Spotlight On: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (Day Three)

Chapters Seven-Thirteen

So the assassination attempt against Sunandi is all over the place and somehow she manages to convince Ehiru to give her what seems to be the equivalent of a “stay of execution”.  But in trying to convince him, the story hits on something that I imagine will be a theme throughout.  The narrative taps into the idea of religion and the slavish dedication that it can create.  Ehiru doesn’t view what he does as murder in any way and his religious conformity has absolutely molded him into believing that what he is doing is right.  You feel sorry for Ehiru because you can see the foundations he built his world upon crumbling down around him.  He’s being forced to confront nasty truths and it’s causing old, darker feelings to come back to the surface.

Its understanding how religiously dedicated this society is that makes it hard for me to dislike the Sun Prince.    The man seems determined to tear down the current system of government and I’m hard pressed to see why not.  This society is a toxic one that sanctions murder and disguises it as religion.  Why not tear it down and try something new?  But it’s not the Sun Prince’s goals that are the problem.  It’s how he’s going about them and what he’s using to make those plans happen.  The interesting thing about him is that he seems unshakably cordial, even when sending his enemies to the death he still maintains decency.  That makes him scarier in my book than your average antagonist.

Sunandi proves herself to be resilient and gets out of the city, but I like that she’s cognizant of her weaknesses.  I think she’s probably bitten off way more than she can chew with this conspiracy the Sun Prince has brewing.  The guy has manipulation down to a T.  The way he twisted Ehiru against the organization he believed in totally for years is just genius.  The more I read the more I find the Sun Prince to be quite the adversary and I’m not sure if Sunandi is up to the challenge.

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Black and Write: A Documentary for Our Community of Writers

Black and Write

 

C. Mikki hit me up on Twitter with the link to her documentary and of course I had to make the time to look at it. My whole reason for forming R.R.A.P. (Race Relations in the Arts and Politics) was to talk about ALL media being created by people of color. So far, my focus has mostly been on books so this will be my first feature outside of books.  Though I think this is a suitable transition, given the topic of this documentary is what it means to be an aspiring black author today.

The thing I like the most about this documentary is that it has a wide range of people that it talks to.  You get perspectives from aspiring authors, self-published authors, a literary agent, famous published authors, and writers in Hollywood.  It is a variety of perspectives and viewpoints that I found refreshing because it didn’t seem to be completely slanted towards one point of view.  That’s important when trying to have the kind of conversations that this documentary had.  The mainstream has blinders up when it comes to the problems facing black authors and something too hyperbolic would probably do little to catch anyone’s attention.

One of the first topics tackled by this documentary was the idea of the African-American section in book stores.  When I saw that this topic was going to be covered, I was expecting the worse.  But the discussion about it was actually very balanced though it seemed to fall into two camps.  The aspiring authors wanted to just be “authors” and not have their books be labeled.  The authors who were actually published argued the sectioning helped potential customers with little time on their hands to immediately find their product.  One of the published authors interviewed was Zane and given the amount of success she has had, I can’t help but to lean towards her wisdom in this.

Along the way, you get to hear stories about the genres that black authors are boxed in to and how the gatekeepers of the publishing industry might not really understand what black readers are looking for.  There are unique perspectives and I can tell all these people are giving it to you raw.  I didn’t any pretense from any of the people interviewed and that gives C. Mikki a lot of cred in my book because you have to trust someone to take off your mask on camera.  And that’s exactly what these people were doing.

If there’s one thing I would have liked to see it would be seeing all the authors discussing works they had in progress or just where they were at in their writing.  That was probably my own curiosity though as I found myself wanting to know if there were any speculative fiction authors in the mix.   Overall though, this is a very interesting documentary that I think ALL aspiring authors should watch for introspection and motivation.

Spotlight On: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (Day Four)

Chapters Fourteen-Twenty-One

Things just seem to be getting worse and worse for Ehiru.  I feel like he is starting to slip into some dark place and he might not get to come out of it.   He is a lesson in why being rigid can be disastrous.  All of his beliefs are being challenged on what seems like every front.  The most potent was probably when the troupe’s old lady told him that she would rather live out whatever days left she has in pain than submit herself to his “gift” of permitting her peaceful passage into the afterlife.  It’s clear that her stance rocks Ehiru’s world and he’s not immediately sure how to react to all of this change around him.

