. . . when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.
Quote from Esi Edugyan, from Washington Black
Reading authors who are not white is my small way of favoring those who have less privilege than I, by deliberately choosing who is worth observing (reading) and writing about. Here are a few books written by non-white authors from 2019 that I couldn’t put down.
Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, takes place in “a North America that could have been.” Jamaica is a sovereign nation in the Caribbean. Albion seems to be the successor to the 13 colonies, and the Tejas Free Republic, the Five Civilized Tribes territory, and Canada are the governments that take up the rest of the land. Desmond, a former Jamaican spy, has become guardian to a young boy named Lij, and they are on the run. It’s a very well-done novella that is hard to characterize between fantasy/steampunk/alternative history/speculative fiction. Broaddus lives in Indianapolis; I will need to seek out more of his writing.
I loved The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, which I listened to as an audiobook. It’s set in northern Mexico in the late 1800s and told from multiple perspectives. The Morales family adopts a baby with a cleft palate who was found covered in bees, Simonopio, when their daughters were almost grown, then later had a biological son. The language is beautiful, and the story is told with humor and elements of magical realism, although the events can be heartbreaking. One quote: “It occurred to him that houses die when they are no longer fed with the energy of their owners.”
Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America, by Ayaz Virji. Virji is of Indian descent, raised in Florida, and became a practicing Muslim in high school. After training as a doctor all over the U.S., he settled in rural Minnesota with his family, taking a Medical Director position at a small-town hospital. After Trump was elected with more than 50% of the vote in his county, he realized he needed to educate his community, so he started doing talks at local schools. Some go well, and others don’t, but he is supported by many local friends. I didn’t like the fact that he focuses on bariatric surgery, which I think in the future will be viewed as barbaric as we currently consider footbinding. Overall, though, I thought it was a well-done memoir. A quote: “Women and children are being sold and enslaved, sold as spoils of war, forced into marriage and servitude, and we don’t want refugees? We want to stop them from coming here . . . they don’t have anything. They’re mothers and children and babies. We don’t want them? Oh, no. We don’t want you here. Is that Jesus? Is that what this country wants to be?”
Washington Black by Esi Edugyen. This is the story of a young boy named Wash, a slave on a Caribbean plantation in the early 1800s. When the master’s brother comes to the island, Wash is assigned to him. The brother is a scientist and naturalist, and soon realizes Wash can draw. So Wash accompanies him and assists him with his experiments, documenting them and drawing the flora and fauna. Wash doesn’t have to work in the fields, though he is getting of the age the master wants him back. Through the most unlikely of events, they leave the island and travel to England, and then the Arctic. Wash settles in Canada but is always looking over his shoulder. It’s really well-done, although some of the events seem to be too coincidental. I can suspend disbelief in service of beautiful writing and historical detail.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. Wow. It’s the story of Tish and Fonnie, two black young adults in New York in the early 1960s. Fonnie, a sculptor, is wrongly accused of rape, and Tish, pregnant with his baby, tries to get him out of prison. If you haven’t read any of James Baldwin’s fiction, do yourself a favor and start. A couple of quotes: “People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes is a record of that collision.” Regarding men in prison: “These captive men are the hidden price for a hidden lie: the righteous must always be able to locate the damned.”
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Another wow–this time speculative historical fiction. Hiram is the biracial son of the plantation owner whose mother was sold when he was a small child. He was then tasked with protecting his older, white brother. One day, while riding in a carriage, they fall into the river. His brother drowns, but Hiram does not. The Underground Railroad finds him because they believe he has the power to conduct people from one place to another like he did for himself instead of drowning. He meets Moses (Harriet Tubman) who has that power, but he cannot seem to control it. So many quotes. “But they did not know us, because not knowing was essential to their power. To sell a child right from under his mother, you must know that mother only in the thinnest way possible.” And “it struck me that even here, in the free North, the luxuries of this world were built right on top of us.”
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray. There was a lot to like about this book. I loved the characters and the overall story of sisters, a family dealing with betrayal, prison, and the legacy of a parent’s too-soon death. I loved that one of the characters was a lesbian in a multicultural relationship, and it wasn’t about her coming out. But I disliked the focus on the same character’s eating disorder, and on another character’s larger size as being a problem. The fat teen was in crisis because her parents were in prison, but it was assumed throughout that her fatness was a result of the trauma, without actually stating it out loud. I would have loved for the author to have tackled both the eating disorder and everything else from a health at every size perspective.
The memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio was a good antidote to Care and Feeding. Mirna grew up a nerdy fat black girl in Brooklyn and was able to go to a private residential high school where she ran for field hockey and loved how running made her feel. Later, after having a child, she started running and exercising again, trying a half marathon, and then a full. Eventually she started running ultramarathons–100 kilometers, or 62 miles. She never becomes thin, and learns to love what her body can do. She started the blog Fat Girl Running and has been affiliated with Women’s Running magazine. I was thrilled to be able to pick up a book at my suburban library–by chance–by a fat black female runner. A quote: “Instead of being ashamed of doing what you do or being what you are, I ask two important questions: Why not celebrate it? Why not be proud of the fact that the body you are in can do great things?”
American Panda by Gloria Chao. This was a young adult/new adult coming-of-age-type story of Mei, a 17-year old college freshman at MIT, who is the daughter of Taiwanese parents, who is pre-med but also a germophobe, math-lover, and dancer. Her brother was disowned by the family because he fell in love with a woman who couldn’t have children–so could not produce a son. Her parents are still very involved in her life–they live in the same metro area–and they take her to dinner regularly and take her laundry home to do. But she meets Darren Takahashi, who is not Taiwanese, and she pulls and pushes him away because she can’t bear to disappoint her parents. She reconnects with her brother, and that’s the beginning of Mei becoming brave. I really loved it–Chao does an excellent job of conveying Mei’s torment at trying to live up to her family’s expectations but not just losing herself–never having had the courage to find herself.