Catching Up: What I’ve Been Reading

Currently slogging my way through about two books on the tablet. Slow going because it’s hard for me to focus on a screen for too long. Also, it’s more difficult when the print is small with my poor eyesight. Nevertheless, I have gotten through some other good reads since the last time I’ve written. Hopefully, with Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Haven dropping, I’ll get some more soon.

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Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

I borrowed a worn copy of Midnight Robber from the library along with a couple of other books by Hopkinson a couple of months ago and eventually got around to finishing Midnight Robber. What I thought was to be a fantasy about a young girl turned out to be much more. In fact, nothing in this book went the way I thought. And this isn’t a bad thing. Except I must say there may be some trigger warnings necessary for instances of sexual assault and abuse. These instances are never described graphically but are essential to the plot for the protagonist Tan Tan. However, what I found most fascinating about this work is how effortlessly Hopkinson blended fantasy with a real-world scenario. Hopkinson’s world-building skills are unmatched and her transition between Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree is one of the best narratives of legend and myth I’ve ever read. The development of Carnival places you right in the middle of the celebration in a way respectful of its traditions, not as an outsider looking in. But as I stated, the protagonist is a young girl, but this is not a story for children. If you have any sensitivity to sexual assault or abuse, then you want to approach this one with caution.

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Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines edited by Pauline Alexis Gumbs, China Martens and Mai’a Williams

I love reading nonfiction that not only opens my eyes but also inspires me. I got my hands on a copy of this before the end of last year and finally got around to reading it. Revolutionary Mothering is one of those books I did not want to put down. There are so many different perspectives on motherhood and the work (physical, mental, emotional, etc.) that goes into mothering as well as the resolve it takes to see it through when motherhood is so undervalued. These works center marginalized mothers, particularly WOC, QUILTBAG and disability mothers in various intersections. Even though I’m not a mother, I am an aunt and I often think of ways to support mothers, particularly Black mothers. In any case, this is one of the best in radical thought and shows us ways motherhood can be an impetus or launching pad for radical action and activism. This is one of my favorite books next to The Revolution Starts at Home when it comes to transformative action to bring about real change.

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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I’d been intending to read Nguyen’s work ever since I had the pleasure of attending a reading at our local book festival last year. I finally had to borrow The Sympathizer from the library and see why he won the Pulitzer. Nguyen is one of those writers whose style it takes a moment to adapt to, but once you do, you get so deep into it that it feels familiar. It didn’t hurt that I actually tended to read it in his voice. I found myself reading the first half slowly but approaching the second half voraciously. His style fits the type of literature I like, narrative not told as a simple point by point movement from event to event. Admittedly, his writing requires a bit more attention, much like Toni Morrison, but it’s worth the effort. By the way, The Sympathizer is not a typical spy novel but those who enjoy the likes of John le Carre will like it as le Carre was an influence on Nguyen’s work (it shows even if you’re only familiar with adaptations of le Carre’s work.) While enjoyable, The Sympathizer is not a light read neither in its subject matter or style. The war in Vietnam follows the unnamed narrator and confronts the reader with the roots of repercussions still felt today. Having said this, I’d highly recommend.

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Catching Up: Quick Reviews on What I’ve Been Reading

Been a while since I’ve done reviews, but the good news is I have managed to get in some really good reads in between (barely) working, writing and procrastinating. I’ve gotten a hold of some good comics and zines and decided to check out books from the library rather than waiting to have the funds to buy them as I prefer. We’ll see how the job search goes before I can buy a book a month like I want this year. But for now, here are some quick reviews of a few things I read at the end of the year.

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Nuthin Good Ever Happens at 4 A.M. by Avy Jetter

I have anticipated the yearly release of this comic for the past three or four years and almost missed this year’s run. However, I got a hold of this one right before Christmas. The action continues in the mysterious zombie outbreak in Oakland and a few new characters are introduced and fleshed out. What I like about this comic as opposed to other zombie apocalypse fare is that this one gives a sense of neighborhood and community. The kids involved are not only trying to figure out what’s going on but also what happened to their neighbors and who they can turn to for help. With this, Jetter makes the city as much of a character as the kids and their neighbors and I love the trajectory of the story as well as the art style for this comic. But we have to wait until next year for #6! For now, you can find this zine and others at Etsy.

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Queer Indigenous Girl and Black Indigenous Boy zines by Se’mana Thompson and sons

I included the Queer Indigenous Girl zine in a previous review after getting a PDF copy. However, I was able to buy physical copies of the zines in December and started my collection. I also requested signatures from the boys and got signed copies! However, if you are not familiar with QIG zines, Thompson includes stories from POC dealing with physical and mental illness and original artwork. Issues of Black Indigenous Boy also includes biographies, interviews and other reflections on mental illness from a child’s perspective. I also enjoyed the Civil War comic and must say I admire this now 10-year-old knack for storytelling. These zines are available on Etsy when she can produce print copies. You can also find PDFs, but the physical zines are worth it.

