Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Quicksand and Passing are two novellas packaged together and reissued by Serpent’s Tale in the UK. They both share the key theme of being a woman of colour in America early in the twentieth century but the two pieces explore ideas around this in different ways.

Helga Crane is twenty-three and a teacher at Naxos, ‘the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country’. Helga’s out of favour at the school and urgently wishes to leave despite her engagement to a colleague. Her fiancé has ‘naturalized’, fitting into the school and its values. Helga, however, ‘…could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity’. She’s failed to impress his family too:

Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t “belong”. You could be queer, or even attractive, or bad, or brilliant, or even love beauty and such nonsense if you were a Rankin, or a Leslie, or a Scoville; in other words, if you had a family. But if you were just plain Helga Crane, of whom nobody has ever heard, it was presumptuous of you to be anything but inconspicuous and conformable.

Helga leaves Naxos and the south in search of happiness. Although she is unaware of the form happiness might take for her. Arriving in Chicago, she goes to the home of her uncle, her deceased mother’s brother, but is rejected by his wife who denies any connection between Helga and her husband. In a veiled conversation, it’s implied that the issue is that Helga’s mother had her out of wedlock to a white man.

In keeping with the title of the book, Helga’s situation changes seemingly quickly again and again. After weeks of unemployment, she finds a job with a woman, Mrs Hayes-Rore, who gives speeches on ‘the race problem’ before moving to New York to live with a relative of Mrs Hayes-Rore’s. Before leaving she’s advised:

I wouldn’t mention that my people are white, if I were you. Colored people won’t understand it, and after all it’s your own business.

Whenever she finds somewhere she thinks she fits – and Larsen moves her between black and white society – she is eventually disabused of her feelings, often through the behaviour of those around her. The novella ends when she finds herself in a situation she cannot leave. It’s a sobering end showing that women, regardless of education and connections, actually have few outcomes available to them.

Passing – which is the stronger of the two stories – focuses on a rekindled friendship between Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. The friendship is one from childhood, broken following the death of Clare’s father, after which she was sent to live with relatives and rumours of her becoming a sex worker spread through the group she left behind. Two years before the books begins, the women have come across each other in a hotel tearoom:

Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?

Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.

Although Irene is passing in the hotel, Clare is passing in every day life and Irene judges her for it. Initially this leads Irene to question the behaviour of other friends but the tension really rises when she meets Clare’s husband.

John Bellow greets his wife with the words, “Hello, Nig”, leading Irene to believe he knows that she is black. However, he then explains his nickname for her:

“When we were first married, she was as white as – as – well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s getting’ darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger…No niggers in my family…They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils.”

Clare’s reason for getting back in touch with Irene after this incident is that she wants to spend more time in Harlem with people of colour. Irene strongly suggests that this is risky behaviour considering her husband’s ignorance but Clare doesn’t care. It seems as though this story has an obvious conclusion to reach but Larsen complicates it with problems in Irene’s marriage leading to a swift, shocking, unexpected twist that had me gasping aloud.

Quicksand and Passing are taut novellas exploring the clash of black and white society and the roles women would take to be seen as acceptable in different circumstances. Larsen explores a range of viewpoints and considers women in a number of positions on the social spectrum. The stories are interesting windows into the time period but also tightly plotted, compelling tales in their own right. Highly recommended.

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo

Omorenomwara, or Doris Scagglethorpe to her family, is the first person narrator of Blonde Roots and a domestic slave of Chief Kaga Konata Katamba.

He made his fortune in the import-export game, the notorious transatlantic slave run, before settling down to life in polite society as an absentee sugar baron, part-time husband, freelance father, retired decent human being and, it goes without saying, sacked soul.

My boss is also a full-time anti-abolitionist, publishing his pro-slavery rants in his mouthpiece The Flame – a pamphlet distributed far and wide – as a freebie.

Doris was taken from the fields owned by Lord Percival Montague, which her family farmed. The rumours were that the slave raiders and the aristocrats were in league with each other, trading slaves for guns. Once captured, slaves were transported to the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, part of the continent of Aphrika.

Doris/Omorenomwara is tattooed with the initials of her first mistress – Panyin Ige Ghika (P.I.G.) and her current master (K.K.K.), under whom she’s risen to the heady heights of his personal secretary. She has a job for life, working 24 hours a day for no money and beatings for ‘insolence tardiness or absences’.

It was pretty standard for a domestic slave, and I have to say Bwana had no cause for complaint with me.

