Category: African-American

So You Want to Talk About Race

Cover image for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluoby Ijeoma Oluo

ISBN 978-1-58005-882-7

“These conversations will never become easy, but they will become easier. They will never be painless, but they can lessen future pain. They will never be risk free, but they will always be worth it.”

With grace, patience, and occasional humour, Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo tackles many of the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask about race, for fear of putting your foot in your mouth. Oluo covers such fundamentals as “What is racism?” and “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” to get readers on the same page, working from the same definitions, before tackling more specific queries, such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” and “Is police brutality really about race?” The chapters do not need to be read strictly in order, but it is helpful to begin with the first five, which are about concepts and definitions, before digging into the twelve chapters that address specific issues.

I first read this book back in March 2018, shortly after it was published. I ended up naming it one of my top non-fiction reads of 2018. At that time, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the excellent Bahni Turpin. However, I don’t usually write reviews of audiobooks, since I’m not making the kind of notes that I usually take when reading a print book, which form the basis for my reviews. Last fall, I picked up a copy of the new paperback edition, but didn’t actually dig into at that time.  Recently however, I’ve been talking to folks about this book a lot, and been wishing I had written a more substantial review, so the time seemed ripe for a reread.

 So You Want to Talk About Race is a stunning work of emotional labour that takes the time to work privileged readers through hard subjects in a way that may actually have a chance of getting those readers to see it as a question of systemic injustice rather than as a matter of individual failing about which they need to be defensive or angry. This is the fundamental grounding in understanding systemic racism that our education systems currently fail to provide anywhere but the college level, and often not even there. I never took an Indigenous Studies or Women’s Studies class during my post-secondary education, and I’m not even sure my university offered a critical race theory course. This essential knowledge is treated like an optional elective.

In the first chapter, Oluo writes that “these are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia their parents and teachers told them it was.” And while that was undoubtedly true when she wrote it, it strikes the same note with a deeper resonance in 2020, when many people are opening themselves up to talking and thinking about ideas they might never have entertained before. While this book has a chapter on police brutality, for example, it doesn’t have one about abolishing the police. Even just two years ago, that wasn’t a topic that fit into a 101 conversation about race and racism, but now entire cities are having it about the future of their police departments.

Oluo weaves in personal stories, often at the beginning of the chapter as an illustration of the concept she is about to unpack. Sometimes, such as the chapter on police brutality, it is an example of oppression from her own life as a self-identified fat, queer black woman. But other times, she uses her privilege as an illustration as well, such as the story of the picnic on Capitol Hill, or her college education, which qualified her for jobs that had nothing to do with her political science degree, and earned her higher pay in those jobs, while Black and Latinx colleagues with more experience but no degree were ineligible for promotion. By openly exploring and acknowledging her own privileges without defensiveness, she invites readers to do the same.

This is a book that is less for your unabashedly racist uncle, and more a book for talking with the aunt, cousin, or friend who thinks that they aren’t racist. What Oluo unpacks over the course of seventeen chapters is that racism is less about the beliefs of individual racists, and more about the systems of power that undergird and reinforce those beliefs, causing them to persist generation to generation even as explicit adherence to concepts like eugenics or Manifest Destiny fades. We are racist not because we as individuals are bad people, but because we operate in a system that is larger than any one individual’s beliefs or actions. Individualism blinds us to the larger patterns playing out in society. Again and again, I found myself writing the words “intent vs. harm” into the margins of this book. We desperately want to believe that we cannot be racist if we do not intend to be, but intent does not mitigate harm. If we fear being called racist more than we fear our unexamined racism, the conversation can never progress. If we are too afraid to speak, how will we ever take action?

The paperback edition includes a new preface by the author, as well as a discussion guide. In the preface, the author takes responsibility for some of the short-comings of the first edition, such as the inconsistent terminology she used around Indigenous people. She also moves to more explicitly acknowledge the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term intersectionality to highlight the need for feminism to explicitly consider the experiences of women of colour. Notably, the discussion guide includes not just discussion questions, but also principles for having a safe and productive discussion, such as “do not allow white group members to treat their discomfort as harm done to them,” and “don’t allow people of color to be turned into priests, therapists, or dictionaries for white group members.” These are valuable additions to the book, and I would recommend the newer edition if you’re planning to pick this one up.

