Tag: Daniel José Older

The Fire This Time

Cover image for The Fire This Time, Edited by Jesamyn WardEdited by Jesmyn Ward

ISBN 978-1-5011-2634-5

“To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice these last four hundred years.”

Following the death of Trayvon Martin, only the latest in a long history of black deaths excused by the state, Jesmyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice. She “needed words” in the face of this tragedy, but “the ephemera of Twitter, the way the voices of the outraged public rose and sank so quickly,” left her disappointed, and looking for more. The medium’s immediacy, so powerful and important in the heat of the moment, lacked permanency. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is this collection of seventeen essays and poems by writers as various as Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, Garnette Cadogan, Daniel José Older, Edwidge Danticat, and Honorée Fannon Jeffers.

Ward divides The Fire This Time into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. But as she admits in the introduction, the pieces she received resisted the tidy structure she had envisioned. In some respects, this speaks to the complexity of the pieces, which refuse to be confined to past events or present reactions, but delve into the nuanced relationship between history and current events. Most of the pieces are essays, but each of the three sections begins with a more stylized piece or poem, such as Clint Smith’s striking “Queries of Unrest” in which he makes a metaphor of the fact that in school, he was taught never to write in the margins, even though he was marginalized.

Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle. Those events are also names. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland. The blackface of Rachel Dolezal, sent up by poet Kevin Young. Some writers name the man who murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Others choose to excise his name in favour of remembering his victims. They are immortalized here in black and white, even as Claudia Rankine reflects on how hard that must be for the mothers and families of the fallen, who see their children transformed from individuals to evidence in “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.”

In a collection of seventeen, everyone will have different pieces that speak to them most strongly. I made six pages of notes while I was reading, and in addition to Claudia Rankine’s essay, another whole page is given over to “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan. You can read it on LitHub as “Walking While Black.” An inveterate nighttime walker in his native Jamaica, he discovered on arriving in New Orleans for college that his black body, no longer unremarked among many others like it, drew unwelcome attention from police, and fear from fellow pedestrians. The magic is diminished, because walking while black in America “renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone.” I was suddenly put in mind of Charlotte Smith’s poem “On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it Was Frequented by a Lunatic,” which addresses how women are also stripped of that freedom. It is a connection Cadogan has already clearly made, not to the poem itself, but the general concept: “it is not lost on me that my woman friends are those who best understand my plight; they have developed their own vigilance in an environment where they are constantly treated as targets of sexual attention.”

Still others call out to be described. Daniel José Older writes to his new wife about her decision to come live in America with him despite current events. Edwidge Danticat addresses her daughters on the smothered hope of Barack Obama’s election to president while still holding onto hope for their future. Honorée Fannon Jeffers calls for a reconsideration of the use of Margaretta Matilda Odell as a primary source on the life of black poet Phillis Wheatley because the biographer’s claim to connections with the white Wheatley family that freed Phillis cannot verified. Jesmyn Ward’s own essay about discovering that the largest part of her genetic heritage is European. But the purpose of a review is not to summarize the book in whole, so I will leave off here.

This is the part where I admit I still haven’t read The Fire Next Time. I meant to read it after I finished Between the World and Me, but didn’t get around to it. Having just finished this one, and with Between the World and Me on the horizon again for discussion with my book club next month, I decided it was time, and placed a library hold that hasn’t come in yet. So I can’t speak to this collection in relationship to its predecessor and inspiration. But The Fire This Time stands powerfully all on its own.


More Books on Race in America:

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia RankineCitizen by Claudia Rankine

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander


Cover image for Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older by Daniel José Older

ISBN 978-0-545-59161-4

Fair Warning: The last paragraph of this review is more spoilery than I usually get, but it was necessary in order to discuss one of the key elements of this book.

“Her voice carried the voices of a hundred thousand souls in it; a whole history of resistance and rage moved with her.”

Sierra Santiago starts out her summer painting a giant mural of a dragon on an ugly concrete tower, a small act of resistance against the uninhabited building that sticks out like a sore thumb in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn where her family has lived for three generations. But as she works on her own painting, she begins to notice something strange; other murals around the neighbourhood seem to be fading unusually quickly, and more than once she swears she catches the portrait of Papa Acevedo weeping. The strange happenings raise questions only Sierra’s nearly catatonic abuelo could answer, but he has barely spoken since his stroke the year before. Her mother stonewalls Sierra’s every attempt at getting answers, and meanwhile her grandfather’s old associates have begun to go missing. As she digs into her family history, Sierra discovers a legacy that has been hidden from her for her entire life.

The magic system in Shadowshaper is not particularly well explained, but it is very cool, harnessing the power of creativity and the spirits of the community towards a common goal. Sierra has always had an artistic bent, but she begins to understand that her talent for drawing can be much more than that when she learns that drawings can be animated by willing spirits channeled through the shadowshaper. We see interesting variations of this with her brother Juan, who is a musician, and learn that her grandfather did his ‘shaping not through visual media but with his exceptional skill for storytelling, making his stroke particularly devastating. She also meets Robbie, another young artist who can direct his creations and even his tattoos through his skills.

Shadowshaper strives hard to maintain a fast pace. As such, the dialogue can be a little direct or on the nose, sometimes clearly aimed at moving the plot along. The rest of the time however, Older is able to capture slang on the page in a way that feels quite natural and lively. Similarly, some actions seem a little bit unlikely but again, directed towards making something happen that will drive the story forward. Something gets lost in the way of character development and world-building in this rush, but since Shadowshaper is first in a series, Older has space to continue developing these elements in future books.

As Sierra investigates her grandfather’s old associates, one stands out; a white professor from Columbia University known for studying “urban spirituality systems” had been hanging around with her abuelo shortly before his stroke. As she digs into his past, she hears strange rumours about Professor Wick’s studies, that he was actually acquiring the powers he was supposed to be observing. It is here that the core of Older’s narrative becomes clear; Shadowshaper is an allegory for cultural appropriation, as Wick begins to feel entitled to the knowledge the shadowshapers have entrusted him with, and tries to assume a position of power within the community that welcomed him. If the old guard will not bend to his vision, he will destroy them and begin again, stripping Sierra of her heritage and her birthright in the process. Ultimately it is a cautionary tale about entitlement, and what happens when traditional knowledge meets a Western academy that doesn’t share its core values.


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