Response to A Teacher “Insulted” by Homeschooling

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Earlier this week I read a blog post titled, “I Am Slightly Insulted by Homeschooling,” over at Sammiches and Psych Meds.  Today I commented on the post but it’s – in my typical fashion – so long that it could be its own blog post.  Comments have to go through approval over there, so I’m going to post my responses here, as well. (Might as well, my blog could use another post!)  The original poster covers an anti-homeschooling argument that’s familiar to most homeschoolers: The “Expertise Argument” which can be summed up as:  “I’ve received quite a lot of training and credentials as a teacher, how on earth do you think you can do what I do?”

While I know there are homeschooling folks out there who diminish the work of teachers, that’s not the case for me and most of the homeschoolers I know. We commit large amounts of time on a daily basis to studying, observing, discussing, and thinking about learning, about how to be better learners and how to be more effective communicators with our children. Do I think there is a role for professional teachers in our society? Absolutely! But for me, this doesn’t translate into my child needing to spend 6-8 hours a day with them.

In any case, my reply to the post (again, linked here) follows:

I’ve been involved in homeschooling (as a child and now as a parent) for over 25 years and have never met anyone who made the decision to homeschool arbitrarily.  I’ve met lots of people who’ve homeschooled for reasons I don’t agree with, but “just because” has never come up once on my radar, not even as a rumor. If anyone has told you that they homeschool “just because” I suspect that was their way of saying they didn’t want to talk about their actual reasons with you at that time.

I have many dear friends who were trained as professional teachers, and I have a great deal of respect for their expertise and their efforts with children. We often talk about education, childhood development and the learning process.  We exchange ideas, and I learn from them regularly. Homeschooling doesn’t have to mean being at odds with professional educators or rejecting their knowledge and experience.

Kidlet at eco-hostel in Colombia, where facilities were built by non-professional builders who had studied and mentored to learn the necessary skills.

Kidlet at eco-hostel in Colombia, where facilities were built by non-professional builders who had studied and mentored to learn the necessary skills.

I absolutely agree with you that teachers are the most qualified to teach what they’ve been taught, as they’ve been taught. What you’ve missed – and some homeschoolers miss this, too – is that it’s not my goal to replicate what you teach as you’ve been taught to teach it. Put another way, you’ve confused ‘education’ with the current public (or even private) school system. These things are not synonymous.

You gave the example of construction or dentistry – and it’s true, outside of the most desperate circumstances, I would not attempt to build a dwelling or perform oral surgery without any training or research. I wouldn’t live in a house built by or have oral surgery performed on myself by someone who had no idea what they were doing, either. If that’s your analogy, I can see why you feel it is obvious that homeschooling is a bad idea. But a more appropriate analogy would be this: I recently traveled to Colombia and stayed in several dwellings that had been built by people who did not have the certifications and trainings required to be licensed contractors in the United States. I took my daughter to a hospital there in which the doctor who saw her was not licensed to practice in the United States.

My point is that what matters is what you know, and the expertise you have – not who credentialed you or how many hours you spent in a particular kind of classroom. There are many ways to learn, not just the way you’ve learned. There are many ways to get good at something, not just the way you’ve learned how to get good at something. Once we step outside of our own particular context, this becomes apparent.

Lastly, I will say there are things I want my daughter to learn about learning that I can’t expect her to learn in most public and private schools because of their very design. Would you really feel comfortable with a parent coming in and saying, “I want my child to equate learning with joy and diligence, not external rewards or punishments or fear of humiliation?” Or “My child needs a mentor, not a teacher.” Or “In order for him to have a chance at surviving in this society, I need you to model for my child how to critique capitalism and dismantle institutional racism instead of internalizing the violence done towards him.”  Have you been trained to teach in ways that would allow you to accommodate children with these needs? Are you given the freedom as a teacher in a school to accommodate them?

Kinky Gazpacho (Book Review)

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Review number four for the TwitterBooks Project is of Lori Tharps’  memoir, Kinky Gazpacho.  

Twitter Handle@LoriTharps
Actual Name: Lori Tharps
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter:  about a year
Book Title: Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain
Book Format: Library hardcover
What I liked:  A Black American woman’s story, for a change! A short read, good humor. 
What I didn’t like:  Confusing bits on identity and race, not as much detail about places as I expected.

When I first heard about Kinky Gazpacho, Lori Tharps’ memoir recounting her love affair with Spain, it went on my to-read list immediately.  Tharps, like me, is a Black American woman, born in the 1970s; and I had already been to Spain twice. There are not many travel memoirs published by women like us, so I had to get my hands on this book!

Kinky Gazpacho

Tharps begins her memoir with an incident in her third grade classroom.  Her teacher introduces an upcoming event, “International Day,” which gets young Tharps excited to explore traditions from around the world – especially food. But then the teacher clarifies that this is about celebrating ones ancestry and everyone is to come to school dressed in the attire of their ancestors. Tharps is the only Black girl in her class, one of the few Black children in her private school. Immediately, she feels shame and thinks, “My ancestors were slaves!”

Thus begins Tharps’ complicated relationship with her racial identity, growing up in a mostly white, comfortable suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is popular enough, and fits into the culture, but she never knows when one of her white peers is going to toss out a little grenade of anti-Black racism to explode in her face. The worst thing is that she faces this alone -  the silence of white friends and acquaintances during these incidents seems deafening. Why do they act as though no one just called her n—-? What is going on? Unsurprisingly, it can be difficult for her to let her guard down and feel safe.