I was the perfect house wigger.

When we meet Doris/Omorenomwara, news reaches her that the Underground Railroad is operating again and she’s top of the list for escape. As we follow her journey to Paddinto Station and on the railroad to the boat that will take her away from the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa, she tells us about her family, about the lover she had and the children that were taken away from her. She tells us about the Ambossan cultural norms and how the whytes fail to live up to these norms.

Our guys would call women who looked like me Barbee, named after the popular rag dolls of the Motherland, those floppy little female figures with one-inch waists, blue-button eyes and four-inch blonde tresses which every little girl loved over there.

Not here, though. Find a little slave girl on this continent and you’ll discover she’s hankering after one of the Aphrikan Queens, a rag doll with a big butt, big lips, lots of bangles and woolly hair.

It was so bad for our self-esteem.

As Doris boards the boat, her narrative is interrupted by Chief Kaga Konata Katamba who tells the story of how he became involved in the slave trade and why. His pronouncements about the inferiority of the Caucasoinid are supported by anthropology, ideas of savagery and a mission to save souls. There’s a brilliant moment when he describes being taken deep into the natives’ settlement and witnessing the burning of a witch on a stake:

What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror

It was worth multiple readings of Heart of Darkness just to register the perfect execution of that reference.

The final section of the novel takes us back to Doris/Onomorenomwara to see what becomes of her.

Blonde Roots is a brilliant counterfactual narrative. By reversing the slave trade, making Africans the masters and Europeans the slaves, Evaristo forces us to imagine how different life could have been. There’s a comedic element to this – hair falling out as women try to fashion their fine hair into afros; Ambossans performing The Whyte and Blak Minstrel Show in which they whyte up and Morris dance – but Evaristo’s utterly serious about whites recognising the horrors of the slave trade in a way I haven’t seen done before. She achieves this in two ways: firstly, by making Doris a first-person narrator. She could be one of us, taken from the fields, branded and stripped of her identity. Secondly, by using the language our ancestors used to justify their actions and turning them back on us – ‘whyte women were labelled sexually insatiable’, ‘the Caucasoinid breed is not of our kind’.

I haven’t a single criticism of this novel; the world Evaristo creates is fully-realised and consistently highlights the hypocrisy of imperialism through the imposition of one race’s cultural norms onto a race to which they are unsuitable at best and by showing the barbaric practices within white culture, leaving us wondering how that could lead whites to believe they were culturally superior to blacks.

Blonde Roots is a fascinating, pitch perfect counterfactual novel. Highly recommended.

Small Island – Andrea Levy

Small Island tells the story of four people whose lives intersect in London following the end of the Second World War. Those people are Queenie and her husband Bernard, white Londoners, she working class and he middle class, and Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaicans who’ve come to London after Gilbert’s time in the RAF. The novel is narrated from the points of view of each of the four characters and both from the ‘now’ of 1948 and the past that each character has lived through.

The book begins with a prologue in which Levy makes clear the key theme of the novel. Queenie says, ‘I thought I’d been to Africa’. She tells her school class this until her teacher points out she’s been to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. From the first line of the novel, Levy highlights the British ignorance of Africa and its people. At the exhibition, Africa’s represented by a jungle village and a woman and a man.

A monkey man sweating a smell of mothballs. Blacker than when you smudge your face with a sooty cork. The droplets of sweat on his forehead glistened and shone like jewels. His lips were brown, not pink like they should be, and they bulged with air like bicycle tyres. His hair was woolly as a black shorn sheep. His nose squasher flat, had two nostrils big as train tunnels. And he was looking down at me.

‘Would you like to kiss him?’ Graham said. He nudged me, teasing, and pushed me forward – closer to this black man.

…The inside of his mouth was pink and his face was coming closer and closer to mine. He could have swallowed me up this big nigger man. But instead he said, in clear English, ‘Perhaps we could shake hands instead?’

The first chapter has Hortense arriving at a house in London, straight from the docks where Gilbert’s forgotten to meet her. The house belongs to Queenie who’s taken in lodgers – most of them black, much to the vexation of her neighbours – since the war ended and her husband failed to return. The first chapter sets up Hortense’s expectations and shows how quickly they are disabused. The dialogue between Hortense and Queenie on the doorstep is particularly well done, showing a number of misunderstandings between the women based on accent and cultural knowledge.

