Photo Courtesy of Oprah.com
I absolutely love Junot Diaz's prose. This is How You Lose Her is the Dominican author's third book. It is also the third time I've read his work and haven't been able to put it down (check out his books Drown and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ).
This book is a collection of short stories that center around a young Dominican man, and his complicated romantic or familial relationships with the women in his life. As someone with Caribbean heritage, who grew up in a working class family in the New York tri state area (Diaz grew up in New Jersey), I found myself identifying with and laughing at some of his protagonists' thoughts:
"While Rafa's hair was straight and glided through a comb like a Caribbean grandparent's dream, my hair still had enough of the African to condemn me to endless combings and out-of-this-world haircuts. My mother cut our hair every month, but this time when she put me in the chair my father told her not to bother." (pg 126)
"Only a b&%$h of color comes to Harvard to get pregnant. White women don't do that. Asian women don't do that. Only f&%$king Black and Latina women. Why go to all the trouble to get into Harvard just to get knocked up? You could have stayed on the block and done that s&%t." (pg 198)
But I don't want to suggest that the only people who "get" Diaz are those who are from an island and grew up in the inner city. I truly think his work is relatable on a universal level, as it is down to earth, honest, and always entertaining. Presently, Diaz is a creative writing professor at MIT. I can only imagine that he's one of those "cool" professors with the fun class.
Are you a Junot Diaz fan? What do you think about his books?
Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade
Photo Courtesy of africacentre.comHey All! As I might have shared in a previous post, I had the privilege of traveling to Ghana last summer thanks to a fellowship through my MBA program. I spent a month there, traveling the country, visiting historical sites, and working on a business project. All of it was amazing and life-changing. Who would've thought I'd get the chance to visit the Mother Land. I look forward to going back one day (sooner, rather than later, I hope). But while I was there, I visited the bookstore in the Accra Mall, and picked up this book. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for the last year, but I finally decided to pick it up and read it. I'm glad I did.
Photo courtesy of africatoday.com
Ama focuses on the story of one girl's journey, from a free young woman in Ghana to a slave in Brazil. Her original captors are a adversarial group of Africans who invade her village while most of the people are away at a funeral (she stayed behind to watch her baby brother). As her captors sell her to different owners throughout the story, they re-name her as they see fit. Her birth name was Nandzi, then she becomes Ama, then Pamela, then One-Eye (you'll find out why in the book). Because she's sold to so many masters before even leaving the African continent, she learns several languages, and becomes a useful interpreter to her European enslavers. Although she finds favor in their eyes in this respect, she also clashes with many evil men, and is raped and beaten many times, as well.
A significant portion of the book is dedicated to her time at a Dutch slave castle on the coast of Ghana, where she becomes one of the Dutch men's concubine (she actually develops feelings for him). Reading this part reminded me of the Dutch slave castle in Elmina that I visited while I was in Ghana. The fortress is still standing and in decent condition, given it's age. It also still has an eerie feel: while standing in the slave dungeon last summer, I couldn't help but wonder if my own ancestors had stood on this very spot. I was the first person in my family to return to Africa since my ancestors had been stolen away. I felt like I had come full circle, and was coming back to Africa to pay my respects to those who had come before me. It was an emotional experience for me. One of my White classmates made a comment about how sad African history (specifically the slave trade) is, but after I thought about it for a bit, I felt proud. When you have the opportunity to look at the slaves' living conditions, and hear about their mistreatment first hand, you realize how strong, mentally and physically, someone had to be in order to endure and survive that. So many Africans died (or committed suicide, understandably) in the process, but I wouldn't be here had my ancestors not survived. How did they do it? Just to know that I come from a line of exceptionally powerful people is inspiring to me. If they can overcome that, imagine what I can accomplish in my own life today...
My photo collection: Elmina Slave Castle entrance, Ghana
My Photo Collection: Elmina Slave Castle rooftop, Ghana
My Photo Collection: Elmina Slave Castle entrance to male slave dungeon, Ghana
My Photo Collection: Elmina Slave Castle "The Door of No Return', Ghana
Do you read books about your ancestry? What makes you most proud? Have you read Ama? Although I bough it in Ghana, I see it is available here in the US, too.
