Book review – Maya Angelou – “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

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I and my friend Ali plus our non-blogger friend Meg are working our way through Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books in a sort of mini-challenge that has no rules or time constraints – we just try to read the book at approximately the same time. We’ve just all finished this third volume and I think we all agreed it was an excellent, and fun, read. Ali’s review will come out soon and I’ll link to it when it does.

Maya Angelou – “Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

(April 2021)

My life was an assemblage of strivings and my energies were directed toward acquiring more than the basic needs.” (p. 19)

Again we pick up where the last book ended. Maya is living in a rented room and working at two jobs; she finds a great local record shop and is busy picking up records, distrustful of the White owner who offers her credit but eventually accepting her – and a job at the shop. This is good news, as she can finally take her son out of childcare (which involves him boarding at someone else’s house again and only staying with her one night a week; this seems so harsh and sad, especially when she almost lost him before when the childminder moved house) and she enjoys her work.

But men get in the way again – as always, although she’s more resolute and even more independent by the end of this volume. She gets married to a man who seems loving but practises what we’d call today coercive control. She retains enough spirit that when he actively insults her and her son, she gets out and we cheer for her. But what to do now? Stripping in a local joint seems the only option – but she gets on the wrong side of the other girls when she’s honest about what’s in the “champagne cocktails” she’s supposed to get men to buy her, and thus attracts more attention. She is such an attractive and honest character that she can’t help making friends, and so through them she gets another and better job, singing and dancing in another bar but without being on the edges of prostitution. And from there, as well as gaining the name “Maya Angelou”, she manages to secure a role in the touring opera Porgy and Bess, and things start to get really fun.

For the latter part of the book, we’re touring Europe and North Africa with Maya and the company, all Black American singers and performers, with varying reactions as they visit places where almost no one’s seen a Black person before then end up in Africa, with Black and Brown faces all around them (but inequalities and racial tensions still). She has some great stories to tell and when she has to make more money, she has the attractive character and skills to do so in side-hustles to her main performance. Her description of her cast-mates and the transformation from tired and bickering people to bright and emotional performers is absorbing.

There are a couple of mis-steps – at one point, and she does seem to imply she redressed this later, Angelou admits that she was as distant from the idea of Palestinians being displaced by the formation of Israel as she was from the idea of native Americans being displaced by White settlers, and shortly afterwards she mentions that she doesn’t want to bring her son over to tour with them for fear of the gay men in the company having an influence over him – she does explain it’s not that she worries about them “molesting” him but him copying their gestures and way of being to win admiration. Not her finest moment, although as ever, well-explained.

There are some very interesting notes on race in this book, from Maya’s natural distrust of first her record-shop employer and then a White Southern man who accompanies her songs, to her reaction to being in Canada , which had been the dream destination for enslaved people escaping via the Underground Railway, the effect of which had carried through to her times, to Europeans’ preference for Black Americans over White Americans, even in countries like Italy which America had defeated in war only a decade previously, to the information I found newly in my recent reading, but was here all the time, that white Americans then and apparently now found it easier to accept Africans, Cubans and South Americans than the Black people who had shared their country for generations.

We end with Maya and her son, now Guy, both having moved away from the names they started the book with, in Hawaii on a performing job after she puts her foot down and insists he must be able to accompany her. I wonder where she’ll go next …

This is Book 14 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 1 in my All Virago (and other publishers doing a similar thing) / All August project.

Book review – Pete Paphides – “Broken Greek”

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This excellent memoir, weaving together a second-generation immigrant perspective and the discovery of pop music, by a renowned music writer, has just come out in paperback, so I reviewed it for Shiny New Books and my review came out this week.

I was a bit more formal in my Shiny review of course, but the two things that captivated me were that I and the author are of almost exactly the same vintage (he is a couple of years older than me), and so the music he experienced that’s such a vital part of the book was woven into my life at the same stages, and he grew up a couple of suburbs along from where I live now, and mentioned many places I know well from my two sojourns in South Birmingham. I got rather too excited when he went past my good friend Ali’s house, in effect, and it was lovely reading about Acocks Green, Olton and Yardley in the time before I arrived in the area.

