Tag Archives: Race

World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom by J.C. Elkin

World ClassComprised of just 27 pages which hold 14 poems, this collection feels more like a pamphlet than an actual book. That said, the spare verses by J.C. Elkin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated ESL teacher at a Maryland community college, are not without complexity and depth, inspired by her actual students’ lives: “Their names, nationalities, and some occupations have been changed, but their circumstances in these narratives are real. The quotations are as exact as memory permits,” Elkin explains in her introduction.

“My students arrive in dust storms of change,” Elkin’s first poem opens in “Foreign Soil.” She empathizes with their struggles in “World Class,” herself once an ex-pat abroad who “know[s] how it feels to be the alien.”  The “‘Tribal’, ‘slanty-eyed’, / Slavic, ‘rag-head’ strangers” in her class are her “heroes and friends / who put their lives on hold for twelve long hours a week, / asking probing questions, aiming for the A.”

She writes of Hala, who was once a superintendent of girls’ schools in Pakistan, where nine million girls are denied an education. She bids “Vaya con Dios” to Fernan who returns south of the border to bury his mother. She regrets not letting JoySong keep the textbook that wasn’t hers, especially when she returns the next day with bruised signs of spousal abuse. She commiserates with Verdad whose son’s English is not expanding with quite the right vocabulary. She’s left speechless by Young who can’t connect words into comprehensible sentences, but knows exactly how to show his appreciation towards her.

“I’m proud to say I help,” Elkin writes. “Ashamed I don’t do more.” Yet, what she accomplishes here is perhaps that most important ‘more’: giving voice to the newest generation of Americans-in-the-making. Her ‘help’ is never blind, as she knows when to be firm with chronic latecomers, because “[t]he wait list is full of contenders.” She is uncompromisingly honest, ready to expose her own insensitivities; she admits to her own ‘them/us’-mindset as she, too, once thought “‘[t]hey should speak our language or just go back home.’” She confesses without guilt that when she sees one of her students bearing the suffocating weight of her hijab while Ramadan-fasting in steamy August heat, she realizes”… watching her melt in submission, I hate her religion today.”

As brief as Elkin’s Class may be, her universal lessons are many … and each a learning experience ready to share.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Nonethnic-specific

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, foreword by Brian Michael Bendis, afterword by Jeet Heer

Fagin the Jew“I am Fagin the Jew of Oliver Twist,” begins the ‘father of the graphic novel’-Will Eisner‘s 21st-century literary reclamation of the 19th-century classic. “This is my story, one that has remained untold and overlooked in the book by Charles Dickens,” a tattered old man insists. “Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens,” he speaks directly to his maker, “while ol’ Fagin here tells you, Sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!”

The infant Moses Fagin arrived in London with his parents after surviving the pograms of Eastern Europe. While England was kinder to immigrant Jews, the more recent arrivals from Middle and Eastern Europe “were regarded as lower class.” Fagin paraphrases Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities-opening as he remembers his upbringing: “These were grim times, and yet the best of times for us newcomers.”

Moses learned early of life on the rough streets, but was given the chance of a promising future when he was hired as a houseboy to a wealthy Jewish merchant who soon enough came to treat him more like his own son. A single unthinking action sends Moses back to the streets, where he must use every means to survive. Again and again he’s mistreated and betrayed, unjustly accused and imprisoned. Somehow, he manages to keep some semblance of humanity and, in his later years, provides a haven-of-sorts for homeless boys, including the young Oliver Twist. The “Epilogue,” narrated by an adult Oliver – now a happily-married, well-established barrister – offers an apocryphal “turning point in Fagin’s life and his legacy” that is especially,  sigh inducing. Oh, if only!

As memorable as Fagin’s narrative is, the context in which it was written is perhaps the more enlightening story, especially as revealed in Eisner’s 2003 “Introduction to the First Edition.” In reimagining Fagin, the legendary Eisner – whose name is on the U.S. graphic industry’s highest awards – was, in essence, responding to his own stereotypical creations more than a half-century earlier. In 1940, Eisner introduced The Spirit, which featured an African American character named Ebony. By 1945, after surviving military service, Eisner became “more aware of the social implications of racial stereotypes, and [he] began to treat Ebony with greater insight.” More years passed until Eisner realized how Ebony was “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.” Eisner transferred that new awareness toward “produc[ing] graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face.” In the original editions of Oliver Twist, he “found unquestionable examples of visual defamation in classic literature … Combatting that became an obsessive pursuit …”

For this 10th anniversary issue, Fagin is bookended by an illuminating foreword and afterword that provides further insight in the story’s creation and aftermath. The levels of reclamation are especially intriguing – from Eisner’s distancing of his own stereotypical creations, to his rescue of Fagin from ignominy, to many-Eisner (of course!)-winning comics maker Brian Michael Bendis and culture journalist Jeet Heer‘s involvement in getting one of Eisner’s ‘minor’ titles to more and more readers.

