THE COLOR OF LAW: The Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America

coloroflaw

book by Richard Rothstein

annotation by Angela Bullock

There is a historical narrative I’ve always interpreted as true. In it the Southern States played the role of the evil ones while the Northern States played the role of the good guys. I came of age clinging to the notion that Southern Whites and their state governments were to be feared while Northern Whites and their state governments were liberally righteous in their fair minded measured approach to race relations. It is painful to have such a late awakening to the insidious facts. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is just that—a late awakening.

Race has always been a chip played for gain in our Democracy. A pawn on the chessboard, used to keep the Union appeased and unified. The progress of African Americans has been in part held hostage to a larger political game.

The evidence that my thinking was flawed has always been there. Historically, all States were run by the inheritors of European settlers—save for the period of reconstruction when the South was forced to share power. Still, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow with its blatant terroristic tactics, encouraged a continued belief in this original and more traditional narrative. Alas, the world is far more complicated than a young woman’s fantasy.

On a level of craft, The Color of Law is a well-researched textbook detailing the inherent biases found in American housing practices. Using examples of deliberate social practices as well as legislation, Rothstein explains why and how American cities and towns continue to remain segregated.  My hope is that his book becomes a standard for the continued examination of a set of systems put in place to perpetuate African American disenfranchisement.

Beginning with a description of segregated San Francisco, each of the twelve chapters focuses on a different aspect of the organization of segregation fostered by local, state and the federal government alike.

I take these revelations personally. Because I knew it was the Federal government that fought to enact civil rights then voting rights and finally anti discriminatory housing policies in the form of the Fair Housing Act, I always sided with the U.S. Government over the argument for States Rights. It was the racist practices of the Southern States that subjugated people of color. They were the villains. However, Rothstein’s research puts a lie to the narrative that institutional racism was the exclusive province of southern states.

Each chapter reveals a well-researched litany of rules, ordinances, laws and behaviors, which I define as the practices of exclusion. They included but were not limited to restrictive covenants, redlining, discriminatory lending and white flight. Many of them were unspoken social contracts which resulted in keeping white neighborhoods homogeneous while perpetuating the continued isolation of African Americans. These practices of exclusion resulted in the limiting of educational opportunity and the overall stagnation of economic upward mobility.

***

People have an ability to exist and move forward despite blatant discriminatory practices. I do remember over hearing the talk of death threats our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Grant received when they attempted to purchase a Levittown home. The Grant’s were two of the day people I describe in my memoir. Devoid of the insidious pathologies that inflicted some public housing families, when they escaped the projects, it was to a brownstone purchased in all black Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn.

Though they didn’t talk about it with their children, my parents must have known. Having left Jim Crow behind, perhaps they were simply satisfied with the housing accommodations made available to them. They certainly accepted those accommodations. So, I don’t know what my parent’s felt at the time. However it is the laws on the books they didn’t know were there, the secret agreements between financial institutions and business establishments, the places of employment set up to exclude them and other subtly coded racist practices that catches me in the throat. These facts create a queasiness in me now, years later, merely for being so naive.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” gives a very informative overview of these practices. However, the uniformity and pervasiveness illustrated in Rothstein’s tome is enough to justify the general belief in popular African Americans conspiracy theories, like the U.S. Government’s spread of crack cocaine and HIV/AIDS within black communities in order to keep Black people down.

And yet the more I examine the disparate confluence that make up American society, the more I understand this democracy to be—as many others have noted—simply an ongoing experiment. That Jefferson’s words  “We hold these Truths to be self evident that all (men) are created equal…” is nothing more than a fragile ideal. One that we citizens will keep attempting and failing to attain.

Whether FDR, the Father of the New Deal, was himself a racist believer in white supremacy, a gifted and pragmatic politician and public servant or some combination of both is beside the point. The results of the laws and practices he and many others promulgated have fostered a huge gap in financial prosperity and resources within our society. It has affected levels of education, incarceration and the overall well-being of an entire subsection of the American populous. Yet there’s an irony as well, that since emancipation and despite the pervasiveness of the practices of exclusion, the United States has made real and demonstrable progress. The Ideal is far from reached but incrementally sought.

