Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy (Review)

Dirty ChickOomph. I have some real complicated feelings about this book. Here goes nothing.

So, Dirty Chick has a pretty fun and interesting premise: a woman from San Francisco moves her family to a small town in New Zealand called Purua, where they quickly surround themselves with a cluster of farm animals to raise. There are endless quirky discovery stories of the challenges of animal farming, growing cheeses, and staking out a life in general in Purua, many of which are pretty funny and engaging. I particularly liked her stories about the goats, who would often use her car as a makeshift playground, jumping onto the roof and sliding down the front windshield for fun.

There’s a human and serious element to Murphy’s memoir in that her son Silas has a learning disability. Murphy and her husband are constantly worrying about him and trying to figure out how to help him grow and thrive with other children. In fact, he’s part of the reason they move to slow-paced Purua in the first place — there’s a one-room schoolhouse there where he can get the personal attention that he needs.

Alright, so all that is fine and dandy, but my real issue with Murphy’s memoir is her language about people of color, and some of the implicit messages she’s sending that go completely unchecked. This showed up pretty early in the book, when she describes Richmond, where she was living in her sailboat before moving to New Zealand as “a sketchy part of the Bay Area just east of Marin County.” Woah. Pretty hard not to interpret “sketchy” here as not meaning “black and brown.”

In another place she writes, “Richmond was poor and shabby, plagued by gang violence.” It’s not that Richmond doesn’t have challenges with violence. It’s that the perception of not being safe is all she took away (or at least chose to share with us) from living there. There is so much more to Richmond’s community, and I wonder how much of the city she actually got to know living on her sailboat? How much did she ever step outside of her comfort circle of white friends to try and get to know residents of color?

Another example I had a really hard time with was her description of a friendly indigenous man who volunteers to come to her house and cook a sheep for a party she’s throwing. So, recap: this guy that her friends know and have recommended is coming over to her house all day to cook for her for free. And her first thoughts about him are, “Despite the nice eyes, this guy didn’t look safe. I made a mental note of where my kids were.” Later, she goes on to ask her friends why the kids don’t find him scary.

I was tempted to gloss over those unsavory bits in my review, but it’s really just inexcusable. Dirty Chick has some great parts, but it’s also got a serious white privilege problem that merits a much more thoughtful examination. I’d love to see more of her work as she matures as a writer and hopefully addresses some of those issues.

Note: I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

2Stars22/5 STARS

Racial Justice Roundup, MLK Edition

SelmaMartin Luther King Jr.’s day of remembrance seems to have arrived at a particularly opportune time of the year, given the heightened dialogue around black lives and race relations in the U.S. I watched the Selma movie this past weekend to put myself in an even greater mode of reflection about where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed when it comes to race. I’d definitely recommend the film.

In the social justice world I often hear talk about how society has made much progress in racial justice throughout the years, but that we have a long ways to go. This is still true. We have to acknowledge both the past and the present.

With regards to the latter, here’s roundup of racial justice links I found interesting this past week:

  • Organizers took MLK day as inspiration for a weekend-long set of actions in various cities across the U.S. Here’s what went on in just the Bay Area, for example.
  • The best long-form article I read last week was on the making of Silicon Valley with respect to race and class. An important read, given the high intensity economic pressure that Silicon Valley and the tech sector exert on low- and middle-income residents throughout the Bay Area.
  • Speaking of income and neighborhood change, this video by a young man named Kai about the changes he’s seen in his home community of the Mission District in San Francisco is quite well-done.
  • As most people heard, the Oscars were pretty white this year. I’m also particularly surprised looking down the list of past non-white actor nominees to see very few Asian/Pacific Islanders.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (Review)

A Clash of Kings‘The thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes. Watch and see.’
-George R.R. Martin

Whew, this one took me a while to get through — 969 pages is no small feat. I think one recommendation I have for someone picking up A Clash of Kings after a year or two away from the A Song of Ice and Fire series that it’s a part of is to recap the first book (A Game of Thrones) before digging in. I spent the first hundred pages remembering who the heck all the various characters are. NOTE: Anyone looking to avoid spoilers about A Game of Thrones should probably stop reading here.