Much like Jean Rhys gave Jane Eyre‘s ‘madwoman in the attic’ a voice in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tom Stoppard offered Hamlet‘s schoolfriends a play of their own in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Eisner literally gives life to Fagin: “This book,” he rightfully insists, “… is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist! It is the story of Fagin the Jew.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2003, 2013 (10th anniversary edition)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, European, Jewish

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

Flight by Sherman Alexie

FlightI spent my last birthday with Sherman Alexie … and a few hundred others, too. He happened to be in residence for a week at our son’s new school (!), and son came home announcing that Alexie thought son’s name made him sound like a superhero!

That night, Alexie made a community-wide appearance following a screening of his and Chris Eyre‘s iconic film, Smoke Signals. As Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had just hit the #2 spot of the latest “Top Ten Challenged Books” and Banned Books Week 2013 was about to commence, Alexie had a few choice words to share about freedom of speech and more. His enlightening hysterics made quite the memorable birthday gift.

So all this is related! Because Smoke Signals star Adam Beach pitch-perfectly narrates Flight, 10 years after his celluloid performance. “Call me Zits,” Alexie’s genre-defying slim novel opens. Beach’s delivery is as deadpan as Alexie’s’ storytelling as his 15-year-old protagonist time travels from his troubled young life through multiple decades and bodies.

Zits lost his Indian father – “more in love with beer and vodka than with my mother and me” – almost at birth. At 6, his Irish mother passed away: “I sometimes wish she’d died when I was younger so I wouldn’t remember her at all.” He moved in with an aunt whose boyfriend abused him, and then through 20 foster homes and 22 schools. Angry, alone, and lost, Zits is a pixellated hapa adolescent who’s “been partially raised by too many people.”

He meets a boy named Justice who convinces Zits to take part in a bank shoot-out. Zits should have died, but instead, he wakes to find himself in the 1970s, in the body of a white FBI agent who witnesses the murder of “two famous Indian guys.” His adventure is just beginning, as he lands in Little Bighorn as a young Indian boy without a voice, as the “best Indian tracker in the entire U.S. Army,” as a pilot and flight instructor who still misses his favorite student, and then, shockingly, as his own missing father.

Zits’ impossible journey is filled with lessons in broad perspective … and, because Alexie is writing the nuanced story, mixed in with the racism, violence, and tragedy, humor is also never far. Alexie deftly balances between surreal fantasy and brutal reality, as he guides young Zits toward an identity – and a “real name”! – with possibility and promise.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Native American

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Twelve Tribes of HattieWhen Oprah reinvented her book club in 2012, she elevated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to near mythic status (I found Wild so tedious, I didn’t have the energy to write a post). Oprah’s 2013 choice was a first novel that hasn’t found quite that Wild level of ubiquitous success, but mega-bestselling annointment is definitely the next best way to launch a literary career. Besides, Ayana Mathis‘ Twelve Tribes resonates much more with Oprah’s usual-suspects: long-suffering protagonists (especially women) who must fight not only social oppression – usually with racial or classist overtones – but degradation caused by so-called loved ones, as well.

Hattie Shepherd, the novel’s matriarch, is still a teenager when she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By 17, she’s a married woman with twins. Her babies fall victim to pneumonia at seven months and die; Hattie never quite recovers in the more than half century she births, raises, and lets go of nine more children. Hattie is crippled by her bitterness towards her philandering husband, her impatience with trying to control her needy offspring, her disappointment over their lives as adults. Her difficulties render her incapable of ever openly showing love and affection to those she cares about most.

