is my list of summer reading. I am making my way through this list and re-reading some of the ones that I’ve already read. I’m so excited to begin this journey! I didn’t even know some of these stories existed. I’ve also followed this lead to this website, Sistahs on the Shelf, a hub for readers of black lesbian romance. And that’s where I found the author Kionne Nicole, whose book review was my first post on this blog. As my favorite poet has said, the world is round (and small).
So I wanted to jot down my initial thoughts about one of Jacqueline Woodson’s earlier YA novels so that I wouldn’t build up the type of pressure that tends to keep me away from the page for long periods of time. As my dissertation doula reminds me, I know enough about enough to have a meaningful experience with this book, with these characters, with Woodson’s project of making black girl lives known, of articulating the ways that selves are made.
I come to this coming of age novel as a formerly and sometimes chronically lonely black girl, much like the main character Staggerlee, unaware of the ways that my loneliness radiates as an unwillingness to connect. Words that are never spoken in this novel but that seem ever-present are depression and self-isolation. “Stuck-up-ness” is the way that fear manifests itself in a person who is trying to come off as brave, who is trying to figure out what the pieces of herself actually are even as she is labeled by others. It has been my own journey and it also seems to be the path that Staggerlee, the fourteen-yr-old queer and chronically lonely protagonist, is on. She gets her loneliness honest. She is a self-described “mixed up” girl raised by a white mother in a small black town. She feels tied to and protective of her mother’s whiteness even as she is haunted by her own Black grandparents’ racially motivated murders. Although the protagonist mentions that her mother took time to herself in a sad room after the birth of each new child, and even though the narrator describes her mother as sad and alone, she never labels her mother as a depressive. And I don’t know what that means to me except that without the label, there isn’t a cure. It is as if the mother and the adults and children around her have accepted her isolation as just “her way.” And her way is a sad one, one that Staggerlee seems to follow before the advent of a visit from a queer cousin who makes her feel connected to community again.
I think it’s important that the mother isn’t named a depressive because this is a book about intentional naming. Staggerlee has named herself after the trickster figure because her queerness (that she just knows will be unaccepted) has forced her to ponder the gray areas between right and wrong. As a biracial and queer child, Staggerlee can’t afford to think in black and white, especially when her self-image is so precarious. Precarious is actually a word that Staggerlee ruminates on in the beginning of the book. And Trout, a cousin and love interest, has also named herself. She’s chosen a fighter fish as a namesake for its will to live, for the wildness of its fight, for the way that it thrashes about even when the hook has wounded it. In a dark twist, she talks about fishing just to watch the fight. She has learned to dismiss guilt and accept the darkness of her desire to see a fish fight, but she internalizes the guilt of caring deeply for other girls. She has been sent to the country to become a “proper lady” because her adoptive mother does not like the tomboy dyke she is becoming.
And what to say about the relationship of these cousins? Staggerlee and Trout seem drawn to each others in ways that also evade the black and white of heteronormative kinship. They are family in the way that queer folks name and adopt each other, and they are family by law of adoption. However, their lack of blood ties or familial kinship (their parents haven’t spoken to each other in over twenty years; this is the first time they’ve met) makes this romantic friendship less than incestuous. Their love exists in the gray space of the narrator’s chosen name, neither “good” enough to be socially accepted or morally reprehensible. It’s just love unnameable and unnamed. Woodson, writing this YA novel in 1995, shows us the pain of carrying unnamable loves in the heart. Following the naming trope, she introduces Hazel, a love interest-turned-antagonist of/ to Staggerlee. The name strikes a chord for me because of my preoccupation with Gorilla, My Love, Toni Cade Bambara’s collection of short stories that features at least three stories about a protagonist named Hazel. Bambara’s Hazel would never do Staggerlee like Woodson’s Hazel did. Or would she? Hazel was a tomboy, a queer girl with no love interests (except for a fantasy about an uncle in the title story). In one story, a grown Hazel is also queer in the sense of Cathy Cohen’s queer black mother, but she also seems to favor an older, blind man. But even her planned seduction of this man (My Man Bovanne) seems more political than desirous. There is no passion for the man, no mention or expectation of Hazel’s sexual pleasure. In fact, all of Bambara’s Hazel stories are about a preoccupation with, a desire for, some thing that is just out of reach and attainable. Not a person. Is Bambara’s Hazel what queerness looks like without a love interest? Is Woodson calling that Hazel out? Are you, Hazel, as big and bad in the realm of romance as you are in a racist movie theater? I wonder. And I’d rather ask than make speculation. Woodson is alive, prolific, still writing, and reachable by email or social media. But the academy separates me from the texts I read and the hands that write them in ways that feel foreign to me. I am supposed to own my speculation that Woodson is even thinking about Bambara’s Hazel when it is easy enough to find out for myself if that’s true or not. I’m supposed to make an argument about the text that makes claims about but has little to do with the intentions of living, breathing, capable-of-explaining-her-own-damn-decisions author. And of course there are subconscious acts that happen in writing that even the best interviewer can not extrapolate from the source. Sure. But I hate the feeling I have when I think of this text, the way that I want to connect to the person who created the character, and the way that I feel weaker for needing/ wanting that connection. Surely, a “real” scholar would do something with these words, would make bold claims and wide leaps, would shift and shape my interpretations into a solid argument about something a disembodied text is doing with another disembodied text. And maybe I’m not a real scholar.
