latinx or African-American household who’d ever be able to get away with this regardless of our class level. And while I admit my reality is not indicative of the Latinx or African-American experience in its totality, Felix’s character felt very surface level and as if it was built around racial tropes.
My major issue with Callender’s book, though, is Felix’s entitlement. Felix spends over 3/4 of Callender’s books feeling entitled to an art scholarship to Brown University over his peers when he RARELY goes to class and is never shown creating any art of quality. Yet, he constantly harps on others who are creating art and being praised by their teachers.
And this is where this book started to fall apart for me.
Felix has this thought process that only he is deserving of grace. He doesn’t extend it to his nemesis, who is a better artist than him, because he puts in the effort and time to work on his craft. He doesn’t extend it to his best friend who didn’t ask to be rich or get to choose his parents and the opportunities he’s been given. Nor does he extend grace to his father, who breaks his back to provide him with all the comforts, like hormone therapy and the ability to live as his true self without ridicule, that other transgendered teens would kill to have.
In spite of all this, Felix feels everyone should extend grace to him regardless of how foul he treats others.
My last straw with this book came when Felix decided to catfish his nemesis without proof and attempted to ruin the other boy’s life out of jealousy and spite. Even when his BFF pointed out that he had no obvious proof that his nemesis outed him, Felix doesn’t back down. Instead, he blames the nemesis for no other reason than his nemesis has been “mean” to him by pointing out the obvious fact that Felix is never working toward his goal of a Brown acceptance by creating any actual art. Why no one ever backs the nemesis up on this obvious point is beyond me.
I know many people will counter the above points by saying Felix is a teenager, and this book has meant so much to the Trans community. And I want to speak to the latter point, I understand how comforting this book is, and I take nothing away from that. However, no one should be allowed to be so selfish and emotionally violent toward others regardless of how marginalized their voices are.
Felix is a toxic character that gets given unfathomable amounts of grace to wreak emotional havoc on his community because of his character’s background of trauma, which is not healthy in the least.
I truly wanted to love this book as much as the hype, but Felix’s behavior left a bad taste in my mouth, so that I couldn’t recommend this book to anyone in good faith as a mental health advocate.
Thomas’ book follows Yadriel, a young wannabe brujo, as he attempts to complete a ritual to join his family and participate in the Brujeria traditions. Unfortunately, not everyone in his family accepts his decision or his identity as a transgender male. To prove everyone wrong, Yadriel attempts to complete his ritualistic rite of passage alone and inadvertently summons the ghost of Julian Diaz, his school’s resident bad boy.
Cemetery Boys gave me everything I wanted in a book! I especially loved that the trans representation was multifaceted and layered. The Latinx representation and aspects of Brujeria culture also had me hype. I was also happy to see that Thomas handled the “toxic” traits in his characters, like Yadriel’s family not accepting his trans identity with care. Moments where Thomas shows Yadriel’s family not accepting his identity felt nuanced and realistically on the family and Yadriel’s end, which was my biggest gripe with Callendar’s book.
Now, I will say that I guessed who the villain in Cemetery Boys was within the first 30 pages or so and their motivation for committing the killings. However, it didn’t take away from the story or the tension between the two main characters.
If you’re looking for a “Backlist” read from the African Diaspora, look no further than A Woman In Her Prime by Asare Konadu. This Ghanaian Lit novel centers around the coming of age of Pokuwaa, an industrious farmer from a traditional African village, as she attempts to conceive.
Coming in at a mere 107 pages, this book is excellent for readers who are looking to read something short this week without feeling overwhelmed by their page count.
The drama in A Woman In Her Prime centers around infertility. However, the way Konadu describes the daily activity of Brenhoma, the village Pokuwaa lives in, readers come to understand Pokuwaa’s infertility is not the main focus of the book. Instead, we see the various interpersonal relationships within Brenhoma and get a feel for how every character that’s introduced fits into village life.
The author also explores the role of traditional religious practices in the character’s lives, the “seasons” of the village as they move from harvest to planting and back, and even inserts a brief mystery to push the story forward. All these topics and actions are condensed within what could technically be considered a novella.
I think what most pleasantly surprises me about this book is that while Konadu positions Pokuwaa as having infertility issues, he does not make this her only characteristic in the story. Likewise, outside of a few characters, he does not let the villagers of Brenhoma harass Pokuwaa about the particulars of her womb. And these two attributes of his story were refreshing because it felt as if he not only understood that Pokuwaa is more than her womb, but as a male author he showed significantly more empathy for his character than I was expecting from him as a writer.
