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!
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?”