Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race: A Discussion

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is a thorough and confronting analysis of race relations in Britain today. Through chapters on subjects including Black British history (and its erasure), systemic racism in institutions like the police, education and sport, feminism and the relationship between race and class, Eddo-Lodge delves into the racist structures that British society is built on and the ways they are upheld by a society that has chosen to avert its eyes.

Though the book was a massive deal when it first came out, following the murder of George Floyd, it flew back up the charts, and in June, Eddo-Lodge became the first Black Brit to top the best seller list. It was an achievement about which she felt an understandable amount of conflict.

Why was it happening for the first time in 2020? (a shameful 6% of authors published in the UK are people of colour, so it’s not actually that surprising)

And how was it possible that so many white people were just waking up to the existence of racism now?


I first had my mind given a good shake by this book last year but I decided it was long overdue a reread and today I want to do something a bit different. In the
wake of the massive protests for racial inequality this year there was the huge drive for books on anti-racism. And I do think this is a good thing, but given

a) The huge amount of people (white women especially) who still voted for Trump in the US election (still matters, even though he lost)

b) The amount of white people who were surprised by that and

c) Here in the UK, the Conservative government’s decision to choose Black History Month as the moment to move to end the teaching of critical race theory in schools – effectively closing down discussions of white privilege in educational settings.
(I feel the need to add here that the UK curriculum already contains no substantive discussion of racism or Black history, and the government also rejected calls for changes to the curriculum to address this lack earlier in this year, so this entire story was about something that already isn’t happening and was only a means to stoke up right wing vitriol – which worked, obviously)

…I don’t think a lot of people really engaged with what they read.

So, let’s talk. When we read anti-racist texts it shouldn’t be as a passive observer. Reading the book is not the same as holding yourself accountable for the internalised racism that you inevitably hold. In addition to experiencing the author’s story and really taking on the information they are imparting, you need to push yourself – to learn more, to ask yourself big, uncomfortable questions. There’s a tendency – which I have absolutely fallen into – to hear people’s stories about racism they’ve faced, or even witness it yourself, and fall into shock and horror. You know, that moment when you think “I can’t believe this still happens! How can people be so awful?” etc. This is understandable, I think, but ultimately unhelpful. It is a means for those who consider themselves ‘good’ white people to separate themselves from those acts of racism, to centre their own feelings of horror in order to comfortably distance themselves from the truth of the matter that the same white supremacy that produced that horror is one that they (I) benefit from every single day. Nova Reid, an incredible writer and anti-racism activist I have learned SO much from has talked about this a lot on Instagram.

This post, I hope, is a suggestion of how you might read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race through the frame of accountability.

Let’s go.

Reni on the absence of Black history in UK education:
…I don’t think my ignorance was an individual thing. That I had to go looking for significant moments in black British history suggests to me that I have been kept ignorant. While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.
We need to stop lying to ourselves, and we need to stop lying to each other. To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be.”

Key events:

– Racist attacks in Liverpool in 1919, the most high profile of which was the public lynching of Charles Wootten. He was thrown into the sea and pelted with rocks by a white mob until he drowned. The British response? A repatriation drive that resulted in as many as 600 Black people being sent ‘back where they came from’ – deported to the West Indies. Many of these people had settled in the UK after fighting for Britain in the First World War.

– The Bristol Bus Boycott. Guy Bailey was denied an interview at Bristol Omnibus Company because he was Black. In response, he and the West Indian Development Council launched a campaign against the BOC’s racist practices through the local media, gaining support from local students, politicians and press – meanwhile every single one of Bristol’s West Indian residents were boycotting the bus service. Over 100 students marched in support and the boycott continued to grow. In the end, BOC were forced to cave and change their discriminatory hiring practices – though to this day, Eddo-Lodge notes, the company (now called First Somerset & Avon) has never apologised.

These are only two events that I learned of for the first time reading Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The entire first section is filled with stories of the civil rights struggle in the UK I would wager the vast majority have very little awareness even happened.

Questions
Instead of asking yourself, why wasn’t I taught about this? Instead ask, why wasn’t I curious about this before now?


Reni on challenging white feminism:
British feminism was characterised as a movement where everything was peaceful until the angry black people turned up. The white feminists’ characterisations of black feminists as disruptive aggressors was not so different from broader stereotyping of black communities by the press. Women of colour were positioned as the immigrants of feminism, unwelcome but tolerated – a reluctantly dealt-with social problem.”

Key events:

– An incident on BBC Radio 4’s Womens Hour in 2013 where Reni was cast as a bully by Caroline Criado Perez, who equated the anti-racism work Eddo-Lodge spoke of with the bullying and harassment Caroline herself was experiencing online at that time following her successful campaign to get a woman on the new ten pound bank note.

