Bookish Brains Issue 4

Letter from the Editor:

Greetings! Even though February is the shortest month of the year, I still managed to read several amazing works. In honor of it being Black History Month, I exclusively read Black-authored books. Not just this month, but year-round as well, I think we should generally aim to uplift the marginalized voices which so often have been ignored throughout history.

In this issue of Bookish Brains, I will be sharing reviews for The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, Black Boy Out of Time by Hari Ziyad, the March comic trilogy written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, as well as my currently-reading thoughts on Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and my reading plans for March! Cheers!

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

I am currently reading Giovanni’s Room, which is my second read of James Baldwin. This novel is shorter than I expected; I’m reading it from an anthology of Baldwin’s early works, and it’s only about 150 pages. I’m halfway through and I plan to finish it by the end of the month.

Giovanni’s Room is narrated by a white American man named David, who is visiting Paris and struggling with his sexuality. Although for most of his life he has maintained that he is a heterosexual man, after meeting an Italian named Giovanni in Paris, David grapples with his queer identity, both denying himself and giving into himself. As always, I’m blown away by Baldwin’s exquisite prose; there is something so captivating and atmospheric about his writing.

If you haven’t read James Baldwin, I highly recommend it! He is a truly amazing American writer.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

  • Fiction / Coming-of-age
  • Published 2020
  • 245 pages

“They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.”

After this solo opening line, The Death of Vivek Oji backtracks and offers the reader images of Vivek’s past—grandmother Ahunna, father Chika, mother Kavita—and how they came to be the family Vivek was born into, before Vivek was killed, body left wounded and stripped on the porch of their house. Shifting among points-of-view, from third-person to cousin Osita’s first-person, and even the intermittent and chilling beyond-the-grave sections from Vivek, the story gradually unfolds who Vivek truly was while alive, unbeknownst to the world, and the honest circumstances surrounding that young, untimely death.

Akwaeke Emezi’s prose is stunning to read, and I was so absolutely blown away by this work of fiction that I wrote an entire book review post, which you can read here. (Note: the bulk of my write-up contains spoilers, which I denote with a warning.) The story is inherently tragic and heartbreaking, yet beautiful and tender; parents devastated by the loss of their child, and a young person who is hiding their-self away from the cruelty of society. This novel interweaves themes of loss and grief, identity and sexuality, friendship and secrets. While at times uncomfortable, I felt incredibly affected by the story, and by the end I was crying bittersweet tears. I highly recommend this book!

Content warnings for this novel: homophobia, transphobia, moderate gore, sexual assault, incest, animal killing

Black Boy Out of Time by Hari Ziyad

  • Memoir
  • Published 2021; Release date March 1, 2021
  • 287 pages

More than a collection of memories, Black Boy Out of Time reads as a manifesto of Hari Ziyad’s ideologies and Inner Child work. Ziyad grew up in Cleveland, Ohio with eighteen siblings and parents with differing spiritual beliefs. Although Ziyad’s parents raised them to be discerning of authority and understanding that their physical form is merely a representation of their soul, Ziyad explains how their parents have had trouble accepting their queer identity and the “un-manly” behavior of not only Ziyad but their brothers as well. The memoir illustrates how so many people are susceptible to adopting our society’s deeply-ingrained attitudes, and Ziyad acknowledges their own skewed perceptions, including internalized racism. Working to deconstruct their memories and practice empathy towards the people previously vilified in their past mind, Ziyad takes a critical and important assessment of their life.

Moreover, Ziyad demonstrates how their own experiences parallel that of their larger carceral state, which prioritizes punitive consequences over genuine healing. Between each section, Ziyad includes a letter to their childhood self Hari-Guara, in a practice to reconnect with the version of themself which was prematurely sacrificed to a traumatic event. Introducing the term “misafropedia,” Ziyad writes about how Black children are rarely allowed to have a proper childhood because of society’s pervasive anti-Black attitude.