Over 10 chapters that read like interlinked short stories, Hattie’s maturity from teenaged mother to weathered grandmother is revealed via dovetailing glimpses of her children’s lives, mirroring the restrictive, challenging, not-changing-fast-enough African American experience of the 20th century. Floyd womanizes to cover his homosexuality, Six’s violent temper leads him to become a man of God, both Ruthie and Ella will always be someone else’s daughters, Alice pops pills convinced her life purpose is to take care of brother Billy whom she couldn’t protect as a child, Franklin gambles away his family, Bell gives up, Cassie succumbs to voices, and … in the final chapter, only Sala seems to look at her future with any hope.

No, this isn’t a feel-good story by any stretch of the imagination [Oprah chose it, ahem!]. That Hattie survives with her back straight and her head held high is perhaps the title’s greatest achievement. For those who want to go beyond the page, a cast of veteran narrators adeptly imbue the characters with urgent immediacy. Here’s to resilience – Hattie’s and committed readers both!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Images of America: Chinese in Hollywood by Jenny Cho and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

Chinese in HollywoodIn spite of a history that spans centuries – especially in California – Hollywood has long remained an elusive destination for Asian Pacific Americans seeking not always celluloid glory, but at the very least, mere participation and fair representation. From immigration restrictions, limited casting opportunities, miscegenation laws, and blatant racism, even in the 21st century, APAs in Hollywood remain rare.

Part historical record, part neighborhood photo album, this slim volume provides an introductory, skeletal overview of Chinese Americans in front of as well as behind the camera. From the early 1900s through Ang Lee’s stupendous second Best Director Oscar in 2013, “[t]his book … examines how Hollywood functions not only as a geographical area but also as a conceptual idea as the entertainment capital of the world,” the two-page “Introduction” opens. Over 200 black-and-white photographs are divided into chronological chapters, beginning with the silent “Early Years” featuring Marion Wong, the first Chinese American woman who wrote, produced, and directed her own films, to the first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, to the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which has since morphed into TCL Chinese Theatres, complete with IMAX 3D).

“1930s and 1940s” introduces the one of Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers, 10-times nominated, twice Oscar-winning James Wong Howe, who also ran the Ching Howe Restaurant in North Hollywood. Benson Fong also did double duty as restaurateur and Hollywood icon as “Number Three Son” in the era of Charlie Chan yellowfacing: Walter Oland and Sydney Toland were not Asian. Neither were Paul Muni and Luise Rainer who starred in The Good Earth, based on the Nobel Prized Pearl S. Buck novel; in spite of the unconvincing makeup, the 1937 film was a multi-Oscar winner, including Best Actress for Rainer and Best Picture.

“Gotta Dance and Sing” opens with Nancy Kwan in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song, stops briefly at her birthday on the set of The World of Suzie Wong, and ends with her practicing high kicks with then-stunt advisor Bruce Lee. “New Generations” features an iconic shot of Lee as the unparalleled martial arts legend, includes APA theater history with the founding of East West Players and the early success of David Henry Hwang, the seminal founding of Visual Communications. The chapter moves quickly through to contemporary Chinese American media achievements from Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, to crossover stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat and directors John Woo and Wong Kar Wai, to (almost) household names Lucy Liu, B.D. Wong, and Justin Lin.

Ironically, although not surprisingly, the shortest chapter is the last – “Academy Awards” – but Ang Lee’s gratitude to the heavens filled with such joy is also a hope-filled final image surely promising more achievements to come.

TidbitChinese in Hollywood makes for a perfect companion title to Arthur Dong’s extensive documentary, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Chinese American

Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids by Deborah Ellis, foreword by Loriene Roy

Looks Like DaylightDeborah Ellis has a doubly powerful schtick: first, her nonfiction titles give underrepresented children a highly visible podium for their very own words (Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children SpeakOff to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, Children of War: Voices of Iraqi RefugeesKids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War); then she ends up putting her royalties where her pen goes. Her latest gives center stage to young people throughout the North American continent who are Native Americans south of the border, and First Nations people to the north; her royalties benefit the First Nations Children & Family Caring Society of Canada. Her gifting has proven impressively prodigious: she’s parlayed her bestselling success to raise over a million dollars for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International with the first three (of four) titles of her award-winning signature Breadwinner series alone.

