- What: Passing
- Who: Nella Larsen
- Pages: 120 pages
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1929
- The lit: of 5 flames
The year 2020, as awful as it was, did have a few silver linings. Growth was a big one, especially because I finally acknowledged my own racism. I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my life as I learn something every day, but in the past year, I’ve done a lot of listening and learning to become a true ally. Of the many things I’ve learned, one thing sticks out in particular, mainly because I’m ashamed I’d never heard of this and never thought about its impact before: the concept of passing, where a Black person with light skin tones consciously passes as a white person.
I first learned about this in the novel Three-Fifths written by John Vercher, and when I interviewed him, he spoke about the topic as his main character — passing as white — struggles with his mixed identity. Passing is also a core theme in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett‘s second novel, which took the literary community by storm last year and was one of my favorite books in 2020.
In reading and researching both of these books and in speaking with Vercher, there was one book that continuously came up: Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s the original book about the passing literary canon, and it allowed this topic to be pursued in scholarly settings, as well as pop culture. To say it’s had an impact is an understatement. So I finally did my due diligence and bought this classic novella. With its themes and its setting among the Harlem Renaissance, Passing provides an extraordinary look into a life so few understand — including the main character herself.
Yes, all three Jasmine Guillory books have T.Swift lyrics in their review title. I can’t help it these two women absolutely kill it in their respective careers.
And when I say Guillory is killing it, I mean it; she may just be sliding her way into my favorite author slot. I can say that confidently after reading three of her five novels. I knew I’d found a stellar author after reading The Proposal in 2019, and recently reading her debut, The Wedding Date, confirmed it for me. I loved it so much that I instantly threw away by #tbr list to divulge into Guillory’s next chronological novel, The Wedding Party.
I read two Guillory books in less than two weeks, and it may have been the two best literary weeks of 2020. The Wedding Party didn’t quite top her previous two books I’d read, but I still enjoyed every moment of it. And Guillory once again gave me everything I loved in her previous work: realistic characters with depth, diversity, entertainment, wit, and a whole lot of love — both literally and euphemistically.
I owe chick lit an apology. Too often this year, I’ve used the genre as a clutch and as an escape. Read something sad? Life and the world are blowing up? No worries; let’s check in with chick lit for a pick-me-up. It will surely turn things around. How did one of my favorite genres become my sidepiece when the going got tough?
Such an amazing genre deserves better, so to end 2020, I decided to make chick lit my main squeeze, starting with Paris for One. By the time I finished it, I knew I had to continue on my Tour de Fun with these light-hearted and entertaining novels by turning to one of the best in the genre: Jasmine Guillory.
I first met Guillory’s writing in the summer of 2019 with her five-flame second book, The Proposal, which is actually the second of five very loosely connected books that Guillory has written. The Proposal was so much fun, made me laugh, and made my mouth salivate with all of its delicious food scenes. Not to mention the characters and their arcs had some serious depth and dealt with real-life issues rather than just romantic clichés. Oh, and it’s full of diversity. If it sounds like Guillory’s books have it all, that’s because they do, which was proven once again in her debut, The Wedding Date. And yes, somehow things got even spicier with this one.
The most popular books can make me a bit weary before I read them. I don’t have the best track record, you see. Normal People, which dominated the first half of 2020 both in written word and on TV, left me depressed and confused. Last year, I dived into three critically acclaimed novels — Queenie, Tell Me Lies, and The Female Persuasion — that, while I didn’t dislike them, left me unfulfilled. Even when I read The Overstory, which I rated four flames, I didn’t see quite what the critics did. Then I have books like City of Girls, the kind that completely enrapture me but some have called boring and bland.
Why can’t I connect with literature that means so much to critics and fans alike? Is this a me problem or a them problem?
So I did wonder if Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half would live up to all the hype. This one will surely be on all of the “Best of 2020” lists and win many awards (if it hasn’t already) because it’s already received so much praise since releasing in June. Given that I’d read her debut novel, The Mothers, and completely loved it, I had confidence that this wasn’t just a book I’d obsess over. This would also be a novel that the U.S. — with its systemic racism and struggle with identity — desperately needed and needed ASAP.
Thankfully, Bennett washed away any and all doubts about it living up to the hype. And I can’t wait to see it on all those lists and with all of those nominations at the end of this year.