I really appreciate this memoir and I think Ziyad is successful in interweaving their own personal experiences with their criticism of our anti-Black, anti-queer carceral state, because the two are inherently related. Ziyad cannot just exist as a Black queer individual because the society around them will always project their prejudices upon them, and thus must actively work to un-learn this conditioning. Although at times Ziyad’s writing is a bit dense, the information is incredibly important. This is a very intelligent and critical memoir which manages to juggle several topics such as mental illness, faith, identity, sexuality, personal accountability, and human empathy.

Content warnings: racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual assault

March Trilogy written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, Illustrated by Nate Powell

  • Comics / Non-fiction
  • Book #1: Published 2013, 121 pages
  • Book #2: Published 2015, 179 pages
  • Book #3: Published 2016, 246 pages

Told from John Lewis’s perspective, these comics recount the Civil Rights Movement in U.S. and largely take place during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The narrative is framed by Lewis’s “present-day” attendance at the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barrack Obama, and his reflections take the reader back to his boyhood in Pike County, Alabama, where he grew up on a farm until he pursued an education and ultimately became instrumental in fighting against segregation. Very informative, the comics describe the work which went into organizing countless protests, from lunch counter sit-ins to the Freedom Riders, all leading up to the 1965 Voting Rights Act which was signed to end voter suppression.

The illustrations for this narrative were very impactful and the comic form was an intelligent decision in portraying the seethingly racist society of the mid-1900’s, during which Black citizens wouldn’t even be served a meal at a diner counter on account of their skin color, much less permitted to register to vote. Although I was under no illusions about this nation’s past, the content was still disturbing to see such unapologetic racism illustrated on the page.

While these comics are a great resource for understanding the Civil Rights Movement, I do believe that the ending of the third book was incredibly weak. The narrative ends on an underwhelming note which seemingly implies that racism has ended after all their hard work and the first Black president. On the last page, Lewis and an associate discuss their idea to make a comic, which comes off as cutely self-congratulating, and makes no indication of the racism and police brutality that has persisted since the Civil Rights Movement, much less the repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Rights Act. This was a huge missed opportunity to use the charged emotions towards the hardships of the past—after reading about all that hate and the milestone achieved in spite of it—to encourage Americans alive today to continue to fight for justice. The tone was almost willfully ignorant of the huge amount of work still necessary towards achieving racial equality in the U.S.

I’m certainly glad I read these comics though, and I think that they are very powerful in documenting this era of our history.

Content warnings: racist slurs, racist speech, police brutality, racist violence, bombings, hate crimes

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

  • Non-fiction / Speeches and essays
  • Published 1984 / Reprinted 2007
  • 190 pages

If you’ve never heard of Audre Lorde, know her now: she was a Black lesbian feminist poet who grew up in Harlem during the 1930’s and passed away of cancer in 1992. During her too-brief 58 years of life, she wrote, taught, and spoke on issues such as sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and how we each must look into and heal ourselves as best we can in order to better society as a whole.

Sister Outsider contains a medley of powerful works, including “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” and “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In another essay, she discusses raising her son as a lesbian, and another section records an interview between her and Adrienne Rich; Lorde writes of the uses of anger as a creative force and how she has learned how to love herself in order to better love and understand other Black women. This collection contains so many poignant reflections on intersectional feminism and commentary on a sexist and racist society that I feel this is a vital piece of work even decades after its initial publication.

Of the many passages I underlined, I would like to share a few:

-In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Lorde writes: “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying” (page 119).

-In “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” Lorde writes: “I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self… Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly ‘inferior’ capacity to feel deeply. But in this way also, men deny themselves their own essential humanity, becoming trapped in dependency and fear” (page 74).

-In “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Lorde writes: “America’s measurement of me has lain like a barrier across the realization of my own powers. It was a barrier which I had to examine and dismantle, piece by painful piece, in order to use my energies fully and creatively. It is easier to deal with the external manifestations of racism and sexism than it is to deal with the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and one another” (page 147).

