Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING, an incisive book of essays

Jerkins, Morgan - This Will Be My Undoing (3)This Will Be My Undoing:
Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins combines incisive social commentary with revealing personal memoir to unabashedly portray the experience of a young black woman in the United States.

Her stories are heartbreaking. At ten, all she wanted was to be a cheerleader, and she threw herself into practice, but after tryouts, the new squad was comprised completely of white girls. Throughout her teens and twenties, she excelled academically and grew professionally, but did not achieve the relationship success she desired–in fact, she had a knack for choosing rather horrible men. Meanwhile, although ambivalent about the procedure, she had surgery for a painful hypertrophic labia minora. She was supported by her mother with whom she had a close bond as well as an evolving understanding of her relationship with God.

As she writes about her own experiences, Jerkins relates the particular constraints society has placed on her as a black women. Her body is problematic, sexualized, objectified, and a source of shame. She is expected to be the Strong Black Woman and bear all burdens. Yet at the same time, she cannot show any kinks in her armor. She explains the lengths she goes to perfect her hair: “black women are conscious of how much our appearances are scrutinized, so we painstakingly put ourselves through these beauty rituals to paradoxically create some kind of peace, to ‘fit in’ and therefore be left alone.” She feels she cannot make a mistake or someone (white) will conclude she is unworthy, that is not like them.

As a result, Jerkins writes about the importance of black spaces, of black writers publishing about their experiences, and of black women supporting each other. Finishing the book, I was angry on behalf of Jerkins and other black women, but also hopeful. At the same time, I was unclear how to be an ally. White women, of which I am one, were eviscerated in the book for either ignoring or appropriating the experiences of black women. While I totally understand that historically feminism has not excelled at understanding intersectionality, surely there is something allies can do. Although, maybe that thing is just to be active, supportive listeners.

Speaking of intersectionality, while I thought This Will Be My Undoing a well-written, engaging, and valuable essay collection, I was disappointed that Jerkins did not give more attention to the topic. A few times, she did mention there is no one way of being a black woman, but overall, she lapses into homogenization or stereotype when dealing with racial, ethnic, and gender groups. Her inability or unwillingness to complicate others often undercuts her arguments and positions her as uncompromising.

Finally, although I adore the title This Will Be My Undoing, I find it inappropriate for Jerkin’s book. What she faces as a black woman could be her undoing, but it is decidedly not. In fact, as she concludes the book, she celebrates not just the presence of black women in previously barred spaces, but their excellence. For those that wanted to subjugate her and others, “This was their nightmare and my joy. Surprise. You should have known I was coming.” This is the battle cry of someone not even on the verge of being undone, someone who is claiming all the places she deserves.

Book Review: THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON

The Pillow Book of Sei ShonagonThe Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon:
The Diary of a Courtesan in Tenth Century Japan

In this translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, the translator has liberally edited the original text, including only about a quarter of the original text. As he explains, “Omissions have been made only where the original was dull, unintelligible, repetitive, or so packed with allusion that it required an impracticable amount of commentary.”

What is included is a captivating portrait of life at the Japanese court from about 900 to 1000. The stories show a very playful at at times mischievous collection of women who are not above pranks or teasing. Of course, the text is full of romance and secret assignations. Sei’s pillow book also includes list of embarrassing things and things that make her happy: they are not too far removed from what one might write today.

Her more detailed stories are more revealing, such as when she describes going to a Buddhist temple and the conventions around wealthy versus poor patrons (not to mention her irritation at being jostled and crowded by those of the lower class). She describes a fascinating ceremony for healing an illness. “The incantations of the priest cause the spirit which is possessing the sick person to pass into the medium, who, being young and healthy, easily throws it off.”

I was glad that I read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had much sense of life at the imperial court at all. Still, I was left wanting more. Perhaps I felt this way knowing how much the translator edited the text. There is a newer translation by Meredith McKinney published by Penguin Classics. At some point, I may read that to sate my curiosity.