At the same time, because of where she lived and went to school, Tharps doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in cultural environments where everyone is Black, either.  Maybe this is why she seeks refuge in multiculturalism, where the race spectrum isn’t stark black and white; where she can be unique (like everyone else), without being an oddity. Because of my own upbringing, I could truly relate to the way Tharps found comfort and commonality in multicultural, international, and immigrant spaces.  

Tharps progresses chronologically through the book, discussing her years in elementary school, middle school, high school and later college – in that order. I got a little frustrated with the length of time it took to get to the meat of the traveling. But there were some interesting bits along the way. For example, Tharps details several attempts to befriend other Black girls. She’d often gravitate towards the one other Black girl in mostly-white spaces, but then they wouldn’t “click.”  This scenario is familiar to me, and also the self-doubt that can occur as a result – “Am I doing something wrong? Why can’t I make this friendship work? Am I not Black enough? Wait, which of us isn’t Black enough? Wait, what?”

Well, the fact is that friendship is often a numbers game; if I have 100 random Black girls to choose from, I might really mesh with five or six of them, maybe 10! (A made-up statistic, but you get my gist.) Unfortunately, the odds of hitting it off don’t improve when you meet just one Black girl here and there out in a White world. It’s still only 5-10%. There will be more failures than successes – something our existing narrative around Black sisterhood often overlooks.

That being said, Tharps doesn’t spend as much time on friendships as she does on romance. The subtitle of the book is Life, Love & Spain, and we get more than a glimpse into her significant crushes, first love, college romances, long distance relationships and plenty of ye olde street harassment.  Along the way, Tharps tries to track what role her being Black might play throughout these exchanges. For example, during a high school study period in Morocco, she is showered with profuse praise for her beauty – she even receives marriage proposals. This flatters her initially because she felt invisible at her white high school in her white town, but she tires of it once she understands that Moroccan men are hitting on her because of their assumptions about American women.

The parts of the book I found most interesting were those having to do with the culture and locales Tharps visited. A lot of the focus in the Morocco chapters had to do with boys she met there and culture shock, but the details of Morocco itself were spare. This trend mostly continues when she arrives in Spain.

Some minor details struck me as familiar – like her early impression of Madrid’s smoky airport. And the cities she visits were cities I visited, even Salamanca – which most visitors never travel to. But on the whole, I didn’t see much about Spain as a destination, the country felt like a rough backdrop where she went to college for a year as she grappled with love and being Black in yet another not-very-Black place.

Tharps perceives some things differently than I might have, and she ignores  things I could’ve written pages about. Ah! Now I start to experience the potential agony of reading a travel memoir of a place one has visited. It’s like watching a competitive cooking show – “Why are you making a risotto when you could be making a linguini – you only have 20 minutes! Argh!”  I have to take responsibility for my own impulse to impose my self on her story;  as much as Tharps and I seem to have in common, we are actually not the same person. (Obvious statement is obvious.)

The prose isn’t inspiring or elevated, but it is straightforward, reflecting Tharps’ background as a journalist. Her voice comes through clearly -  especially her sense of humor. The parts that are funny, are very, very funny. Her descriptions of some of her dates made me laugh out loud.

I often found myself talking back to Tharps as a character – I say character, because no single book can reveal all the facets of a person or all the important details of their life.  For example, when she complains about “the race police,” I wanted to ask back, “What race police? You don’t give any examples except for a rude guy in college and being ignored by those snobby Black girls at Smith!” Then there were the parts where I wanted to ask, “Why do you care so much what people think of you?”   I also wondered why she was so concerned about her children getting by in Spain – did she really think it would be worse than in the US? If so, why? I can only guess at the reasons because she never got to the root of it in the book.

Some of her ideas about race and color were strangely simplistic,  such as when she wrote, “There was a good chance that my husband might have a Black African in his not so distant past. That might explain why our son had such a beautiful brown coloring even though [spoiler name removed] is really pale.” I was puzzled by this take on genetics. Wasn’t her own brown skin enough reason for her son to have brown skin? I scratch my head, still.

By the end – and all the parts about her research into Africans and Spain are in the final three chapters – I was left with the sense that Tharps’ views on being Black in America and Spain were not fully formed. That’s the thing about a memoir, if written early enough in ones life, the dust has by no means settled. If she ever wrote another memoir, or a book on race again, I’d read it, if only to get an update. I know from my own experience that racial identity shifts and takes on different shapes over the course of ones life.

Near the end of the book, Tharps writes:  “It’s so strange because Spanish people do not recognize Black as something familiar. But there is something about the Spanish soul, perhaps its own Black past, that welcomes Black people into the country.” This sentence is a good example of the tension that crops up again and again in this Kinky Gazpacho. Tharps goes back and forth between her love affair with Spain and her disappointment with the institutionalized and cultural racism that meets her there. Ultimately I think it may boil down to the question of essentialism … like looking for the Black ancestry in her husband because her son has brown skin. Is there anything specifically Black about Spain that calls to Black people from across the Atlantic? Or does she hope there is because she’s found herself there?”

 

 

 

bell hooks at The New School: Are You Still a Slave?

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Some of my thoughts and notes from bell hooks’ discussion panel at The New School: “Are You Still a Slave?” – a talk held on May 6, 2014. The two hour discussion (with Q&A) centered on representation of the Black female body. The panel was composed of bell hooks, Janet Mock, Marci Blackman and Shola Lynch.

You can watch the video here. Are You Still a Slave? at The New School. The times listed below are not *exact* but should be within a few seconds. While I enjoyed all of the speakers, most of the words I found to be quotable were said by bell hooks [bh], so you’ll see mostly quotes or references to her in my notes. (Note: The title of this panel is taken from the title of Shahrazad Ali’s book of the same name.)

Screen shot from Are You Still a Slave?