A Woman in Her Prime shows how important a woman’s role is in society is as the vessel of life even though society can often strip a woman of her agency. By emphasizing the traditional religious sacrifices and gender norms Pokuwaa goes through as she’s trying to conceive, Konadu allows room for commentary on the psychological toll infertility can take on a woman and her partner.
If you’ve read this novel before, I’d suggest following up with The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. Each of these stories deal with infertility in women from the African Diaspora.
I’ve done a blog post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives which you can check out earlier on my blog and even added some additional books you may enjoy to follow up with. Check it out and tell me if you’ve read any of the books in the comment section.
I read Emecheta’s book in 2015 and was BLOWN away by how simplistic the writing was. The story follows a woman named, Nnu Ego, as she grows from being a young woman in her father’s compound all the way up until she has kids of her own and onto her passing. Subjects like colonialization, women’s rights in Africa, and how cultural religion is carried out versus the colonizer’s religion are all talked about in The Joys of Motherhood. A lot of critics compare this book to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but If you enjoyed Beloved by Toni Morrison, you’ll definitely enjoy Emecheta’s book.
Readers, have you heard of any of these books before?
There are few times where I can genuinely say I’ve been anticipating a book as much as I have the sequel to The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wecker.
If you remember my 30th birthday post from Instagram, The Golem and The Jinni was a book I mentioned in “The Lost Years” slide.
When my dad was ill, I listened to The Golem and the Ginni as an audiobook. This was the first time I’d ever used an audiobook to read. And it offered me a lot of comfort since it reminded me of being a child and having my parents read me books to fall asleep. Likewise, being able to hear George Guidall narrate Chava and Ahmad’s story added another layer to Wecker’s novel for me.
Wecker’s writing covers the story of these two magical beings’ lives through the lens of immigration and technological advances. Paying particular attention to the importance of community, the author asks the reader to imagine what it must have been like for people to leave all they’d ever known to strike out into the unknown in a foreign land.
While Chava and Ahmad are two magical beings, you can see the difference in how men and women assimilated to their surroundings in each character’s story. This is something that Wecker and I talk more about in the interview I posted with her last week.
For Chava, a golem created as the bride to a rich Jewish man striking out for a new country, coming to America forces her to venture out of her comfort zone to be independent and tackle her natural ability to provide for others. The jinni, Ahmad, is the total opposite. Having lived for several hundred years in the Syrian desert, he’s awoken in a strange land with no recollection of how he came to be in America and wants nothing to do with humans.
When these two have a chance meeting in the middle of the night in 1900, a series of events are set in motion that the reader could never imagine.
If you’re a lover of books that have a full cast of characters and that is multi-layered, this is a story you’ll love. I highly suggest the audiobook for those who enjoy hearing the voices of characters.
Wecker has just come out with the next book in the series, The Hidden Palace, and I highly recommend Wecker has just come out with the next book in the series, The Hidden Palace, and I highly recommend it. George Guidall is back as the audiobook narrator, and there are more characters and more adventures in this story. I’m excited that Sophie, Ahmad’s human lover, was given a much bigger part to play in the newest book, and Wecker has included two new magical characters.
In this epic sequel, we get to see characters bounce between New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I. If you’re a student of history, you will love getting to see how Chava and Ahmad react to historical events, like the sinking of the Titanic.
This futuristic fantasy about a family of Black witches made my inner tween squeal with joy when I first heard about its publication. From the practice of calling on the ancestors to guide you as you come into your magic to being reliant on the connection with family, Sambury weaves together a tale that’s Blackity Black Black Black.
Blood Like Magic follows Voya Thomas, a newly “called” teenage witch, who is given the task to “destroy her first love” to secure her family’s magic for generations to come. This task comes from her ancestor, Mama Jova, a New Orleans witch who suffered the trauma of being enslaved and wants Voya to learn from the past.
Unfortunately, Voya has two problems: she is plagued with anxiety making it hard to make decisions, and she’s never been in love before. This immediately lets her know that her task will not be an easy one to complete.
Interpreting “destroy” to mean “kill,” Voya decides to scout out a love match using a “genetic matchmaking” program from the futuristic tech company, NuGene. And this is where she finds a match in Luc, a NuGene intern that’s being sponsored to work by the CEO, Justin Tremblay.
