Review by Leila Green
Release Date: June 13th, 2017
Armed with a camera, a pen, and the rare ability to see the unseen, Teju Cole points his looking glass around the world, resulting in a stunning, genre-defying blend of images, observations and revelations.
352 pages, Random House, $40
"What is seen is greater than what the camera can capture of it."
In 2011, Teju Cole went blind. As he would soon find out, this blindness was temporary: the result of papillophlebitis, a retinal vein occlusion. After a corrective surgery, Cole, photography critic for the New York Times Magazine and author of the 2011 novel, Open City, and the 2016 essay collection, Known and Strange Things, said: “The photography changed after that. The looking changed.”
Blind Spot is, at its core, a genre-bending collection of images juxtaposed with text. The texts—illustrious captions—tend to be poetically brief and to generally unearth something unseen in the image. However, this is no hidden object puzzle; Cole is not telling us what to uncover. Leaning away from instruction, he invites us into his own, fascinating way of seeing and interrogating the world. Part travelogue, part theoretical text, part historical excavation, part memoir, part poetry, Blind Spot follows a deeply visual trio of releases concerned with sight. In Open City, the main character, Julius, roams New York City and comments gratuitously on what he sees. In Known and Strange Things, curiosity leads Cole around the globe to pen essays on the peculiar, the political, the seen, and the inevitably unseen. Blind Spot contains both the same kinds of revelations about the seemingly mundane that punctuated Open City and the boundless inquisitiveness found in Known and Strange Things. In Blind Spot, Cole, an avid traveler, criss-crosses the planet, making crisp, intricate photographs in locations both often seen and rarely noticed.
Cole’s preoccupation with the unseen drives him to a startling array of places. Some, like Brooklyn and Berlin, are well-known. Others, like McMinnville, Wannsee and Brienzersee warrant pinpointing on the book’s accompanying world map. Cities, in particular, invite a certain visual aloofness; an inability to engage intimately with images and others thanks to overstimulation. The conundrum of the city still entices Cole, who is fascinated by its endless intersections of life, space, and memory: “In the city, there is no shortage of stories, no scarcity of divulged secrets, only (it sometimes seems) a dearth of ears.” Aside from cityscapes, in Blind Spot Cole often points his flawless lens towards the periphery—the deliberately unseen—exposing ironies and meditating upon topics as varied as giraffes, longing, rage and dining.
Blind Spot redefines travel photography, which tends to be concerned with capturing touristy landmarks, “exotic” peoples, and arresting landscapes. Shunning typical, obviously poignant photos of people or landmarks, Cole instead highlights ambiguous landscapes and peculiar structures; things you see everyday, but rarely notice. Committed to his unearthing of the earth, Cole opts to illuminate global “blind spots”—concentrating on detail, singularity, form, and memory. He photographs the quotidian: the pile of rubble, the obscured tip of a mountain, the ironic sign. These images, in their presumed plainness, do more work to connect us than a photo of the Statue of Liberty. They invite an ambiguity that suggests universality. There is no Arc de Triomphe in Selma, but like every place, there is wind, stone, and history. Cole has compiled a catalogue that evidences a startling sameness, splayed across borders, that undoes expectations of what we should see and know about ourselves, others, and the world.
Cole has a keen ability to distill meaning and conjure memory from images that are, at first sight, meaningless. His way of seeing fills in our own blindness. A vacant, graffitied road in Rome prompts a reflection on the intimacy of translation. A hodgepodge of light and darkness in Milan becomes a symbol for the trauma embedded in cities. A shadow of a ladder inevitably signals a pathway to heaven. A mangled bush of flowers rekindles the memory of an awkward bike collision. A photo of a drowned ship turns into a deeply felt cataloging of things left behind by the dead. These photos evoke physical and emotional memory for Cole, who traverses complex intellectual labyrinths and emerges with impressive philosophical quips. Often, these lines are so devastating that one can only close the book and set it down for a moment; let the blind spot bloom with gratuitous knowing.
This is a pseudo-theoretical text. Most notably, it requires a more complex understanding of literal darkness. Seeing into shadows, Cole breathes light into darkness, for “darkness is not empty, it is information at rest.” There are more stunning revelations about perception—“It is not only the leaves that grow. Shadows grow also.”—and the spectrum of light: “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.”
Despite the slightly dizzying array of topics, ideas and visual information contained by Blind Spot, there is a singular vein pulsing throughout; a sense of commonality, eternity, and—accordingly—hope. Blind Spot is a reckoning with presence and absence; a sturdy bridge between known and unknown, a fierce manifesto for a revolutionary way of encountering the world.
