What I’m reading: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, The Fire This Time & Fiyah, issue 1

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I went to In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker, The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, and Fiyah, Issue 1, to recapture the trick of living while oppressed. I seem to have lost it in my 20s or 30s when I could wrap the privilege of having a job with money, living in NYC among a chosen community, with the status of a married woman around me like a force field. I had left behind the teachers who belittled the idea of a woman or a black man inventing the cotton gin and the boyfriend who hit me and I channelled most of my rage into my non-profit job securing women’s reproductive rights and occasionally at the men on the street who told me to smile. I had money for taxis at night and didn’t worry as much about walking home after dark.

I forgot what it’s like to live not feeling safe.

I forgot what it’s like to live with white skin my only privilege (yes it’s a big one).

The world has not been free of injustice, but it seemed it was getting better. And now it’s getting so much worse with bewildering speed. So I’m drawing on the coping mechanisms, the organizing strategies, the ideas of how to live, how to resist, how to be an artist, of people who never had a chance to forget. Who didn’t have the privilege to forget. And I’m crying, but it’s not all tears of rage and despair, some of those tears are for recognition, beauty and strength.

I chose In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens because it was immediately available at my library, I remember reading her essays in college and because she is (relatively) old school now. I wanted to see what a black womanist activist was saying about the 60s and 70s (knowing that so much has changed and so much has not changed). I went to The Fire This Time, because it’s current and can tell me about now, this moment we’re living in. And it blew me away. There’s not one essay or poem in the collection that didn’t bring connections up to the surface for me or move me. “Message to My Daughters” by Edwidge Danticat made me cry in public, at a restaurant. “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau made me hopeful, because there is always resistance. “White Rage” by Carol Anderson told me about my people and I have her book on hold at the library now. Everyone should read this book. It will galvanize you. It will help you understand our world. It will give you models for resistance. And I went to Fiyah because life is about more than essays, it’s about art, which reveals reality, and hopes and fears, and speculative fiction is my go-to reading choice. I recommend it, even if, especially if, you’re not white and the stories don’t “resonate” with you. How are they going to ever resonate if you don’t immerse yourself or give them a chance? And even if they don’t resonate, ever, at least you learned something about others and yourself.

 

 

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What I’ve been reading: The Obelisk Gate and Orleans

obelisk-gateThe Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. I thought The Fifth Season was one of the most exciting books to come out in the SFF genre in a long time, both thematically and from a craft perspective. It was also one of the most emotionally challenging books I had read in a long time for many obvious reasons, but the hardest part for me were the descriptions of child abuse. It would be hard to top all of that, and I don’t think The Obelisk Gate managed. I also had to put it down for a long time because of something Essun does fairly late in the book. I could deal with her being a mass murderer several times over, but not this very intimate betrayal. More than everything, this book seemed to be about coping mechanisms, how they help people survive and how they brutalize the people who use them and wield them against other people in their quest for survival.

orleansOrleans by Sherri L. Smith. I can read most dystopias/post-apocalyptic stories without a problem because they are more like fables than anything else, but some are too real and hard for me to read (like The Handmaid’s Tale, which I will never re-read). This story of a young black woman in a post-hurricane, post new epidemic New Orleans was one of the ones that seems too real and too possible. It’s a tough read but good in a heart-wrenching way, though I was not a fan of the ending.

 

What I’ve been reading: Ninefox Gambit, Too Like the Lightning & Infomocracy

ninefoxNinefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. A challenging read that’s worth it. Starts off with a steep learning curve as it all seems to be in English but you don’t know what any of the concepts mean put together like that. It’s like learning a new language and I could practically feel the neurons connecting in new ways. I actually re-read the first chapter, once in the sample and again after I bought the book and it helped a lot. Definitely something different, if you’re tired of the same old, same old.

