Book Review: BENEATH THE TAMARIND TREE, an account of 276 kidnapped girls

Sesay, Isha - Beneath the Tamarind Tree
Beneath the Tamarind Tree:
A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
Isha Sesay

On April 14, 2014, terrorists from the Islamic group Boko Haram invaded the small town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. There, they found 276 girls in the dorms at the Government Girls Secondary School who were inadequately guarded. Boko Haram spoke out against Western education, education for girls, and democracy, and the Chibok school wasn’t the first they’d targeted, but the poor students there were determined to climb out of the poverty of the region not just for themselves but for their families. Their very dreams made them enemies of the Islamic group.

During a multi-day trek, the militants led the girls, some on foot some on vehicles, through the Sambisa Forest. Some of the girls were able to escape by jumping out of the transport trucks while others bravely fled when they were supposed to be taking bathroom breaks. The rest were taken to a camp and left under a tamarind tree which would be their home for months.

Back in Chibok, families were beside themselves with grief, but didn’t have the resources or political savvy to pressure the government to engage in a search for the missing girls. Instead, president Goodluck Jonathan claimed the kidnapping was a hoax designed to damage his reelection campaign.

Ibrahim Abdullahi, a corporate lawyer, first used the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank for the Africa region, was the first to publicly proclaim the four words. The theme became popular on social media, and, for a time, national and international media were focused on the story. Isha Sesay, a CNN anchor and native of Sierra Leone was one of the first journalists to cover the event, and even when other journalists and networks lost interest in the girls, her attention never waned. She was on site when the first group of thirty-one girls was released (two years after their abduction), and she developed relationships with them as well as with the families of the missing girls.

In Beneath the Tamarind Tree, Sesay’s narrative centers on four of the kidnapped students, and she provides harrowing details from the confusion of the first moments Boko Haram stormed the compound to the fear of beatings and hunger, the bonds of friendship, and the solace of faith. She also recounts the Nigerian government’s sobering inaction, with President Jonathan and later administrations using the kidnapping as a political tool rather than trying to rescue the girls. Sesay also interjects her own experiences as a journalist covering the story and the pressures she was experiencing in her own life and from the network that made covering the story challenging.

I had some technical quibbles with the book: I thought there was some unnecessary repetition and I was less interested in Sesay’s personal narrative than that of the girls’, but I think this is an important account to read. We should be witness to what these girls experienced and how they have been shamefully used as pawns in a war between the Boko Haram and legitimate governments. Their story also underscores the importance of educating girls and giving them opportunities to thrive outside of communities where they have only a single option for their future. Even more critical is the fact that 112 girls are still unaccounted for. It’s unlikely that a group of 112 wealthy or Western girls would have been abandoned as these have seemingly been.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: GOOD AND MAD will make you good and mad

Traister, Rebecca - Good and Mad (1)Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister contextualizes female rage from abolitionists and suffragists to the participants in the March for Women and those in the #metoo movement. She explains how women have been socialized to tamp down anger but in reality, that very anger can, and in the past has, led to momentous social change.

Good and Mad explains how existing cultural and social institutions, built by white men, maintain their power, and perpetuate it by dividing the interests of groups that might unite to topple it, such as men of color and women. She also explicates how white women become implicated in the extant system, and her interpretation of why a majority of white women voted for Trump is the only one that has made any sense to me (as stomach churning as it is).

Traister writes for white women, some of whom might be feeling rage for the first time after Trump and the revelations of #metoo. She is careful, though, to remind readers of the vital and often overlooked contribution of black women. Black women brought the first sexual harassment cases to court in the 1970s and a black woman started #metoo in the mid-2000s. Rightly so, black women have been angry for a very long time–and while white women showing anger violates cultural expectations, when black women show anger, they suffer even more, diminished to the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. The sections on how women need to work together going forward were among my favorite in the book, yet I also craved more stories about women of color in the book.

Of course, a fear behind this anger is that the anger will diminish without leading to any real change. The final section of the book offers both strategies and a message of cautious hopefulness.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that as I read the book and learned more, I became even angrier than I had been (though Traister would say that’s not necessarily a bad thing and might even be a good thing). The book is meticulously researched and contains ample evidence to support her arguments along with personal insight. And, while the topic is serious, the book contains moments of levity that made me actually laugh.