Preoccupied with the synthesis of meaning from form, and the serendipitous resemblances between supposedly dissimilar things, Cole stands poised and alert with his lens, finely tuned to the echoes in an empty valley, gleaning insight from the shadows. Cole claims that “resurrection is far too close to death.” But this proximity, as with most of his revelations, is no accident. At one point, he compares the reflection of a tree branch into a murky puddle to his own retina. This is either an allusion to his past ocular trauma, or a comment on the disorderly origins of sight. From hectically assorted nerves and veins emerge surprising visual sense: a sky, a field, a smiling face. Out of chaos comes sight, comes understanding, comes meaning and memory. How can we trust this chaos? In what tangled vein lies truth? Vision begins and ends with us—or does it? As Cole puts it: “The soul cries wolf often, or has wolf cried it.”
Trinidad Noir: The Classics
Edited by Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni
Classic and contemporary authors from the Trinidadian canon offer haunting stories rooted in mythology, community, and tradition.
248 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96
"One of the ways in which our literature has sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” — Earl Lovelace
Between 1942 and 1977, a whopping 52 African nations gained independence from Europe. However, unlike the African decolonization boom, Caribbean decolonization was much more temporally scattered. Haiti gained independence from France in 1804. Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902. There was a only slight surge between 1962 and 1981, when 11 Caribbean nations became independent.
Decolonization’s jarringly negative impact permeated the African literary imagination. Renowned works by Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and even the contemporary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explore themes either stemming from or directly related to colonialism. Considering the impact that the colonial moment has had on African literature, it would only make sense for the experience of being colonized to also impact the texts that emerge from formerly colonized nations like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominica and, of course, Trinidad and Tobago.
Aside from sparking an entirely new literary genre—the “postcolonial novel”—colonization in Africa and especially in the Caribbean forged particularly hybridized societies. Like many other Caribbean nations, Trinidad and Tobago experienced a cultural hybridity—the exchange of language and customs—and a literal hybridity; the result of relations between European colonial powers, indigenous peoples, Africans, Chinese, Syrians and a large number of Indians who primarily came as indentured servants. This creolization rooted in colonialism is still firmly planted in Trinidad’s memory. It is also still brightly reflected in its modern society; independence was only gained from Britain in 1962. Today, Indians make up the largest group of Trinidadians, with blacks and whites trailing closely behind. This assortment of colonial history, languages, cultures and customs has shaped modern Trinidadian society and—as evidenced by Trinidad Noir: The Classics—greatly informed its literature.
Trinidad Noir: The Classics is an expansive retrospect of some of the best literature to emerge from Trinidad in the last century. With a major focus on place and Trinidad's colonial history, renowned writers like Derek Walcott, Sharon Millar and V.S. Naipaul cast a bright light upon Trinidad's complex cultures, values and vernaculars. Greatly informed by the colonial moment, its 19 stories begin in 1927 and end in 2015. It features an assortment of writers either directly from Trinidad or with deep ties to the country who offer quirky and mysterious tales of family and community. In order to emphasize colonialism’s prominence within Trinidad’s literary imagination, Earl Lovelace and Robert Antoni, the editors, separate the collection into four useful chronological sections: Leaving Colonialism, Facing Independence, Looking In and Losing Control.
Standout stories include Earl Lovelace’s “Joebell and America” (1988) a lively and affectionate take on one man’s less-than-realistic goal of moving to America. V.S. Naipaul’s “Man-Man” is an eccentric character study from 1959 that echoes Robert Antoni’s introductory claim that Trinidadian literature has “sought to restore to humanness those persons disadvantaged by colonial arrangements has been to highlight the heroic individual of the underclass.” In fact, many of Trinidad Noir’s stories reflect a deep societal furrow between rich and poor and between city and rural. There is a clear division between the haves and the have nots, further evoking the nation’s recovery from and canon’s ties to colonialism’s devastating racial and class-based oppression. Sharon Millar’s “The Dragonfly’s Tale” (2013) is a sweeping contemporary narrative on violence and corruption that illuminates the more hidden, less colorful aspects of Trinidad’s vibrantly exported culture. In a way, Millar’s story, as well as Shani Mootoo’s haunting “The Bonnaire Silk Cotton Tree” (2015) exist in direct opposition to the jovial ding of Trinidad’s famed steel drums, embodying the collection’s eponymous “Noir.” Other highlights include Robert Antoni’s hilariously zany and vulgar “Hindsight” (1992) and Derek Walcott’s poetic masterpiece, “The Schooner Flight” (1979).
One of this collection’s many highlights is the use of the local vernacular, known officially as Trinidadian English or Trinidadian Creole. This natural use of language helps transport us right to the island, into people’s homes and lives.
With the assemblage of these stories on a timeline from pre to post colonial, Lovelace and Antoni have crafted a meaningful portrait of colonialism’s impact on the nation’s literature. From beginning to end, a palpable thread of division can be traced and seems to grow more urgent and profound; the final story features a young woman obsessed with fame and social ascension. Perhaps most importantly, this collection lays a solid foundation that establishes a glimmering hope for Trinidad’s literary future. With all its stunning history, variation, syncreticity and vibrant focus on humanity, Trinidad Noir: The Classics makes it clear that Trinidadian literature must be more globally examined and elevated.