Marci Blackman speaks with bell hooks at The New School

From the Video

  • 9:50, bell hooks on 12 Years a Slave: “I just want you to think critically about what we do with the Black female body, why we image some things and not others, why if you can create that fictive sex scene – could we not have had any fictive moment in the film where the Black female body is in resistance – not in despair, ’cause despair is not resistance, that is, you know when Patsy thinks about killing herself. The reason I am so excited and proud to be here today is because I am up here with Black women who are all about redefining and creating a different kind of image, liberating the Black female body.”
  • [bh] “She [Patsy of 12 Years a Slave] has no point of view.”
  • 25:30, [bh] talks about how having humor when dealing with the Transportation Security Authority (TSA) is not really allowed because the whole experience of being harassed by security is meant to demoralize you.
  • 32:00 – Beyoncé discussion
  • 32:30 – Shola Lynch talks about “symbolic annihilation” a term from feminist studies (Hearth and Home edited collection of essays from the late 1970s, by Gaye Tuschman). “Symbolic annihilation is two things: It’s one, not seeing yourself, but it’s also seeing yourself only denigrated, victimized, etc. and what that does to you. And I think that, we can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze and look for the images and – [interjection of "all right!" from bh] - the people and the places that feed me.” Shola continues to talk about bodies of work and her own daughter’s reaction to the trailer for her film about Angela Davis, and how the imagery of Angela altered her daughter’s view of her hair.
  • 38:00 – after hearing from Janet Mock that Beyoncé likely had control over the image and styling of herself for the recent cover of Time magazine, bell says: “So you are saying, from my deconstructive point of view, that she is colluding in the construction of herself, as a slave – Are You Still a Slave? It’s not a liberatory image.”  Marci Blackman interjects: “Or, she’s using the same images that were used against her and us for so many years and she’s taking control of that and saying ‘If y’all are gonna make money off of it, so am I.’ You know? And there’s collusion perhaps, but there’s also a bit of reclaiming, I think, if she’s the one in control, right?”  bell hooks: “Of course, I think that’s fantasy. I think it’s fantasy that we can recoup the violating image and use it -[...] I used to get so tired of people quoting Audre, ‘The master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house,’ but that was exactly what she meant, that you are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it, even if it serves you to make lots and lots of money….” bell goes on to talk about the extreme lust (especially among young people) for wealth, fame and celebrity. 
  • Note to self: Need to re-read Lorraine Hansberry.
  • 41:00, [bh] “… there’s also that price for decolonization. You’re not going to have the wealth … there is a price that comes with de-centering, decolonizing, and part of what has to happen for us to be free is we have to create our own standards, of how to live ….”
  • 48:00, bell: “The major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media – and from television and videos.” Says there are no major tirades against feminism from powerful men of any color – “The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image-making business, in what we see.” Wants to see more images of women answering the questions, “What am I looking like when I am free?”
  • Note to self: Listening to bell talk in this video, I’m struck by the distinction between people like her (of which there are not many who are as widely known) and people like Oprah (who is in all likelihood a very good person) – the difference is that the former are counter-hegemonic. Thinking about this in terms of what the vast majority of people aspire to, and what we find challenging (perhaps too challenging, to our hopes and wishes for ourselves).
  • 1:08, [bh] talking about meeting Janet Mock and feeling connected to her upon first meeting her: “We are not alone and that the process of healing, all of that does not happen in isolation … [Janet Mock's journey reminds me of] that journey that I took many, many years ago …. That heroic journey to freedom is not a journey that we make by ourselves; we make it by selectively choosing the people who strengthen us, empower us, and who make it possible for us to keep on going.”
  • Q&A – [bh] talks about wanting to see different stories that can bring us to a different level of understanding, stories about the good that is done, and the ways people transform, versus the “repetitive stories of victimhood.”
  • 1:25 [bh] on sexual liberation – “What are our choices, as we journey towards sexual freedom? What choices do we have?”
  • 1:40 [bh] talking about trauma: “Trauma often produces complications … one of the joys of healing is that it allows you to separate out that which may have wounded or hurt you but that which also may have been life-restoring or life giving to you…. ” Those who come from abusive, dysfunctional families are constantly trying to “do that work of memory … holistic memory, where you’re not just remembering the bad stuff …” Speaks of her father – “the patriarchal terrorist” – and how she had to go on a journey of remembering the good he did, the good times, she had to have a more complete view of him as a human being in order to deal with the pain and to heal. “My brother is very closed off to remembering any kind of good action [on part of their father], or positive action, and I think that is very wounding for him and really tamps down his own growth.”
  • 1:46 [bh] “We don’t have  a team of psychoanalysts studying how much damage is being caused to us by the images that assault us.”  Speaks of an incident in which she caught herself repeating a tune she could not recall ever hearing; upon learning that it was from a television program or ad that she couldn’t even recall having watched, “that was the end of me not being critically vigilant about the images I consume.” She believes that “what will produce the transformation is when we as people of color are critically vigilant about the stuff we consume.”
  • [bh]-”A lot of stuff that is toxic is fun.” Note to self: This is not something people want to hear! It’s also a very religious idea, actually! Most religions tell us this.
  • [bh] in response to frustrated mother of child who is self-harming, coping poorly with eating disorders: “I think the most radical action that you are taking is that you are there for her, and to never stop being there for her no matter the different forms her crisis may take. Because I think that that sense that someone is there for you and is never going to let you go [can be] a healing force in your life.”
  • [bh] in response to pair of women struggling to talk about race in grad school program, “In the continual celebration of your passion for space, for thinking critically about space, we have to be able to follow those passions. I feel like for me that was one of the saving things, as an abuse survivor, of my life was to be in touch with what are my dreams, what are my passions, and what little bit can I do every day of my life, to bring myself closer.”
  • [bh] says that therapy can be a “therapeutic friend” in terms of finding someone you can have “meaningful, restorative conversation with.”