You might also like The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Hood Feminism

Cover image for Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendallby Mikki Kendall

ISBN 9780525560555

“The patriarchy isn’t dead, nor is it the same everywhere, and calling for solutions without addressing the impact of class and race evades the real problem. As a society, we face a vicious tangle of income inequality exacerbated by unchecked bigotry that has been allowed to seep into every community.”

Meriam-Webster defines feminism as the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” But author and activist Mikki Kendall argues that a number of very fundamental and basic needs have been overlooked as feminist issues by mainstream feminism in favour of more specialized interests that only benefit a small subset of already relatively privileged women who have long been at the head of the movement. Arguing that “internal conflicts are how feminism grows and becomes more effective,” Kendall lays out these oversights, and centers the women who have been left behind at the heart of her idea of what the feminist agenda should focus on going forward. This is intersectional feminism, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but Kendall dubs it “hood feminism,” because for her the glaring oversights of the mainstream feminist movement were made readily evident by her own history as a poor, black woman growing up in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Chicago. In Hood Feminism, she lays bare the gaps, in the hopes that it will help us chart a more inclusive way forward.

Kendall begins by rejecting trickle down feminism, or the idea that gains for white women will eventually benefit women of color and trans women as well. She instead proposes reversing this model, and centering the needs of the most vulnerable members of the movement first, rather than continuing to ask them to wait in line for a turn that never seems to come. Hood Feminism also calls for an acknowledgement that “white privilege knows no gender.” Kendall suggests that women in positions of relative privilege should acknowledge that power, because “sometimes being a good ally is about opening the door for someone instead of insisting that your voice is the only one that matters.”

Kendall also points out that the mainstream feminist movement too often asks black women to divorce their feminism from their blackness, sometimes at the expense of black men. Without the nuance of intersectionality, black men are treated as if they have the same power and privilege as white men, even as black women bear daily witness to the fact that this is not true for the men in their lives. The most powerful faces of the patriarchy are not, and have never been, men of colour. She stresses the importance of acknowledging these nuances before effective policy solutions that do not harm marginalized people can be proposed and enacted.

Having established the narrow bounds of our current ideas of feminism, Kendall turns her attention to the broader issues she believes should be viewed through a feminist lens. These include issues as various poverty, hunger, gun violence, education, and housing. For each, she approaches the issue afresh, and demonstrates the unique harms and impacts faced by women and children that qualify them for consideration as a feminist issue. In the case of gun violence, she highlights data showing that “the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a women will be killed” by her partner. This leads directly to police brutality as a feminist issue, because when black women face domestic violence, they cannot turn to the law for a remedy without risking further violence. By following these connections, Kendall makes the case for broadening the scope of feminism.

Respectability politics are a major theme throughout the book, impacting how people are perceived and valued by society in a variety of situations. But Kendall points to poverty as a key driver away from the ability to maintain standards of respectability, pushing people into impossible choices between food and selling drugs, or shelter and sex work. “Any system that makes basic human rights contingent on a narrow standard of behavior pits potential victims against each other and only benefits those who would prey on them,” she argues. These standards can be advocated from within the community, or without, but whatever the source, they often “reflect antiquated ideals set up by white supremacy” and are “financially and emotionally expensive” to maintain. Respectability comes up again and again as a factor in deciding who deserves help, and who is deemed beneath notice.