Trinidad Noir: The Classics is part of Akashic Books' popular Noir Series. This series features anthologies set in distinct places. Previously released titles include Barcelona Noir, Addis Ababa Noir and Rio Noir.
Written by Donika Kelly
Winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and long listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, poet-scholar Donika Kelly’s debut collection binds the human and animal worlds inextricably together.
70 pages, Graywolf Press, $16.00
“A golden light hails me, pulls me like a worm from the earth.”
Covering Donika Kelly’s debut poetry collection, Bestiary, is the mid-13th century artwork of an unknown painter titled: Adam Naming the Animals. In this painting, a chaotic assortment of watercolored animals inhabit the same, barren space. A leaping horse collides with a fox. A monkey squats atop a snail. A flamingo looks to be waltzing on top of an owl with its claws around a shriveled rat. This hodgepodge of animals reflects the same vivid assortment of animal life clawing its way out of Bestiary’s pages.
In Bestiary, Kelly—a current Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure University—summons the wilderness of self. Both in her own reflection and in the rendering of other bodies and functions, she writes poems that unite the unmistakably similar human world and animal kingdom. Kelly's exquisite rendering of each realm makes them seem totally indistinguishable from one another. Her father is “a tree in bloom.” In “Bower,” she compares herself to a hen. Her first cry? “A beating of wings.” She thinks herself “lion and serpent,” demonstrating how supposedly "savage" tendencies can inhabit, question and even corrupt our own “civility.” Bestiary is basically a literary zoo. Animals from each corner of the kingdom make appearances. Kelly summons imaginary animals too, like a minotaur and a centaur. But perhaps the most powerful poem is the brave, multi-paged “How to be alone”— an off-kilter kind of requiem for her dogs, her parents and, simply put, death.
Kelly’s animal-centric poetry contains a rawness that can be described as feral. Yet, her terse lines and sense of restraint contradict this rawness, forging a literal tension that mirrors that of the separate, yet highly fluid human and animal realms. Despite the frantic desire to be civilized, the threat of savagery looms directly under the skin of each poem, wherein lies, “The iron smell of blood,/ the sweet marrow, fields of grass and bone.” Bestiary sits at the intersection of our civility and our primal instincts; at the strange junction of forgiveness and rage. It humbly and beautifully reminds us that we are the ones that inhabit the animal kingdom—and vice versa.
Bestiary: Poems is available from the Graywolf Press website for $16.00. Click here to order.
Dance of the Jakaranda
Release Date: February 7th, 2017
A mysterious nightclub kiss unravels an important account of Indian railway workers and English leaders in colonial Kenya.
342 pages, Akashic Books, $11.96
“How could a man leave his own land to tame another’s? Did it not make more sense, and require much less energy, to simply conform and flow with nature?”
When Rajan—an Indian man in the midst of Kenya’s burgeoning independence—kisses an unseen stranger, his quest to find her unlocks a complex wave of family revelations, racial politics and historical events. This far-reaching novel travels back in time to follow an English preacher, a colonial administrator and a rebellious Indian railroad worker as they navigate the complex systems of power, culture and resistance in colonial Kenya. Through lyrical, seductive prose, Peter Kimani weaves an impressively intricate tapestry of events and characters that give much-needed names and faces to an important facet of Kenya’s colonial history.
A burgeoning railroad stands at the epicenter of the drama; a metaphor for the kinds of destruction and transformation brought on by the English colonial machine. Thousands of Indians were brought to Kenya to build this railroad, and they straddled the lines between immersing in African culture, fraternizing with English administrators and maintaining loyalty to their own Indian heritage. The Jakaranda—the novel’s namesake—is also an important monument in the characters’ lives. Once a failed gift to a colonial administrator’s wife, it turns into a nightclub where people of all races can interact—a rare feat in Kenya’s then-fragmented, highly racialized society. The Jakaranda stands as a metaphor for the kinds of conflicts and cultural tensions that Kenyans faced while trying to engender a new, unified nation.
All at once a love story, a family tale and a balanced historical account. Dance of the Jakaranda is a lovely testament to history’s profound impact on the present. Kimani’s writing is steeped in the African oral storytelling tradition. Shirking a linear or more traditional plot, the story is filled with asides and flashbacks, reminders and metaphors. Despite some unnecessary meandering and a less-than-balanced portrayal of women, Kimani crafts an authentic and immersive geographic and cultural landscape.