And this is where Sambury’s story got good…
As a lover of magic-themed books, Blood Like Magic is one of the few Black fantasy novels that I’ve encountered that not only centers on the Black experience but also provides a complex magic system. This system exists in a world much like ours where real-world issues, such as violence against the Black community, the plight of Black girls who go missing, and gentrification take place.
The way Voya’s family is written reminded me of growing up in a multi-generational household with my grandparents, parents, and siblings. Like Voya, this made me hyper-aware of being a part of a family unit and being in tune with everyone around me. To see this aspect of my family reflected in Blood Like Magic made my heart sing.
The author was also obviously careful in easing the reader into her dark fantasy by giving content warnings early on in the print description. This showed me that Sambury cared about her reader’s experience. This extended to the author being mindful of being fully inclusive in the future she dreams up. At various points in Blood Like Magic, readers are shown a positive representation of different types of bodies, sexualities, and ethnic groups all living together harmoniously.
The only thing that really gave me pause in this novel was the idea that even in the future that Sambury has imagined, being Black is still seen as a threat.
The violence that came with reading about Voya’s friend, Lauren, who we learn early on has gone missing, is something that frustrated me. Same with the feelings of mistrust that happen between the Black witch families who are marked as “pure” and don’t use violence to yield magic versus the “impure” families who do. In these moments of the narrative, I became frustrated. Even though Sambury does try to clear this up by the end of the novel, it gave me pause when juxtaposed against the solidarity shown for other racial groups in the novel who shun Black witches for their aforementioned violent natures and discord that happens in their community.
When these scenes came up, It made me think that if Black people can’t get along even in the future, what does this say about us?
Overall, though, listening to Blood Like Magic on audiobook was a great way to pass my weekend. Joniece Abbott-Pratt delivers Sambury’s words in a way that had me glued to my headphones.
Older’s series, like Sambury, pairs ancestral knowledge with urban life and Caribbean magic to create a masterpiece. Shadowshaper follows Sierra Santiago, a teenager from Bed-Stuy whose family safeguards magic that connects them to spirits via paintings, music, and stories. When disappearances start to happen in her neighborhood and her Abuelo falls ill, Sierra powers are unearthed. This power is tied to a supernatural order her Abuelo is a part of. The only thing is that the anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, is now after Sierra and her newfound power.
For anyone who’s a fan of audiobooks, grab Older’s series on this medium. Anika Noni Rose performs the series.
If you have access to YouTube or Amazon Prime, check out Juju, a “mystical, dark fantasy” that Jhé “Moon” Ferguson wrote. Following three best friends, Ferguson’s script is a mix between Charmed and Insecure.
Juju is about Ally, Gigi, and Yaya, three Black millennials tackling “Adulting” and being Black women in America. On Ally’s 28th birthday, the women learn that they are the descendant of Yoruba witches who must break a generational curse placed on them by a Salem witch.
Ally is played by Cydni Jenkins and is a descendant of women who practices Santería from Cuba. Her character speaks to anxiety-ridden Millennials who compare themselves to each other.
Nedge Victome portrays Gigi. This character is a powerful voodoo priestess from Haiti and Louisiana bayou. She’s a seductress who’s not afraid to speak her peace while tearing down the patriarchy.
Yaya is played by Cassandra Borgella and is the backbone of her friend group. Her character is a descendant of an Obeah woman in the Jamaican mountains. By nature, she is a giver and empathetic healer.
I really wanted to love Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi, but the themes and tropes all felt very cliched and overdone while reading it. I honestly felt as if I was rewatching every YA and Fantasy film I’ve ever loved blended and pureed into oblivion and then served to me tied up in a neat “diverse” bow.
To make matters worse, Adeyemi’s book was served up on a gilded platter in 2018 readers as the “diverse reading pick of the year” when it was merely a decent read that just happened to fill the void in a sea of whiteness that year.
Adeyemi’s book runs off the idea that magic is forbidden, and those who are maji, or magic-users, are hated and hunted. These characters are called things, like “maggots,” and live under oppressive systems or are just outright killed. Zélie, the main character in Children of Blood and Bone, is a part of the maji group. Along with her brother are on the run as they’re being pursued by Inan, who is the prince of their land. Inan is our usual male protagonist for fantasy with a “heavy burden” in life to uphold his tyrannical father’s genocidal beliefs. And of course, with this description, it is apparent that Zélie and Inan must fall in love at some point…insert eye roll here…
To put it plainly, Children of Blood and Bone was too long and too drawn out to match the hype it been given. However, I can’t lie and say that the book wasn’t on trend for what’s hot in pop culture and the YA genre right now.