The sections set in the present day – which are spaced throughout the novel, between the ‘before’ stories of each of the main characters – deal with relationships, both those between husband and wife and those between white and black people during this period. Both are often fractious with the parties lacking understanding of each other. Queenie and Bernard have dark secrets they know how to share with each other. Hortense doesn’t know how Gilbert can live as he does, Gilbert doesn’t know why he married her and why the UK’s so hostile after he played his part in the war effort.

For the teeth and glasses.

That was the reason so many coloured people were coming to this country, according to my next-door neighbour Mr Todd.

‘That National Health Service – it’s pulling them in, Mrs Bligh. Giving things away at our expense will keep them coming,’ he said. He might have a point except, according to him, they were all cross-eyed and goofy before they got here.

‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

‘Oh, yes,’ he assured me. ‘But now, of course, they’ve got spectacles and perfect grins.’

What’s particularly impressive about Small Island is that Levy allows each character to tell their story – and their side of the present day story – in their own voice. Each is distinct and convincing. Each story is equally interesting too. I sometimes wondered whether the structure of the novel, where each character tells their back-story in full (sometimes stretching to ninety pages), could have been divided into smaller sections. However, I can see how Levy uses each story to contribute to further understanding of the characters and how their stories come together in a surprising way.

Small Island is a good novel, exploring a country in the midst of great change, attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the war. Levy does this largely through the private – the individual stories – but very much shows how the private is political. It’s a perfect book for a long, indulgent read that will satisfy you in terms of character and plot but also lead you to consider current attitudes to race. I found it particularly poignant as the general election draws closer in the UK and anti-immigrant rhetoric is spouted from several parties. Like Levy, I’ll give Hortense and Gilbert the last words:

Gilbert sucked on his teeth to return this man’s scorn. ‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it gives you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. White. No better, no worse than me – just white.’

A God In Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

A God In Every Stone begins with Vivian Rose Spencer travelling up a mountainside in Labraunda. She’s there to join her father’s oldest friend, Tahsin Bay on an archaeological dig of Zeus’ Temple.

Her father, a man without sons, had turned his regret at that lack into a determination to make his daughter rise above all others of her sex; a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect. Taking upon himself the training of her mind he had read Homer with her in childhood, took vast pleasure in her endless questioning of Tahsin Bey about the life of an archaeologist every time the Turk came to visit, and championed her right to study Egyptology at UCL despite his wife’s objections…

Before the end of the dig, Vivian has reminded Tahsin Bey he told her about his desire to find the Circlet of Scylax, given to Scylax by Darius:

…a mark of the highest honour. But twenty years later when Scylax’s people, the Carians, rebelled against Darius’ Persians, Scylax was on the side of his countrymen, not his emperor.

Vivian and Tahsin Bey have also agreed to marry; he will visit London at Christmas and approach her father. But when they reach the coast to board a ferry, they discover war has broken out in Europe. Before they part, Tahsin Bey reveals that his grandmother’s family are Armenian and one day he intends to write about the bravery of the Armenians rebelling against the Ottoman Empire.

The outbreak of war prevents Tahsin Bey’s visit and only one letter reaches Vivian and her family. She takes work as a nurse and her father, a gynaecologist, pulls strings to have her transferred to a Class A auxiliary hospital, work that he says is almost as worthy as a son fighting at the front. Before she moves to the hospital, however, a man from the War Office visits her and wants to make copies of her maps from the dig in Turkey. He’s also keen to know about the Germans on the dig. Before the end of the meeting, she has betrayed Tahsin Bey.

Once Vivian’s established, Shamsie introduces Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun from Peshawar. He’s fighting in France for the allies. By the end of his first chapter, he’s fought at Ypres and the injury he’s sustained will see him sent to hospital in Brighton before being discharged and sent back to Peshawar.

Qayyum’s body jerked in anticipation of the bullets that would rip though him, but Kalam had a hand on his chest, telling him to hold still, the gunners were aiming at something else. You stay still too, Qayyum said, but Kalam braced on his elbows and used them as a pivot for arms, the rest of his body motionless as – again and again – he lowered his palms into the stream and slowly, hardly spilling a drop, brought them to Qayyum’s parched mouth, washed the blood from his face and tried to clean the mess that was his eye. With the stink of blood all around, the only light in the world came from those cupped palms, the shifting water within them.

As Qayyum returns to Peshwar, Vivian has left the war effort – to the horror of her father but delight of her mother – and is also on her way to Peshwar in search of something she thinks Tahsin Bey has pointed her towards. Their paths cross on the train and they will remain linked although their stories will play out separately for many years.