I’m finally letting go of the narrative that the southern half of the United States is uniquely responsible for American race relations. Politicians compromise, collude and compete with one another. Roosevelt’s challenges are today echoed in the revisionist policies of Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

I am conflicted concerning Rothstein’s mitigation of his facts. On one hand I wanted to feel the author’s righteous anger at the injustices he so well illustrates. I believe, however, that the neutral academic tone of his work will prove itself useful as America continues to have difficulty confronting race and privilege. Despite this point, The Color of Law is an important addition to the confusing, convoluted mosaic of what, who, and how our experiment in democracy has developed and continues to evolve.

 

Advertisements

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

51UDoK1rjTL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

book by Carol Rifka Brunt

annotation by Douglas Menagh

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is a coming of age story about June Elbus, a 14 year old high school girl living in upstate New York. The novel takes place in 1987, just as her beloved uncle, a painter named Finn Weiss, is dying from AIDS. Following Finn’s death, his partner Toby connects with June. Although distrustful of Toby at first, June soon develops a connection with Toby. The two help each other cope with and heal from the loss of Finn. Eventually, June and Toby develop a friendship in their own right.

What is beautiful about Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the way Carol Rifka Brunt presents June’s character arc. This is a story about how the loss of Finn brings Toby into June’s life and how that friendship affects her development. While June is skeptical about Toby at first, she grows to love him because she finds that the characteristics of Finn live on through his partner. This causes June to wonder, “What if everything I loved about Finn had really come from Toby?” (148). June realizes that Finn had adopted the behavior of Toby because they cared for each other and emulated one another. June experiences this first hand in her relationship with Toby. By caring for him, she picks up some of his habits and evolves as a character. On her own transformation because of Toby, June reflects, “And right then it was almost impossible to believe that there was a whole other me, who drank Volcano Bowls and smoked cigarettes and took care of people who used to be strangers” (286). Brunt demonstrates through character arc that, despite loss, loved ones live on by passing along their characteristics.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home affected my own understanding of who my characters are and how to create their arc. The growth of characters through personal loss was very useful to me when I was writing about grief in my own coming of age novel. My novel is about a family grappling with the death of a father and the resulting loss of each member’s identity in the wake of the loss. The characters in my book began to imitate the qualities and characteristics of their lost loved one. Through this process, they were able to regain a sense of self and become who they were always meant to be.

June’s character is revealed wonderfully through the first person. She is a deep and complicated character, though introverted. June loves medieval times, and this pining obsession for a world now gone colors her perspective. “The Cloisters are the best because they’re like a piece of another time right at the top of Manhattan. And I’m not just saying that. They’re actually made of huge chunks of French medieval monasteries that were shipped to New York and stuck together” (64). The way June sees life gives the book elements found in lyrical fantasies and builds the world in the novel. Her longing for the medieval world correlates with her pursuit of traces of her lost uncle. June’s connection to medieval times helped me understand my own characters’ affinity to history and how nostalgia plays a role as a coping mechanism in dealing with loss. I found this useful as a writer because the characters in my own novel feel nostalgia for other time periods just like they do for loved ones now gone. This book made me realize that there is a connection between longing for a place in time and longing for a person.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home was informative of my own process in writing a work of fiction about characters coping with loss and overcoming grief. June’s transformation and the change in her worldview influenced how my own characters heal and come of age. June discovers that Finn lives on in the present through the loved ones still alive. Later on, June says, “I didn’t know what Toby was trying to do at first, but I took a long slow breath of his coat and there, like, magic, was Finn. The exact smell of Finn” (273). This perspective showed me the way my characters could also cope and heal from their loss. By discovering ways in which loved ones live on in the present, my characters were able to heal in dramatic and unexpected ways.

 

 

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

saramego

Book by Jose Saramago

Annotation by Mary Kay Wulf

When I read my first novel by Jose Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I was intimidated by his block style, his sentence structure, and his original, spare use of punctuation. In an interview he recommends reading his work aloud to catch his rhythm and understand his meaning. It works for me, especially in the speeches. The lack of stops and white space on the page eliminates the dead air and elevates the language. It also increases dramatic tension and forces the reader to pay closer attention to what is being said by whom. Once I’m well into the novel and know the characters, I don’t have to reread the passages of dialogue as often to determine who is saying what to whom.