For instance, I know that the religion that deals with Orïshas has just hit mainstream culture thanks to Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album. Due to this, everyone and their mother was scrambling to find a connection to these sacred figures in some way or other as a means to get “inspired” in their art. Still, Tomi Adeyemi’s usage of religion as a means of being the precursor to magic in the book just fell flat for me. With the overuse of the Orishas and the many poorly written and angsty passages that kept getting repeated, I felt as if I was being beaten over the head by this plot device.
Likewise, the character development in the book was too drawn out for me. The teenage angst in this book was drawn out thanks to the repetitive scenes and the book’s length. In a way, I almost wish I could get to know the characters more because it feels as if they’ve all become too close, too quick in the way they are put together, causing a lot of their relationships between the four main characters to feel forced to me.
I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but I have to be honest and say, for me, this book was decent at best and overwritten at worst. That being said, after reading this first installment in the series, I hope that the filler passages get cut from the second book. If not, It would be nice if Adeyemi could find a way to balance out the “action” and “traveling” scenes and allows the characters to find a way to interact outside of combat. I think this would help round out the characters’ relationships and clear parts of the novel up where the world-building was murky. Having the characters tell the reader about the world they live in through daily interaction and good dialogue would allow us as readers to breathe in between fight scenes. Obviously, Adeyemi is a good writer, but she seemed to have thrown a lot into this first novel.
In terms of recommending this book, I think it’s a decent start to a fantasy series and will possibly pick up the second book. Regarding the Orisha element of the novel, though, I’d personally say American Street by Ibi Zoboi deals with representing these religious figureheads so much better.
In American Street, Zoboi mixes Haitian Voudon beliefs about their Loas with a Detroit setting to tell a gritty story about Fabiola, a young Haitian girl, as she tries to bring her mother home from the detention center she’s being held at since she is an immigrants. Zoboi’s writing style is impeccable and seamless as she fits together with the urban setting of Detroit with the mystical elements of her narrative.
Unlike Adeyemi’s book, the pacing for American Street is streamlined and clean. This will keep readers from getting bored and from becoming frustrated with the teenage characters. Not to mention, the book is just amazing, and I would highly recommend it. Children of Bone and Blood not so much.
A: Thank you for your time, Ms. Dixon! I got a chance to read your essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and your poetry collection, No God In This Room, last month, and both pieces really resonated with me!
What was the process like writing and getting The Incredible Shrinking Woman published? Did you find your experience with an independent press different than working with a larger publisher?
AD: The manuscript started as a series of individual essays in 2012. I was going through a pretty rough breakup and I found poetry wasn’t giving me the space I needed to express everything I was feeling. I began writing personal essays as a remedy. In 2016, I attended a creative non-fiction conference and started toying with the idea of pulling together a book. I threw together every essay I’d written over that four-year span and started trying to make sense of it. It didn’t go too well and I went back and forth in adding and subtracting pieces from it. I continued to write and publish work from time to time and in late 2019 I thought I’d come up with a decent manuscript. I researched presses I thought would be a good home for the book and came up with a list of four. I did not pursue publishing with a larger press at all. Fortunately for me, Split/Lip was on my first-choice list and wanted to give the book home.
Working with an independent press has been great! From the very beginning I’ve felt that they were not only interested in the book, but also me as a person. Writing personal essays can be a very scary thing and having a group of people working on your project who respect that is a gift. Being with an indie press allowed me to have a stronger voice in the kinds of edits I was willing or unwilling to accept. I also had amazing freedom in deciding on my cover design, promo events, and blurbs. It felt more like a collaboration than someone doing me a favor by publishing my work.
A: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: I generally consider myself my first audience and from there I hope to find a connection with people who’ve had similar experiences. I hope that I am writing for people who feel on the fringes or invisible—kinda like background music. Those people who help make the world go ‘round but aren’t necessarily the ones in the spotlight. I think it is important to craft stories for audiences who are dynamic and interesting in ways that may not always get attention. There is a world of people who feel as if they don’t have a voice and I hope that in my exploration of my own invisibility and shrinking I am helping them be seen and heard as well.
