I received an advance copy This Will Be My Undoing a couple of months ago, but then life happened and I didn’t get a chance to dive in until the week it went on sale. Unbeknownst to me, at the same time, there was a bit of a storm brewing on Twitter over some of the book’s excerpts.
The book is a collection of essays about the author’s experiences living as a black woman in America. The first chapter is the thing that seems to be getting everyone up in arms. Jerkins, seeing all the popular white cheerleaders around her and wanting to attain that status, admits to wanting to be white when she was growing up. Fine, but then she goes on a cringe-worthy confession of the — shall we say, uncharitable — thoughts she had towards an early bully of hers. In her mind back then, the bully was the wrong kind of black girl, whereas Jerkins was a light-skinned, smart, go-getting, educated, wannabe-white black girl:
Greetings from Dubai! I was here last month but didn’t get to post this because I was too busy sightseeing during the few hours I had during my layover. Now I’m here again, slowly making my way back home. Today’s book is by Maha Gargash, who was born and currently lives in Dubai. This is her second book.
Majed Naseemy is the controlling patriarch of an esteemed Emirati family living in Dubai. Years ago, he tricked his brother into signing over his share of their growing agriculture company. His brother died soon after, and many whisper that Majed’s betrayal is what killed him. Now, the family lives in great wealth. Majed has taken responsibility for his brother’s daughter, Mariam, who is studying in Cairo. He also has a daughter, Dalal, from a secret marriage. The family refuses to acknowledge her, and her recent stint on Nights of Dubai, an American Idol-type show, has infuriated her father, who sees such entertainers as low class. Dalal now lives in Cairo with her mother; she’s trying to get her music career off the ground.
Though Majed forbids them from interacting, Mariam and Dalal are close friends. Neither of them have a good relationship with Majed, but he tries to control their every move just the same, going so far as to employ goons to spy on them. The two girls are strikingly different . No matter how much she despises her uncle, Mariam is obedient and always conscious of how her image in public may be interpreted by fellow Emirati; her worst nightmare is being seen doing something improper and having people back home find out. Dalal is the complete opposite; she’s hot-headed and outgoing, and she and her mother openly defy Majed no matter how aggressive or extreme his reactions might be.
On my first night in Naples, I went out to dinner with some kids (the thing about backpacking as a thirty-something is that almost all of the other backpackers are at least a decade younger than you). We were at a restaurant, and somehow the conversation briefly turned to “real feminists,” which, to the guy in our group, meant really believing in/fighting for equality and not being a hypocrite and expecting guys to buy you drinks at bars. There were a few good feminists out there, but too many “feminists” were hypocrites that gave the good feminists a bad name.
I chose to remain silent through this conversation, but this is what my internal dialogue sounded like: “Sometimes it’s nice to have drinks bought for you…haha, I’m Feminist Texican…Also, guys can be feminists…I should probably say something but I just want to drink beer and look at the ocean…Say something…Nope, I don’t want to have this conversation with strangers right now…Mmmm, beer…You are a bad feminist.”
It’s a recurring conversation I sometimes have with myself. I’ve had my Feminist Card revoked many times, sometimes by other Feminists, sometimes by myself, like when Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A” pops up on my shuffle and I’m filled with shame as I sing along (yes, I realize that song is about a million years old). And it’s this kind of feminist backsliding, among other things, that Roxane Gay addresses in her new collection of essays, Bad Feminist.
Leroy Kervin is an Iraq war veteran with a traumatic brain injury. He’s been living in a group home for years now, unable to feed or care for himself. He wakes up one night with uncharacteristic clarity and he’s able to see it all: his life now vs. the life he had long ago built with the love of his life. The sorrow is too much, and he can’t bear the thought of losing this newfound clarity again. He’d rather die than go back into that muddled state, and he winds up in the ICU after a failed suicide attempt.
Freddie McCall works the night shift at the group home and is the person who finds Leroy. He, too, has lost a lot. He once had a wife and family, but his marriage fell apart when one of his daughters required numerous medical interventions to correct a condition she was born with. With Freddie always working to pay for the medical bills and his wife staying home to care for their daughter, the stress took its toll. His wife and daughters now life far away with another man, while Freddie is on the verge of bankruptcy and still works two jobs in order to send money to his young daughters.
Pauline Hawkins is an ICU nurse at the local hospital. Everyone likes her, but her job is starting to wear her out and she dreams of switching jobs and becoming a school nurse. She is single and refuses to be tied down to any man, even though she’s already tied down to one in particular: her father, who is difficult and suffers from dementia. She takes care of Leroy, but it’s another patient who steals her heart. A troubled young runaway with abscesses on her legs obviously needs help, but she keeps running off with heroin addicts.
A woman disappears, leaving no trace except her car at the edge of her cliff; she’s written off as a suicide. In the months that follow, her mother discovers a secret manuscript that her daughter wrote and is convinced that it sheds some insight into her daughter’s disappearance: that manuscript is The Bride Stripped Bare.
And that’s all in the first two pages. The rest of Nikki Gemmell’s book is comprised of the actual manuscript of The Bride Stripped Bare. The chapters are labeled as a series of lessons that read like a diary. It begins with a couple on a honeymoon; the narrator has had her share of lovers, but none know her as intimately as her new husband, Cole. Still, she has secrets that even he doesn’t know about.
By all outward appearances, the narrator is a picture-perfect good wife. She’s given up her teaching job and now stays at home; soon, she expects they’ll start a family. Cole brings in enough money for her to do as she pleases, and she spends her days working on turning a scandalous Elizabethan-era diary that’s been passed down in her family into a novel. But the doldrums of married life are weighing on her. It’s a chillier marriage than the one she’d envisioned, and her thoughts keeps straying to past lovers. The book she’s working on doesn’t help: the Elizabethan woman who penned it was vocal about her desires. It isn’t long until the narrator begins flirting with her own desires in the form of a handsome stranger named Gabriel.