Here’s part of what I wrote about it:

It’s more than just music and cultural struggles. We open with Paphides’ couple of years of elective muteness (resolved very movingly) and his struggles with anxiety – and more and more things to be anxious about are added as we move through the years. He seeks refuge in music, very sweetly auditioning members of bands to be his replacement parents if, as he expects, his tire of him. His friends are important to him, and the friendships detailed beautifully, and, while he gets unwillingly sucked into an almost-gang and a few exploits he’s embarrassed about, the ending, with an epic journey and an inevitable, inescapable event is a tribute to friendship and the love of your found family as well as your birth family. 

Read my full review here. The book was my own.

Book review – Anisha Bhatia – “What are we Doing About Zoya?”

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This novel is touted as a mix between “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” (which I have read) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (which I haven’t); I spotted it on Literary Potpourri’s upcoming NetGalley reads post and sought it out for myself. It was published in July and indeed I read it last month but I’m keeping my reading in front of my reviewing so I don’t have to scramble to write reviews during my work week. Note that this is also published under the title “The Rules of Arrangement” (thanks to Literary Potpourri for that info as well as the lead on the novel’s existence).

Anisha Bhatia – “What are we Doing About Zoya?”

(29 June 2021, NetGalley)

Zoya is a 26 year old woman living in Mumbai and, shockingly to her family, not yet married; she dresses unconventionally and is carrying a bit of weight (she’s shamed for this by various people, but it’s notable that she doesn’t lose weight in order to be happy and get the guy). She works in an ad agency (and she’s good at her job, organised and creative) for a rather alarming boss who wants everyone to call him by his first name, and has a good set of similarly unconventional friends around her – the one who gets married first starts to look increasingly troubled as the plot progresses.

Sheila Bua, Zoya’s mum’s oldest friend, is a marriage arranger and gets to work finding some boys – cue the usual excruciating family meetups. But Zoya remembers other layers of Aunty Sheila – an artist, a second mum to her after she loses a baby, someone who takes her for treats, as well as someone who pins aforementioned boss to the foyer wall and demands to know who his mother is. And the pressures on young men to get married are covered too: Zoya meets one chap who’s very happy with his boyfriend and stays friends with her on WhatsApp but is going through the marriage motions to please his parents. It’s also an interesting picture of well-off families with lots of conspicuous wealth on show.

When Zoya meets a guy who is sort of OK, they sort of agree to get married. But he’s a bit of an arse, and why do things go funny when he gets near one of her cousins? Are all engagements this argumentative? Meanwhile, we find out someone has been doing secret good turns for other people in the office … and Zoya has the opportunity of a lifetime, but it means turning down other opportunities.

There’s a lot to like in this fast-paced and funny novel, full of farce but with serious moments and commentary. It’s also quite racy for an India-based family / arranged marriage romcom tale; Zoya has a dope-smoking on/off lover and someone for whom this would be frowned upon has a pregnancy scare, which isn’t something you come across that often. But that’s fine, obviously, and probably gives a more accurate picture of life for young Indian people than some of the more smoothed-over stories. We get family stories and trendy restaurants; there’s one mis-step in the continuity which doesn’t matter massively but is a slight shame.

I’d certainly read more by this author. Thank you to Headline for making the book available to read on NetGalley in return for an honest review. It was published on 13 July. You can find out what Literary Potpourri thought of it here.

Book review – Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next”

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Racing ahead to Book 12 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and it’s starting to feel like I might actually do it, especially as I was originally planning to get to Book 14 by the end of this month and then the last six are novels. Anyway, I was going to review this short book alongside Wednesday’s “Anti-Racist Ally“, having lazily thought they were on similar topics. But no – although they’re both about fighting racism, they take very, very different angles and approaches!

I bought this book on 1 April 2021, according to my note inside the front cover – I have a feeling I pre-ordered it when I spotted it. I loved Dabiri’s “Don’t Touch My Hair“, which used both her experience growing up in Ireland looking very different to her community and her academic research on African civilisations to interrogate black hair (her TV programme was also very good but quite different. Here, she puts her extensive academic and discursive skills to powerful effect..

Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition”

(01 April 2021)

We don’t all have to look the same to identify common interests and perhaps unexpected affinities, to cultivate kinships that cut across divisions intended to weaken us in order to better exploit us. (p. 146)

Emma Dabiri is not keen on the concept of allyship. I think she feels it demeans both the ally, who could be seen as performing empty gestures and being patronising at worst, and the person having allyship imposed upon them, being pitied and still thought of as somehow beneath the ally. She wants to dismantle the concept of race, only invented in the 1600s when it became useful to divide and conquer poor black and white folk, and, while she accepts that some forms of what gets called allyship, such as personally calling out racism when we witness or or in corporate life, lobbying against black income disparity, can be useful, and she also exhorts us to read novels by global majority people to understand rounded experiences that are different from our own, not just race-centred “‘anti racist books”, she is all about dismantling capitalism, too.

This book (or essay as it’s called on the back cover – it’s 150 pages) is densely argued and almost dizzying. She says near the end that she wants to have made the reader think, and she certainly does. Like other books that take a more homogeneous view of what ‘white’ people should be doing, she tackles terms – but through the lens of looking at how by making us fight over terms (although she does state she doesn’t like capitalising ‘black’ and ‘white’ and would rather put them in inverted commas to point out their invented nature; I am using the terms as she does here, out of respect and to offer an alternative) we are made to take our eye off the ball and prevented from joining together in real coalition.

She does the history thing, but in the context again of showing how ‘race’ is a created thing, used to divide people and subjugate those the ruling classes chose to subjugate. Then we’re into Marxism, anti-capitalism and a hefty dose of environmentalism. She’s scathing about social media and people acting performatively, but she acknowledges that there are people who have been defined as ‘white’ who do want to make change; she’s also against ‘white’ people being shamed into doing ‘nice’ things out of duty. She is strong on how white privilege means different things to different people, and that instead of concentrating on this we should be building coalition between disparate groups, like people did in the Black Panther etc. movement in the US, and fighting for equality which lifts everyone, having the most powerful effect on those who are kept furthest down, usually Global Majority People and people of the Global South, but improving conditions for everyone as it goes.

Comparing capitalist society to a slave ship, where the European slavers were on the top deck and the enslaved Africans crammed in below in terrible conditions, she asks if this is where we truly want to be, and if our only aim is to pull ourselves or others up into the air:

It is not enough to make exploitative systems more ‘inclusive’. Do we want to get on the top deck or do we want to destroy the goddam ship? (p. 73)

So as well as anti-capitalism in general, Dabiri encourages the reader to look into the Black Radical Tradition and knowledge and principles of historical African and Indigenous in general communities and civilisations, which might hold more of a key than European Enlightenment thought. Yes, I would have liked a reading list to handily pop up here.

Dabiri’s stated aim is to make us think, and she does that alright. But she does leave us hanging a bit, too. Near the end of the book, having decried the divisiveness of modern identity politics, she claims:

It is here that we are stuck. Frankly, there’s a huge gap in terms of what comes next. While we need to identify what to do, it’s important not to fixate on an endpoint or a final destination; such thinking is part of the problem. Rather we should try to understand our lives as a dynamic flowing of positions. (p. 141)

There is some mention of joining groups that are not identity politics based, like Extinction Rebellion, and she’s strong on how the concept of race has been continued to be used to keep people working against each other rather than for each other, but you’re left at the end, unless I really didn’t understand this book (which is entirely possible: she has an approachable and often very informal style but there’s a lot to chew over in this work), without really knowing what steps to take to do all this dismantling of capitalism and saving the world from our environmental damage. So perhaps it asks more questions than it answers, and I need to look for the answers elsewhere.

This is Book 12 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally”

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Book 11 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and I’m celebrating Past Liz for her idea of slotting two short books in amongst the pile for this month (I’m putting my slow progress down to it all being made up of non-fiction, and reckon I’ll catch up with the novels I have for next month. I have almost finished “What White People Can Do Next” and then I’m on to “Brit(ish) so should end the month with one hanging over from this month, again. That’s fine!

I do not know when I bought this book! From its position on my TBR shelf, I’m guessing August 2020. Oops. I was going to review it alongside Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next” but having read most of that book, Dabiri takes exception to the use of the term ally and the concept of allyship, in her theoretically more deep and wide-ranging book (which has a different purpose, to be fair) so I’m splitting them up!