A God In Every Stone considers British rule in India from both the point of view of the Peshwars and the British. The Peshwars are largely represented by Qayyum and his brother, whose views differ, although other people’s views are considered later in the novel. The British view is filtered through Vivian and this gives Shamsie an opportunity to consider gender and the treatment of women as well as imperialism. She considers the point where the personal and the political meet and how the decisions of a country and its leaders affects individuals – friends and family.

The book’s very well written; sentences are balanced and conjure vivid images, particularly during the scenes of the Peshawar Disturbance at the end of the book. The themes are interesting. Despite this, I found the book as a whole unbalanced; there were parts I fully engaged with and others where I struggled although I found it difficult to articulate why. I wonder whether it was the structure, in the first half particularly, as the novel moves from place to place and its focus seems to shift. This is not a bad book but it was my first written by Kamila Shamsie and everything I’d heard meant that my expectations were probably a little too high.

Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

Texas, 1981. Jay Parker, lawyer, is taking his six months’ pregnant wife, Bernie, on a romantic trip on the river. However, the boat is shabby, the bayou ‘is little more than a narrow, muddy strip of water’ and Jay’s

…feeling a knot tighten in his throat, a familiar cinch at the neck, a feeling of always coming up short where his wife is concerned. He feels a sharp stab of anger. The guy on the phone lied to him. The guy on the phone is a liar. It feels good to outsource it, to put it on somebody else. When the truth is, there are thirty-five open case files on his desk, at least ten or twelve with court time pending; there wasn’t time to plan anything else for Bernie’s birthday, and more important, there hasn’t been any money, not for months.

And you know what? It’s about to get a whole lot worse.

They are about to head back inside when they hear the first scream, what sounds at first like a cat’s cry, shrill and desperate. It’s coming from the north side of the bayou, high above them, from somewhere in the thick of trees and weeds lining the bank. At first Jay thinks of an animal caught in the brush. But then…he hears it again. He looks at his wife. She too is staring through the trees. The old man in the baseball cap suddenly emerges from the captain’s cabin, a narrow slip of a room at the head of the boat, housing the gears and controls.

“What the hell was that?” he asks, looking at Jay and Bernie.

Jay shakes his head even though he already knows. Somewhere deep down, he knows. It wasn’t an animal he heard. It was a woman.

A few minutes later, following gunshots and Bernie pleading with Jay to call the police, a body tumbles down the banking and into the river. Jay dives in and pulls out a woman, ‘white and filthy’ but still alive. Unable to get enough information from her to find out how much danger she is in, Jay and Bernie take her to the police station, dropping her off outside the door.

All of this takes place as Locke begins to introduce us to Jay’s backstory. It feels superfluous at the time but it becomes clear as the novel develops that it’s key to events that take place later on.

Bernie and the baby are all the family Jay’s got. He doesn’t speak to his mother or his sister and his friends abandoned him when he went to trial ‘on a charge of inciting a riot and conspiracy to commit murder of an agent of the federal government – a kid like him and a paid informant’. The only people who came to court everyday were women from the church through which, eventually, he met Bernie.

Jay’s current case involves a prostitute who’s been in an accident while out with a high profile member of the community. It’s clear he’s only taken the case for the money and trying to work out which cases will bring him financial reward has become part of his role. It wasn’t how his law practice began though. He took out a police brutality lawsuit on behalf of ‘a sixteen-year-old black kid who was nervous and fumbling for his licence’, who was dragged from his car and beaten. Jay took on a white attorney with a decade’s experience and won. The case got his name noticed but the people queuing up for help were disenfranchised black people who Jay wants to help but who can’t afford to pay him.

Before long though, he’s involved in two issues, neither of which are bringing in any money. The first is the case involving the woman from the beginning of the novel.

A white male, shot twice, found in an open field in the 400 block of Clinton, near Lockwood Drive in Fifth Ward, not fifty yards from Buffalo Bayou.

Jay can’t help taking an interest himself.

The second is due to Bernie’s father, the Reverend Boykins. He’s supporting a group of longshoremen, The Brotherhood of Longshoremen, a group of black men working on the docks. They’re a branch of the ILA, the International Longshoremen’s Association who are about to vote on whether to strike over pay; ‘…the black workers are routinely paid less than their white brothers…’. One of the young men has been attacked. He claims it was men from the ILA and his family and Reverend Boykins want Jay to represent him.

