As far as I am concerned, there are only 2 categories of holiday reading–romance novels and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The end of the year is often hectic and it’s nice to take a moment and remember that love is real and ghosts sometimes yell at stingy rich guys.
The thing about romance novels is that they’re predictable in all the best of ways. When The Wind Chimes by Mary Ting is no exception. A poor, talented and somewhat insecure artist goes to visit her family in Hawaii for Christmas, where she’s magnetically drawn to a fantastically rich, impossibly perfect, aloof single dad. I bet you can guess exactly how the story goes just from that very brief description(and if you can’t, where have you been, friend?) There’s a little Christmas magic, some good family scenes, and a lot of awkward attraction that blossoms into unrealistically quick love–and I’m here for all of that. It’s exactly the kind of cheerful, light entertainment I crave for the holidays. ⠀
While reading this book, it occurred to me that this is the first romance novel with an Asian-American biracial heroine written by an Asian-American author that I’ve ever read. As a genre, romance has its fair share of fetish and stereotype issues, but Kate, the star of this book, loves her family, gets her man and lives her life without ONCE talking about the shape of her eyes or her immigrant parents. It’s refreshing to see, to be honest. ⠀⠀
One more thing–apparently it’s good to add the steam level in romance novel reviews. There is no steam whatsoever in this book. It’s remarkably chaste and relies more on emotions than . Having to rely on emotional chemistry rather than lust is challenging in a romance, and I do think the main guy could have had a smidge more personality and initiative to help things along–my only real criticism. ⠀⠀
All year I’ve been reading around themes. In February I read books by Black American authors for Black History Month. In May I read books by Asian and Asian-American authors for Asian-Pacific-Islander Heritage Month. Pride Month had me exploring the words of authors in the LGBTQIA+ community and a little over a month ago, I read books by Latinx authors for Hispanic Heritage month from September 15th – October 15th. Now, the year is almost over. It’s November and I’ve spent the month reading books by Indigenous American authors in honor of Native American Heritage month. It’s made for an interesting, illuminating year in reading, and through it all, I’ve come to one conclusion…
I’m not doing this again next year.
Look, I’m the Equal Opportunity Reader, not the Performative Ethnic Consumerism Reader. I like mixing things up and drawing comparisons between art in different communities side by side, not isolating myself in pools of one culture at a time. It was a good idea at first but ultimately, all I did was give myself continual cases of the literary DT’s. While I was reading solely Black writers in February, I found myself longing for books by Arab writers. While I was reading Latinx writers, I was wondering about books by Asians. While reading Indigenous writers, I started missing Black voices. Meanwhile my favorite writer babies, my multiethnic, multicultural, category defying literati were being sorely neglected. I managed to assuage a lot of this by choosing books that intersected multiple communities as often as I could, but to be honest by the time I got to my Latinx Heritage Month recap I felt like a tacky hacktivist cheeseball. I read books from multicultural communities anyway naturally, without needing to announce them in theme park chunks. So while there were definitely good things about curating my reading patterns so intentionally this year–which I’ll get to in a moment–next year I’m going to do things a little differently, a little more intuitively, and a little more naturally. Watch this space.
That said, it hasn’t been all bad. Reading books from specific communities for a month at a time all year has been illuminating in some ways. For Native American Heritage Month, I learned quite a few new things. One is that Indigenous writers are killin’ the game, in every possible genre of literature. Once I scratched at the surface of the Native literary canon I was pleased and excited by how many good books I discovered, then annoyed by how little I’d heard about them all. I read four or five books this month, but I’m heading into 2021 with a list of 25 or so that I cannot wait to read. (If you’re curious, I made a quiz of the ones I read and the ones I still want to here. Go see how many you’ve read and report back in the comments.) Poetry, literary, speculative, horror, romance, historical, non-fiction–you name it and there are spectacular Indigenous writers cranking out incredible books in every genre. I know it sounds a bit facile to point that out–after all, the whole point of this blog is that there are writers of every background writing incredible books and we should pay attention to as many of them as we can, not just the white famous ones–but the thing that shocked me is that I had never heard of any of these writers. Me, who used to teach Tomson Highway in my freshman lit classes, who thinks N Scott Momaday is the best writer of landscapes alive, and who has helped several friends evict The Education of Little Tree from their bookshelves? Me, with my nerdy obsessions with the publishing industry, non-performative diversity, American communities “of color” and my own minimal-but-intriguing indigenous heritage–I had still never heard of most of these fabulous Indigenous writers. Where have I been? I know where they’ve been–killin’ the game!
Aside from exposing my own ignorance and a terrible imbalance of marketing dollars in the publishing industry, I was also saddened by the evidence of ongoing genocidal thought and action when it comes to the individual nations that Indigenous Americans belong to. One of the strongest markers of this seems small but isn’t, really. Try searching for the common colonial name of any Indigenous nation in Google. Just try it. Look up Iroquois, Mojave, Mohawk, Chippewa, Seminole, Sioux, Osage, Ojibwe. Then note how long you have to scroll down through the search results before you get to actual information about and pictures of the people who are called by that name. You’ll get consumer products, fashion trends, corporate entities, science experiments and in one shocking instance, even dogs before you get to the people those names belong to. This is unacceptable.