To Martin’s credit, he picks up pretty much where the last book left off. The realm is in turmoil, there are multiple “kings” vying for the Iron Throne, basically your ideal setting for a long story of battles and journeys — which seem to be key components of all good fantasy. Martin continues with the alternating POV style that he began in A Game of Thrones, where each new chapter switches the character telling the story. For the most part, I think that strategy works well for Martin, since he has so much geographic area to cover with his tale. It’s like a giant, narrative game of Risk.

When I read the first book in the series I actually didn’t think that I would read the second, not because I didn’t envision myself enjoying it, but because I planned to watch the TV show instead (I know, I know, book people don’t hurt me).  But in starting the second season of the show I got the sense that I was missing a lot of back story, so I turned to other Netflix disks while I gave myself a chance to read the second book.

Unfortunately, I kept picking the book up for a few days and then putting it down again to finish other, shorter books. While I love the depth and nuance that Martin creates through his works, sometimes they do get just a tad… long. When I got to the last three or four hundred pages though I really gave Clash of Kings the attention it deserved and got more firmly sucked into the story.

One aspect not unique to Martin’s work that I took issue with throughout Clash of Kings was the depiction of women as weak and powerless. My frustration is complicated, because I do think Martin is trying to depict a time similar to our Middle Ages, where women really didn’t have much power at all. Even so, the frequent portrayals of sexual violence against women, related in a very casual manner through the eyes of the male characters got a little challenging to accept. I would have loved to see a few more “strong” female leads. Catelyn Stark arguably plays this role, but her pieces of the book are surprisingly uninvolved — there is no place where she really carries a pivotal impact on the plot. Arya, another potential strong female role, is a child and that identity seems to trump her feisty nature and brains when it comes to power. I hope that both their roles grow in later books.

As I said, this phenomenon of normalizing rape and sexual violence in fantasy books seems to extend to many other authors outside of Martin’s work, and I can’t help but wonder if the prevalence has something to do with the fantasy writer playing field, which to my knowledge seems fairly white and male. I used to read a lot more fantasy when I was younger, and I think the skewed demographics, along with the sheer length of many of those books has led me to step a little away from the genre. I’m happy to have dipped a toe back in with a solid work like Clash of Kings, but I also think I got my fix for a while.

3Stars23/5 STARS

Colorism in Literature

Color Eye

Photo: Andreas Levers via Flickr

Over the past year I’ve been thinking more about the ways that colorism (or the valuing of lighter skinned people over darker skinned people) comes into play in literature just as much as in film, modeling, and other more visual industries. Amit Singh, in a recent Media Diversified article does a great job of highlighting examples of colorism for the latter and why it is such a big problem. As he notes, “there is one set type of attractiveness that is sold to us and resold to us on a daily basis through popular culture and advertising.” He discusses how even the actors and models “of color” that are allowed to succeed are the lighter-skinned ones and the ones with more Caucasian features.

It’s not just on screen and in magazines though that we experience colorism — it happens in literature too, even though we might not get shown a literal image. In reading science fiction and fantasy, so often the darker-skinned characters are the ones with the evil magic or the worst intentions — the assassins and kingdom-takers. And in less-fantastical books the darker characters are still often looked upon with suspicion and fear, or at the very least called apart as different because of their dark and/or non-Caucasian features. How many times have we read “The Asian nurse did such and such” or “The guy with dreadlocks told me blah blah blah?” In each of those situations an author is choosing to define his or her characters by how far they deviate from whiteness, rather than choosing some other way to describe them.

I’m the first one out there to jump up and down cheerleading for authors that write diverse characters. But it’s very important when we call those characters onto the field not to be using whiteness as the standard of beauty. Authors have just as much responsibility as magazine editors and television producers to not be recreating the color value spectrum for consumers.