By now, you’re probably thinking sheesh, there’s a lot going on in this novel. So was I and I wondered how Locke was going to maintain the reader’s interest whilst holding up the threads of each plotline and not confusing the reader along the way. Of course, all these threads become intertwined as the novel progresses and Locke does a good job of keeping the connections both clear and twisty for the reader. She interlinks civil rights concerns from the sixties and seventies with present day concerns both about race and politics and its connection with industry.

Jay Parker’s a great new face to join the tradition of damaged investigators. Locke’s created someone shaped and hurt by his past but who’s trying to do good in his present. Obviously he doesn’t always get it right and there are points in the book where you want to scream at him, but they’re the points that make him human/rounded/flawed.

Black Water Rising is an impressive debut; to hold so many strands and bring them all to a satisfying conclusion is no mean feat. It’s a smart, satisfying read.

Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

The new therapist specializes in trauma counselling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

Citizen begins with a series of flash fictions based on events told to Rankine. They vary from a twelve-year-old girl who a classmate uses to cheat on tests, to a woman called the wrong name by a friend – the same name as her friend’s black housekeeper, to the language that is used in front of people of colour and the behaviour of whites towards blacks in everyday situations. These short pieces illustrate the way in which people of colour are routinely ignored and dismissed, often by people that you might not expect to behave in these ways.

This section is followed by an essay about anger beginning with a discussion of the artist Hennessy Youngman and then focusing on Serena Williams.

On the bridge between this sellable anger and “the artist” resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this type of anger; the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.

Not being much of a sports fan, I rarely watch tennis so was unaware of the injustice served to Serena Williams again and again. It’s shocking and disgusting. The paragraph which seems to summarise this essay – and most of Rankine’s book – is this one:

What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This appropriated line, stenciled on canvas by Glenn Ligon, who used plastic letter stencils, smudging oil sticks, and graphite to transform the words into abstractions, seemed to be ad copy for some aspect of life for all blacks.

Rankine follows this essay with further flash-fictions and begins to intersperse art works, including Glenn Ligon’s, which relate to the points she is making. She goes on to include a series of scripts made for videos about Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, Jena Six, and one entitled ‘Stop-and-Frisk’. She also has pieces about Barack Obama, Mark Duggan, Zinedine Zidane. The final section is a poem, incorporating some more short prose, summarising all that has gone before.

Rankine makes use of repetition to create a layering effect. She does this in individual pieces, for example ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ uses the following as a refrain:

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

But also in the way the incidents she writes about build to create a devastating picture of the treatment of black people in the western world.

Citizen suggests that’s exactly what people of colour are not – they’re not legally recognised as they’re not being protected by law and therefore not allowed to stand alongside white people as equals. The comments and actions of whites serve to exploit people of colour as other.

I’m sure if I refer to this book as ‘powerful’ a ‘books written by people of colour and reviewed by white people’ cliché klaxon will sound but I’ve been through the synonyms and yes, Citizen is compelling and dynamic and forceful and impressive but it is powerful through the way Rankine uses the shortest of pieces to make you realise how often people of colour are ‘thrown against a sharp white background’ and how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background.

Caitlin Moran believes it’s culture – not marches or protests or petitions – that has the power to change the world. If that’s true, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household; I want to see it taught in schools and university, and added to the canon in the hope that in X [insert your own optimistic/pessimistic value here] years time, students will read, study, discuss this book in university seminars and be appalled at the way people were treated because of the colour of their skin.

My Second Blogiversary and #TBR20 with a Twist

Today, The Writes of Woman is two years old. Like all anniversaries, it’s made me reflect on what’s gone well over the last two years and what I’d like to do next with the blog.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who’ve read, commented on and shared blog posts. The number of hits on the site quadrupled in 2014, which is huge, and I’m grateful to you all for taking the time to visit.

In 2014, I read 136 books, 97% of which were by women. It wasn’t my intention to only read books by women when I began the blog but they certainly dominated my reading last year!

When I began the blog, I wrote about my reasons for doing so. One of them was that every weekend the writer Linda Grant would tweet the number of reviews of books by women in the broadsheets. It was always significantly fewer than those reviewed that were written by men. I didn’t state it at the time, but I always intended that this blog should be for all women writers.

Over Christmas and the New Year, as people were writing about their year in reading, the writer Nikesh Shukla commented:

While it was nice to see how #readwomen2014 made people reflect on how many books by women they read last year, I did notice that no one was analysing how many books by non-white authors they read. They probably didn’t dare. 