I know that the names I listed above are not actually the proper names of those ethnic groups, but if you know that, you already know the problems that exist when it comes to Indigenous Americans and their treatment by the government and other communities. I also know that for those who do not know much about Indigenous people, those are the names that have stuck, and they no longer belong to people in the common parlance. To put it into the perspective that struck me–I am Black and very aware of how low on the American caste system my community is seen. If you search for Black people or bring up Black people in discussion, it won’t be long until you find racism, anti-Blackness, smug cultural appropriation and a level of aggression towards us that makes my eyes water to even think about. But we exist. In the eyes of mainstream, assimilationist America, Indigenous people barely even exist. Again, this is unacceptable and we all must educate ourselves out of this mental habit of erasing our Indigenous brothers and sisters due to sheer ignorance.
Which brings me to the third thing I learned this month. I learned that Indigenous Americans exist. Their cultures are diverse, varied, and resilient. Indigenous Americans have survived in the face of deliberate attempts at erasure, despite suffering genocide in all forms and enduring systematic discrimination. I learned that just like in every community, words are the key to preserving all the things that make a culture, recognizing all the things that keep a culture growing and moving forward into the future, and exposing all the things that work against a culture and a people to try and destroy them. I learned that I should be reading more Indigenous authors and paying more attention to Indigenous issues. I learned that indigeneity is woven indelibly into the fabric of America, into every person and community–not in a cheesy “my grandmother was a Cherokee princess” kind of way, but in a “we have all survived this country’s attempts to murder and subjugate us, and we’re connected, by our food and our music and our art, and our families, even though we don’t always know it–and I should honor that more” kind of way. I also learned that good Indigenous writers, like all good writers, tell damn good stories and if there’s one thing my life could always use more of, it’s good stories by good writers.
That said–let’s get to the books.
As always, you can see the whole list including some titles I don’t talk about in detail in the blog HERE. Also, for the new arrivals and the people in the cheap seats–I’m not an expert or a literary scholar. I just like reading and talking about books. This list is not exhaustive and it isn’t meant to be. Don’t come at me with anything weird unless it’s also smart. So…
Natalie Diaz(Mojave/’Aha Makhav) writes the way sweaty old jazz musicians in dark smoky clubs play, which is to say with unparalleled, painful virtuosity. This collection was a banging start to the month–the theme is desire vs. erasure, and indeed most of the poems are love songs to the women Diaz desires. Whether they are real or symbolic really is up to the poet and the reader, I suppose, but my favorite poems in the collection are those dedicated to Mojave water rights and basketball. While this didn’t hit as hard as her previous collection, When My Brother Was An Aztec, the writing is still amazing and elicited a few out-loud oh-my-Gods on the train. Find it here.
This is easily one of my favorite books of 2020. It’s a ghost story, a whodunit, a YA fantasy novel, a teen summer caper story, a fairy tale and a mythology primer all at once. Elatsoe(E-lat-soh-ay) and her ghostly adventures unrolled in front of my eyes like a film and I’m not sure I’ve been so immersed in a book since Girl, Woman, Other back in January. The story draws a lot foundationally from both the “standard” fairy-tale fantasy canon–faerie, vampires and the like–but also from Little Badger’s Lipan Apache heritage. It’s a beautiful mix that both loves and chastises America for the tales we tell as a country. It’s also an amazing story and I really want Little Badger to write more and get this to be made into a film if only so I can see the part where someone defeats a vampire by revoking his invitation to Native land in a theater and laugh out loud unselfconsciously. This one is worth buying, reading, loving, and sharing with the kids. Find it here.
This is one of the most unique books I’ve read, especially for middle grade fiction. It deals with some very tricky issues–13 year old Collin leaves his white dad in California to live with his Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) mother in Minnesota, knowing nothing but the broadest of stereotypes and minimizing racist language about that half of his heritage. Lucky for him, his mom lives in a community full of joy, patience and good humor that quickly brings him up to speed, with a little help from the pretty girl next door–who believes she’s turning into a butterfly. This books sounds strange, but it isn’t, even though the more details I add, the odder it seems–Collin also has a form of OCD that requires counting compulsions, and there are subplots that somehow manage to bring in representation for all sorts of unexpected groups of people. Despite all this it’s a pretty typical coming of age middle grade story, with a lot of heart and a good message overall. If I had a kid, I’d let them read it, but there are a few moments in the book that we’d have to Talk About. Find it here.
I’m having a hard time finishing this simply because I don’t like it very much. (whew) There, I said it. It’s mostly trauma porn so far, which is a shame because the premise is very interesting. The author is Afro-Indigenous, from a family with the same ethnically checkered, erasure-riddled history that many Americans have, and dives into an exploration of what that means both historically for Afro-Indigenous communities and personally for her. I want to love this memoir, but there’s just too much real pain here, raw and bloody on the page. The pain is examined but not interrogated, and it’s like watching someone helpless be beaten, over and over again. This just isn’t an enjoyable book, despite its significance. When I finish I’ll review it in more detail, but so far this one is a disappointment for me.