This book is perfect for anyone interested in learning about Kenyan history and culture. It is similar to other colonial/post-colonial novels, like Tierno Monénembo’s The King of Kahel and Ahmadou Kourouma’s The Suns of Independence. Specifically, Kimani’s unique focus on Indians adjusting to new lives in Africa is an excellent meditation on the grueling struggles of all immigrants and settlers into new worlds. Kimani waxes poetically about Indian-Kenyan’s tremendous contributions to the nation. Perhaps this is this novel’s greatest strength—its nuanced and compassionate portrayal of Indians in Kenya. In his American debut, Kimani has achieved a very important accomplishment: introducing a wider audience to Kenya’s lesser-known Indian population and to its strikingly elaborate colonial history.
Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks
Edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku
Contemporary writers meditate upon Gwendolyn Brooks’ enduring legacy. Exquisite essays, stories and poems continue the ellipses left behind in her life and work.
“I knew that Gwendolyn Brooks was among the few who gave me the courage to insist on my own story” - Rita Dove, Former U.S. Poet Laureate.
How could a little black girl born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and become the veritable voice of Chicago? How could her prize-winning writings–including Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters and Maud Martha–go on to shift the American literary landscape? In Revise the Psalm, editors Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku gather contemporary writers to grapple with these questions. What results is a wondrous assembly of elegies, essays, poems, artworks and stories that commemorate what would have been Gwendolyn Brooks’ 100th year on earth. With a sense of awe and a near-holy respect, we gain a greater appreciation for Gwendolyn Brooks: a woman who graciously illuminated her own world for the whole world to see.
Revise the Psalm features well-known poets like Rita Dove, Jericho Brown and Sandra Cisneros. The collection also features newer and lesser-known voices—heightening the scope of Brooks’ legacy. Divided into eight sections–each a derivative of Brooks’ life or art–contemporary writers offer candid reflections. Think of this book as a spin-off; a selection of Brooks’ best literary and cultural contributions then magnified and made somehow even more profound.
This collection conjures and inhabits the urban landscape erected by Brooks’ poetry. Highlights include the section in which women writers respond to Brooks’ “The Mother,” a contemplative poem about abortion. Several poets provide incredibly beautiful renditions of Brooks’ masterwork, “We Real Cool” (1959). These versions are stunningly poignant; somehow rivaling the haunting quality of the original. Kevin Coval’s “we real” stands out. His tongue firmly planted in cheek, he asserts: “we/ broke bitch.” John C. Mannone’s “Skin” is powerful, sardonic. Tina Jenkins Bell’s short story, “The Last Supper,” is stunning. Regina Taylor’s “Quatrain for Emmett Till/ Trayvon Martin/ Michael Brown/ Laquan Mcdonald” and Tara Betts’ “Many Sons, Many Mothers” build an eery bridge between the state-sanctioned violence of Gwendolyn’s era and our own. Betts reminds us: “When a boy named Trayvon is shot, Emmett’s history is not a distant, removed story.”
Despite its dizzying variety and overwhelming length, this collection's greatest strength is its demonstration of poetry’s wide-reaching impact. Furthermore, it reveals how the supposed chasm between Brooks’ era and our own is not so wide. As a poet concerned with social justice, the issues of Brooks’ time–black death and despair–are still reverberating today, guiding contemporary pens toward contemporary papers. Revise the Psalm reminds us that Brooks’ meditations and elegies are still potent, still heart-wrenchingly necessary.
Revise the Psalm adds a unique perspective to Brooks’ poetry and legacy. It forges a particular vantage point that allows us to clearly see Brooks’ wide-reaching impact within the American literary landscape. It builds exquisite parallels between Brooks’ era and our own and reminds us that, despite progress, there is still work to be done. In Revise the Psalm, Gwendolyn Brooks is at the eye of a beautiful storm. As Opal Palmer Adisa writes: “i found you/ and in finding you/ i found my tongue.”
The Mothers, Brit Bennett, 2016
A grief-stricken young woman clings to boys and secrets for far too long.
Fiction, Women's Fiction
288 pages (Hardcover), Riverhead Books, $26
Rating 3/5 (Steady prose, juicy tale, simplified narrative, unsavory characters)
"All good secrets have a taste before you tell them..."
The Mothers is the story of a young woman coming of age amidst intense grief. Nadia's mother has committed suicide, but she won’t allow herself to break down. Instead, she clings to broken people in hopes of feeling whole. She clings to Luke, an attractive, yet shiftless young man that attends her gossipy church, The Upper Room. She clings to Aubrey, a naive, yet kind girl who she meets while volunteering the summer before she heads to Michigan for college. That summer is The Mothers' epicenter, it is the site from which all the story’s shock waves and ripples originate. During that summer, Nadia’s life is irreversibly changed when she chooses to abort her and Luke’s baby. It is when she is forever forced to ask herself this question: what if?
