Yerong is a South Korean kindergarten teacher– sweet, intelligent, creative and reasonably aware of social issues. One day she meets Ghanaian scientist Manni and her eyes are opened to the realities of being an immigrant and a black person in a society that values conformity and often puts white Europeans on a pedestal above other non-Koreans.
A Black Guy…is thoughtfully composed of real life anecdotes about racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination from a Korean point of view. The simple line drawings keep it from feeling too heavy and the cute foundational romance adds sweetness to some moments that would otherwise be pretty sour. Personally I really appreciated the chapters that deal with the intersectionality of being Black and a woman in Korea–though it’s mostly alright, there are days when it’s on a whole other level, y’all. It’s nice to have that seen by someone with a different lived experience. I’m surprised at how deeply Yerong is able to dive into some pretty controversial subjects and shocking incidents without leaving the reader depressed. She writes about racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in Korean society with light humor and deep sincerity. Ultimately, her message is one of hope–hope that we can all learn to respect and understand each other, irregardless of origin, physicality or circumstance.
I feel like I had a relationship with this bilingually written graphic novel long before I ever opened it–I’ve been a fan of the simple line comics posted at @yerongss since the beginning. Back in January I was even part of a news panel discussion on racism that included the author. (The original comics have been revamped and expanded for print.) If I have one quibble with this book it’s that as a Black American woman, some of the topics in this book are approached from angles that I wouldn’t necessarily come from, and reach conclusions that I might not. However, this is where I have take a step back and realize that I am not the target audience or culture for every part of this book. As I said, it’s primarily written from and to a Korean point of view, and succeeds at that, IMO.
In case you were wondering, this book is fully bilingual–English translations of Korean text are present in every panel.
5 stars and rush hour subway seat to Yerong’s A Black Guy Was Sitting Next To Me On The Subway.
(Thanks for reading! There are no affiliate links in this review, but as always, please visit my Bookshop to browse other titles like this–for example, check out this booklist of graphic novels for adults.)
I think I was 14 or 15 the day a male relative(I honestly don’t even remember who) peered at me and said, “You know, you’re not light enough to be really beautiful, but you’re not too dark, either.”
This is me:
Now, granted, this is a remarkably good selfie with remarkably good lighting taken while I was remarkably made up for a remarkable party but I post it here to demonstrate one thing: I am a regular everyday brown-skinned Black chick. I describe myself as dark. Nobody has ever asked me what I’m mixed with. (Where I’m really from, yes. But what I’m mixed with? Clearly just Black.) Makeup in my shade is hard to find. But I was also born in the very early 80’s (hello readers of my midlife crisis blog!). Social media wasn’t a thing during my impressionable teen years, although racism was, and I was far more worried about being Black, period than about how acceptable my degree of Blackness was. I also lived a very boring lower-middle-class suburban life and had no aspirations of grandeur–I just wanted to get a job that would let me read books and crack jokes, eventually. (Mission achieved!) My skin tone didn’t render me beautiful or reviled–it made me mostly invisible. Nobody ever remarked on it except to be dismissive or to tell me I was…fine. Not great but not bad. If anything, I wanted to be darker–I was briefly obsessed with Alek Wek and spent a whole summer vacation laying out slathered in coconut oil trying to reach her velvety shade. (It didn’t work.)
I think it also helped that I was often reminded that the great beauties in the family were my cousins, who were darker-skinned than I was but had finer features and longer, bouncin’ and behavin’ hair. My grandmother never hurt my feelings by comparing me to Halle Berry, but she did pinch me in the heart a few times by telling me how sorry she was that I didn’t look more like my more beautiful cousins or aunt, who were all dark and lovely. But ultimately, I grew up, I traveled the world, I studied things, got jobs and real problems that left me little time to worry about my looks. Then I discovered that men are much more interesting when they’re not hung up on your looks. I faced, and still face, continual problems because of racism. But colorism? I knew it existed, but it never really affected me personally in any way that mattered in the long term. It was something I read about more than I felt.