Book Review: BOOM TOWN, engaging portrait of Oklahoma’s capital city, her chaotic history, crazy weather, and revered basketball team

Anderson, Boom Town (2)I love reading about my home state, and Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Being a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson came with high expectations and strong recommendations. I wasn’t disappointed. Boom Town recounts the history of Oklahoma City from its founding with the Land Run of 1889 (as well as the illicit incursions of the Boomers some time before). On that day, people were so eager to stake their claims they forgot that cities needed things like roads and open spaces. Yet, out of this chaos came a growing frontier city that wrested the status of capital from its neighbor, Guthrie, to the north.

Oklahoma City’s chaos was tamed by the arrival of Stanley Draper who became a powerful figure as head of the Chamber of Commerce and wielded more influence than the city government. Under his guidance, the historic and unique buildings of downtown were demolished in the name of urban renewal, and the city annexed more surrounding land than it would ever need. He negotiated for the air force to conduct Operation Bongo, a six month test of resident response to sonic booms. When residents complained and wanted the experiment to stop, convincing the city council to take action, Draper stepped in and kept them from shutting down Bongo because it was for the good of the city. (It was not.)

Anderson also honestly delves into a dark corner of Oklahoma City’s past: it’s history of racism and segregation, but also profiles the hero Clara Luper, who led teenagers in sit-ins in downtown Oklahoma City over six years until all the diners were desegregated, though she was arrested twenty-six times in the process. Later, she supported sanitation workers during a garbage strike and helped them reach a favorable settlement with the city government.

I learned so much from Anderson’s historic account, and I can’t believe that this wasn’t taught in my Oklahoma History class, but on the other hand, I could have forgotten some details. Even more likely, our Oklahoma History class would not have highlighted critical information, preferring to glorify the early settlers.

Growing up, I went to Oklahoma City for special events, field trips, shopping, concerts, and to visit relatives. As an adult, I spent five years living in and around Oklahoma City (before the Thunder), and I would eat at Bricktown, go to games at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to see the Oklahoma City Dodgers. For a time, I worked at a government building across from the capital. Anderson describes the tragic tornado of May 3, 1999, and I remember that I was on a business trip, coming home that day. My flight arrived in Oklahoma City after the tornado had come and gone, and I remember everyone shell shocked from the damage. So, the book was also a little nostalgic for me, and at times, painful, especially when Anderson recounted the Murrah Building bombing in 1995.

Among the history of the city, Anderson weaves vignettes of Wayne Coyne, the Oklahoma native and famous frontman of the Flaming Lips rock band who is also famous for staying in Oklahoma City. Some readers might be even more interested in Anderson’s replay of how the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City and their 2012-2013 season, the season they were supposed to win the championship, the first season after GM Presti traded James Harden to Houston. Without Harden, two stars remained, Kevin Durant and Russell Holbrook, and how they could work together without the stabilizing force of Harden could settle the fate of the season. While I like the Thunder as my home state team, I’m not all that interested in sports. Anderson, though, made the chapters about the Thunder so interesting, combining details about the plays, the stars, and the organization behind them.

One of the most impressive things about Boom Town is how deftly Anderson shifts styles from this expert sports writing to weather reporting, historical documentation, the trippy character profile of Coyne, and a surreal chapter in which he retraces the fourteen mile route of the Land Run on foot. No matter what voice he’s using, Anderson is engaging and often witty.

Boom Town is told basically in alternating chapters, from history to the Thunder, with epilogues that bring the book to the current time (earthquakes! more Russell Holbrook! fewer Thunder wins!). Although this might be the best way to structure the book, it did make for a bit of a choppy reading experience since the transitions weren’t always smooth or natural. And while there was some discussion of Native Americans and how the government stole Oklahoma from them, land they’d been given in exchange for land the government stole from them in the South and Southeast, I would have liked to see more about the intersection of Native American culture and the city. Finally, while Anderson provides a section on his main sources for the book, I’m still curious about his secondary sources and how he got access to the people he interviewed for the book.

As much as I liked Boom Town, it depressed me a bit. Thunder or not Thunder, Oklahoma City has made significant mistakes with annexation and urban renewal, and under the current ultra conservative city and state government, those mistakes continue. I suppose the hope is that now, more people are knowledgeable, active, and have an alternative, hopeful, inclusive vision of the city.