– The massive backlash the term ‘intersectionality’ faced when it first made it into the mainstream feminist discussion, with an article in The New Statesmen inferring Black feminists were ‘The Mean Girls Club’ only one example. Eddo Lodge writes: “…this knee-jerk backlash against the phrase – to what is more often than not a rigorous critique of the consequences of structural racism – was undoubtedly born from an entitled need to defend whiteness rather than any yearning to to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ‘white feminism’.”

One problem that comes up over and over again among white feminists – and white women in general – is tone policing. It is surprising how many white women who would sincerely consider themselves to be liberal, even anti-racist still don’t recognise this behaviour. Tone policing, as defined in this excellent series of infrographics by Feminism India, is the act of focusing on the tone of a person’s statement, rather than the content. It is a tactic often employed by white women against Black women to lecture them on how their anti-racist message would be a lot more successful ‘if they were nicer about it’. It’s a way for privileged groups to silence the marginalised and avoid accountability. Basically, it is a very sneaky form of racism white people – and I really can’t emphasise this enough – many of whom consider themselves anti-racist utilise to uphold their own comfort (AKA life in a white supremacy) over progress.

Questions
Why do I feel that someone should communicate the trauma of racism and anti-Blackness in a way that makes me feel comfortable? Am I acting out of a desire to preserve my own privilege?

Can you think of a time when you have felt the ‘knee-jerk’ need to defend whiteness that Eddo-Lodge identifies? Have you ever felt threatened when listening to a person of colour talk about their experiences?

In conclusion
Have you read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race? What came up for you while you were reading? What questions do you think readers should be asking themselves in response to this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Further learning
Reni’s follow-up podcast, About Race where she delves further into subjects covered in her book

Follow The Black Curriculum on Instagram, an organisation committed to teaching Black history, year round

Watch Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC iPlayer, a drama based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine and police systemic racism

City of Brass

In the markets of eighteenth century Cairo, thieves, tricksters, con artists and outcasts eke out a living swindling rich nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world, the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits, of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert – full of enchantment, desire and riches – where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about her. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.


City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a rich and imaginative fantasy that weaves elements of Islamic folklore with the political machinations of monarchy to create a vivid world filled with tension – of both the romantic and warmongering kind.

The story starts with Nahri, an orphan surviving via the means of the age-old con (fake healings, telling the future, the occasional exorcism, etc) who stumbles from the life she had known as just another Cairo trickster into the magical world of the djinn, beings born of fire who live, for the most part, in a magical land hidden from the human world by, you guessed it, more magic. This dangerous new world of flying carpets, flesh-eating ghouls and terrifying demon-djinn known as ifrit – regular djinn are sexy, ifrit decidedly not so. From what I gather there are a lot of claws and fangs happening – might hold the keys to Nahri’s mysterious past, if she can only get her new sexy djinn friend Dara to answer any of her questions.

I clicked with Nahri right away. A survivor well versed in thinking on her feet, she’s always got a witty retort and a means to make a buck tucked in her back pocket. She has an unusual talent for diagnosing and healing, skills she’s honing with a local pharmacist, and dreams of leaving Cairo behind to seek a career in medicine – even though that’s not something women really do, where she’s from. She can also speak any language as soon as she’s heard it, which is just very cool, honestly.

On the other hand, we have Ali, the other narrator of City of Brass. The prince of Daevabad, the aforementioned hidden magical land, he took me a lot longer to warm up to. But now, two books in (I finished Kingdom of Copper a couple of weeks back), I have come to the conclusion that this was kind of the point. Ali is not an easy person to like, but as I, and Nahri, discovered, he does kinda grow on you. Ali is the kind of guy who is stubborn about all of the wrong things. He holds himself up as the one with principles and his identity is very much wrapped up in that, but the principles – if not the high and mighty attitude that comes with them – seem to melt away when they present any personal risk. Trapped by the confines of royal life and his politically and personally domineering father, there’s a sense throughout City of Brass that he isn’t a fully formed person yet, and though to start with I read him as a weak manboy I didn’t have a lot of time for, after a while his story became one I could engage with. But initially, I’m not going to lie to you, whenever the narrative flipped from what was happening with Nahri to what Ali was up to, the story massively slowed down for me.

City of Brass is, in many ways, a totally perfect book for right now. Rich and complex, Chakraborty goes deep on the many different tribes of the djinn, their histories (a lot of which are bound up in conflict) and how those have led to the balance of power we see in Daevabad now. Keeping track of what different tribes were, which tribes didn’t like other tribes and how those feelings impacted Ali and Nahri required my whole brain. It was exactly what I needed – when I picked up the book and stepped into the world of Daevabad, everything that was going on in my day fell away. There’s not much higher praise for a fantasy than that, right?

