Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee

Picador, 2002

Amazon.com: Edinburgh (9780544916128): Chee, Alexander: Books

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this review because I wasn’t sure I had the right words—or the right experiences—to do so. Edinburgh follows a gay Korean American boy growing up in Maine, Aphias Zhe (Fee), as he experiences sexual abuse at twelve years old and how he processes the trauma that follows him into the subsequent stages of his life. It wasn’t just the fact that I’m not a gay Korean American boy that made me hesitate to write about Edinburgh. This is also a case of my being intimidated by just how good this book is. But two weeks after reading, I am returning to write this review because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how deeply this novel resonated with me. And that has led me to consider what it is about this very specific story that feels so relatable.

I do not by any means want to sound like I am comparing my definitively trauma-free life to that of the characters of Edinburgh. But the way Chee writes about childhood, teenage, and young adult anger, depression, and angst is so visceral that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ways that I felt at those ages. The following is one example that stopped me in my tracks: “Sometimes the scattered thoughts of their deaths run like a ragged red seam of fire inside me and I burn from the inside out, like a lightning-struck tree: the outside whole, the inside, that carried the lightnings charge, a coal. At other times, I feel empty, transparent, a child of the wind. Touching nothing, nothing touching me. And alternating between these states, with no warning as to when one will turn into the other.” And later, when Fee is deeply depressed and suicidal in college, Chee describes it as, “The year a long shadow I walked through.”

Some of my favorite moments in Edinburgh were Fee’s interactions and changing relationship with his Korean grandparents who had immigrated to the US to live with their family in Maine. You see Fee’s understanding of his grandparents grow and develop as he gets older. This moment from early in the novel where Fee is musing about his grandmother says so much with so little: “She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.” This is such a complex concept for a pre-teen to grasp—that adults have lived lives outside of the reality in which they presently reside. And the way this is written shows how Fee was just beginning to understand that there were probably a lot of things he didn’t know about his grandparents.

One moment that really struck me as demonstrating Fee’s growth is an offhand comment he makes about a teenage mother in his high school: “She had always been, I recalled, a fiercely silent girl, pretty and small. Now she seems a giant. I see her in the school, nonchalant. Widowed, a mother, a high school senior. Our lives, I decide, watching her, are tiny beside hers.” Chee fills even the small, in-between moments of Fee’s adolescence with these deeply perceptive thoughts.

One of the ideas that stuck with me coming out of this novel was a reminder to take kids seriously; to take teenagers seriously. And the flip side of that being, adults don’t always have a firmer grasp on themselves that kids do. The things that happen to us stick with us, and often, we simply get better at forgetting. Chee’s words sum this up better than I ever could: “Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting.”

Links: goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Viking Press, 1952

east of eden

A few months ago, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen complaining about the lack of ice in the freezer for my drink, which prompted the question: who invented ice?

What followed, after google searching the question, was a surprisingly interesting article titled The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice. I read the entire article, and then mostly forgot about it until the other day when I began chapter 37 of East of Eden. It started as a vague familiarity —I couldn’t quite place the interest I had in Adam Trask’s ice business —then it hit me. Adam Trask is the man who invented ice! This isn’t true at all of course. At most, he is inspired by the real inventor of ice. Still, it seemed like a strange coincidence. I mention this because I love coincidence and what is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: when, after learning a piece of obscure information or a new unusual word, you begin to encounter it again and again. I love experiencing this phenomenon because it is a reminder of how exciting knowledge is. The more you know about anything, the more you’ll notice, and the more invested and connected you feel to the world around you, or in my case, the book I’m reading.

I loved East of Eden so much more than I expected. It is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read. It is so good and so big that it’s difficult to come up with a single thing to say about it. Instead I feel inclined to write about things it makes me think about. Like the inventor of refrigerated shipping. Or the time I stopped in Salinas on a road trip and hated everything about it.