Sophie Williams – “Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Action & Activism”

(August? 2020)

Read books about Black and brown people living, not just dying. Engage in content where they thrive, rather than just survive. Remembering the full and complex range of lives and emotions in marginalised people is humanising, and a lot of fun. (p. 119)

Williams is an Instagrammer and she takes that platform’s strong design and succinct messages through to her small-format book. Each left-hand page gives a question, heading or objection, with the answer or message kept to one side of the facing page. This means it’s easy to read, and easy to flick through to find the section you need.

Williams is pretty forthright and provocative – as she has every right to be. She decries speech rather than action and bandwagon-jumping. She says things which might make the reader uncomfortable – such as her assertion that we need to do uncomfortable things and put ourselves in uncomfortable situations in order to enact, rather than perform, allyship.

The book takes the traditional form of such pieces, providing terms and distinctions, then working through the idea that not being racist is the absolute baseline and not enough. Interestingly, she acknowledges her own change, both through the book when talking about how people can change, and in her discussion of the use of “womxn” which she used to use but not now it’s been adopted by people who want to deny the full womanhood of trans and non-binary women. I’ve seen this elsewhere, and it’s one example of the shifts in language we’re seeing at the moment. OK, Dabiri would say this doesn’t matter so much if it distracts from the need to dismantle capitalism, but we’ll go there another day (how one’s reading of one book affects one’s view of the last one!).

Williams moves on to talk about what racism is, addressing objections such as “I don’t see colour” and “I can’t be racist because my best friend / postman is Black”. She then looks at what true allyship is, and covers intersectionality well. She describes how racism evidences nowadays – less white sheets and more race pay gaps and institutional racism. This includes the use of Black people to provide emotional labour in rehashing their experiences of racism for a White audience. She has a UK and US perspective here which is useful, although acknowledges different issues are found in the two areas.

Then we get into the nuts and bolts of it – how to be an ally. Anxieties are covered first – including I don’t want to make it all about me and I can’t really do anything. I’ve certainly suffered from the latter one, as a lot of the books and resources I’ve found cover how to address inequalities in a workplace or community group, neither of which I’m really in. While then moving through from addressing issues within yourself, your close circles, your community, your workplace, institutions, brands and government, she has a theme that a) you have to make yourself uncomfortable sometimes and b) you use what platforms you’ve got. This inspired me personally to keep on reading and then writing about books centred on Black people’s experience on here, my platform, even though they often don’t get the engagement my other posts have (and even though I’ve always read and reviewed books by Global Majority Peoples; maybe just not so much non-fiction). She leaves room for celebrating and amplifying Black joy, asking White folk not to keep sharing images of pain and suffering that will re-traumatise our Black friends and contacts, something I don’t do a lot, and certainly not explicit images, but I have done to an extent. We always need to keep learning!

At the end of the book, we have a book list and I was pleased to see I have read six, have a further three to read, and don’t have six, some of which I’ve chosen not to read yet as they’re US centric and I’m working on learning about UK stuff first.

A worthwhile little book with some good ideas that don’t just revolve around the workplace.

This is Book 11 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – David Olusoga – “Black and British”

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I’m feeling like I’m struggling with my 20 Books of Summer project at the moment – this is Book 9 and I’m currently half-way through Book 10 but I should be further along than that. I was also disappointed not to get more reads of the Stormzy book I read and reviewed last, which I thought was smashing. But there we go – maybe people are catching up and haven’t got to it yet, as I’m a little lagging with my blog reading.

Anyway, I bought this book back in June 2020 and blogged about it here – this is the third book I’ve finished from that batch of buys, and I am looking forward to picking off other books soon (I have also had epic BookPost recently but I’ll tell you about that next weekend).

