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Sunday Salon: the Color Me Brown Post

August 23, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comThis week, I’m approaching Sunday Salon a little differently. Since I’ve missed a few weeks of them, I have way too many books to cram into one post. So instead, I’m going to focus on the four books I read this week by people of colour (POC), and one from last month that I haven’t yet reviewed. And I’m going to begin by talking a little bit about POC issues.

Color Online issued the Color Me Brown Challenge at the beginning of this month. It’s simple: read and review POC books during August. Now, I haven’t really been at all present in the blogosphere during August, nor had access to my library. So I’m a little late to the game. But that definitely doesn’t stop me from wanting to participate! And I began with some stats. I was looking at my books read list this year, and out of 210 books (I’m not counting the ones I read in the past couple of days specifically for this challenge), 41 fell into the POC category. Which is about 20%-not great, but not horrible either. However, I do lots of international reading, so I decided to look at how many were written by American POC: 8. At first I was pretty ashamed of that, but then I remembered that I don’t actually read a ton of fiction by American authors, so I added up that number and it came to 44. 8 out of 44 is once again 20%, which definitely made me feel better about myself! ;) But that still means that 80% of my books were written by white people from various countries (I think almost all of my nonfiction reads fall into that). For me, that’s simply too high.

For the rest of the year, I plan on focussing on making sure I’m more balanced. In fact, I’d like to make a public commitment. From now on, I’d like my POC percentages to work out this way: 50% of American fiction, 50% of all fiction, and 25% of nonfiction. That might mean some juggling on my challenge lists, and it will definitely mean more work. After all, our book publishing industry is heavily geared towards prevailing white standards. But in 2006, 70% of the books I read were written by men. By becoming more aware, I’ve brought that to at least 50-50. I hope that in two years I’ll be able to say the same thing about POC books. And do you know what would make it easier to read POC books? If the entire book blogosphere committed to reading and reviewing more, we’d all become more aware. The publishing industry would become more aware. Imagine if everyone decided that say, even 1 out of 4 of their reviews would focus on a POC book. So who’s with me?

Let’s review some books now, shall we? :)

bookmarksI read a very interesting nonfiction book called BookMarks: Reading in Black and White by Karla Hollaway. Like many book bloggers, I adore the ‘books about books’ genre, and this one mixes up personal memoir with a bit of history and biography with thoughtful meditations on race issues. In the prologue, Hollaway explores how African Americans use booklists to definite themselves, to show themselves as educated and challenge race stereotypes. (Of course, she points out such behavior isn’t limited to African Americans.) Then each of her chapters includes the booklists of two or three famous African Americans; I loved this, since it added a bit to the TBR list! The chapters are arranged around various themes as well, and include many touching stories of Hollaway’s parents and children, as well as her own reading memories. These glimpses into Hollaway’s personal life were wonderful; she sketched the people and events with a deft hand, and I felt like an honorary member of the family. My favourite two chapters were “A Negro Library” and “A Prison Library.” The former discusses the segregation of public libraries, and how pre-Civil Rights era African Americans did or did not access libraries. Nowadays, we think of libraries as hallowed institutions that help protect democracy, so it was sobering to see them in a different, historical light. In “A Prison Library,” Hollaway brought up issues that had never even occurred to me before. I didn’t realise that prisoners can only receive books directly from publishers, so their parents or friends can’t simply send them a wonderful book to read. As I think many of us are aware, African American men make up a highly disproportional number of American prisoners, so this issue affects them even more. While these were my two favourites, they make the book seem like it’s all about the sufferings of African Americans in reading, which isn’t true at all. Most of the chapters are more personal than that, with titles such as “My Mother’s Singing” and “The Anchor Bar” (a famous wings place in Buffalo, NY where both the author and my own mother are from). This is definitely more of a memoir than history. And the writing is simply wonderful; Hollaway is an English professor at Duke, and it definitely feels like you’re out for a coffee with a favourite prof, discussing reading and how its affected by race. I’d highly recommend this one. :)

200px-ColinWhitehead_TheIntuitionistI’m going to first discuss the novel that I didn’t enjoy very much: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. I knew this was going to be a push outside of my comfort zone, since it’s futuristic sci-fi. And it’s also got a hint of the dystopian, which we’ve established by now doesn’t work very well for me. ;) And it feels noir-ish, which rubs me the wrong way in its treatment of women. So if you enjoy those genres, you should definitely give it a go. Lisa Mae is an elevator inspector, in an alternative US that values elevators a lot and is still highly segregated. The elevator world is broke into two paradigms: the Empiricists who believe in what we would imagine elevator inspecting to be, lots of touching and looking at things, measuring, sorting out what’s wrong, and the Intuitionists, who can feel what’s wrong with an elevator just by listening. The Intuitionists are new and by far the minority, so Lisa Mae is not only one of two black inspectors and the only black woman inspector by an Intuitionist besides. She gets caught up in a plot by the Intuitionists to try to grab control of the Elevator Guild. As a debut novel, it’s well written. It’s just that the combination of sci-fi, noir, and dystopia doesn’t work for me. I enjoyed parts of it, since the philosophical ideas were quite interesting (and the plot moves quickly), so I would recommend it to anyone who’s intrigued by the plot description.

