Some thoughts on and beyond The Dark Bride, by Laura Restrepo

flavia-carpio-770955-unsplashPhoto by Flavia Carpio on Unsplash

I read this book in February before going to Colombia on vacation.  Whenever I’m lucky enough to travel outside the US, I always try to read books by authors from the countries I’m visiting.  I was especially excited for this trip because this was my first visit to South America, and I know I have only just begun discovering amazing works from that part of the world.  An obvious author to read would have been Gabriel García Márquez, and while I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera and loved it, I knew I wanted to read something by a female author.  Actually, I knew I needed to read one, given my reading project for the year.  Some internet research led me to a great article about female Colombian authors, and that’s how I found Laura Restrepo and The Dark Bride.

The sentences in this book twist and turn, and I got lost in them more than once and would have to double back to make sure I absorbed the nuanced language and emotions.  There is so much packed in about life, love, identity, and family that I would find myself pausing mid-paragraph to let the words marinate in brain for a little while.  Restrepo introduced me to a society of oil workers and prostitutes that I would not have known otherwise.

This book takes you into the world of people who work very hard for very little.  They experience a lot of love, death, jealousy, and poverty, which is a world away from what most tourists, including myself, see from their tropical beach vacations and the candy-colored streets of Cartagena.  I did get glimpses of “real life” when I visited a local market, but I was with a guide, and it was very clear that I was separate from the people working there. Class and race are complicated topics in the US, and but I didn’t know what to expect in Colombia.  The intersection of Spanish, indigenous, and Caribbean culture has led to a diverse population with its own unique hierarchy that I was unsure how to navigate and yet simultaneously felt familiar. Whiteness is valued and respected highly there, and much of the wealth lies with that population.  But at the same time, I feel like there was a higher level of diversity than I am used to, even in New York. It was a different and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me to stand out for being one of the few light-skinned people in a room. And I am pale and sunburn easily and have red hair, so I REALLY stood out.  Or at least, that’s what it felt like. For all I know, no one noticed me at all and I need to work on being less self-conscious and more comfortable being in diverse spaces.

I was also very conscious of the women in Cartagena.  Short dresses in heels were everywhere, along with stores selling bikinis and accessories for the beach.  It’s a different kind of woman than those I read about in The Dark Bride. These women have formed their own small community and rely on each other for support in a society where their presence and professions are frowned upon but tolerated.  They come together and fight a government attempting to exploit them. It was bittersweet to me to read about this camaraderie. I have close female friends and feel a strong bond with them, but women are so often taught to compete against one another when it comes to looks, wealth, and marital status.  There is a fend for yourself attitude that can be exhausting, and I wonder what life would be like with that level of commitment to a group of women. The portrayal of prostitution was also interesting to me. On the surface, most of the women defended their livelihood and their decision to stick with it, but how much of that is actual choice and how much of that is circumstance?  How much are any of our choices driven by circumstance? It makes me consider the debate about if prostitution should be legal. I am all for protecting women and advocating for their health care, but when I think about the women who did not choose prostitution, is legalization the way to go? I do not have any answers to these questions, and it is a much more complicated topic than what can be addressed in a blog post (or at least, this blog post).  But this book pushed me to grapple with these questions in a way that I hadn’t before, which made me enjoy the experience of reading it even more. I’m looking forward to reading more of Restrepo’s books and learning more about her country through her writing.

 

NYPL just made my day

IMG_1885Imagine this for me, will you?  You open your email on your lunch break, dreading the amount of spam in your inbox because of that one time you bought a sweater from that random site (and had to return it because the material was super itchy, by the way).  You start to select every new message, expecting to trash it all when….what’s this?! An email from the library?! Hooray! A new book is ready and waiting for you to come claim it and take it home and love it before passing it onto the next person.  You do a little dance in your seat, drawing looks from your co-worker in the cube across the way. But you don’t care, you have new stuff to read!