Kendall does address some issues that are already broadly considered feminist issues, such as rape culture and reproductive justice. Here she focuses on the ways we need to broaden our understanding of the issues to be more inclusive of marginalized women, and the ways that women with the most privilege can ensure that they are not contributing to the oppression of other women through complicity in white supremacy. She argues that when white women reinforce stereotypes about women of colour, we legitimize their sexual abuse and reinforce rape culture. “Exotification isn’t freedom,” she argues. Rather, “any feminism that hinges on the fetishization of the beauty of women of color is toxic.” Assertions that sex workers cannot be raped create similar harm, positioning some women as deserving of whatever violence befalls them. In the chapter on reproductive justice, she focuses on black maternal mortality, as well as America’s harmful history of imposing eugenicist reproductive policies on marginalized women. In doing so she calls for a broader feminist understanding of reproductive justice that focuses on more than abortion access.

Hood Feminism provides a broad understanding of why some marginalized women struggle to identify with mainstream feminist organizations and causes. It promotes intersectionality by enhancing our understanding of what constitutes a feminist issue. And it calls on the women who have gained the most from white feminism’s narrow focus to use that relative privilege not for our own further gain, but to reach out and help bring other women onto equal footing, in ways that will benefit us all thanks to the interconnected nature of our society.

You might also like Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

Let’s Talk About Love

Cover image for Let's Talk About Loveby Claire Kann

ISBN 9781250138828

“I always did everything I was supposed to without complaining. It’s my life, but I’m still waiting for my turn to be in charge.”

After recently being dumped by her girlfriend Margot, Alice is starting to believe that being asexual and biromantic might mean that she is going to be alone forever. Except for her best friends Feenie and Ryan, but even they are a couple on the road to marriage, and Alice can’t help but feel like a third wheel. Then she meets Takumi, a new employee at the library where she works, who is so stunningly attractive that Alice has a twinge of doubt about her identity for the first time since she learned the word asexual. But after her complicated history of relationships with people who don’t share her ace orientation, Alice promises herself that she won’t get involved with Takumi, even though he clearly seems to like her. After all, she has bigger things to worry about, like the fact that her parents might stop paying for her education if she refuses to go to law school.

Let’s Talk About Love opens with Alice and Margot breaking up on page one. Contrary to what is in the publisher’s summary, Alice doesn’t actually tell Margot that she is asexual. In fact, she has been having sex with Margot to please her, but refusing to let Margot reciprocate, and refusing to explain why. After rattling off every ace stereotype in the book—all without ever actually using the word—Margot breaks up with Alice because “you could never love me as much as I would love you.” With the exception of Feenie and Ryan, in fact, Alice has never revealed her sexual identity to anyone, especially not her romantic partners, a fact that continues to end in heartbreak and misunderstandings.

Although written in the third person, Claire Kann’s style makes the narrative feel personal, and her chatty voice is filled with bracketed asides. As a character, Alice is well-defined beyond her asexuality. She loves television, and her hobby is writing critical essays about her favourite programs. She loves food, but can’t cook to save her life. She is still undeclared, because she doesn’t want to declare Political Science the way her parents want, on her way to becoming a lawyer. She would rather become an interior designer, a career that would take advantage of her “intense obsession with aesthetics.” But she knows that her parents would never pay for her to study something so frivolous.

There are three sets of relationships that make up Alice’s story. First is her long-standing friendship with Feenie and Ryan, who also become her roommates after her break-up with Margot. Unfortunately, this felt like a rather unhealthy triad, because Feenie is volatile and emotionally manipulative, and Ryan tended to go along with her more egregious behaviour. I also felt that Feenie and Ryan expected Alice to understand and accept that they were a couple, but seemed to expect that her asexuality would mean that she would never have an outside relationship that would be as significant to her as their friendship.

Although none of them ever make an in-person appearance, Alice’s family is also significant to her story and identity. Her parents are lawyers, with a fierce determination that their children will have the opportunities they did not, and that they will have all the advantages that they can give them that will help make up for some of the unfairness of racism and prejudice. Her older siblings Aisha and Adam are almost like another set of parents, because they are significantly older than Alice, who came along last, and unexpectedly. Although her family has money, Alice is trying to stand on her own, and claim the freedom that would come with paying her own way.