As I mentioned, I might have liked additional stories from women of color or a sense that they were part of the audience for the book. Additionally, at times, I didn’t enjoy Traister’s writing style. Some of her sentences were like roller coasters, endlessly long with excessive elliptical clauses and descriptive phrases that were unnecessarily difficult. Overall, however, I thought this was an excellent and important volume, one that both taught me new information and helped me make sense of the current cultural landscape. I recommend Good and Mad for any angry woman or man or any man wanting to understand and angry woman.


Tovar Virgie - You Have the Right to Remain FatYou Have the Right to Remain Fat
Virgie Tovar

Virgie Tovar’s manifesto, You Have the Right to Remain Fat, preaches that there’s nothing wrong with fat people. There is something wrong with the culture that enables the discrimination against, scapegoating of, and prejudice towards fat people. Her message that everyone no matter their size should be treated with dignity is empowering. I found her arguments about dieting as a method of control convincing and her stories about her personal history with body image moving.

I had been taught to believe that weight loss was the key to all my heart’s greatest desires, but the truth is that it wasn’t. Because you can’t find self-love by walking a path paved by self-hatred.

To me, this book was like an opening salvo or a flag to start a race. It is, I believe, designed to raise consciousness and get women fired up, showing them the fallacies in diet culture and the pervasiveness of fatphobia. In this purpose, the book is successful. I also was very interested in the chapter that compared fat activism and the body positivity movement; I didn’t know the roots were so different, and it made me conscious of the limits of body positivity.

You Have the Right to Remain Fat is not a deep dive into history of fatphobia and diet culture, and while it is a call to arms, it does not provide strategies for moving forward. For those topics, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living by Jes Baker is a great resource.

Tovar is eloquent and convincing, but I would have liked to see more evidence or sources for some of her arguments or concepts she introduces. For example, she mentions “radical passivity” but doesn’t describe it, and I actually can’t find a good explanation on the interweb. She has a thoughtful analysis of ads from the Strong4Life anti-childhood obesity campaign run by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, but the advertisements aren’t reprinted.

If you are only going to read one book on the subject, I don’t think I’d pick You Have the Right to Remain Fat. But, if you want to see how diet culture affected one woman and turned her into an activist, and if you want to feel good and get fired up about the issue, this is a great book to choose.

Give Me Your Hand

IMG_7924Give Me Your Hand

by Megan Abbott

Set in the competitive world of STEM, Give Me Your Hand has been my favorite Megan Abbott book so far. Kit, the narrator, and Diane, first meet in high school where Diane inspires Kit to work harder and expand her ambitions. Kit helps Diane, who transferred in as a senior, feel less isolated. Their friendship elevates them both until, haunted by the words of Hamlet, Diane confesses an unforgivable secret to Kit. Burdened–infected–by her new knowledge, Kit withdraws from Diane, believing she will never see her again after graduation. But secrets don’t die so easily.

Twelve years later, Kit works as a postdoc in Dr. Severin’s biochemistry lab. She’s known as the hardest worker, the first to arrive every morning. And when Dr. Severin receives a prestigious NIH grant to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder, Kit believes her dedication, and, as the only female postdoc, maybe even her gender, will earn her one of the two spots available for researchers on the team. She even begins to feel a surge of confidence until Dr. Severin announces an addition to the laboratory–Diane Fleming. Diane’s arrival undercuts Kit’s self-assurance and dredges up past anguish. As the two compete for the coveted research spots, Kit wonders how far Diane would go to sabotage her, securing her a spot on the grant and ensuring her secret remains hidden.

At first, I feared the book would be based on the unfurling of Diane’s secret, with clues and red herrings doled out. Instead, the narrative focuses much more on why people keep secrets (if indeed they can) and what happens if they do. The book is well-written, expertly layered, and though-provoking. I found following the motifs and symbols through the book (blood, the color green, mirrors, Hamlet’s Ophelia) very fun and rewarding. And in an era where every psychological thriller or mysteries promises an unbelievable twist, the plot in Give Me Your Hand genuinely surprised me at times.