On Beyoncé as “Terrorist”
Many people have taken issue with bell hooks’ use of the term ‘terrorist’ in the video to describe Beyoncé: She says at minute 38: “… because I see a part of Beyonce that is anti-feminist, that is assaulting – that is a terrorist [...] especially in terms of the impact on young girls ….”

I have to admit, I wasn’t offended or surprised by the term. It’s a strong word (though I’ve seen and heard people describe their young children as not just terrors, but terrorists, as well, so it’s by no means a taboo word), but it’s also not the first time bell has used the term “terrorism” to describe actions that don’t involve some guy blowing up something to make a political statement. It would have been great if someone in the audience or on the panel with bell had asked her:  “So what is your definition of terrorist?” Perhaps no one anticipated the blow back that would occur in mainstream – and corporate – Black media?

I recall hooks using the term in previous works, and in fact, in this discussion, she later refers to her father in passing as a “patriarchal terrorist.”  And yet, as you’ll see in the video notes above, she goes on to talk about the importance of recognizing his good qualities and good acts along with the harmful ones, for her own healing. As I tweeted earlier today: “For me, the most important takeaway is that calling something for what it is – even if it’s unpleasant – is not the stopping point.” And I think bell demonstrates that she can reflect on her father as he was, and acknowledge the good things he had to give her and teach her and say, based on his actions, that he was a patriarchal terrorist. And if you watch the video, she doesn’t call him this with anger, she is just stating it as she sees it – in the same way she talks about “white supremacy” – a term many people cringe at for being “too harsh.”

I didn’t have time today to reread my bell hooks books but I did find in All About Love, another instance where she uses the word “terrorism” – in the chapter “Honesty: Be True to Love” – “While much cultural attention is given to domestic violence and practically everyone agrees it is wrong for men to hit women as a way of subordinating us, most men use psychological terrorism as a way to subordinate women. This is a socially acceptable form of coercion. And lying is one of the most powerful weapons in this arsenal.” On the previous page she writes, “Talk to any group of women about their relationships with men, no matter their race or class, and you will hear stories about the will to power, about the way men use lying, and that includes withholding information, as a way to control and subordinate.”

All of this is to say that bell hooks’ definition of terrorism is probably wider and more expansive than most people’s. I would love it if people would find and cite other uses of the term in her work, as I know it’s cropped up more than a few times over the many years she’s been writing and speaking.

I think it would alleviate the angst of some people to have a definition that would explain how and why bell hooks thinks that “a part of Beyoncé” is a terrorist. (Though some people may never be satisfied, and others will continue to believe that bell hooks suffers from a jealous hatred of Beyoncé.) I will openly admit that my bias is that bell hooks was not name-calling but rather, giving a name to something – in this case, Beyoncé’s image-making.

All in all, I found the discussion worth listening to. I enjoyed the uplifting of Shola’s work as the kind of thing we need more of, and also the respectful back and forth between the panelists. We need more of this, we don’t all have to agree on every single point. As bell pointed out early on, the reason there are four women on the panel is because they offer four points of view.

As a final note, I’ve been surprised to discover how few people seem to be on board with bell’s emphasis on the power of imagery. My major in university was Cultural (and Historical) Studies, and general consensus there was that the power of mass media (especially visual media) simply could not be overstated. Perhaps this idea is slipping out of fashion, or perhaps it was never accepted by the majority of people in the first place. In any case, I find it interesting!

National Poetry Month: Roque Dalton, Spiritual Practice, Songwriting

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For the second week of National Poetry Month: Honoring Roque Dalton, Robert McDowell’s Poetry as a Spiritual Practice, and advice from songwriter Mike Rosenberg of Passenger.

  • Texas poet Andrea Beltran invited me to guest on her blog for National Poetry Month.  The subject of the short essay I wrote for her is El Salvadoran poet and revolutionary, Roque Dalton. The piece can be read here:  “Like You” by Roque Dalton. It’s all about how I came upon his work and its effect on me.
  • Robert McDowell book: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

    Poetry as Spiritual Practice

    For National Poetry Month, I’ve been reading quite a lot of poetry (far more than usual) and sharing bits of things that resonate on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I’ve also been reflecting on poetry as a way of life. There’s a book, Poetry as a Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell (2008, Free Press) that I’ve been reading here and there, and I realized that the whole premise of the book is something I’ve taken for granted almost all my life: poetry as a deep source of spiritual instruction from wiser voices, emotional balm and light with which to explore the more obscured self.  As Freud famously (?) said: “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.” But people who are new to poetry and want to incorporate it into their daily lives might find it a useful starting point; it’s full of exercises and simple explanations about forms of poetry, like the sonnet, pantoum, free verse, etc.

