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Archive by tag: Kadish MorrisReturn
Aug 07, 2022

This funny, fearless debut novel about a student’s dissertation on a fictional poet dives into the maelstrom of topical arguments about race and comes up fighting

Recent years have seen a string of scandals around white people pretending to be other races in order to obtain presumed advantages. Rachel Dolezal, then a chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, went viral in 2015 for claiming to be a black woman despite not having African ancestry. That same year, a white poet called Michael Derrick Hudson was found to be submitting poems to literary journals using the name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson admitted to using the pseudonym whenever a poem of his was rejected under his real name.

This type of incident is a central concern in Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation. Twenty-nine-year-old Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid Yang is eight years into her dissertation on the fictional Xiao-Wen Chou, considered to be “the greatest Chinese-American poet”, who has a dedicated archive at Barnes University. Yang was coaxed into this line of research by her supervisor, Michael. “They’ll be looking for another Chouian scholar in a few years. They’ll want someone young and energetic,” he tells her. But writing about Chou’s enjambment (a literary device in which a sentence of poetry continues after the line breaks without a grammatical pause) yields few words for Yang, who instead procrastinates by taking too many antacids, obsessing over her rival Vivian – the darling of the postcolonial department – and avoiding anything political, including the word “white”. Everything changes when Yang finds a note in one of the books in Chou’s archive. She then descends into a rabbit hole, alongside her best friend Eunice, and eventually discovers that the acclaimed poet is not only still alive, but is actually a white man called John Smith who, for decades, pretended to be Chinese, through the use of black wigs, yellowface makeup and eyelid tape.

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Apr 24, 2022

The Queenie author’s follow-up loses the plot in this tale of five estranged siblings, a neglectful father and a dead body

Candice Carty-Williams’s 2019 debut novel, Queenie, told the story of a 25-year-old British Jamaican woman as she navigates love, life, racism and herself. Its international success has been a phenomenon; it sold more than 160,000 copies in the UK alone and won British book of the year in 2020, making Carty-Williams the first black female author to win the award since its inception. Thanks to its success, her second novel has been highly awaited and backed up by an ambitious marketing campaign of showstopper events, major partnerships and innovative advertising. This kind of pressure must be immense for a new author. Still, on reading the premise of People Person – a family saga featuring five half-siblings with a solipsistic father forced to reconnect because of a catastrophe – my first thought was: this sounds great.

The novel begins in the past with the smooth-talking, emotionally bankrupt Cyril Pennington and his infamous gold Jeep. He collects each of his children from their various homes and brings them together for an awkward and impromptu rendezvous. “Wha’ you know ’bout this tune?” Cyril shouts over blaring music, more interested in swaggering around town than facilitating an earnest reunion between these teenagers who barely know each other’s names. Here, we see glimpses of each sibling’s character. Dimple is sensitive, Nikisha is sharp-tongued, Lizzie is cold, Danny is airy and Prynce is boisterous. Tense moments abound, too: Nikisha fat-shames Dimple (something that affects her for years beyond). Lizzie’s mum, Kemi, refers to the other kids as Cyril’s litter. “Let her meet my mum and tell her about litter,” Nikisha shouts back.

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Apr 11, 2022

The Vietnamese-American poet’s second collection, written in the aftermath of his mother’s death, illustrates what it means to be out of control

The parent-child relationship has been the nucleus of 33-year-old Ocean Vuong’s writing. The American poet’s family fled Vietnam to a refugee camp in the Philippines before migrating to the US. His father abandoned them. His mother worked in a nail salon. In one of the most compelling poems in his Forward prize-winning 2017 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, he imagines dragging his father’s body out of the sea, turning him over, and seeing a gunshot wound in his back. His 2019 novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is a series of letters from a Vietnamese-American son to his illiterate mother — a tale that mirrors much of Vuong’s own life. Time Is a Mother is his second poetry collection, and was written in the aftermath of his mother’s death.

There’s something about Vuong’s writing that demands all of your lungs. The succinct line arrangement and absence of full stops in poems such as Dear Rose force you to breathe heavy, as throughout this episodic poem Vuong talks tenderly to his dead mother about her journey as an immigrant from Vietnam to the US. He fills the poem with vivid imagery: flying bullets, corpses, Wonder Bread dipped in condensed milk and the fermentation of fish. He also wonders if she’s still illiterate:

Time Is a Mother is published by Jonathan Cape. To support The Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Feb 19, 2022

The award-winning writer on feeling compelled to write about race, the benefits of staying put and swapping first drafts with her husband, poet Steven Price

Esi Edugyan, 44, is a Canadian author who was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. She wrote her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, in 2004 when she was just 24. In 2011, she won the Scotiabank Giller prize for her novel Half Blood Blues and in 2018 she was shortlisted for the Booker prize with Washington Black. Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race is her first nonfiction work and interweaves personal narrative with discussions on racism, the slave trade in Canada, art history in the west and ghosts.