Regardless of the different monikers – Iqaluit to Inuit, Nez Perce to Navajo, Pueblo to Seminole, and so many more – the 45 young people here share an indigenous heritage: they are the original Americans. “These are the stories of young people who have inherited the challenges of colonialism,” writes Dr. Loriene Roy in her “Foreword”; Roy is Anishinabe, former president of the American Library Association, and teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. “These challenges of family dissolution, family/intimate partner violence, diabetes, alcoholism/drug abuse, foster care, bullying, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), self-abuse and suicide are the outcomes of the efforts of majority cultures to abolish traditional lifeways …

“Yet they live and often, thrive,” Roy concludes.

Ellis spent two years crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada to speak to these surviving, thriving young people. In her “Introduction,” Ellis lays bare the horrific Native history through the last two centuries: from genocide to the creation of schools for survivors designed to “‘Kill the Indian in him and save the man,’” to the legalized abduction of children for indentured service or even slavery, to the attempts to abolish indigenous languages (of an estimated 300 original languages, half have disappeared; of the remaining 150, 130 are threatened with extinction as today’s children can only speak some 20 languages), to the replacement of the Native diet with handouts of canned and processed foods. “The children in this book have inherited this history. That they are here at all is a miracle.”

These resilient youth are definitely ‘here’ – each learning, adapting, sharing, thriving. Tingo, 14, is working to get over grief: “… grief over losing our land, our language, our customs, our ways. Grief often comes out as trouble.” Mari, 18, helped get smoking banned from public parks in Minneapolis. Myleka, 13, and her brother Tulane, 14, represent a new generation of proud artists. Cohen, 14, who belongs to the remote Haida Gwaii, helped battle the logging companies who arrived to cut down their trees.

But sometimes, illness and death are just too close to home. Miranda, 12, knows too many sick people damaged by the nearby petrochemical plants: “It’s almost a normal thing here to die of cancer, especially if you’re a woman.” Destiny, 15, has survived five suicide attempts: “I guess I was meant to live … I guess maybe the Creator is telling me … you’ve got something important to do before you die …”; she lives “just over the hill from where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place … For white kids it’s just something in a history book. For me, it’s my family. … They’re still killing us today, but now they do it with alcohol and drugs and bad food and suicide.”

Solace and strength comes in many forms, sometimes via surprising options. Isabella, 14, is an actress hoping to break Hollywood’s stereotypes. Danton, 14, performs extensively with his family group, the Métis Fiddler Quartet, including during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Ta’Kaiya, 11, is already a staunch environmentalist with numerous international speaking engagements, a website, and has thus far been in four films. Cuay, 12, is a skateboarder: “Skateboarding is the fastest-growing sport on native American reservations.” Lane, 14, is a multi-generational lacrosse player; named by French priests in the 1600s, the sport is a Native creation: “Lacrosse has been played by my people since forever, since long before your people came here.”

And speaking of us non-Native people, Jeffrey, 18, gets the final word today of all days: “I come from the Watuppa Wampanoag Reservation of Martha’s Vineyard … It was my ancestors who greeted the Pilgrims when they landed on Plymouth Rock, and my ancestors who helped them survive through the first winter. When you think of Thanksgiving, think of us.” [For an unforgettable novelization of the life of the first Native American graduate of Harvard who was also Wampanoag, check out Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing.]

In spite of his history, Jeffrey “get[s] squashed for being Native” in high school. Growing up, he didn’t understand his heritage: “It felt like a disadvantage.” And then he got involved with the local youth council, eventually attending a UNITY conference which “transformed” him: He left behind feeling “empty, angry, and alone,” and found “connection … in the traditions of their own communities.” Unlike too many of his contemporaries who didn’t survive, Jeffrey, and many like him, do what they do “for the Native youth who will follow us, seven generations from now.” That’s reason for thanks-giving indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Native American

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Burgess BoysSmall-town Maine, where Elizabeth Strout was born and raised, has been home to her four novels. In her first title since she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for her novel-in-13-stories, Olive Kitteridge, Strout returns to tiny Shirley Falls where she set her acclaimed, chilling debut, Amy and Isabelle. This time, in The Burgess Boys, she brings the whole wide world to the isolated mill town, from ex-residents who never intended to go ‘home,’ to refugee transplants who long to return to people and places that no longer exist, to the ubiquitous media with their imposing, exposing cameras that send the worst of Shirley Falls around the globe.

