Review of ‘Stories from the Tenants Downstairs’, by Sidik Fofana—Must Read
I believe that fiction is essential in shaping our future for the better (one reason why I review books). One reason is that it helps us see beyond our privilege, so that we can understand the challenges that face us, collectively, and use said privilege to better our society.
Sidik Fofana’s book is such a book. Its eight stories from tenants in the same housing complex in Harlem paint a beautiful, poignant, heartbreaking, and difficult portrait of what life can be like for those whose housing situation is insecure. I deeply appreciated how each chapter is written in the POV, voice, and dialect of the person sharing their story, and how each story overlaps with all the others.
Throughout my read, I kept thinking of the people who are left homeless at the beginning of July every year here in Quebec (1 July is our unofficial moving day); it saddens and angers me that housing isn’t considered a basic human right protected from the greedy who only want to generate increasing profits and obscene amounts of wealth. The situation is especially bad when it comes to vulnerable populations finding decent housing. I was reminded, reading Fofana’s book, of stories shared by some acquaintances about the terrible conditions of their rentals and the way they were treated by slumlords.
While it’s exhausting sometimes to have to think about all the things that need to get fixed in our society, it’s important to remember that these issues exist, and act on them according to our own capacity. This book is a must read for everyone who has the luxury of housing security, and hopefully will confirm you in whatever way you are contributing to the betterment of society.
Review of ‘Wahala’, by Nikki May
At its core, Wahala is the story of three friends whose relationships become strained to the point of snapping when trouble (which is what wahala means in Nigerian Pidgin) come along. But anyone looking for a women’s fiction book featuring strong women navigating complications to their friendships should pick this one up for a few other reasons.
The first is representation. I found it so refreshing to read about non-white women. The challenges that them main trio of characters faced as Black women but also as immigrant women to Britain was very relatable to this white-passing Brown woman daughter of immigrants. And the food… Oh boy, did this book have me drooling with all the mentions of delicious Nigerian food.
Another is its exploration of toxic relationships. Coming from someone who has had unfortunately a number of toxic friends, this book really hit home. It was so triggering to read how one person was manipulating the trio of friends, and how they all fell for it. I’ve been the Ronke of a group (minus the extreme drama—keeping it vague on purpose here) and I could see the Isobel of our group slowly chipping away at the relationships between two other girls and me. Honestly it still hurts to think about it to this day. Of course, Wahala takes this experience to the extreme; the manipulation seems to be very, very high on caffeine, but it remains, in my unfortunate experience, pretty accurate.
The third is the experiences of microaggression that the main characters experience in the book. It was a very natural part of the narrative, just like it is a very natural part of the experience of Black women. Of course, I am not a Black woman, but I’ve been present when such things were done to my Black friends. And as a woman, I can attest to the sexist ones. The author including all these micro-aggressions in such a natural way is a sobering view of the reality that is being a Black woman.
From page 56, as Boo is walking her own child to school:
“… Hello? Do you speak English?”
Boo turned. The window lowered a few more inches and a blond-bobbed woman (…) pointed a manicured finger at her.
“You talking to me?” Boo pointed at herself.
“I’m trying to. Can you take Figgy in? My nanny’s off sick again and I’m late for work. You’re not looking for a new position, are you? I could really use someone more dependable.”
Boo had been struck dumb. Which was fine. The woman didn’t want a reply. She hopped out, unclipped a plump child, pressed a business card into Boo’s hand, hopped back in, slammed the door, revved her Range Rover and accelerated off, leaving Boo gaping like a guppy fish.
From page 70:
“As soon as I saw the brief,” she’s said, “I knew Simi was right for this. This brand was crying out for her urban vibe.”
Urban was her way of saying black. Simi had downed her champagne through gritted teeth. She wanted to win because she was good – smart, creative, persuasive – not because she was black.
From page 160:
When Mr. Watkins entered, Ronke stood to say hello but she needn’t have bothered. He headed straight for Rafa. “Good morning. (…) So you’re Ronke Tinubu. Such an unusual name – is it Catalan?”
Rafa returned the handshake, his ears bright red. “I’m not the dentist, I’m the nurse.” (…) It had happened before, of course. It happened to women all the time, but it happened to black (and brown) women more. (…) “I’m Ronke, your dentist. And it’s not Catalan, it’s Nigerian.” (…) But her speech was wasted on Mr. Wanker Watkins – he didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed.