The novel highlights the challenges for women in male-dominated academic environments, and the sacrifices they must make, especially when the competition is so fierce no one can be trusted. I found it spoke to the need for providing quality education to all regardless of socio-economic status and demonstrated the additional burdens faced by poor students, from a lack of opportunity to a lack of equipment. The book also raised interesting questions about how we explain and justify our behavior.

You should read Give Me Your Hand if you like psychological thrillers, contemporary fiction, and writing about women. I’m sure you fall into one of those categories, so put the book on your reading list!

Author’s Website

True Life Inspiration (Spoilers if you click!)

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls - Jes Baker (1)Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living

by Jes Baker

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls was a surprisingly difficult book for me. I’ve been thoroughly brainwashed by society’s messages about fat bodies. Fat people are gross, lazy, undeserving, shouldn’t do this/shouldn’t do that… and I speak as a person in that category! Consequently, I am probably the perfect audience for this book. As I intellectually understood and accepted Baker’s arguments, a voice in the back of my head still kept saying, You still need to lose weight. So, I have work to do, and this book is an excellent place to begin.

The style of the book probably is familiar to readers of Jes Baker’s blog, The Militant Baker, but I’d never read it before. Baker takes an irreverent, humorous approach–though never a belittling one–to the subject matter. Words in all caps, exclamation marks, and asides populate the book. In some contexts, I would not like the style, but here is it fitting. It feels intimate and personal.

In the book, Baker discusses the concept and need for body love and argues that embracing body love can positively impact the individual as well as society at large because it promotes empathy, acceptance, and compassion. So often, overweight people, especially women, have a litany of dreams they will accomplish–when they lose weight that is. As a result, we are often in a limbo of inaction. Baker urges readers starting to live now to not wait, even if that means becoming vulnerable. Baker traces the history of cultural meaning attached to fatness–in the past, and currently in some cultures, being fat is idolized–and explains the historical context that created the feminine mystique, the beauty myth, and today’s focus on health and wellness. She’s quick to explain that health isn’t the problem–an obsessive approach that stifles activity in other areas of life is an issue.

One of the most revealing chapters discussed the relationship between obesity and health. I’d always thought that fatness was related to diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, and high blood pressure. I thought of an old commercial for Jenny Craig where a husband and son approach the mother–they want her to lose weight because they care about her, they want her to have a long life. It sounds reasonable. What I didn’t know was those health problems–those are more likely to be caused by yo-yo dieting than obesity. Fat and thin people can be healthy, just as fat and thin people can be unhealthy. I also really enjoyed the chapter on body currency which postulated that the vitriol from trolls against happy, visible fat women comes in part due to sexism but also because of the idea that most people have bought into society’s standards about weight and have invested in them. Women who flout those beauty standards have in effect “cut in line”–they’ve achieved happiness without the investment. Of course, they are probably not very happy themselves.

So what to do? Baker has several suggestions: takes selfies both to increase your self-esteem and to expand representation of diverse bodies. She promotes affirmations based on neuroplasticity, the science that indicates brains can be “rewired.” Her chapter on mental health has valuable information for people of all sizes and orientations. A chapter on fashion encourages readers to wear whatever the fuck they want, and it’s particularly fun because it recounts her offensive against Abercrombie and Fitch and her response to Lane Bryant’s #IMNOANGEL advertising campaign.

Baker realizes her position of privilege as a white woman who is overweight but still has the desired hourglass figure. She acknowledges and invites diverse readers to voice their experiences, and she embraces this in the book by including a number of brief guest essays from women of color, trans men, fat men, and experts in medicine and sex including Sonya Renee Taylor of the Body is Not an Apology.

My quibbles with the book are few. One thought I had was that the chapter on the history that villainized being fat could have been better documented, though given the constraints of the book, what Baker wrote–a high level introduction–isn’t unreasonable and invites further research. I also wished the book included pictures. Baker references cartoons and images, such as those she created in response to Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO Mike Jeffries, who was unapologetic when criticized for not offering larger women’s sizes. Admittedly, the relevant images aren’t too difficult to find online, but I thought that including reproductions would have enhanced the book.

I think anyone and everyone who has ever felt insecure about their bodies (and who hasn’t?) should read this book and use it as a springboard for further thinking and investigation as well as inspiration to take up space, be loud, and love your body.