So I come to this novel as (just) another lonely, brown, queer girl, no credentials to speak of. Feeling fuzzy, warm feelings about a character I may have met in real life without ever knowing. Maybe it was Leslie, the girl I flirted with in elementary school who was quiet, who was beautiful, who was boyish, who was brave, who was quiet, who was beautiful , who I have sense found on Facebook, who is often suicidal, who is chastised by fundamentalist Christian family for the world to see, who is not helped, who will not reach back when I reach out, who was quiet, who was beautiful, who was boyish, who was brave. I hope that Staggerlee is not Leslie, hope that in Woodson’s mythical world where black girls find each other and become each other’s medicine even if only for a short while, Staggerlee fares much better. I hope her family will let her keep her brave differences, hope they will not shush that girl like black families are wont to do.
I have so much hope. Even though the last few pages of this novel broke my heart. I hope still.
But this is a book about more than loneliness.
So I’ve decided to share what I share about what I’m doing to keep me accountable to myself and to archive the thoughts I have about this yet-formless project. I shared this with a beautiful spirit I met on a dating website, so the person speaking is what Chris Rock would call my representative. She sounds so deep!
I don’t feel settled in Louisville. It feels like a place I’m from and I still feel some shock that I’m here again, especially that I’m living in my childhood home without my father. It’s a lot and I still have Atlanta in my heart, but I would have to do some real soul searching before I uprooted my daughter again. I’m in awe of her, that so much resilience is packed in that tiny body. But she’s also probably blissfully unaware. Lol. I’m in the English department at Emory University. I am coming up on year eight and it will be my last year… I’m writing about girlhood in black literature, looking specifically at black women’s novels, stories and memoirs of the early 70’s/ late 60’s. I just love that they used girl narrators to express their frustration with the project of America and the temporary salve of Black Nationalism, neither of which recognized their full humanity. In literature, the first person narrative is the best way to humanize a character and give [her] voice and interiority. So I’m just impressed with and in awe of the way these women waged war on the American imagination without even recognizing white Americans. They talked and wrote as if they would not ever get in trouble, as if they were speaking to a room of their very best girlfriends. The girls authored by those women (toni Morrison, toni case Bambara, nikki Giovanni, ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou) are teaching us a way to survive. That was a lot!
And then, to her question “why the 70s?”
Thank you so much! [My dissertation doula] will be a reader, but also an accountability partner. And I’m hoping she will hold my hand through hurdles and ask really good questions like the one you just asked. I’m interested in the literary moment, as it was the first time that so many black women were in print at the same time and the first time so many stories were told by little girls. Morrison says she wrote the Bluest Eye because she wanted to talk about the least heard, most ignored. I want to get in the archives and see the story it tells aboutt this moment. I’m especially interested in the story of Morrison publishing the works of her friends and living room community, people who laughed in her house and traded babysitting favors. Something about black interiority in times of great turmoil. My hypothesis is that the women gathered in mourning after the string of brutal FBI murders of high-profile movement folks, even if those gatherings weren’t physical but were spiritual, and that they turned to the children (narrators) for their hope and witness. I’m still in research phase, so I’m open to the hypothesis being proved false to make way for another kind of story about that moment. I’m also open to the project being more thematic than tied to a time period. Then I’d get to integrate some of the contemporary girlhood stories. Thanks for reading all of that and I’m so glad you see the love! That’s the most important piece for me.