At the very least, Wahala is a fantastic read about friendship and betrayal; but it is a lot more than that, and can feed some great conversations about toxic relationships and the difficulties of navigating the world as Black women.
Review of ‘This Time Tomorrow’, by Emma Straub
This is another book in this month’s round-up that can just be entertaining or something much deeper. At the very least, it’s a time-travelling story about a daughter determined to save her father. But if a reader takes the time to really think about it, it becomes an exploration of the past in a way meant to liberate us to live a better future.
This Time Tomorrow is the story of a woman who goes to bed on the eve of her 40th birthday and wakes up on the day of her 16th birthday. The 40-year-old is losing her father, who is dying of a mysterious disease; the 16-year-old is thrilled to have her father “back”.
It reads a lot like a “if you could go back and change something, what would it be?” situation. Every time Alice goes back and sets her father on a different track, hoping to save him, she wakes up the day after her birthday to a different life as a 40-year-old. But while she gets different life scenarios—some of which she had previously wished for but then found totally horrid when they came to life—there is one thing that doesn’t change, the only reason she keeps going back: her father, each and every time, is still dying.
It struck me how this book was a reflection of sorts on letting go of our past decisions (and their consequences) and making sure that our present and future decisions are better. I also found the space this book created to think about the relationship between parents and their kids quite poignant. I laughed at page 86’s description of parenting: “Being a parent seemed like a truly shitty job–by the time you were old and wise enough to understand what mistakes you’d made, there was literally no chance that your children would listen.” My heart squeezed at the lost opportunities weighing heavily in this passage from page 293: “He had been young, and she had been young–they had been young together. Why was it so hard to see that, how close generations were? That children and their parents were companions through life.”
Another particularly poignant aspect of this book came in the form of the following paragraph, on page 79, which is from the first time the main character, Alice, travels back in time, and sees and feels her teenage body with the consciousness of her 40-year-old self:
Every second of her teenage years, Alice had thought that she was average. Average looks, average brain, average body. She could draw better than most people. She couldn’t do maths for shit. When they had to run during gym, Alice had to take breaks to walk and clutch her side. But what she saw in the mirror now made her burst into tears. Sure, Alice had complained about getting older–she’d made self-deprecating remarks to Emily on her birthdays, things like that, and she’d felt it in her back and her knees and seen it in the lines by her eyes, but on the whole, she’d felt exactly the same as she had when she was a teenager. She’d been wrong. (…) There was a small pimpl growing on her chin, threatening to break through the surface, but otherwise, Alice’s face looked like a Renaissance painting. Her skin was creamy and smooth, her eyes were bright and big. The apples of her cheeks were comically pink.
It made me so sad for my own teenage self, unable to truly enjoy what she had because of the way I was being told, either directly or indirectly, that my body just wasn’t good enough. And it makes me determined to continue working on changing this narrative so that today’s teenagers can wholly enjoy their gorgeous selves.
This Time Tomorrow is, to me, a must-read, as a tool to engage readers into self-reflection on so many levels. And make sure you have a box of tissues available… You’re going to need it.
Review of ‘The Fortress of Solitude’, by Jonathan Lethem
I picked up The Fortress of Solitude from a used books store because I liked the title, I liked the cover, and the synopsis at the back seemed intriguing. But while I don’t regret reading it, I do find it a sadly missed opportunity for important insights on the matter of race to be shared.
The book is beautifully written, especially the first part, a dreamy recollection about the main characters childhood. The ignorance of a white child living in a Black neighborhood in Brooklyn of the racial dynamics at the heart of every interaction could have been an incredible opportunity to describe the injustices with the clarity that a child’s perception can uniquely give to an incredibly complex situation.
I feel like instead, the book centered around white pain. Of course it would be hard for a white boy to be raised in an exclusively Black neighborhood in the 1970s, no doubt about that. But the adult writing about it some 30-40 years later should have enough insight and knowledge about what was actually happening around him during his childhood to understand the Black pain that had been around him.
The other thing that made this a bit of a jarring read was the difference between the first and the second part of the book. The first book ends right before the end of the main character’s high school career, while the second part finds him well into adulthood. As mentioned previously, the first part in written in a way that captures the dream-like quality of meandering childhood recollections, while the second part is written in a way that reflects the more linear style of adult life. It would have been a lot more interesting to alternate chapters, between the past and the present, and with insights shared by the adult character on what his child-self had lived through.