Friday, December 13, 2013

Brown Bodies as Props in Modern Lit

With the recent release of 12 Years A Slave and last year's Django Unchained, some in Hollywood have spoken out about their belief that there are too many movies about slavery being made.  Morgan Freeman has been vocal about not seeing it.  Then there's Nick Cannon, a man with the power to create his own television shows (as chairman of TeenNick and with MTV's Wild 'n Out) or movies about blacks who, instead, takes to Twitter to complain:

Back in March of this year, The Daily Beast lamented that 2013 was sure to be the year of the slavery film, though of the six listed, I'm only aware of two coming to the big screen, and neither has been shown in the states.

Savannah, starring James Caviezel and, again, Ejiofor; it’s loosely based on the book Ducks, Dogs and Friends by John Eugene Cay Jr. and tells the story of a well-educated white hunter who develops a friendship with a freed slave;
Something Whispered, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as a man who attempts to free his family from slavery on a tobacco plantation in 1850;
The North Star, starring Keith David, the true story of Big Ben Jones, a slave who escaped from a Southern plantation in 1848 and is helped by local Quakers;
The Keeping Room, a Civil War drama about three Southern women forced to protect their home against a group of Union Army soldiers;
Belle, set in the 1700s, the story of a mixed-race girl who falls in love with an advocate for slave emancipation;
And Tula, with Danny Glover, focusing on a slave uprising on the Dutch colony of CuraƧao in 1795. - The Daily Beast
While I think it's important to tell our story, it's just as important to get it right.  We're seeing a generation of people that believes America went straight from slavery to the civil rights movement and some sort of equality fairy dust was sprinkled and there was a magical cleansing of prejudice and racism.  I don't care if a movie about slavery is released every month if it sets the record straight.  Seriously, go read message boards or comment sections.  They're full of people that want black America to get over it (it being slavery), and to stop whining about racism because it doesn't exist anymore.  So while Nick Cannon is shucking and jiving with Wild 'n Out, but whining on Twitter about there being too many movies about slavery, I don't see him doing anything to educate anyone or help the situation.

Now what does any of this have to do with literature and, specifically, brown bodies as props in modern lit?  While others may have noticed an influx of slavery films, I've noticed an overwhelming number of books in this past year that use slavery as the backdrop and black people as a vehicle to tell a white character's story or gain sympathy.

In Jessica Maria Tuccelli's Glow, the author throws characters, dates and events together to create a story, but at no point does it ever seem like she really understands her characters or knows what she's doing with them.  Instead, you're left with the impression that her publisher told her slavery was what's hot in the streets this year, so if she could find a way to build a story around slaves and their descendants, she'd have a hit on her hands.  I can't imagine any other reason why a first time author with no vested interest in the slave narrative would take on such a project of which she was incapable of handling.

But slaves don't necessarily fare better in the hands of authors of color either.  In The Wedding Gift, Marlen Supaya Golden tells the story of a slave girl given to her white playmate and their "friendship" as they grow into adults.  Though the story is meant to be told from the perspectives of the slave and the mother of the mistress, much more attention is given to the mistress and her family, while the slave's story is all but skipped over until the last few chapters when it's thrown together in haste and leaves the reader unsatisfied.

Books like Ann Hite's The Storycatcher rely on the spirits of slaves and their descendants to assist the featured white characters.  And contrary to its title, Mrs. Lincolns Dressmaker is less about the actual dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, and much more about Mary Todd Lincoln and the goings on at the White House.  Lois Leveen tried her hand at writing a slave narrative in The Secrets of Mary Bowser and produced such a simplified version that I was sure it was written for a middle school reader and not adults. 

With Oprah's announcement of her next big read, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I had to roll my eyes.  Kidd likes her magical Negroes (i.e., The Secret Lives of Bees), as does Oprah.  Based on real life suffragette and abolitionist Sarah Grimke, Kidd admittedly makes up the character of Handful Grimke, a slave given to Sarah as a child.  The book explores their wonderful (yes, I'm being sarcastic) friendship over 35 years.  If you want to tell your story, you want to do historical fiction, do that.  But what purpose does it serve to create characters if your only intent is to use them as a prop in the telling of your story?