In this novel, I admired the author’s use of unlimited omniscience. It is ironic, reliable, fluid in time and space, and extremely complex. First, there is the author who makes himself known particularly through his religious and political views, then there is the narrator who, I assumed was also Saramago, who has, for this story, resurrected the famous Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa, who, upon his death in 1936, lures to Portugal, one of his heteronyms, the poet and doctor, Ricardo Reis. Pessoa appears to Reis much like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “doomed for a certain time to walk the night,” and mostly dispenses advice on life before it is Reis’s turn to die. When the reader is presented with Reis’s sexual and physical humiliations, the POV is extremely and effectively intimate.

In regards to the roles of the two women in the novel, I thought in a large sense they represented the mystery of their sex in the eyes of the two poets. Both Reis and Pessoa claim to be frightened of women. Reis, the more experienced of the two, describes women as “an enigma, a labyrinth, a charade.” Throughout, Reis is inept in the role of seducer and refuses to claim paternity when he impregnates his hotel’s maid, Lydia. Undaunted, she appears to be the wisest and most genuinely alive character in the novel especially in light of her hard, impeccable work, the Lydia poems which Reis/Pessoa have devoted to her, and her refusal to accept Portugal’s hideous political alignment with Hitler in the days before the outbreak of WWII. Reis travels to the circus of Fatima to search of Marcenda, a much younger, wealthy, aristocrat. He fails to find her and departs before the closing ceremony in honor of the other virgin, the Virgin Mary. His humiliation is painful and yet the reader detests his and the Church’s class-consciousness. Marcenda’s infirmity seems to mirror her sterility as a member of the Catholic upper class, those who support Germany and the regime of Franco in Spain. Reis imagines Marcenda lifting her right arm in the “Roman salute.” Her paralyzed arm may represent Portugal.

This novel is so beautifully crafted. The author employs as his protagonist, Reis, the frail creation of a dead, revered poet (Passoa) and then gives him a brief life after Passoa’s death in order that he may fall in love and discuss with both the living and the dead, the state of this world and the next. It’s crazy original. Now I feel I must read the work of Pessoa. I also enjoyed the wealth of cultural and literary references, although it was Richard, not Henry, who offered to trade his kingdom for a horse. Or was it Reis beginning to lose his memory?

I want to address the statement made by the narrator in reference to the struggle between the classes. There are many of these but the one in reference to the wealthy eating figs is particularly memorable because it follows the scene in which Lydia serves coffee to Reis and Marcenda and points up Lydia’s position as only a chambermaid. The narrator states that, “The rule is that some eat figs while others watch.” It reminded me of a line delivered by Addie in the play, The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. It reads, “Well, there are people in the world who eat the earth and eat all the people on it…. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.” As writers, we must observe in order to write, but the act of writing is participatory. I believe Saramago’s novel is certainly an act of protest. Against what? That, I think, would require a volume in itself. Political issues are pervasive throughout the novel: imperialism, socialism, nationalism, and communism to name a few. Throughout the novel, whenever Reis attaches himself to a mob, whether it has gathered for religious, political, or celebratory reasons, he is hurt physically and psychically.

Regret, too, is a prominent theme throughout. Pessoa laments the “tug of war between memory that pulls and oblivion that pushes…” And in the end, “the world forgets everything.” “In every age we find reasons to go to war.”

I was struck by the title and its significance. Halfway through the book, I turned it over to read the cover again, hoping the word “Death” wasn’t there. As maddening as Reis is, his frailty and foolishness are universal. I felt only pathos. Passoa, Lydia, and the reader love him in spite of his faults, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t exist. As childish as it seems, I thought if anyone could rescue a doomed man, it was Lydia. Silly, I know. But that was what kept me reading. Hope.