The Book of the Night Women
Photo Credit: Notevenpast.org
"And if she [the negro] just come from the ship, more so be the difference. If the negro is a Igbo, sooner or later, she goin' kill herself. If she come from or born to an Angolan, then she goin' be lazy till her dying day. If she come come from or born to a Popo or Ibibio, then she goin' work hard and laugh and merry and thank God for massa. If she be Akan, her hand working as hard as her mind plotting. But the Lord help you if you get an Ashanti, what the White people call Coromantee. Not even massa whip can tame she."
The Book of the Night Women takes place in late 18th century, early 19th century Jamaica on a plantation, and centers on the story of a young, mulatto slave with blazing green eyes named Lilith. As Lilith's mother dies shortly after giving birth, Lilith is raised by an unrelated, uncaring slave woman ("Massa" is Lilith's father, so he's obviously not stepping in to care for her) until the head house slave, Homer, steps in and takes the girl under her wing. Lilith, hot-tempered and extremely stubborn (she has Ashanti blood running through her veins, after all), constantly clashes with Homer, but Homer doesn't give up on her.
While the book follows Lilith through her ups and downs on the plantation (her smart mouth and hard head get her in trouble more than a few times), the reader is also privy to a plan that Homer is leading for a slave revolt against their White oppressors. Homer, and the other women spear-heading the movement, are very powerful, as each of them dabble in Myal and Obeah (black magic), and even though Lilith is a thorn in their sides, they try to include her, because they recognize that same power within her. Lilith is torn about whether she wants to participate, as she knows what it feels like to murder others (I told you she's hot tempered). It also doesn't help that she's been carrying on a (somewhat) secret, romantic relationship with the plantation's Irish over-seer.
Kingston-born Marlon James, a literature and creative writing professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the book's author.
Photo Credit: slaverysite.com
While this book is not a quick read at 417 pages, it did paint a very clear picture of slavery in the Caribbean. The rapes, the murders, the maroons, the British plantation owners, the division between the fair skinned house slaves and dark skinned field slaves are all made real in this novel. It's also a bit dark, as black magic plays a huge role in the story. Given the fact that I love history, and my family is from Jamaica, I had to read this book. I think you should read it to.
Are you interested in slavery-era novels? Do you know of other good books that focus on slavery in the Caribbean?
For Anyone Who Had a Crush on the Popular Kid in High School
I wasn't the popular kid in school back in the day (do the popular kids grow up and start blogs about good novels and documentaries?), but Davie Jones, the protagonist in the novel 32 Candles brings unpopularity to a new level. The story takes place in small town, Mississippi, in the era of 1984's hit movie, 16 Candles. Davie, born to a negligent, violent and unloving single mother (it was quite disturbing when the author finally revealed information about her birth father), has such low self-esteem, that although she's borderline brilliant, she ceases to talk. From her unkempt hair to her second-hand clothing, she has little chance of standing out (in a good way) in the typically fashion-conscious high school environment. Her mom's less-than-respectable reputation around town also doesn't help matters.
Suddenly, Davie has a reason to look forward to going to school when a wealthy (and beautiful by stereotypical standards- they're described as being a light-skinned, light-eyed African American family, although light doesn't equal beautiful) family moves to town, and the three children enroll at her school. Davie quietly (obviously if she doesn't talk) develops an obsessive, engrossing crush on the brother, who, of course, is tall, handsome, kind, and the captain of the football team. Somehow, Davie gets an invite to the family's VIP, invite-only party, and after a completely mortifying experience there, she logically arrives at the conclusion that there is no way she can return to school, so her best bet is to leave town. She literally catches a ride with a random truck driver (which forces her to finally open her mouth and communicate) and heads to LA.
Photo credit: fierceandnerdy.com
Fast forward several years, and Davie has reinvented herself. And this novel wouldn't exist if she didn't, by chance, run into her high school crush, who has also relocated to LA, and doesn't recognize her. And she's not trying to reveal her true identity, either, but he's adamant about getting to know her. Davie jumps through hoops trying to conceal her identity, but as the saying goes, the truth always comes to light. It also helps if you hire a private investigator, which is what her crush's sister did. The information the PI reveals about Davie makes the reader somewhat second-guess her dedication to "Team Davie- The Underdog" as she sees a sneaky, under-handed, untrustworthy side of Davie that she didn't even know existed. But by the end, Davie manages to win us over again.