  • And lastly: I’ve been listening to lot of new-to-me music, and one of those is the 2012 album, All the Little Lights by Passenger, which is the band name for one man, Mike Rosenberg. (I think there may have been more people in the band once, but they all left). It was random how I was introduced to his music, but I came across this amusing interview with Rosenberg. He says something that keeps sticking with me:  “I think the idea of a great song is just writing something – usually pretty simple – harnessing a very simple idea and putting it simply to music. You know what I mean? And connecting with people. I think people think songwriting’s a real mystery at times, but actually it’s not, it’s really simple.”That idea of simplicity keeps coming back for me as I attempt more challenging things, and I keep wondering why, the deeper you get into something, the more you need to hold tight to a principle of simplicity just to keep your head above water. Maybe it’s a conundrum, but it bears reflection.  Well, it’s been guiding my writing lately. And aside from all that, I like Rosenberg’s writing and some of his lyrics read well as little poems in and of themselves, so I’ll close this post on National Poetry Month with a few verses from All the Little Lights.

from “Life’s for the Living”

I took myself down to the cafe to find all
the boys lost in books and crackling vinyl
and carved out a poem above the urinal
that read:
Don’t you cry for the lost,
smile for the living,
get what you need and give what you’re given
life’s for the living, so live it
or you’re better off dead.

from “Feather on the Clyde”

Well on one side all the lights glow
and the folks know and the kids go
where the music and the drinking starts.
On the other side where no cars go,
up to the hills that stand alone like
my restless heart.

Well I would swim, but the river is so wide and
I’m scared I won’t make it to the other side and
well God knows I’ve failed but he knows that I’ve tried.

National Poetry Month! Day 1

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I’m excited that it’s April – that means it’s National Poetry Month! And I intend to do a little something every day in observance. There’s nothing planned for specific days – there’s so much going on in the world of poetry, I’ll just allot myself time to tune in and participate.

For the first day of National Poetry Month, an opportunity presented itself:  I saw a tweet from Strand Bookstore -

The Strand Book Store spine poetry tweet

 

The tweet explained that Strand (an old bookstore in NYC that I’ve been lucky enough to visit) was sharing spine poetry, so I jumped up and grabbed some books that looked good to me, and arranged them. Five minutes later, voilá! I snapped a photo and tweeted it and posted it on my IG account. Easy peasy. Pleased with myself, I walked back into my bedroom and almost immediately spied a title that would have been a better choice in the poem I’d just assembled.  ARGH. Rats!  I took the title (The True Believer) into the living room and stared at it for a few minutes before deciding to just make a second spine poem. Another photo snapped. Here are the results! What a fun and easy way to get National Poetry Month started.

Spine Poem #1 national poetry month

Spine Poem #1

 

Spine Poem #1
The stranger,
the confidence man,
the secret agent,
the black unicorn,
the catcher in the rye,
the left hand of darkness,
- six easy pieces talking to God
seeing the known world,
clinging to a myth
metamorphoses
voices a strange freedom,
the shape of things to come.

 

Spine Poem #2 national poetry month

Spine Poem #2

 

Spine Poem #2
The truth believer: a fierce discontent,
the miracle worker: the will to change
into the rumored spring
to know as we are known
breathless love in the ruins.

 

Salaam Love (Book Review)

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Review number three for the TwitterBooks Project is of the essay collection, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy.

Twitter Handle: ayesha_mattu
Actual Name: Ayesha Mattu
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: 2-3 months
Book Title: Salaam Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy
Book Format: Library paperback
What I liked: Easy to read, unique content, marginalized voices, multiple perspectives within an identity,  groundbreaking, much-needed.
What I didn’t like: Some essays don’t stand well on their own, senior voices missing.

Copy of Salaam, Love

Copy of Salaam, Love

I first heard about Salaam, Love from Beacon Press’s Twitter account. Beacon Press is the indie publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I’m a UU, and Beacon Press has published some cool stuff, such as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, James Baldwin’s Notes from a Native Son, and the Pentagon Papers. I have a lot of respect for Beacon Press, so I keep an eye on their new titles. But what put this book on my TwitterBooks Project list was a twitter pal mentioning Ayesha Mattu, one of Salaam, Love‘s editors, as a #FollowFriday. I began following Mattu on Twitter, and there you have it.

First of all, I don’t think the importance of this book can be overstated. I grew up “orthodox” Muslim which meant a largely segregated upbringing. Also, no one talked about sex except as a negative.  There was a disconnect between the sexes – men were a mystery if you were a woman; women were a mystery if you were a man.

In the wider, non-Muslim American world, that disconnect also exists. The difference is non-Muslims talk about sex and relationships all the time, but the conversations are rarely informative or respectful of the human spirit.  Still, I believe we’re all getting incrementally better at having useful, open dialogue about sex, gender, and relationships. I haven’t yet read Love, Insha Allah, the  book of essays by Muslim women that preceded Salaam Love, but Mattu and co-editor Nura Maznavi are contributing to a healthier environment by bringing us these collections.

All that being said, let’s look at the essays. There are 22 of them, by American Muslim men from many walks of life. My only quibble about the demographics is that the ages of the men seem to go up to ~50. I wonder what my Dad – in his early 60s – would have to say.  And what do men in their 70s think about sex?

That quibble aside, the essayists represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. Several writers are gay, and religious practices vary in terms of sects and level of observance. I struggled initially because I grapple with what it means to be a secular Muslim in America, e.g. why would a person convert to Islam, and then be secular about it? I had to suspend my own disbelief, but reading the book was an excellent opportunity to simply listen.

There are good stories here.  The book is divided into three parts. Part One centers around men straining against seemingly inescapable family ties. Part Two presents men as they navigate the sticky web of romance on their own. Part Three focuses on men exploring – often with surprise – how they’ve been strengthened by bonds of commitment.

A favorite essay is Alykhan Boolani’s “A Grown-Ass Man,” which features lavender prose while being fun and sarcastic. Boolani shows us just how hard it can be to find a suitable match, whether you’re fishing in a small pool or the open sea.  In “A Pair of Photos,” Ahmed Ali Akbar isn’t concerned about his love life – he’s puzzling out what made his parents’ unlikely marriage tick for decades.  As he pores over the past, I thought about steadfastness, a familiar word in religious parlance often glossed over when we talk about marrying for love. Ibraham Al-Marashi in “The Other Iran-Iraq War” demonstrates with deft humor how love can work as a muse. In the palpably written “Planet Zero,” John Austin conveys alienation in Japan. And get the Kleenex out for Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” in which it’s not always clear what’s stronger: his faith in Allah or his love for his wife.