South of Resurrection

 

resurrection

book by Jonis Agee

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Before I sign up for a workshop or class with any writer, I always read at least one of her books. If she has multiple novels, I choose the one that has some element similar to what I’m doing with my own writing. I selected South of Resurrection by Jonis Agee because it is in a rural setting with characters who are not wealthy; these are the people of my childhood. The characters also battle nature and a history of racism; this has been the chaos of my adulthood.

Immediately, Agee sets the stage with a place where the narrator, Moline, will experience turmoil. After 23 years away, Moline returns to her home town of Resurrection, “the sort of no-count, nowhere place … [that] could not be revived to a bedraggled glory” (1). The character’s musing about the place establishes her as an outsider who only crawls back home because she is broken and has no place else to go. The tension created between person and place makes the town of Resurrection a character in the novel, one that wreaks havoc on numerous relationships, not just on Moline’s. I want to make the setting of my novel come to life in that same way.

The character of Resurrection intensifies as the region experiences weather extremes. In the middle of a conversation with her childhood friend, Titus, who is the town’s preacher at the black church, Moline notices the “steady darkening of the sky from the clouds bellying up against the hills … the hollow went dim and smoky as if there were a fire just beneath the scattered pine needles and last year’s leaves underfoot” (180). The foreboding weather precedes a warning to Moline from Titus’s wife; she wants Moline to leave and take the trouble she’s stirring up with her.

Agee’s use of colloquialisms, gives Moline a distinct voice, representing the Ozark region in its glory and gloom. Early in the first chapter, one of the essential themes surfaces in the line, “Dreams hunkered down, refusing to be driven out” (3). Initially, Moline is critical of others and clearly indicates her stay is temporary. She mocks them, increasing the tension between herself and the people of Resurrection. She is clearly trying to avoid returning to some conflict from her past. But it is inevitable. She characterizes her attraction to Dayrell, “like going underwater, the sinking inside, all the resistance going away, the weight overhead insistent as a hand pushing me down” (231). In a town this small, she cannot avoid him, the man she once loved.  Or his horrible brother, McCall. This antagonist has no redeeming qualities, according to Moline. She looks at him with “the numb panic of the frog when it sees inside the dark of the snake’s open jaws” (185). But he is as complex as the other characters, manipulating his brother and charming the women of Resurrection out of their land, money, and dreams. He is a predator and Agee develops him with grace.

In spite of strong opposition from her own cousin, Pearl, Moline eventually tries to establish new dreams in Resurrection. With the help of several formidable female characters, including Great Aunt Walker and the sometimes weak, Lukey, Moline faces the abusive men and capitalist intrusion with resilience and determination. Agee has a cast of complex people who are damaged by their families’ past but determined to change the community into what they think is best for everyone.

Agee also uses detailed descriptions of furniture, buildings, and the natural surroundings to parallel the torment each character experiences. Moline helps her Aunt Walker and Uncle Able at their hotel, one that “even the special viciousness of raiders and occupying armies could not put an end to, that even the dying-out Rains family would not allow to expire, a hotel that housed not only the racial history of this town, but also the story of everyone and everything in its museum. If there was anything permanent at all, it was the Rains hotel” (212). This parallelism is effective at contrasting the weary tone Agee creates to portray the people and the land triumphant.

There are religious undertones scattered throughout the story as well; it is to be expected in the South. One character is a preacher and several are clearly God-fearing, Bible-beating, devout believers. In sharp contrast, Moline is skeptical and denies any belief. “Praying hadn’t worked before …God and I hadn’t been on speaking terms since I left Resurrection. No reason to think He was even listening anymore. It just seemed like one of the things you try when you hear the sounds of the well being capped above you” (169). Until she decides that she wants to hang on to her tumultuous relationship and remain attached to the dysfunctional community she is determined to protect.

Most prominently, this is a haunting novel, where a present-day mystery in the town is clearly connected to Moline’s dark past, the reason why she scurried out of Resurrection at sixteen and never looked back. With this added layer of conflict, Agee established the need for me to keep reading, turning each page looking for answers and hoping for resolution. It is not a fairy tale ending, but there is satisfaction in what she leaves unresolved.