This book, on the other hand, I’m really enjoying. One of the best surprises this month has been how incredible(and largely unsung) Indigenous speculative and fantasy fiction writers are. This book, for example, is based in the history and mythologies of pre-Hispanic South and Central America and whoa. In some ways, it’s a standard fantasy story but the worldbuilding is a creative joy, and resonates very deeply with my fantasy-loving yet dismissive of European-centering heart desires. If the characters build up to the heights the worldbuilding has already reached, this might be another new favorite. Interesting side note: both unfinished books in progress for this month are by Afro-Indigenous writers, as Roanhorse is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and Black American descent.
The Books I Want To Read…
Y’all know how it is. The number of books I want to read exceeds the number of hours I have to read them in, so the following titles have been relegated to the “to be read” pile for now…
The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones – The first two lines of this horror novel are “The headline for Richard Boss Ribs would be INDIAN MAN KILLED IN DISPUTE OUTSIDE BAR. That’s one way to say it.” Just from that, I’m intrigued as to what this story of four friends from the Blackfeet Nation pursued by the past–and its entities–holds. However, it’s horror, and can I be frank with you all? It’s 2020, we’re all dealing with this weird year in weird ways, and one of the ways that I am caring for my readerly self this year is by not being here for horror fiction. Nope. Can’t do it. I live alone in a foreign country during a pandemic. I can’t be introducing otherworldly beasties to my thoughts in those conditions, I’m already constantly fighting off the freak outs. So, this book is going to have to wait for less fraught days to be introduced to my locker of literary horrors. It looks like a great book, but I just couldn’t do it this month.
Islands of Decolonial Love, by Leanne Simpson – It’s been a while since I’ve read a good short story collection, and the reviews of Simpson’s work made it sound a bit like literary fiction counterparts to Tomson Highway plays(which I love). Still, I try not to read multiple books from the same communities within a demograpic in the same month, and Simpson is Ojibwe like James Bird, albeit a different nation. Also, I needed a little more magic and a little less trauma and musing in my life, so Simpson got the boot. Jokes on me, because The Brave was still pretty traumatic.
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich – Erdrich is the queen bee of Indigenous writers–she’s at the top of every recommendations list, she owns a famous bookstore, she’s won awards and for some strange reason, none of her books really appeal to me yet. I’m sure when it’s time I’ll pick up one of her works and be enthralled, but that day hasn’t come yet. Also, Erdrich is yet another Anishinaabe writer, and I wanted to diversify my reading a bit.
NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes From The Field, by Billy Ray Belcourt – I read maybe two-thirds of a Belcourt poem once and it hit me in the side of the neck, spun me around and made me sit down and seriously consider my life choices, self-concept and whether or not I really understood how to use the English language like a truly competent adult for a minute. Bro is wicked with a pen, and I love it. (He’s also Driftpile Cree, not Anishinaabe, so–diversity! But he’s also Canadian, so I disqualified him again based on that. This is why I need to get away from this tiny category system next year. Borders are fake and often unhelpful in this post-colonial world.) I was in the mood for some ferocious poetry, overdue to read a whole work from the award-winning young poet, and really was hoping to get into this, but just didn’t have time. Perhaps it’s just as well–I’m not sure my life has space for poetry-induced existential crisis at the moment. If yours does, let me know how this is.
There’s other writers I really wanted to get into–particularly Waubgeshig Rice, who writes haunting dystopian fiction but is Canadian and also another Anishinaabe writer(I swear y’all are the Dominicans of the Indigenous community–just everywhere!) and didn’t fit into this month’s theme. To see works by him and all the other excellent writers I left off this list, check the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. (Don’t forget, any purchases made will result in a commission being earned by this blog. Thanks!)
Peace, fellow readers, and keep reading diverse books!
13-year old Collin has an OCD-related condition that makes him compulsively count the letters in every word said to him and blurt it out. This has gotten him bullied out of every school in the area and his distant, alcoholic dad finally can’t take it anymore. He packs up Collin and his dog and ships them both off to live with Collin’s estranged mom. ⠀ But here’s the thing–Collin’s dad is white, a California golden boy who’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t know what to do with his weird, disappointing son. Collin’s mom is Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and lives on a reservation in Minnesota. Collin doesn’t know his mom, her culture or anything about Indigenous people except for stereotypes and the casually racist and minimizing language he learned from his dad. It takes extraordinary patience on the part of his mom, challenges from the mysterious girl next door and a community of people who delight in pranking Collin using the silly stereotypes he believes to help him embrace his indigenous heritage fully.⠀ ⠀ I liked this book, but have mixed feelings about it. I liked the story, the emotions pulled me in, and the characters are a lot of fun to get to know. The whole book has a freshness to it that I really enjoyed. Bird is a screenwriter by trade, and this would make a great Disney Channel movie. Also, this book has amazing representation–a multiracial neuro-atypical protagonist with side characters who are gay, non-binary, in blended and multicultural families, have chronic illnesses, and so on.⠀ ⠀ But it is a middle grade novel, so it never lets you forget its messages™. Magical spirituality features pretty heavily into the story in a way that teeters perilously close to the stereotypes the book works so hard to make fun of. (Although, Bird does get points for not overexplaining his own culture, in true #ownvoices style). Other moments just had me scratching my head. For example–Collin manages to get kicked out of a dozen public schools for fighting bullies due to his condition, his mother is a public school teacher, his grandparents are old money white folks, yet somehow he never sees a therapist or social worker? Also, I won’t tell you how his condition gets “resolved”, but I thought it did disservice to neuro-atypical people, Ojibwe spirituality and…puppy love. Trust me on that last one.⠀ ⠀ If I had a kid, I’d encourage them to read this but would initiate a talk about some of the stronger themes, to stretch them beyond the narrative presented here. However, just the fact that this book was published and contains all of these challenging ideas and information is remarkable and I’m happy I read it. ⠀ ⠀ 4 stars and a string of numbers to The Brave.