Then I moved to Asia. Korea, to be exact. While most people didn’t have much to say about my skin tone (except for a few old ladies who took it upon themselves one day to tell me that my skin was “disgusting” and I should wash more) it is glaringly obvious how much people here don’t like their own skin unless it’s unnaturally pale. My first job here was at an elementary school. Working with kids makes it obvious that naturally, Korean people come in a variety of skin tones, from porcelain white(rare) to a light cocoa brown(also rare). Most of the kids, though, were sort of a golden tan color that got lighter and darker with the seasons because you know, human skin works that way. Still, it didn’t take me long to realize that although I had a few dark little girls in my class, I couldn’t recall seeing a dark-skinned adult woman in Korea ever. One of my coworkers would chase me around on school trips with a tube of chalky white 100 SPF sunscreen. When I waved her away, she told me she was trying to help me become beautiful. When I told her I thought dark skin was the most beautiful and she would look nice tan, she stared at me, mystified, then poured a dollop of cream on her hands and rubbed fervently.
Big brand beauty billboards here almost exclusively feature European white women. Several skincare brands here employ women who would be stunningly average or outright unattractive in Europe or North America simply because they have very pale skin. If I had a dollar for every time I met a very average white woman here who proudly informed me that she “meets Asia’s beauty standards” I would be able to send every reader of this blog a free library. Beauty salons have photos of fair-skinned, blue-eyed Nordic blondes staring down at their dark-eyed, honey-skinned customers while they get facials. Makeup stores sell two foundation shades–“pale” and “paler”, neither of which seem to match any human skin tone on earth, let alone in Korea. When I began to teach in universities, I noticed that my female students often were three or four shades browner at their hairlines and necks–but their faces were all the same uniform pancake white shade, purchased at the little cosmetics shop at the edge of campus. When I go biking or hiking on high heat days, I’m often the only person out not wearing long sleeves and a giant visor to protect my skin from browning. I do wear sunscreen, but it’s for health reasons–it’s a reasonable SPF 30, with no zinc oxide in it to make me look ashy whiter. I’ve lived here seven years now, and if anything, the fervor for whiter, lighter skin has intensified as Kpop takes over the world and Asian beauty standards are more heavily promoted and appropriated.
I just…don’t get it. Like everyone, I’m sure I have internalized bits of colonial, racist thinking, but skin isn’t one of those bits. I have no particular appreciation for light skin, and if anything I’m slightly more partial to dark. (“You mean, you burn? In the sun? All the time? You’re burning right now? But it’s cloudy! Yeah, we can’t be together.”) Yet I know that colorism exists, and it is a source of great pain and insecurity for a lot of women globally, in my own culture and across the melanin-bearing world. If anything, I find the obsession with skin tone over everything, and the stranglehold that whiteness has over femininity a little distasteful. I get a little judgy about it, to be frank–I think it’s really gross that perfectly beautiful women with normal skin use bleach and ashy looking products to look aesthetically worse but socially more acceptable. I can’t be complicit with it at all, but there are millions of folks who really don’t care what I think, so…I guess whiter is righter is the (aesthetic) law of the land.
This is one of those works that I appreciate and see the importance of without necessarily enjoying much. I read it to gain greater empathy and understanding of Asian(-American) attitudes towards skin color and cultural understandings of colorism. I got that, to some extent, but I also noticed a lot of complicity with white supremacy and anti-Blackness that bothered me, although I did appreciate the honesty of the feelings shared(and there is a very introspective section of the book about anti-Blackness’s role in Asian-American colorism.)
I applaud Khanna for the diversity of the women she’s included–she has women of Southeastern, Northeastern and mixed-race Asian descent all included, and it’s interesting to see where the differences and similarities in their experiences lie. (By default this favors groups of people that have high migration to the US so there’s not much from Central Asian women here at all, which would be interesting because many of them read as visually “white”. ) There are essays from Indian women with lighter skin who understand that it confers privilege and from dark-skinned Filipinas who struggle with feeling fat and dark even though in the US the metrics shift and they’re small and fashionably tanned. There’s a particularly gloomy essay from a mixed-race white and Korean woman entitled “The Abominable Honhyeol” that expresses the loneliness of being seen as other due to your ancestry, even if your skin is considered exceptionally pale and beautiful. There’s an Indian woman with albinism who expresses much of the same predicament, being 100% culturally and ethnically Indian but often mistaken for white by other Indians due to her pigment-free hair and skin. There’s a letter from a Vietnamese woman to her half-white baby daughter, describing the things she might have to deal with in America as an Asian, but also the things she won’t, due to her lighter skin and more European features. There’s a piece by a Black and Chinese woman which held the potential to be interesting but unfortunately takes the “I am Blaaaaaack because of the sun my Black husband loves me my mocha chocolate skin so much darker than my mother and sister but I love myself because I am strong and Black and WoMan. snapsnapsnapsnap” performative self-love route–I felt a little cold at the end, realizing that she simply shifted her lack of acceptance as a dark-skinned Asian woman into privilege as a light-skinned mixed woman in Black American culture. While she’s aware of this and advocates for her darker sisters, something about that essay didn’t sit right with me. The experience of gaining privilege by shifting communities is a recurring theme in many of the essays and while I can’t judge–after all, what am I doing, as an American in Asia?–the bald way in which this was acknowledged and embraced never really sat well with me in any of the essays that expressed this.