“What if” is the question that anchors this book. It plagues Nadia’s mind and haunts each chapter. As Nadia grapples with her choices and her secrets, she moves on physically. However, her mind remains stuck—almost obsessively—on the past. She wonders what would have happened if she had kept her and Luke’s child. She wonders what would happen if she and her father were closer. She wonders what her own mother’s life would have been like if she, herself, had never been born. The Mothers is a powerful examination of generational shame. Brit Bennett nicely weaves the past with the present and forces a poignant consideration of how a single person’s choice can go on to shift the world.
Ultimately, what Brit Bennett has crafted is a comprehensive portrait of one girl’s life. The story itself feels very whole. This is mostly due to Bennett’s excellent concentration on place. Nadia’s hometown, her church and each house we visit is treated with intense care and is thus rendered very uniquely. Each space has its own, particular vibe and it becomes interesting to see how Nadia—a very static character—navigates each one.
The Mothers would be even more effective if it were marketed as a YA or high-brow romance novel. The genre confusion stems from the mismatched nature of Bennett’s literary prose and the novel’s adolescent content: it’s mostly about a teen romance. Bennett’s prose is wonderfully metered and poignant, but the story itself is immature. This is not simply because the protagonist is young. What makes the story immature is the way in which she never seems to mature. She seems to be stuck in the past. The same problems follow her for the duration of the story. When Nadia finishes college, she is still stuck in high school. When she travels abroad and sees new things that would, surely, change her perspective or allow for some sort of healing, they don’t. The story felt circular and regressive. The characters don’t develop as richly as they can, which compromises some of the book’s believability. I wanted very badly for Nadia to grow, to see things differently and to forget about Luke—a character with very few attractive personality traits. Whenever I became curious about Nadia’s professional and personal developments, we were always thrust back in time to the same three things: the abortion, Luke and her mom. Instead of letting the story flourish and develop on its own, Bennett seems dedicated to sticking to a rigid tale. It’s the kind of tight, purposeful “writing workshop” narrative that doesn’t allow for too much breathing room.
The Mothers works because it is a reflection of the kind of gossipy, dramatic chit-chat that can go on in churches like The Upper Room. The book is a page-turner. It has the same magnetic, seductive quality that draws us into bouts of gossip. There is something mysteriously—perhaps sadistically—satisfying about prying in and wondering about a person’s life. While reading The Mothers, we are doing the same thing that the novel’s odd chorus of church mothers are doing: judging Nadia and wondering why she makes the choices that she does. I’m sure we’ll all wonder different things. I wonder why she’s stuck in the past. I wonder why her mother committed suicide. I wonder why she can’t seem to get her life together, despite having so many chances to move forward. I wonder if all this wondering was the actual point of The Mothers. I am also wondering when Brit Bennett will release her next book.
The Sellout, Paul Beatty, 2015
Paul Beatty reintroduces slavery and segregation in an experimental Californian town, offering a satirical and witty critique of “post-racial” America.
288 pages (Soft cover), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10
Rating 4.5/5 (Masterful prose, sharply observant, epically hilarious, haphazard narrative)
My mom saw me reading The Sellout while I was home for Thanksgiving. I bought it after seeing it had won the Man Booker Prize and because I needed something to read on the plane - hence this late review. As I sat in the kitchen finishing the book, she saw me cackling and asked what it was about. Admittedly, I struggled to piece together a proper synopsis. I said something like “Um...this pseudo-house-negro who grew up as his dad’s racial experiment reclaims his town by using ‘reverse racial psychology’ to bring slavery and segregation back. Oh...and his side-kick is a wanna-be-slave slash former Little Rascal named Hominy.”
“Hm,” she nodded, “Kind of like Buckwheat.”
“Yea!” I perked up, not believing that I had missed that obvious pop-culture connection. “Hominy...like Buckwheat.”
My mom laughed a bit, then shook her head, “And on The Little Rascals, they even had a sister named Farina. All the black ones were named like that. After grains...”
Suddenly, I remembered my childhood time spent at Children’s World, a daycare where I spent most days being forced to watch Little Rascals reruns because those were the only VHS tapes that worked. (I also cocked my head a bit. Why in the world were we watching The Little Rascals in 1999?) Anyway, my mom and I went on:
“It’s crazy,” I told her, “I used to watch that when I was six. I didn’t even realize it was racist.”
“Me too,” she said, 47 years old. “We didn’t realize it either.”
I felt like an idiot for two reasons a) I used to really love me some Little Rascals b) I didn’t make the Hominy-Buckwheat connection sooner. I was almost done with the book and it still hadn’t dawned on me. Although I had been a casual forced-fan of The Little Rascals, I still felt like I should have realized Beatty’s allusion much earlier in the book. Then I wondered, does this slow connection make me an idiot, or does it mean that Paul Beatty is really, really great at being subtly insightful? Just for my sake, I’m going to go with the latter.
