Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything

Lies We Tell Ourselves
by Robin Talley

When this book was chosen by my book group I was worried it would be a tough read due to the subject matter. But it turned out, the problem I had was with the narrators’ tone and voice.

That’s not to say the subject matter isn’t tough, but I was reading this at the same time as dipping in and out of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and by comparison, well, it shows that Talley’s book is intended for a young adult audience.

It’s 1959 and some school districts in Virginia are holding out against integration. Sarah is one of 10 black pupils who were specially chosen to attend the white-only Jefferson High School after years of court battles. No-one at Jefferson wants them there and more than that, they don’t understand why the black students would want to come to their school.

“I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty.

This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse.

Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.”

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I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible

Negroland: a Memoir
by Margo Jefferson

This is an unusual memoir. It’s heavily stylised, experimental even, but it’s also rather scholarly in its approach to the historical context of Jefferson’s own life.

Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 and raised in a well-to-do black family in Chicago, part of a black elite society with its own specific rules, norms and challenges. And this is what she documents. It’s an unusual subject for a memoir, and in keeping with that, often doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. Jefferson doesn’t bare her soul, or reveal any shocking family secrets. She doesn’t even stick to first person, slipping in and out of referring to herself in the third person.

There is a lot of background information provided about the formation of America’s black elite, which at first felt a little excessive and/or dry until I realised how recent it all was, and in fact most of the people she refers to turn out to be family friends. There is also a lot about physical appearance – how people with different types of hair handled it, how nuances of skin colour and facial shape could affect your place in society. Usually I could not be less interested in hair and make-up, but of course its relevance to this story is rather different. Because even though Jefferson was and is rich, educated and well-connected, she and her friends and family cannot get away from the fact that they are black and therefore different.

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Only the monosyllables can still be relied on

disgraceDisgrace
by J M Coetzee

This book has been on my TBR for about 12 years. I knew enough about the subject matter to expect a tough read so I kept on passing over it. It was actually much more readable than I had expected, but that doesn’t negate the difficult subjects covered.

The lead character is David Lurie, a middle-aged university professor in Cape Town whose specialism of modern languages is no longer on the South African syllabus so he teaches communication instead. His is a limp life, teaching without pleasure, amicably divorced, as good as estranged from his daughter. Even his regular trips to a prostitute are without passion.

Indeed, he is impersonal enough with his regular prostitute Soraya that when one day he sees her in a market with her two children, it throws him off balance. He finds he can’t interact with her in the same way any more and she elects to stop seeing him. Here we get the first clue that David is not especially nice or trustworthy, because his reaction to Soraya’s disappearance is to hire a private detective to find her so that he can phone her and disturb her home life.

That’s just chapter one. From there David goes on to have an affair with one of his students, Melanie, a morally troubling affair, and not because of the age gap or university rules. The balance of power is so far askew it’s difficult to read. Their first sex sounds disturbingly close to rape and the second time is actually described as “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.”

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Sunday Salon: Black History Month

The Sunday SalonHere in the UK, October is Black History Month. For more than 35 years, October has seen a “nationwide celebration of Black History, Arts and Culture throughout Britain”. Locally to me, here in Bristol, events include music, theatre, film, workshops and exhibitions, many of which sound fantastic. The month will end with Bristol Somali Festival, a week-long celebration of Somali identity and heritage.

While I am excited about all the arts and culture events, to me the heart of Black History Month is the history part, and for that I am inclined to turn to books. There are many to choose between, from important people in Black history, to the multitude of stories of Africa, to slave narratives, to the experiences of Black people and communities outside of Africa.

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The numbness didn’t happen all at once

monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter
by Michelle Pretorius

My knowledge of the history of South Africa is a little sketchy, or at least it was before reading this book. But it’s so much more than a historical novel. This is genre-bending fare, combining crime, science fiction, social and political history – and it works.

The book opens with the discovery of a murder in a small town called Unie in 2010. The head of the police investigation, Sergeant Johannes Mathebe, is a straight player and he’s not getting on well with his recently appointed assistant Constable Alet Berg. She drinks, she swears and she resents being in this small town – a punishment for having an affair with one of the senior officers during her training.

The next chapter opens in 1901, in the midst of the Boer War. British troops are clearing out the Dutch farms, taking the people they find – mostly women and children – to concentration camps. A young woman called Anna is picked out from the Bloemfontein camp for something else, something worse, something that will echo through the next 109 years in its awfulness.

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Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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The essence escapes but its aura remains

i know why the caged bird singsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou

Once again, I thought I had read this before and that this would be a re-read, but nope, it was all new to me. I guess that sometimes happens with much-talked-about books. Anyway, now I actually have read it and it is just as amazing as everyone always said it is.

This is the first book in Maya Angelou’s seven volumes of autobiography, covering her childhood in Arkansas and California. Hers was an eventful life, and yet her writing is beautiful enough that the book hardly needs events to make it a great read.

Angelou was sent with her brother to live with their grandmother when she was three, and this is where her story begins. She was very aware of her status as a black girl with a plain face and writes with a tense humour about the white side of town. But she had a comfortably-off family (her Momma ran a successful general store) relative to many others in Stamps, Arkansas – a downtrodden, dirt-ridden place from her descriptions.