(Beautiful people! This is my last review for Native American Heritage Month 2020–I’ve learned a lot and hope you have too. Recap coming soon, and meanwhile, you can take a look at all of the titles I read and considered HERE, at the Equal Opportunity BookshopAlso, this is the part where I remindyou that this blog has affiliate relationships and any clicks and purchases from links you find on these pages will result in a commission being earned! Peace!)
Today, November 20th, is Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a day to memorialize the individuals who have lost their lives due to anti-transgender violence — a shockingly normal occurrence. There’s not much I can say about the stats that would be adequate, but I will say this: take a moment and show some love to a transgender person you know today, beautiful people, even if it’s yourself.
The week before today is Transgender Awareness Week. 80% of Americans apparently have never (knowingly) met a transgender person, according to GLAAD. I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve always been around a lot of different sorts of people–part of the birthright of being a cis Black woman in the Western US. However, it was around this time last year that it occurred to me that I’d read few, if any books by transgender authors. About trans people, sure. But trans-ness was thin on the ground in my book collection–this is what I came up with, when all was said and done.
Pitiful. The only transgender author I’d read was Eddie Izzard’s (disappointingly dry) memoir. The rest were books about trans people from decidedly cis-straight perspectives, either as projects, side characters, or nebulous speculative concepts.
Like I said, pitiful.
So, I decided that between last Transgender Awareness Week and this one, I’d make an effort to read more books by trans people.
I’ve read two. And started one other.
Well, that’s something to keep working on in 2021. In lieu of my usual list of “books I’ve read around a theme” this is going to be more of a “books I want to read around a theme, eventually” list. See the whole shebang here, including a few books I didn’t have room for in this post. Let’s get started with…
This book has made its way onto several of my 2020 lists, and for good reason. It’s an intimate memoir about a South African transgender man’s life escaping from abuse, discovering success, and embarking on a gender confirmation journey. Landa reached out to me personally about the review and was super nice about it, as well, even sharing it to his Instagram story(!). Still, even if he hadn’t contacted me, I’d still have pretty high praise for this personal, affecting work.
I didn’t like Filipina Harvard grad Meredith Talusan’s memoir of life as an albino immigrant trans woman in the Ivy League nearly as much as Mabenge’s story. To be fair, Talusan is pretty open about how little she cares about being likable in text, but still, months after reading this, something about the way she portrays herself irritates me. Still, there’s something to be said by how intentionally she steers the narrative away from trauma and dysphoria, acknowledging that not all transgender people have the same experience and being very authentic to her own.
Akwaeke Emezi is personally non-binary, not transgender, so I debated on whether or not to include them on this list. They’re here because Pet’s teenage protagonist, Jam, is a transgender girl. I can’t tell you much more than that–I didn’t get very far into this novel yet. There’s nothing wrong with it–I just never seem to be in the mood for YA when I pick it up. I would recommend it though–what I’ve read so far is intriguing. Also, the author has stated in interviews that this book is about a Black transgender girl living a supported, happy life going on adventures–I’m sold just because it promises joy and isn’t trauma-focused.
Books I Want to Try To Read in 2021…
Okay, so first of all, best laid plans of mice and men, okay? Like most heavy readers, the list of books I want to read is far longer than the books I have time for, and listing these here doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll get to them. A girl can dream, though…
Dreadnought, by April Davis – I’m pretty sure I’ll actually get to this one before the end of the year–the premise is just too good to pass up. Teenage Danny Tozer hasn’t even come out as transgender yet when she discovers dying superhero Dreadnought, who passes her his mantle as his last act. The cape holds the power to make the wearer resemble their ideal self and suddenly shy Danny Tozer is a hot super(cis)woman, much to the chagrin of her friends and her transphobic father. Sounds great, and I can’t wait to read it, personally.
Little Fish, by Casey Plett – This book won the Lambda award, and sounds like the kind of intergenerational family drama that Netflix movies are made of. A young transgender woman finds out that her stern, hyper-masculine, religious grandfather might have been (closeted) trans which results in a journey to discover if the revelation is true. There’s something remarkably affirming about seeing yourself in your family history(and seeing your family history in you) and this seems like both an unfamiliar(to me) and heartwarming take on the theme.