The synopsis I gave my mother is kind of accurate. The Sellout is an explosive satirical novel with a lot going on. And I mean a lot. At one point, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are doing the Crip Walk. At another point, someone is finagling with “Empowerpoint” - a black-designed version of PowerPoint, complete with afro-centric fonts. However, it is the “extra-ness” of this book that makes it so excellent. It is Paul Beatty’s willingness to take his pen wherever his eccentric mind goes that makes it so original, so superb. It is not an easily-contained book. One must be willing to follow Beatty on his journey through segregated schools, a radicalized donut shop, some cotton fields, a few bouts of “nigger-whispering” and, finally, the Supreme Court. It is the improbability and ridiculousness of the book that makes it a comical delight. These very qualities also make it sobering and sharply intelligent. At the center of this explosive book is an important question: What if America took off its post-racial mask? Beatty answers this question in staggeringly ingenious and unapologetic ways.
The book's narrator is an unnamed protagonist: an oddly likable and sympathetic black teen whose whole life has literally been defined by race. His father, a self-proclaimed “liberation psychologist” saw his birth as an opportunity to experiment with race and identity. The narrator admits, “I was his Anna Freud, his little case study, and when he wasn’t teaching me how to ride, he was replicating famous social science experiments.” This traumatic upbringing shaped his life and his view of the world. When his dad is killed by the police and his town is wiped off the map, he is forced to carve out an identity and a place for himself. If this sounds ridiculous, that's because it is. The best part about this book is the fact that Beatty writes it so seriously - as if he doesn’t know that the story he’s telling is wildly absurd. It’s that dedication - that odd realism - that makes this supposedly far-fetched tale seem so real.
Paul Beatty is, simply put, a genius. His prose is masterful and refined. His humor is wry and sarcastic, yet effortless. He has this incredibly ability to keep a “straight pencil” while writing hilarious, yet poignant moments like this: “I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.” Thankfully, bright moments like this are not at all sparse in The Sellout. Nearly every page of my copy is dog-eared for moments of hilarity and moments of profound insight. This is a book best read in private. Reading it in public prompts the sort of inappropriate laughter that will get you labeled as “unhinged,” at best.
Despite constant lyrical brilliance, the narrative was difficult to follow towards the middle and end of the book. A couple of scenes require rereading in order to ensure the plot’s direction. However, this kind of confusion comes with the territory of writing satire: it’s sometimes hard to keep things straight and narrow.
My mom isn’t much of a reader. Okay, she’s not illiterate. She actually owns a Kindle. But she’s definitely not known to have her head in a book. However, yesterday she texted me asking, “What’s the name of that book you were reading that u said was so funny?” I usually don’t respond to text messages until after 72 hours. You know, for security purposes. But I responded to this one right away, telling her: “The Sellout, by Paul Beatty!” Why did I respond so quickly? Because I love my mom, duh. But no, really. I responded so soon because I want everyone to read this fabulously written book. It is required reading. I want to promote this book as much as I can. If I wasn’t so broke, I’d buy tons of copies and hand them out to strangers on the street. For now, I can only carry it around with me in public while fake re-reading it and laughing ostentatiously - just so passersbys can take note, get jealous and go buy it for themselves. This book is the definition of a must read. It is a complete masterpiece. It is a true feat of satire and a true testament to Paul Beatty’s unique talent as both a writer and a comedian.
Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole, 2016
Nonfiction essay collection on wide-ranging topics from photography to police brutality.
Through a series of 51 essays, author and art historian, Teju Cole, ponders fascinating artistic, social and historical questions he has for the world and for himself.
388 pages (UK Edition, including color photography inserts), Penguin Random House, $17.00
In Teju Cole’s first novel, Open City (2011), we saw an author with wide-ranging interests and an eye that was keenly trained toward the quotidian and the universal. We caught glimpses and stole peaks at his vast intellectual interests. We went a mile wide and an inch deep. However, in his new release, Known and Strange Things, Cole takes us on a fascinating journey that is a mile wide and a mile deep. Known and Strange Things is the magnifying glass that allows us to read between the lines and follow the many intellectual ellipses left in Open City. As he stated in the collection’s introduction:
“This book contains what I have loved and witnessed, what has seemed right and what has brought joy, what I have been troubled and encouraged by, and what has fostered my sense of possibility and made me feel, as Seamus Heaney wrote, like ‘a hurry through which known and strange things pass.’”
With these words—the final sentence of the introduction—Cole hands us his looking glass. Actually, he does not quite hand it totally to us. Instead, he invites us to look into it with him. Look where, you ask? Everywhere. The scope of his intellectual lens is vast, perceptive and impressive. It functions similarly to a camera; pointing carefully and steadily to the sights we may not see on our own. As an art historian, author, photographer and critic, Cole possesses incredibly diverse interests—interests that take him from New York to Nigeria; from Rio de Janeiro to Shanghai. From poetry to drones. From elite dinner parties to desperate Texan border towns. It is this sense of wonder that ushers us into this collection. And it is his intense reverence for historical icons that beautifully accentuates each essay. With topics ranging from Derek Walcott’s poetry to selfies, Cole points his lens onto an impressive range of topics. Teju Cole sees. And in this collection, it is his seeing that graciously invites our own.