Overall, while all of the essays were interesting, there was only one that I really loved–“Teeth” by Betty Ming Liu, a 62-year old dark-skinned Chinese woman with a Black and Chinese daughter. Liu’s essay is the only one out of the collection that left me with a smile on my face–while most of the essays seem to be written out of a sense of insecurity and sadness, Mama Betty has embraced herself, her daughter, her daughter’s Black father and the idea of reshaping the world to be fairer rather than being complicit with harmful norms so thoroughly that I wanted to cheer a little bit at the end of her essay. She gets what no-one else in the collection, including the editor, seems to–we shape the world just as much as it shapes us, and stepping to the side of an expectation meant to flatten you is better than laying down in a puddle of bleaching cream and crying. Betty is my kind of people, and I think her blog is one of my new favorite things on the internet.
So, do I have a greater empathy for Asian and Asian American people who believe in and practice colorism? No, not really. It still grosses me out, and now it makes me a little angry, too. I understand it marginally more but I don’t think colorism, whether Asian, Latinx or Black, is something I’ll ever feel any better than “sick” about when it’s openly expressed and accepted. But I still found these women interesting, and I could see some of the essays resonating with other women as strongly as Betty Ming Liu’s did with me. I may keep a copy on the student borrow shelf in my office and see if anyone takes the bait.
Four stars and a day in the sun with no protection but a big smile to Whiter.
(Thanks for reading! If you want to read this book, consider purchasing it HERE from Bookshop, the online portal for indie bookstores. I am an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you click and purchase from any links on this site. )
A quick note: I’m Mel, the author of 99% of the reviews on this site. I’m a straight cis woman who firmly believes in equality and equity for LGBTQIA+ people. While I’ve been doing targeted reading for Pride Month, I haven’t really read a lot of queer books in any genre and I’m aware my reviews are coming from a rather narrow, albeit well-intentioned place. I thought I’d reach out to my global community and get a few guest reviews in to help us all out. On that note, I’m very excited to post my very first guest review from my good friend Rogene. I’ll let him introduce himself here, and then share his insightful review of a Pride Month read. Take it away Rogene!
Rogene Carter is a literature and Spanish teacher at an American high school in Shanghai, China. He enjoys literature of all sorts with a propensity for contemporary fiction and autobiographical works and is an avid reader. He also enjoys film, art, and traveling in his spare time.
At face value, All Boys Aren’t Blue definitely seemed like it would be right up my alley. I was completely enamored with the introduction of this memoir that was aptly entitled “Black. Queer. Here.” Unfortunately, my affection stops there. Johnson himself pledged quite a hefty package in his introduction, which dealt with everything from gendered norms to homosexuality to the plight of the Black American man within the United States. Johnson also promised to address the intersectionality of oppression that many of us marginalized groups experience as a result of belonging to more than one type of oppressed group—in his case being black and gay in a society that often unfairly treats individuals from either group as other or simply undeserving of the rights and privileges that are often associated with whiteness and heterosexuality or as extraneous to their idea of the “American dream” and thus dispensable. Navigating both of these spaces is a complex and often confounding tightrope walk that requires not only finesse but the understanding that one may fall short in one way or another.
