Review: Posada-Offerings of Witness and Refuge by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

Review: Posada-Offerings of Witness and Refuge by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

posada

In the four sections of her first poetry collection, Posada- Offerings of Witness and Refuge, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo takes us with her through the multiple, imaginative and too real border spaces of migration, language and belonging. In the first part, she goes on a journey of remembering, collecting and reconstructing her family’s history. Starting with the stolen metate they brought from  Teocaltiche, Bermejo connects the memories and stories of her family, from Uncle Manny’s recollections of his tía Susana and her remedies to Bermejo’s mother who was “never gifted the story of her birth,” presenting in her work the “Pieces I’ve Gathered so Far.”

Part 2 demonstrates the way in which Bermejo draws inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo and others and appropriately explores gender roles and the relationships of the women in her family, from mothers and daughters in “Frida’s Monkey Nurse:”

I tie her to this world never knowing

where the other will spit her out, never knowing

 when it will finally swallow her whole

to her relationship with her grandmother, to whom this collection is dedicated, in “This Poem is for Nopales:”

Grandma, in the hospital room, when I kissed the fade of your cheek

to say goodbye, crisscrossing chin hairs caught my attention.

Now, when I look in the mirror and And hairs have bloomed overnight,

I think of roots. I think of you. I hope I can be a nopal woman too.

In part 3, “Things to Know for Compañer@s. A No More Deaths Volunteer Guide,” Bermejo draws on her work with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, which gives medical aid and support along the border. Her poems bear witness to life and death on the migrant trail peppered with resilient cacti.

 Did you know?
 When barrel cacti become tombstones and their
 yellow starburst blooms offerings for the dead, you won’t be too cool to 
 belt Katy Perry songs.
Did you know?
Migrants are hurried over trails at night and without light. 
Their blisters are caused by continuous friction, muscle cramping by 
dehydration, vomiting by drinking bacteria ridden cow pond water, 
and those who move too slow are left behind.

In the last part, Bermejo pays witness to other/s’ stories of refuge and migration, connecting and piecing together similar and interrelated struggles from Arizona to Chavez Ravine to Gaza. She bears witness to tales of desperation, of refuge and migration and gives names and faces to those who too often remain just numbers to us. Posada is a fantastic, visceral debut collection of social justice poetry, not only exploring the different meanings of borders, but also providing safe spaces and comfort for those straddling them.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a first generation Chicana. She is a 2016-2017 Steinbeck fellow and has received residencies with Hedgebrook, the Ragdale Foundation, and is a proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. In Los Angeles, she is a cofounder of Women Who Submit, a literary organization using social media and community events to empower women authors to submit work for publication, and curates the quarterly reading series HITCHED.

Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge is out today! Go get it here.

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Disclaimer: I was given an e-copy of this book by the publisher, Sundress Publications, but never fear I remain my opinionated self!

Thoughts: Gabi, A Girl in Pieces #HHM

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Gabi has a lot on her plate. It’s her last year of high school but apart from classes and college applications, she also has to deal with a father who is fighting a losing battle with meth addiction, her friend Cindy getting pregnant (as a result of date rape, we learn later), her other best friend Sebastian coming out, as well as exploring her own sexuality and first relationships.

Isabel Quintero’s first novel Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, published by CincoPuntoPress, is a tour-de-force. The good thing about being blissfully ignorant about new releases and a lot of hype before joining twitter is that I mostly missed all the excitement and picked up this book only now because I vaguely remembered someone saying it was good and it being LatinX Heritage Month. So I got to skirt the overblown expectations trap, yay, but am totally doing this to you now with this review. #sorrynotsorry

If you’re into intersectional feminism (you better be!), then this book will make you want to get out your highlighters. Let me quote this section, which everyone else is apparently also quoting (google told me, but still thanks for the easy c&p)):

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

This excerpt really concisely introduces all the issues Quintero adresses in the novel and also drives home the point that Gabi lives at a very specific intersection of gender, race and ethnicity. So the novel explores one culture’s version of the double-standard, that of patriarchal machismo Mexican-American dichotomy of the virgen/puta. And Gabi has to realize that many women in her community have internalized this toxicity and police other women’s behavior and expression of sexuality (as they tend to, don’t get me started on this issue), her mother among them:

“for my mother, a woman’s whole value is what’s between her legs. And once a man has access to that, she has no more value.”

Part of this patriarchal view is also the refusal to accept homosexuality and Gabi’s friend Sebastian is thrown out by his parents when he comes out. On the other side of the coin we have the boys will be boys mentality, about which Gabi writes a scathing poem.