Nijiri is doing the best he can to keep Ehiru sane and as he does so, Jemisin really starts to add a level of depth to his character.  He is truly in love with Ehiru and has endured all that he has endured to be at Ehiru’s side.  What I love is that in this world no one bats an eye at the idea of a man loving another man.  They don’t even have another name for it.  It is simply regarded as love and that’s a powerful statement, but you’re not beaten over the head with it.  The message simply flows through the story and the casual reader will never really think about it.

Rabbaneh gets him a piece of the action too.  I’ll admit that I really thought he was part of the conspiracy at first, but he has proven himself to be loyal to Ehiru for now.  Sonta-i is still questionable though.  There is a coldness to his character that makes me wonder which way he might sway in all of this.  It doesn’t surprise me though that The Superior has been colluding with the Sun Prince.  The Sun Prince seems to imply some deeper connection with The Superior and makes mention of something seemingly awful The Superior has done.  I look forward to watching this continue to unfold.

Spotlight On: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (Day Two)

Chapters Four-Six

The conspiracy is building.  Sunandi finds herself a dinner guest of one of Gujaareh’s Generals, where he warns her of what looks like an impending war.  I like the idea of the author and what he represents.  So often in fantasy, you never see any real cultural mixing.  The Elves aren’t culturally influenced by the Dwarves and vice versa.  In this story, the cultures of Kisua and Gujaareh have actually interacted and left their marks on each other.  I think that’s a point of view so often missing so it was pleasing to see that come into play here.  And again, I enjoy that Jemisin is cutting right to the point here.  She’s giving us plot points straight, no chaser.

Nijiri becomes a more likeable character here as well.  He was a bit prickish when first meeting him so I think it was good to see him somewhere that made him uncomfortable.  It was interesting to see the role of some women in Gujaareh and the role that sex seems to play in the narcomantic magic system being created here.  He definitely felt like how I would imagine a sixteen lost in this new world would come across.  It was also good to see Rabbaneh act more like a mentor instead of an interrogator.

I almost thought that Ehiru wasn’t going to come out of the shadows until later on in the story, but we get him back.  He’s definitely a pensive guy.  I can’t help but to envision The Vision or Spock in some ways when I read Ehiru.  He has this kind of emotional distance and expectation of perfection that makes him honorable, but frustratingly so at times.  He recognizes the politics of the world he’s in and I imagine he might have pressed harder about some of the issues dealt with in these chapters if he wasn’t so broken about his own failure.

But things are tying together rather quickly so I’m interested to see where we go next from here.

Spotlight On: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

So for the next few days I am going to talk about this novel.  It is unique in that it is a fantasy novel written by a black woman.  Black women are not as scarce in the speculative fiction field as some would have you believe.  But that’s why R.R.A.P. exists; to promote authors of color.  So without further ado, let’s get this show on a role….

Chapter One

Man the world building in this first chapter is amazing!  I’m jealous of how effortlessly I have been pulled into this world.  Our author so expertly gives you names and concepts without it ever once feeling like an information dump.  This world is rich and fascinating right from the jump and it started off in the right way by showing what the main character actually does.

Ehiru strikes me as an interesting character.  What I’m guessing so far is that he’s the reluctant hero who uncovers some very uncomfortable truths about his profession which also seems to be an extension of his religion.  There are some moments in this first chapter when he is genuinely a sweet guy and I think he’s very comfortable in his societal role.  But part of me feels like there is an edge to him, evidenced by how quickly he snaps on one of his “clients”.

This is such a strong start to a story.  I’m already hooked into this brand new world.

Interlude 1 and Chapter Two

So we learn a little bit more about the world here and some of the mythology behind it.  I loved the whole Sun chasing the Moon story.  It reminds me of some Native American tales I have read and how they speak of the Sun loving the Moon.  The author really went there when she got down to the Sun masturbating but it was well done and didn’t come across as gratuitous.  It seemed almost Biblical in the way it was described.

The purpose of this Interlude is revealed in Chapter Two when we’re introduced to Sunandi and the Prince.  It becomes very clear that Sunandi represents the Moon and the Prince is the Sun in terms of their interaction.  It is very cat and mouse and Sunandi clearly has the upper hand by allowing the Prince to think he has it.  And even when sex did happen, it was on Sunandi’s terms.  That alone instantly made me like her as a character.  She never once had to be described as a strong woman and that’s good writing folks.

What I also like about this Chapter is that the author isn’t going to string us along and make us wonder if Gujaareh is a corrupt place.  She comes right out with it in the very beginning and gives us immediate tension.   Other writers might have sat on that revelation in an attempt to have it be some big twist at the end, but this author doesn’t take that well-traveled route.  No, the problem is shown right away and there’s no question that this story is already firing on all cylinders.