Cole’s prose is stunning. He weaves astonishing observations into riveting sentences that bloom into pensive and tender, yet contained, essays—some of which are no more than a few pages long. These essays do not need to be read in any particular order. It is best to encounter the book according to your own mood. He writes in a masterful lyrical style, with a cadence that is steeped in obvious depth and passion. Teju Cole’s words possess a certain, rare profundity. Every period at the end of a sentence is not the sign of the end of a thought, but an invitation for more engagement, more interrogation. It would be impossible to contain all the quotable lines and phrases in this review. There are simply too many outstanding and poignant observations. It is safe to say that Teju Cole is a tremendously gifted writer and thinker. Despite the vast topical variety, his consistent voice manages to thread this collection together. For the quality of writing, alone, this book is outstanding.
Perhaps the strongest essays are those focused on photography. Cole demonstrates a precise and technical understanding of photography as an art form and as a social force. Furthermore, his pieces on poetry are considerate and luminous. Part investigative journalist, Cole points his inquisitive lens to poignant corners of the globe and offers snapshots of lives and incidents from his sharply trained perspective. He is also skilled at exposing ironies. This expertise is particularly evident in “A Reader’s War,” in which he attempts to reconcile President Obama’s love for literature with his political “love” for drones.
Highlights include “A Piece of the Wall” (a sobering journey into the Mexican migration crisis’ epicenter), “Brazilian Earth” (a meditation on Brazil’s legacy of slavery), “A Better Quality of Agony” (moving reconsiderations of grief), “A True Picture of Black Skin” (a historical look at photography’s treatment of brown skin), “Black Body” (an interrogation of blackness vis-à-vis James Baldwin’s 1951 visit to Leukerbad), “Captivity” (a harrowing reflection on the kidnapped Chibok girls of Nigeria) and the refreshingly humorous “In Place of Thought” (Cole’s own, associative dictionary).
I am certain the editors struggled to compile the 51 essays into a logical, flowing order. This challenge was apparent when it came to the inclusion of essays that were too specific, like “Housing Mr. Biswas” and “Double Negative.” Both were originally published as introductions to books. These essays—while excellent alone—lack the breadth of his others and, perhaps, should have been left out.
It must be noted—and perhaps it should have been more clearly noted—that all of the essays in this book have previously been published in major news/media outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times. I was under the impression that all of the essays in this book were new. However, they are not. In fact, many can be found on the internet. Before you read this book, it is essential to know that it is a collection of previous work, not a specifically curated group of complementary essays.
Interestingly, the epilogue is a sobering meditation on Cole’s own, literal sight. When he points the lens right at himself—he holds a mirror up to us. By seeing him, we are able to see ourselves more clearly. Overall, Known and Strange Things is a beautiful glimpse into Cole’s peculiar mind. His ability to interrogate—and his courage to let some questions go unanswered—is what makes this collection so brilliant. As he eloquently reminds us in “Natives on the Boat”:
“At certain heights, you get vertigo, but you also see what you otherwise might not.”
Prime: Poetry & Conversation, Various Poets, 2014
A collection of poems from five black and queer poets who are making waves in the literary scene.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams and L. Lamar Wilson offer stunning poems and reflections on what it means to be black and queer in contemporary America.
96 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, $13.00
Prime: Poetry & Conversation is a collection of poems by five queer black poets: Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams and L. Lamar Wilson. The 96-page book dedicates a small section to each poet, allowing readers to immerse themselves in their similar, yet very distinct, modes of writing and thought. These poets blend very well together because they each grapple with themselves and with the world in a different way. Each set of poems reflects upon the conundrum of being queer, male and black. Sibling Rivalry Press, an independent publishing house based in Arkansas, did a fine job to scout and compile a beautifully vibrant group of up-and-coming poets for this collection. The stunning introduction by the esteemed Jericho Brown lets us know that these are the poets that we should look out for in the future. Although Prime was published in 2014 and is thus by no means a totally “new release,” this collection is still relevant as we go into 2017 because we still have not answered the many poignant questions it poses about queerness and blackness. These poems invite ongoing dialogue. For this reason, I particularly enjoy its subtitle, “Poetry and Conversation.” While the second half of the book is literally devoted to transcripts of dialogue between the poets, the poems themselves are launching points for important conversations we need to have with others and with ourselves.
The collection begins with Rickey Laurentiis, a New Orleans-born poet with an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Laurentiis’ poetry begs tender questions; questions aimed outward, but seemingly pointed to the self. In the wistfully poignant “Cadaver,” he wonders abjectly: “Can the fly ever know/ to stop? — Or a man/ who abandons his son, / can’t he know it amounts/ the same injury/ to just kill the son instead?” He goes on, his questions circling a singular hurt: “Who says that flesh softens at burial?” It is the aimlessness—the answerlessness—of these questions that heightens their universality. Laurentiis’ ability to both pose and navigate these unknowns is what gives his poetry a sense of his own wonder.