Gabi is furthermore not marked Mexican-American by her skin color, instead she is so light-skinned she can pass as white but as a result has to deal with feeling alienated at times. Since I basically have the opposite problem, this was an interesting change in perspective.

The book also shows Gabi’s acceptance when it comes to her body and she moves from regarding herself as a “fatgirl” to acceptance. There’s a terrible lack of “fativism” in books and hopefully this will change in coming years, but it’s another reason why I hope Gabi will be read and taught widely, so these young women will see themselves represented too.

I also loved was watching Gabi coming into her own as a poet, apart from the diary style of the novel, we also get to read Gabi’s poetry and her attempts at spoken word. Poetry is how Gabi finds a way to express and empower herself. Her words are sharp and to the point and you’ll want to pick up a poetry collection immediately after finishing this book (I’ll be gushing about one particular, exciting collection later this week, stay tuned!).

The language use is wonderfully done as well, I’m glad there’s no glossary and hardly any translations. Quintero makes me work for it and I gladly got out my rusty Spanish for beginners knowledge, and between knowing other romance language and guessing from context…no excuses people! I’m sure LatinX will love this book and the intermingling of English and Spanish…Spanglish? And us other readers do well to remember to work on our privilege.

It’s amazing that this is a first novel. It’s a book that will be taught in high schools and colleges everywhere!

Other thoughts:

Reading the End

Twinja Book Reviews

Life of a Female Bibliophile

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Review: What Sunny Saw in the Flames

sunny ic for review

What Sunny Saw In The Flames, previously published in the US as Akata Witch, is one of the books by one of my favorite writers that I hadn’t read yet. Published by Cassava Republic, the book is out in the UK now! So run to the nearest bookstore!

What Sunny Saw is a wonderful tale of magic and growing into yourself set in Nigeria. Our protagonist Sunny Nwazue is 12 years old with albinism, she is also American-born, like the author, only having moved to Nigeria when she was 9. The US-title Akata Witch, a slur for American-born Africans further drives home this facet of Sunny’s identity. Living in the town of Aba with her parents and younger brothers, Sunny is furthermore Igbo, one ethnicity in Nigeria. I love this representation of complex identities that also mirror my own experience. We are rarely ever just A or B and this novel also shows the Nigerian perspective, people emigrating, people returning, and people visiting. This goes against most Western tales around movement and immigration which usually only present us with that infamous single story.

We first get an inkling of what is to come, when Sunny, as the title promises, sees something in the flame of a candle. Her vision is of a terrible future and shakes her to the core. She begins the get some answers, when she befriends Orlu and Chichi, who introduce her to the world of the Leopard People. Together with Sasha, they form a quartet of magical students, learning about their juju abilities and spirit selves. But Sunny has the most to learn as she is what is called a free agent, a Leopard person whose parents are Lambs (non-magical). However, her vision looms over her newly-discovered identity and soon the group must face the evil Black Hat.

Inevitably comparisons with Harry Potter come up, but as Brendon importantly points out, “We must stop comparing literature and stories in this way because it gives all the credit to the stories of privilege (White, western, straight, male/man, able).” And so, what annoys me with these comparisons is that Harry Potter and other white, Western works are irretrievably set up as originator of certain plots or the origin from which all else strays. However, as we know, Rowling as well as many other Western writers before her have and continue to “borrow” from other works, mythologies and cultures.

World-building is something that I find Okorafor just excels at. I really enjoyed the culture of the Leopard People and also the book inside the book: Fast Facts for Free Agents by Isong Abong Effiong Isong. I’d love to read more from it. Leopard culture is steeped in Igbo and other West African culture and after my last read taught me about Yoruba culture, it was great to revisit and learn more about the Igbo. Some of these days I need to pick up some more non-Western mythology works! It’s a wonderfully diverse world in What Sunny Saw, and the Leopard community too is made up of various ethnic groups and the African diaspora and globalization have led to secret communities all over the world!

I also appreciated the depiction of everyday struggles of girls in how Sunny has to deal with an abusive father and housework is of course made her chore. Sunny is clever and fierce though and uses some of these expectations to keep her juju abilities and Leopard identity secret from her family.

I would complain about the ending seeming a tad abrupt, but really I enjoy the learning about other worlds parts of books more than violent showdowns so I don’t care, I just had the best time reading this one! Cannot wait for the sequel!!

Other thoughts:

Gaming for Justice

what the log had to say

Spirit blog

Zezee with Books

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll link!

Disclaimer: I received a free e-book from the publisher, but never fear I remain my opinionated self!