David Olusoga – “Black and British: A Forgotten Story”

(18 June 2020)

Black British history can be read in the crumbling stones of the forty slave fortresses that are peppered along the coast of West Africa and in the old plantations and former slave markets of the lost British empire of North America. Its imprint can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is intertwined with the cultural and economic histories of the nation. (p. xxi)

I bought this book because we’d watched and loved Olusoga’s TV programme of the same name: this is not exactly the book of the TV programme, missing some things but able to add a lot more detail. The thing I did love about the programme was when he was able to pull together descendants of the Black Britons he found and gather them for the unveiling of a plaque commemorating that person’s role and life. That aspect of the series is just mentioned in the Acknowledgements, and while there are a lot of images in the book, the plaques are not included, which is a shame. The gathering of descendants, where they could be found, also gave an immediate human interest whereas this is very much more a work of academic history.

That’s the bad bit. But this is still an amazing book. Olusoga is able to stretch out and back and really go into history and contemporary sources. As such, he still talks about the Black Romans up at Hadrian’s Wall and John Blanke, the 16th century royal trumpeter, but he spends most of the book describing in great detail Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade, and how being Black and British could very well involve being a freed slave placed in a village in Sierra Leone to get on with your life (he was very good here on how this project formed the start of the great African land-grab for Britain).

He does of course also cover the Black Georgians, often brought over as almost pets or slaves but then sometimes living independently, and Queen Victoria’s god-daughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The Black soldiers who fought for the Empire and/or Britain in the two world wars and the Windrush generation are also covered. He also has room to acknowledge the work and books that came before this book and caught his own historical imagination as a younger man. But slavery is the main focus of the book, and a forensic examination of how slavery ended.

We find the use of new techniques which piece together historical and genetic records, and interesting assertions, for example about the huge similarities between eighteenth and twenty-first century Britain. He’s good on how abolitionism became a cause that many women espoused – and were permitted to espouse – and their strong role in the movement (although Black campaigners of the time have been whitewashed out of history). The ebb and flow of numbers of Black people living in the UK (reaching its low just before the First World War) is examined carefully and interestingly, with personal details and stories provided if they can be. There is a fascinating section of the reception of Black GIs during the Second World War. When he gets into the 1980s he has to move away from historical assertions, as they have just not been made yet, and rely on his own feelings of being under siege, but things gradually improving, with the introduction of Black History Month helping (hopefully) all parts of the population learn about people’s heritage here.

The book ends with a call for more history to be uncovered and the explanation, which I’ve seen elsewhere, that the Black population of Britain is now of a majority African origin rather than from the Caribbean, with note needing to be taken of these citizens’ stories. This book does take a bit of work and I am glad I had swathes of time to read it during my week off the week before last, but it rewards the effort.

Olusoga’s Preface ends with a positive assertion:

… it is written in the firm belief that Britain is a nation capable of confronting all aspects of its past and becoming a better nation for doing so. (p. xxii)

I hope this is true: this book, and those which have subsequently built on his work and taken it forward will get into the hands of the right people, help to explain the long and varied history of Black and other global majority peoples in Britain and help to build tolerance and respect.

This is Book 9 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Stormzy with Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

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We’re carrying on with 20 Books of Summer after a brief pause to review NetGalley books, and this is Book 8 in the project. I have already finished reading Book 9 and am part-way through Book 10 so I MIGHT do it still (I have two full-length and two short books from my July plans still to read, then eight novels for August). I bought this book in August 2020 and blogged about it here – I am pleased to say I read its companion “Slay in Your Lane” in October 2020 as it was the predecessor to “Loud Black Girls” which I had just won from NetGalley.

Stormzy, edited and co-written by Jude Yawson – “Rise Up: The #Merky Story so Far”

What’s more, he was one of us. From the ends, Thornton Heath. Every success of his felt like a victory for all of us. (p. 4)

Stormzy is a grime music star, rapper and entrepreneur (he has his own record label, company and imprint within Penguin Books, on which this book has come out) who grew up on a council estate in Croydon, South London. He’s a committed Christian who loves his mum, has high standards and will only accept the best from those around him: but he certainly appears to be a firm support to those who give their best. He also gives people opportunities: his co-writer, Jude Yawson, had not written a book before, but in my opinion he has put together a very good book.

