Brian Fee shares time in Austin and Brooklyn. When he is not reading and drinking in bars (The Jackalope or The Lost Well in Austin; Sugarburg or Battery Harris in Brooklyn), he co-organizes two international contemporary art fairs.
As of today, I am 300 pages (approximately halfway) into The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning retrospective of the decades-long migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to northern cities from 1915 through the 70s. Interspersed with general history, Wilkerson traces the movements of three people: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife headed to Chicago; George Swanson Starling, a Floridian agriculture worker headed to Harlem; and Robert Joseph “Pershing” Foster, an army-trained doctor originally from Monroe, Louisiana headed to Los Angeles. It is by turns and oftentimes simultaneously a deeply disturbing and enlightening read, with passages of levity and measured optimism jolted continuously by racism from every avenue: South, North, and West.
At my point in the chronicle, Wilkerson has mentioned the Moynihan Report, so for further insight I suggest you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ October 2015 article “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” in The Atlantic.
What follows is a short list of reads from the past two months:
The Book of Night Women, Marlon James’ second novel, which preceded his Man Booker Prize-winning masterpiece A Brief History of Seven Killings. Both are essential reads, though Night Women—with its focus on the disarmingly gorgeous Lilith, born a slave on an 18th century Jamaican sugar plantation, and her malleable presence as deciding factor or weak link to the mysterious (and magical?) titular group’s full-scale revolt—asserts itself easily as my favorite read of 2015, potentially in the past several years.
Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique, the first novel from this young Brooklyn-based Caribbean writer. To summarize it as “a story of two sisters and an epic family saga” only scratches the surface of this full-sensory visceral novel. Better, it “takes you there,” and by that I mean out to a precipice, only that precipice is the crashing, turbulent waves of multicultural characters on St. Thomas’ shore. In the distance is Anegada and the magical realism prescient in James’ Night Women shines here as well via Yanique’s own precise and lyrical prose.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. I read her second novel Salvage the Bones upon a friend’s recommendation in September, and upon my return to New York in November I picked up Ward’s memoir. Its setting—DeLisle, Mississippi—mirrors that of Salvage the Bones, particularly in the midst of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In Men We Reaped she recounts in reverse chronological order the lives of five young Black men in her life who lost their lives from 2000-2004, including her only brother, interspersed with Ward’s own movements through childhood, community, and college.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu, the debut novel by this former Israel Defense Forces soldier and youngest recipient—ever—of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award (plus she was the first Israeli author to be longlisted for the UK’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, among many other firsts). Boianjiu’s novel, which follows high-school aged Yael, Avishag, and Lea through their enlistments in the IDF and into their twenties, begins with a vivacious sprint (Yael waxing poetic on boys, cellular phones, and other high-school girl burdens). By the conclusion of chapter one, someone has died, and the reality of the world these girls live in—one of extended stretches of tedium punctuated by trauma or love—materializes into sharp relief.