Review: Yetunde + Author Interview

yetunde

Remember that I wanted to try to read some works of self-published writers and make sure these writers knew they would get the same chance at reviews here as traditionally published authors? Well, here we are! 🙂 Also, make sure to scroll down to the author’s interview after the review!

Yetunde by Segilola Salami is a story about caring and family, that will make you want to hug your mother (figure) and/or your daughters. Unconventionally, Yetunde is told through the eyes of a 9 month old baby, the titular Yetunde. The narrative voice is more complex than that of course, but it presents readers with an interesting new angle from which to explore mother-daughter relationships and Yoruba folktales. Yetunde is also a lovely character, she is fierce, curious and loves freely. With just under 30 pages, this is a short story that also functions as a piece of Yoruba praise poetry, in which Yetunde’s mother tells an ode for her mother who died recently.

We learn a bit about the Yoruba language and the first part of the story translates terms into English so readers should have no trouble following the story. And during the folktale part, sentences are presented in both English and Yoruba. I found this quite accommodating but I think this approach should manage to draw in readers willing to actually learn from context or look up words and those that expect to be catered to. But this is not a story for people who cannot deal with bilingualism, but it will provide those of you who grew up bilingual with points of recognition. Identity, here Yetunde’s Yoruba Nigerian-British identity, is intrinsically linked with language. If you’re interested in Yoruba language, check out the author’s book about learning to count, it’s for children but might help you get started or connect if you’re Yoruba and have children.

The story’s main part consists of Yoruba folktales and through the focus of motherhood, these tales explore the role and importance of women in Yoruba culture. From water benders to Orishas, I especially loved these sheroes who summon deities and save their daughters. These folktales are a tad darker than the charming first section focusing on Yetunde, but they provide depth.

What I enjoyed most about this story was the centrality of women’s close relationships and positive representation of women of color, especially Black women, as loving mothers. Yetunde is about three generations of women: Yetunde, her mother and her grandmother. It’s also about working through your grief and teaching the next generation, about passing on your history and culture.

I found this a lovely story even if I am not a mother, however I am close with mine. You’ll probably enjoy this story if you value close relationships between women and are interested in learning about Yoruba culture. I love that between this story and Nnedi Okorafor’s fiction I am learning more about the different people and culture of Nigeria.

The story shines when it presents Yoruba folktales and depicts the loving relationship between Yetunde and her mother. I found the final section a bit confusing, but overall recommend this story. I’m glad to hear there will be more Yetunde stories and will be following Yetunde’s as well as the author’s development.

Make sure to enter the goodreads giveaway to win a paper copy of Yetunde! The giveaway ends August 31st!

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book by the author, but never fear I remain my opinionated self!

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Author Interview Segilola

Segilola Salami is a “Mom first, author, host of The Segilola Salami Show and Self Publishing strategist (helping aspiring authors navigate the minefield that is self publishing).”

Bina: What made you start writing and who do you write for?

Segilola: I think of myself as an accidental writer. Writing just sort of fell into my laps. I write the types of books I would like my little girl to read.

Bina: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Segilola: My little girl . . . being a mom changes or should I say helps you refocus.

Bina: What is your process with regard to feedback and editing as a self-published author?

Segilola: I ask as many people that I see online that show an interest in reviewing books. I take every critical and complimentary comment on board. It helps me know what I need to do more of and what I need to improve on. After every feedback I receive for my unpublished manuscript, I go back to the drawing board and see how the feedback best fits in with the story. I don’t always use all feedback, especially if they don’t fit in well with the story.

Bina: Yoruba culture is a central aspect of Yetunde. Can you tell us a bit about your own background and your stance on representation in (children’s) literature?

Segilola: I am a Yoruba woman, Nigerian-Brit. I spent my early years in Nigeria, so was exposed to the diverse cultures in Nigeria. As a mom bringing up a little girl in London, I want my daughter to identify with her roots. There’s this saying “you don’t know where you are going, if you don’t know where you are coming from.”

Also importantly for me, there are hidden snippets of wisdom in my books (well I think so). I hope when my daughter is old enough to read them herself, she can learn something. Rather than me just telling her everything.

Bina: Do you feel that self-publishing gives you more leeway with regard to diversity?

Segilola: Absolutely . . . I write the way I feel is best . . . I think I would not have a single book published now if I was waiting for a trade publisher.

Bina: Lastly, are you currently working on a new project and will there be more Yetunde stories?