Also, the sexual tension between Nahri and Dara… It’s also a very effective distraction.

Just saying.

Dominicana

Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk up in Washington Heights.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with Juan’s brother, César at the Audobon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.


Joining Bookstagram (follow me!) meant that I was fortunate enough to see a huge amount of books by Latinx authors flood my timeline during Latinx Heritage Month. One of them was Dominicana by Angie Cruz and wow am I glad this book came into my life.

I have never read a story quite like this before. A complex, heartfelt and necessary exploration of an immigrant experience, Ana’s story will stay with me for a long time. There is a sense of immediacy and urgency to Cruz’s glorious writing – it lives entirely in the present tense – that grips you close, holding you deeply inside Ana’s experience in such a way I have rarely seen portrayed with quite such thrilling effectiveness. You’re blinkered by Ana’s experiences – but in a good way. As a reader you adopt her expectations, her understanding of the world and her context in such a way that every moment of her life and her move to the US and all of the alienation, fear and excitement that comes with it feels like your own. It’s incredibly tough at times – domestic violence is a regular feature of Ana’s world – but compelling to read such a closely written portrait of a life.

Part of the way Cruz has achieved this is her deft approach to the political moment of the New York Ana lands in. You understand her context only as she far as she does – which doesn’t include any knowledge of the country and its cultural landscape. So, when she and her new husband move in across the street from the Audobon Ballroom in January of 1965, a month before Malcolm X is assassinated there – and goes on to see from her window a small part of what his community mourning him looks like – you know this has happened and what it means, but Ana does not, so you the event and its after effects remain cloaked in painful mystery. She doesn’t speak any English and her husband won’t allow her to leave the house without him, and there’s no means for her to learn more – so the reader doesn’t either. I found it so refreshing the way Cruz doesn’t waste time spoon feeding context. She treats the political situation in the Dominican Republic in a similar way – you get enough of a sense of what is happening from the story and what it means for Ana and her family, but if you want to understand in more depth (which I would always recommend), you can do further research. The story doesn’t ask it of you, but it does give you a compelling reason to do so.

This is just one of the ways Cruz has crafted how utterly unknown New York is to Ana when she first arrives – the entire city is a question mark, and that fear of feeling lost the moment you step out the door alone was so present, especially in the early chapters of the book before Juan’s return to the Dominican Republic. The realness of that fear only increases the joy at its overcoming.

Dominicana is a unique immigrant narrative entwined with a powerful coming-of-age story – and as you’ll know I’ve you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I love nothing more than reading about a woman stepping into her own. And let me tell you, Ana is a character you want to scream and applaud loudly from the side lines for. Ana has as much self doubt as any 15-year-old – and the sort of weight on her shoulders no one, but especially not one so young should have to carry – but she holds herself with this quiet strength that grows steadily throughout the narrative in a way that was utterly delicious to read. In the process of building her life in New York, Ana falls down a lot – whether that’s from trusting the wrong people, or because what she wants is incompatible with what she needs to do for her family – and there is a bracing authenticity in how she faces it all. Cruz has written a book uninterested in the happy, neat ending of a girl riding off into the sunset, but one that instead revels in the complexities of human relationships, and the never-ending push and pull of duty to family verses duty to self.

It’s an extraordinary piece of writing about an experience too often sidelined. Cruz has crafted a novel that demands the spotlight.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When, at sixteen, Janie is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before she meets the man of her dreams – who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.


“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

I have been meaning to pick up Their Eyes Were Watching God since I read Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness a few years back. Janet wrote of the book with so much love – and I wanted feel closer to Janet/continue to live inside of her brain, so I determined I would read it too so it could be like something we shared (does anyone understand what I mean by this?). It took me a few years, but, like most things, I finally got around to it. And let me tell you, there’s a reason people have such strong feelings about Zora Neale Hurston.

It’s really hard to use the words ‘women’s empowerment’ without cringing, but I’m going to ask that you allow me to do so here. Because Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex and nuanced look at how one Black woman, Janie, empowers herself in 1930s America. In fact, I think we should remove the cringe factor altogether. We still live in a world where women’s empowerment is a political conversation – albeit one that has been hijacked by a very white, #GirlBoss style of feminism that is much more about buying things than changing things. But, when stripped of its corruption by capitalism, it is a political conversation still.

I digress.

