All excellent books, all written by women of colour, taking me from New York to India, from Alabama to Ghana, and finally to the suburbs of Toronto.
Seven by Farzana Doctor
When I learned that Seven was a book, in part, about Khatna–a cultural or religious ritual of female genital cutting–I was worried it would be too heavy. But Farzana Doctor weaves the subject into a beautiful story about marriage, family, religion, and culture.
Doctor’s book is called Seven, because that is the age at which most girls have khatna done to them – young enough still that they might quickly forget about it once they have an ice-cream cone set in their hands. But can you really forget something like that?
Residents of New York, Sharifa and her husband travel to India for several months for Murtuza’s work (a course on Canadian Literature in which he uses books by Margarets Atwood and Laurence as well as Vivek Shraya, Wayson Choy, Dionne Brand, and Cherie Dimaline). Sharifa decides to make the best of it by visiting her cousins and working on a research project about her great-great-grandfather.
When she arrives, she notices that there is a rift between her two cousins. One is part of a group speaking out against khatna, while the other sees things differently. Wishing they were as close as they were as girls, Sharifa does her best to balance herself between the two of them.
“Like most of our customs, we don’t really know why we do things anymore. We just continue them, on and on. Like sheep.”
I remember that I am part of a larger ummah, a faith, a clan. Despite its shortcomings, I still want to belong.
I thought the exploration of marriage between Sharifa and Murtuza was well-done. I loved Sharifa’s relationship with her daughter and her mother, as well as the other women in her family – none of them simple or straightforward. All of the relationships tied up somehow with the practice of khatna; for or against, survivor or protestor. The only part of the book that didn’t hold my interest quite as well was her research project. I would have been content with the whole of the book taking place in the present. On the other hand, it is cleverly linked with the contemporary portion of the book, and I can see how the historical aspects of the book add more depth to the story.
Either way, I highly recommend Seven as a book that intricately examines the cultural differences and similarities within a community, as well as between communities living in different geographic areas.
Read Marcie’s thorough review of Seven in The Hamilton Review of Books: “In just a handful of chapters, Doctor secures her readers’ relationship to Sharifa and, in time, their relationship to a story about khatna, a story about navigating a polarizing issue within the context of a family, a story that cannot be reduced to one idea. Seven presents a messy situation and Doctor skillfully curates the disarray into a rewarding and consistently engaging read.”
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing was my favourite book the year I read it, so I jumped on this one when I saw it show up on the newly ordered list at the library. Transcendent Kingdom more than met my (high) expectations.
If the linked story structure didn’t work for you in Homegoing, don’t let that stop you from reading Transcendent Kingdom which carries the same characters throughout the book.
Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience, determined to find the answers to questions surrounding the ideas of desire and restraint; why are some people able to overcome their addictions while others cannot? This obsession of Gifty’s stems from the death of her brother of a drug overdose when she was younger. “Could it get a brother to set down a needle? Could it get a mother out of bed?“
… the truth is I’d started this work not because I wanted to help people but because it seemed like the hardest thing you could do, and I wanted to do the hardest thing. I wanted to flay any mental weakness off my body like fascia from muscle. Throughout high school, I never touched a drop of alcohol because I lived in fear that addiction was like a man in a dark trench coat, stalking me, waiting for me to get off the well-lit sidewalk and step into an alley. I had seen the alley, I had watched Nana walk into the alley and I had watched my mother go in after him, and I was so angry at them for not being strong enough to stay in the light. And so I did the hard thing.
Through this story of a family who immigrates from Ghana to Alabama, Gyasi explores racism, addiction, depression, science, faith, grief, and shame and how all of these elements play on this family as a whole and individually. “Because I still have so much shame. I’m full to the brim with it; I’m spilling over.“
It was hard for Nana and me to see America the way our father saw it. Nana couldn’t remember Ghana, and I had never been. Southeast Huntsville, northern Alabama, was all we knew, the physical location of our entire conscious lives. Were there places in the world where neighbors would have greeted us instead of turning away? Places where my classmates wouldn’t have made fun of my name–called me charcoal, called me monkey, called me worse? I couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t let myself imagine it, because if I did, if I saw it–that other world–I would have wanted to go.
Read it. It’s brilliant.
Shut Up You’re Pretty by Téa Mutonji
In the same vein as Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta and That Time I loved You by Carrianne Leung, Shut Up You’re Pretty is a novel made up of short stories, recounting the life of a first-generation Canadian in the Toronto area. Loli comes to Canada from Congo with her family as a young girl and must learn to navigate this world; new friends, new school, new rules for fitting in.
I came across a wonderful review of the book by Kate Foster at Understory Magazine that goes into more detail than I plan to here. Foster discusses the “themes of self-exploration and identity” that play-out in each story: at school, at work, and in her relationships.
Her friend Joli has a big influence on her from the beginning. At the age of thirteen they’re smoking cigarettes and exchanging money for kisses. At that age I was still colouring in my bedroom and making up dance routines in the living room with my sister. Rightly or wrongly, my heart breaks for the loss of their innocence. When a man is being genuinely kind to her, she can’t help but wonder if he wants something.
I don’t know why he was always so kind to me. I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or sexual. I tried not to make everything about sex, every act of kindness, every well-wish, every hello. But you go through life being touched, you go through life being looked at, you go through life with an uncle commenting on your breasts, or your brother’s friend giving you a condom for your birthday then denying it, you go through life being called a cunt on public transportation, you go through life being followed at midnight, you go through life being told you’re pretty, you’re pretty, you’re so f*cking pretty – it gets complicated.
We see how the relationships with her family members–particularly her mother–play out and change over time. As she gets older, she understands more about her mother’s own struggles with the challenges of immigration.
“Insightful observations about women and immigrant and black life are vital aspects of Loli’s narration.” And, as Kate Foster points out, not stories and characters we experience enough of in Canadian Literature.
Shut Up You’re Pretty was a 2019 Writers Trust Fiction Prize finalist.
Where has your library taken you lately?