Chapter Three

This chapter introduces a new character named Nijiri.  He’s an Acolyte looking to become a Gatherer like Ehiru.  The guy’s a bit of a prick to be perfectly honest.  He’s sure of himself, his abilities and his destiny in becoming a Gatherer.  He achieves that, but not after undergoing some heavy scrutiny.  That particular bit of the chapter struck me as special because the author is tackling quite the serious issue.  Yet, as you are reading it you don’t feel like you’re being preached to.  The issue is just being laid out there for you without pretense or assumption.  The topic is pedophilia, in this case from a teacher/student relationship.  Nijiri refuses to allow himself to be labeled as a victim and I found it was in this bit that I enjoyed the character the most.

We’re also introduced to the other Gatherers in this chapter; The Superior, Sonta-i, and Rabbaneh.  The Superior is the leader of the organization and I like that Jemisin didn’t choose to make him larger than life. I’ve seen that happen in a lot of fantasy stories where organization heads are made into these impossibly imposing figures.  Sometimes it works and it is necessary, but I enjoy that the author chose to take a different path.  Sonta-i is the imposing one and based on some of his detached behavior, I would gander a guess that he’s either been through some kind of emotional trauma or he suffers from a mental illness.  He seems to be almost completely lacking in anything approaching empathy.  Rabbaneh serves as the balance, seemingly the most normal of the Gatherers; at least from Nijiri’s eyes.  I have a feeling that assumption might get played on later.

Overall, a good chapter.  We’re still early in the game so I see that the pieces for this chess game are being set.

The Valley by Rolando Hinojosa

If I didn’t know that Belken County was a fictional place before opening up this book, I would have been looking to make a trip to it after I was done.  Mr. Hinojosa brought to life this place with such unapologetic reality.  Trying to sum up his work would make it sound dull because it’s really just an examination of everyday life, but it’s so much more than that.  Its layers of culture, history, and small town politics embedded into this story.  I walked away from it feeling like I could p go up to a stranger and make them actually believe I was from Belken County.  That was the depth of the richness that the author gave us.

Once in college while discussing Faulkner, one of my professors pointed out how so often writers are hated in their hometowns.  At the time, I was going to college in Columbus, Georgia and that city happened to be the source of what the great Carson McCullers drew from.  And true enough, she was reviled by the older generation in Columbus.  I always felt it was because she exposed ugly truths, but not in the way that an activist or journalist might.  They were exposed through the art of a timeless story and I think that sticks more in people’s craw than anything else.  The fact that this story won’t ever really go away.

I can’t help but to wonder if it is the same for Hinojosa and it was a thought that stuck in the back of my mind throughout my reading of the entire book.  My imagination couldn’t help but to wander and wonder if people he knew felt a certain character was inspired by them.  Did they become mad?  Did they tell everyone or did they keep it secret out of embarrassment?  Was the book passed around as gossip?   It’s not a fate I would wish on any writer because it is a hard thing to be hated by a place you love.  But at the same time, it puts Hinojosa in the company of Faulkner and McCullers.  I suppose any writer can tolerate a few jeers for that.

Someone who doesn’t understand the art of the writer might walk away from this story thinking that Hinojosa hates whatever inspired Belken County.  That is a superficial reading of the story and misses the greater depth of it.  When a writer tells a story as honestly as Hinojosa has here it has nothing to do with hate or negativity.  That is a work of love to breathe life into every facet of existence from the mundane to the difficult to even the beautiful.

What about the story moved me the most?  I think it was the older veterans who had survived so much and decided to make their homes in Belken.  Being a military brat, I have seen older men of war gather around to tell their tales and watch the world in that way only they can.  The Old Revolutionaries struck me as a treasure that not everyone around them realized they had.  But isn’t that always how it goes with our elderly.  We so often view them as old vessels and not the bridge to the past that they really are.   Their tales stuck me and I imagine will always have some part of them in me.

The story of the Cordero Family stuck with me too but for a different reason.  Hinojosa broke my heart while spinning out their life.  These people seemed so good and really seemed to be just trying to get by but one horrible thing after another lumped themselves on the family.  I imagine that is how it is for many people, but no less tragic to watch unfold on the page.  The entire time I kept hoping and wishing for something good to happen to these people.  For some kind of miracle to come their way and it never came.  A hard lesson in the unfair cruelties of life.