Janie’s story takes her through three husbands: Logan, a much older man Janie’s grandmother marries her off to because she believes it’ll give her her best chance – he’s rich; Jody, another older smooth talker Janie runs off with at the first opportunity; and, finally Teacake, the man who ends up being pretty much the love of her life.

I am deeply resistant to the idea of a woman’s empowerment being wrapped up in a man – as anyone who has ever read a review of mine may have picked up on… – so the structure of Janie’s story as one completely bound up in the men she was in relationship with challenged me, but, I think, ultimately showed me something I hadn’t really considered before.

Her first husband, and her second husband even more so, thought of Janie – young, beautiful – as a symbol of their own success. In the all-Black community of Eatonville, the town where she and Jody live together they are basically the ultimate power couple, owners of the General Store that is the centre of the town’s community, and eventually mayor and – I guess? – mayoress. But Jody is deeply controlling, and won’t allow Janie to participate in the town’s community – he barely even lets her to speak to people. He wants only to hold her up like a trophy, another of his achievements.

In a lot of ways this is what women are taught to want, right? It certainly seems like an enviable position to a lot of other women in Janie’s orbit. But it denies her freedom and agency; she is just another of those caged birds, cut off.

She was borned in slavery when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she tol me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

When Teacake, a much younger man, comes along, he offers Janie everything she’s never had before. Fun, music, vitality, and actual love, the sort of active give and take that has very little to do with the alienating idolatry Janie has experienced before. This is not to say their relationship is perfect – it is in many episodes deeply problematic. Teacake often spends Janie’s money without asking, and there is sometimes violence in their relationship – but despite all this he is the man that Janie has chosen for herself. And it is that choice that represents such a turning point for Janie. She steps down off of the high chair and into her life. It’s a complicated life, with a guy we might not have chosen for her, but it is finally her own. As Zadie Smith writes in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches far beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”

As you will note from the quotes I have chosen, this book includes a mix of omniscient narrator, written in standard English and speech written in dialect. Dialect puts a lot of people off, but it really needn’t. It takes a minute, but you tune in – and once you do the voices leap off the page. Or as Zadie puts it in her gorgeous intro,“her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all.”

I note this mostly because I know dialect scares a lot of people away – might have scared me away if I had realised what I was getting myself into – but it really needn’t. Trust me.

Janie’s story is one you need to read.

Clap When You Land

Note: trigger warning for sexual assault.

Camino lives for her father’s visits to the Dominican Republic. But this year, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people.

In New York, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance – and Papi’s secrets – the two sisters are forced to face a new reality in which their lives are forever altered. Now Camino and Yahaira are both left to grapple with their grief, their new-found love for one another and what it will take to keep their dreams alive.


15 September – 15 October is Latinx Heritage Month, a 30-day celebration of the culture and contributions of Latinx, Hispanic and Latin-identifying people around the world. Here in the book community, we celebrate by reading, and seeing my WordPress and Instagram feeds fill with recommendations of authors familiar and new to me has been wonderful. That said, as has been noted by many Latinx bloggers and bookstagrammers (I really recommend this article in particular from @lupita.reads on Insta), a lot of the people currently reading and posting about these authors do not mention them at all the rest of the year. That is not okay. We should be reading and recommending a racially diverse selection of authors all year round. So this post is part screaming about a book I loved and part a call for accountability, from myself and everyone celebrating Latinx Heritage Month who is not part of the community (especially my fellow white folks) – this is a whole-life thing, not a everybody’s-doing-it-so-I-guess-I’ll-performatively-join-in thing.

Now for my review.

Clap When You Land is a heart-rending novel about grief, lies, family and forgiveness. Written in verse and divided between the perspectives of Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York, it tells the story of two sisters separated all their lives by the shame of their father learning of each others’ existence for the first time, while dealing with his sudden and devastating loss. He had two wives and two daughters in two countries, and neither of those daughters found out about it until he could no longer give them any answers.

How you deal with that is a question Elizabeth Acevedo answers with deep empathy – for everyone involved – complexity and breathtaking understanding of all of the big and small ways broken people navigate a world where their foundations have turned shakey.

There is so much in this book it’s hard to know where to start.

What is most immediately, unavoidably striking is the stark differences in Camino and Yahaira’s daily lives. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic, and though she and her aunt Tía live in relative comfort because of the money Camino’s father sends from America, the rest of her neighbourhood is another story. Poverty is rife, and the healthcare system too expensive for most people to access. Tía is a healer and Camino is her assistant, so she witnesses first hand those in her community suffering – from the woman dying of cancer to her best friend Carline, young and pregnant with no pre-natal care available to her. Camino wants nothing more than to escape to America to go to university, but there are endless obstacles. When Camino tells her father she wants to be a doctor in America, he laughs at her.

