Category Archives: Reviews

Cover of Lazaretto by Diane McKinney Whetstone. Picture of a man and woman hugging each other.

Enough Hope to Last for a While: Review of Lazaretto by Diane McKinney Whetstone

Cover of Lazaretto by Diane McKinney Whetstone. Picture of a man and woman hugging each other.

I really wish I’d written this shortly after my last sweet moments with the book Lazaretto, by Diane McKinney Whetstone. I prefer writing through the satisfied haze of having just spent intimate time in a dream world where good character is rewarded and villains see just ends.

I read my first McKinney Whetstone novel twenty years ago, as she reminded her fans on her Acknowledgement Page. I owe my love for her, and for Black women’s fiction in general, to my mother- my other favorite writer and the woman who introduced me to Tumbling, a story with many threads that is ultimately about the way that a community comes together to heal in the wake of tragedy.

Lazaretto is also about a Black community in Philadelphia that, in the wake of President Lincoln’s murder, bands together to do what we do- find creative ways to survive white supremacy. But Lincoln and white racism are really tangential, as they are in most McKinney Whetsone’s novels. Like Toni Morrison, McKinney Whetstone usually writes whiteness as a troublesome spectre which black communities resist when it can’t be ignored. In this novel, the community becomes intimate with white, orphaned brothers who are in relationship with one of their own.

Hence, Lazaretto is a story about chosen kinship. It starts with two teen girls whose lives and prospects have seemingly been laid out for them before their births. Sylvia, who is training to be a nurse, has inherited her aspirations from her middle class family, though she rejects their prejudices. Meda, who is an indentured servant to a wealthy white lawyer, is pregnant with a child her exploiter has fathered. On the fateful night of their meeting, the lawyer has brought Meda to the nurse Sylvia works for to terminate a pregnancy that is already too far along. When he finds that the baby was delivered alive, he orders Sylvia to hand it over so that he can “handle the matter.” This is Sylvia’s first experience with the life-negating power of whiteness. Meda’s first child and Sylvia’s first delivery bind them in a moment of loss made more even more profound by news of the President’s murder.

What I found healing about this novel is the girls’ navigation of their own power to choose the love that heals in the aftermath of this brutality. Sylvia chooses a sister friend from the other side of the tracks (literally), a working class neighborhood her parents have forbidden her to visit. Meda chooses to care for two white infants at an orphanage near the midwife’s office. She also chooses to have a romantic relationship with the head of the orphanage, a woman who is both a Suffragist and Abolitionist. These choices (a reminder that power exists at multiple locations) help the girls thrive through years that unfold as their stories intertwine in thrilling ways.

PuddnheadWilsonCover. Picture of two identical white boys holding baskets.

My nerd self is most impressed by what seems to be a nod to Mark Twain. Puddn’head Wilson is a lesser known novel of Twain’s that was published during the period known as reconstruction. Roxy, a woman who is enslaved,  is carrying the plantation owner’s son (I am struggling with the language of parenthood that is so tied up in capitalist patriarchy). What I am trying to say is that plantation twins preceded what some folks derisively call “project twins” in that the owner’s wife and the people she legally owned were often carrying siblings. The system was brutal and I don’t want to make light of it here. But the wonder of this story is Roxy’s choice to switch the boys at birth. The “white” boy is raised as a slave while her own son is raised as a free white man. The results are as disastrous as the construct of whiteness. On the one hand, Twain could be read as illuminating this construct, which allows men to behave as animals with little consequence. On the other hand, Twain could be read as making the Birth of a Nation-ish argument that freedom is just damned dangerous in the hands of Black men.

Lazaretto has saved me from caring about these counter arguments as it presents a third way out for whiteness, a more hopeful imagining of what could happen when boys are disconnected enough from the inherited privileges of whiteness while in loving community with a Black woman. Loving a single Black woman isn’t enough for racial reconciliation or the overthrow of patriarchy. If it were, slavery wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did in this nation, as the sons of brutal men would have chosen their Black caregivers over their power. But when there is no power to be gained just by living long enough to become a man (oh how I love the Underground series on WGN for illuminating this truth)– when, in fact, the only love or sense of community you’ve ever known has been Black, then a person stands a chance at immunity to white supremacy. At least these characters do, and that’s enough hope to last me for a little while.

The House You Pass Along the Way– Something like a review

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.

Cover of Lyric and Blake with cartoon drawing of two black girls, one with long straight hair and the other with an afro and red-framed glasses.

Book review: Lyric and Blake

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”