 

Sound familiar, or is this just what I did today when I found out that not one but TWO of the books on my hold list were ready for me?  Floating through the rest of the afternoon, I left work as soon as I could and stopped by the library on my way home, where I found Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th Century New York by Stacy Hornand Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday waiting for me.  I don’t know if this counts as a #libraryhaul, because it’s only two books, but I’m super excited to have these to add to my TBR for the next few weeks.

 

I wanted to read Damnation Island because the subtitle grabbed me immediately.  I love reading historical nonfiction, especially about New York. I am also curious to learn more about the progression of mental health care in the US.  I think historical context matters a lot in conversations of social policy. How did we get where we are now? How can we learn from our mistakes? When I walk through the city every day, I see so many homeless people who are clearly mentally ill.  There is one man in particular who rants and raves at imaginary people most of the time, and I wonder what can be done to help him. A friend who works with a lot of mental health patents once told me that this is a sad reality for many people with mental illness.  The system is not designed to care for them, and they don’t get the help they need. I am interested to learn more about that. And to focus more on the theme of my project this year, I hope Horn spends some time focusing on women’s experiences. Women seem to be labeled as “crazy” at an alarming rate even now, so I imagine their lives with true mental illness were horrific in the 19th century.

 

Asymmetry fulfills a little of my voyeuristic curiosity, since I am a big book nerd and was so intrigued by the author’s relationship with Philip Roth.  But as I read more about the book, I realized that it was much more than auto-fiction. Halliday is playing with structure and storytelling, and I am excited to read it!  I don’t know too much more about the book than that, so I’m looking forward to checking back in and sharing my thoughts soon.

 

Okay, I have a confession to make….I have lived in New York for nine years now, and only joined the library last year!  Isn’t that crazy? I always looked at my ever-growing stack of books I own and felt like it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t add to them.  But then I’d stare at my shelves, full of unread books, and think “there is nothing to read.” Joining the library fixed that. It injects a freshness into my TBR pile that I sometimes desperately crave.  I will continue to own and hoard books, but I plan on being a library member for a long time.

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Some thoughts on My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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I underestimated the power of My Sister, the Serial Killer before I read it.  Its small size and flashy title led me to believe I was reading something light and “fun” (I use quotes because serial killers are not fun. And I say that as a lover of My Favorite Murder), but I was quickly convinced otherwise.  Braithwaite’s writing is clear and to the point, laying out exactly what happens with little metaphor, but simultaneously has many layers to strip back to get a full picture of the story.

 

Korede takes being a protective big sister to the next level.   I love my younger brother, but I cannot imagine myself covering for and cleaning up after him after he killed multiple people (sorry, bro, you’re on your own there).  Korede’s behavior was even more confusing to me once I learned more about her relationship with Ayoola and how the world treats them.  The blatant favoritism that everyone shows Ayoola was maddening to me, and I wanted to shake Korede for allowing it to happen. I think I was forgetting the power that internalized self-doubt or self-hatred can have on people, which is ridiculous because it is absolutely something I have allowed to get in my own way more than once.

 

This book reminded that women all over the world are judged by their looks and marital status, and it can be so easy to feel like a failure if you don’t achieve the expectations that others have set for you.  It infuriated me to see these sisters pitted against each other because one is considered beautiful and the other is not.  I’m having a hard time writing this, because it feels naïve and selfish to say that I needed a reminder of the struggles of women with different backgrounds than my own.  But I think that it can be easy to get stuck in your own bubble and forget that the problems you are feeling can often be universal.  I hope it’s not just me that feels this way.