Yahaira’s life in New York is much more familiar – at least to this reader – but no less deeply felt. Half closeted but utterly in love with her girlfriend, Dre, a chess champion (though she’s quit, now) and harbouring a secret about her father that is eating her up inside, Yahaira’s life has been as filled with struggles as anyone’s, but none of them are concerning survival like they are for Camino. Like I said though, you don’t have the sense that Yahaira’s problems are less-than as a result of that. Her pain – and she has been through some real trauma – is never compared to Camino’s. The girls just exist in their different worlds without the author passing any judgement and it’s that masterful writing that makes your own feelings so complicated once they finally meet. Because Yahaira gets it wrong a lot – as is inevitable when meeting someone whose life experiences are so far outside of your own, let alone when that person happens to be the sister you didn’t know existed. And even though you cringe for her, and at times even feel frustrated by her behaviour, you can never judge her for it, because by the time the sisters meet, Yahaira has utterly captivated your heart. This novel is such a nuanced look at privilege and how it can be used that was as heartfelt as it was challenging.

This complicated, dysfunctional family has no villains, and it’s a testament to Acevedo’s writing that even with the amount of wrong that had been done by them, particularly the parents, none of them ever felt like either Camino or Yahaira’s enemy – even their deceased father, who started all the problems in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, you’re constantly angry at them, frustrated by them, even mystified by them, but the storytelling demands your empathy extend to them anyway.

Clap When You Land is a book about acceptance and forgiveness, acknowledging – finally – everything that is wrong and deciding to walk towards something better, together. It’s beautiful, and once you start reading I promise you won’t want to put it down until you’ve made it all the way to the end.

The Starless Sea

When Zachary Rawlins stumbles across a strange book hidden in his university library it leads him on a quest unlike any other. Its pages entrance him with their tales of lovelorn prisoners, lost cities and nameless acolytes, but they also contain something impossible: a recollection from his own childhood.

Determined to solve the puzzle of the book, Zachary follows the clues he finds on the cover – a bee, a key and a sword. They guide him to a masquerade ball, to a dangerous secret club, and finally through a magical doorway created by the fierce and mysterious Mirabel. The door leads to a subterranean labyrinth filled with stories, hidden far beneath the surface of the earth.

When the labyrinth is threatened, Zachary must race with Mirabel and Dorian, a handsome barefoot man with shifting alliances, through its twisting tunnels and crowded ballrooms, searching for the end of his story.


I’m kind of afraid to summarise my thoughts about The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. For one, this book is seriously beloved in the bookish community and, well, unfortunately that was not my experience. Also, my first thought on finishing (and throughout, tbh), was: what did I just read?

I was really disappointed, because I absolutely loved The Night Circus. The way the different threads of that novel wound themselves together into a tale spinning across decades totally took my breath away. Aside from Erin’s language choices, which are as gorgeous as everyone says, what I adored about The Night Circus was the feeling that nothing was wasted – every conversation, practically every sideways glance of that novel was building toward the finale. I never wanted to put that book down because through every chapter I had the unwavering belief that the author was building something.

I suppose it might have been to the detriment of my own reading experience that I carried that belief with me into The Starless Sea.

In terms of the pure building blocks of the almost 500-page narrative, it isn’t all that different from The Night Circus, I guess. Much as it was in her debut, time is very much up for manipulation. A story about stories, as it has been endlessly described, the book is largely divided between the narrative of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a college student in New York who is plunged into a magical world after checking out a book from the library he is stunned to discover himself a character in; and the chapters of that book, Sweet Sorrows, an ancient tome of myths about time, fate and love haunted by The Owl King who might be an owl king or might be a metaphor – to be honest I was never really sure.

This numbered one of my many frustrations.

Rather than that gradual stitching together I so loved during her debut, reading The Starless Sea, I felt I was forever grabbing for threads only to have them slip straight through my fingers. Zachary’s story had stakes – there is a group known as the Collector’s Club trying to destroy the Starless Sea forever – but the why of it all felt so hazy to me that even in its most dramatic moments I always felt apart from the action, like I was constantly playing catch up.

Ultimately I felt like The Starless Sea got so caught up in its own mythology it totally sacrificed plot. I think perhaps my confusion lay in the genre, which felt like it had one foot in the a literary world shrouded in metaphor, and the other very much grounded in that of plot-driven fantasy and the jumbled elements of both really wound up serving neither. I can read a beautiful book of metaphor with no plot and fall in love. I can ready an epic fantasy and be thrilled at every twist. Somehow though, this combination of both just didn’t work for me.

