Identity, Dance and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Feeling comfortable with who you are can be complicated…a difficult journey for many who feel different from others.  Often this is just a perception, as we all come from various sordid places and are birthed from unique people with their own individual backgrounds.  

I am lucky enough to be part of a group that feels like home, a safe place to tap into who I am and also feel connected to others. For 15 years I have been taking the same dance class and, although there has been some ebb and flow of participants through the years, there is always a solid group of regulars who together create a warm atmosphere of acceptance for all who take part. We come together because of dance, and the positive, nurturing environment our teacher, Luisa, creates and sets the example for. In the safety of the four walls where we convene, we express ourselves freely as individuals, and collectively when we catch eyes in the mirror, simultaneously experiencing heightened endorphins and joy from the movement and the music.  From married, single, children, no children, business owners, workers, retired… to under 40, over 80, black, white, asian, immigrant, townie…everyone has their own unique identity that is accepted and celebrated in the shared space filled with each person’s confidence, energy and light.

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Our dance family has planned outings on occasion, providing us with opportunities to talk, get to know each other and develop connections and friendships that increase the fulfillment of time spent together.  Recently this unique community of ours started a book club, and this month we chose to read Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. We selected it because we thought it was about two girls who were brought together through dance. We thought we were going to love it.

It started out about a dance class uniting two young girls, but quickly veered away and was really about much more.

Book Club Impressions

In Swing Time, an unnamed narrator told her story and we, as readers were the observers, charged with the task of understanding and finding meaning in her life.  She was a light skinned black girl who came from a mixed race family. She was drawn to Tracy, another racially mixed girl from her dance class and they became fast friends. Their young friendship was strong, the narrator became Tracy’s loyal sidekick, and then the friendship faded as their lives went in different directions. The narrator’s lack of proficiency in dance led her to becoming an assistant to a pop star, while Tracy pursued a dance career but ended up unemployed with three children each from a different father.  Mixed race, broken homes, untapped talents and unfulfilled dreams, drug overdoses, neglected friendships and bad relationships, betrayals, lack of support systems, poor decisions and misdirection sum up the challenges the characters faced, but the underlying theme was everyone’s search for identity, self fulfillment and acceptance. 

Only half our group was able to finish the book, as we all mostly agreed it felt like it was a bit of slog, an emotionless slice of life, providing nothing of great interest to tap into our curiosity.  An anonymous narrator with lack of ambition didn’t show enough of herself to create connection with us. We never even knew her name.  I believe the author intended to keep all the characters at arms length in order to allow readers to draw conclusions about identity, race and wealth from their actions, but for our group this approach fell flat.

This was an ironic book choice for a diverse group that collectively has the opportunity to feel supported, connected and in touch with their individual identity in a warm and accepting environment.  So it is not surprising that we were not overjoyed with a story about unresolved personal journeys, struggles and unfulfilled dreams. In the book, the time periods jumped around quite a bit and despite the easy to read prose, Swing Time was a challenge to follow and not as engaging as we had hoped.  It definitely was fodder for rich discussion though, and while the characters in the book struggled, we bonded.   Read this one at your own risk.

Goodreads Summary 

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About the Author:

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Swing Time is her fifth novel.

Visit www.zadiesmith.com for more information.

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There There by Tommy Orange

 

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My Review:

So much sorrow as the characters in There There seek connection and struggle with identity…an honest and important debut!

Author Tommy Orange gives us a window into Native American Indian suffering and challenges with skill.  We follow more than a dozen characters, hearing their stories as they prepare to attend a major Pow Wow, a coming together of Natives from all over.  As we know, their land was taken away from them, but most have never lived the traditional Indian life on a reservation.  They are interested in their own culture and history yet they know so very little about where they truly came from, the people, the places, and the rituals and traditions.  Not knowing their past contributes to unsettled feelings, and a sense of belonging is challenging and often laced with despair.

Tony Loneman was born to an alcoholic and has some mental deficits.  He deals drugs.  He plans to go to the Pow Wow to steal money.

Dene Oxendene smokes weed.  He takes over his uncle’s movie making project about Indians and their stories.  He plans to go to the Pow Wow to interview Natives.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield lived on Alcatraz in protest when she was a child, with her mom, who died of cancer and her sister.  She plans to go to the Pow Wow to see her grandson dance.

Edwin Black searches online and finds his long lost father.  He plans to meet him at the Pow Wow.

Everyone is searching for their history, a means to an end and connection while battling despair, addiction, weight issues and social challenges.  I found this book, a collection of integrated personal stories, compelling and tragic. Not knowing who you are can be devastating and hearing the words of a character who is half Native and half white, the struggle is evident as Orange writes, “You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. ”

With clarity and honesty, There There is a story of the urban Native Americans, an inherently beautiful people with a painful past and a deep sense of spirituality.  I highly recommend this book.

Goodreads Summary

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Photo: © Elena Seibert

About the Author:

Tommy Orange is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.  He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow.  He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.  He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.