That’s what this book really is at the end of the day.  It’s a hard lesson in how the world works and why life can be so damn unfair.  But don’t let you scare that away because Hinojosa serves this lesson to you in beautiful fashion.

Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez: Urban Decline and Cultural Identity

I was once told the most epic of books takes place in a small timeframe and that as a writer you shouldn’t try to span years.  You should try to confine your story to a smaller pace and Pig Park does that.  You are given a snapshot of urban life for a group of Hispanic-Americans in Chicago during one summer.  But in that one summer so much changes and grows that no one walks away from this story without being different.  At the center of this story is Masi Burciaga, a young woman who lives along with many others in the neighborhood of Pig Park.

One of the first things you immediately discover about this neighborhood is that it’s dying.  It’s an epidemic occurring across many urban neighborhoods and small towns in America.  One major company would provide the economic lifeblood and because of globalization the company closes its doors, leaving behind the many small businesses it once supported.  That is what happens in Pig Park as the American Lard Company has closed its door and crippled the neighborhood as result.  The only remnant of those glorious manufacturing days are the rubble and refuse the company left behind.

Of course no one wants to leave the neighborhood even though it seems like that would be the easy thing to do.  And I think it was important for the author to show the neighborhood solidify and really add a human element to it.  Why?  Because far too often the charge thrown at poor, urban minorities by whites is that they should just “leave” or “go where the opportunity is at”.  Such an easy thing to say when you don’t have to think about people leaving behind family legacies, best friends, and connections that run decades deep.

That richness spoke to me because I have seen firsthand how bone-headed such statements can be and how it misses the bigger picture.  White people can tie themselves to trees to stand their ground, but minorities fighting for their neighborhoods are seen as fighting a pointless battle.  Even worse, they’re seen as having brought the economic rot on themselves.  I’m glad this point in its quiet way rails against that.

So the crux of this book is the neighborhood trying to save itself and become what it once was.  That’s another aspect of the neighborhood I came to love throughout the book.  It showed the solidarity of the neighborhood and again, I think that is a quiet railing against a stereotype.  Far too often minority neighborhoods are seen as villainous death traps where everyone is against everyone and it’s a Darwinian struggle for survival.  Or even worse your perceived solidarity is turned into something dangerous like the fictional Muslim “no-go zones” that supposedly exist.  I applaud the author for making a statement about the good nature and true partnership that really exists in these communities.

Masi is right at the forefront, navigating through a potential divorce between her parents, seeming first love and a conspiracy all along the way.   Her parents were certainly more fleshed out than I have seen parents be in other young adult novels.  They have depth and they’re approached with fairness though I have to admit my personal feelings often left me angry with the Mother throughout the story.  Still, in the end I’m glad the author took a route that almost seems atypical when it comes to situations of divorce.  Again, I think the author is railing some more with that and I loved it.

Another truism of the young adult novel is the first love and Masi encounters what she believes to be hers.  I think the way the relationship of Masi and Felix plays out gives the character of Masi so much more agency than what you typically see in female protagonists dealing with their first real relationships.  It never felt like it was trying to push a message other than that a woman has as much and should always have as much say so in the direction of a relationship as a man.  A powerful message quietly snuck in there.

The conspiracy Masi uncovers is certainly the sinister element of this book and it makes me wonder if the author is drawing this from some true experience.  It certainly strikes me as a completely plausible.  The cultural humiliation that one of the antagonists tried to make the kids go through was so painful to read because I could feel their disgust.  I was disgusted for them and it made me realize just how seriously members of the Hispanic-American population take their status as Americans.  It was something I never really thought about.  As a black man, the circles I read and converse in often speak of pulling away from the American part of our identity.  So it surprised to see another minority group stand by it so strongly.  Definitely a learning experience for me.

So what did I walk away feeling like once this novel was over?  I have to say I felt hopeful and proud of the characters in that book.  They stood up for what they believed in even when they didn’t have much material reason to anymore.  I also high-fived the author in my head for all the moments when resistance against the “white default” was put into the novel.  Pig Park is a truer representative of poor urban neighborhoods than any I have read in a long time for that reason.  The author creates a neighborhood as it truly exists and not how Fox News would have you believe it exists.