Despite my issues with the narrative, such as it was, the writing was as beautiful as ever – even if I couldn’t feel it in my bones like I wanted to. I felt throughout like I had a vague sense of what she was trying to say – that all stories are connected, that every ending is a new beginning and while that’s still sad, it’s hopeful, too – somehow none of it really meant anything to me.

The Starless Sea was one of those strange books I walked away from with a sense of failure. We’ve all had that, right? That perhaps there is this profound message somewhere in there that I just couldn’t uncover, that somehow, some way, I read it ‘wrong’.

Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t my type of book.

Perhaps I’ll let myself off the hook, and decide to believe in the latter.

Every ending is a new beginning after all. Now I’m finally through this book (it took me a while), I can go read something else.

Queenie

Meet Queenie.

Journalist. Catastrophist. Expressive. Aggressive. Loved. Lonely. Enough?

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family. Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way.


Fellow people in their twenties: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams is required reading, okay? The story of Queenie, a young Black woman navigating a break up, a break down, a stalling career, friendship, sex, sexism, racism – basically, all the things – it’s one of those books that feels like relaxing into a bath. Maybe it’s a little bit too hot, if you’re totally honest with yourself, but the feeling of your muscles tensing and then unwinding as you sink down is totally worth it.

Queenie is contemporary in the most vivid sense – plumbing the depths of dating apps (“I know exactly how to handle a girl with a body like yours. I might not be black, but trust me, you wouldn’t know it from my dick”), the group chat (known as the Corgis. Cause, y’know, they’re Queenie’s friends), Black Lives Matter, workplace sexual misconduct, therapy on the NHS.

In Queenie’s story, Candice speaks boldly and insightfully to experiences uniquely Black, uniquely British and utterly relatable whether or not you claim either of those identities.

Candice Carty-Williams writes about issues young people go through in a way only someone who has faced them herself really can. In an interview I read in The Guardian, she said “What I needed to say in Queenie is that we are all living variations of the same life, but for some it is harder. How much money you have, the colour of your skin, your cultural capital can make it harder.”
That sentiment is absolutely perfect – as it would be, coming from a storyteller of her calibre. From Queenie’s experiences at work, a magazine that won’t let her write about Black Lives Matter, to the constant issues she experiences trying to find affordable housing in London after a break up means she is suddenly forced to find alternate accommodation while also suddenly losing the financial stability her ex-boyfriend offered felt so real. Seeing Queenie forced to choose between grim house share or grandma’s spare room (and I haven’t even talked about her family yet, but suffice to say, it’s a bit complicated) hit me in a cathartic way I didn’t even knew I needed as someone who lives in a house share with six other people and still pays more rent than I should.

In general, but particularly I think in the British book market we fall woefully short when it comes to Black narratives. Even now, I feel like a lot of the Black voices we turn to are American (part of our desire to pretend racism isn’t a thing here, I think) that to pick up a book so grounded in Black British experience felt completely refreshing. Though it was also really tough reading at times. The hyper sexualised way men communicate with Queenie on dating apps, the constant micro aggressions she goes through with her ex-boyfriend’s family – and his subsequent denials of her experience – are brutal and poignant examples of the normalised relentlessness of white supremacy.

I love the representation of Queenie’s family as well. Queenie’s grandparents are Jamaican and the elements of that culture dropped into the narrative – music, to food, to patois – added so much depth and seemed from the outside like such an authentic representation of a thriving part of the UK community that we don’t get to see enough.

Soon I’ll stop, but I can’t end a review of Queenie without making mention of Candice’s deft, empathetic and multi-faceted exploration of mental health. Queenie carries a lot of trauma from her childhood that has never really left her, but absolutely becomes front and centre following her breakup in a way that leads her to start experiencing some serious anxiety and panic. The manifestation of that, and how it is deeply grounded in Queenie’s physical body – which we all know anxiety is for so many of us expressed through the body – is something you really feel while you’re reading, as if the pressure in Queenie’s chest is your own. Her determination to seek therapy, despite the unique barriers to entry thrown up by the intersections of her race and gender felt like such a necessary story to tell, too. I haven’t read many narratives where we see both the decline and the turning point in someone’s mental health story, and there is something so deeply comforting in that. You don’t leave Queenie with the idea she’s fixed, but instead that she’s learning, and coping better every day – it’s so, so reassuring.

Yeah, so, this book might be my new best friend? Is that weird?

There’s a reason Queenie has won so many awards. It’s a story of contemporary female London life we have all needed for years.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is Britain as you’ve never read it.

This is Britain as it has never been told.

