Even in death the boys were trouble.The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2019
I read stories by Colson Whitehead before and even though I know their subjects are heavy (Black American history, racism), there’s a certain atmosphere to them that still makes them easy to read. Like there’s a layer between the reader and the story, but the reader can feel how fragile it is.
This time it’s about a Correctional Facility (add air quotes at your own convenience) in Florida that was created in times of segregation and still works along those lines when the reader gets there. Entwined with that story are also jumps back and forward in time to show black American lives and the impact incarceration (directly and indirectly) has on them.
What I liked on top of everything else is the nicely hidden away twist: I felt like a numpty to not have picked it up, and that means that it was worked in without any fanfare nor heralded with a complete orchestra. It gives an extra punch in case you were strangely complacent with all the horrors you read.
INT. GOLDEN PALACE
Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu, Vintage Books 2020
I don’t really know how to review it and this time that’s a good thing. It’s original and awkward and confrontational. With racism and hate directed at Asians (in the diaspora) it’s also very, very relevant.
And in between: fun. Throwing you off balance, not being what you expected. It’s not something I experience often, and for that alone I’d recommend this novel.
It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.
I guess August was for non-fiction, or that This Lovely City just put me in the mindset to learn more about black British history. Because of course, of course – in some way you know that the islands aren’t an utopia for black and brown people, but how much of black history is focused on the USA (effectively making it possible for Europeans to dodge any responsibility?)? Turns out – when it comes to my knowledge – a lot.
Don’t write this title off as a history book now (why would you write off any book because it has history, you don’t love history?), because as anything involving people; history is just one part of it. As Eddo-Lodge explains it probably better than I do: intersectionality is a thing, and you can’t discuss a human issue without looking at the place where it intersects.
So, this book is about history, about feminism, about the media and white privilege. It’s about health and education, and every other part of human life. In clearly cut chapters, in clear language, Eddo-Lodge doesn’t only answer the title’s question, but also explains to you why you should take responsibility regarding it.
And just like that, I’ve got my first book for my students to read (from).
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury 2017
The basement club spat Lawrie out into the dirty maze of Soho, a freezing mist settling over him like a damp jacket.
The pretty cover will definitely throw you off: this isn’t a light, bubbly story about a fabulous time in black music history. This is a novel about black British history, and there’s little prettiness about that.
Jamaicans are ‘invited’ to come to the motherland, but England isn’t a loving mother. Black people are denied on every level of daily living, and when a baby is found, police and white citizens take it as an excuse to go full out racist.
Louise Hare shows the endless fear and frustration as well, making you move from ‘Why not just go back?’ to ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourself?’ and ‘Why is everybody such a wanker?’. Lawrie doesn’t want much in life, but because he’s black there’s a lot of people out there that actively sabotage him.
The Empire Windrush and their people aren’t fiction, nor was their treatment of them. So even though this is an interesting look at London after the Second World War, there’s no fun and bubbles to be found here.
This Lovely City, Louise Hare, House of Anansi Press 2020
Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes.
This isn’t a particularly uplifting story. Reading is escapism, isn’t it? Unless you never have any media-intake that won’t be the case with this novel. The subject is a three-step ladder of contemporary news: racism in politics, war zones and (boat) refugees.
These three angles are showcased through the points of view of different people: a refugee, the people helping them, and those that need to make sure that no refugee brings danger into the country (Canada, in this case). It’s easy to view the latter as the villains of this piece: they start out with a negative angle and won’t be swayed. But in today’s society it would be naive to act like that negative angle hasn’t landed on fertile land, and what does that say about us?
The same can be said from the ‘good’ immigrants that lament these refugees for not doing immigration “the right way”. We all need thoughts to comfort us, so who’s to blame for acting upon them?
Of course, nothing happening in this novel will make you think: yes, let’s deny every refugee asylum, yay! but it very much shows the booby-trapped labyrinth immigration and asylum (laws) have become. With an all too human face to it, on all sides.
The Boat People, Sharon Bala, McClelland & Stewart 2018
I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.
Looking back after having finished this novel I realise how naive and privileged it is of me to have thought “well sometimes she’s exaggerating a bit”. Something about how we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it, etc.
In this case the lesson is ‘Do not imprison innocent people for the sole reason that their religion, skin colour and/or ancestral background is different from yours’. Shown in the Second World War, the States did it with Japanese Americans, and Samira Ahmed does it a few decades later with American Muslims. Because in Internment a president – very alike of the one the USA has right now – comes in power, and he’s much more effective in getting his racist ideas turned into actions. American Muslims are put into camps on American soil.