Sorted, by Jackson Bird – Someday I’ll tell you all the story of the first time I (knowingly) met a trans man, and how badly I mucked up the encounter. For now, it’s enough to tell you that the endearingly awkward tone of the first few pages of Jackson Bird’s memoir of coming out as trans at 25 and kind of muddling his way through it reminds me a lot of that long ago guy I embarrassed by not understanding that transgender men actually existed(it was the late 90s, not that that’s an excuse) and asking a very uncomfortable question(no, not THAT one…it was about name changes). Bird’s memoir seems to have a lot of grace for those of us trying to understand trans experiences from the outside as he navigates it from the inside, and something about the tone is very appealing to me.
Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender – Everyone else I know seems to have read this book, but again, it’s one that I never seem to pick up when I’m in a YA mood. It’s a teen romance featuring a young trans man, and seems to have the sort of sweetness you’d expect from any other book in the genre. I’m saving this one for a light beach read, come the day I can safely travel to a good reading beach again.
The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang – I happened upon this as I was clicking through my Goodreads recommendations and my eyes popped a bit at the description. It’s the first novel in a science fantasy trilogy (in the vein of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth ) featuring everything from dinosaurs and robots to psychic powers and mad scientists. There are apparently trans and non-binary characters galore, and the author is non-binary as well, a former scientist who calls their intensely creative writing style, with its foundations in the author’s academic training and Singaporean heritage, “silkpunk”. Never heard of it before ten minutes ago, but it’s going on my to-be-read list right away!
That’s it for now, fellow readers. What books by transgender authors have you read? Any suggestions for my list so that next year I can be a little less pitiful?
(Thanks for reading, fellow readers. Check out these books and more at my online Bookshophere, and be aware that this blog has affiliate relationships, so any clicks and purchases made at links you reach from here do result in a commission being paid. Peace!)
Seventeen-year old Elatsoe Bride has inherited the secrets of calling up the dead from her Six-Great-Grandmother, who bore the same name and protected the Apache people from invaders with a pack of trained ghost dogs and peerless bravery. Young Elatsoe has the same fearless streak and unnerving talents as her ancestor but not much call to use them, until a family tragedy pushes her to her limits. In an alternate modern America where magic is real, the supernatural is science, and bloodlines often carry small supernatural benefits, Elatsoe must solve a crime with the help of her family, heritage, and a best friend who just happens to be descended from Oberon. ⠀ ⠀ I loved this. It’s rare that I get entirely lost in a book but I barely came up for air while reading. There’s something cinematic about it–I could almost see the people and places coming to life in front of my eyes as I read. Somehow this is a ghost story, a whodunit, a fairy tale and a high school summer feel-good caper all at once but it works. The writing isn’t complicated and the prose isn’t particularly descriptive–it’s just really, really good storytelling. ⠀ ⠀ The fairy tale parts of the story are heavily based on things from Little Badger’s own Lipan Apache background. Out of all the different types of stories there are, ones that feature cultural redemption are my favorites. The magic in this fantasy world didn’t stop colonization, genocide or oppression of Indigenous Americans, so the themes underlying this book have a lot to say about those things–never in a heavy-handed way, but openly, honestly and with a sense of power, not defeat. There’s a scene where a character outwits a European vampire by reminding him that he is a settler on colonized land and revoking his welcome that actually made me put down the book and cheer out loud. The story is grounded in real cultural issues and is all the better for it. The heroine, Elatsoe, is also asexual but that doesn’t figure into the story much. ⠀ 2020 is almost over but this is definitely going on my best-of-year list. Great storytelling, affirming cultural foundations, and a badass main character–what’s not to love? ⠀ ⠀ 5 stars and the howls of a pack of ghost dogs to Elatsoe.
(The year is almost over, beautiful people! Soon I’ll be doing a best reads of 2020 post, and this book will definitely be on it. If you want to read it before I gush about it again, buy it at my Bookshop, and be aware that this blog has affiliate relationships and any clicks and purchases will result in a commission being earned. Peace!)
