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Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, by Feminista Jones.

November 11, 2018

Reclaiming Our Space
Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, by Feminista Jones. Random House, January 2019.

5 stars  FORTHCOMING MUST READ

A brilliant account by a leader of the new wave of Black Feminism, writing about how the movement is revolutionizing and community building in social media and on the streets.

Feminista Jones is the online name of Michelle Taylor, a social worker in Philadelphia and a compelling voice of the new online Black Feminism.  As she relates in her new book, she grew up in Queens, where her mother insured that she received the best possible education.  She attended boarding school and an elite Ivy League college.  She has been married, divorced and has a young son. Involved early in social media, she has won frequent awards for her innovative online activity.  She is an excellent writer, concise, deep, and sheer fun.

I am a white women grounded in the Feminism of the 1970s and interested in Black Women’s History.  I have watched from a distance as young, African American women, like Jones, have appeared in the forefront of recent protest movements.  I am grateful to Jones for explaining to me and others like me how and why they have achieved this prominence.  Theoretically, Jones points to the work of the Combahee Creek Collection in the 1970s to explain their “intersectionality,” the fact that race and gender intersect constantly in the lives of women of color.  Neither can be discarded or acquired at will, making black women essential for the liberation of all people.

Social media has broken down some of barriers between women according to race, age, sexual orientation, and education.  Under-educated women of color can have their experiences validated as they provide academics with information about the contours of their lives.  Jones herself is evidence of a previously rare mix of influences as she moves in the language of social media and of abstract theory. She carefully lays out the innovative ways in which Black Feminists have used Twitter to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.  She shows also how they have developed its capacity to explore ideas and experiences in ways which revolutionize community organizing.  For example, she shows how a comment she made when witnessing a woman being harassed on the street turned into a massive campaign in which women shared experiences and spoke out about the problem under the hashtag #YOUOKSIS.  She explains how “live twitting” can allow hundreds of people to become a community by sharing tweets during a performance or event.  Jones sees such activities growing out of the daily habits for survival of black women.

♈️☀️~Femme~🌙♌️

Jones addresses specific sections of the book to black men and white women, explaining to each group why Black Feminism is essential.  For years both of these groups have deliberately forced black women into distinctly subordinate roles.  Black women have been forced to choose between their identity as women or as blacks.  Setting up such a dichotomy is a way to avoid facing their needs and their anger from always being both.  Jones also addresses a variety of other concerns that tend to cluster in particular ways for black women, such as black motherhood.

Feminista Jones is a fine writer with a sure touch for the meaning of word or phrase.  I may disagree with her here   and there, but she has strong evidence for the positions she takes.  She is ever ready to admit to having changed her mind on some issues.  Her writing is generally easy to read and fun. She does, however, frequently write with words and styles that are unfamilar to readers like me.  Phrases from “Black English,” computer jargon, and abstract feminist theory are intermixed in her prose.  I loved the mix and all it signifies about crossing boundaries, but some readers may be annoyed.

Although Jones warns readers that we are all human and imperfect, she sometimes makes twitter and other social media too good to be true.  Yet if there is any truth in her descriptions of an expanded variety of women more engaged and involved in each other’s lives because of social media, we are all better for the process.  I strongly urge others to read this book, especially those for whom African American women and social media exist in worlds that seem distant from our own cloistered white neighborhoods.

RELATED RECOMMENDATION:

Good and Mad, by Rebecca Taister.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister

November 7, 2018

Good and Mad
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

5 stars  MUST READ

A ground-breaking book by an insightful political reporter examining how women’s public anger has been downplayed and punished while that of men has been praised and encouraged.  She validates women’s political rage, but warns that their silencing is not stopped.

The political expression anger of women is not something new.  We simply have been taught to ignore it and its power.  Traister honors women’s anger, past and present, as valid, and expresses her own outrage at punishment doled out to angry women while angry men are praised.  Showing a strong understanding of American women’s history, she points out what women have achieved by getting angry in the past even though they have been rendered invisible in their rage.  Traister also describes how women have sought to mask their anger in public spaces by claiming they are following God’s commands or that their position as mothers justifies what they saying and doing. She quotes women who use humor to make their rage seem laughable and unimportant.