A: In a virtual craft chat with The Writer’s Center, you mentioned “wanting to be seen and then being afraid when you [were] seen [and] working through what you’re asking people to see.” Did this sentiment play into naming your essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: The collection had several names, but this one seemed to fit the best once the final slate of essays was solidified. When I began writing, I thought I was writing about something completely different, but as the manuscript progressed it seemed more and more, I was writing about ideas of shrinking and invisibility. I’d never considered just how much time I’d spent trying to fit into boxes and roles that never seemed to contain all I believe I am. But I also had to confront what it means to be seen. Asking for it and actually having it are worlds different. There’s a bit of a play on words with the title, too. There is the active shrinking that takes place, but there are also elements of a sideshow or exposure in the use of the word incredible.
A: My favorite essay in your collection is “Reader’s Insert.” In the piece, you say:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve slipped myself into roles that don’t quite fit, roles that aren’t quite real…I’ve always felt invisible, so accurately telling the story of me starts with a disappearing act.
Invisible. It’s a word that has gotten blowback from friends and family in ways I never expected. I suppose they think they see me. But I don’t think anyone really does. At least in terms of a whole person, that is.”
This quote resonated with me because, as a Black woman, there seems to be a substantial gap between the expectations placed on us individually and as a group versus the actual empathy that is offered to us as human beings. Instead, we seem to be rendered as invisible or treated as pieces of a whole. Did your perception or definition of yourself change as you wrote this collection of essays and came into your voice as a writer?
AD: My greatest fear putting the collection in the world was being exposed and judged. I thought people would see me as weak or damaged in some way, but I found that I grew more confident personally and creatively as the collection took shape. I think it is partially because I was able to let go of some experiences that had been weighing me down and also realizing there are dynamic parts of me I should share with the world despite my fears. As well, by examining some of the issues in the collection, I was able to see parts of myself I couldn’t while I was in the thick of it. I learned I am much stronger than I knew and that I have so much to offer to not only myself but also the world. I think writing the book helped me unlock portions of myself I’d hidden away in order to fit what I thought the world wanted to see of me.
A: Your essay, “Native Tongue,” was another favorite for me. One of the things I loved about your essays is the way that you give voice to those Black girls who aren’t labeled as being “conventionally Black” in the way you described your cousins as being with their “Salt N’ Pepa hairstyles” or even your best friend, Greta. Why was it important for you to tell this particular story of coming into your Blackness in “Native Tongue?”
AD: It was important for me because I think sometimes there’s an idea that if you are born into a particular background you settle in smoothly. For me, I always felt loved and cared for, but I struggled to find where I fit within the confines of the culture around me. I so badly wanted to be like my cousins and my parents, but I never considered the idea there were other avenues that were tailored to me. And I think it was important to recognize and acknowledge my own narrow view of what I thought Blackness entailed.
A: There’s a line in “Vagina, Slightly Used,” where you say:
“It’s because I’d felt so invisible my entire existence that I gathered greedily what was laid out before me. I’ve always felt like my being deemed desirable by a man was a fluke.”
In the same way you give voice to the “non-conventional” Black girls, you represent for women who are believed to take up too much space physically with their bodies and those Black women who are denying themselves a “fairytale ending” because the world said we can’t/don’t deserve one.
Currently, soundbites of “image consultants,” like Kevin Samuels, and celebrities, like B. Simone, are going viral for shaming Black women for daring to believing we deserve a happy ending. Do you feel as if there is starting to be a movement to commodify the inherent “shame” that Black women, like yourself and I, are fed throughout our lives by mass media and brands?
AD: I do. I think people are so intent on solidifying their own importance, and pockets, that they are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to do so. I think it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities while setting impossible standards they can never achieve because the goal posts always move. There is a part of me that feels some of this is a backlash to the “less desirable” women starting to gain confidence or ignoring what society thinks they should be. The shameful part of it is when other Black people, who know discrimination and harm first hand, take part in it denigrating their own people for the sake of profit and popularity.
A: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is raw and has so many visceral moments that left me, as a reader, swept up emotionally in your words because of their authenticity and how true they rang in my lived experience as a Black woman. How were you able to draw on so many powerful emotions as a writer, and not become bogged down by them long enough to get your thoughts onto the paper?