As soon as they were able, the Burgess boys left Maine, both becoming lawyers who landed in Brooklyn. Jim, the eldest, became a celebrity corporate attorney and lives a lavish lifestyle with his old money trophy wife and their almost-grown children. Bob also chose the law, but most of his Legal Aid clients can’t afford to pay him; his ex-wife remains his best friend, although she left him for a Park Avenue life with a new husband who could give her the children she desperately needed. Bob’s acerbic twin, Susan, is the only Burgess who stayed Shirley Falls-bound, solo-parenting a quiet teenage son, Zach, after her husband abandoned the family to move to ‘real’ Sweden after growing up in New Sweden, Maine.

Lonely, isolated, friendless, Zach’s done something terrible: a pig’s head, a mosque, Ramadan. Susan hysterically calls her brothers home. For the first time in decades, the Burgess siblings are forced together to face not only the charges threatening Zach’s entire future, but their own troubled relationships with each other, as well as their long-dead parents – a father killed too young in a horrible accident, and a mother whose bitterness poisoned them all. In spite of Zach’s heinous act, Strout avoids absolutes, moving fluidly between condemnation and empathy by adding diverse community voices, including a devout Somali storeowner who witnessed his son’s brutal murder, a twice-divorced Unitarian minister, and an elderly lodger in Susan’s home who has listened for years to Zach’s loud music … and his tears alone at night.

The single extraneous voice appears in the “Prologue” and then disappears: an unnamed Shirley Falls transplant to New York explains how she came to “‘write the story of the Burgess kids’” – those opening five pages wouldn’t be missed. And since I’m quibbling, might I add a quick warning that what ubiquitous narrator Cassandra Campbell (hard to pick up a book without getting her stuck in your ears) thinks are regional and international flourishes will just need to be ignored. Thankfully, Strout’s words are stronger than Campbell’s grating accents. By book’s end, what you’ll remember most are the challenges, negotiations, joys, acceptances, and renewals of the remarkably resilient bonds that make up family.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, Nonethnic-specific

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Color of Water McBrideWhat writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”

Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.

She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”

Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.

As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African American, Hapa

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng

Southern Cross the DogLet’s start with this fascinating article: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin – go ahead, take a few minutes to read it.

You’ll see from that giant close-up photo that author Bill Cheng is indeed of Asian ethnicity. He’s Chinese American, in case you were wondering, and was just 29 when his debut novel pubbed last May, a book that follows the lives of African Americans in rural Mississippi during the decades following the Great Flood of 1927.

Mega-award winning author Colum McCann blurbs, “Cheng, almost literally, writes out of his skin.” Ironically, McCann – an Irishman now domiciled in NYC – himself has a reputation for writing beyond his background, but who’s noticing? Indeed, that’s exactly Jin’s premise: “Unfortunately, most reviewers and interviewers seem to care less about the quality of Cheng’s writing than they do about the answers to these questions: Did the Chinese guy get it right? Can an authentic picture of the South come from a man of Asian descent who grew up in Queens? …In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.” Ouch.

Cheng apparently hadn’t set foot in Mississippi before he went on book tour in the deep South. But that didn’t stop him from creating the absolutely convincing, haunting voice of his African American protagonist, Robert Lee Chatham. Moreover, if you decide to stick the book in your ears, actor Prentice Onayemi will undoubtedly dispel any lingering doubts.

Robert Lee Chatham survives the Great Flood with his parents – his mother already hopelessly damaged by the brutal lynching murder of her older son, his father desperate to save his remaining child – only to be put in the care of a brothel owner. He does the rest of his growing up at the Hotel Beau-Miel, but is again set adrift as a young man. His journey keeps him moving, as a laborer, fugitive, prisoner, friend, and lover; he bears the scars of ingrained prejudice of his violently segregated surroundings, but runs as often from his own demons.

Beyond ethnicity, Southern Cross is a Bildungsroman of epic proportions, rhythmically punctuated by Cheng’s devotion to the blues, “particularly country/delta blues,” he reveals in the publicity letter that accompanied the book. “I thought my first full-length work should be a tribute to that kind of music, those stories, those people.” As if in answer to his ethnic questioners, he adds, “I wanted to capture the sense of a country and people that was unsure of itself, that was tenuous about the future. I think that has some resonance with how I think America is today.”

That said, choose Southern Cross with certainty. The only bottom line you really need to know? It’s a good story, very well-told. Simple as that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Chinese American