 

When I read more about Korede and Ayoola’s childhood, the picture behind their relationship, and perhaps how they present themselves to the world, became clearer to me.  I am not a psychologist nor do I have any training in mental health care, but I know enough about childhood trauma to understand that it has powerful influences on you throughout your life.  I found myself sympathizing with, believe it or not, Ayoola the serial killer, wondering if this behavior was the result of childhood abuse and if she would have turned out this way had she gotten some professional support.  Meanwhile, Korede’s straight-laced albeit somewhat quirky personality becomes more and more bizarre as the story continues.  Her cleaning habits seemed like obsessive-compulsive disorder at first, but when I finished the book, I felt it was more than that.  Maybe it’s her way of compartmentalizing and dealing with stress.  Or perhaps she knows it’s one way she is helpful in a world that underappreciates her. Maybe it’s a little of both. Either way, I felt her priorities are skewed at the end as she maintains the status quo and allows Ayoola to continue her dangerous and lethal behavior.  It might be that the life she has now with her mother and sister is the only one she can imagine having.

 

Speaking of that life, there is a final thought I wanted to noodle on, and that is how Korede addresses those who work for her.  Her internal thoughts led me as the reader to believe that she considers herself to be above the other nurses and cleaners at the hospital.  What struck me as even more arrogant is that she never addresses the family’s maid, or house girl, by her first name.  Admittedly, I know nothing about Nigerian class structure, but it struck me as odd that I never learned this person’s name, even though she has a day-to-day role in Korede’s life.   I cannot figure out if this is the standard attitude for people of this class, or if Korede is so wrapped up in her own head and family situation that she can’t be bothered to use this person’s name.  If there is something I have learned in the Trump era, it is that just talking to someone from a different background can be an eye-opening experience that reminds you that we are all human, just trying to make things a little better for ourselves in this crazy world.  Maybe if Korede was able to think that way and connect with other people, especially the women, around her, she might not feel so isolated and forge a path beyond her family.

Some Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

tree-46766_1280I chose to start the year with these two because I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird in January.  Like most (okay, maybe all) American students, I had read Mockingbird in my eighth grade English class and truly did enjoy it.  When Go Set a Watchman came out a few years ago, I was hesitant like so many others because I had heard so many conflicting opinions of it.  But in an era where race is a constant (and necessary) topic to engage, and because I was going to see the play, I thought it was time to read them both together.  I am so glad I read Watchman first and To Kill a Mockingbird second.  It allowed me to get the painful part over with and then move on to the more enjoyable stuff!  Watchman is clunky and I really disliked the third person narration (which is weird, because I usually prefer it).  I think I just enjoyed Scout’s voice so much in Mockingbird that the later book did not live up to my expectations at all.

But going back to this small town in Alabama as an adult did remind me that discussions about race become so much more complicated as you get older.  As a child reading Mockingbird, Atticus was just doing the right thing by defending Tom.  But as an adult, it did seem like Atticus was conflicted about what his true motivations were, which Watchman does shed some light on.   As I have gotten older and explored more about race in this country, everything seems to become so much more complicated.  This book reminded me that I am not the only one who feels this way.

I was also so interested in the women in both of these books, which was so great given my goal for this year’s reading theme!  As a white woman, it was fascinating to read about the power that women do and do not have in this small Alabama town.  Mayella Ewell has zero power in her home life, and yet her race gives her so much power over Tom’s life.   But is that even her power, or is it white men using her to wield their own? Meanwhile, Scout rejects the town’s norms regarding femininity during childhood, eventually rejects the town altogether.  Her desire to leave town clearly has roots in her rejection of the blatant racism she encounters there, but I also see how it can be her desire to escape for the more traditional gender roles expected of her.  I enjoyed the reminder that women have been fighting to be themselves for a long time, and have gained a lot of momentum since the 1960’s.  Obviously, there is still a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to exploring that in future posts.

Oops!

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So this year has gotten off to a rocky start, writing-wise.  I was so excited about this project at the beginning of the year, and then a little thing called life kept distracting me.  Between work, graduate classes, planning a wedding, taking a vacation, and binge-watching the Great British Baking Showon Netflix, I kept getting sidetracked from writing. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading!  I haven’t read quite as many books as I normally do by mid-March, but I’ve read a few, and I’m excited that I have a lot to write about!

 

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