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Report from Planet Midnight Plus… by Nalo Hopkinson

I expected this one to be a short story collection as well. However, of the four pieces in this collection, two are fiction. (“Message in a Bottle” is also included in Falling in Love with Hominids.) However, the title piece is a speech given at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts from 2009. I can say with no exaggeration that this speech is life changing. Hopkinson addresses a pivotal moment in the speculative community that occurred before I became embedded in it: RaceFail. I don’t want to give away the point here, but for those of us who were not around when it occurred, this speech is a great primer for finding out the gist of the issue and the fallout that occurred afterward and continues to affect speculative communities. The interview at the end is also enlightening and can make Hopkinson a favorite writer before you ever read a word she wrote.

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Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson

I fell in love with Falling in Love with Hominids last year, so I was thrilled to find that Skin Folk was also a short story collection. One of the things I love most about Hopkinson’s writing is that she has a great ability to extend the unique voices of her characters in a way that makes me truly hear them in that voice, not my own. I honestly cannot say this about many writers. Hopkinson includes short blurbs at the beginning of stories, sometimes explaining inspiration or how these stories fit into speculative fiction. In any case, she centers her Caribbean upbringing with no explanation or apology. I’d highly recommend this one and point to “The Glass Bottle Trick” and “Greedy Choke Puppy” as two of my favorites in this collection.

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The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

I found this book in one of the Little Free Libraries around town and finally read it a couple of months ago. While I don’t consider myself a critical part of any activist community, I do look for ways to incorporate activism into my everyday life as much as I can. With that said, I found that I understood most of the issues addressed here but also saw just how difficult it is to actually put theories and ideas into practice even for those who eschew institutions that have historically and continue to fail marginalized people. Furthermore, the book does a great job in reminding that violence is more than physical violence. Centering the work on perspectives and experiences from people marginalized even within marginalized communities gives us the opportunity to do the hard work in reform when it comes to confronting violence within our safe spaces.

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The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve been familiar with Adichie for some time, but I must say this is the first time I’ve ever read her fiction. As a short story collection, it’s an excellent way to get acquainted with her style and tone of writing. Interestingly, the title piece of the collection felt familiar like I’ve read it before. I’m not sure if it has to do with the subject matter or because I actually had read it before I knew who Adichie was. But it is one of my favorite pieces in the book. “The American Embassy” and “The Humble Historian” are also standout pieces in my humble opinion. Adichie brings to light not only a Nigerian perspective but also an immigrant experience not often discussed in the States. This navigation of countries and cultures makes her work unique among familiar narratives of blackness.

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Special Mention: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I first read Cisneros in college, but this is the first time I read this essential collection of work from the legendary Chicana feminist. I felt such a connection with her from the introduction of the collection that I was inspired to write a zine and heal myself from a lot of what weighed me down over the past year. So yes I’m including this one as one of my healing texts along with works from the likes of Gayl Jones, Octavia Butler and Gloria Naylor (RIP). Don’t worry what it’s about. Just read it.

Catching Up: What I’ve Been Reading

While I suddenly find myself with some unexpected time on my hands, I think I can do a couple of short reviews for a few things I’ve had the chance to read over the past couple of weeks. I’ve had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with a favorite comic that comes out once a year each fall and a one shot of a series I hadn’t previously read. I also have some thoughts on a couple of books that have opened my eyes as well as entertained me in unexpected ways. So if your interest is piqued by anything I write here, please support these artists and their work.

Avy Jetter – Nuthin’ Good Ever Happens at 4 a.m.

If you follow the blog, then you know that I have previously reviewed the first three comics in this series. Well, I finally got my hands on the fourth installment. As expected, the story continues and we find out how our young adult protagonists are faring as they search for a missing family member. Also, we are introduced to some additional characters, adding to the diversity in representation in the zombie apocalyptic Oakland.

Jetter returns to the black and white color scheme of her first two comics, which quite frankly adds to the creepiness of the comic’s atmosphere. The ambiance is still a bit surreal and disorienting as if you are in the place of the characters in the story. I appreciate the continuation of the series and understand how demands may keep this run limited to one comic per year, but I want more! Seriously, this is a great series if you love indie comics and want to support a Black woman bringing POC to the SF/F landscape. You can find it on Etsy here.

mai’a williams – No God But Ghosts and Monsters and Other Silent Creatures

“Tell me how mighty the pen is when the hand is in chains…”

Sometimes you know something will stick with you for the rest of your life the first time you lay eyes on it. This happened a few times as I read lines of poetry such as the one above from mai’a williams two collections No God But Ghosts and Monsters and Other Silent Creatures. I’ve followed her on social media for quite some time and this is the first time I’ve picked up any of her work. Both collections serve as an excellent primer to her style and eloquence as a poet and brings to life the experiences of an American-born expatriate.

Monsters and Other Silent creatures is williams’ response to the now infamous wikileaks video in which soldiers in an Apache helicopter fired upon civilians. Her vantage point is one of a civilian living in Cairo at the time when she notices one of the voices sounded familiar, like home. Such incidents make us confront everyday monsters and how they forever change the lives of the innocent. No Gods But Ghosts appears to come from a more personal point of view, making sense of the uprisings then taking place in Cairo that eventually spread to the many areas of the Middle East. Her voice falls in a long tradition of poets like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez but feels completely unique. You can find her work on Etsy here.

