Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sarah's Psalm by Florence Ladd

This story is precisely why I started writing literary criticisms of works by, for, or about the ordinary extraordinary lives about women of color. We truly exist in all our wonderful forms and far from the stereotyped images that fill bookshelf space in some of the larger bookstores, this tale is one that resonated with me in my middle  years.

Florence Ladd took a very realistic woman's story of discovery and decisions and made it feel contemporary, relevant, and universal.

This first novel was written twenty years go when the author herself was in her sixth-decade of life. That alone gives me joy in reading the book. This work also won the 1997 Best Fiction Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It is part of what I am calling the First Novel Series.

If you are a black woman, any woman frankly anywhere in the world, you need to read Sarah's Psalm. This is the story my soul has craved to read for in so many ways, it is my story.

Sarah Stewart Mangane could be my older sister, Colette, who has so much potential that she had to make strategic decisions to harness in a time when black women were told to wait or to support the black male, or simply that it wasn't her place to be heard on a global platform.

Written in a lyrical first person, Florence Ladd seems to have captured the emotions of every woman who put her talents and gifts on hold for the sake of spouse, family, and custom.

This story almost exactly parallels the days and events of my life, beginning just before my birth in 1964, it takes me through the tumultous  years of the fight for Civil rights, the era of black respectabiity politics, the emergence of the black intellectual, and the pareallel life of those of the Inkwell and those of the revolutionary anger of Harlem burning after Dr King was assassinated. The story could have been written in 2016 about the Black Lives Matter movement and current season of discontent.  All of the hope and dreams of a generation were often cast upon the shores, like her psalm, from whence cometh their help, anywhere but here.

Sarah's paraphrased psalm was a mantra she gave herself when she was a young girl, loosely based on the long known Psalm 121. Throughout the novel, she uttered it as a memory and reminder to rejuvenate her soul. She existed in the shadow of a great Senegelese literary mind during a time in the world when African writers were gaining traction on the world stage. Her psalm carried her through new life, breathing through disappointment, unimaginable loss, and renewal.

Ladd, in her prolific prose, admonishes us, me to know there is still time. Our lived lives are stories waiting to be told and cherished. We do not have to quiet our brilliance. The author herself, a D.C. native, is a well educated woman who penned her first novel in her 60s. In her retelling of Sarah's Psalm, I imagined I was reading a bit of Ladd's journey.

This novel is intensely womanist and African, filled with nuggets of proverbs that I will share with my New Generation daughters, coming of age in a time of great tumult, questioning of race, class, and gender place.
Florence Ladd has such a beautiful prose. It was easy to imagine myself sitting upon the high rocks, gazing out upon the ocean in Senegal, imagining myself rediscovering my purpose beyond conventional expectation.   "Women know who they are through the work they do...European women live out their lives through the work of their husbands. Not African women. You are African woman." 

Her lovely writing is as  much a Black American tale as  much as it is an African woman's tale. It connects the yearning of unfulfilled dreams and passion that can still be realized after life has been lived for others.
Tayé Foster Bradshaw is a Creole writer in the fifth decade of her life living in a St Louis suburb sipping lattes and gazing upon the possibility of existing outside her childrens' demands of her time.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Review by Tayé Foster Bradshaw

Have you ever wondered about the backstory of some of the most familiar fairy tales?

Hardly an American girl has grown up without musing about Prince Charming or thinking their mother is the wicked stepmother for making her clean her room before a school dance. Cinderella stories, Little Red Riding Hood, The Wizard of Oz/The Wiz, even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all present some element of wonder, hopefulness, and rescue. Someone rescues the damsel in distress and it is not often a woman.

Then, have you ever wondered if that story were turned upside down with an entirely different story line and contemporary topics to make you ponder if you ever knew the story in the first place?

Such is how I felt when I was reading Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

This Nigerian-heritage, London-raised writer challenged me and intrigued me with her story replete with themes that resonate in 2016.

When I first started reading the book, I couldn't decide if I would be annoyed or not. I even wrote myself a note that "she is not Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison." Oyeyemi's initial use of fantasy or fable to tell a nuianced story that stretches beyond imagination into reality. Once I  moved past my initial resistance to the story, I poured myself into the story. Then, as I delved into the story more and discussed the themes throughout the woven histories, I decided that she brings a fresh perspective to issues that are not unique to just American blacks.