Segilola: Oh my gosh yes . . . so I have taken a short break from writing children’s books. I wanted to do something for myself. So I wrote an adult book (that no one under 18 should read). It’s called Abiku: A Battle Of Gods, you can read about it here http://www.segilolasalami.co.uk/abiku-a-battle-of-gods/

Once this book is released, I hope to start writing the next Yetunde book. So watch out next year.

Bina: Thanks for answering my questions!

-> You can connect with Segilola Salami on twitter @iyayetunde1 or visit her website.

 

Thoughts: Malice in Ovenland Vol.1

Thoughts: Malice in Ovenland Vol.1

Malice

In middle school, I was one of those kids going through all the adventure books the library had to offer. From the The Famous Five to kid detectives to opening that wardrobe, I loved it all and then had fun with my friends digging holes, running away from imaginary bad guys and hidden doorways. After that, a lot of “grown-up” books were a disappointment to me at first until I learned to embrace speculative fiction and started to consider other topics exciting as well. But this is a very long-winded way of saying that I still am that kid looking for adventure stories and when I heard about Malice in Ovenland, I knew I had to give it a go. And yes, middle-grade books still deliver the same fun and no, I did not try to explore behind my kitchen oven, cause that would be weird. (it was very dusty!)

Malice in Ovenland is a middle-grade comic by Micheline Hess and published by Rosarium. The first volume introduces fierce young, Black Lilly Brown, who does not get to spend her summer at camp like her friends but instead has to take care of her mother’s organic garden and a list of other chores. Already, and with adult eyes, I find this positioning important: Lilly lives with her mom and loves fast food but her mother has chosen to grow organic food to take care of her daughter and herself and Lilly also has responsibilities that she might not enjoy but takes care of nonetheless. This is not your spoiled middle-class kid and I love this glimpse of Lilly’s mother. And then, when Lilly attempts to clean the oven she tumbles into Ovenland, like Alice once fell into Wonderland.

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How fantastic are those colors and especially that last panel!?  I love all the details like the cracked glasses and the horribly-green Bleh! Now in Ovenland, Lilly is locked into the dungeon, meets a queen and finds a kingdom in crisis over the lack of incoming grease. Yup people, if you’re going organic, make sure you’re not cutting off the kingdom behind your oven!

Lilly is everything I’ve always wanted from a heroine in an adventure story and I was in turns delighted and grossed out with her. There is a lot of monologuing going on initially but keep on reading it’ll get better and I did not find the message overly preachy, so hopefully middle-graders won’t either. I think there is a lot of potential in this story and I look forward to future volumes and Micheline Hess’ next project. I wish I’d had more female characters of color to look up to when I was younger, especially ones so visually present as in comics, and Malice in Ovenland totally delivers. It makes me want to get some kids from somewhere just to push this comic on them. And since I don’t have and don’t want kids, this is high praise indeed.

Malice in Ovenland Vol.1 will be out August 31, get it for your kids and your inner child! Also make sure to check out Rosarium Publishing here, they specialize in multicultural speculative fiction, comics, and a touch of crime fiction.

Disclaimer: I received an egalley of this book from the publisher. But never fear, I remain my opinionated self!

Thoughts: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

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In a tragic incident, a woman and her three young children fall from the roof of a high building in Chicago. 11 year old Rachel is the only one to survive.

Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel examines Blackness, biraciality and belonging in the context of the US during the 1980s. After the fall Rachel, the child of a Black American GI and a white Danish mother, is sent to live with her Black grandmother in Portland Oregon. It is only then that light-skinned Rachel with the “bluest eye(s)”is confronted with how exactly she is to fit into the Black community. Until this point, we are told, Rachel has not had to confront this issues or colorism or anti-Black racism. Having grown up on US bases in Germany and spent vacations in Denmark has apparently allowed her to live in the in-between without having to choose either parts of her identity. I’m emphasizing this because while, yes, I do understand that this book focuses on biraciality in the Black community and obviously reflects the author’s own experience, I was confused about Rachel’s life before. I want this post to be spoiler-free, so let’s just say that the impact of racism plays a key role in the mysterious incident that lost Rachel much of her family, and then thinking about army bases as microcosmos and how racism in Germany operates – well it felt like there was a huge gap that asked me to ignore all these issues to buy into the premise that racism and having to explain her identity only really began in the US. Likely this is a stylistic choice and is not meant to leave me with this impression, but it took me a while to get into the story that I was actually presented with.