A quick search of "slavery historical fiction" on Amazon will bring up books like the Michael Phillips series of slave and mistress raised as sisters featuring: Angels Watching Over Me , Day to Pick Your Own Cotton, Color of Your Skin Ain't the Color of Your Heart. Or Linda Spalding's The Purchase in which a Quaker family struggles with the decision of what to do with the slave they've inherited, which is somewhat along the same lines as The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.  None of these books sound especially appealing.

It's important that authors know what they're writing about.  Right now there are classrooms in which The Help is being used to teach the Civil Rights movement.  While the book does offer background on important historical events, it is by no means an authority on the movement and sugarcoats much of it.  For these reasons, and others, authors have got to learn how and what can be used as interchangeable props in historical fiction, and the lives of black people aren't it.  I know people long for the good old days, but quite honestly, those days were only good if you were a white male, first and a white female, second.  So when you use others for whom those days weren't so good and turn those often volatile relationships to rainbows and lollipops for the sake of your story, you're doing everyone a disservice.

All I can ever really ask of authors is to do their research, treat their characters
well and write what you know.  If you don't do the research, if your heart isn't in your characters, it shows.  If you're only writing about brown bodies because you think it'll sell well or your publisher is pushing for more diversity, don't.  Readers can see right through it and you're doing yourself no favors as an author.  Publishers would be better served putting out more works by authors that continue to do the work, like Leonard Pitts, Jr. with Freeman or Jonathon Odell with The Healing, than serving up a platter of historical fiction with brown bodies on the side.

And if, as an author, you really feel like you want to take on history from a black perspective, please know that we exist beyond slavery.  It's interesting to me that authors seem to be stuck in that time period as if our presence in both world wars wasn't historical.  Or as if the Harlem Renaissance didn't happen.  Tell some of those stories.  I promise our lives after slavery are just as important, even if you can't find a way to throw in white characters to whom you'd have us play second fiddle.  Do the work because if you don't, you're no better than slave masters who saw black bodies as property to be used however they saw fit.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

#BookReview: LOSING TO WIN by Michele Grant

I would be hotter than fish grease if what happened to Carissa Wayne happened to me.  Imagine looking your absolute worst and finding yourself on live national television with all of your business put out there for everyone to see.  Even worse, you had no warning that this was going to happen, but your family and friends knew and no one said a mumbling word.  Hotter. Than. Fish. Grease!

Luckily for those around her, Carissa is a Southern belle of the "bless your heart" variety, so while she's seething on the inside, she makes nice on TV.  I can hardly blame her.  Sure, Carissa has put on a few pounds in recent years, but that hasn't affected any parts of her life, except maybe her closet.  Even then, she always looked pulled together.  It's just that the day the cameras came calling, it was casual day at school as teachers and students cleaned out classrooms and lockers in preparation for the end of the school year and the beginning of summer.  And now everyone, including her ex-fiance, has seen her looking a hot mess and being told she's fat.

As if the humiliation of being told she needed to lose weight wasn't enough, Carissa finds herself paired with Malachi Knight, former homecoming king, former football star, former everything in Carissa's world, on the weight loss reality show.  Malachi realizes he screwed things up with Carissa years ago.  She was the only thing he ever wanted and he blew it by letting his career and aspirations go to his head.  By the time he got his head on straight, Carissa was gone and so was his career.  He could stand to lose some weight and, hopefully, by the time the summer is over, he'll have both his job and his Rissa back.

Michele Grant always writes great primary characters, but her secondary characters are just as good.  As nasty and ridiculous as she was, I loved the character of Suzette, if for no other reason than I wanted to get more background on her.  As Carissa's nemesis going all the way back to high school, she's still carrying all the hatred her little pea-sized heart can muster for Carissa twenty years later and she tries to sabotage her own team just to see Carissa lose.  There's a story there. And there are plenty of other characters that I could see getting their own book.  Niecy, Carissa's fabulous line sister, has just the right amount of confidence and "it girl" to her that she could certainly carry her own story.

And it goes without saying that I would love to see a follow up book about the two main characters.  However, I might have explored a story line with Carissa and another participant and dug deeper into that relationship before wrapping things up.  But who knows what's in store for Carissa and crew?  Grant has a way of bringing back characters in subsequent books, so anything could happen.  I'll be waiting to see what's next.