AD: I was able to do that in some instances, but there were a few times that I got lost. I couldn’t read “Liturgy” without crying for about a year after I wrote it. Part of that was because I hadn’t really dealt with that grief. Fortunately, I’d processed, or started to process, most of the other topics I covered in the book. I look at my subjects as a bruise. If I can touch it and there is only an ache then I feel safe writing about it. If there is marked pain, then I know that I am not ready to fully explore that topic for public consumption.
A: Music is heavily attached to your writing with your father being a DJ. What’s on your playlist now?
AD: I have a playlist for everything, but there are few things I have on repeat right now. “Everything I Wanted” by Nuq, “Moment” by Victoria Monet, “Good & Plenty” by Alex Isley, “I Mean It” by PJ, “Vibe” by Cookie Kawaii, and “Whoa (Remix)” by Snoh Aalegra feat Pharell Williams. I’ve also been using “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughn and “All Blues” by Miles Davis to craft a few pieces on my plate at the moment.
A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?
A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?
AD: I would say write for yourself before anyone else. If there is no heart or passion behind what you are writing your audience can tell. If you don’t like what you are writing why would your readers?
A: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Dixon! I can’t wait to read more of your work!
Athena’s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018), and a Tin House Workshop attendee (Winter 2019). Athena is a member of the Moving Forewards Memoir Writers Collective. Additionally, she has presented at AWP (2013, 2020), HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and The Muse and the Marketplace (2019) among other panels and conferences.
Fans of Netflix’s On My Block and readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas will love this debut novel about a girl whose life is turned upside down after one local act of vandalism throws both her relationships and neighborhood into turmoil.
Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and the memories she has growing up there with her friends. Ginger East isn’t what it used to be though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, most of her friends’ families moved away. Kate, whose family owns the local corner store, is still there and as long as that stays constant, Nelo’s good.
When Kate’s parent’s store is vandalized and the vandal still at large, Nelo is shaken to her core. And then the police and the media get involved and more of the outside world descends upon Ginger East with promises to “fix the neighborhood.” Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.
Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She’s pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Now Nelo’s entire world is morphing into something she hates and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything–and everyone–she loves.
A: Congratulations on your debut novel, Like Home, Ms. Onomé! What was the process like writing your first book?
LO: Thank you! The process was honestly pretty fun. I love every stage of writing a book because I tend to treat them as separate opportunities to fine-tune a story. When I was drafting, I had the most fun making things up and throwing things together to see what stuck. My process is a little chaotic. When I was revising (which I learned to do effectively while writing this book), I enjoyed asking myself tougher questions about how each character or each plot point was showing up. Overall, it was such a great learning experience.
A: The neighborhood of Ginger East felt so authentic to the story you’re telling about gentrification and coming of age in a place that others have written off as being “rundown” or “unfavorable.” Did you have any specific places that inspired the creation of Ginger East?
LO: Ginger East was loosely inspired by the neighbourhood I grew up in just west of Toronto. While the place I lived was more residential and had a mix of household incomes, it also had a growing immigrant population and was enriched by the experiences people brought to the neighbourhood. I was honestly very fortunate to have had that experience.
A: There is a strong sense of community that Chinelo constantly references within Like Home. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote Chinelo and the characters of Ginger East in your novel?
LO: I define community as a place where you are seen and heard for who you authentically are. As such, Nelo really feels at home in Ginger East, not only because she grew up there and doesn’t know anywhere else, but because the people there understand her as well as she understands the area. It was important for me to define it that way because sometimes, as shown in Like Home, we live in communities where not everyone has our backs, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a part of the fabric of that neighbourhood.
During the lecture, Lee touched on how gentrification was ruining the local neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York City in his rant asking, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?… What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore!”
Why was it so important for Chinelo, a sixteen-year-old teenager, to evoke the same disdain and possessiveness over the gentrification of her Ginger East community in your novel as Spike Lee, a then fifty-seven-year-old man, did for his neighborhood of Fort Greene?
LO: That’s such a great quote! In Like Home, Nelo’s possessiveness comes strictly from her inability to accept change. She’s sixteen and all she knows is the place she grew up. To see it change so brazenly without any regard for the people who live there, her family and friends, it begins to make sense how she would have such anger over new businesses moving in or rent prices increasing. Something she knows so well is being pulled out from underneath her by people she knows don’t care about people like her. That feeling of being neglected, of not really being seen, is a strong pain point for her and I think is something a lot of marginalized people can relate to.
