Bookshelf: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

I have been meaning to start a “Bookshelf” section on this blog, because one of my absolute favorite things is to share what I am reading; however, since I have been preparing for seminary, many of my reading-list books have been really dense (yet, incredibly interesting) texts about Unitarian Universalist polity and history as well as black liberation theology and texts about the problem of evil in 21st-Century black literature (shout out to Dr. Qiana Whitted).

A few weeks ago I came across the Nebula Award Nominee List, and in honor of the great Octavia Butler, I decided to devote a few hours each day to a science-fiction novel.  Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is a nominee, and after reading Who Fears Death, it seemed a perfect novel to share as the first book on Bookshelf. I will not promise weekly additions to Bookshelf, but I will share my reads as the spirit moves me. 🙂

One more thing about the format of the section: I got the idea for the Bookshelf format from fellow writer and blogger Ernessa T. Carter. Ernessa maintains the blogs Fierce and Nerdy and 32 Candles, and since I love her succinct book-reviewing style, I asked her if I could use her format  here on SVP. Needless to say, she said yes.

Why I decided to read Who Fears Death: I like science-fiction. I love magic realism. I like women who both imagine and live in a world in which magic is absolutely possible. And I adore black women who courageously use the medium of science fiction/magic realism to tell important stories. Last week someone on my Facebook feed posted something about Nnedi Okorafor, and I went from being totally unaware of Okorafor’s noteworthy body of work to a bona fide supporter of her journey as a writer/author/teacher/mother!

It happens like that for me.

What is Who Fears Death About?: Who Fears Death is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story about a woman who carries within her the power to change her world. Onyesonwu (whose name means “Who Fears Death”) is destined, because of the strength and prayers of her mother, to be the one who will, quite literally, change the narrative of her war-torn country, a country whose soil is soaked with the blood of the victims of tribal genocide.

Set in what is now called Sudan, Who Fears Death is a novel about the  evil and destructive forces of genocide and the healing power of a mother’s love. It is a novel that challenges at every turn the perceptions about women in a patriarchal society. In order to live her destiny, Onye must challenge (if not successfully dismantle) traditional ideas about who she can become because she was born a girl and born into what is considered the lowest class of people in her home Jawhir.

What makes Who Fears Death Different?: Okorafor asks us to suspend what we think we know about science fiction and even what we think we know about Africa and be with her and her characters as she shows us a new reality. She creates a world in which women who heal themselves and others, sorcerers who shape-shift, and teenagers who have been chosen to learn the secrets of magic are as just as normal as children playing in a school yard. Okorafor uses magic and the different ways her characters practice magic to challenge our perceptions about difference and how humans treat those we perceive as “other.”

What I Loved: I loved the celebration of the divine feminine!  The women in Who Fears Death are fierce, self-directed, sexual, and powerful.

With that said, I loved the Okorafor’s protagonist Onyesonwu! Onyesonwu works perfectly as both protagonist and narrator of the story; she is a complex young woman who does not always understand the gravity of her choices, but she is willing to make sacrifices in order to fulfill what she believes is her destiny. She is a thoughtful, courageous, independent, committed, and loyal friend and daughter.

Although Onyesonwu is fiercely independent, she understands interdependence, and she relies on her chosen family to make a very difficult journey with her. This is why I also loved Onyesonwu’s friends Luyu and Binta. These girls/women show us how the power of love operates through commitment and friendship.

Okorafor removes the shock value of flying children and roaming spirits and uses those very details to tell us a story about what it means to be human.

Writing Lessons Learned:

  • Good storytelling requires excellent pacing. Okorafor seems to have an innate sense of timing that makes great storytelling. Each chapter moves gracefully into the next, and the reader never feels lost or rushed.
  • Know your place (real or imagined). Who Fears Death’s setting works because Okorafor has a clear sense of place.
  • Be willing to listen to your characters. Okorafor’s characters are essential to the telling of the story. I know this seems an odd thing to say, but we all have read at least one novel in which the characters seem like they exist only to do the author’s bidding. Who Fears Death is not one of those novels; the reader feels as if Okorafor has given herself over to the story and the characters in it. She is a conduit. Plain and simple. And that, in fact, the role/responsibility of a master storyteller.