You know the face that jazz and blues musicians make when someone’s playing real good? That stank face, that disbelieving, how is this real, umph-umph–UMPH this is so good it almost hurts face folks get when the art is hitting every bit of your spirit right? You know that face? ⠀⠀
That is the face I make when reading Natalie Diaz’ poetry.⠀⠀
In light of recent events, the title of Diaz’ most recent poetry collection seems like an obvious social commentary. However, a lot of the poems here are in fact odes to a lady love, or maybe more than one. There are also thoughts on culture, family, basketball (Diaz played professionally), and my favorite–water rights.(No, really!) The poet uses a variety of formats to pour out her thoughts, and there are a few powerful repeating motifs running through the collection.⠀⠀
This didn’t quite grab me by the head and heart and rattle me around the way Diaz’ previous poetry collectionWhen My Brother Was An Aztec did but that’s not really a criticism. There are a lot of things I didn’t quite get in this collection but I saw them as an invitation to fall back and think, not a failing. Unlike Diaz, I’m not Mojave, not Latina, not queer, not a former athlete, not (much of) a poet. This book doesn’t seem intended to teach me about any of those things. Instead it’s written from within those experiences, expressing a normal reality that I don’t personally intersect with in every way–and that’s a good thing. A lot of what’s in these pages is not really for me, primarily, and it would unfair to judge the work based on my own unfamiliarity. I will say this, though–I didn’t always get When My Brother Was An Aztec either, but the themes and ideas in it felt stronger and more thoroughly illustrated. I felt that collection more, even when I was blinking in confusion at the bits of Mojave language included in some of the verses. At times this new collection meanders off into riffs on the whiteness of a lover or Greek mythological references or city life in a way that seems a little unfocused, even when accounting for my own ignorance. That’s rare, though. The rest of the time., though…*makes stank face*.⠀
A few additional thoughts that are not really related to the book but are still relevant…
1) Y’all have no idea how hard it was to find an American flag pattern in my lil corner of Korea. I wound up having to take a trip to the obnoxious consumer enclave near a US military base and whew. Talk about postcolonial…
2) I learned a lot from reading this but the most sobering lesson wasn’t in the book at all. When searching for information to augment my reading–music, pictures, cultural information, etc. from Mojave/Aha Macav people, I had a very difficult time. It’s not that nobody is sharing or producing these things. It’s that to get to them you have to wade through a shocking amount of consumer products–incense, technology, packaged foods, all sorts–none of which seem to be owned by Mojave people. Then you have to trek through material on the famous desert–also largely not owned or managed by the people with the same name. After a targeted search and wading through tons of unrelated information with the same name as the nation that Natalie Diaz is from, I finally found some resources–but the fact that it took so much effort surprised me and got me thinking about postcolonial erasure and the trauma of occupied land more than the actual poems in the book did. This is not a comment on poverty, social problems or anything like that–there are over 500 indigenous nations in the US and all of them operate under different circumstances. Not all tribes are poor, embattled, or high risk, although many are. My point is that while I still don’t know a lot about the Mojave nation’s economic or social conditions, the fact that I had to search so hard for real information written by an expert from within the community is…not a shock exactly, but certainly upsetting food for thought for those of us who are not Mojave and not indigenous. Black American history, in contrast, is not widely known, but it is easy to find if you look for it. ⠀⠀
4 stars and a jump shot from a riverbed to Postcolonial Love Poem.
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🍁⠀ ⠀ 3 things: ⠀ ⠀ 1) I haven’t been adulting particularly well lately. Spare a good thought in the direction of this reader when you can. ⠀ ⠀ 2) November is Native American Heritage Monthand for the rest of the month I’ll be reading and reviewing indigenous writers and their work.⠀ ⠀ 3) But before that–what better thing to start November with than a poetry collection penned by someone named November? (Yes, I am ignoring the US election, at least on #bookstagram, because it’s taken over my RL and UGH). Thanks to Support Black AuthorsI won a copy of the Virginia-based, Jersey-bred poet’s third collection of “semi-autobiographical” observations on his community and life, particularly those having to do with his parentage. I’ve been following St. Michael on Instagram for a while and was thrilled to get my hands on some of his work in the real world. ⠀ ⠀ There’s something raw about these poems, something that reminds me of brothas sitting on stoops in the hood, street corner cyphers, and the fragility-resistance dichotomy found in every child in every “urban” school. Without sharing too many real details, St. Michael manages to be startlingly vulnerable–he dug a few chunks of his heart out and spread it on the pages with these words. I’m not going to lie and say I understand everything that is being laid down here–I’m a blogger, not a haruspex–but you can really feel the soul in these, whether or not the style is to your taste. ⠀ ⠀ That said, the collection is divided into three chapters, and the first is my favorite. The poems seem the most complete, the stories are clearer. Chapter two is largely love poems, and while they’re not weak at all, I lost the thread of emotion a bit personally. Chapter three is conceptually very strong and seems very experimental in style–at times I was reminded of some of Maya Angelou’s work in the 70s. But the shift in tone is a lot to digest–I see myself revisiting just that section, later, and thinking about it more clearly. ⠀
(Fellow readers! Happy November and thank you for visiting. If you want to purchase this or any other book mentioned on this site why not visit my Bookshop and take a gander at the wares? All purchases will result in a commission being paid to this site, but hey, you like it here, right?)
So this is a little different than the usual fare around here–if only because I’m in the book in the photo above. Yes, that’s me staring at you from the photo above, and the book I’m holding has a little story to it that I’d like to elaborate on here.