Interviewing women involved in politics more recently, Traister provides forgotten details about how their anger has been expressed and dismissed.  As she points out, the wave of feminism in the 1970 allowed a few women to express their anger over gender expectations in outrageous words and gestures.  But their anger became one of the biggest reasons for others to dismiss all that feminists were attempting.  In gaining a foothold in new professional arenas, many of us have stepped back from open anger.  As individuals, we have gained acceptability and change by lowering our voices and appearing compliant.  Christine Blasey Ford’s ’s appearance before the congressional committee is an example of this approach, though many of us have used and are using this technique.  The response to Ford is an example of the limits of this technique.  Since Trump’s election, younger, more varied women have come to the fore to fight for causes and in ways that my generation has not dared address as we entered previously male spaces. This time we all need to stop muting our own rage and support the next generation of angry women.

Traister is particularly articulate about the ways in which race and gender intersect. She is aware of the new discussions of what it means to be white, and she urges white women to realize they need to be more responsive to what they can learn from black women.  In discussing the Women’s Marches after the election of Trump, she also points out how which media coverage assumed that black and white women could not achieve enough unity to be effective.  In response, Traister describes how some black and white women worked together work together as abolitionists before the Civil War.  She also describes the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglas at the time when women suffrage supporters were fighting each other over universal versus black male suffrage.  Emphasizing the anger that can unite us is critical in the face of those who would divide us.

Good and Angry focuses on women’s anger in the public, political arena, not on their anger in general or in private.  Traister concentrates primarily on anger as a tool for coming together and changing the social structures and behavior that regularly restrict and oppress women.  Ending the double standard about women’s and men’s anger would be a critical step to give women a equal voice in our alleged democracy.

A long section of the book deals with the anger of the @metoo movement, and the dilemmas it raises.  While Traister is fully supportive of the validity of women’s rage, she also sees the complexity of the issues.  Should we release our pure anger at all men or may there be legitimate reasons not to remove men from power who have supported women in spite of relatively minor harassment?  If we support such men, however, we must that makes us complicate in a system that supports their behavior.

This book is full of quotable lines and insights for women who are seeking to explain and express their anger in public forums.  Traister is unusually sensitive to complexity and the shifting meanings of words. Rather than tell women to be angry and vocal or quiet and safe, she is exploring the middle ground, a place where we can converse and create, a place where contradictory stories can be seen as true.

At times I wanted more structure in her writing and clearer statement of what women should do with their anger. I wanted neat answers.  Then I realized that this book is not about neat answers.  Traister’s strength is that she sees and writes about the sheer complexity of women’s public expression of a demand for a place in politics and the ways in which that demand has been denied.  Hers is a work in progress and all of us need to join in the discussion.  We need our varied voices to find ways to support each other when we speak out rather than allow others to silence or destroy us all and what we believe in.

This is a book we all need to read and discuss, whatever our views on gender and politics.  The 2018 midterm election has raised the willingness of women to be “good and angry.”  If democracy is to survive, we need to be sure that women, all women, have a viable place in politics.  Those of us who have been activists in the past need to support the angry women of this generation of those who would change the world right now.

RELATED RECOMMENDATION:

Reclaiming Our Space, by Feminista Jones.

Blackberry and Wild Rose, by Sonia Velton.

November 4, 2018

Blackberry and Wild Rose
Blackberry and Wild Rose, by Sonia Velton.  Blackstone Publishing, May 2019.

FORTHCOMING

5 stars

A delightful historical novel set in eighteenth-century London featuring a silk-maker’s wife who dreams of being artistic and the lady’s maid she “rescues” from prostitution.

Sonia Velton is the daughter of British mother and a Sri Lankan father.  She grew up in the Bahamas and Great Britain and has continued to live globally.  After earning her law degree she specialized in human rights and discrimination law, for a time in Singapore. She married, had three children, and lived in the Middle East for eight years before returning to Kent where she now lives and writes.