I calculated mine – an appalling 10%.

I then started to wonder about other groups. I’d focused on women in translation, surely that would be better: 11%. LGBTQIA? 6%.

It was then that I started to consider why I was excluding these groups of people. I wasn’t doing it intentionally, I’ve always considered my feminism to be inclusive – I’m a working class woman (yes, you could argue that my education puts me in the middle class category but as Caitlin Moran and Barbara Ellen have argued, I don’t see why the middle class should claim me just because I’m university educated), why would I want to exclude anyone else?

Then I decided to look at the books I read and see how many would be considered working class literature: 25%. And there were my unconscious biases writ large.

Three things happened in quick succession: the first was Nikesh Shukla’s comment; the second was that one of the consequences of losing my last bit of regular paid work was that I realised I couldn’t afford to spend money on books until June, and the third was that Celeste Ng wrote an article for Salon about ‘our female Asian American writer blind spot’.

Losing my book budget meant that I began to consider doing #TBR20. If you haven’t come across this idea, have a read of the post by Eva Stalker which kicked it off. The idea is that you read twenty books from your to be read pile before buying any more. It’s enough to bring a book buying addict out in hives. In that post, Eva confesses that her book buying is a result of existential angst:

Like all anxieties it had mortality at its root. Aside from the instant gratification of buying something new, what I bought had a certain intent. I was buying what I wanted to have read. I was always looking for the next thing, the next great thing that would mean everything.  

A conversation about this on Twitter led me to consider why I buy so many books.

I know how many books I own, I catalogue them, but I’ve refused to work out how many are unread for several years now. Last week, I made an educated estimate based on a sample of one bookcase; at the speed I read last year, it would take me approximately twenty-three years to read all the unread books in the house. That’s insane.

So why do I own so many books? Because I grew up in a working class family and was – still am – the only person in my family to have attended university. At school, where I was in the top set for all subjects that were set by ability, I was continually told that when I applied for university, I would be competing against people who were better educated than me. How do you educate yourself? The only way I knew was to read. So I began to buy (and read some of them, at least) books that were nominated for prizes; books that appeared on university reading lists; books that were recommended by writers in interviews; books that were written about in the likes of the LRB and the TLS. And I still do. I have double width bookcases stacked full of them.

I thought that books would make me more intelligent. And they have, to a point.

But how can I consider myself well read or well-educated if I’m practically ignoring the experiences, thoughts and ideas of the majority of the world’s population?

Then I saw Celeste Ng’s article. In it, she talks about doing an event to promote her novel Everything I Never Told You at an American university.

I asked the professor hosting me how he’d found me.  He admitted he’d needed an Asian American woman fiction writer to balance his speaker lineup. “There aren’t a lot of you out there,” he said, with evident embarrassment.      

Ng goes on to prove that there are a lot of female Asian American writers with a huge list of names at the bottom of the article.

As I read through the list, I realised how many books I owned by the writers named there. Combined with Roxane Gay’s writers of colour list published on The Rumpus in 2012, I was interested to see how many unread books I had in the house written by women of colour: 85. It’s a fraction of the total of unread books I own, but it’s far from insignificant.

So, three things came together, the conclusion of which is this: I’m taking part in #TBR20 but with a twist; the books I read – and review – will be ones written by women of colour. You can see my choices in the photographs below.

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I included review copies I was sent last year in the unread books by women of colour tally. I thought I’d been sent fewer books by women of colour than white women and I had, but it was also apparent that when there were several books due to be published around the same time, I’d chosen to read those by white women over those by women of colour. I’ve already checked the paperback publication dates for these books and they will take precedent over anything else.

I’ve also added two menu tabs to the blog – one for women of colour and one for LGBTQIA women. These menus, like the women in translation one that I added last year, are there to highlight, not segregate; all of the authors also appear on the fiction/non-fiction menus, as appropriate. They are also there to remind me to address my bias and that once I’ve finished my #TBR20 pile, there needs to be another for LGBTQIA women and then another for women in translation until I reach a stage where my unconscious bias is to choose to read books by all women.

2015 then will be about making this blog, and my reading, diverse and inclusive. I will continue to read and review books by white, heterosexual cis women but I will do so alongside those by women of colour, those who identify as LGBTQIA and those by women whose work has been translated into English. Here’s to reading books by all women writers.