The most useful story for me was A. Khan’s “In the Unlikeliest of Places.” I can’t relate much to his account of getting emotionally lost in drink and exciting hookups, but when an encounter shows him it might be possible to live an integrated life in which he doesn’t deny his gay sexuality, his family, or his religion, a chord was struck. I know that need to reconcile all the parts of ones life; but also, he presented one, very clear image of what it can look like to be a secular-yet-believing Muslim in America. As I said earlier, I’ve struggled with that. This essay picked me right up and dropped me off in a place where I no longer doubt this is possible.

Some of the writers are more adept in their use of language and in story-telling. Looking over my reading notes, it’s obvious that the sum of this collection is greater than its parts. The strength of a book like this is that each particular story adds to the narrative, and while I might only re-read seven or eight of these, I wouldn’t remove any of them from the collection. Not everyone’s a writer, but everyone has a story to tell.  

The result of this collection is that it doesn’t defy gender and religious stereotypes so much as leave them by the wayside like the unnecessary things they are.  While Salaam, Love is groundbreaking for Muslims, I think it’s a service for non-Muslims, as well. People without a Muslim background might have to get over some vocabulary (there’s a handy glossary) that I didn’t think twice about, but in addition to opening up about American Muslim communities, these essayists ultimately give insight into the American male experience of love.

 

 

How to Be Black (Book Review)

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Review number two for the TwitterBooks Project is of Baratunde Thurston’s satirical memoir, How to Be Black.

Twitter Handle: @baratunde
Actual Name: Baratunde Thurston
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: About two years
Book Title: How to Be Black
Book Format: Hardcover book from library
What I liked: Genuine humor, usefulness, originality and I could relate.
What I didn’t like: A few chapters near the end missed the mark for me.

I’m one of those black people with loads of progressive white friends, most of whom probably read this book before I did, because I’m just that hip. When the book first came out two years ago, there was a long wait through the Seattle Public Library, but I only had to wait a week or two to get it this year (SPL has eight copies).

Reading on the Go: My library copy of How to Be Black

Reading on the Go: My library copy of How to Be Black

Baratunde Thurston is a Harvard grad, tech-head, writer, comedian, and co-founder of things. To illustrate the tech-head part: he has 150,000 followers on Twitter, but 1.5 million Google+ users have him in their circles. I first heard about him through Google+ but I keep up with his writing on Twitter.

From its opening pages, this book had me laughing – including its assumption that I was reading it during Black History Month. As a matter of fact, it was Black History Month, but I swear it was a total coincidence! Or was it? I laughed a lot about this – mostly at myself. Thurston starts off with satire, and launches into how his book will help you – if you’re white – meet your annual “I learned about black people” quota. (If you’re black, the book will help you help white people meet their quota.)

After poking fun at white guilt, cultural divides, and Black History Month cram-fests, Thurston switches into memoir mode. Now, Thurston’s lived a pretty impressive life, and we don’t have much in common as adults, but reading about his childhood was enjoyable, familiar, and affirming in a lot of ways. We’re about the same age. In fact, Baratunde was born on the same day I was – one year later.  His mother sounds like a more intense and industrious version of my New Yorker mom, who had our family eating tofu when most Americans were still calling it, “Toe-what?” And like his mom, my parents moved us kids from the inner city to a black suburb in part to get away from drug-related violence and poverty.  I could even relate to Thurston’s experience of having  an “ethnic” name.

How to Be Black is funny and an easy read, but it’s also informative. I hope many of my non-black friends who haven’t read this book do pick it up. While not all black people have the similar childhoods (gasp!), life experiences, or opinions, there’s real value in having an informed and “happy” black man talk  honestly about race for 200-some pages without interruption. Also, the books conveys some black cultural stuff that I sometimes forget many of my friends don’t know!

One of the smartest things about How to Be Black is that Thurston chooses to shares the stage. The book isn’t all about what he thinks. He refers frequently to his Black Panel, an assembly of 7 people (one of them a white guy from Canada), who chime in to give their perspectives, with a range of experiences and personalities.  While Thurston is a fairly extraordinary person, he doesn’t seem to suffer from There Can Only Be One (Black Person Talking) Syndrome.

There were a few chapters I didn’t find to be funny or that I was unclear about the intent of: How to be the Angry Negro and How to be The Next Black President. But the last few chapters are really excellent, so maybe it’s just a case of burying the weakest material somewhere in the middle of the book.

Lastly, I have to say his dedication is great:

“To my mother, Arnita Lorraine Thurston, who embodied authenticity and taught me how to be black, American, human, and awesome. I miss you, Mommy Lady.” 

He truly does owe so much to his mother. By his account, she was a brilliant woman. She was very intentional with her child rearing and put him in positions where he’d be prepared to be successful out in “the world.” But his early years were rooted in blackness and nourished by her love and attention, and maybe because of that he didn’t lose himself when he had to go and navigate an upper crust, very white world. How to Be Black is part memoir, part how-to, and pretty much all funny.

 

Throne of the Crescent Moon (Book Review)

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And here is my first reflection for the TwitterBooks Project (introduced here): A Throne of the Crescent Moon review.  I’m not sure if I’ll stick with this format; we’ll see.

(Note: There was a bit of a hiccup with my blog, during which time it DISAPPEARED entirely because the company that hosted it went bankrupt and shut down without warning. This has been resolved, so I’m back online!)