As an historian, Blackberry and Wild Rose is the kind of historical fiction that I appreciate most.  Instead of rehashing the lives of famous people, Velton has deeply researched the time and place of her novel and created characters who might actually have lived there.  Then she has used her imagination to expand our knowledge of people who seldom had the luxury of writing down what they thought and felt.  In doing so she gives us characters with whom we can relate.

The story is set in the Spitialfield section of London where Huguenot silk makers wove and sold exquisite textiles.  Tension exists there because the silk masters have cut back what their journeymen earn because the sale of silk has declined with the introduction of cheaper calicos.  Narration of the story is divided between Esther, a pious, childless British wife of a silk master and Sara, a country girl who had been caught up in a brothel. Esther dreams of designing and creating patterned silk, dreams her insensitive husband mocks.  She takes in Sara to save her from a life of prostitution. Velton does a fine job of describing the ever-changing emotions of the two women as they struggle with intimacy, jealousy, anger and genuine affection.

Venton excels as a careful observer and a word-smith making her book a joy to read.  Her work in human rights law is reflected in her sensitivity to the ways we blind ourselves to the pain we cause others in both the public and private spheres.  Interwoven plots move smoothly and hold readers’ attention as we wonder what will happen next.

I gladly recommend this book to all who enjoy historical fiction and the interplay of choices which individuals make.

Under Water, by J.L. Powers.

October 31, 2018

Under Water
Under Water, by J.L. Powers.  Cinco Puntos Press, January 2019.

FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A young adult novel about a teenage woman in rural South Africa, who seeks to balance her calling by “the ancestors” with the survival of herself and her young sister in a violent, contemporary world.

J.L. Powers grew up in the American West along the American border with her geologist father and journalist mother.  She earned Master’s degrees in African History from the University of New York-Albany and from Stanford and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Texas, El Paso.  A Fulbright-Hayes grant allowed her to study Zulu in South Africa. She has published three powerful Young Adult novels, a picture book, and an anthology of stories about coming of age in a war zone.  She has taught college classes in Creative Writing and African History. She also works in publishing and blogs about Social Justice and Children’s Literature.  Her home page is labeled as “Stories from Around the World.”  She lives in northern California with her family and still thinks of El Paso as her home.

Power’s passion for social justice and complexities that children and young adults face today are evident in all her publications including her new book, Under Water.  In this book, she tells the story of Toshi, a seventeen-year-old, Zulu girl living in urban South Africa.  Toshi did not choose the traditional role of healer and communicator with the ancestors. Instead the ancestors chose her and she believes she must obey, even when their demands are not rational.  With the recent death her grandmother, she must find a means of survival for herself and her young sister.  Everything seems to conspire against her as she tries to cope with angry relatives and neighbors and her long-time boyfriend involves her in violent taxi wars. Toshi must juggle her own traditional commitments while remaining open to radical change.  She learns that she must trust the ancestors even when their demands are irrational.  The open ending of the book offers hope for Toshi and all of us.

Written primarily for young adults, Under Water has a straightforward plot, but not a simplistic one.  The book is enjoyable and informative for readers of all ages.  In fact, the idea that Toshi must learn “to understand evil” seems too sophisticated for the overall style of the book.  While not a Zulu herself, Power has immersed herself in Zulu life and thanks those who have helped her write about a culture not her own.

I am glad to recommend this book, especially but not exclusively, for young adult readers.  I applaud Power’s efforts to build global citizenship with books like this and look forward to seeing more of her writing.  I also applaud Cinco Puntos Press for publishing her books and for doing all they can to create a more compassionate and responsible world.

Living on the Borderlines: Stories, by Melissa Michal

October 24, 2018

Living on the BorderlinesLiving on the Borderlines: Stories, by Melissa Michal. Feminist Press.

Forthcoming February 12, 2019.

3 stars

A collection of short stories about Indigenous individuals living at the edges of their own culture..