East of Eden is going in my Must Read category. It is about the battle between good and evil, and it is about how to help the good win in the end. It is universal. In Steinbeck’s words: “A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting—only the deeply personal and familiar.” It is also about greatness and the loneliness of greatness. It is somehow about everything. It’s important to acknowledge that it is outdated. Women, although surprisingly prominent, are still frequently in the background. POC, although not ignored, only exist in their relationship to the white protagonists. But East of Eden is still universal. Sometimes the men just forget their stories apply to the rest of us.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

Warner Aspect Books, 1998

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I had some doubts about Brown Girl in the Ring for the first 150 pages or so of reading it. My main concern was that the entire novel would be predictable—tropes were introduced that had the potential to unfold in a boringly predictable way. But as the conflicts took shape and began to reach resolution, Hopkinson blew me away with her creativity and particularly with her powerful feminism. There’s a lot of reviews that complain about Brown Girl in The Ring having an identity crisis. Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Neither? Is it Jamaican or is it Canadian? The other recurring complaint I saw was about the protagonist being annoyingly immature. My response to these complaints are, respectively, I don’t care! and you’re wrong. Allow me to explain further.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize Brown Girl in the Ring in terms of genre, but frankly, I don’t care. If pressed, I’d describe it as a blend of science fiction dystopia and magical realism. Whatever it is, it worked for me. I could maybe understand the complaint that Hopkinson’s exploration into the science fiction themes just barely scratch the surface, except that this isn’t what the book is primarily about. The setting is Toronto and the majority of characters are Jamaican immigrants or children of immigrants. This is drawn from Hopkinson’s own experience as a Jamaican immigrant who lived most of her adult life in Canada. I found the merging of cultures in Brown Girl in the Ring to be unique and interesting and not at all cluttered. As for the immaturity of the protagonist, I have a lot to say in response.

The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is immature in many ways at the start of the novel. She has a child that she isn’t prepared to care for and has very little interest in caring for. She blames her grandmother for all of her frustrations, and she can’t control her attraction to her good-looking, sweet-talking, ex-boyfriend: Tony. But even at Ti-Jeanne’s most immature, you can see her potential for growth. One of my favorite feminist moments in the novel happens early on when Ti-Jeanne still thinks she’s in love with Tony. Tony asks why Ti-Jeanne left him (it was because of the baby), and just as Ti-Jeanne is about to open up to him and tell him “all her worries about whether Tony would have been able to help her provide for the child,” he interrupts her and says, “I would have let you keep the baby, no matter whose it is. I love you Ti-Jeanne” (73). Moments earlier Ti-Jeanne was swooning over Tony, but as soon as he says this, her response is shock. She thinks, “He would have let her keep the baby? The moment had passed. She gave Tony the glare that always threw him off balance.” This scene introduces feminism as a central element to Brown Girl in the Ring, and I quickly saw the novel as, above anything else, a feminist one. The central characters to the plot are Ti-Jeanne, her mother, and her grandmother, and the way these three generations of women navigate conflicts with each other, surpass obstacles, grow together, and support themselves in an unforgiving place is remarkable. It’s a powerfully feminist novel, and that, above all else, is what Brown Girl in the Ring is about. So to those who critique it for not being science-y enough, or not exploring the nuances of the dystopian setting enough, or whatever else, I think are missing the point of the novel entirely.

Links: Nalo Hopkinson .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez

Carolrhoda Lab, 2015

I do my best not to judge people based on abstract categories, and I do my best to understand and to see the best in everyone even when they have fundamentally different beliefs than my own. Everyone has a history and their own unique series of experiences that lead to the building of their world view.

But racists. Racists to even the most casual degree. Those who think we should build literal and figurative walls to prevent immigration. Those who believe there are substantially more black men in jail than white men, not because of a broken system, but because more black men tend to be criminals. Those who feel the shocking number of black people who’ve been murdered by police are justified. Those who see all Muslims as terrorists. And those who don’t really believe any of the above but still find themselves pausing to think that maybe there is some truth to it.

Those people, I can and will not understand. I understand fear of the unknown and fear of change and the desire for security, and I understand how these fears and desires can lend themselves to putting others down and keeping them out. I understand the power of history and the extent of peoples differences and that we all can’t be expected to get along all the time. But despite all of that, no matter what explanation you have, I will always respond with what is to me the most obvious thing in the world: Kindness!!! And compassion!!! Always! The knowledge that life is unfair and that not one of us is ever more deserving of happiness and security than the other.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is a young adult historical fiction set in East Texas in 1937 featuring a cast of white characters, black characters, and one Mexican girl. Sometimes it takes a narrowing of focus to generate deep compassion. When faced with constant and widespread injustice, it can be impossible to not become hopeless and begin to see injustice as normal and inevitable.  But when it is narrowed down to one place, one tragedy, one family, one girl, you can’t help but burn with compassion.