Spotlight On: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The most powerful thing about this book was that it left me depleted.  I was emotionally and mentally depleted after reading this book.  Two days I spent enthralled in the story and by the end of it I was completely drained.  That is a good thing.  Powerful stories demand something of you.  You don’t just get to walk into that world and come out the same.  A good story should leave its mark on you, make you pay a price for reading it.  That’s what this book did to me.  It took me in and didn’t let me leave until it was done with me.

There were so many issues that this novel tackled.  It deal with colorism, ethnic identity, rape, sexism, religion.  And there are some readers out there who’re not able to handle this many issues getting thrown at them at once.  They want something simpler to devour.  I think that’s the case because often the people saying this don’t understand intersectional identities or even want to grasp the concept of it.  Every character in this book is a crossroads of problems and issues.  To me, their depth comes from the fact that they’re not just defined by one problem.  They have many problems, many societal obstacles to deal.  That is part of the richness of this book.

Rape is largely at the center of this story and make no mistake, it is no glorification or justification of it.  This tackles it head on, brutally and unapologetically as such a subject should be.  The descriptions and violence honestly made me cringe and I’ve never been a victim of such a brutal act.  The images contained within this novel are so powerful that I wonder if it would actually trigger something in a rape survivor.  I don’t know.  I just know that what I read was violent, bloody and held back on no details.  And the consequences of rape (side note: how despicable is it that we have consequences for a victim?) are laid out in this book with a harsh, revealing light.

The rape that sort of propels the story forward is the tragic sexual attack on Najeeba.  She is a beautiful Okeke (an ethnic group I’ll talk more about later) woman and is seemingly living a simple life.  One day her village is attacked by a group of Nuru (the other main ethnic group) and Najeeba is viciously raped.  It’s a tough scene to read and I can only imagine it being a tough scene to write.  It’s one of those scenes where you have to take a break and get a glass of water after you’re done.  I can’t speak for the author, but man this must have been an emotionally draining scene to write just because of how brutal it is.  Najeeba’s bastard attacker has the nerve to sing, to damn SING as he’s brutalizing a woman.  I don’t know why but that particular detail just raises such anger in me.  Najeeba manages to survive her rape, but she is rejected by her cowardly husband so she leaves home.

Now about these ethnic groups.  Okeke and Nuru in the simplest of terms are dark-skinned and light-skinned, slave and slave master.  The relationship is definitely one based on colorism, but it also has its roots in some of the justification used to enslave Africans in America.  In this post-apocalyptic world there is The Great Book, the religious text that everyone draws their social mores from.  In this book, it is basically outlined that Okeke are shameful and deserve to be slaves of the Nuru.  Sound familiar?  The same kind of justification was used by whites to enslave blacks when they referred to us as descendants of Cain, the first murderer.  Religion was used to enslave it and it is used in this story to enslave the Okeke.  This book is used to justify the mistreatment, rape and murder of the Okeke people, driving many of them to the East where they live as exiles.

This brings me to the main character, Onyesonwu, the daughter of Najeeba.  She is neither Okeke nor Nuru.  Because of her mixed blood and the circumstances of her birth she is called an Ewu.  It is believed that the child of a violent rape is doomed to live a life of violence themselves.  I think this is a statement on the danger of eugenics because how many articles are we starting to see pop up now that are trying to link personality traits and behavior to genetics?  It’s a slippery slope and if we’re not careful we could be making our own Ewus in society.

So you can’t help but to feel bad for Onyesonwu.  She’s getting it from all angles.  Of course she deals with ridicule as being the child of a rape and all the stereotypes that come with that.  Internally, she’s dealing with issues of wondering if she’s anything like her Father.  She has to deal with being thought of as romantically unattractive and as just lest aesthetically pleasing to the Okeke people she lives amongst. To top it all off, she’s a strong-willed woman living in a society where women are regarded as less than.  I think the deeper part of all of it, is that her very existence serves as a reminder of the violence and torture that the Eastern Okeke have tried to put out their minds.  She’s a constant reminder of the brethren they have abandoned.   It’s so true that the things we hate are often because they remind us of something ugly in ourselves.

I don’t want to give too much away, but Onyesonwu’s journey reminds me very much of the character of Aaang in some ways.  The group of friends she gathers and the journey she embarks really does ultimately change the world she’s operating in.  If a love of Airbender isn’t enough to get you to pick up this book it’s a post-apocalyptic African fantasy.  Those three words alone should spike your interest.  Ultimately, this is a book that tackles powerful topics that are so relevant to today’s world.  Like I said, I walked away from this story depleted and I think that’s because even as I was whisked away to another world I was forced to still think about my own.