Girlhood friendship in Woodson’s “After Tupac and D Foster”

When I read If you come softly by Jacqueline Woodson back in spring, I was completely blown away by the beauty and the tragedy of it.  It’s a simple, lovely novel that has the power to change lives.  So really if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this review and go read If you come softly. You won’t regret it.   After reading it, I wanted to read every Jacqueline Woodson book I could get my hands on, so when I saw After Tupac and D Foster on my library shelf, I grabbed it right away.

Where If you come softly was a story about romantic love, After Tupac and D Foster is the story of three black girls who are best friends, Neeka, D and our narrator.  D mysteriously enters their lives the summer before they turn twelve and just as quickly leaves right after they turn 13.  Tupac plays an important role in the girls’ lives, with the book beginning when Tupac was shot for the first time and ending with his death.  D looks up to Tupac and she feels as though he is talking directly to her through his music.  They become closer friends through their passion for the musician and it gives the novel the perfect arc.

What I loved best about After Tupac and D Foster was the narrator and her voice.  She’s very mature, but not unbelievable, and she is just looking for a little bit of beauty in the world.  The novel captures an era and a place perfectly.  The love that the three girls share is so perfectly described, but it manages to be about bigger things than that.  It is a short book, but one that encompasses so many parts of life, from the challenges to the perfect moments.   I loved the inclusion of Tupac in this book because it puts it in a precise moment of time, New York in the 90s.  Tupac is a fascinating man and I highly recommend the VH1 documentary about his life.  There are so many things that I didn’t know about him, but having watched the documentary beforehand really gave me a greater sense of the emotional way that the girls reacted to Tupac and just how important he really was (and is).

But Woodson does not stop at the girls’ friendship or their relationship with Tupac.  There is so much more in this book and it’s amazing how much Woodson captures in 150 pages.  One of the most touching scenes is when the narrator and Neeka go visit Neeka’s brother Tash in jail.  He was wrongfully accused of assaulting an old friend, but really it was a crime against Tash, in which he was beaten as well.  Tash, a gay man, must avoid being beaten or worse in prison and he has a conversation with his mother that will absolutely break your heart.

“Why did you roam, though?” I asked.  Whenever D talked about her roaming, I always asked why.  I wanted to understand — deep — what it was like to step outside. […]

“Uptown they got those fancy buildings.  Out in Brooklyn they got those pretty brownstone houses.  West side got Central Park and people going all over the place in those bright yellow taxicabs.”  D looked at us and I knew a part of her knew how much me and Neeka lived for the rare moments when she showed us where she’d been and, by doing so, we got to go to those places too.

And then it made sense to me — crazy-fast sense in a way it hadn’t before.  D walked out of her own life each time she stepped into one of those other places.  She got off the bus or walked up out of the subway and her life disappeared, got replaced by that new place, those new strangers  — like big pink erasers.  Before me and Neeka started asking D about her life, we were erasers too — she got to step into our world with all the trees and mamas calling from windows and kids playing on the block, and forget (18).

And that is exactly what Woodson does for her readers.  You so perfectly step into this world, onto this  street and you are completely with the three girls that it does not feel like you are reading a story, it’s more real than that.  There are many other passages that I want to quote for you, but I think I’ll let you discover them for yourself.  Jacqueline Woodson has done it again and I plan on reading everything she has ever written, because if all her books are only half as good as If you come softly and After Tupac and D Foster then they will all be  excellent.

So go read  this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Also reviewed by: Color Online & The Happy Nappy Bookseller.

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Poetry Wednesday – Gloria Anzaldúa

Gloria Anzaldúa is the author of Borderlands/La Frontera, which was required reading for my Border Studies class, and it is a very interesting read that I highly recommend.  Anzaldúa is a lesbian chicana, born and raised in the United States and of Mexican descent.  Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is part memoir, part history book and part book of poetry.  I chose this poem because of the way it speaks frankly of a specific female experience.  This poem deals with many tragedies: from an accident that lead to disfigurement to sexual experiences to the births of children to the deaths of family members.  This poem is long, but rightfully so, as it chronicles an entire life through the eyes of a granddaughter.

Immaculate, Inviolate: Como Ella

She never lived with us
we had no bed for her
but she always came to visit.
A gift for m’ijita
two folded dollar bills secretly put in my hand.

I’d sit at her side
away from the bucket of
brasas
enveloped en el olor de vieja
watch her roll her Buglar
yellowed talons plucking tobacco
knotted fingers rolling it thin, thinner,
tongue gumming edge of paper
sealing it pinching the ends
stroking it before striking match on thumbnail
watch smoke escape between chapped lips
curl through her white hair and pink skull.
They said at sixteen it had turned white overnight.