A: In the same vein, Chinelo is facing an uphill battle trying to convince people in her age and friend group that fighting against Ginger East’s gentrification is important. This is in direct opposition to Maree, one of Chinelo’s ex-best friends, who becomes a social media influencer and capitalizes off her connection to what she deems her “old trashy neighborhood.” Why was it essential for you to include a character like Maree in Like Home and the discussion of gentrification in contrast to Chinelo?
LO: Great question! It was important to me because a lot of us have to deal with people like Maree in our daily lives. There is a recognition there, unfortunately. Maree represents the largest block that Chinelo has to face when it comes to attitudes about Ginger East and places like it: apathy. It’s one thing to try and change a place, but it’s harder to try and change someone’s mind. Chinelo believes if more people cared, then it would be possible to make a difference, but Maree exists in direct opposition to that in many ways.
A: Black girlhood is a multi-faceted thing that can hold joy and beauty. However, it also can be a scary time in a Black girl’s life. Like Home strikes this wonderful chord where it is perfectly nostalgic of what being a teenager is like in the age of social media while also honoring the fact that Chinelo’s character is the child of immigrants and held to a different standard than others in her age group maybe. Were there any parts of your childhood as a Nigerian-Canadian author that you used as inspiration to writing Chinelo’s character?
LO: Yes I agree! It’s such a delicate time, but so multi-faceted. There were small instances I mined from my experience as a Nigerian-Canadian that I put into Nelo’s experiences, such as the chain messages from family, but not a lot of overt things. Instead, her Nigerian-Canadian identity is more in her way of being and existing in the world. I guess it’s like that for everybody, though.
A: In a blog post you did for the “Her Story: Ladies in Literature” series on Pop Goes the Reader’s last year, you made mention of the fact that when reading, you “[identify] with the quieter characters; ones whose motivations maybe are subtler, or ones who aren’t at the forefront of a conflict….[since] our motivations aren’t always lived out loud.”
This quote really resonated with me because when reading about Chinelo, her character felt relatable. There’s a debate currently in the book community about how #OwnVoices authors are often asked to draw on traumatic or stereotypical experiences to get published, which does not always leave room for a “quiet character” in areas like Black Literature. Did you feel any pressure to make Chinelo or the story you wrote fit into either of these categories?
LO: Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that resonated with you. I’m thankful in that I didn’t feel that kind of pressure to make Chinelo anything other than who she is. I modelled her after the girls I had seen and the girl I had been growing up in the Greater Toronto Area. I know so many Chinelos. She’s not an uncommon figure around here: someone who has opinions, doesn’t always speak when spoken to, and prioritizes her friends and family above all else. I didn’t want to write a character who was meant to be some sort of martyr or one-size-fits-all representation for Black girls, because as we know, Black people aren’t a monolith. I hope readers can find comfort in knowing that even though Chinelo isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a YA protagonist, she still has value.
A: Often, when I’m reading stories about activism in YA, it feels as if it’s taking place in a parallel universe based on how outlandish the methods and situations authors give their characters to carry out. Yet, the way you write about the grassroots movement Chinelo and her community put together to protest the gentrification of Ginger East feels very “do-able.” Is there a message about community involvement and activism that you want readers to take from Like Home?
LO: Yes, for sure. Oftentimes, labels can be somewhat daunting for those of us who just want to help in any way we can. I’d love for readers to take away the fact that all forms of help are different, and you don’t need to have the loudest voice to move the needle. I think it’s important to recognize that starting where you are, doing what you feel most comfortable with, is still good enough.
A: What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-reads?”
LO: My biggest writing influences are usually music or video games, because I love to try and recapture emotions. But also, I’m such a fan of Nicola Yoon’s work. I think her writing is so sincere and so magical. I’m a big fan of the characterization in Mary H.K. Choi’s work too.
A: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?
LO: Just like with reaching out and helping with causes you care about, it’s important with writing to start where you are. Write what makes you happy, write what makes you sad, write easy things, write hard things, find readers you can trust, take feedback, leave feedback, grow, continue to learn. Be as ready as possible for when your number is called, because it will be!
Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Ms. Onomé!