While I am very proud to live in a world in which such a title could be published by a major publishing house(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, a YA imprint of MacMillan Publishers), I am generally unimpressed by this work. Johnson did mention a lot of hot topics that are very of the moment but he did so in a very generalized manner. I found myself repeating the same mantra to myself while reading this book, “…this cannot possibly be it.” There must be more substance to the narrative than simply the trials of coming out, navigating dating, and dealing with the demands of heteronormative ideals as a black, self-identified queer man. The major qualm I have with this work is that it promised to be informative and to shed light on so many topics and I found myself simply reading about his daily life, relationships, and feelings about his oppression. I wanted more. I wanted more research, more stories, more focus. Perhaps it was too much to ask for but I expected something amazing and was more than slightly disappointed and frankly offended to find mediocrity after a very long introduction with lots of grandiose and unfulfilled assurances.
Having said that, there were some standout chapters within this work such as “Nanny: The Caregiver, the Hustler, My Best Friend” which was a perfect homage to his grandmother and the impact that she had upon him. I also enjoyed the chapters dedicated to a relative of the author who was an out and proud transgendered woman but overall the enjoyment was limited, to say the least. Sexual molestation was also tackled in this memoir in the form of a letter delivered to the abuser who has since passed away and I thought it was powerfully written but also abrupt. Everything felt abrupt. I could feel the author’s trepidation to explore topics deeply within the writing and it made me wonder why he decided to wite the memoir that he claimed to be writing.
In summation, there was a lot of meat to this memoir but I wish that it was more finely tuned and included more substantive and academic influence to round out some of the sharp edges. I would have loved for Johnson to include more statistics or narratives outside of his own experience that could give the reader more foundational knowledge of the topics explored here as well as a meta-view of how these topics influence everyone, not just Johnson himself. Doing so perhaps would have made the memoir feel more academic and well-researched instead of personal and surface-level.
Perhaps that is too much to ask for from a memoir about the author’s personal experience or perhaps I am simply too discerning as both the target demographic of this work as well as a marginalized gay man, myself, but I simply wanted more to sink my teeth into. There are plethora of amazing memoirs, fiction and nonfiction titles that do a wonderful job of not only voicing the opinions and experiences of the author but also attempting to truly educate the reader on the experience detailed. A list of recommended titles will be included below. In all, I found George M. Johnson’s freshman attempt to be admirably intentioned but poorly researched and executed as well as a little lazy.
Mel here again! Many thanks to Rogene for the review and to you for reading it! If you want to read this book, consider purchasing it HERE from Bookshop, the online portal for indie bookstores. I am an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you click and purchase from any links on this site.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby⠀(Buy it HERE.) ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2 out of 5 stars.⠀
“I can’t watch This Is Us because even though the brothers are hot and the dad is a smoke show, in the first couple of episodes the fat girl doesn’t get to be much more than “fat”, and wow, no thank you!” ~ Samantha Irby
What I love most about Samantha Irby’s essays (aside from the humor) is how normal she is. By that, I mean that through a certain lens, she’s decidedly counter-cultural. She’s Black. Fat. Poor. A “casual bisexual” married to a white lady in MAGA country. She has chronic illnesses, a string of hilarious failed past situationships, a sad family story, and the grouchiest, most ungrateful pets ever. But despite–or perhaps because of all of this, Irby seems to really see herself as her own default, which I am a big fan of. It’s not vulnerability for likes or tokenism or proclamative self-othering. Irby just is who she is and that’s normal, relatable, and often very funny. Even when the jokes are at her expense they’re not mocking any of the things that identify her–but she can and does poke fun at all the weird behaviors she’s picked up in order to survive in this weird world. Standout pieces include “Love and Marriage”, a surprisingly sensible, gentle advice column on practical romance and “Hollywood Summer” detailing the time Irby wrote an episode of the hit show Shrill.
This is the 4th collection of funny, sincere, honest essays by the writer of the blog “bitches gotta eat”and the 3rd that I’ve read. I hope it’s not her last, but there is a feeling of coming full circle in this one that makes me wonder. In her first collection, Meaty, Irby was an hourly employer at an animal hospital living in the weird socioeconomic no man’s land people who are very smart and very poor but also have decent taste often wind up in.(Been there myself, still there, do not recommend.) Her second, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, finds her settling down with her wife in the suburbs, dealing more fully with her parent’s early deaths and her own childhood poverty, and coming to terms with her health. This third book dips into familiar former territory but now, instead of fantasizing about writing TV shows Irby is actually being flown out to LA and rubbing elbows with show runners for months at a time, renting office space to write full time in, giving humorous advice on how to get published by accident and what it’s like to be a middle aged married lady who still doesn’t know anything. I feel like after this book, Irby will have grown too big for essays and memoirs, and I hope we see a show or film as her next project. I’ll miss her essays though.