To Whom Would I Recommend this Book?: Everyone! Especially those of you who have read and loved the novels of Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Tananarive Due, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Happy New Year!




 

I know it is February 5, 2011, but I still think you deserve a “Happy New Year” from me!

The first month of 2011 was a good one; my wife turned 32 in January, and we had a blast. I planned a scavenger-hunt style birthday, and she spent the day guessing the adventure-activities on listed on the birthday brochure I created for her.  Next month we will celebrate our first wedding anniversary and my 33rd year of life on this planet.

Heads up, I might have some really great news in the next few weeks–news that will change everything in our family! No, I am not pregnant. However, it is almost as life-changing as a pregnancy would be. 🙂 Stay tuned…

Anyway, thanks so much for reading this blog. Your time means so much to me. Cheers to reading! Cheers to 2011!

xoxo

PS: The beautiful lab mix in the photo is the newest addition to our family, Sophie; she arrived the week before Christmas.

CALL FOR PAPERS: LGBTQ Anthology

I am pleased to announce the official call for papers for this amazing anthology project! If you know any LGBTQ writers who have been looking for ways and spaces in which to share their stories, please send them here! There is a “Call for Papers” tab on this site, and I have made the submission guidelines my post for today. Thanks, again, for reading!

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Shifting the Vantage Point Wants Your Stories!

Shifting the Vantage Point [SVP] is a vision, a safe space, a blog, a concept, and a publishing house that supports creativity and community. SVP was created and is maintained by Emerson Zora Hamsa, a writer, editor, teacher, blogger, intellectual, and queer black woman who believes in the power of language.

Shifting the Vantage Point invites the submission of original, engaging, well-written, truth-telling, and previously unpublished Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer [LGBT] love stories, personal essays, creative non-fiction, interviews, novel excerpts, and/poetry for a forthcoming anthology, Same-Sex, Same-Gender: Stories of Transformation, Hope and Love. This anthology is being prepared for publication online and for print at a small independent publishing house. Shifting the Vantage Point welcomes all stories of love, struggle, change, the search for identity, gender re-assignment, gender roles, living in secret, coming out, living as “butch” or “femme”, labeling in the LGBTQ community, parenting an LGBTQ child, etc.

SVP strongly encourages submissions from LGBTQ people of color.

Submission

The submission of essays will be entirely electronic. Submissions should be no longer than 2,500 words, and should be submitted in a Word document to ShiftingVantagePoint.Press@gmail.com by January 31, 2011. If your essay is chosen, you will receive one free copy of the anthology and an opportunity to participate in one or more readings. *Information about readings will be provided after publication.

Reviewing Process

Shifting the Vantage Point will use a community review process. Writers, teachers, LGBTQ activists, and readers will review your work. To eliminate bias, reviewers will not know the names of the writers, and writers will not know the names of the reviewers.

Disclaimer

Shifting the Vantage Point will not accept any essay that is substantially similar to a previously published essay of the same kind. Your voice is necessary! Your stories need to be told!

Contact Information

Questions and concerns should be sent to ShiftingVantagePoint.Press@gmail.com

When the Rainbow Falls Apart: Tyler Perry’s Misinterpretation of Triumph

*SPOILER ALERT*

I am not a movie critic, but I am going to play one today.

On Monday, before I went to the cinema to see Tyler Perry’s For  Colored Girls, I read, again, Ntozake  Shange’s For Colored Girls  who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. I walked around my house, book in one hand, and pretend  microphone in the other, and I read aloud the section about an eight-year-old girl who falls in love with Toussaint L’Ouverture. With tears in my eyes, I read the section about a young woman who, after doing all she can do to keep a dangerous ex-boyfriend away from her children, watches him drop them from a fifth-story window. I stood in front of the mirror to read the section about a woman who reclaims her soul after realizing that she has given too much of herself to a man who does not and cannot love her.

When I closed the book and headed to the cinema, I was full of hope and feelings of triumph because Shange had indeed  “explored the realities of seven different kinds of women…the women were to be nameless & assume hegemony as dictated by the fullness of their lives.” (Shange, p.xii) After seeing Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, I felt deflated. Maimed. Disappointed. Misunderstood.

Tyler Perry butchered For Colored Girls.

Surprise? Actually, yes.  I am one of those people who has wanted  to believe that Tyler Perry is capable of creating imaginative, soul- stretching, conscious art but has been holding back, waiting for his “appointed time,” to borrow an overused phrase from the Black Church.

