Tag Archives: racism

‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vignes sisters, light skinned black twins, will always be identical but their lives take very different turns because of the choices they make. They live in a small southern black community until at a young age, and after a devastating trauma,  the sisters run away together to New Orleans.

Ten years later, one sister, Desiree, lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape, and the other, Stella,  secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. She also has a daughter. With the next generation, the cousins–one black, one white–look nothing alike, yet are inextricably linked.

This story is an exploration of racism and the American history of ‘passing’ which I must admit I knew very little about. The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. A unique story of family, relationships, and identity, this would be a great book club read. Not surprisingly, there is an HBO series in the works.

I struggled with my feelings while reading this book. Was the story breaking any kind of anti-racist ground or was it just reinforcing stereotypes? I was reading it right after all of the anti-racist protesting worldwide and watching the series Little Fires Everywhere (performances by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington enhance the reading of Celeste Ng’s novel). As I was researching, I ran across this enlightening piece by Lila Shapiro. It was profoundly helpful and I found that it articulated exactly what I was feeling conflicted about. For the full article click here:

“In the most famous stories about passing, Bennett points out, the protagonists ultimately face society’s reckoning. But Stella is never found out. Instead, she suffers from something more subtle and enduring — the hollowing out of the self. Bennett was interested in passing because of how it both exposes and strengthens the artifice of race. “On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?” she asks. ‘On the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.'”

 

‘Small Great Things’ by Jodi Picoult

small-great-thingsstarstarstarstar“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Martin Luther King

Small Great Things is vintage Picoult–suspense, empathy, and humour used to great effect. Picoult doesn’t stray much from her usual formula. She typically examines an issue from all angles with the use of multiple character voices, creating tension around a conflict, moral dilemmas, and possible outcomes. Why change a  highly effective strategy if it results in an engaging novel? Even though I find some of her writing a bit cliché she does her research well and I have found all of her novels to be ‘page-turners-plus’, evoking reflection and good discussion as well as being a compelling read. Her books are perfect for book clubs. It is obvious that she is very passionate about this particular topic which has resulted in a very good story and a very important conversation about race, prejudice, privilege, and justice.

The novel deals with racism, white supremacy, and hate crimes in the United States. Because of the prevailing political climate in the US surrounding the last election, this is a timely topic indeed and feels very close to current events. The story begins when a white couple have their first baby in hospital and refuse the care of a black neonatal nurse. A tragedy ensues, setting off a legal battle full of courtroom drama.

Picoult gives voice to three people who round out the story: the black nurse, the white supremacist, and the defence lawyer. Picoult humbly points out that no matter how non-racist some white people may feel they are, racism is still rampant in North American society. She digs deep to discover and reveal painful truths such as how much easier it is for bad white people to hide behind the colour of their skin, than for good people of colour to be regarded as good.

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahstarstarstarChimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 but has lived and worked in the US. Her book Half of a Yellow Sun was a masterpiece about the Biafran war. As an “American African” (a distinction she makes from “African American”), she has a foot in both worlds and is good at capturing the nuance of racism in America. This book, although it is fiction, has a very personal feel to it, including some stories that she may very well be gleaning from her own experience. There are amazing snapshots of her Nigerian home country. Having lived for many years in a few African countries myself, I can relate to her descriptions and recognize her character types. Her book is full of insights about racism which she first encountered when she moved to the US. Her character Ifemulu says, ” I only became black when I came to America.”

Ifemulu and Obinze fall in love in Lagos when they are both teens. In Nigeria, at that time, there was a continual striving to move out to Western countries, and both achieve this at different times. But their relationship suffers when they are parted and both establish their own lives until they meet again, after many years. Ifemulu is still the gutsy outspoken unique woman that Obinze remembers, and Ifemulu realizes too late that Obinze was always the love of her life. What happens when Ifemulu returns to Nigeria and they meet again, is best left to the reader. This is a slow and thoughtful book and though the story is enjoyable, at times I felt a bit more plot would have made it even more compelling. The strength lies in the observations she makes and the eloquence with which she makes them. I especially enjoyed the section where she comments on the Obama presidential campaign.

‘Mudbound’ by Hillary Jordan

MudboundstarstarstarstarAn edgy and compelling story of Henry McAllen and his wife Laura as they try to build a living out of the muddy fields in the Mississippi Delta in 1946. Henry loves the land but Laura has to endure the hardships of living with no indoor plumbing or electricity and extreme isolation when it rains and the bridge to town becomes impassable. All this might even be bearable if it wasn’t for Henry’s hateful racist father who lives with them. There are reverberations of the Second World War when sons return home with demons of their own. It is the friendship of these brothers-in-arms that sets the stage for tragedy and the brutality of prejudice in the deep south. The story, told in riveting personal narratives, had me hooked immediately ( it starts off with the digging of a grave) and I had a hard time putting it down. My only criticism would be that the characters are static and don’t develop much. The stuff that happens just happens, there is little growth because of what the characters go through.

 

Barbara Kingsolver, a well respected author, endorses the book and was a support to Jordan in the writing of it.  This was Hillary Jordan’s first novel.  It was written in 2008 and I don’t know how it never came across my radar before. She wrote another in 2011 called ‘When She Woke‘ which reviewers have called provocative and a good choice for book club type discussion. I do look forward to reading it and hope to post on it soon.