The Isolation Door by Anish Majumdar (Review)

The Isolation DoorThe first memory I have of my mother is her straddling an open window, pink sari bunched about her waist like a protective cushion, shouting she’d jump.
-Anish Majumdar

I love when fiction clearly comes from the heart and from personal experience, and that’s exactly the sense I got from reading Anish Majumdar’s The Isolation Door. The work is the complicated story of a young man, Neil Kapoor, trying to deal with both his mother’s schizophrenia (plus the family dynamics that go along with her care) and the challenge of starting a rigorous acting program while falling in love and making friends with his classmates at the same time.

Neil’s mother has been in and out of the hospital ever since he can remember, and his father and aunt have very different ideas about how to handle her during the times she is able to stay at home. There is a constant sense that Neil’s home world is falling apart, and he’s clearly unsure of what role he can (or should) play in caring for his mother’s mental health.

At school, Neil is facing the confrontational teaching style of his main instructor in the acting program and navigating his feelings and connections to some of the fellow students. In his relationships with the other students we see a replication of certain dynamics that Neil has faced throughout his experience growing up with his mother, as well as some elements pushing him toward changing who he is and the behaviors he’s used to cope.

While this is certainly not a “happy” book, for the most part I really enjoyed Majumdar’s style of writing, with its strong mix of dreamscapes, memories, and present life. The first half can be a little jerky as you get used to his style of describing relationships — the characters seem to connect and change their relationships with each other awfully fast at times, particularly in Neil’s “theater life.” But overall I really enjoyed his writing.

Through telling a fictional story inspired by his own experiences, Majumdar is diversifying our sense of who struggles with mental illness. The main character doesn’t shy away from describing his family’s background or talking about the aspects of his life that are built on South Asian culture. At the same time he’s also tapping into universal experiences of trying to fit in and figure out what he wants out of life.

In this sense, I think Majumdar is doing an admirable job of working through the complications of being an author of color. It seems so easy to be categorized as either “too ethic” or “not ethnic enough.” I hope that he won’t get pigeonholed one way or the other as the book continues to get read and promoted.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

4Stars24/5 STARS

Reading Up on the Panthers

For the Cause

In Oakland, moving in and out of social justice communities, it’s tough not to hear references on a regular basis to the Black Panther Party which had its roots here. A few weekends ago I was found myself watching a film at the International Black Women’s Film Festival called For the Cause, a fictional story about two ex-panthers and their daughter, Mirai.

Mirai’s father is in prison, convicted of murdering a police officer back in the heyday of the Panthers. Mirai has a strained relationship with him, and her mother won’t even talk about him at all. Throughout the film you start to get a fuller, complex picture of the parents’ history and what it felt like to be active back in the movement. There is also a great love story being told about Mirai in her partner, that gets tied up with the unfolding of the parents’ past.

I really enjoyed the history-mixed-with-story feeling of the film, and the spectacular acting from the full cast. I’m not sure where else the For the Cause film will be showing, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in activism history in the U.S.

About a year ago I read a book by two scholars at UC Berkeley called Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. The work gave a fairly comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party’s rise and fall, as well as an intriguing analysis about why it became so popular at the time that it did and why it didn’t survive. But, without giving away to much of the story from the film,  I’ll say that watching the movie made me interested in picking up another book — Elaine Brown’s memoir on the Panthers, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, where she discusses her experience with sexism as a high-ranking member of the Panthers. While the Black Against Empire book touches on gender power imbalances, it doesn’t quite delve into them enough to feel satisfying, and Brown’s memoir might serve to shed some light on that aspect of the history.

Any other great social movement books I should add to my reading list?

Favorite Reads of 2014

I can’t believe 2014 is already coming to a close. It’s been a year of much change and tumult, particularly in the word of racial justice organizing. I’m happy to have been a small part of what’s going on through attending protests, and I’m particularly thankful to all the people who have given so much more than I have to activism and advocating for change.