Yawson explains early on that he conducted interviews with the main players – musicians, his manager, producers, PR people, brand people – and then decided to include the transcribed interviews pretty much as they came out (he doesn’t: I’m a professional transcriber and I know what these would have sounded like. He does an excellent job of editing them so they’re readable, fresh and interesting, but also clear and understandable). He doesn’t sound in his introduction too certain of this as a method, so in the unlikely event that he reads this: yes, it’s a great method and it’s done really well. I’d say this is as good as the seminal book on Madness I worked on and read earlier this year.

The book was published in 2018 and obviously Stormzy has done a lot since then. But it’s a great record of his early times and the way he gathered his crew of associates around him. After a list of contributors, we go from Preparation to Work, then Execution and Ambition. There’s a lot about the way things were built carefully on knowledge and hard work which might surprise people, and a lot of hauling themselves out of poverty and risky situations to flourish and be creative. There’s much satisfying detail about how playlists work in radio stations, how songs are put together and production work, and all the work behind this well-oiled machine. The aforementioned method of using the transcriptions almost “raw” means the voices are well-distinguished and lively, and it works really well as a chorus of voices, with Yawson providing links and summaries and Stormzy voicing his own experiences and his appreciation of those around him.

Mental health issues come into the book. Although Stormzy explains he had his mum and his faith to bring him through, and a self-belief that stood out from an early age, he also explains he had trouble coping when writing his first album, although he also castigates the NME for making him the literal poster-boy for depression in musicians, using his image without his permission. I also loved his take on social media:

There are some things you’re not meant to know. You’re not meant to know what some random person thinks about what you’re wearing. This is why we have little white lies. This is why we have social niceties. We can’t really handle the truth. (p. 193)

But of course he’s forced to hear all sorts of random people’s “truth” all the time and that must get very tiring.

A fascinating documentary of the start of something huge; a loyal team and a leader who appreciates them. I don’t think you have to be into grime music or rapping to enjoy this book: it works as a portrait of people doing their best in often challenging circumstances, too.

This is Book 8 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

Book review – Johny Pitts – “Afropean”

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It’s time to review Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer project. I am a bit behind but I have a week off this week and now I’ve got my annual blood test out of the way, and presumably while the hedge man is here later in the week, I should have lots of lovely time for reading. I bought this one off my wish list on a bit of a whim (the full story is here) and I’ve been looking forward to getting to read it. It’s one of those lovely Penguins with the orange and white striped spine, too, with a great cover picture taken by the author, who is a photographer as well as a writer. .

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Johny Pitts – “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe”

(02 July 2020)

in contemporary Europe it seemed to me that black people were either presented as uber-stylized retro hipster dandies in thick-rimmed glasses and a bit of kente cloth, or dangerous hooded ghetto-yoot. (p. 6)

Pitts grew up in a working-class, multicultural area of Sheffield and, bruised by an encounter with London life, he gathers his savings, moves back into his mum’s for a bit and prepares to go on a trip to see whether he can find brotherhood and a sense of belonging in the “Afropean” communities across Europe. This descriptor was only relatively recently coined, and at first he thinks he’s going to be visiting an elite group of musicians and artists who exist in glorious idiosyncracy as part of society but also apart from it; crucially people who have an identity as a European of African heritage rather than an immigrant. However, he soon realises that the people he really needs to talk to are the invisible, the indigent, the undocumented, the people who, as with GMP people in the UK, are “here because you were there” (i.e. they are people from former colonies who have come to the “mother country” through having citizenship and a connection, or have been called to come to fill a labour gap) but are not permitted to feel part of the majority populus. He has an epiphany when visiting the “Jungle” in Calais, being called to write about the people there by an inhabitant.

The author makes a conscious choice to avoid the academic in his work (although it’s rigorously footnoted and referenced). Unlike more privileged travel writers, he goes out with his own budget and wanting to make a book, not a publisher’s budget with a book deal set up (and the way this gets published is a lovely two-fingered salute to old-school-tie networks: he meets Caryl Phillips, whose “European Tribes” (which I now yearn to re-read) he is inspired by, and through him makes a train of connections that leads to publication with Penguin.