“A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white ‘things’…But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.”

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Defeated by its own decay, it was dying

lady-and-the-unicornThe Lady and the Unicorn
by Rumer Godden

I had never heard of Rumer Godden until I flicked through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue and saw that they are reissuing her books, but she was apparently hugely successful in her lifetime. Between the 1930s and 1990s she wrote an astonishing 70 books, including most famously Black Narcissus, which was made into that wonderful film with Deborah Kerr that I have always loved but never knew was based on a novel.

Godden had an interesting life. Born to an English family in India, she moved back and forth between India and the UK throughout her life, and her first-hand knowledge of both countries is clear in The Lady and the Unicorn.

The story centres around a crumbling, decaying mansion in Calcutta, split into apartments occupied by several Eurasian families. Belonging to neither the British colonial society nor the native Indian society, they cling to pride in their “Europeanness”, but it’s a lonely position to be in.

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The torment was strange, it was all in her mind

brooklynBrooklyn
by Colm Tóibín

This is a lovely book, though I do have reservations. Eilis lives with her older sister Rose and their mother in 1950s Enniscorthy, an Irish town in which job opportunities are scarce. Their brothers have already moved to England to work. Rose has a steady job but Eilis, despite having a bookkeeping qualification, doesn’t, so when a priest offers to arrange a job and accommodation for her in Brooklyn it seems like there’s no choice but to agree.

Eilis is enigmatic – she lets life happen to her, lets others make decisions for her, but she doesn’t lack ambition or opinions of her own. At times she seems ineffectual or indecisive, at others strong and brave. I suppose she is young enough (20 or so?) that she’s still learning who she is and what she believes, even what she really feels. She’s had to grow up very suddenly, thrust from a protective home in a small town to a boarding house in one the world’s largest cities, and the decisions she is faced with are very different now. The social stigmas and etiquette are different, and yet in some ways the same – there’s snobbery and elitism everywhere, but Brooklyn has the addition of racial tensions.

Tóibín manages to explore a lot in not that many pages here – separation from family and ties to our childhood home, love and romance, migration and loneliness, the changing social position of women and job opportunities available to them – but it doesn’t in any way feel like an “issues” book. It’s a snapshot of a time and place that felt very real to me, but most of all I was swept up in Eilis’s story. One word of warning, though: do not read the blurb on the back cover – it reveals something from the last 20 pages of the book. Poor form, Penguin!

“It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.”

First published 2009 by Viking.

Source: Secondhand, not sure which bookshop.

My first step from the old white man was trees

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker

When I read the first page of this book I wasn’t sure I could carry on. Walker plunges right into the heart of the awful beginnings of her story. But I made myself continue and within a few pages I was hooked.

The story is told in the form of letters, initially all addressed to God, from Celie. She tells how from the age of 14 she was repeatedly raped by her pa and bore him two children, both taken away from her. This has destroyed her ability to have further children so she is offloaded as a wife to Albert, a man looking for a trouble-free mother to his children. He beats her and makes no secret of his hate for her. Her beloved sister Nettie lives with them briefly before being forced to run away when she rejects Albert’s advances.

It’s all pretty bleak. And then along comes Shug Avery. The love of Albert’s life, she is a nightclub singer and quickly becomes Celie’s first real friend. Finally joy, happiness and the ability to talk openly come to Celie and she gradually finds the strength to make her life what she wants it to be.

Obviously, I knew this from reputation, but I realised it was a few chapters before it is clear that all the characters are black (at least, initially they all are). They are simply poor, ill-educated farm folk. But as Celie gets older and meets more people she learns what it means to be black. She learns about black people in other cities, other countries and even other continents. And she learns about being a woman, how she doesn’t have to be subservient.

Although the book goes very firmly from dark to light, it never gets over-sentimental or mawkish. Celie’s matter-of-fact tone gradually gains humour and worldliness. Always observant, she reports the moments and the conversations that have made her who she is at the end of the story:

“I believe God is everything, say Shug…My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds…it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything…And I laughed and I cried…It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
“Oh, she say, God love them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did…
“God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
“Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love &ndash and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
“You saying God vain? I ast.
“Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Now, I’m not religious, but there was something very moving about Shug’s idea of God and I love how it freed her and later Celie to follow their own rules. Not to give too much away, but this book includes some frank talk about sex and some homosexuality, not to mention all of the affairs characters keep having. Which I hadn’t expected and found refreshing. Yes, these are poor black people in the segregated southern USA in I think the 1930s and 1940s (there’s some vague talk about war breaking out in Europe) but take away the poverty and politics and they’re still human beings with hearts to give and break and libidos to follow.

The style of writing took some getting used to. Beside the dialect, Celie doesn’t always name characters or explain a situation clearly until much later. And time was passing far more quickly than I realised. There are sometimes years between letters. Also, the absence of speech marks was sometimes confusing. But looking beyond all that, it is a wonderful book well worth the pain of the early chapters.

First published in the USA in 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.