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow was enuf by Ntozake Shange Choreopoem Review
Shange’s choreopoem was very interesting to read. In the beginning I was confused by Shange’s abbreviations and had to use guess work to figure out what she was saying, but as the choreopoem went on, I got better at discerning what she was saying since she frequently repeated certain words like cd (could) or waz (was). Thank goodness for this because the action in this choreopoem speeds by and if you’re not on point, you’ll easily miss something. Since this was a choreopoem, the actual character building isn’t really meant to be full blown. In addition, Shange’s motives for creating the characters is meant more so for them to represent ideas than for them to actually have personalities.
For Colored Girls Movie Review
While I did like this choreopoem, I would have to say without actually seeing a visual interpretation of it (be it a theatrical production, the tv movie, or the film adaptation), one could get lost fairly easily. Since I read this choreopoem for an assignment and watched Tyler Perry’s film adaptation in tangent with reading Shange’s work, I have to say, I actually got a better feeling for what Shange was doing with her work from watching Perry’s movie. Without seeing Shange’s work in action, I would have just chalked this read up as an overblown classic, but the visual representation made this piece one of my favorite…movies that is. I know this is harsh, but I still felt as if Shange’s work would be better off packaged as simple poems in written form opposed to as a single unit that is meant to be read as a full chorepoem/play. And yes, I am aware that Shange admits that she did write these poems singuraly and later preformed then as a collective unit however, I must go off of how it was presented to me in it’s published form.
Perry’s film on the other hand was OUT-STANDING! At the time this film came out, I was under the impression that it would be similar to his other works and that the film itself was scary since it deals with subject matter like, abortions and rape. However, I was pleasently surprised to find that Perry handled everything tastefully. The actresses he chose to represent each character was phenomenal and fitting. I especially enjoyed Loretta Devine as the lady in green and Anika Noni Rose as the lady in yellow. These two poured their hearts into their characters and it shows.
Out of all the poems though, my favorites from both, the choreopoem and the film would have to be “somebody almost walked off with all my stuff” and “no assistance” performed by Loretta Devine in Perry’s film and “my love is too…,” which was performed by all the colored ladies in the film and choreopoem. from the film version and “dark phrases,” which was also performed by all the colored ladies in the film and choreopoem in the written form.
This choreopoem is something I would recommend that everybody read and watch at least once. It’s definitely gives one food for thought. But, beware, viewer discretion is advised.Shange’s work isn’t for a younger audience, it’s better suited for individuals who can truly grasp what is being talked about in the poems.
This is one of my favorite scenes from the Tyler Perry film. Have a look and tell me below if you have ever seen the movie or the choreopoem performed.
I also love the way Ntozake Shange critiques Tyler Perry’s movie in this discussion too. It offers a lot of insight on the the final production of the movie that adds another layer to what transpired in the movie.
I’d like to preface this review with the disclaimer that I do not mean to be jerky. However, my feelings in this review come from a place of wonderment at the state of emotion that come from bringing certain topics up in our society.
That being said, something that I find so interesting about stories that deal with illnesses is that they seem to skirt the issues of being sick and the “perks” that terminally ill people seem to receive. However, John Green stands stoically in his authorship and calls us all out on our bull****.
Both, Augustus and Hazel are made into optimistic if not angsty teenagers who are speeding toward oblivion furiously reaching out for a lifeline to keep them tethered to this world. While,I respect Green’s writing style and story, I found that the characters themselves are not entirely new to literature. Hazel becomes the symbolic character that gets left behind once her boyfriend gets spirited off (no pun intended) to the after world and Augustus is the character who dies before his time. Together, their story while cute in some spots and heart-wrenchingly sad in others is not one that was fresh enough for me to fall down in total awe upon it’s ending.
Yet, I can say that I was enticed by the idea that two people could go on this sort of journey together to excavate a story’s ending from their favorite author half-way across the world. Green produces this adventure in a way that’s so realistic that I found myself seriously thunderstruck when I got to the scene where Peter Van Houten denies these two cancer-ridden teenagers their last grand “wish.” At this point in the story, I came to the conclusion that maybe what people like Augustus and Hazel really need is not so much our pity for them but, our understanding that they are really just individuals who are just like their “healthy” contemporaries who are searching for life’s answers. Therefore, the one thing that seriously struck me in this novel is that people like Augustus and Hazel are no different than you or I. Like us, their death is inevitable. However, unlike us, they have a ballpark figure of when their final days are going to draw to a close.
Overall, I found the book to be an interesting and funny read with a light romance laced throughout the plot. I would recommend the book to others as a conversation starter but, not as a book that needs to be continuously read to understand it.