I read a lot of valuable academic research and sociological theory, but all too often this was gathering dust in universities, or preaching to the converted, written or cited more often by wealthy, educated white scholars than the people being written about and couched in a stand-offish, academic vernacular. Formal education is often driven by someone else’s knowledge: who authorized it and shaped its rhetoric? Whose knowledge is it? Who has access to it? What about black Europe beyond the desk of a theorist, found in the equivocal and untidy lived experiences of its communities? Black Europe from the street up? (p. 5)

He’s careful to name what he doesn’t cover (the role of churches and Islam in supporting Black culture in Europe) and names his privilege in terms of being able to walk out of the “Jungle” (but still have to prove his identity to police) and bring able to wander freely late at night in sketchy places, unlike his female friends. He mentions how glad he is that there’s “a new zeitgeist of intersectional black thought that is often led by feminism and queerness” (p. 132(He’s frustrated that there are areas he isn’t able to get to and encourages readers to submit their experiences to his website, Afropeans.com (there’s some great stuff on there). He covers France (Paris and the South), Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Portugal and I have to say I’d have liked to see more than the small amount he writes about Spain, as I’ve always been concerned about the numbers of African people selling in markets in mainland and particularly Canary Islands Spain and would have liked to know more about them.

After an introduction and sociological exploration of working-class Sheffield, explaining Pitts’ roots and experience (like Akala and Guvna B, he credits his escape from a path he could have gone down to his circumstances, in this case a strong and stable home, his mum supported by her White working-class family, his dad an African American entertainer who gave him some different life experiences), we’re off round Europe, experiencing immigrants and second- and third-generation citizens, the undocumented and the documented, those living in precarity and secure middle-class folk. There are some very striking examples and he brings himself into the picture but not excessively, giving voice to his subjects (and subtly indicating their accents, which is incredibly well done). He makes it very clear how cultures that don’t even use words for racism (social issues anyone?) are systematically racist and he honours different kinds of activism while noting the flaws that some of it has.

I stuck millions of post-it note tabs into this book but if I used them all, this review would be as long as the actual book! Suffice it to say, he makes visible the invisible world of the network of people who make Europe work; he takes himself off to estates and banlieux and tries to talk deeply to people. I learned about histories and legacies of colonialism I didn’t know about (I had no idea about the Dutch in Suriname, for example, though I was more up on French colonialism) in this very human and warm, though at times provocative (he shares an interesting perspective that maybe Trump and Brexit are better for immigrant communities because “their position is clearer” and the blatant racism makes a space come available for people to politicise and organise).

And just to make it clear: this is no po-faced polemic. It’s incredibly engaging and readable, and I kept wanting to read just one more section. Published in 2019, I’m not sure I’ve seen it on too many of the “Black Lives Matter” lists: it deserves to be known and read.

This was book number 7 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice”

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It’s the sixth book in my 20BooksofSummer! I’m still reading “Black and British” but it’s a big one and also not always happy reading or easy to hold, so it doesn’t come to meal times with me. This one came to me in July 2020 as part of the rest of my book token splurge for last year (it got complicated) and I note that it arrived along with “Brit(ish)”, which I will be reading this month, and “Trans Britain” and “Mother Country” which I have actually read already!

So I’m only a little behind where I hoped to be now. I have a NetGalley June read to review on Thursday and am currently reading my first Anne Tyler for the month alongside “Black and British”. Not sure what’s next!

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun with their books! How are you doing?

Nadiya Hussain – “Finding my Voice: A Memoir”

(20 July 2020)

So, what prompted me to write this book? Well, there are girls out there who are quiet, just like I used to be. Who are allowing their lives to be steered in the hope that one day they might find their happy and, with that, their voice. Who are growing up being told ‘it’s not appropriate’, ‘no you can’t’, ‘it’s not the done thing’. With this book I want to show that, actually, who cares if it’s not appropriate, you can and it is the done thing! (p. xii)

Somehow between reading that this book didn’t include anything about Bake Off (and it really doesn’t: the only mentions are when her husband encourages her to go for the show and a bit about Tamal, who she made friends with) and reading it, I’d got it into my head that it wasn’t even a memoir, but some kind of self-help book. But it is a very open and honest memoir, organised into chapters around the roles Nadiya has had in her life: daughter, sister, granddaughter, daughter-in-law, mother, wife, earner, username and finally woman. So it’s basically a chronological journey through her life, taking on each role and concentrating on the people who are close to her in that role.