Wylding Hall

514MoYIWDlL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_

 

book by Elizabeth Hand

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I got a glimpse of Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall last summer at Readercon, and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. Of course, life being life and work being work, I didn’t get to it until just last month. But the moment I opened it, I tore through.

Told in a collage format reminiscent of a rockumentary, Hand introduces us to a variety of characters with distinct voices: from the band’s manager with his outside view of things to Lesley, the sole American in the group, who is deeply enamored of the elusive and beautiful lead singer, Julian. The band has been sent to a remote manor, Wylding Hall, to record an album. The desire to remove them from all distractions and the remote nature of the manor itself creates a hyper-awareness in the summer’s observers and the variety of points of view builds its own tension as each character refers in bits and pieces to what is to come. “That’s why it was so strange about the girl.” The story is told to us in pieces, each character’s strong distinct viewpoints affecting his and her reliability in the matter. We are given bucolic surroundings and Hand creates the manor itself with mysterious twists and turns in such a tangible sense that the reader is left standing there, experiencing each moment.

Sometimes individuals have broken out into their own scenes, but often not. In the case of one beautiful afternoon in which the album’s greatest hit is recorded and a photograph is taken that will weave throughout the rest of the book, Hand gives us all of the points of view in each moment. She creates a multi-dimensional image filled with so many different kinds of want and different takes on one very specific scene, that it crackles throughout its recounting with mounting tension. The weaving of these tellings, back and forth in their own rhythm, evoke a dreaminess as well as a creepiness, as we are certain something will happen. This is storytelling at its most expert; as a reader you cannot help but surrender.

The world of the manor itself, with its shifting halls and curious encounters weaves its own mystery and fear. We know we are in the middle of the English countryside somewhere and the reader feels as cut off from the outside world the band. In this concrete space of beautifully described rooms and edges, Hand gives us turns and stairwells and “don’t go in there!” in a wonderfully creepy and unpredictable way. It’s a good reminder of how important specific, sensory physical description is in the paranormal. And it is quite lovely to feel in such good, certain hands when a supernatural tale is being woven.

Hand deftly invents an imaginary album and in the yearning descriptions of all of her characters and brings it to life.  Each of them, from a different perspective tries to describe the magic of that one album. By the end of it, the reader yearns to hear it, but also somehow has a grasp on its ineffable quality.

Will Fogerty (rhythm guitar, fiddle, mandolin) reflects:

I’ve never known anything like it. Music, it’s always hard to describe, isn’t it? You can describe what it’s like to hear a song, how it makes you feel, what you were doing when you first heard it. And you can describe what it’s like to write it, technically, and how to play it—the chord changes, slow down here, pick it up here. A Minor 7, C Major.

But this—this was different. It’s a cliché to say something’s like a shared dream, like a movie or a concert—you know…

This wasn’t like a dream. It was like being lost; not in the dark, but in the light. Blinding sun through the windows and that fug of smoke from cigs and spliffs, motes in the air like something alive, atoms or insects all silver in the smoke. You couldn’t see to find your way;’ we couldn’t even see each other’s faces, it was so bright and so much smoke. You could only hear the music, and you followed that. Lesley’s deep voice and Julian’s sweet one, Jon grabbing the edge of his cymbal so you could hear only this thin, silvery sound. Ashton’s bass. Me and that mandolin I built from a kit; Les wailing until she nearly passed out.

The writing throughout is lovely while remaining completely economical. There is so much room for Hand to launch off into the lyrical, but she remains true to her characters and their specific feelings of nostalgia.

Despite its collage affect, or perhaps because of it, Wylding Hall hangs together of a piece. The rhythm of the cutting, the building of different tensions across stories from petty jealousies to disagreements over specific events, these are artfully measured and stitched together. The moment you open the book, you know you are in very good hands. As if taking a page from the narrative music of that period of folk rock, Hand creates a larger musical movement throughout the book and a very solid, satisfying ending. This was likely not easily accomplished and probably took a great deal of rewriting and editing.