There’s so much I have to say about Out of Darkness, but when I turned the last page, what I found myself thinking about was this: How would one of those previously mentioned people react if they read this book? What if I found someone who supported the building of a wall, and got them to read it? Would they tell me it was a lie? An exaggeration? That things were never that bad that unfair that unjustified. Would they say, “I would never have done anything like that, but….”? Would they say that things were just different back then and not at all related to how things are now? Would they truly continue to believe that they’re on the right side of history? Or, what if this book was the thing that finally made them understand how real and painful and tragic racism is and how current events are unfolding in the shadows of this cruel, not-at-all distant past? The most important thing I have to say about Out of Darkness is that no matter who you are, you have something to learn from it. Please, do yourself a favor and find out what.

Links: Ashley Perez .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Muslim Girl, by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Simon&Schuster 2016

My sister bought me this book because she thought I should read it for this blog and so I did. It’s written by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of Muslim Girl – a website that serves as a safe space for Muslim Girls to communicate and ask questions and get answers from other muslim girls who are dealing with similar issues. Amani talks about her experience growing up as a Muslim girl in New Jersey, spanning from being a 9 year old on 9/11 to the recent resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in US politics.

Her story is important because she is just a regular girl, born and raised in the US, who’s faced extreme racism, judgement, cruelty, and bullying because of her appearance and because of the hijab she chooses to wear. She tells about moments in her family’s life so unfair you don’t want to believe it. Like the time her father turned to the police after his tires were slashed and instead they investigated him in response to an allegation that he was planning to bomb the outdoor market he worked in. My favorite part of her story is when she explains how she came to find and create her own version of Islamic feminism. One of the most striking points she makes is that white leaders in the US are always so concerned with muslim women being under threat by muslim men, but the real threats Amani faces everyday come from white men in the US.

“The theft of brown women’s narratives is not only an injustice placed on them, but also one extended to their male counterparts; by insisting they need to be liberated from their ‘barbaric’  civilization, [Laura Bush] summoned the colonial assertion that brown women need saving from brown men, when, in actuality, brown women have suffered at the hands of white men more than at those of any other oppressor in history.”

If I had to choose the most important point Amani makes in her book, however, it is that the only voices we can and should trust to tell us what it’s like being a muslim woman are the voices of muslim women. The following quote (about the headscarf as a symbol) is a powerful comment on the subject:

“Throughout time, the headscarf has evolved to symbolize autonomy and control over Muslim women’s bodies. An empowering rejection of the male gaze, colonialism, and anti-Muslim sentiment, it can just as easily be twisted into  a disempowering tool of subjugation and repression through its forced imposition…Today, some governments are just as eager to mandate its wear in public as others are to forbid it. In all cases, any decision to intervene in how a woman dresses, whether to take it off or put it on, is just the same assertion of public control over a woman’s body…Sexism has been employed in many ways throughout history to uphold racism.”

Read this book. You will be and need to be shocked by what the average muslim girl and her family have to endure in this country.

Links: MuslimGirl.com | Goodreads.com

Another Brooklyn, by Jaqueline Woodson

HarperCollins 2016

Reading “Another Brooklyn” is like encountering someone’s memories. It doesn’t progress chronologically, instead it moves the way memories do; out of order, one gliding into the next. Every so often I noticed a sentence or a phrase so beautiful that I’d have to pause and read it again out loud. If you enjoy beautiful, poetic writing, this is for you.

Written as a series of memories, it follows a young girl growing up in Brooklyn between the ages of 8-15 with her 3 best friends. If you think girls as young as 8 don’t know what it’s like to feel looked at, or that your skin color doesn’t affect how you experience the world from day 1, or that things that may seem like small injustices can’t cause huge trauma…give this a try. It’s beautiful and sad and interesting and makes you think about how you interact with your own memories.

“The four of us together weren’t something [boys] understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their breasts, praying for invisibility.”

Links: JacquelineWoodson.com | Goodreads