a_beautiful_place_to_dieFortunately, I loved some of the other novels! A Beautiful Place to Die is a debut book by South African Malla Nunn. It’s set in a small town on the border of Mozambique in 50s South Africa, and is what I’d call a hard-boiled mystery. (English) Detective Emmanuel Cooper must try to figure out who killed (Afrikaner) police Captain Pretorious, while also trying to protect himself from Pretorious’ crazy sons and the Afrikaner Special Service, who have also been sent in from Jo’burg. I loved how evocative this book was; it whisked me away to apartheid South Africa, and I felt like I was there with Cooper. (Since I read this for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, that’s a definite plus!) The plotline itself was interesting, as more and bits were revealed throughout. It’s not really a Christie-style whodunnit, although you do have the cast of suspects to try to decide between. I didn’t guess the murderer, or several of the twists! The race issues were fascinating as well; I had no idea of all the nuances in apartheid South Africa. Between the Brits, Afrikaners, Jews, Indians, Coloureds, and native Blacks, it got a little crazy at times. But Nunn is adept at writing for an audience who has no background in South Africa, since I never felt confused or lost. That being said, it was quite hardboiled, with lots of violence and the way the men think/talk about women annoyed me (even though Nunn is a woman author). Those two quibbles kept me from giving it five stars, but I’ll definitely be reading Nunn’s next book!

skiniminI also loved Sharon Flake’s YA novel The Skin I’m In, which won the Coretta Scott King prize for new talent back in 1999. Maleeka is a middle schooler who definitely has issues: she’s teased for the darkness of her skin and the clothes her mom (badly) sews for her. She’s gotten herself into a bad group of friends, and she certainly isn’t ‘living up to her potential’ as her new teacher Miss Saunders would put it. The story is told from Maleeka’s point of view, and I loved it because it didn’t ever fall into stereotypes or wrap things up neat and tidily. Maleeka felt like a real girl, and I simply wanted to know what happened to her. This was a fast read-it took me less than an hour, but I loved it for how it brought me to a completely different world, despite still being set in modern America. :) Anyone who enjoys YA will definitely enjoy this one, and those curious about what life is like for kids in inner cities should pick it up too.

pembassongLast month, I read another YA novel: Pemba’s Song, which was co-written Marilyn Nelson and Tonya Hegamin. I had to read it, since after Pemba and her mom move to an old house in Connecticut, Pemba begins being haunted by a slave girl named Phyllis. I enjoyed this book, but it felt too short and too shallow, almost like upper elementary rather than real YA. I think the plot and themes could have been fleshed out much more, and Phyllis’ story and characters felt stereotypical. That being said, Pemba’s story was great, and even the minor characters took on a quirky life of their own. Since one author wrote Pemba’s story and the other wrote Phyllis’, I think that accounts for the unevenness. Once again, I read this in less than an hour, and it was a pleasant diversion. I’d recommend this to those who need some light reading, or enjoy lower-level YA.

There you go! As I mentioned before, my laptop’s in a coma, and my mom needs hers to do her homework, so I have to wrap things up quickly (which is why the covers are different sizes-no time to edit!). But I hope you enjoyed the post, and if you have any recommendations for POC books, please share them. :D

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2009 2:12 pm

    Great post. I know I need to be more responsible about what I read. I’ve been on a free for all this year and I’m feeling like I need more structure. I guess the good news about my free for all is that I’ve had tons more books by women than men, which I wouldn’t have expected…

  2. August 23, 2009 2:34 pm

    I seem to read lots of books with Hispanic characters, but I don’t run across that many with African American characters. I wonder why. Flake looks like an author I’d like. Should check her out.

  3. August 23, 2009 7:31 pm

    Wonderful reviews! I love that there are an increasing number of POC YA books. Thanks for highlighting those!

  4. August 23, 2009 8:10 pm

    These books look really great! I see you being featured on my Friday Finds post this week… :)

    I also have an award for you!

  5. August 23, 2009 9:56 pm

    I read The Intuitionist a long time ago but did not like it at all! I remember having a very strong reaction to it and I was so disappointed because it was the first book that my book club (at the time) picked.

  6. August 24, 2009 2:20 am

    That’s some planning Eva, hope it works out. Great reviews as always. I’m adding book marks and the YA books to my list :)

  7. August 24, 2009 3:44 am

    Did you know A BEAUTIFUL PLCAE TO DIE has just won a Davitt award?
    See my post:

  8. August 24, 2009 9:12 am

    You are inspiring! I can’t commit to percentages, but it would be really wonderful to read more writing from people of color, and I’ll try to do it!

  9. Pierre Lourens permalink
    August 24, 2009 10:10 am

    Wow, A Beautiful Place to Dielooks really, really good. I am from South Africa, so I know a little bit more of the history. But, I grew up mostly in America and love to read books about Africa. I’m definitely putting it on the TBR list!

  10. stacybuckeye permalink
    August 24, 2009 2:07 pm

    Great goal! 25% seems high for me, but I know I need to make more of an effort. This is the first year that I’ve started keeping a running tally of male and female authors because I am determined to have read more women at the end of the year. So far I’m +5 women authors :)

  11. August 24, 2009 9:36 pm

    You know, I haven’t figured out my percentage of books by POC but lately they’ve been high. I’m going to check at the end of the year.

  12. August 25, 2009 7:04 pm

    Amanda, that’s great you’re reading so many women authors! :) I go through phases-sometimes I’m super-structured, sometimes I’m completely free, but most of the time I’m in the middle.

    Deb, I’ll have to check out your reviews for Latino suggestions! :)

    Rhapsody, I think it’s interesting that most of the POC reviews I see are YA!

    Rebecca, thank you!

    Ti, yeah I wasn’t a huge fan. That would be sad if it was the first book of your club!

    Violet, it’s definitely taken some effort in the beginning. But now I have a long list to choose from!

    Kerrie, that’s interesting since she’s South African, lol.

    Dorothy, thank you!

    Pierre, it is really good. :)

    Stacy, awesome on the gender thing!

    Amy, can’t wait to see what you find out.


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  2. Travel by Books: 2009 Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair
  3. Black African Authors « Diversify Your Reading
  4. Southern African Authors « Diversify Your Reading
  5. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
  6. The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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