And just like before, there are plenty euphemisms going around. None can cover up that the camp is surrounded by barb wire, that every guard has a weapon and that any sign or sound of protest is violently taken down. Here comes my conclusion from the first paragraph in: isn’t this put down all a bit too extremely? I should know better. We all should.
It’s good that the novel is less than 300 pages, because there’s no escaping the terror the characters are put through. Not just the mental and physical torture; also the shock of seeing how fast people get used to it. Again, as we should know.
All this makes for a bitter pill that as many as possible of us should swallow.
Internment, Samira Ahmed, Little, Brown & Company 2019
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
Watching the series Underground, The Knick and than reading this book, gives you a triangle of black American history. If you’re not a complete dunce, you can recognise that these three are slavery-related, because that’s a large part of black American history. And as I often ask myself with books about ugly subjects; why should you read it? Don’t we know already?
This time the underground railroad to the saver surroundings up north is really an underground railroad, but that doesn’t make an escape easier. Main character Cora is followed through different states and escapes, and even when it looks safe, it doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes the violence against black people is written down so detached, it’s easy to believe all the slavery-wasn’t-horrible stories some people still try to taut. Only for this author to proof them wrong, again and again. This book isn’t just about the violence, it’s about the impact on human lives.
The railroad gives it a slightly fantastical shade, but an escape is an escape, whatever way used. Sometimes the author veers off a little in style, rails to a dead end, but Cora’s story needs to be seen through.
And if people know already, even about South Carolina, even about the mass sterilisations, maybe they can just pass this story on for those that don’t.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2016
Waarom je Michael Moore’s stem moet dulden en vooral niet te comfortabel worden over ‘ha, wij zijn tenminste de VS niet’. Want oké, zover bekend gebruikt de Nederlandse overheid leegstaande wijken in arme steden niet als militair oefenterrein, qua politiek gekonkel en bewuste oogkleppen is er genoeg op te pikken van de man’s meest recente documentaire.
Daarnaast wordt ook duidelijk dat niet al het Amerikaanse nieuws onze media treft. Dat heeft zeker zijn voordelen (de VS is tenslotte niet het belangrijkste land van de wereld, ga weg met je westen-centrisme), maar daardoor mis je ook dingen waardoor het net iets minder lekker achterover leunen is.
In deze docu/film laat Michael Moore zien hoe Trump de Amerikaanse president kon worden, en dat dat zeker niet alleen door de ‘arme, witte, boze burger’ was, maar ook door de complete stupiditeiten van de tegenpartij. En corruptie en racisme en andere gezellige dingen.
Geen idee waarom Pathé deze op zaterdagavond had ingepland (leuk weekendvermaak?), maar wel weer een gevalletje ‘beter weten dan onwetend de vernietiging in’.
Fahrenheit 11/9, Baircliff Entertainment 2018
I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue.
And even based on true events, although I have to admit that the note from the editor(s) and shared background information took away from the story, for me anyway. I could have not read them, of course.
The story here is how two slaves on Martinique are sent to another island to bring back the slaves the French Fathers think they own while the island is English now. Sounds like nothing could go wrong, right? Nothing fishy at all at sending two slaves to silently invite slaves to move islands.
Lucien and his brother Emile are the ones that are tasked with this, and Lucien is the one telling the story of these few days. He does so in a mix of English, French and Creole, which works well with their surroundings and situation.
The only gripe I have with the story only being about this one event, is that as the reader you feel slightly dropped into someone’s lives and left behind when you (probably) only want to learn more. Maybe Jane Harris should have gone with a bit more creative freedom there. But what she writes, she writes appealingly.
Sugar Money, Jane Harris, Faber & Faber 2017
I shouldn’t have come to this party.
This one is probably going to be relevant for a long time coming, and that’s why I’m unsure how to go about this. As one of the blurbs on the back of the book says, everyone should read it, maybe especially if it makes you uncomfortable, but how do I put into words why you should read it?
Maybe because it gives a face to Ferguson, to Black Lives Matter, to Flint and all the other cases in which it’s easy to think of an entity, instead of a collection of individuals. Starr is one of the few black people on a very fancy school, which makes her feel like she’s living two versions of herself. When she witnesses a shooting, it’s harder to keep those two apart.
But it’s not just Starr’s story. It’s her family, her community and the endless attempts of being heard and seen as people, instead of thugs, low-lives, useless. Angie Thomas balances that impressively, and even though there are rough patches to get through, you’ll be so attached to the people you’re reading about, that you just take it.
And again, definitely a book I would have rather seen in my YA Literature class than another white boy story.
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, HarperCollins 2017