My grandmother could not tolerate heat.
She kept well away from fires.
A long time ago she burned herself.
She’d bent over the belly
of her woodburning stove
had seen no glimmer of a spark
had heaved up a can of kerosene

propping the edge on her hip
and cradling it to her chest
she’d let a few drops fall
on the charred sticks.
An invisible spark ignited
shot up the spout into her windpipe,
boom.
It took my uncle a long time
to carry the buckets of water from the well
soak the blankets
wrap them around her.

Mamá, usted ya no puede quedarse aquí sóla.
They made her give up the ranchouse
photographs, books, letters, yellowing.
Armarios,
pantry closets looted
not growing under the covers.

She’d stay two weeks with one, two with another,
back and forth in her black dress
and with her thick
velices
white sweat streaks across her round back,
under arms.
She never stopped wearing
luto
first for my papagrande
who died before I was born
then for her brother
and, until she died elevel years ago,
she wore black for my father.
I didn’t go to her funeral
that too must have made her suffer.

Platícame del rancho Jesús María,
de los Vergeles, Mamagrande,
where I was reared.
Tell me about the years of drought
the cattle with hoof’n mouth
the rabid coyotes.
And as she talked I saw her breathing in the fire,
coughing up sooty spittle
skin blistering, becoming pus
nerve endings exposed,
sweating, skin pallid, clammy
the nausea, the dizziness,
swelling to twice her size.

I watched the charred scars
on her throat and breasts
turn into parchment splotches
they catch the sheen of the coals
glow pink and lavender over the blue skin.
She’d felt numb, she told me,
her voice hoarse from the fire
or the constant cigarette in her mouth,
as though frostbitten.

Once I looked into her blue eyes,
asked, Have you ever had an orgasm?
She kept quiet for a long time.
Finally she looked into my brown eyes,
told me how Papagrande would flip the skirt
of her nightgown over her head
and in the dark takeout his
palo, his stick,
and do
lo que hacen los hombres
while she laid back and prayed
he would finish quickly.

She didn’t like to talk about such things.
Mujeres no hablan de cosas cochinas.
Her daughters, my
tías, never liked to talk about it —
their father’s other women, their half-brothers.

Sometimes when I get too close to the fire
and my face and chest catch the heat,
I can almost see Mamagrande’s face
watching him leave
taking her two eldest
to play with otherchildren
watching her sons y
los de la otra
grow up together.

I can almost see that look
settle on her face
then hide behind parchment skin
and clouds of smoke.
Pobre doña Locha, so much dignity,
everyone said she had
and pride.

____________________________________________________________

In class, we have often discussed what makes a poem a poem.  How many literary devices must your piece have to be considered a poem?  Do it just have to have lines that are broken in the middle?  While I definitely don’t think that is the case, this poem does read more like prose much of the time.  What I think makes this a poem are, of course, not the linebreaks, but instead the way in which this woman’s life and story are told through figure.  It is not “and then, and then, and then”, but rather a series of images that paint a complete portrait of Mamagrande.   Ipersonally love that this poem is bilingual, because it is an integral part of the speaker’s and the figure’s life.  Do you think this alienates readers? As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, what did you think of the Spanish parts of the poem?

Call me Zits in Sherman Alexie’s Flight

Sherman Alexie is one of those authors that everyone loves and for good reason.  He’s ambitious, witty, fearless and unbelievably creative.  I’ve been interested in picking up more of his books recently, especially after reading and loving The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianTen Little  Indians and some of Alexie’s poetry last year.  I’ve also been listening to Nancy Pearl’s podcasts on my commute and one of her older archived interviews was with Sherman Alexie right after he published Flight, which is, as far as I can tell, one of his least popular books to date.  It did not sell well and has received very mixed reviews.  Something about the way Alexie talked about his narrator Zits really made me want to read it and I suggest everyone go watch the video!  If that doesn’t make you want to read Flight, I’m not sure what will.

“Call me Zits,” the novel begins, introducing us to one of the most original narrators I’ve read in a long time.  He’s a half-white-half-indian teenager who has been wronged by life, a not uncommon tale, of an absent father and a loving mother who dies when Zits  is young, forcing him into an uncertain life going from foster care family to foster care family.  After one particular incident with a new foster care family, Zits is arrested and while in jail he meets Justice.  Justice convinces him that he can bring his mother back, but only if he kills someone in a revenge murder.  So Zits shoots up a bank and is killed by a police officer, dying immediately.

But that’s not where Zits’s story ends, that’s only where it begins.  As Alexie explains in the video, he becomes “unstuck in time” like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, going from one moment in American history to the next.  At each moment, he experiences a revenge killing of sorts, making him relive the moment when he made the decision to shoot the bank.  Zits inhabits the body of all sorts of men and boys throughout history – men who betray their wives, soldiers who betray their army, even a little boy who is asked to do an unspeakable thing.  Each time he feels the guilt multiplied until he cannot understand making that decision over and over and over again.