Check out my The Death of Vivek Oji/Sister Outsider vlog on YouTube!

March is Women’s History Month! Similarly as I did for Black History Month, I will be reading exclusively female-authored books! Here are a few that are on my To-Be-Read shelf:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

After reading Transcendent Kingdom, I’m eager to read Homegoing, which was Gyasi’s debut novel. This book follows the generations stemming from two half-sisters born in different villages in eighteenth century Ghana and the vastly different fates of their lives and descendants. I’m expecting this to deal with generational trauma, so I have a feeling it will be hard-hitting.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Previously known only as Emily Doe, this memoir is Chanel Miller’s reclamation of her story as a survivor, a fighter, an artist, a writer, and a woman. I’ve heard so many amazing reviews of this book, and I cannot wait to read her empowering words, which promise to address the culture of sexual assault and the process of healing. Honestly, I’m expecting to cry with this one.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Set in Atlanta during the 1980’s, this novel focuses on a man named James Witherspoon and the two families he has formed separate from one another. When the two teenage daughters meet, only one of them knows their relation, which makes me anxious just thinking about! Turns out I love the “two sisters separated” trope, so I am really excited to read this one! Last year I read An American Marriage and enjoyed it, so I can’t wait to read this other novel by Jones.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert

Summary from Talia Hibbert’s website:

Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It’s time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she’s not entirely sure how…

Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.

Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.

  • Release date: March 9, 2021
  • Genre: New Adult Romance

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Summary from Goodreads:

In present-day Miami, Jeanette is battling addiction. Daughter of Carmen, a Cuban immigrant, she is determined to learn more about her family history from her reticent mother and makes the snap decision to take in the daughter of a neighbor detained by ICE. Carmen, still wrestling with the trauma of displacement, must process her difficult relationship with her own mother while trying to raise a wayward Jeanette. Steadfast in her quest for understanding, Jeanette travels to Cuba to see her grandmother and reckon with secrets from the past destined to erupt.

From 19th-century cigar factories to present-day detention centers, from Cuba to Mexico, Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt is a kaleidoscopic portrait of betrayals–personal and political, self-inflicted and those done by others–that have shaped the lives of these extraordinary women. A haunting meditation on the choices of mothers, the legacy of the memories they carry, and the tenacity of women who choose to tell their stories despite those who wish to silence them, this is more than a diaspora story; it is a story of America’s most tangled, honest, human roots.

  • Release date: March 30, 2021
  • Genre: Literary fiction / Saga

Red House Island by Andrea Lee

Summary from Simon & Schuster:

“People do mysterious things when they think they’ve found paradise,” reflects Shay, the heroine of Red Island House. When Shay, a Black American professor who’s always had an adventurous streak, marries Senna, an Italian businessman, she doesn’t imagine that her life’s greatest adventure will carry her far beyond their home in Milan to an idyllic stretch of beach in Madagascar, where Senna builds a flamboyant vacation villa. Before she knows it, Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and her connection to the continent of her ancestors.

At first, she’s content to be an observer of the passionate affairs and fierce rivalries around her, but over twenty tumultuous years of marriage, as she and Senna raise children and establish their own rituals at the house, Shay finds herself drawn ever deeper into a place where a blend of magic, sexual intrigue, and transgression forms a modern-day parable of colonial conquest. Soon the collision of cultures comes right to Shay’s door, forcing her to make a life-altering decision that will change her and Senna’s lives forever.

A captivating, powerful, and profoundly moving novel about marriage and loyalty, identity and freedom, Red Island House showcases an extraordinary literary voice and an extravagantly lush, enchanted world.

  • Release date: March 23, 2021
  • Genre: Literary fiction

Thank you so much for checking out my reading newsletter! To browse previous issues, check out the Bookish Brains page!

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