While it’s not as edgy and hilarious as Meaty, it’s also not as sad as We Are Never Meeting In Real Life and it really made me happy to see someone whose poorly formatted blog posts I used to send to my friends now writing about creating whole TV scripts and giving self-deprecating advice on how to make friends as an adult.
4 and a half stars, a handful of Immodium, and a gold star for adulting to Wow, No Thank You.
(Thanks for reading! If you want to read this book, consider purchasing it HEREfrom Bookshop, the online portal for indie bookstores. I am an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you click and purchase from any links on this site. )
🚔⠀ I am a father driving/his Black sons to school & the death/of a Black boy rides shotgun &this/could be a funeral procession⠀~from “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”⠀ ✊🏿⠀ When it’s difficult for me to focus, I tend to read poetry. This short collection surprisingly filled an empathetic void in me I didn’t know I had. Its focus on the emotional experience and effects of incarceration is both eerily timely and educational without being didactic. I mean, I know the stats. I’ve seen Ava Duvernay’s excellent documentary 13th. But I’ve never thought deeply on the heart of someone who has been incarcerated. I know incarceration marks a person indelibly. I had some dim idea of how. But this book made me think of what those marks look like in daily living, and what it takes to heal, or to try to.⠀ ⛓⠀ One day I watched him, full of fear for/my own fragility & wondered how he dared/own so much of himself, openly. For all/I know every minute in those cells/was safe for the kid whose name/I cannot recall. But how can a man ever be safe like that, when you are so/beautiful the straight ones believe it &…. ~from “Temptation of the Rope”⠀ 🔗⠀ One more thing I want to mention–although Betts is not queer himself, he writes about queer men in prison in a way I’ve rarely seen–tenderly, with respect, and sometimes with a sort of awe. While only a few poems feature people who aren’t straight, the reverence is noticeable. He doesn’t make mean dehumanizing soap jokes or rely on clichés at all, and the result is quite beautiful. It’s Pride month now and everyone is an ally on the internet–Betts provides a model for how to write about LGBTQIA+ people as an ally without condescending or being performative, and I love to see it.
📝⠀ 5 stars and a reformed American justice system to Betts’ Felon.⠀
(Thanks for reading! If you want to read this book, consider purchasing it HEREfrom Bookshop, the online portal for indie bookstores. I am an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you click and purchase from any links on this site. )
⠀⠀ 💧Wow, where do I even begin? I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this before, even though all of the elements of it are familiar. There’s a misfit princess, warring nations, a beautiful foreign slave girl, and strange visitors from a faraway land. Characters struggle with unrequited love, confusing sexuality, and mismatched marriages. There are power struggles–both political and personal. There are side characters and historical references galore–I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth to remind myself who a minor character was, and took lots of pauses to look up cultural and historical things mentioned briefly in the text. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ . 📚 If The Hundred Wells of Salagawas about China or England or colonial America, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But instead, it’s about a very real historical period and royal conflict in 1860’s West Africa (but it is emphatically not about the Transatlantic slave trade).
I love that this book was written. Too often, books about African people are published as a memorial of oppression or injustice rather than out of a sense of history, but this book is firmly the latter. It’s character-driven historical fiction set among the various African nations that eventually became modern-day Ghana. It’s interesting, entertaining and treats its subject matter with the same legitimacy than people use when writing about Anne Boleynor Catherine The Great, with the same expectation that the reader should be passing familiar with the context and just enjoy the royal drama. There should be more books like this. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
📖 It doesn’t get the full 5 stars because while it’s good, it’s not a masterpiece. Notice I haven’t given you a lot of name and place details–it’s because despite the fact that I enjoyed this book, none of it really stayed with me. I also found most of the main characters extremely unlikable. They were interesting, but it was hard to figure out who to root for. Still, 4 stars and a pleasantly surprised nod to The Hundred Wells of Salaga.