My knee-jerk reaction to Lyric and Blake is disappointment that it is only a novella. My feelings are out of place, I know, as I’m not even a lucky member of this novella’s target audience. But I also can’t imagine a queer or questioning thirteen year-old girl who wouldn’t want more time with Lyric and Blake, wouldn’t need more time with this self-assured duo, their imperfect but well-intentioned mamas, and the “automatons” of Alcorn Junior High who both antagonize the duo and throw the beauty and strength of their friendship into sharp relief. Lyric and Blake reads like a daydream, a Black feminist, queer futurist musing on a scenario rendered impossible by time, space, and the many oppressions that threaten us all (we who were never meant to survive[i]): what if Audre Lorde and June Jordan had met in the seventh grade? What world could they have made together if their girlhoods had not been marked by isolation and the cruelty of adults? And although Lyric and Blake are not Audre and June, they are the “ones we’ve been waiting for[ii],” the girls they must have dreamed of as they did their work in the world. But I jump ahead of myself, as I am want to do when I project all of my hopes for a more livable life onto the metaphor of girlhood. In such a dream space, I miss the basics: that Kionne Nicole has composed snapshots of the seventh grade as seen through the eyes of Astin “Lyric” Boyd, a gender nonconforming pre-teen who is uncannily adept at coping with anxiety. Lyric has chosen Alcorn, a predominantly Black public school, over “The Ivy League,” a private school that she attended last year. It is here that she finds Blake, a best friend and ally against middle school cliques that ridicule their androgyny and find all manner of ways to throw jabs. What is clear from beginning to end is that Lyric prefers Black “phobics” to white faux-liberals, and this preference is at odds with her mother’s plans for her future. If we ever really listened to Black girls, we (adult eavesdroppers) would see Lyric’s choice as more than near-sighted. Rather, we would glean strength from the hope that Lyric and Blake have invested in their community, in their choice of messy kinship over the (empty) politeness of The Ivy League. If we listened to Black girls, we would also take note of Lyric and Blake’s necessary maroonage, especially their decision to start their own organization when existing structures no longer served them. Lyric and Blake calls us to an awareness of our subject positions as listeners. Who am I when I meet these girls? Who would I be if these girls were meeting me at their age? Because of this call to reflection, Lyric and Blake should be added to any young girl’s library of adolescent novels. For some girls, Lyric will be a light cast onto shadows—answering questions they’d never ask aloud about “those” girls. For others, Lyric will be an affirming mirror (with all the Hip Hop swag of the mirror that once called Slick Rick a conceited bastard). Still, for queer or questioning girls who identify as femme, Lyric might be a thorn in the side—a reminder that misogyny doesn’t only infect boys; when hurt, the lover you thought was a comrade in the gender wars will fall back on sexist truisms like the vagina as tuna fish or mother as “slimy bitch you came from.” If seventh grade is a microcosmic metaphor for our society, there is no space safe from misogyny, especially not the space of our colonized minds.
Kionne Nicole’s work is a reminder that girlhood exists in a space next to, but beyond, the relative safety of metaphor—a real space where queer girls are actually isolated and ridiculed, where adults who misunderstand gender expression or sexuality make cruel mistakes, where the faculty member you’d identified as an ally starts dating your mama. Girlhood is messy. Girlhood is cruel. Girlhood is an adrenaline rush that Lyric and Blake ride well, holding onto each other so as not to be swept away from what Black feminist evangelist Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls “the shoreline,” that space of presence and action to which our foremothers call us. It is appropriate, then, that Lyric and Blake begins with Lyric’s humorous girlhood angst about the “cool” way to answer such a call. When Lyric finally decides on a plain and glorious, “Here,” we should all begin to take note.
[i] From Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”
[ii] From June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women”