It’s important to remember that this story is set in the 80s, before Obama and more media outlets presented people with stories and images of biracial people. Rachel’s attempt of making sense of how she is positioned in relation to Blackness, from being an outsider to benefitting from colorism, is the main storyline of the novel. She is forever removed from her mother and the Danish language so crucial to her identity. Instead, she is told that she is an “Oreo,” speaking and acting as if she were white. Her grandmother meanwhile tries to mold her in the image of a good Black girl who is supposed to aim no higher than a secretarial job and lonely and hurt at never quite fitting in anywhere, Rachel goes looking for validation in all the wrong places.

These attempts of Rachel at forging a self are by far the strongest aspect of the novel and I would have gladly learned more. Another is of course the mysterious tragedy and multiple narrators are drawn on to act as witness and to provide the context to the way racism and mixed-racedness impact families. While the information and perspective provided by these different voices – a young boy named Brick, Rachel’s mother Nella, her father and Laronne who was Nella’s employer – help understand the reason for the tragedy, they also serve to fragment the book. And perhaps this is also a reason I felt distanced from Rachel for much of the novel, I would have liked spending more time with her and perhaps following her journey into adulthood. There is much material for a sequel.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a welcome contribution to literature about mixed-racedness, identity and belonging. Fittingly, it has won the Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change. This is a debut novel that perhaps not always does justice to its fantastic premise, but it has an important story to tell and I will be reading the author’s next novel.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Thoughts: The English Teacher

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It’s been a busy week for me and between migraine season kicking off and helping my family move stuff, I haven’t had the energy to blog. But I did manage to finish the lovely and heartbreaking The English Teacher, so here is a quick pot about my thoughts! This is my first time reading R.K. Narayan and it was high time! Luckily, Deepika is hosting this readalong and I am currently reading through Narayan’s short story collection Malgudi Days. Oh Malgudi! I will definitely be reading more Narayan.

The English Teacher is set in India of the 150s and we meet Krishna, our protagonist, as he is living in a college hostel and teaching English at the school where he himself used to be a pupil. Despite living in this enclosed environment, he is married and has a young child. We see Krishna taking small steps, making preparations for his wife and child to join him and so setting off to find a good house, where they can be together as well as have a space away from each other. The discussions with his fellow teachers and Krishna’s thoughts about teaching and family were amusing and I was all in the mood for this novel to be a delightful read. Well, it was but it took a decidedly darker turn quite soon. Since these events can be found in summaries and even the goodreads description, I will not regard my thoughts here as spoilers. Nevertheless, if you truly wish to go into reading this novel blind, then please stop reading here!

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The first chapters show us how Krishna deals with leaving his prolonged bachelor life in the hostel to become a family man. Although this does not leave him any more time for writing poetry than his somewhat unsatisfying job, he reaches a stage of contented domesticity. Up until this point, I was utterly enthralled reading about such ordinary things as the family’s domestic happiness, written with a humorous touch in Narayan’s skilled prose. And then Krishna’s wife Sushila became ill and died. It was such a shocking twist and I was not at all prepared for the heartbreak and felt for Krisha and his sudden grief. It is heartbreaking to read his thoughts about learning life’s lessons:

“We come together only to go apart again. It is one continuous movement. They move away from us as we move away from them. The law of life can’t be avoided. The law comes into operation the moment we detach ourselves from our mother’s womb. All struggle and misery in life is due to our attempt to arrest this law or get away from it or in allowing ourselves to be hurt by it. The fact must be recognized. A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life.”

It was all the more shocking to learn about the parallels to the author’s life. The English Teacher is not autobiographical but it may as well be. And as such the sudden turn the novel took towards the spiritual made me react with compassion rather than dissatisfaction or skepticism. So even if Narayan was always trying to contact his wife in the spiritual realm, I was happy it worked out for Krishna and gave him a the possibility for closure. He also finds his place in caring for his daughter Leela and working in the nursery, learning from the way children interact with the world.

Another aspect that drew me in was how Narayan would treat colonialism, especially regarding Krishna’s occupation as an  English teacher. Without making this the focus of the novel or taking a stance directly, Narayan does criticize the educational system colonialism has put into place:

“This education has reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage (…) What about our own roots? (…) I am up against the system, the whole method and approach of a system of education which makes us morons, cultural morons, but efficient clerks for all your business and administration offices.”

Without taking issue with English literature and the greats such as Shakespeare, this quote does seem to call for a turn towards the roots and the culture(s) of India. I know Narayan is celebrated in both India and the western world, but I don’t really have much knowledge about the stance he took on these issues and how Indian novelists writing in English are regarded nowadays. There were several critical comments made by Krishna throughout the novel and though I would have liked to explore this issue more, the way the ordinary becomes extraordinary in Narayan’s writing was a joy to discover.

What are your thoughts on The English Teacher? Let me know in the comments!