From the top of the country to the bottom, across more than a century of change and growth and struggle and life, Girl, Woman, Other follows twelve characters on an entwined journey of discovery.

It is future, it is past. It is fiction, it is history.

It is a novel about who we are now.


It is fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. The winner of the Booker prize last year and the subject of endless praise, it’s one of those books I fear I don’t have much to add to the conversation about. But, despite that, I’m writing today to confirm holy shit this is good.

Girl, Woman, Other is a subversive piece of writing comprised of 12 interconnected stories of mostly Black, mostly female characters and their experiences of Britishness over maybe a century. Queer people, married and unmarried, mothers and the child free, bohemians and traditionalists, female and non-binary, middle and working class; each character in the novel is complex, embodied and leaps from the page – however long you get to spend with them. It is so easy to fall into the narrative of this book, which consumed me from the first page, that you forget to step back for a moment and consider the revolutionary act of writing it. In a publishing world still falling woefully short in its diversity of representation, perhaps most especially here in the UK, to have a book filled with stories of fully realised Black women in all their complexity, different sexualities, politics and relationships – with themselves and others – is an act of total and complete triumph.

The form of this book is probably like nothing you’ve ever read before. Written in an utterly experimental style (which is something I am always up for – I know not everybody feels that way, but I would urge you not to be put off if you’re the type to get upset about missing punctuation. Maybe, just maybe, punctuation is overrated) Bernadine has referred to as ‘fusion-fiction’, it’s poetic, free and subversive. And the style totally serves the story that Bernadine has set out to tell.

There is a feeling of timelessness to Girl, Woman, Other – and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense – but instead that it’s as if time is the rabbit hole and you’re Alice falling through it, as the focus of the authorial gaze shifts fluidly from decade to decade. Once you’ve fallen for long enough, gravity stops existing and you realise that maybe there’s no such thing as up and down anyway. There’s nowhere left to look but around –to see the story in its entirety.

That’s what reading this felt like for me, anyway.

The lack of (rejection of?) punctuation and time’s resultant flow state builds this intense sense of connection between these women’s stories, strung together in a sprawling, endlessly diverse picture of Black British womanhood through the centuries and further on into the horizons we haven’t met yet. It’s a version of the UK we haven’t seen a lot of, to put it mildly.

Another aspect of the writing that I loved was that Evaristo somehow managed to balance nuance with a healthy dose of scepticism toward her characters. She didn’t shy away from elements of the ridiculous where they were present – whether that’s the maybe slightly too intense political expression of the young when they’re coming to it all for the first time (written as if I don’t 100% fall into this group), or the determined bohemian expression of the old even as they veer farther and farther into the mainstream. This was funny, but it also served to hook me in even faster I think. You can only send up a character well if you understand the heart of them through and through, and in Girl, Woman, Other I always felt like Bernadine did. There was not a single person in this book I did not believe in entirely.

I now have to read my way through her back catalogue, which thankfully/shamefully due to my complete ignorance of her work pre-Booker prize, there is lots of. I’ve heard her say she needs every book she writes to challenge her, and I’m excited to see how her books will challenge me too.

Little Fires Everywhere

In the placid, progressive suburb of Shaker Heights everything is meticulously planned, from the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson.

Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants; all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs Richardson on opposing sides. Mrs Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.


I had been meaning to read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng forever, obviously. Everyone said it was amazing, then the Amazon adaptation was coming starring none other than Olivia Pope herself, AKA Kerry Washington, who I would watch doing pretty much anything, to be honest – and somehow I still had not gotten around to it. So it was very fortuitous that back in the early days of lockdown when I was making my weekly 7am trip up to the Co-Op, one of my neighbours had kindly included it in the box of ‘free – please take’ books placed their gateway.

Don’t mind if I do.

I read the book and then watched the show (which I loved), so the two are a little intertwined in my head, but I will do my best to stick to the Ng-only version for the purposes of this review. (Though if you did watch the show, how good was Reese Witherspoon!? I never thought I could be revolted by Reese but she pulled it off).

Set in 1990s America but with a feel that is utterly contemporary, Little Fires Everywhere is, as the title suggests, a tinder box of a book. Dual tensions of race in so-called liberal white suburbia rub up against issues of class and bohemian verses traditional lifestyles to produce a novel that is simmering – with resentment, tension, sex and rage. Though they don’t speak of such things in a place like Shaker Heights, of course.