Author’s Name: Saladin Ahmed
Twitter Handle: @saladinahmed
How Long I’ve Been Following on Twitter: About a year
Book Title: Throne of the Crescent Moon
Book Format: Audiobook via Audible, read by Phil Gigante

What I liked: People of color as protagonists, excellent female representation, manageable length, great dialogue, rapid world-building, 
What I didn’t like: Resolution was tidier than I expected, denouement felt a little long.

Last year I read Saladin Ahmed’s very good collection of short stories, Engraved on the Eye (available for free in Kindle edition),  and in one of the short stories the reader is introduced to ghoul hunter Adoulla Makhslood and his young dervish assistant, Raseed. These two are the main characters in Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon.

Throne of the Crescent Moon review

Throne of the Crescent Moon coverMy experience with fantasy novels is limited and I won’t go into all of the whys, but a big issue for me is  that they tend to be long, very long, or way too long. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a slow reader. I like to take notes when I read, pause to daydream, and look up vocabulary that’s unfamiliar. Now that I have a five-year-old I’ve had to adapt my reading to countless interruptions. Throne is 304 pages – less than 10.5 hours via audiobook. That’s right up my alley. I can do that! I can risk venturing into someone else’s world for only 300 pages


One thing I liked about this book right off the bat was that the characters have names like my own and the world they lived in was faintly familiar. Throne is a fantasy inspired by the old Arab Muslim world, and I grew up with an Arabic Muslim name in the Islamic faith; the spiritual language of these culturally religious characters was connected to a huge part of my own past.

As the story continued, I appreciated the quick world-building. A pet-peeve I have about a lot of fantasy is the pages-long descriptions of terrain, cuisine, castle walls, royal lineage, etc. I don’t require that level of detail in my story-telling – I don’t want that level of detail. I’ll skim over it if I have to, because I want to get back to the characters, the premise and the plot. I don’t know why Ahmed escaped getting bogged down by these things, but I’m grateful for it – and I certainly had a strong impression of what things looked, smelled and otherwise seemed like in the city of Dhamsawaat, in the land of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

Another point of appreciation for me is that like Engraved on the Eye, the female characters are well-written – not less thought-out than the male characters. As a woman, I can’t even express what a pleasure it was to have three female characters in a novel who were just amazing in their own ways. One is young, and the other two are probably in their 40s? Wow, an age range?! Imagine that. And none of them too holy to get mad and yell at somebody. And despite the fact that each of them is loved by a man (and each of the primary good male characters is loved by a woman) there’s not that creepy obsession of going on and on about their bodies and how beautiful they are.

A real strength of the book is the dialogue. Hearing it read by Phil Gigante – holy smokes, is he fantastic! – was a treat beyond treats. I often hit the 30-second rewind just to relish over the snark, barbs, leering, and praises the characters exchange in language barely veiled by formality.  For example, a wealthy spell-maker named Yassir tells Litaz, also a spell-maker (but not wealthy):

“If I’m going to be praised sycophantically when my skill succeeds and called charlatan or witch when it fails, I’ll at least have some coin in the bargain, thank you very much.  Should I bother telling you yet again that there are much handsomer places in the world for you than in that filthy alley with that gnarled husband of yours? Places where your unmatched skills and your more-vital-than-its years body would receive all the appreciation they deserve?”

I was really happy with this story. The writing is solid, the characters are interesting, the Crescent Moon Kingdoms hold much possibility. And I’m not the only one who thought it was good – this book was nominated for the prestigious Hugo (2013) and Nebula (2012) awards. So I’m really behind the times on this! But Ahmed is working on a sequel, which I plan to read as soon as it comes out. Who knows, maybe I will learn to *love* fantasy as a genre, after all.

 

TwitterBooks Project: An Introduction

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From February 13, 2014:

Some of the books I already have and have read by writers I follow on Twitter.

A few books I already own and have read by writers I follow on Twitter.

I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter, where I follow a variety of writers who, between being hilarious, grumpy, chatty, sweet, morose, philosophical and informative, are always working on one thing or another. One day I was retweeting the announcement of a tweep’s new book when I thought, “Hm. Wouldn’t it be cool to read a book by every writer I follow who has published one?”

It’s one thing to follow a person on Twitter, another to read their blog posts or magazine articles – to read their book? Well, that’s just another level of listening. (I’m working on becoming a better listener.)

I was in Colombia at the time, but returned home to Seattle several weeks later, where this thought came up again and again, until I decided to really do it. And now – midway through February – I’ve started. First I went through my follows list of 850ish accounts and tried to identify all the writers. That came to about 130 people, though I suspect I’ve missed a few. (Twitter’s web app doesn’t make searching ones own follows very straightforward). Later, I’ll sort out the ones who haven’t published a book, but it’s easy to leap right in.

Several days ago I put on hold three or four books by people I follow. One or two should be available for pick-up tomorrow, probably Kinky Gazpacho by Lori Tharps or How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. After a long Twitter convo with local Seattleite Stephen Robinson, I purchased his novel Mahogany Slade via Kindle. This afternoon I finished listening to the audiobook of the debut fantasy novel by a pretty entertaining young writer.

I follow some writers whose books I’ve already read – take @campcreek for example. Her book, Project Based Homeschooling, is one I’ve talked about a lot here. Or @everettmaroon and his sweet memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair. A few people I follow are fairly famous authors whose accounts I follow because I read a book they wrote (e.g. @Oliver Sacks and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or @bellhooks and where-to-even-begin-with-her-stellar-body-of-work), so I can tick them off the list if I want.