Is is very unguarded, “unflinchingly honest” as it says in the blurbs in the front. It’s certainly that. There’s lots on the feelings she has about her family and the difficulties she experienced being a daughter-in-law, though she’s always respectful of all her family members and careful not to offend.

I was a bit surprised that, although she mentions her panic disorder a few times and especially around not having told her husband about it before they married, it’s not a strong theme in the book and there’s not much about how she’s overcome it (or, if she hasn’t, how it’s impacted her life). It’s obviously her book to write as she wishes, but I would have liked to see more of that.

She includes a recipe at the end of each chapter and these are nicely inclusive – of a sweet treat called Handesh that has been the undoing of many a daughter-in-law, she says, “So for anyone getting married, vying to impress, these are for you. They are for you if you want to show up your very Bengali mother. They are also for you if you like fried sweet stuff with a cup of tea” (p. 166). On this note, she doesn’t talk a lot about her experiences of racism but they are there, in the cultural disconnects when to her having five siblings is not much, but shocks when she is talking to White people, etc., and we read with dismay her experience being told to do an essay for English about a character in a book she identifies with when she can’t find one that matches her (presumably why she’s written several books for adults and children).

Other than that, it’s frank, frequently funny, open about where she regrets things in her life, fiercely loving of her family and a memorable read. I was surprised about how open and often angry she is (good for her) and there’s a really shockingly visceral scene of an attempted and nearly achieved sexual attack in the final chapter which did actually genuinely shock me.

I enjoyed this book and I think it would be a great way to sneak some powerful reading for the girls and women she aims it to help, as the attractive cover and book description don’t prepare you for the honesty and sharing within.

This was book number 6 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!


Book review – Maya Angelou – “Gather Together in My Name”

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I and my friend Ali plus our non-blogger friend Meg are working our way through Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books in a sort of mini-challenge that has no rules or time constraints – we just try to read the book at approximately the same time. She’d got ahead with “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” so I read that as quickly as I could (my review is here, with a link to hers) and then we read this one together last month – blog post scheduling issues meant it came over into this month for both me and Ali, and she posted her review the other day (here).

Maya Angelou – “Gather Together in My Name”

(April 2021)

I had written a juicy melodrama in which I was to be the start. Pathetic, poignant, isolated. I planned to drift out of the wings, a little girl martyr. It just so happened that life took my script away and upstaged me. (p. 38)

We pick up where Caged Bird finished, with Maya just having had her son. It’s wartime and there’s a busyness around, with parties, servicepeople and black marketeers all over the place, plenty of jobs for everyone. Then the war ends and mass unemployment starts. Maya decides to pay her own way rather than leave her baby with her mum and go back into education. She gets a job and a room, puts her baby into a series of rather informal childcare arrangements (one of which later on could have gone badly wrong) and starts to look around for a boyfriend. But she’s not going to escape the sexism and abuse that blighted her earlier years that easily, and falls in with a married man who pushes her into a sexual relationship.

As we passed through the hotel lobby, I felt the first stirring of reluctance. Now, wait a minute. What was I doing here? What did he think I was? He hadn’t even said he loved me. Where was the soft music that should be playing as he kissed my ear lobe? (p. 23)

Maya does some pretty sketchy things, including running a brothel and turning to sex work herself, but she sees it all so clear-sightedly from her more secure future, names what she does, names why, names what is wrong and right, takes responsibility and, ultimately, comes to see her son as something more than just a doll or an extension of herself and as a person. She learns a harsh lesson when she returns to her grandmother’s house, only to go into a white-owned shop and give herself airs and have to leave town in a hurry – shocking scenes, really.

Being Maya, she’s reading the whole way through the book, and discovers and sinks into the classic Russians. Her brother also continues to feature, although he is spiralling down in this book and there are some sad scenes. There’s also a wry laugh and an indication of the title of her next book when she’s talking to fellow sex-worker Clara about why she came off the streets to work in a house: “… my daddy brought me down to this crib. Let the heat get off. Then I’ll be back switching and bitching and getting merry like Christmas” (p. 169).

This volume ends weirdly positively, given that it ends pretty much in a crack house. She gives a promise not to touch drugs and packs up to go back to her mother’s

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