Let’s call it how it is. 2020 has been a garbage fire. Phase 1 of COVID preceded a phase 2 of COVID that’s grounded in people basically giving zero f***s anymore. Mix this with an unbearable allergy season. Furthermore, our president is more delusional than ever. And sparked by several recorded incidents of police brutality, social tensions are at an all-time high (or maybe we’re just watching and listening now), which begs the question: Are race relations worsening?
The Black community has always faced prejudice and discrimination in America. They’ve been treated as “others” or less than, and white people as a collective have continually refused to listen and evaluate the role they play in our racist, white supremacist society. The murder of George Floyd seems to be changing the tide: The fog is finally being lifted, the curtain being pushed back on this country’s true history and present reality for people of color.
White people seem more willing to educate themselves on this — myself included. With that comes a bevy of anti-racism literature, most of which has been around for years but is now in the spotlight. This brings me to White Fragility, a book that, although written by a white woman, provides a telling perspective on why it is so difficult for white people to discuss race — which contributes to why white supremacy has reigned for so long in the “western” world — while also providing examples and guidance to challenge it.
Let me start by saying diversity and literature go hand in hand.
- Diversity is the foundation to learn new perspectives from literature.
- Literature proves the value and necessity of diversity.
We are coming full circle here, people.
Diversity wasn’t really part of my upbringing, though. I grew up in a mostly white community and knew very few people who looked or lived differently than I did. I don’t even remember talking to a person of color until high school. Even then, my school was mostly white kids. On top of that, I barely knew any non-Christians or non-straight people. I definitely didn’t know anyone from the trans community.
That changed a bit when I went to college. I was definitely one of those people, though, who had one or two black friends and thought that made me an ally and not racist. I would even say that out loud. “Oh she’s my black friend.” And I shamefully remember commenting once that one of these women didn’t “act black.” I’m embarrassed now to write that and of my 20-year-old self, and I feel immense guilt.
Thank God for growth, for New York, and for literature.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been disillusioned by the idea of the American Dream. I never really thought the U.S. of A was the absolute best place to live in the world and that, by being within its borders, my life had infinite possibilities. And the idea of buying a home with a picket fence — something often connected to the American Dream — surely has never been at the top of my priority list.
I have, though, been obsessed with finding that dream job. As a teenager and in college, I fully expected to work my ass off in my 20s in a dream industry to lead me to the ultimate dream job. My life would be fulfilled and have meaning. I’m no longer obsessed with this idea. Now, I fully believe in the dream of loving every second of your life and the very place you call home.
To me, the ideals of the American Dream and that of the dream job are very similar — the latter being the more-modern version of the former. And it’s these concepts that form Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, a story of immigrants who put their full hope and faith into the American system only to be crushed by its many injustices. It’s distressing and heartbreaking and will make you question the validity behind your values. Yeah. It’s a lot.
The first time I watched Tiffany Haddish on TV, she was telling a story about how an old guy died while she grinded on him at a bar mitzvah. Then of course I heard the story about her taking Will and Jada Pinkett Smith on a Groupon swamp tour. From there, I read about the $4,000 white Alexander McQueen dress that she insisted on wearing at the Girls Trip premiere, SNL, the Oscars, and, most recently, the MVT Movie & TV Awards. Haddish and her antics have been everywhere the past two years, and I wanted more.
Then I came across her memoir The Last Black Unicorn. You know how I feel about memoirs. This time was different.
Haddish’s standup comedy special famously proclaims, “She ready!” Me too, girl, me too.
- What: New People
- Who: Danzy Senna
- Pages: 229
- Genre: Contemporary adult fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
Rarely do I not know what to say about a book. Usually I could talk for hours about a specific plot, character development, narrative arc, setting, etc. etc. etc. And whether I loved or hated the book usually doesn’t matter. I’m a bibliophile; I can talk about books forever.
But Danzy Senna’s 2017 novel, New People had me coming up short. All I can say is that it barely ignited two flames. This might seem harsh, but honestly, the only thing that kept me reading was knowing that I only had to get through 229 pages. “Get through.” That’s not how I speak of literature. New People lacked depth and explanation, and while the bones are there for a great story, they were poorly constructed. I felt lost in every one of those 229 pages.