Author Ernessa Carter, blogger at fierceandnerdy.com, wrote 32 Candles. Given the domain name, one must wonder how much she borrowed from real life in writing this novel, as I would probably use those exact words to describe the new, improved LA Davie. This is Ms. Carter's first book (she has also recently co-authored on a book called Better Than Good Hair), but since I couldn't put 32 Candles down, I eagerly anticipate her next novel!
As you can probably guess, I highly recommend this book. Given that I'm a grad student with lots of homework, and I still managed to devour this book in a couple of days, says alot!
Were you the nerd or cool kid in high school? How has that influenced the person you are today?
Have you read this book?
The Conquering Lion of Judah
Hey friends! I’ve been so busy with grad school, and PhD program applications that I haven’t had much time to update this site (and I certainly haven’t had too many opportunities for casual reading), but I decided to make some time to write today. For the past few months, anytime I’ve gotten a few minutes, I’ve been reading a book called Rastafari: Roots and Ideology.
Photo Credit: Amazon.com
In general, I’m interested in religious history (at 5a this morning, I watched a documentary on Netflix about the origins of America’s religious landscape through my smartphone before getting ready for church). Although I’m a Christian, I respect and love to learn about all religions. And maybe I’m biased given my Jamaican heritage, but when I came across Rastafariin the bookstore, I knew I had to buy it.Photo Credit: Religionfacts.com
The book starts off exactly where it should: during the era of slavery in Jamaica, as the author aims to tie in some of the traditions of these Africans to the Rastafarian religion we recognize today. As he progresses through time, Chevannes discusses the changes, divisions, and spiritual leaders who shaped the faith. His first and second-hand accounts of the Rastas are both interesting and eye-opening, as I never knew so many details about Rastafarianism (such as the difference between The Bobos and The Dreadlocks, two factions within the religion). I have, however, always respected the Rastas based on what I did know about their religion, particularly their strong anti-colonial, pro-African positions. They were rebels in a country where their captors tried to make them to assimilate to the British beliefs and standards of beauty. You have to respect a people who decide to love themselves and their heritage even when the historical psychological trauma of slavery and colonization has successfully forced many to do otherwise (we can still see the impact of this psychic trauma today, throughout the Caribbean and in the Americas).
This work is essentially the result of field research that the author, Barry Chevannes, conducted in Jamaica in the 1970s for his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. The Kingston-born scholar taught Sociology at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica until his death in 2010 at the age of 70.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.orgWhile the nearly 300 pages of research do not read like a novel (and I wouldn’t expect it to, since it’s academic research), the author’s attention to detail makes this book arguably one of the best sources of information on Rastafarianism. Are you interested in religious history like me? I bought this book at Barnes & Noble and it was the only copy on the shelf. Have you seen this book at your local bookstores? Libraries? Check it out and let me know where you find it.
Death At An Early Age
“If poison were not spreading at this moment, I might agree with the people who say that Negroes ought to sit and wait a little, and let some of these things change at their own pace. But when time is destroying the present lives of your own children, I do not believe anyone should wait. No child in the ruined Fourth Grade at my school can ever have that terrible year returned to him (pg 84).”
This is just one of the many powerful lines in the book Death At An Early Age, in which the author, Jonathan Kozol, serves as somewhat of an undercover agent-teacher at one of Boston’s most over-crowded inner-city public schools in 1964. He details many disturbing scenarios that occur at a school in which White teachers were instructing a predominately Black student body. The reader encounters so many disturbing stories in this book that one rightfully wonders what chance the students have for productive futures. The real kicker is that these stories are true.