I’m constantly exploring different points of view in my new work. How different characters see things from completely opposing perspectives and how each point of view can be exploited for its degree of reliability or grasp on the story; especially when a different point of view gives us new insight on something we’ve already experienced in the consciousness of another character. Wylding Hall is such a fantastic use of different points of view, woven together to one end. Hand has got me thinking about the balance of voice, and how snatches of story can be as illuminating as spelling out the whole thing.
When I’m putting together a novel, I’m often stopped by “this isn’t working” or, “where the hell is this going? It’s not what I set out to do.”  I’m trying harder now to open up a bit, write at the outside idea all the way, listen to the secondary characters if they are starting to speak to me. They may have no place in the final draft, but this writing at can get me somewhere I’d never go if I tried to remain within the constraints of an imaginary book. I’m trying to listen to the story all the way and trust the drafting process. So often we get bogged down in visualizing the finished product while drafting. Which shelf will it fit on? Who will read it? When the truth is, we cannot truly imagine that yet and the book may take us on a different journey altogether. A number of times I’ve had books start out as one thing and turn into a completely different animal by the end. I’ve also become more content to throw out pages that aren’t working for the book. I think I cut over 100 pages in my last novel, which is now out to editors. But, had those pages not been written, I wouldn’t have arrived at the final product.

Wylding Hall is a gorgeous example of a book that is artfully and beautifully delivered. It’s important to remember as we beat our heads against our keyboards that the product is out there somewhere, and if we keep working at it we’ll get there. And novels do not emerge, fully formed. Even the most frustrating parts of the journey help us get there.

Americanah

americanahBook by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

Annotation by Roz Weisberg

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has an interesting quality in the way the story and the writing expand and contract within the narrative. This element in the narrative is reflected in Ifemelu’s character, who I think comes across at times detached, even passive as events and attitudes unfold around her.

Although there is a steady voice and style to the piece, the scope of the story at times has a grand sweeping scale, no doubt due to the location of Nigeria (for a western reader) and the entry point in which Adichie discusses race married to small specific story elements that are as simple and as traditional a framework as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, primarily through the female point of view in the vein of Jane Austen. The story lays its bricks and mortar in an inverted way to me by starting with the relationship, small and specific and build out the wider themes and ideas that Adichie wants to comment on.

Her writing builds out the same way structurally, like an upside sieve. I often found myself underlining the last lines of paragraphs and chapters more often than first lines or middles because I found the last lines had a greater punch and evoked the emotional idea to the scene where the first lines of paragraphs were tight, specific or just expository. Often times, in other books I find the first sentences as the key to hold onto and the rest of the paragraph supports it, but here I felt it was often the reverse.

It felt to me that this was just true of the writing stylistically, but then I found it reflected in the character’s development. For example, when the story is in Nigeria, there is an intimate and familiar feel, the characters are most themselves (even when chaos breaks out) and they are in the process of discovering who they are. This quality is mirrored in the writing. The writing felt most alive and most connected emotionally when the story was in Nigeria or connected to Nigeria (such as when Ifemelu is with her aunt and nephew in America). Nigeria itself becomes a character with an undeniable presence when Ifemelu is in America.  This brings with it an emotional resonance and, as she makes her way through America, its physical absence is felt as her platform and experiences expand. In some ways, once Ifemelu is in America, the story feels a bit like The Wizard of Oz and Nigeria is Kansas.

However, I felt a distance from the characters when the Ifemelu or Obinze or Aunt Uju or Dike as the only representation of Nigeria in America and the UK respectively. The ancillary (white) characters felt like cyphers and the incidents felt episodic and in support of the larger themes and at times lacked surprise. The incidents in America became more of platform to show and comment on the issues of race in looking at situations through Ifemelu’s lens and eventual blog posts (the only place-private place-she can truly express herself, even when she has readers and followers (she doesn’t really express those points of views in a public venue). It is in these instances when events and relationships felt broader and Adichie’s writing expansive. In covering the things she wanted to say about race, there is an emptiness to relationships Ifemelu has with the men and America itself. One that feels detached. Perhaps that is the point Adichie is making; that the otherness does ultimately keep people disconnected and that home is home; Dorothy leaving Oz behind to return to Kansas.