Mea Culpa. I was so wrong. Tyler Perry seems to be unable to stretch beyond his own issues and create art, even when the art  has already been created for him. His apparent struggles with his sexuality, his issues with the father who abused him, his feelings about the women (read: MOTHER) who did not protect him from  the inhumane treatment of said father, and his affinity for a Jesus who accepts/affirms only heterosexuals prevent Perry from seeing, and thus communicating, the redemption and triumph in a choreopoem like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.

This kind of irresponsible filmmaking affirms a harmful Christian, heterosexual, and patriarchal structure and it is, in a word, dangerous. It is dangerous to a community of people whose beliefs about the world and each other desperately need to be challenged and reshaped in order to heal. Although Tyler Perry alone should not have to bear the burden of conscious filmmaking, he is, in fact, the brown voice in Hollywood right now, but that is a different post.

So, how did Tyler Perry fuck up For Colored Girls? Oh, let me count the ways.

  1. Time and Place: How did seven women who were “outside Chicago, outside Detroit, outside Houston, outside Baltimore, outside San Francisco, outside Manhattan, and outside St. Louis” (Shange, p5) manage to end up in a walk-up in New York City? We don’t know. Tyler Perry never tells us.  He just hopes that we will rely on our good old suspension of disbelief and go with it. What he also hopes is that we will not notice the alarming and disappointing resemblance of this movie to The Women of Brewster Place. Are we also meant to ignore that the movie takes place sometime between 1975 (one character gets a back-alley abortion) and 2010 (Janet Jackson and Kerry Washington have cell phones and computers, but the other women seem to communicate only in person)?
  2. Characters: Here are a few things to consider: (a) If Janet Jackson’s character is going to deliver the line “I was open on purpose,” shouldn’t her character display some level of openness before the movie ends?  (b) If Phylicia Rashad is going to be the matriarch of the walk up (although I vehemently object to Rashad as matriarch in this film), shouldn’t the viewers at least know why? (c) Should Kimberly Elise have been cast as a twenty-two year old woman, which is Crystal’s age when she loses her children to a senseless murder in Shange’s choreopoem? (d) When Crystal (Elise) finally delivers (after Rashad blames her for the death of her children) the poem’s famous line, “I found God in myself, and I loved her fiercely,” does anyone believe her? I didn’t.
  3. Perry’s Treatment of Black Gay Sexuality: When are we going to stop with the “Black-Man-on-the-Downlow-gives-Faithful-Loving-But-Stoic-Wife-AIDS” storyline? Really Tyler? Really? Does your “downlow husband” character really say things like, “That is gay,” and “I am sorry for my truth”? What. The. Fuck. Will we ever get an explanation of your commitment to reinforcing every harmful, hurtful, and hateful stereotype of black gay men?

I could add numbers four and five, but I do not want to give away too much more of this movie.

Before I go, I do want to mention something that Perry did right with his version of For Colored Girls: He chose an amazing cast (Janet Jackson notwithstanding). He chose artists. Somehow those seven women managed to deliver parts from the original choreopoem with the strength and conviction of women who have indeed found God in themselves.

We do not need more films that demonize black men and victimize black women while simultaneously blaming them for being the victims.

We need art.

We need art that inspires us.

We need art that heals us.

We need art that brings us together.

We need art that celebrates and affirms who we are.

We need art that acknowledges our complexities.

We need art that makes us strong and proud to be who we are.

Reading Near the Ocean: Substitute Me by Lori L. Tharps

Since summer is almost over, and since I really needed to be near the ocean, my wife, our three-year-old niece, Angel, and I had an OBX weekend. We did not quite get the rest and relaxation we hoped for (three year olds are hard work!), but we did have a great time.  We played, we swam, we had great vegan food from a nice place in Kitty Hawk, and while Angel and Auntie Jan built sandcastles, I had the pleasure of reading Lori L. Tharps’s new novel Substitute Me.

Book clubs, brace yourselves; Lori L. Tharps delivers a book that you will be talking about for hours!  Picture this: Zora Anderson, a young (30), whimsical, black woman from a well-to-do family in Michigan moves to New York and accepts a job as a nanny for a young (30ish) white woman in Brooklyn. Told mostly from the perspectives of the two women, Substitute Me is layered with questions about parental expectations, race relations, work-life balance, following one’s passion, and the true nature of love.