(As always, thanks for reading and this is the usual legally required notice that if you click on any links in this post or on this blog and make a purchase, I’ll earn a commission from Bookshop.orgbecause I am an affliate. Peace! )⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
This book is easily my second favorite read of the year so far after Girl, Woman, Other. It’s funny, touching, warm-hearted, and surprisingly deep. It’s also ferociously well-written. (One chapter made me close the book, say WOW, & sit for a while with the words. ) I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Satyal before–I’ll be reading as much of his other work as I can get my hands on. ⠀ 🧛🏾♂️⠀ The book follows a brief period in the lives of a handful of Indian-Americans in Cleveland. All of them wink & smile up at you from the pages, beckoning you into their intertwined lives. There’s empty-nester Ranjana (pronounced RUN-juh-nuh), a budding romance writer, and her fussy, tedious husband Mohan. After immigrating to the US together in the 90s, the two of them are trying to rediscover life after raising their son, Princeton student Prashant. There’s sad, lonely Harit and his senile mother Parvati, both consumed with grief & confusion. There are all their friends–campy Teddy, snotty Seema, needy Achyut, ditzy Cheryl & the very unfortunately named Dr. Butt. Together they do what people always do–form bonds, work on their relationships, & try to create spaces where they feel loved and accepted. Ranjana, settled comfortably into the groove between her birth country & her adopted one, is the heart of the book and its intersecting social circles. By the end, I felt her triumphs and revelations like they were my own. ⠀ 👩🏾💻⠀ What I love most about this book is how ordinary and bizarre it is all at the same time. These are very normal people continually pushed into abnormal circumstances by emotion–not by being Indians in America. Satyal writes the line between cultural authenticity & representation very well, so while these characters are thoroughly Indian, nobody is trying to define the experience. They’re just living their lives and taking us along. If you don’t get all the cultural references, that’s fine. Neither do they, sometimes. 👔 ⠀ So to recap; excellent writing, characters I’d want to hang out with in real life, cultural realness & a plot that left me with a sigh in my heart and a smile on my face. 5 stars & a heaping dish of assorted barfi to No One Can Pronounce My Name.
If you’d like to read this book, consider purchasing it HEREfrom Bookshop.org, an alternative to Amazon. I am an affiliate of Bookshop and will earn a commission if you click and purchase from any link on this page. As always…thanks for reading.
(This post is an edited Facebookpost. Follow EQR on FB blah blah etc.)
If you haven’t gathered from the About Mepage or some of my posts, I’m a Black American, living abroad. This blog is about books, not me, so I don’t talk about my own experiences often. My day job and life also consist of quite a lot of talk about race and social justice, but I try to avoid internet activism and grandiosity for the most part.
This is because I realize the internet is largely overwhelmed with bad news, fear, pain, anger, and uncertainty these days. As a result, I’ve made it a point to keep things light and literary. Books and reading have always been a haven for me, and a website about books and the love we all have for reading should be no different, I think. The written word at its best is a gateway to engage with the painful spaces in the world and wring from them the joy of understanding and the will to improve. I strongly believe that, and so, I’ve largely avoided reactive anger porn and always try to tease out a positive action to take or a voice of truth when I do post something here about the ways in which the world sucks. That will continue, going forward.
But today, I’m sad. The past few weeks have been brutal for the Black American community. Nationwide lockdowns and precautions meant to stem the spread of a global pandemic have had no nullifying effect on continued police and community brutality, systemic racism and the outright murders of people who look like myself, my brothers, my family.
Fellow readers, I’m sad. So sad. And I’m tired–exhausted, even. Not because of my own Blackness (don’t get it twisted), but by the world’s response to it, in myself and in others.
Several well-meaning folks who are not Black have reached out and asked what they can do. Whatever I tell you, it’s not enough. This is not a momentary issue. This is a lifelong issue. This is an issue of history, an issue that defines our country and shapes our culture. This is something we have been shouting about forever. You are upset today, but we’ve been upset for years and it’s *exhausting*. If you want to help, you take up this baton and run with it for a while. Let me, let us, REST.