Takumi is the newest relationship in Alice’s life, but their connection quickly becomes intense, even as Alice continues to struggle with her promise to herself not to get involved. They meet at the library, but I’ll try to leave aside my professional nitpicks about the way the library is depicted, and the fact that they go around making googly eyes in the stacks when they are supposed to be working. Their relationship is indeed cute and swoonworthy, but I felt like the book ended before they really hashed out the inevitable complexities of a relationship between an allosexual person and an asexual one, partly because Alice can’t bring herself to tell him the truth for most of the book. As a result, matters still felt rather unresolved despite the epilogue.

Taking place largely over the course of a summer, with her future in flux, Let’s Talk About Love explores friendship, family, and romance, and how these different types of relationships contribute to our ideas about what it means to love.

You might also like Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

No Ashes in the Fire

Cover image for No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore

ISBN 978-1-56858-940-4

“Like so many other black boys who would grow up to love and lust after other boys, I would have died if I had not found safety in my imagination. I maneuvered through my days smiling, even as I suffocated in a world that refused to let me breathe.”

Darnell L. Moore was raised in Camden, New Jersey, a predominantly Black and Hispanic city across the river from Philadelphia. When Moore was born in 1976, Camden was a formerly prosperous industrial city that had developed a reputation for violence after a civil uprising against the murder of Horacio Jiminez by two police officers in 1971. But as Moore grew up, facing a fraught relationship with his father, a difficult relationship with the church, and deep denial about his own sexuality, he was largely unaware of that cultural history. Camden was merely home, a place full of his family, but also full of dangers for a boy who didn’t quite fit in. No Ashes in the Fire is an intersectional memoir at the confluence of being a gay Black man in the United States that recounts Moore’s long journey to self-acceptance.

In his portrait of his youth, Moore characterizes himself as a smart but not exceptional child, albeit one who drew the attention of his peers for his subtle failures to fit in. Moore points to the value of his education even as he critiques the system in which it took place. As a boy, he took his report cards to the guidance counsellor, and demanded to know why he wasn’t in the school’s gifted and talented program. He was admitted, but “unfortunately my individual ascension would be of no consequence for all of my peers who still had to return to the overcrowded classes I left.” Rather than casting himself as exceptional, he critiques the inevitable inequality of per pupil funding that relies heavily on local property taxes. Moore admits that “the better story would be one where I am portrayed as an exception, a student more worthy of better schooling than others,” but rather than giving into this narrative impulse, he firmly states, “I was no more gifted than they were.”

Moore is the son of young parents, who welcomed him into the world when they were still teenagers themselves. But his father, who had once defended his mother from beatings at the hands of her own father, eventually became her abuser. The violence in their home drove Moore deeper into himself, and into denial, and he notes that “the real tragedy of living with routine acts of violence is the way each act deadens emotions.” When his mother finally left his father for good, their relationship was essentially severed, even as his ghost haunted Moore’s choices. Yet “the selfish ambition to outshine my dad was not enough to spark self-transformation.” One of the most aching bits of prose in the entire book describes a chance encounter Moore had with his father as an adult: “To say I hated him would only reveal a surface truth. I hated my need to be loved by him. And I hated the way my heart opened in his presence because I knew he wouldn’t enter even if invited.” His absent father is a constant presence as he struggles to define and differentiate his own manhood.

Church had always been a feature of Moore’s life. He was attending a Catholic university when he suffered a heart attack in his first year, after which he “leapt into the depths of a shallow faith,” becoming deeply involved with youth ministry at the expense of his schoolwork. But while he “poured my love into a god I worshipped while slowly denying love to myself,” he secretly hoped to be cured of his desire for men. Eventually, he found that what the church was really instilling in him was self-hatred of the gay part of himself, even as it bolstered his “attraction to patriarchal rule” through its emphasis on masculinity and authority. For Moore, the church proved to be a false respite, and he eventually came to the realization that “the first, and most important revolution I needed to push was an upheaval of the systems within myself.”

No Ashes in the Fire is a story of the complex collision of multiple identities in a world that defaults to straightness and whiteness, and chooses to see some identities as inherently better or more worthy than others. Too many people are consumed by the twin fires of self-loathing and persecution. The fight for justice and equality continues.