Williams’ poetry is disjointed, visceral and frantic. His focus is on doing and undoing; on breaking and blending together. In the structurally dense “Legacy,” he writes: “The man, / glass-caught, refused my broken civilization, / my iris a breaking wheel un-teaching joint from socket, where blood has/ introduced itself to the exterior.” However, he abandons this efficient structure in his next poem, “Manifesto,” in which loosely metered stanzas liken the black text in books to literal “black bodies.” While the metaphor is sound, it reads more like a hypothesis than a solid thesis. He returns to the visceral in “Blue and Green” and in “Sonnet with a Slit Wrist and Flies,” wherein he writes: “…the slit would talk back sweet nothings in a red gown” and of blood “veined by the rhapsodic” and “wild with knowledge.” He toys eloquently and intimately with the grotesque – offering a stunning poem whose stunted gestures tell a haunting tale.
Holnes’ poetry is melodic and contained. He meditates upon his identity as a black and queer Panamanian in New York with candid doses of humor (“I Always Promised I’d Never Do Drag”), honesty and grace. Holnes is more explicit in his rendering of sex and of coping with queerness. He flamboyantly displays the tug-of-war gone on in his head whilst being in his own, queer body. In “The Down Low Messiahs,” his tone is particularly confessional: “My ring finger slides forbidden/ down his thighs in communion/ with flesh, its burn and concurrent healing, / oh lord, its reddening appetite.” While Laurentiis had questions, Holnes seems to have answers. His verse maintains an astute awareness of his “sin”—and I only say “sin” because each of his poems is either accentuated by or drenched in shame; a certain, illicit secrecy. Holnes manages to plant seeds of shame that bloom exquisitely. His confessions reek of temptation and loss, but they are also evident of healing—the quiet catharsis that comes forth from truth.
Saeed Jones departs from Holnes’ confessional tone and offers poems that feel more like declarations. His tone is frank and rigid; forcing reconciliation – not asking for it. In the sparse, yet powerful, “Nocturne: Beheaded,” Jones makes ample use of allusion and proclaims: “My tongue is a kingdom. / You live there.” In “Aubade,” he hints subtly at doom: “Polite partners. / The wind calls out each/ step and, necks noosed, / they spin.” His poems feel like a tearing away, rather than a building up. With each tense line, he rips things down until they are threadbare. Then, he watches our smiles fade as we painfully reconcile with what he has left for us at the end: a shaky truth.
Wilson is the final poet. His poems seem weighed down; like they are pushing up against some burden, some forlorn heaviness. They are sarcastic, perceptive and often critical. Similar to Holnes, Wilson seems to be engaged in some kind of tug-of-war with himself. “Malevolence,” in particular, cleverly resorts to similar bouts of questioning and doubt. Wilson, too, is reconciling with something: “See our innards spilled on the turned page that tells/ The same story you’s wrote on the one before i/ Fell in the deep end, black&bluesed & saw you corralled/ In the continental shelf below i, blooming. / You should know i hate loving you. / You should know i will never stop.” In the stunning “Cake: for Chris Brown,” he points the lens outward and soberingly deconstructs Chris Brown’s (unintentionally and unwittingly confessed) statutory rape. By interpolating Chris horrifying comments with truth, Wilson emotionally critiques the false notion that neither men nor boys can be victims of rape. In the poignant, “After The Verdict: Marshall, N.C., July 15th, 2013,” he writes: “For each cloud has become a lone/ White hoodie, each a shroud/ As the children wonder aloud:/ Why won’t God stop crying? / Mothers, struck dumb, comb their hair, / Cook grits, turn on the TV, let SpongeBob/ Do his queer work with time. / Let us reach for the poster of Obama/ Above the sill, all glitter & golden. How gay he looks, this new black vision.” Wilson rounds out the bunch in an exceptionally powerful manner.
“Conversation,” the second half of the book, is a collection of transcripts of the poets’ intimate conversations. They ask each other questions about their lives and their work and we gain a thoughtful, more robust portrait of each of their individual inspirations and aspirations as artists. When biographical, these conversations offer complex insight toward each man’s acceptance of himself as “gay” within the rough context of their homophobic communities. These details were valuable because they allow a greater appreciation of these poets’ bravery. Hearing all they have endured heightens the audacity they must possess in order to write the things that they do. Their varied conversations range all the way from poetry, to theology, academia, writing, race, violence, New York City, womanism and mentorship. This section seems whimsical and meandering, but it is this relative lack of structure that, ironically, allows these poets to blossom. It is through these conversations that we are able to fill in the crevices, the longing and the blank spaces left in their poems.