Published: September 2013

Purchase: Amazon | B & N | Book Depository | IndieBound

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Two years ago, Amy Tan put out an ebook called Rules for Virgins.  It was only available as an ebook, but at just 43 pages, it was intriguing.  It served as a guide for courtesans, one in particular, on becoming successful and being named one of Shanghai's Top Ten Beauties.  At the time, I commented that I would love to see a novel based on the short.  I didn't realize she was setting the ground work for The Valley of Amazement.

 The book opens in 1905 Shanghai with seven year old Violet living at Hidden Jade Path, a first-class courtesan house owned by her mother, Lulu Mintern, the only white woman to own such a house in Shanghai.  Courtesans differ from prostitutes in that they don't work the streets and they don't offer their services cheaply.  They're more like mistresses for wealthy men, most of whom are in business-like or arranged marriages.  These women are courted and wooed by wealthy men and enter into contractual relationships with them for periods of time.  Up until the age of 14, Violet is a witness to the goings on of Hidden Jade Path.

Lulu, or Lucia, Mintern is a difficult woman to understand when we initially meet her.  She dazzles the men that visit her establishment, never forgetting a name, making connections between her guests as she sees fit.  However, she's reserved and distant when it comes to Violet.  Her daughter seeks her attention and, much like Lulu's parents did her, she continues to brush off her child, a decision she will come to regret.

Tan's story is cyclical in nature.  We see Lulu's strained relationship with her parents in which she feels ignored and acts out as a result.  In turn, she becomes a parent much like her parents and ignores her child. We also see Lulu use her haughtiness and sense of entitlement to force her way into a forbidden relationship.  This is repeated later by Violet and neither woman ends up with the outcome that she'd predicted. 

It's interesting to see how Violet goes from a daughter of privilege to a courtesan.  In the same way that her mother has Golden Dove to act as her mentor and partner, Violet forms a partnership with Magic Gourd, history repeating itself once again.  I have to wonder if Violet's daughter, Flora, would have found herself in the same cycles.

I'm used to stories going back and forth between characters and locations, but it was strange that Tan waited until she was 400+ pages before she introduced Lulu's history.  When we meet her, she's an adult with a child, but we don't know how this white woman came to be living in Shanghai.  By the time she tells us, we're so invested in Violet's story that it's almost irrelevant.  It's just my opinion, but I would have preferred to know Lulu's background much earlier than it was introduced.

This book started off slow for me.  At 60 pages in, I began to wonder if I should finish it.  But this is Amy Tan.  I knew if I stuck with it, it would pay off in the end.  Indeed it did.

Published: November 2013

Monday, December 2, 2013

#BookReview: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest in this series set in Botswana focuses on cases, of course, but even more so on transitioning and growing.  In the previous book, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi juggled multiple cases and finally got a chance to meet the author of their beloved book, The Principles of Private Detection, Clovis Andersen.  This time, detective work takes somewhat of a backseat to real life.

Mma Makutsi, now Mma Radiphuti, is with child.  Mma Ramotswe suspects as much, but since Grace hasn't made a formal announcement, Precious is hesitant to approach her about it.  But as JLB Matekoni reminds her, one of them will have to broach the subject eventually because a new baby means maternity leave.  The pregnancy and Mma Radiphuti's absence from the office causes Precious to rethink their relationship.  Whereas she'd always seen Grace as her assistant and co-worker, she begins to realize that she's more than that to her.

JLB Matekoni notices that his wife, Mma Ramotswe, isn't as cheerful as she usually is.  While he attributes some of that to her missing her friend in the office, he wonders if he might be contributing to her unhappiness as well.  A new class in town which teaches men how to become better house husbands has just started and JLB contemplates taking the class and learning how to be more help around the house.

In the last book, we saw Fanwell mature and this time around, he's passed his exams and become a full-fledged mechanic.  Charlie, however, is still an apprentice.  It seems he might never move beyond that position and never grow up, but the appearance of Mma Radiphuti's new baby in the office stirs something inside of him.

I love that Alexander McCall Smith continues to bring us these characters and allows them to grow.  The cases that the ladies work on are always interesting, but even more interesting is the depiction of life in Botswana and the everyday lives of the characters we've come to know and love.

Published: November 2013