You might also like Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow 

Becoming

Cover image for Becoming by Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

ISBN 978-1-5247-6313-8

I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Michelle Robinson Obama, a future Princeton graduate, lawyer, hospital administrator, mother, and First Lady of the United States, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father worked for the municipal utility company, and was slowly losing his health to multiple sclerosis. Her mother Marian stayed home with Michelle and her brother Craig while they were growing up, and then returned to work at a bank. Eventually, Marian would live quietly in the White House with her daughter and granddaughters. Michelle’s post-White House memoir, Becoming, chronicles her childhood, her education, her marriage, and their journey to America’s most famous address.

I was personally most interested in the section of Becoming that comes between Michelle going off to college and meeting her husband, and their arrival in the White House. I rarely enjoy reading about people’s childhoods, and the period of the election and her husband’s time as President were pretty well known to me already. The section in between, however, offered a vulnerable glimpse into the sacrifices involved in being married to a rising political star, and the difficulty of trying to find your passion when you go to sleep every night beside someone whose “forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing” your own. Michelle Obama’s path to career and motherhood was a rocky one, but she breaks taboos by sharing her decision to quit practicing law despite an expensive Ivy League education, and also talks openly about her miscarriages and fertility treatments, sharing that “a miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”

Although this is Michelle’s memoir and story, Becoming also offers an intimate portrait of the former President from the person who sees his most human side, and is not a bit dazzled by him. “For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior,” she writes of her husband. One clear illustration of his priorities comes from her recounting of how Barack blew his deadline for his first memoir because he kept putting it off in favour of his work as a political organizer. They had to repay the advance, and it would be several more years before Dreams from My Father was completed, and released by a different publisher. Overall she does a wonderful job of evoking what his intelligence and ambition have meant for their lives, particularly in passages where she writes about “sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it,” and later, “Barack’s potential rode along to school with the girls and to work with me. It was there even when we didn’t want it to be there, adding a strange energy to everything.”

Many people have enthused about the idea of the former First Lady running for office herself, but Michelle seems thoroughly uninterested in starting a political dynasty. She is the more practical, if not the more cynical, answer to her husband’s hope and optimism, a man who “seemed at times beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life.” At the municipal level, she writes, “I had never been one to hold city hall in high regard. Having grown up on the South Side, I had little faith in politics.” Even of her husband, she believed he could have a more profound impact by continuing to work as an organizer, or for a non-profit, rather than running for office. While she gave her blessing for him to run for President, she did not in her heart believe that America would elect a black man. Trying to put rumours and speculation to rest, she closes baldly, “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”

You might also like The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

The Underground Railroad

Cover image for The Underground Railroad by Colson Whiteheadby Colson Whitehead

ISBN 978-0-385-54236-4

“Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.”      

Cora is a third-generation slave born on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia. She has been a stray since the age of ten, when her mother became the only slave to ever escape the plantation, evading an infamous bounty hunter in the process. Since then, Cora has lived in Hob, the cabin for outcast slaves rejected even by their own people. So when Caesar approaches her about running North, Cora assumes it is a joke, or worse, a trap. The punishment for even discussing escape could be death. But Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, and when the balance of power on the Randall plantation shifts, running starts to seem like an option worthy of consideration. Via the lines of the Underground Railroad, Cora will live many lives after she escapes Randall, but the shadow of slavery will pursue her wherever she goes.

In Colson Whitehead’s imagining, the railroad that spirits Cora and Caesar to freedom is real and literal, rather than metaphorical. However, this is as far as Whitehead takes it; the railroad is a tool that enables him to transport Cora easily from place to place, through the different incarnations of the Black experience of America. He does not spend his time developing the premise of the railroad, or linger on the journey, though there is a nod to the fact that building and ventilating such a network would be a mighty feat of engineering. Rather, the railroad is a curious detail that adds atmosphere to the story, and facilitates Cora’s development as a character in the various chapters of her life. Whitehead delivers his fantastic additions in a matter-of-fact tone that causes them to blend seamlessly into the more factual aspects of the narrative, as he presents the horrors of slavery with equal directness.