Substitute Me will be available on Amazon tomorrow. Check out fellow blogger  Evelyn N. Alfred reading from Substitute Me.

Thanks for reading.

ezh

Breeze Harper and The Sistah Vegan Project

Hello, Readers

Our dialogue about food and mindful consumption continues…

My research on veganism, specifically the ways in which black women practice veganism, led me to the work of A. Breeze Harper, a doctoral student at UC Davis, founder of The Sistah Vegan Project, contributor and editor of the anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society. A collection of poetry and prose, Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society contains the narrative voices of twenty-six black-identified female vegans who offer their individual stories as necessary contributions to the collective  “black female vegan experience.” Each woman uses her voice to help shape and expand the meaning of what it means to be black, female, and vegan in this society.

Excited about reading a work by black women that was created to inform, challenge and highlight the issues of black-identified vegan women, I skipped Amazon(dot com) and rushed to Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC to pick up my copy of the book. As soon as I read the first essay, “Thinking and Eating at the Same Time” (Michelle R. Loyd-Paige), I knew that (1) Breeze Harper was on to something with this anthology and her Sistah Vegan Project work, (2) I wanted to help her timely and relevant work gain exposure, (3) I wanted to talk with Breeze about her social justice work and her experiences as a black-identified vegan, and (4) I wanted to interview Breeze for “Shifting the Vantage Point.” Since my first reading of “Sistah Vegan,” I have had a few online opportunities to discuss The Sistah Vegan Project with Breeze Harper, and as an extension of that conversation, Breeze agreed to answer some pre-selected interview questions via video; you can view the interview at the bottom of the post.

Although this is not (necessarily) a book review, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in plant-based diets, compassionate consumption, the relationship between food and sex, ecowomanism (a term from the book), and/or social justice issues. I (and you will) look forward to more work from Breeze Harper.

Thanks, again, for reading.

ezh

 

Food Choices

I currently practice a moderate form of veganism, which means I do not eat the flesh of any animal, and I avoid the consumption of all dairy products. Although I believe in animal rights, and I practice compassion and non-injury (ahimsa) in my daily life, my entry point to the vegan life was a dairy allergy. Unfortunately, my excessive consumption of all things dairy, resulted in a pretty severe scalp condition, a mild form of eczema, frequent occurrences of acne, stomach pains, and high-levels of mucus; however, before being officially diagnosed with an allergy, a friend who had been doing some research on the effects of dairy consumption, suggested that I eliminate dairy from my diet in order to see if any or all the symptoms disappeared. Who would have thought that fifteen days after eliminating dairy, I would have clearer skin, a settled stomach, and no morning/afternoon/evening mucus to contend with? Even without the doctor’s imprimatur, I knew a dairy-free lifestyle was for me.

My resurgence of health also prompted me to do some food research of my own, and I soon discovered that most of my food choices were unconscious, and negatively influencing my health and my life. I realized that consuming  gluten caused me to become sick, unusually fatigued and cognitively fogged; I noticed that I felt listless and uncommunicative after sugar consumption, and after eating flesh, I felt plain sad. Conversely, after eating fruits and vegetables, I felt more lucid and more energetic.

When I decided to practice veganisim, I found a wonderful support system—an entire food movement; there were other people in my physical community, my Facebook community and blogger community who have also made the decision to live in a way that is sustainable and supports health and wellness. I discovered  CSAs and farmers markets, I found vegan restaurants and supermarkets that specialize in whole, local foods.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be on this journey at this time in my life. I am still shaping my perception of food, and I am still considering what it means to be a Black-identified, lesbian-identified, sometimes-Buddhist, female vegan in America, and I know that this is not consideration that can happen in exclusivity; it is a conversation.

It is a conversation about who has access to whole foods and why.

It is a conversation about change and sustainability.

It is a conversation about spirituality and community.

It is a conversation about environmental ethics.

It is a conversation about social justice.

Please be a part of the conversation.

ezh

A Few Good Reads:

In Defense of Food / Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma/ Michael Pollan

Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society / A. Breeze Harper (Editor)

Potatoes NOT Prozac / Kathleen DesMaisons

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