Back in March, at the height of COVID-19 gloom in Asia, I was kicking around my apartment in a mood and decided to attend an online writing workshop being promoted by the writer Boipelo Seswane. The resulting pieces on being Black in Asia were published on the IG story sharing platform Spill Stories later that month, and got a good response. Overall, it was a nice experience but I didn’t think much more would come of it.⠀ 😲⠀ Then…things happened in the US and the world. The brains behind Spill decided to turn those stories into a published book, a written record of real Black global experiences in the face of difficulty and erasure. Black writers living in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Thailand and Mongolia were gathered and wrote short vignettes on our experiences living on the world’s largest continent. On July 25th, it was released, to a level of acclaim I personally wasn’t expecting. It’s spent 14 days as #1 on Amazon’s New Releases in Ethnic and Demographic Studies chart. Copies had been bought in 11 different countries last time I checked, and probably far more now. Most recently, the The News Lens published a very thoughtful review of it, and our books are available for sale in stateside indie shops like Printed Matter. Many things are in the pipeline for this bright little book of experiences…and OMG, my story is in it!⠀ ⠀ It’s an understatement to say how surprised and grateful I am for the opportunity to share a little bit of my journey in Asia in the company of dedicated writers living all over the continent I’ve called home for the past 7 years. The piece I wrote is about the need to define Blackness as it’s own normal, rather than constantly defining it (and yourself, if you are Black) in counterpoint to other things–whiteness, Asian-ness, media projections of Blackness, stinging stereotypes–basically, Black people are normal to ourselves, no matter who we are or where we are, and we need to stand on that foundation in order to truly create the spaces of equity that we are fighting so hard to have rights to. The piece is pretty general–it’s been pointed out to me that there’s nothing in it that points directly to Asia or even South Korea, which is where I currently live–but if you’ve been to SK, you know the appropriation/stereotype/”I like Black music” struggle can be real, and that was what was in my mind when I wrote this piece. If you read it, let me know what you think.
* I know, I know…Amazon AGAIN!? But what did I say about opportunities for small, indie, and international publishers? That said, this post and all others do contain affiliate links so any clicks and purchases will result in a commission being paid. Peace!
🎶⠀ This isn’t the best book I’ve read all year, but it’s certainly the most surprising. I was expecting Mariah Carey(the glamorous award-winning diva) to fill a few frivolous pages with brand names, romantic liaisons and shady entertainment gossip with a few childhood anecdotes sprinkled in. What I was not expecting was Mariah Carey(the wife, mother, neglected child and ferociously smart and talented musical prodigy) to delve deep into her painful childhood, abusive first marriage, complex feelings about being biracial, life parallels to Marilyn Monroe, and so many other things. Mariah is stunningly vulnerable and thoughtful about her messy, unloving family and her poor relationship choices, but also isn’t shy about her drive, talent, business savvy and massive dreams. I’ve always loved her music but found her public persona a bit flighty and shallow. This book makes a fool of me for judging — this woman is amazing, relatable and remarkably intelligent in her introspections. I’m sure she owes some of this to co-writer Michaela Angela Davis, but the partnership is perfect–the text comes across very authentically Mariah, and you can hear her voice in the pages.⠀ 🎵⠀ There is some celebrity dish here, of course–dalliances with Luis Miguel and Derek Jeter, a surprising friendship with Da Brat, tales of carousing in Harlem with Dipset, and a lot of behind-the-music moments–but the bulk of the book is musings on the diva’s lonely, dangerous childhood, early career and strained marriage to mogul Tommy Mottola. Mariah is much more connected to hip-hop and the Black American glitterati than I thought, and a lot of the people she’s close to and behind the scenes partnerships kind of surprised me. Until Carey gets closure on her first divorce, the book is really compelling– but after that it loses steam and becomes a bit less personal, reading more like the silly celeb memoir that it looks like. It’s still fun, but you get the sense that there are parts of her life Mariah hasn’t emotionally metabolized yet, and as expected, they’re not as openly discussed or as deep. The parts that are more than make up for it, IMO. ⠀ 🎼⠀ Oh, and she only mentions Nick Cannon in one chapter, near the end. 😜⠀
(Thanks for reading, beautiful people! Whether you’re a Lamb or not(I’m not) you’ll probably get something out of this book. Just know that if you purchase the book through any links on this page, a commission will be earned because we have affiliate partnershipswith sites like Bookshop. Peace!)
I’m far from an expert, but I do think it bears mentioning that there is some controversy about the name. It’s legally titled Hispanic Heritage Month, but that law was signed back in 1988 and as all fellow readers know, things change. I spend a lot of time Bookstagramming and after reading quite a few very thoughtful posts about hispanidad, latinidad, and the ongoing conversation about the boggling diversity of the community the month is ostensibly for (under the hashtags #latinxhistorymonth and #latinehistorymonth) as well as asking a few friends their thoughts, I’ve settled on using Latinx History Month for now. It seems the most neutral and the most accurate–Hispanic includes people from Spain, but eliminates people with origins in Brazil, Haiti, and other non-Spanish speaking nations in Latin America. Latine has a strong argument for making more sense linguistically in Spanish, but basically–90% of the people I read or asked used Latinx and as someone who is not in a community myself, I think it makes sense for me to use the term most preferred by people in that community. Latine hasn’t reached its day in the sun yet, and Hispanic seems a bit fuddy-duddy and carries with it accusations of whitewashing, which I certainly want to avoid. I will say though, that looking into this issue made me very happy that African diasporic folks seem to have finally settled on Black. That is, unless they are also Latinx. Never mind.