You open with an essay on black sitters in western portraiture…
The first [piece] is very much about 18th- and 19th-century portraiture and how depictions of black people have changed throughout history and how what we see is often predicated on the prejudices that the artist has brought to bear on their own paintings. A work I considered was Johann Gottfried Haid’s painting of Viennese courtier Angelo Soliman, an enslaved man who was taken captive as a child and arrived in Marseille in the 1700s. One of the most interesting takeaways, looking at both his portrait and also at David Martin’s portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a British heiress born into slavery, is the fact that details specifically included to elucidate certain elements of their lives are paradoxically obscuring. Their turbans, for instance, speak to exoticised notions of the “Orient” and yet neither had actual connections to what would then have been considered the Orient.

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Jan 19, 2022

This account of an African American family’s journey across centuries, from slavery to present times, engages deeply with history

The socialist, historian and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois wrote in a 1903 essay titled The Talented Tenth: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” Though he isn’t a character in this ambitious debut novel by award-winning US poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, his spirited thinking about the important role of classical education in the fight for Black liberation pervades the book. It’s an expansive tale cataloguing the journey of one African American family across centuries, from slavery to the antebellum south and from civil war to present times.

The novel starts with a family tree. We’re first introduced to Micco Cornell, the son of a Scottish man and a woman from a Native American tribe known as the Creek people, who also has African ancestry. In the late 18th century, when Cornell inherits a village from his father, he signs it over to a white man called Samuel Pinchard in case his African heritage is one day exposed. The deal is done with the promise that Pinchard will peacefully run the farm and eventually marry Cornell’s daughter, but it isn’t long before he turns brutal, buying slaves and committing endless atrocities. That’s when we learn about Aggie, who is brought from Africa and sold to Pinchard. “Tears and sleep were not luxuries cast to slaves. There was only work,” writes Jeffers. But soon, Aggie becomes an energising force intent on destabilising Pinchard’s sadistic reign.

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Jul 12, 2021

A teenage boy travels through time from modern-day Mississippi to 1964 in a funny and disorientating exploration of racism, celebrity and young adulthood

Kiese Laymon is the author of the critically acclaimed Heavy, a memoir addressed to his mother, about food addiction, sexual trauma and growing up black in Mississippi. His time-warping debut novel, Long Division, begins in the same state in 2013 with a televised grammar competition called Can You Use That Word in a Sentence?. Citoyen (City), a 15-year-old with stretch marks and good waves, and his nemesis, Lavender Peeler, with whom City may secretly be in love, are to compete in the contest, but the two boys feud over their clashing aspirations. Peeler strives to be an “exceptional African American” and marry Malia Obama, while City cares more for “the real chubby poor” from his community than the worn-out respectability politics handed down to him from elders who suffered in the Jim Crow era.

It isn’t long before City has to put his politics into action. He shouts “fuck white folks” on live TV when asked to use the word “niggardly” in a sentence. “I looked out into the white lights, hoping somebody would demand they give me another word [...] it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that,” he says. The moment goes viral and his mother sends him to his grandmother’s home to get baptised and have his ass “whupped”. It’s here, in the small fictional community of Melahatchie, that the novel starts to melt into a new fantastical form – and at its centre is an authorless book called Long Division. This title, which City carries around like a spiritual compass, features a protagonist who shares his name, but is set in 1985. He reads chapters of the book to Sooo Sadd, a white boy he finds chained up in his grandmother’s shed who a few days earlier had called him the n-word. Unsure of exactly why he is there, City asks him: “Do you know where Baize Shephard is?”, referring to a local girl who has gone missing and whose name also appears in the mystical book.

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Jul 04, 2021

From social media to shaving her hair, the I Am Not Your Baby Mother author shares the knowledge she’s acquired as a black woman in a sharp, sometimes moving self-help book

In Sista Sister, Candice Brathwaite, author of I Am Not Your Baby Mother, reflects on her past mistakes in friendships, finances and family in an attempt to make the road less rocky for other black women. While she bravely touches on sex work and drugs, Sista Sister focuses on “universal” topics such as social media, dating and self-love, echoing the kind of discourses you might find on group chats. Each chapter ends with bullet points – “think before you tweet” and “not everyone is a bredrin” are just a few of the sentiments she wishes she had known as a youngster.