The mother-daughter relationship is explored in the nuances of accepting one who may look, act, and feel differently than you, to be the mother of one who is pushing back against convention or expectation. The issue is also explored in the life-long  yearning for a mother, to be unconditionally loved and accepted by one who is supposed to love you through anything. Finally, the topic is explored through the ways one becomes mother, whether yearned for or forced into, and  how that change in dreams, expectations, and status can render itself in the female familiar relationships. This theme extends itself to sisters, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, essentially a very female representation in all the ways that can present itself.

Another theme throughout the book is the examination of stereotypes.

The book takes us through a journey in American history, subtly touching upon historic events from immigrants in New York in the late 19th and early 20th century to the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. There are also traces of The Women's Movement, perhaps that 1960s-1970s period has its origins in the 1020s and 1930s, scant years after the Suffrage Movement.

Illusions are another theme throughout the book.

The concept of mirrors, seeing, reflecting, and discovering are told through the stories of the three named characters - Boy, Snow, Bird. It faintly touches on that theme with Boy's "father" Frank Novak. The reader will question and wonder if what we see when we look into the "mirror, mirror on the wall" is really what is reflected back or if that reflection is a myriad of expectations placed upon the viewer by the larger . We also wonder if that view changes as circumstances, locations, or class changes.

Scattered in the story and more completely at the final reading is the theme of sex, sexuality, and identity.

The thought of a woman being a man or a woman not wanting to take on the womanly expectations of her time are devoted in this story. When I initially read about the bookstore owner, for instance, I felt a sense of connectedness as a womanist. I loved the independent nature and the quest for learning to maintain one's self beyond convention of marriage and children. When reading even the named character, Boy, and pondering what protection that unusual name was intended to render. Either it was the naming of a girl as opposite her identity or in challenging identity itself.
The unexpected part came at the end telling of the story of Frank/Frances and how taking on a costumed identity is a method of survival in a world that in unaccepting of one's authentic self.

Another theme that is somewhat painful was the theme of colorism.

Snow, as in Snow White, is celebrated for her delicateness, the sheer whiteness of her skin. In this story, the issues of "passing" are touched on in the family that Boy marries into. The sudden discovery of who one thought they were being challenged upon the birth of a child. The story felt so painful as many African Americans during the years following the Civil War and even into the early 19th century chose to use their one-drop to their advantage and pass into the ethnic enclaves of parts of the east coast. The false identity and the sheer effort to maintain one's perception of being an other weighgs on the delicate balance of family place, pride, and purpose. Oyeyemi delictely covers the topic without outright accusations of being a race traitor or sellout.

In the end, the book is well written and touches on themes that can be the subject matter of many a high school or college literary paper.

Tayé Foster Bradshaw reads, writes, and drinks lattes in her near West suburban townhouse in the middle of the woods down the street from a flooding river.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Reading 2016

Almost every year, I challenge myself to consider reading all the books on my to-be-read pile. This year, that pile is sorted a little differently.

This space has been for reading and celebrating black female literary works either by character or author. This year, that will expand to include works by some of the AfroLatina, Asian, Native American/Indigeneous, and of course, African, Caribbean, and BlackAmerican writers. We will stay true to the focus on voices that reach into stories that celebrate what it means to be a fully actualized woman with real lives and challenges.

In selecting the starting list for 2016, we focused on some prize groupings and decided that even in trying to make a list, that there will be some surprises that tickle our fancy, some selections for my salon and some works that demand attention.

©Tayé Foster Bradshaw Bookshelf
Sitting on the desk, currently selected (not all pictured) include Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Nigerian writer), Sarahs Psalm by Florence Ladd (American black woman writer), and Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew (American black writer) . I am searching out a copy of  Your Face in Mine. by Jess Row. and hope to add some of the National Book Award Nominees to the list.
When I am not shopping my own shelves, I turn to independent booksellers to find selections. I also count on the annual St. Louis County Book Fair to help me find treasures burried in the rows and rows of books on wood tables in the Macy's parking lot. This will happen again in May 2016 and for under $5 per book, is a great way to build a home library.  

St. Louis has valued spaces like Left Bank Books and Eyeseeme Bookstore, as well as lots of used booksellers that are waiting to be discovered. The behometh, Barnes and Nobles, is still on the scene and Half-Price Books is cropping up in location throughout the metro area. St. Louis also has plenty of free spaces in the Metropolitian Library Consortium, the St. Louis County Libraries, and the St. Louis Public Libraries.

2016 promises to be a year of great reading, literary discovery, and storytelling appreciation.

What will you read?

©2008-2016 -Tayé Foster Bradshaw Group

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Sarah's Psalm by Florence Ladd

This story is precisely why I started writing literary criticisms of works by, for, or about the ordinary extraordinary lives about women of...