Mikki Kendall – Swords of Sorrow

I had never heard of Swords of Sorrow before this year and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have given the series a second thought if Kendall had not authored this issue. However, I love to support Black women in their art and this is her first time writing a comic, so I hunted down a physical copy of the issue.

I was not disappointed. The Miss Fury and Lady Rawhide one shot has a very interesting concept that effectively uses time travel and a fish out of water premise. Furthermore, the protagonists (and primary antagonist in the comic) are women. There’s action, beautiful illustrations and a compelling storyline for those of us who love our swords and sorcery. And don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the series. This one-shot stands on its own, but I do warn you that you will want more of this story since it ends far too soon. You can find a physical copy of the comic here and a digital copy here.

Nalo Hopkinson – Brown Girl in the Ring

I must confess that I am very late to this one. Brown Girl in the Ring came out in 1998, but with the recent crowdfunding efforts of the prequel film, I’m sure interest has put this book back into the conscious of many scifi fans. I first heard of Hopkinson when I picked up a copy of Whispers of the Cotton Tree Root, the anthology she edited, some years ago when I still lived in Ann Arbor. I’d intended to read her work since then but never got around to it. Fortunately, due to my new exposure to writers of color in SF/F, I was once again compelled to find the book.

Brown Girl in the Ring is a beautifully written book on an ugly subject matter. She creates a dystopian Toronto filled with Afro-Caribbean culture and customs. We follow a few days in the life of the protagonist Ti-Jeanne, a young woman who lives with her grandmother along with her infant son. Their lives are disrupted when the father of her child comes to them for help but brings along some bad dealings from the local kingpin. I’ll let you see how the folklore and depressive state of the world come to a head when you read the book 😉

However, I want to mention how Hopkinson’s Toronto seems to have foreshadowed the state of many American cities not even 20 years later. As we see San Francisco become unaffordable due to gentrification and Detroit shutting off water access from the poor, this once future Toronto has already become a reality for so many. Yet there is some light in the bleakness if you know how to look for it. I’ll definitely have to get her other works Midnight Robber and Falling in Love with Hominids. If you can’t find it at your local bookstore, look for it here.

What Does It Really Mean to Support Black Artists?

Anyone who knows me that I am all about supporting black artists. I love all kinds of art from music, film, photography, sculptures, theatre, paintings and even handmade goods. This was the initiative behind last year’s Black Swan Artist Collective project in which I tried to find a black woman artist to support and blog about each month. Overall, the project went well for me and I was able to find a few awesome artists to write about and support.

What I was most excited about was that I actually financially supported these artists. I contributed a little here and there. I bought music and I bought art. Finding cool things like my wooden purse was simply an awesome perk and part of my dreams of living in a way I always hoped. I would love to buy things from black artists and have my home filled with the work of so many talented black art, some that does not get the mainstream recognition it deserves.

However, there were a couple of months in which the budget had to be tightened and there was no room for “frivolous” spending, so I had to go with products that were available for free as well as my own work. While I appreciate that artists like Res have made their work available for free in order to continue building their fan bases, it still bothers me to no end that at times I am unable to support artists like her with “buying power” if there really is such a thing.

Still, I sometimes ask myself if supporting black artists always has to translate into buying their work. For me, this is the ultimate goal, so when I am unable to use dollars to translate into support, I wonder if I am doing enough. I know that many artists appreciate any support they can get even if it is a tweet from a fan raving about their work. But I also wonder if sometimes they feel like the violinist Lisa Simpson meets as she laments “Damn, that felt like a sale” when Lisa compliments her but leaves without buying a CD.

I also ask myself this question when I choose to write or blog about a non-black artist. I tell myself I have no obligation to devote myself exclusively to black artists because I like what I like, but that sometimes does not do enough to quell the guilt that comes when I think I may be doing something at the expense of a black artist. Silly dilemma but a very real one.

I would love to do more to support black artists. I still get to know black writers such as Octavia Butler, but I know she is not the first and only name in black sci-fi. However, I have not been able to get work from N.K. Jemison even though she is all the rage right now and I have only read an anthology that Nalo Hopkinson edited. I know I can find their works at the library, but I literally have nearly 100 books in my home right now that I have not read and, at the rate I collect books I cannot read right away, it may be another few years before I get through them.

I would be largely unaware of black female rappers making a resurgence without sites like Tumblr and I would not be exposed to musicians outside of the box without sites like AfroPunk. The last time I purchased something from a black artist was a few months ago when I was finally able to buy Nasimiyu’s album from Bandcamp, but she is now working on new materials. In other words, I am always a few steps behind and playing catch up is a bit discouraging at times when wanting to offer support to black artists, especially those who are still up and coming.

I know that words of encouragement and the like can be great ways to help black artists get through the day. But at the end of it, when do we know we’ve done enough? Most of us do not work for instant gratification, but we all do what we do to survive. I want to help black artists survive, but, in the meantime, I tell myself that doing only what I can will be enough.