Brathwaite discusses being persuaded to use bleaching products and being the “ugly friend” ranked last on lists by boys

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Jun 27, 2021

First published in 1976, this memoir by one of Britain’s first black headteachers is a vital story of survival doused in fury, humour and love

In 1998, the late Beryl Gilroy wrote: “In the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight.” It’s important to start with this reflection when considering Gilroy’s 1976 memoir, Black Teacher, now republished with an introduction by Bernardine Evaristo. At a time when works about racism are prescribed as medicine for white people, Gilroy’s book seems archaic. Her writing was her own treatment; the remedy to living in Britain as a West Indian woman.

Gilroy was born in Guyana in 1924, and arrived in England in 1952 as an experienced and highly qualified teacher. However, because of aggressive anti-Blackness she was unable to secure a post for many years. The path to becoming one of Britain’s first black headteachers began at a mail order store in east London, where Gilroy worked as a clerk and experienced her first taste of British hospitality. Her “mate”, Sue, moved to Swiss Cottage in north London and told Gilroy not to visit. “I don’t want ’em to see me ’obbnobbin with nigs,” Sue told her. Years later, now living in a halfway house, Sue appeared at the school where Gilroy was headteacher, looking to place her twin girls in the nursery. “Poor Sue!” wrote Gilroy. “Time had savaged her.”

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May 23, 2021

The trans woman’s account of her eventful adolescence in the 00s is black comedy from a fresh perspective

Are the early 00s distant enough to be considered a bygone era? If so, journalist Paris Lees’s What It Feels Like for a Girl is a work of archaeology. She drags up the bones of cheesy garage tracks, green backlit Nokia phones, Bacardi Breezers, Gap jeans, retired slang, Nike Air Max trainers and Walkmans, pulling you into a world of pre-internet nostalgia. This ketamine-laced coming-of-age memoir, rife with nicked wigs and puppy love, fluctuates between the debauched and the humdrum; from gay bars to call centres, Debenhams to crown court, sex in toilet cubicles with “dirty old men” for a tenner to warming up treacle pudding and custard. The details of Lees’s formative years, when she lived life uncomfortably as a boy called Byron, is a rare portal into the British trans experience.

Written in a Midlands dialect and chatty tone, What It Feels Like for a Girl recounts Lees’s life in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, an “unbelievably borin’” town, where the “people are small-minded an’ the streets are paved wi’ dog shit”. Her relationship with her dad, Gaz, and her mum is profoundly strained. Gaz, the local hard man, is constantly testing her “masculinity”, while her mum, although more emotionally available, does a “Shirley Valentine” and moves to Turkey for three months to be with a guy. Lees eventually finds her true family with “the Fallen Divas”, a circle of queer people including Sticky Nikki, Fag Ash and Lady Die (who hasn’t been home since 1999).

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Jun 28, 2020

Leading black British poets including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols and Raymond Antrobus share their thoughts on protest, change and the trailblazers who inspired them. Introduction by Kadish Morris

Performance poetry revolutionised me. When I was 13, my mother invited me to a group called Leeds Young Authors, which she co-ran with founder and poet Khadijah Ibrahiim. Together, along with visiting poets, they ran writing workshops for teenagers. The selling point was that I would get the chance to travel to the US to compete in a poetry slam festival, but the excitement of getting on an aeroplane was soon overshadowed by what I can only describe as enlightenment. Poems performed at the festival taught me about police brutality, gentrification and climate change before I even owned a computer. Performance poetry immersed me in a world of critical thinking, but also, a community of black poets. I shared stages, shook hands and was taught by some of the greatest black British and African American poets before the age of 20. From Sonia Sanchez to Saul Williams to Lemn Sissay and Jackie Kay.

Black British history and literature are intrinsically connected. Poems such as Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Five Nights of Bleeding explored the 1981 Brixton riots, while Benjamin Zephaniah’s The Death of Joy Gardner lamented on the killing of a Jamaican student who died in 1993 after being detained during a police immigration raid at her home. Literature was a forum for idea-sharing, community-building and support too. The Caribbean Artists Movement, founded by Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite, Trinidadian publisher John La Rose and Panamanian-Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey in London in 1966, set about promoting the work of marginalised Caribbean artists, writers and poets. More than 50 years later, black writers are yet to be fully absorbed into the mainstream. A 2018 study found that only 7% of work published in poetry journals were by people from BAME backgrounds. Black voices have often felt like guests in UK literature, despite being routinely summoned during political events. “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark” – a line from Home by the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire – was a prominent slogan of the migrant crisis in 2015.

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