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Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. “I got this,” I said, “after reading Ninefox Gambit, Too Like the Lightning can’t be too hard.” I was wrong. This was even more challenging. With Ninefox Gambit, I knew I didn’t know what the words he was using meant. With Lightning, it seemed like I knew what all the words meant, but did I really know? I felt like I was testing every word, every concept and asking, Is this what the author intended? Is this how she meant this? Partly because this book has lots of chewy ideas and partly because I was derailed fairly early on by Mycroft’s response to Danae’s gender performance in a world where supposedly those gender markers aren’t common (and the explanation for that doesn’t come for another 300 pages.) I’m glad I read it though I
wasn’infomocracyt always glad while I was reading it.

Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. This was fun to read on the heels of Too Like the Lightning as it had some of the same ideas about near future and micro nations (for lack of a better word that applies to both) but in a much more accessible form. It reads a bit like a thriller, but with lots of
ideas about democracy and social media and voting.

 

You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott on lighthouses

Every Heart A Doorway

Given my abiding love for portal fantasy (the first thing I can remember writing is a Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe knock-off, at about the age of 7), I had to read Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire.

I love the concept: a school for children (mostly girls) who have been somewhere else and come back, usually not because they wanted to; a school that helps them cope with having found the place they belong and having had it taken away; a school that gives them someplace to escape the families that want to help them.

I love the inversion of the trope of the portal fantasy. Here is this school full of people who have ALL been somewhere else and come back. It’s not a secret, it’s not a mystery (except in the sense that they don’t know why people travel and how it works). The beginning part was fun-bittersweet for me, a kind of guided tour of what that would look like, of the flip side that CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll never thought of and the sadness and dislocation the Pevensies and Alice must have felt. (I think L. Frank Baum might have done better with Dorothy, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read an Oz book and not just seen a movie.)

But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) this book was so close to being for me and then it wasn’t for me. I could still appreciate it, but I didn’t love it.

It’s too creepy.

A kind of creeping creepiness like spiders crawling on my skin.

I had my doubts about Nancy (the protagonist’s) world, the way you might side-eye the boyfriend of a good friend. “No, he’s great,” she insists but he seems kind of cruel to her and he doesn’t like any of her friends and you wonder if everything is ok behind closed doors. That’s how I felt about Nancy’s world. Maybe it’s ok for her and she really does like that stuff but I don’t and I’m not sure I can trust her judgement.

Jack and Jill and their world are even creepier… and you begin to see my problem.

Kade was a delight though and (minor spoiler) I was happy to see McGuire’s matter of fact portrayal of a boy born in a girl’s body (I don’t think he labels himself specifically in the book).

So this book is perfect for someone else, but not for me.

2016: The Year of Portal Fantasy

Early in 2016 I jokingly said that it was going to be the year portal fantasy makes a comeback because I saw the announcements for Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars in quick succession.

Of course, portal fantasy has always been around, but when Lightspeed Magazine published “Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” by Jeremiah Tolbert in February, I thought maybe I wasn’t so far off. Maybe it’s the time for new and exciting takes on portal fantasy.

Tolbert’s story is just that, one of those stories that you read and exclaim “Of course it could happen like that! That makes so much sense!” It’s fantastic because it turns portal fantasy on its head.

Reading Diversely–Update

I thought I was doing well. It’s shocking how not well I’m doing at being thoughtful in my reading choices. It’s been a month and a half, more or less, since my last post. Here are my numbers:

48 books read (I’m on drugs after minor surgery. I’m aware my numbers don’t add up, but I can’t make them and I give up)

32 by white authors

14 by authors of color (that’s less than half! better than 20% in Februrary, but I still have a lot of catching up to do)

42 by women

5 by men

If you count the books I have started but not finished but mean to go back to, it’s even worse: 10 books (really?? Who is the midst of 10 books? 3 are poetry collections, if that helps)

All of them are by women.

One will probably be DNF.

4 are by women of color.

6 are by white women.

This is me trying and still reading mostly white women. This is my library not having any poetry collections (on the shelves in front of me the day I went) by any of the black women I looked for (Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Nelson or Maya Angelou). This is all of our book club books this year have been by white people. This is also me deciding to try to read all of Margo Lanagan’s books.

Amazing books by authors of color I’ve read so: Under the Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brisset, Fire in the Streets by Kekla Magoon, and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (which is going on my best reads of 2015 list)