I follow a few big-name authors whose books I’ve never read – short stories, individual poems or articles, yes – but not books, the majority of my writer tweeps are emerging writers,  indie, niche or “struggling writers” who have only published one or two books through small presses; these are the folks I was really thinking about when I decided to do this.

So I’m going to start a new series here called the TwitterBooks Project. It’s pretty simple and there’s no goal in terms of numbers. I just want to find and read books by the people I follow. One by one. Initially I thought it would take a year, but now that I’m seeing how many writers I follow, I’m thinking it will probably take two years. I’m not a fast reader. But that’s okay. What’s the rush? And as I read them, I’ll come back here and write a little “review” – or to be more truthful – a “reflection” of the book. Why not? It should be fun.

The first book will be @SaladinAhmed’s Hugo and Nebula nominated debut,  Throne of the Crescent Moon

 

 

Rowing Diary: An Almost-Full Moon Vanishes

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I woke up at 4:15 this morning in the midst of a dream, turned off the alarm and fell back to sleep. It was that strange sensation of waking up busy - I can’t recall what was happening in the dream, but I was definitely working and waking up was an interruption.

Boats in a boathouse

Boats in a boathouse

When my second alarm went off at 4:25 I realized what was happening and rose easily. Waking up early hasn’t been a problem since my return … easier than I remembered. Maybe my body is still a bit on Colombia time (three hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time); if so, I’m grateful for this advantage.

The wind forecast had me believing we’d be doing a land workout, so I dressed for the ergs, in a short-sleeve tee and capris. I wore my club’s fleece vest, but when I arrived to the boathouse and joined in on core exercises, Coach was putting together a lineup for an on-the-water row. Luckily, a new member of the team whom I knew from a previous program lent me a long-sleeved, high-necked, fitted jacket. I owe her a debt of gratitude because the wind was biting.

This was my first day touching an oar in nearly three months and I was nervous about stepping into a four. I’ve rowed in fours before, but not much, and I had a perception of them as tippy. And I lacked confidence in the skill-set of one of the people in the boat. This is all a problem, a psychological problem. Being tense, looking for confirmation of ones biases about another rower, not owning ones own flaws, expecting any moment to end up in the water, in short – waiting for something bad to happen: it’s all a distraction!

The sky was mostly clear at first so the water was dark; the wind blew from the south and southwest, and I could feel the apprehension pooling around my feet and beginning to rise. Past experience said to me that this was not the way. Caution is one thing, being freaked out is something else, so I took a few deep breaths and threw my fears into the water, then pictured them drifting away. I settled down, and the apprehension dissolved but for a few puddles.

As we warmed up, the boat was more set than I’d expected. Ahh, the difference between being in a four with members of the local women’s competitive team and being in a four with … people who were definitely not on the competitive team! I tried not to think about my stamina and whether muscle memory would kick in. I decided to focus on what was happening now and not what might happen later in the boat. I floated trust as an option, and trust came through for me.

The water felt heavy at the start – the oar felt heavy!  I didn’t remember having to pull so hard in the past, a sure sign I’m not as strong as I was three months ago. But everything else felt familiar. My foot stretcher and oar required no adjusting, so I didn’t fiddle with or even think about them.  I didn’t feel wildly out of tune, there was no confusion.  

I didn’t focus on any one particular thing, instead reviewing all the basic movements of rowing. My body did remember how to row and the mechanics weren’t a problem. I felt a small strain near my hamstring where I’d pulled my popliteal muscle months ago. I paid attention to that, but the twinges decreased as practice progressed, to my relief! I kept reminding myself to sit up tall, to square up early, to be ready for the catch. Our coxswan was good about reminding us to have fast hands out of bow, so I focused on that as well.

As we headed west toward the ship canal, I could see what appeared to be an almost-full (full moon is tomorrow) moon – bright and yellow in the dark sky – right behind the Aurora Bridge. It was large and really yellow. But by the time we got to the other side of the bridge and I glanced up, it was gone. I couldn’t even tell where it had been. Even though the patchy clouds looked to be flimsy and stretched thin, I couldn’t find that yellow moon anywhere again.

Being in bow, I could see just about everything without feeling self-conscious. The lake was windy but Coach took us and the two 8s toward the Locks, and the shipping canal was largely sheltered and calm. We did warm ups to Seattle Pacific University, then began three minute pieces of 26 spm (for two) and 28spm (for one minute), then upped it, 28spm for two minutes, and 30spm for one, several times … and then upped it again, 30spm for two minutes, 32spm for one, several times, and then ended with 32spm for two minutes and 34spm for one.

Our boat’s stroke coach stopped working right as we began this regimen. I’d had this issue with a stroke coach when I’d coxed on Tuesday so maybe it was the same device. What this meant was our rates were not as challenging. We were able to do the 26 and  28, and probably the 28 and 30, but I have a pretty decent sense of stroke rates and we were not doing 30 and 32 or 34. This was perhaps in my favor – wouldn’t want to pull a muscle on my first day out!

I felt slower than the woman in front of me: was her slide too fast or was my slide too slow? I couldn’t tell. I may have been shortening my stroke, even, to sync up with her without sliding too fast (not good). It was difficult to fix a point in terms of slide control, but I erred on the side of slowing my slide because going into the stern too rapidly is the more common problem. The surprise of the day was my right hand, the pulling hand, began to ache; my wrist felt weak and crinkly. In between pieces, I shook my hands at the wrist to loosen them up, and stretched them. This seemed to help, but my upper body definitely needs strengthening.

Well, it all worked out. My first day on the water worked out okay after all. I didn’t feel hopeless out there. I don’t know how I looked to Coach but I didn’t feel I was so much worse than the rest of my boat.  For the moment, that’s good enough for me!