The Underground Railroad is divided into episodes punctuated by the steps of Cora’s journey towards the promised freedom of the North. It is not a story delineated by strict notions of time; Whitehead freely borrows episodes and details from later periods to create amalgams. The trip from Georgia to South Carolina is not just a crossing of a state line, but in many ways takes Cora and Caesar into the concerns of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century free Blacks, confronted with the eugenics movement and  medical experimentation on non-consenting parties. Across the border again, into North Carolina, Whitehead conjures a white supremacist separatist state where Blacks can be executed on sight. Here we find echoes of the Holocaust, and Anne Frank’s sojourn in her Amsterdam attic, as well as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Although Whitehead plays fast and loose with the facts, he does so in a way that condensed the impact of the real events that inspired his fictions and elaborations. After South Carolina, there is a sense of dread that hangs over the book. Freedom feels elusive, perhaps even delusional, with each new fresh start less hopeful than the last. While starting over from each new location and perspective was occasionally tiresome, the technique was effective in building that sense of dread, and the niggling question about whether Cora can ever truly be free in a country built on the back of slave labour. When we leave Cora on the road, her next destination and chapter unwritten ahead of her, I wanted to believe she might still find true freedom, but could no longer quite bring myself to believe it could be true. In this way, The Underground Railroad has haunted me long past the final page.

You might also like Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Pride

Cover image for Pride by Ibi Zoboi by Ibi Zoboi

ISBN 978-0-06-256404-7

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”

Zuri Benitez is an Afro-Latinx soon-to-be-senior from Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood. She is looking forward to a summer spent with her sister Janae, who is about to return from her first year of college, even though it will be tight quarters with five Benitez sisters packed into one oversize bedroom in their old apartment. But everything changes when the Darcy family moves into the newly built mini-mansion across the street, heralding the gentrification of Zuri’s beloved neighbourhood. Zuri dreams of going to college, and then coming back to serve her community, but will there be anything left of it by then? The wealthy, black Darcys don’t really fit into the hood, and to Zuri their money represents everything that is slowly destroying her piece of the world. But Janae falls hard for Ainsley, even as Zuri gets off to a bad start with his younger brother Darius. She would much rather spend her time with Warren, a boy from the neighbourhood who gets where she is coming from, but also attends an elite secondary school, suggesting he has a bright future ahead of him. But it is Warren’s past that she should really be concerned about, and it is Darius who seems to hold the key to that story.

Ibi Zoboi’s modernization of Pride and Prejudice is remixed for the present day, set in gentrifying Brooklyn where the old Afro-Latinx community is slowly being pushed out by new money. The story is told from Zuri’s first person perspective, but also incorporates her poetry, which she uses to work through her feelings about everything from boys to college to the changing landscape of her beloved Bushwick. Text messages serve the function that letters take in P&P, but without quite achieving the same impact. The theme of class remains strong, but set into the modern context of wealth disparity, which allows Zoboi to explore many of the same dynamics that are at play in Austen’s original novel. Zuri and Darius come from fundamentally different upbringings, with necessarily divergent scopes and views of the world. But as Darius settles into Brooklyn, and Zuri’s world begins to expand as she considers college, and leaving her neighbourhood for the first time, the gap between them begins to narrow.

One of the striking things about Jane Austen’s novels is her sharp eye for characterization—and sometimes caricature. Zoboi takes a somewhat softer approach to her characters, few of whom are as harshly delineated as their Austenian counterparts. Zuri’s parents, for example, are decidedly in love, and while Mama Benitez can still be a source of embarrassment, there is a respect between the parents that does not exist between the original Bennets. And Carrie, who parallels Caroline Bingley, shows a softer side in the end when she helps protect Zuri’s sister Layla from Warren’s predations. Part of this is likely related to Zoboi’s strong community theme for Pride. She is depicting the positive sides of Zuri’s Bushwick, and a big part of that is the way the people support and look out for one another. She freely loosens the relationship to the source material in service of this theme. Madrina, for example, is not an exact analogue to anyone from Pride and Prejudice. She has aspects of Aunt Gardener, but she also in some ways represents Mr. Bennet and the entail of Longbourn, since she is the owner of the building Zuri’s family has lived in her entire life. Zoboi strikes the right balance between the fun of recognizing the source material, and the need to tell her own story.