In the world of books I read through a lot. Since 2014 was also the year I started this blog, please forgive that not all the links to my favorite books go to one of my own blog posts. Regardless, here are some of the best books I read in 2014:

Half-2Bof-2Ba-2BYellow-2BSun

Half of a Yellow Sun (Literary Fiction)
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What don’t I love by this woman? If I were double counting authors I probably would have stuck Americanah on this list too. But this one edged out a little ahead for me because the history of the war over Biafra, which was formerly unknown to me, was so fascinating to read about. The characters are exquisite. Complex, human, and utterly intriguing.

Lovingkindness

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Spirituality/Self-Help)
by Sharon Salzberg

I never would have thought that a spirituality book would make my top list for 2014, but I have to say that Salzberg’s book is pretty transformative. There is a deeply powerful truth to intentionally cultivating wishes of well-being for both oneself and others that I’ve been contemplating and practicing all year since reading the book.

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Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Poetry)
by Patricia Smith

I found Patricia Smith when looking into the VONA workshop teachers, and I can’t believe she’s not more famous. The memoir poems that she put together for Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah are simply brilliant in their rhythm and word choice, and tell a powerful tale about race, class, and growing up. I will definitely be checking out more of her work in 2015.

Kindred

Kindred (Scifi/Historical fiction)
by Octavia Butler

This is the kind of book that socks you and keeps on socking you until you’ve put it down at the end. There is so much here about pain and oppression, but also love and resilience. Skillfully using time travel as a tool, Butler breaks down the notion that we would have really acted any different than our ancestors if alive during the times of slavery. Chilling.

Redefining-Realness

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (Memoir)
by Janet Mock

I know I’ve already raved about this memoir in a previous post or two, but if I’m going to be honest about what really moved me in the writing world this year, Mock’s book has to be on the list. I loved the way she wove together culture, geography, family, gender identity, and class. Plus she’s such a rising star right now, who wouldn’t want to read about her?

Warmth of Other Suns_

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Nonfiction)
by Isabel Wilkerson

Again, yes a book I’ve talked about before, and yes, still worth reading. It’s rare for me to read nonfiction these days, but Wilkerson’s book felt uncannily like fiction, given how smoothly it reads. I’m absolutely floored by the amount of research she must have done to pull this book together.

What Shall We Call Us?

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

I am one to throw the term “people of color” or “POC” (for short) around fairly liberally. I use it when talking about the books I read, or the types of advocacy I’m involved with. In general, I like to think and talk about the ways that having dark skin or features that aren’t associated with whiteness creates a certain sense of solidarity. But it would be false to say that I’ve never questioned my own use of the word. In particular, I’ve always wondered whether Asian and Pacific Islander communities always identify with that term. This past week, through a friend, I found a great article on Black Girl Dangerous discussing the term “POC” and all the baggage tied up in lumping people together all the time.

In the article, “What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Person of Color'”, author Janani encourages solidarity across race/ethnicity groups, while making the important point that each individual minority community has a distinct history of oppression. Sometimes one group plays a role in oppressing another to try and get closer to acceptance, or a group may have internal oppression issues that are not the same as the internal challenges that other race/ethnicity groups have.

One particularly eloquent quote that I loved toward the end of the article summed up the overall argument quite well:

Black-Asian solidarity in the US, for instance, is hard to find and it will continue to be difficult to build if we continue to use the uncritical ‘POC’ label.  Rather, we can use ‘POC’ as a way of reflecting on our different racial histories and building coalitions in our struggles and their difference.  POC is a term for building solidarity between movements, not a movement in itself.  That distinction is important.

 

Lots of food for thought in a time of beautiful multi-cultural organizing around #BlackLivesMatter.

Behind The Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman (Review)

Behind the Kitchen Door_We tend not to realize that diversity is not the same as equity — that simply seeing a lot of restaurant workers from different backgrounds doesn’t mean that restaurant workers have equal opportunities to advance to jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families.

