I was honored to be asked by NPR Books to review Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the compelling new work of nonfiction from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson:
To read Isabel Wilkerson is to revel in the pleasure of reading — to relax into the virtuosic performance of thought and form one is about to encounter, safe and secure that the structures will not collapse beneath you.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Wilkerson evinced a rare ability to craft deeply insightful analysis of deeply researched evidence — both historical and contemporary — in harmonious structures of language and form.
Now, in her sophomore effort, the former New York Times Chicago Bureau chief does not disappoint. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterwork of writing — a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands, also, as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis.
What is caste? According to Wilkerson, “caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Racism and castism do overlap, she writes, noting that “what some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system.”[…]
For NPR Books, I write about the new luminous new memoir Memorial Drive, written by the brilliant Natasha Tretheway, former US Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This book is unparalleled. It is the kind of book that comes around once a century, if we are lucky.
In the closing pages of her memoir Memorial Drive, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey writes: “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”
The memoir, out this week, is a meditation on Trethewey’s own life as well as those of her mother and grandmother — an interrogation of the self and of family history haunted, in large part, by the abuse Trethewey and her mother both suffered at the hands of her stepfather. It ended, ultimately, in the murder of Trethewey’s mother by her step-father when Trethewey was 19.
Like Lucille Clifton’s poem “june 20,” a rising tension is created between the threat of the known violence that is to come and the present movement of the narrative building to that moment. “I need now to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy” writes Trethewey in the opening pages. Structurally, this tension becomes the driving engine of the book; thematically, this becomes a ghost of the terrifying future that haunts the present text.[…]
For NPR, I review Meredith Talusan’s gorgeous memoir Fairest:
“This nuance, this careful attention to looking and attempting to understand this journey not just from her own perspective, but also from those affected by it, gives a welcome maturity, depth and resonance to Talusan’s memoir. One of the most touching scenes in the book is in the beginning of Talusan’s transition to womanhood. Talusan’s partner, Ralph, just wants her to look “normal,” as he calls it and asks Talusan to dress like a man, without make-up, for a friend’s important event at Carnegie Hall. Talusan promises — but when she goes to the bathroom to scrub her face free of make-up, she cannot, eventually collapsing crying on the floor. To erase her make-up, to erase her femininity—to make herself look like a man when she is a woman — is destroying her in that moment. And Ralph, hearing her pain, comes into the bathroom and hugs her. He tells Talusan that he will never ask her to take off her make-up again.
The make-up, a stand-in for true selfhood and identity, functions in conversation with the usage of the mirror, a central grounding conceit for Talusan’s flights into astute analysis of race, gender and sexuality not just here, but elsewhere in the book.”
This is one of my favorite books I have been asked to review for NPR. You can read the rest of my review here.
For NPR, I write about the stunning new poetry collection from Natalie Diaz:”
“How do we center, in this postcolonial experience, not the perspective of the western European colonizer but the perspective of the indigenous, black, and people of color who were colonized? Even the very language of this concept — postcolonial — betrays a perspective still situated around the white colonizer.
So we begin with this question: How do you create meaning when the language itself undercuts the meaning you are trying to create?
Natalie Diaz, whose incendiary When My Brother Was An Aztec transformed language eight years ago, addresses these ideas in her new poetry collection Postcolonial Love Poem through authorial choices that center Native perspective in content, point of view, agency, and normalization of Native culture and mythos — in short, the myriad ways the white gaze is normalized in the literary imagination and which readers are socialized to accept as the default normal as well.” […]
For NPR, I write about this important new memoir from Sarah Valentine:
“When one thinks of American blackness, there is the unsaid ugly truth that nearly all American blacks who have descended from the historical African diaspora in America have one (or several) rapacious white slave owners in their family tree at some point.
Here, in the early days of the United States, was the invention of racism for economic necessity. From 1619 until 1865, white male Americans chose to breed a black enslaved workforce through the state-sanctioned rape of black women to build the new nation and support their white supremacist class. Race became the single unifying identifier — determining everything about one’s life starting with this most basic division: enslaved or free.
The American law was that the “condition of the child followed that of the mother,” backed up by the “one drop rule,” the legal framework that dictated even one drop of blackness made an individual black, never white. The idea of blackness as a pollutant, a taint that would erode the purity of whiteness, was seized by politicians around the world then — and now.
Because of this legacy of sexual violence and anti-blackness, black and white mixed individuals have long been considered black in America.
To a much larger degree than many people would like to admit, race still determines a vast part of one’s life — social networks and mobility, birth and other medical care, employment opportunities and so on. Indeed, there is an entire genre of literature and film, popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s, composed of blacks “passing” for white to avoid this racism. Some of the most famous examples are Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing; James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 opus, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; and the 1959 film The Imitation of Life.
Sarah Valentine, the author of the memoir When I Was White, did not choose to pass for white; her mother made the choice for her. So Valentine was raised as white by white parents in white middle-class communities — only to discover as a young woman that her biological father was actually black. As Valentine endeavors to explore what her new identity means to her, she searches for ways to connect to her blackness. For Valentine, learning that she is black is to reject whiteness; she cannot comprehend how the privileges of whiteness can be held hand in hand with the racism the black body is subject to.” […]