One thing I think is clear from reading Flight is that we are all capable of revenge.  It can be a small thing, it does not have to be as big as murder, but that is a human feeling.  It does not matter what race you are or what gender you are or what age you are.  It is a powerful human emotion that can make anyone do something they will regret.  Zits’s story ends well, at least he tells us it does.  We are left at the end, unsure of what to believe or knowing what was real.  In the end, though, it does not matter if it was real or all in Zits’s head.  It does not matter if he killed in 2007 or the 1970s or the 1700s, or if he killed at all.  What is important is what he learned along the way – the danger of exacting revenge for something that no one could stop and the ability to forgive.  At least we hope he learned something.

Alexie, through Zits, provides so many insights that make Zits completely believable as a character, such as:

And then it’s the white kid and me.

He sits on the floor at one end of the cell.  I sit on the floor at t he other end.  He stares at me for a long time. He’s studying me.

“What are you looking at?”  I ask.

“Your face,” he says.

“What about my face?”

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” he says.  “They got all sorts of medicine now.  I see it on TV.  They got miracle zit stuff.  Clear your face right up.”

I’ve seen those commercials too.  The ones where famous people like P. Diddy and Jessica Simpson and Brooke Shields talk about their zits and how they got cured by this miracle face cream made from sacred Mexican mud and the sweet spit of a prom queen.  And, yeah, I’d love to buy that stuff, but it costs fifty bucks a jar.  These days, you see a kid with bad acne, and you know he’s poor.  Rich kids don’t get acne anymore.  Not really.  They just get a few spots now and again. (21)

This novel is so unique, drawing on influences from literature and popular culture, but making it into a completely original story that encompasses many aspects of our culture in one short novel.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: Bibliofreak.

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TSS: Some serious thoughts

It has been an interesting week, both in blogging land and in my personal life with the start of a new semester and it seems that I really have had a lot to think about.  I’ve been somewhat silent on many of the issues at hand, at least on my blog, I have been vocal in the comments, but it is important to me to publicly say what I think, because adding one more voice to the crowd is important.

There is first, of course, the question of whitewashing on book covers.  Magic Under Glass is a book I have not read, but it is clear that Bloomsbury made another big mistake.  I do not condone this and while I will not be boycotting the publisher (though I completely support those who are), I want to make it very clear that this is not okay.  It is completely unacceptable and I have a responsibility, as a reader, a reviewer, a purchaser of books, to make it clear to all publishers that yes, I (a white, middle class 20-something) will read and review and love books by POC.  This is not about liking a book just because an author has skin darker than mine, because no, I will not like every single book by or about a POC that I read and I will be completely honest about that, because to do anything less would be just as bad.  This is about reading about and becoming aware of  different cultures, and trying to understand.   With understanding, comes respect.  Thankfully, the blogging world is quick to respond to such things, and several new resources have arisen in the past week to help readers like me, who want to diversify their reading and make a point to put POC authors and books about POC characters in the spotlight.

Readers Against Whitewashing
Diversify Your Reading
POC Reading Challenge

Join one, join two, join three.  Or don’t join any, but do something if this is important to you.  Because no matter how small your voice is, and I know that in this big publishing world my voice is very small, you have the opportunity make someone listen.  So take advantage of that, use your blog for good.

But it is not all about POC.  It is about reading books that make a difference.  No, reading is not always about making a statement, but sometimes it is.  Why was I embarrassed when I was reading Twilight in public?  Why are some adults embarrassed to be reading a young adult book in public?  Because the book you choose to read says something about you, it informs the observer about you, whether you like it or not.  It just might get someone else reading the same kinds of books you are.   Not every single book I choose to read will make a difference, but I should make a point to tell you about the ones that will.  That is my philosophy and that is what I plan to keep doing this year.  One of my new years resolutions was to use the reading challenges I have joined (Women Unbound, GLBT Challenge, POC Reading Challenge) to make my reading more diverse and to raise awareness about people and cultures and issues that are different from my own.  Or even to explain, in the best way I know how, things that make my experience unique: by giving you a book to read.

Other thoughts on Magic Under Glass: Chasing Ray, Reading in Color, Color Online, 1330v.

Thoughts on the publisher’s decision about Magic Under Glass: Chasing Ray, Reading in Color, Color Online.

More thoughts on diverse reading: A Striped Armchair, Shelf Love.

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In other news, I have some giveaways to announce the winners of!  Chosen by random.org:

The winner of René has two last names/René tiene dos apellidos by Rene Colato Lainez is:

EMILY!

The winner of Under the Ceiba by Silvio Sirias is:

SOFT DRINK!

The winner of a button from The Strand New York is:

ASH!

Email me your addresses to regularrumination@gmail.com and they will be on their way!