When I heard the news of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black security guard in Minneapolis who was restrained with cruel, unnecessary brute force by a police officer despite his pleas and those of onlookers, and died of his injuries the same day, I was reminded of the writer Henry Dumas. You’ve probably never heard of him, although he was a graduate of Rutgers, an early voice in the Black Arts Movement, and a prolific short story writer and poet who influenced no less a luminary than Toni Morrison, who called his work “some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.”
You’ve never heard of him because in 1968, at the age of thirty-three, Dumas was shot and killed by a New York City transit cop in a subway station. No-one was charged in his death. Had it not been for Morrison’s discovery of his only published collection in a university library, his voice would have entirely disappeared from the world.
How many of our voices have disappeared from the world, due to injustice and cruelty?
Did I say the past few weeks have been brutal for the Black American community? Because I meant to say the past 400 years.
“Who will be lost in the story we tell ourselves? Who will be lost in ourselves?”
This is a messy book. There’s a lot going on between its covers–PTSD, emerging sexuality, poverty, war, immigration, mental illness, class, race, abuse, art, gender performance. There’s a lot going on, but it all seems to add up to love, albeit a wistful imperfect love shared out between a half-dozen very broken, emotionally malnourished people, all set to an unlikely soundtrack of 50 Cent and Chopin.
The story explores the life of Little Dog, a Vietnamese-American immigrant raised by his mother and grandmother in Hartford, Connecticut. As he grows up, he gets into a tentative relationship with a local boy named Trevor, who slowly declines due to addiction just as Little Dog’s star begins rising.
“Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone.”
This book is a LOT. It’s a slow, sad, beautiful read, a spiritual successor to Morrison, Angelouand other narrative greats who explore cultural pain. It’s also achingly familiar. It’s rare that I see what I think of as my America represented in print, but this is a literary sketch of the America I know and love in absentia. Little Dog lives in a neighborhood made grim and intense and very multicultural by poverty and the social failure-to-thrive syndrome that comes from personal and cultural trauma and oppression. I get it. I really do. Little Dog and Trevor could have been any one of a dozen lonely boys I knew growing up. As sad as this book was, there was also a sweetness in seeing another Child of the Secretdo good despite the pain, as Charles De Lintmight say.
I liked it a lot. It has about fifteen different endings and the pace is imperfect but it’s a marvelously affecting read, nonetheless.
So here we are in the last full week of May, beautiful people. It seems like just yesterday it was the 78th day of March, but we’ve made it all the way to the beginning of summer and hopefully no-one’s broken their glasses yet.
This week sees sea creatures, fictionalized president’s wives, and a very puzzling and sad revelation on the life of a critically acclaimed writer…
A new novel called Rodham was published last week as well, and everything about it seems, well, rather weird. It’s a fictionalized account of the life of Hilary Rodham Clinton if she had never married former President Bill. Aside from being supremely bizarre timing, the concept seems fetish-y and irreverent in such a way that keeps me from wanting to read it any time soon. This NPR review captures a lot of my feelings, only they’ve already read the book.
Okay so for this next bit of news, you’ll need to sit down…
The above video is the Philip Freund Prize Alumni Reading being given by Cuban-American writer H. G. Carrillo, one of the more critically acclaimed Cubano writers of recent years. On April 20th, the artist passed away due to combined complications from prostate cancer and COVID-19. I can’t say I was a huge fan but I remember skimming through his 2005 novel Loosing My Espanish, and thinking how incisive and unique (to me) the voices of the characters were. As you can see from the video reading above, the late Carrillo and his work had quite a presence and soft humility to them, and I always found him an interesting voice from a community that often does not get to tell their own stories in English fiction.
However, the author H.G. Carrillo was never Cuban at all. He was a Black American Detroit native born Herman Glenn Carroll, and perpetuated a 30-year facade of Latinidad forreasons that unfortunately, have passed on with him.
It’s always a little ghoulish to discuss someone’s seemingly transgressive behavior so soon after they’ve left us, but this Washington Post obituary does a very kind and compassionate job of memorializing the man that Carrillo/Carroll is remembered as both before and after his writing career. I’m sure there will be a lot more discussion of this in coming days, but for now, all I can say is that I hope his soul is resting well and in respite from the lifelong stress of maintaining this persona.
This is a bit of a sad note to end on, but an intriguing one, I think. I’m going to try to do a weekly recap of bookish news every week so here’s hoping for good things.
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