There is something about Ifemelu’s character and the detachment she has that makes me curious what I can glean from her for my own protagonist. Although there isn’t a shift in voice in the writing, there is a difference in the writing once Ifemelu is in America. nice The incidents may be specific, but Ifemelu is primarily reacting to her circumstances, observing and digesting oftentimes not reacting until she sits down and writes her blog.

There’s a balance between the time we spend in Ifemelu’s head and how emotions to her circumstances are expressed because often in the moment, she finds she can’t react (in America). Ifemelu doesn’t feel passive and yet she is constantly reacting to what she has set motion or reacting to how other characters move through life. (This feels very Jane Austen to me). This balance I think is where my main character needs to live or at least somewhere in this space, I suppose it’s making more active decisions at the fork in the road. The question is when the character is in a position where they are reacting how to maintain their presence so they don’t feel like observers in their own story? I’m not sure if that is always accomplished here, but there is the veil that Ifemelu is driving things forward. Maybe it’s about the critical turns where oftentimes she just shows up and the choice to show up is enough.

Noir, Dames and Real Women

jpeg

 

 

annotation by Melissa F. Olson

 

I love crime fiction. I especially love the old noir detective fiction. It’s just that I don’t always love what happens to the women who appear in it.

My troubled love affair with hardboiled detective fiction began….oh, somewhere around middle school. A voracious reader without a driver’s license, I spent my adolescence plundering my parents’ bookshelves for anything, anything I could get my hands on to read. (Obviously, this was before Kindle, or I would have sent my parents into bankruptcy.) And after I’d worked my way through all of my mother’s Mary Higgins Clark, I moved on to my dad’s stash of 90’s-era Robert B. Parker.

Unless you’ve been in this position yourself, I’m not sure you can understand just how flat-out cool Robert B. Parker’s Spenser can be to a thirteen-year-old. Here was a guy who existed on perfect confidence: he always had a quip, always knew what to do, and was always surrounded by a legion of loyal friends and acquaintances. At thirteen, I never knew what to do, I was always half-convinced my friends hated me, and if I thought of a funny comeback, it was usually about twelve hours too late to be deployed.

When I finished all the available Parker, I decided to backtrack to some of the classic hardboiled novels of the 30’s: Dashiell Hammett,* Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (his Lew Archer became my favorite, probably because he occasionally showed signs of possessing actual human feelings). During my freshman year of college, I took a survey course on detective fiction. Then I took some gender studies courses.

And then some red flags began to spring up in my mind.

Holy crap, those guys were all a bunch of sexist assholes. Even (especially?) my man Spenser.**

As disappointing realizations go, this one was not small. Here were all these detectives that embodied the very spirit of cool, and they treated women like possessions, or china dolls, or hapless victims. The most impressive thing a woman could do in many of these classic noir books was be a femme fatale, because that at least made her interesting. But it also made her a villain – usually a slutty one, too, back when that was one of the worst things you could say about a woman.

I want to say that those hardboiled noir stories got more enlightened over time, but it certainly took awhile. Even 90’s-era Spenser, who should have been modern enough to know better, had as his best female role model Dr. Susan Silverman, who would “get out and walk home in her high heels” before pumping her own gas.

Now, however, it’s been eighty years since Phillip Marlowe sauntered into LA, and female mystery authors have long since created their own hardboiled detectives who can play on the level of Marlowe, Sam Spade, Spenser, and all the rest. Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and recent debut Ingrid Thoft are all great examples, and there are many more.

As for me, well, I never wanted to compete with the old noir stories – I wanted to answer them. So I stopped reading Parker and started working on my own detective novel, The Big Keep. I wrote this book to explore not whether a female detective could be tough, because that was established ages ago, but whether she could be tough and have feelings, a pregnancy, and a marriage, all at the same time. I hope that I pull it off, but I know that I’ll never regret trying.

*It’s worth pointing out, in the name of fairness, that because I was focused on the lone-wolf detective, I did not read The Thin Man or any of the other Nick and Nora books. If I had, Nora might have inspired me.

**Yes, I know that Parker eventually wrote a separate detective series with a female PI – but Sunny Randall was really just Lady Spenser. You can’t just throw a vagina on a lead character and expect that all is forgiven.