-Saru Jayaraman

I had to read this book after attending the Facing Race conference this year, which featured several members of ROC United, the national union that Jayaraman co-founded for restaurant workers in the wake of 9/11. Jayaraman herself is a fantastic public speaker, and I couldn’t wait to get back home and read her book at the end of the conference.

Behind The Kitchen Door is a collection of stories really, powerful stories from restaurant workers that ROC has worked with throughout the years. ROC’s focus is on creating equal working conditions and career advancement opportunities for all restaurant workers, so many of the stories highlight the unfair treatment that people of color, and particularly women of color, face on the job everyday.

There are horrifying accounts of wage theft, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and chronic financial instability. Jayaraman points to the lack of leave that causes many restaurant workers to keep serving, even while sick. She also brings up many times the astoundingly low federal minimum wage for restaurant workers ($2.13!!!), since theoretically workers are making up the rest of the gap between that and the normal minimum wage through tips. Jayaraman shows pretty convincingly that this frequently does not happen, and that employers often do not compensate the difference as they are supposed to.

I really liked that the focus of Jayaraman’s book and life’s work is on such a universal job. While I personally have never worked in a restaurant, I know many friends that have. Many can relate to the stories she’s telling and the difference between those of us for whom restaurant work is a step along the road to a better career, versus those who rely on the industry for much of their lives.

One interesting bit of information that I learned from the Facing Race conference is that ROC United is piloting an app that diners can use when they go out to eat to report on the perceived race of the wait staff and kitchen staff. It’s built to work well with Yelp and Twitter, and seems like an interesting way to unobtrusively bring to light the colorism that the industry struggles with (whiter staff get to serve while darker staff are stuck in the kitchen, without regard to qualifications).

There’s a bit of repetition of certain facts throughout the book, but it’s a really worthwhile read for the stories alone. It’s a good practice in empathy to read about other people’s lives and think about how we can as consumers support restaurants that exemplify the fair hiring and labor practices that we want to see while boycotting or reprimanding those who don’t.

4Stars24/5 STARS

#BlackLivesMatter, Now and Always

I wasn’t expecting so soon after writing about Ferguson that we’d be hearing back on the conclusion of the Eric Garner case.

If I had been thinking about the Garner case much beforehand, I might have been predicting that the indictment would be affirmative. That finally this situation and this cop would go to trial. Because it was on video. Because the police used an illegal chokehold. Because the coroner called it a homicide. But of course if that’s what I’d believed I would have been disappointed.

I’ve been reading a lot of reactions and seeing a lot of memes and spoken word links floating around Twitter and Facebook as black communities and advocacy communities try to make sense of the decision. There have been some heartfelt expression pieces giving voice to those experiencing trauma and tragedy. There was a lot of talk about the uncanny way that the verdict coincided with Obama’s push to get more police to wear body cameras. It was uncanny in the sense that the Garner case immediately disproved the validity of this “solution” and instead forced us to focus again on the heart of the matter — implicit bias and the inherent harm of having a militarized police force.

I’m troubled by so many aspects of these deaths. I’m frustrated, saddened, and angered by the fact that it keeps happening, over and over again. But I what I actually find most frustrating and disempowering is the lack of understanding and the apathy that I see from a lot of non-black, non-advocate communities. I hear people focusing on the legal facts or the doubt surrounding the events of deaths or speculating about what facts were presented to the Grand Jury. I hear people hanging on the the uncertainties and giving the benefit of the doubt to the white police officers or to mostly-white juries. All of this is very hard to hear, and hard to fight.

For me, it keeps coming back to Eric Garner’s last words, where he expresses the pain he experiences at constantly being a target of harassment and suspicion:

Everytime you see me, you want to harass me. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

 

To know that the man who said these words is no longer with us is deeply sad. It’s a constant struggle for me to articulate to others why his words matter so much. They point exactly to the heart of the profiling and the psychological toll of that profiling on an entire class of people.

It matters.

We matter.

#BlackLivesMatter.