Anyway, as I’ve done for all other major culturally coded commemorations this year, I made a point to read and review Latinx authors writing about Latinx people this month. After 30 days, I can honestly say I felt–overwhelmed. The Latinx world is huge, diverse and in some cases remarkably under-represented in English. (Which, in a certain sense, I get. Spanish has the second most native speakers in the world–why translate everything? On the other hand…not every Latinx person speaks Spanish. Or English, for that matter. And so it goes…). I like to read stories from people in places very unfamiliar to me and so, I searched for titles about the Latinx experience from people with origins across South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. I also wanted to read a good mix of Black, Indigenous, European and if possible even Asian Latinx authors. I had hopes of looking into works translated from indigenous languages as well, because the intersections between indigenous and Latinx communities run deep. Unfortunately, my Spanish is crap these days, I don’t speak any indigenous languages and I quickly realized that a lot of the books that looked interesting weren’t available in English translation and would not be easy or even accessible reads. I also realized that the Latinx world is HUGE–have I said that already?–and trying to curate a diverse list, even when you narrow it down to the Latinx-American experience, was like jumping in the deep end of an Olympic-sized pool–and I can’t swim. There’s just so much variety and so many diverse cultures under the banner of Latinx that I really didn’t know where to start. As a result, I quickly floundered back to the shallow end and kind of stuck to what I already know a little about–Cuban, Mexican, Dominican and Puerto Rican literature.
Despite the general feeling of being out of my depth and unfamiliar with the cultural landscapes that Latinx Heritage Month celebrates, I did find some good books that I enjoyed, and a few more that broadened my horizons even if they weren’t perfect. As always, I’m sharing the list with you with the caveat that I am a)not an expert and all mistakes or poor phrasing are the mistakes of an eager novice with too much internet time and b)I read for the joy and the love of people’s stories, not for performative wokeness or internet social justice points, so please chill on any critiques that do not include joy, people, or being very very smart, thanks. So, without further ado…
Starting with this Pride and Prejudice retelling may have been cheating, since it’s a familiar story, and there is some debate about whether or not Haitians, like author Ibi Zoboi, are Latinx The book itself is about the Dominican Benitez family (who stand in for Austen’s Bennet clan )but also branches out to examine lot of different types of Black communities, not just the Caribbean/Latin ones. If anything, the book seems to be making a point about Black culture, whether Latinx or no. That and the strong sense of community in the story made me feel a bit homesick and happy. I didn’t like the central romance much, though–so I gave this 4 stars.
I really love Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s blog and was tickled to find out she had whole novels ready for me to dive into. This one, which is perhaps best described as a Latina Waiting To Exhale, follows a very diverse group of professional friends who united in college over their developing identities as young Latinas in Boston. The storylines don’t all complete, but the diversity is eye-opening–I learned a lot about Cuban Jews and Black Colombians from this, for example. Another 4 star read, simply for the fun factor this book has.
I hate to say it, but this was my biggest disappointment of the month. I really wanted to love it–urban fantasy featuring an undead Puerto Rican detective, a host of ghosts and a Black femme fatale? Yes, please! But unfortunately this book meanders into no, thank you territory quite a bit–it’s just not very focused and the hero is a big boring dude, despite the great concept and worldbuilding potential. I’ll pick up the next book if I see it, to see if it resurrects the concept(ha!), but overall..3 stars to this one.
I’ve been wanting to read something by Acevedo for a long time, and I’m glad this was my first. It’s a complex work–a whole YA novel in verse, told from multiple perspectives, by two separated sisters in NYC and Santo Domingo in the aftermath of their father’s tragic death. The story it tells is compelling and common, but not often told as unjudgmentally as it is here. Still, I didn’t love the poetry, as much as I appreciated the craft that went into this book, although I did love the characters and look forward to slurping up everything else Acevedo serves to her fans. 4 stars, although in retrospect I think I was a bit too harsh on this book.
The last Latinx Heritage Month themed read I had time to squeeze in was a bit of a surprise, as the author is a high school friend of mine and I had no idea he’d become a writer. Godhead Sentiment is on the one hand an old-fashioned sci-fi pulp novella but on the other hand has some very clever tricks and observations about some of the conventions of science-fiction AI tropes. No rating for this one, because it’s weird to rate people I know personally, but this was an interesting read and I can’t wait to see more from this author.
These are the books I wanted to read but didn’t have time for because books cost money, which forces me to leave the house occasionally for work…
Before We Were Free, Julia Alvarez – I skipped this in favor of Elizabeth Acevedo because I didn’t want to read multiple Dominican authors this month, but I’m looking forward to reading this middle-grade book about a 12 year old girl fleeing the Trujillo dictatorship with her family eventually.
With the Fire On High, Elizabeth Acevedo – Not only did I not want to read multiple authors of the same background, I also naturally didn’t want to read multiple works by the same author. Still, I’ve heard great things about this YA story of a Dominican single mom working hard to make her dreams of becoming a chef come true.
Halsey Street, Naima Coster – Another Dominicana. Yo, is anyone else writing books? Honestly, this looks good and I’m sure I’ll read it soon, but it’s about parental relationships and community. I was feeling too tender on the subject to get into it this month, so it’ll have to wait until I’m a little less sensitive.
The Price of Paradise, Susana Lopez Rubio – Finally, a non-Dominican writer! Lopez Rubio is Cuban, and this lavish looking Batista-era romance looks good, but the first few pages didn’t grab much and I wound up reading The Dirty Girls Social Club instead because I wanted something a little less fraught with tortured emotion. I have a pile of books the size of El Fosca to read at this point, but this is going in near the top.