Celeste Ng captures so much in this novel, casting a merciless eye over the failings of the liberal middle class who consider ‘colour blindess’ a virtue. She examines the unacknowledged white privilege driving the Shaker Heights community with the heart-rending tale of Bebe Chow, a Chinese woman fighting for custody of her child, who was adopted by a local couple after Bebe abandoned her in a moment of poverty-driven despair. The custody battle splits the community down the middle, with Elena and Mia at the heart of the conflict. The case raises many questions the residents of Shaker are entirely unprepared to face: does motherhood lie in the love or in the blood? Does the race matter in adoption (why did her adoptive parents change her name from May Ling to Mirabelle?)? Are we setting up certain mothers – single mothers, mothers who aren’t white, aren’t American, aren’t wealthy, perhaps aren’t legal citizens – to fail? Ng leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

At the same time as all this, the complex entanglement of Elena and Mia’s families shows the sometimes destabilizing effect of confronting a lifestyle entirely different from one’s own. Shaker has always been Elena’s plan. The husband, the house, the brood of photogenic children was what she was working toward, but the sudden arrival of Mia, a nomad, an artist, the apparent embodiment of freedom from all those things women are socialised to strive for, throws it all off balance. How do you respond when faced with an individual living all of the decisions you chose not to pursue? Elena opts for rejection and suspicion – and Mia returns it in kind. For their children however, it’s an entirely different story. It’s funny how when you’re a kid it’s much easier to see a different lifestyle as a possibility rather than a threat – it’s a feeling we should all work harder to hold onto as we grow up, I think. Little Fires Everywhere evoked more than anything I’ve ever read that feeling from childhood of that one friend’s house that feels like stepping into another world – their family so fun, so pretty, so lacking in all of the complexities and frustrations that make your own so annoying. The family you want to join, at whose house sleepovers are elevated to exploratory missions, data gathering for previously unknown possibilities. Both Pearl, Mia’s daughter, and Elena’s kids feel this way about each other. It’s a feeling I’d forgotten, and revisiting it was a nostalgic joy.

Little Fires Everywhere is complex and utterly gripping. Read it. Then watch the show. They are both challenging, nuanced and truly excellent experiences.

Vicious

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates – brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same ambition in each other. A shared interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl with a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find – aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge – but who will be left alive at the end?


My favourite fictional characters have always been the evil ones. The murderers, liars, cheaters and manipulators safely ensconced in the pages of books allow us all to indulge ourselves for a little while in the potential of pressing the fuck-it button and letting life crumble into delicious chaos.

We’d never actually do it, of course. If we have learned anything from Tokyo off Money Heist it’s that chaos is not a sustainable lifestyle unless you don’t happen to mind getting your much more likeable co-workers killed from time to time.

We mind.

Anyway. Vicious, by my forever fave V.E. Shwab is an ode to the fuck-it button. It’s about what happens when entitled masculinity meets paranormal science plus murder.

The result?

Chaos, of course. Delicious chaos.

Vicious, like so many of my favourite reads recently, is split into a few different timelines. This, combined with the short chapters and ever evolving list of times, locations and perspectives really drives the narrative, which, like all the best villain stories, has everything to do with revenge. Every player in this story is harbouring something – a God complex (actually, there are a few of those going around), a suspected curse, the exact details of their own murder (yes, you read that right) – and these separate threads weave together in gripping and surprising ways as our MC, Victor gathers the gang of misfits required to finally bring down his ex-university bestie, Eli, for reasons you’ll find out as you go along.

Victor Vale has all the elements of your favourite likeable bad guy. Emotional detachment, a pattern of drastic behaviour and general disregard for personal safety, a great alliterative name and the required enigmatic magnetism that draws fellow weirdos to his side, kind of like those whistles only dogs can hear. Plus, his parents are self-help millionaires because V.E. Shwab always spoils us with these kinds of details. As a young ‘un, Victor spends his days creating black out poetry from his parents’ books, transforming self-help platitudes into statements like “Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin” with the help of a Sharpie – that is when he isn’t trying to figure how to get super powers.

Eli on the other hand is your standard all American boy: blond, gorgeous, popular, charming and totally capable of mass murder with the right motivation. He’s kind of like Payton off The Politician had he set his sights on gaining superhuman abilities rather than the Oval Office. Plus – you know – the whole murder thing.

It’s a page turner, I’ll tell you that. Shwab takes the age-old at this point trope of the science experiment gone wrong and makes it her own, creating a unique standard of what’s morally right in the process.

(We love Victor! But he’s totally evil too? But like, less evil? I mean I know he did the murder but maybe his murdering wasn’t as bad as Eli’s murdering?)

You get the picture.

As morally upstanding as you believe yourself to be, this is the kind of story where you end up implicated.

It’s not going to end well for anyone, surely, and yet I find I can’t wait to pick up the sequel.