If Zoboi’s characters aren’t quite as sharp as Austen’s, her depiction of place is stronger. Elizabeth deeply feels the future potential loss of Longbourn to the entail, but Austen doesn’t manage to depict it quite as clearly as Zoboi articulates Zuri’s feelings about the slow death of her neighbourhood. Far from disturbing her rest, the ubiquitous sirens lull her to sleep at night. Block parties and gatherings on stoops or at corner bodegas are the thrumming heartbeat of the community, but that beat is getting weaker and quieter every year. In this sense, it is actually Bushwick that is the most clearly drawn character in Pride, which is perhaps fitting giving the theme of community that ties the novel together.

Temper

Cover image for Temper by Nicky Drayden Nicky Drayden

ISBN 978-0-06249305-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

As soon as the soles of my worn loafers hit pavement outside the school, my proximity with Kasim breaks and the queasiness is back. The emotions that Kasim’s closeness had tempered come raging forth so quickly, I pitch over from their impact in my gut.”

With six vices to his brother’s six virtues, and only one virtue of his own, Auben Mtuze is what society calls a lesser twin, just like his mother. While his aunt and cousins live in luxury on the other side of the wall, Auben’s family ekes out a living inside the confines of the slums. One day his brother Kasim, a greater twin, might hope to rise up, but will he, like so many before him, leave his lesser twin behind when he goes? Growing up often means growing apart, even for bonded twins who can temper one another by their presence. Auben and Kasim have always been close, but when Auben begins hearing voices that goad him to indulge his vices, and he develops an inexplicable craving for blood, their fragile bond may be stretched to the breaking point, and beyond.

Nicky Drayden sets her sophomore novel in an alternate South Africa with its own unique mythology and history. Through the process of Discernment, twins are branded early with the distribution of their vices and virtues. Lesser twins, and singletons—those born without a twin—are both looked down upon. Religion teaches that the first twins were the gods Grace and Icy Blue, one all virtue, the other all vice, and that all twins are their creations. Secular science teaches than twins and kigen—male/female fraternal twin pairs that have shared DNA in the womb and thus created additional genders—are the result of genetics, but science is secretive and supressed in this world. These distinctions and classes set up a world that is rife with tension, both within and between families.

In both Temper and her first novel, The Prey of the Gods, Drayden is interested in examining what separates gods from people. In her worlds, these boundaries are decidedly imperfect, and even permeable, particularly when science and religion meet. Kasim and Auben are deliberately raised secular, but their six-and-one tempering places them at the extreme, and sends them searching for answers in all directions, including to Gabadamosi, the elite religious private school their cousins attend. Though this world is supposedly ruled by Grace and his virtues, it proves to be a no less complicated place than the slums, albeit with different dangers, because even the virtuous are human, with myriad talents for screwing things up.

On her website, Drayden lists her favourite authors as Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler, and Christopher Moore, a blend which accurately evokes the atmosphere of her two books to date, combining Stephenson and Butler’s grimmer sci-fi talents with Moore’s weirdness and humour. Drayden describes Temper as “a story caught somewhere between dark fantasy and horror.” Certainly there is an element of the surreal about her work, as well an ambitious, genre-spanning scope. I quickly learned to stop trying to predict what was going to happen, and simply go along for the ride as Drayden raced through a plot that could easily have been stretched over multiple volumes in the hands of a different writer. Unlike The Prey of the Gods’ multiple narrators, Temper is told only from Auben’s perspective, but it still covers a lot of ground. Every plot twist left me pleasantly stunned by Drayden’s weirdly fresh imagination.

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