From corporal punishment (although teachers weren’t supposed to be hitting the children), to calling the children “niggers”, to setting low expectations for their scholastic performance (and therefore teaching them to have low expectations of themselves), Kozol navigates the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences that these children suffer presently and those that they will most likely suffer into adulthood. Beyond poor treatment, the children are also relegated to attend a school that is in disrepair. Who can sit and pay attention in a school that doesn’t have enough books or classrooms and with a roof that leaks when it rains? (Actually, too many schools are still dealing with these issues today, less the blatant racism).
Kozol published Death At An Early Age in 1967. He was born and raised in Boston, and this Harvard grad is best known for being a public education reform and civil rights advocate. Death At An Early Age was his first nonfiction book, garnering a National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion. He still participates in speaking engagements around the country to this day (my mother went to one of them a few years ago. I wish I could have attended with her).
This book is both disturbing and enlightening. To know that these things were happening in public schools around the country (because we know that this didn’t just happen in Boston) during my parents’ generation is uncomfortable, to say the least. My father grew up in an inner city just a few hours south of Boston. Did he face teachers like the ones in this book? Did your parents or did you, yourself, deal with this? What’s worse is that the mentality that these teachers pretty much forced on these kids, one of self-worthlessness, feeling unintelligent, and probably hating school, was most likely passed down to the children and grandchildren of many of these inner city students. If you’re treated like you don’t matter at school, why would you want to go? Why would you take it seriously? If you’re not learning what you’re supposed to be learning, because you have teachers who think you’re incapable, then what’s the point? And how then, can you raise children to believe that education is the path to success? And what about your grandchildren? It becomes a generational cycle.
Because I take education seriously, reading this book was kind of emotionally draining for me, but it was so worth it. It’s an important part of recent Black history (and inner city Latinos can probably relate too) that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, as we can see the devastating impact it’s still having on many inner city kids today. Let’s re-read this 45 year old book, and consider how far we’ve come, how far we haven’t, and what we need to change.Do you know about Jonathan Kozol? Have you read the book? What do you think about Death At An Early Age?
Photo Credit: nybooks.com, and masterfile.com
The Tao of Pooh
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Required reading for one of my undergraduate courses has become one of my favorite books. This is one book that I did not sell back to the bookstore, or try to sell online, and instead decided to keep in my personal library at home. I’ve read it several times over the years, especially during the most stressful times in my life, as a reminder to take a deep breath, and refocus.
The book I’m talking about is the Tao of Pooh, written by Benjamin Hoff and published in 1982. It’s based on Tao principles, which focus on “following the way” through wu-wei (action through non-action/ effortless action). If you’re not familiar with Taoism (I’m definitely not), it’s most common in China, and dates back to the 4th century BC. Hoff displays the difference between the Tao way, and the wrong way through the main characters in one of your favorite cartoons as a child, The House at Pooh Corner. And which character do you think exemplified the Tao way?
Winnie the Pooh, of course. Pooh lived life simply, didn’t over-complicate situations, and although we wouldn’t describe him as an energetic go-getter, things always seemed to work out for him.
After reading the book, I wondered who Benjamin Hoff was. Hoff, of Oregon, published this book at age 36. It seems like he had a great interest in Chinese culture, even earning a BA in Asian Art just a decade or so before writing the book. According to the info I found on Wikipedia about him, he also comes across as a free spirit, given all of his career changes: tree pruner, antiques restorer, hospital orderly, journalist, reporter and musician. He wrote 5 books in total, but in 2006, he publicly resigned from book writing. I have no idea what career he’s pursuing now.
He followed up the New York Time best-selling book with another one about Winnie the Pooh and his friends called The Te of Piglet. In this piece, Hoff describes how Piglet’s te, or inner power and heart, allows him to live in harmony with the Tao, while the characteristics of some of the other characters prevent them from living more fulfilling lives.
Photo Credit: 1zoom.net
One lesson I came away with after reading this book is that the mind that is given rest, often comes up with the most innovative solutions. While it’s not realistic to aim to live your life like Winnie the Pooh (he was kind of an airhead), it is a great reminder to stop and enjoy the simple things: silence, family time, meditation, nature, a good book, or great food. We need to savor these moments. Afterall, if God forbid we don’t wake up tomorrow, then what was all the fuss and rush for?
At 158 pages, it’s an easy read for people who are short on time. Check it out and let me know what you think!