Leslie from Regular Rumination and Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness (two bloggers I love!) are co-hosting a really cool nonfiction project this month. Each week in November, participants will write posts on a given topic. I didn’t get a chance to write one last week, but this week’s topic is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:
Share a list of nonfiction books on a topic you know a lot about. Or, ask some advice for books on a particular topic. Or, put together a list of books on a topic you’re curious about.
I love memoirs and I looooove reading about other cultures, I decided to go the “Be the Expert” route and share some great memoirs (or memoirish writings) written by people of color. Here are five excellent memoirs listed in alphabetical order (the links lead back to my reviews):
1. Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness ed. by Rebecca Walker
What is that Cool that iconic Black people always seem to possess? The seed of this book began with one particular image of President Obama and branched out from there: what is Black Cool? In this slim anthology, sixteen writers interpret the concept in their own ways. Some reference Black icons in their essay, but all of them ultimately turn to themselves and the people they know to examine the historical and contemporary roots of Black Cool.
2. The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
Okay, so I can’t personally put this one in the “other cultures” category: Martinez is a Rio Grande Valley native (where I’m from). His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, is about growing up in Brownsville, TX in a hyper-macho abusive household. It’s painful to read at times, but Martinez’s writing is fantastic and the book was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in the nonfiction category.
During a visit from her little brother, affectionately nicknamed Chevey (pronounced “Chivvy”), feminist film critic Molly Haskell was stunned by the confession that Chevey had been battling some personal demons his whole life: now nearly sixty years old, he felt it was finally time to come out as a trans woman. Having carefully saved up money over the years, he informed his sister that he would be undergoing a few surgeries in the coming months, ending with the final sex change surgery. Because of this, Chevey would be separating from his second wife, Eleanor. When asked why he had waited so long to do this, Chevey responded, “Because the urge gets stronger, not weaker. You just don’t want to go to your grave in what you believe is the wrong body.”
So begins the year of Chevey’s physical and emotional transformation into Ellen, as told through the often cringe-inducing eyes of her sister. *sigh* Where do I even begin?
Perhaps with one of Haskell’s immediate reactions to the news?
I think about this. “Just one thing,” I say (hoping to inject a note of levity, but not entirely joking), “please tell me you’ll still be smart at money and computers, and not dumb like…well, like a girl? Like me? Or Eleanor or Beth?” None of us can go a week without having a computer emergency and appealing to him for assistance.
Men We Reaped begins with this epigraph by Harriet Tubman:
“We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
It’s a chilling foreshadowing of what’s to come. From 2000-2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were dear to her. It started with the tragic death of her brother, then grew more and more overwhelming as death kept coming for friends she grew up with in rural Mississippi. And as she notes in her first chapter, it’s nothing new. A brief survey of her family history reveals that several of her male Southern ancestors’ lives were cut short in violent ways, leaving the women in the family reeling and scraping by.
As Ward struggles to make sense of it all, she juggles a few different histories. Every other chapter in the book is about her own family’s story. With them, she starts in the past and moves her way forward in time, talking about growing up poor in the rural South, her parents’ doomed marriage, and her mother’s struggle raise four children. She’s frank about her depression and her feelings of inadequacy; she was a gifted child but was poor and often the only black person in an all-white, wealthy school where she experienced blatant racism.
Like many of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s non-Iranian fans, I first became aware of her in 2003 when House of Sand and Fog was released. Her performance garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, and she’s been working steadily in Hollywood ever since. But before being cast in House of Sand and Fog, Aghdashloo was already a beloved personality in the Iranian American community, working nonstop with her playwright husband to produce his Iranian-themed plays around the world. And before that, she was an established actress in Iran, fleeing the country and starting over in the United States after the Islamic Revolution.
The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines recounts Aghdashloo’s life growing up in pre-revolution Tehran (the title is a reference to this happier time and remains a symbol of her hope for a free Iran). Although “Shohreh” means “famous” in Farsi, her parents wanted her to be anything but: acting wasn’t considered an appropriate career for a young woman of her affluent upbringing, and she was expected to become a doctor. Still, she knew she wanted to be an actress ever since she was a child. Though her parents expressly forbid her from pursuing an acting career, her first husband, Aydin Aghdashloo, a worldly and forward-thinking artist, was supportive of her acting aspirations. They were a perfect match for each other, and both of their careers took off.
Then, in 1978, the Islamic Revolution began. Artists, actors, students, and educators were all disappearing or being taken in for questioning under the new regime, but her husband loved Iran and refused to leave. As someone who vocally opposed what was happening to her country, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Shohreh needed to leave; to stay would mean putting her husband, family, and friends in danger. She made the difficult decision to leave her husband behind in Iran and escaped to Europe, then eventually made her way to the United States to try making it in Hollywood.
Lucy Knisley has lived the kind of foodie life I often fantasize about. As the daughter of an artist-turned-chef mother and fine dining-obsessed father, she’s always had a special relationship with food. Hers were the type of parents who fed their infant daughter poached salmon in cream following her baptism and saw to it that their daughter cultivated an adventurous palate and a lifelong appreciation for food. Relish, Knisley’s second graphic memoir, traces the role food has had in her life by recounting some of her most memorable food-related experiences.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: I loved this book. Loved the colorful artwork, loved the writing, loved the recipes, loved it all! Knisley writes about food — everything from McDonald’s to $250 prix fixe dinners — in a humorous and down-to-earth way. What really holds it together is the book’s heart: you can tell that she loves everything she’s writing about and wants you to love it, too.
Another thing that really shines through is Knisley’s relationship with her parents, especially her mother. Her parents divorced when she was young; her father stayed in Manhattan, while she and her mother moved to upstate New York to start over in the Catskills. There her mother truly thrived, planting her own garden, raising chickens, and working with local farmers while running a catering business. By her side the whole time was Lucy, learning the ropes of country life and developing a more organic relationship with food and food production. Meanwhile, visits to Manhattan and trips abroad with her father exposed her to the other side of food since he loved fine dining. It’s about as well-rounded a food education as one could ever hope for.