Melissa Michal is a Seneca woman who teaches creative writing and composition at Arizona State University where she recently earned her Ph.D. in Literature.  She is particularly interested in the representation of Indigenous people in literature and history.  Her writing has appeared in literature reviews.  She has finished a novel, written non-fictional essays and  engaged in photography.

 The short stories in Michal’s debut collection deal with what it means to be Native, today facing a wide range of challenges to traditional culture.  Many, but not all, of her stories center on Seneca people living in upstate New York along the Canadian border. Her characters often deal with non-Native characters, but some of her most moving narratives involve inter-family challenges.  Individuals grapple with questions of how they can, or if they can, pass on their skills and traditions to the next generation.  The stories tend to be sad, elegiac, with a hint of hope in their conclusions.

Michal explains her goals in her writing.  She explains her “loyalty to her characters, the closeness to their voices, and the orality of bringing realties to these stories.”  In doing so she intentionally breaks the rules of Western languages.  I honor her intention but sadly I found her language to be awkward. I am not sure why, or even if the problem is hers or mine.  I am saddened not to be able to catch her cadence and rhythm.  I would like to believe that as writers and readers we can, temporarily at least, visit each others’ spaces.

This is a well intentioned book.  I hope it resonates with others more than it did with me.

The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay.

October 19, 2018

The Far FieldThe Far Field, by  Madhuri Vijay.  Grove Press.

FORTHCOMING: January 15, 2019.

5 stars

A big, powerful novel about a well-intentioned woman growing up in a confusing family in Bangalore, India, and, as an adult, wandering naively into Kashmir where she does not understand what is going on around her or the affects of what she says and does.

Madhuri Vijay was born in Bangalore and later came to the United States.  She has lived in Kashmir and studied in the Iowa Writers Workshop.  The Far Field is her first novel.

Shalini, the narrator of Vijay’s novel, writes a searching account of who she is and what she has done. She knows that “the story or confession or whatever it turns out to be” will “too late.” Yet hers is a story she needs to tell.  Part of that story is about her parents, especially her mother, a strong erratic woman whom Shalini feared and protected.  Interwoven with the mother-daughter narrative is Shalini’s description of the journey she made in her twenties after her mother’s death.  Feeling restless and disconnected, she goes to violence-torn Kashmir looking for a man who had occasionally visited her mother. A Hindu, Shalini is graciously received in Muslim families whom she comes to love so much that she considers staying and teaching in the local school.  Slowly she becomes aware of local secrets and tension just under the surface.  Old wounds have not healed.  The problems are not simply Muslim versus Hindu but involved complicated feelings of guilt for actions taken.

The Far Field is a finely written book with powerful descriptions of places and people. By telling the story of a particular locale, Vijay pushes us to face the larger question of whether or not personal actions matter, or are they erased by larger cultural forces beyond our control.  She provides readers with philosophical depth while never slowing down the ongoing pressure of events.

This is a book for all of us who have ever tried to help those whose lives we fail to understand.  I recommend it enthusiastically.  Read this book.

The Hollow of Fear, by Sherry Thomas.

October 17, 2018

The Hollow of Spheres The Hollow of Fear, by Sherry Thomas.  Penguin,  October 2, 2018

2 stars

The third historical novel in a series about a woman solving mysteries in the name of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherry M. Thomas was born in China in 1975, and Chinese is her first language. She lives in America where she has published about 20 books.  On her web page, she claims that she set out to write every kind of book that she enjoys.  So far she has written popular books of romance, fantasy and historical fiction. Young Adult books seem to be a specialty of hers.

Recently several women have created mysteries that feature Victorian women stepping into the role of Sherlock Holmes.  This is not the best of them for a number of reasons. Too much of the book is taken up with explaining weak links to Holmes himself or what has already happened in the past two books in the series.  The main plot gets lost in all the people and minor plot lines. The characters are essentially flat with no development.  Both of the leading characters come across as simply weird.  The inclusion of the romantic plots seems irrelevant in a book evoking Sherlock Holmes.  The complaints about the rigid role of aristocratic women in Victorian England are witty, but the challenges to those roles are not realistic.

Don’t bother to read this book.