 

New People by Danzy Senna

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My Review:

I really enjoyed New People and was intrigued by who the description, “new people”, referred to.  Maria and Khalil are a seemingly happy, engaged couple living in Brooklyn, both light skinned, mixed race.  Khalil, a technology consultant, comes from a solid, intact family unit and is close with his parents and sister who is darker skinned than he is.  Maria has no relatives; she was adopted by a black woman who was hoping to raise a “mini me” and has since passed away.  She is spending her time writing her dissertation on Jamestown and busy learning about the mass suicides, how this could happen, and how those people kept going as long as they did. Maria’s previous boyfriend was white and although something about him made her despise him as a person, they had unrivaled physical chemistry.  She now is planning her wedding to Khalil, but is distracted by her attraction to a black poet who she keeps running into.

Maria has done something in her past that is dishonest and cruel to Khalil.  He is unaware and loves her very much.  Now that she is obsessed with another man she makes questionable decisions which lead her into some dicey circumstances but the details are not revealed to Khalil so the reality of who she is and what she does in her life remain hidden.  She has been and continues to be deceitful, yet for me, she is still likable and worthy of compassion.

I believe Maria’s studying of Jamestown, the people who were looking for their true selves and a place to belong in this world, and the music that enriched, was a representation of her personal quest for belonging.  With a college friend she doesn’t even remember, she has a brush with Scientology, as she allowed this former classmate to perform some tests on her, and then she feels a pull, back to the ideal life of Khalil and his family.  She looks white but feels black so her identity is unclear as she seems to be searching for people she can relate to, often feeling disconnected.  Maria’s bad judgement and and questionable decisions lead to some unusual situations that were humorous and uncomfortable.  New People, referring to mixed race people, this story of identity, relationships and communication was enjoyable, short and easy to read and I highly recommend it.

 

As Seen on Goodreads:

From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her–yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona.

Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

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About the Author:

Danzy Senna is an American novelist, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts in 1970. Her parents, Carl Senna, an Afro-Mexican poet and author, and Fanny Howe, who is Irish-American writer, were also civil rights activists.

She attended Stanford University and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. There, she received several creative writing awards.

Her debut novel, Caucasia (later republished as From Caucasia With Love), was well received and won several awards including the Book-Of-The-Month Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and the Alex Award from the American Library Association.

Her second novel, Symptomatic, was also well received. Both books feature a biracial protagonist and offer a unique view on life from their perspective.

Senna has also contributed to anthologies such as Gumbo.

In 2002, Senna received the Whiting Writers Award and in 2004 was named a Fellow for the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Danzy Senna is married to fellow writer Percival Everett and they have a son, Henry together. Their residences have included Los Angeles and New York City.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

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As seen on Goodreads:

Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are gay. They present an illusion of marital bliss to their conservative Sri Lankan–American families, while each dates on the side. It’s not ideal, but for Lucky, it seems to be working. She goes out dancing, she drinks a bit, she makes ends meet by doing digital art on commission. But when Lucky’s grandmother has a nasty fall, Lucky returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly reconnects with her former best friend and first lover, Nisha, who is preparing for her own arranged wedding with a man she’s never met.

As the connection between the two women is rekindled, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie. But does Nisha really want to be saved? And after a decade’s worth of lying, can Lucky break free of her own circumstances and build a new life? Is she willing to walk away from all that she values about her parents and community to live in a new truth? As Lucky—an outsider no matter what choices she makes—is pushed to the breaking point, Marriage of a Thousand Lies offers a vivid exploration of a life lived at a complex intersection of race, sexuality, and nationality. The result is a profoundly American debut novel shot through with humor and loss, a story of love, family, and the truths that define us all.

 

My Comments:

A lovely debut, Marriage of a Thousand Lies brings to light the layers of struggles that shape our decisions on how we choose to live our lives.  Lucky and her husband Kris are both gay, in a marriage of convenience to keep Kris in the country and for Lucky to mend the relationship with her disapproving family and save face in the eyes of the Sri Lanken community.  Lucky returns home to care for her ill grandmother and is reunited with Nisha, her old friend whom she had a romantic relationship with when they were younger.  Nisha is preparing for her arranged marriage to a man, but in the weeks leading up to her wedding the suppressed love and desire of these former lovers are unleashed forcing both Nisha and Lucky to reevaluate their choices and how they want to live their lives.  Is it better to follow your heart and be shunned from your family and community or should you live a lie to be accepted?  Marriage of a Thousand Lies brings us on a journey of struggles and pressures, as Nisha and Lucky make their decisions on how to live and where to find acceptance.

Last week, on the 20th anniversary of Ellen Degeneres coming out at  gay on national tv to 42 million viewers, I reflected on how far we have come in the United States when it comes to acceptance and treating all people equally.   Yes, we have progressed in 20 years, but there are still many individuals and groups that preclude some from being considered equal and treated fairly.  It is part of the human struggle to protect and honor the past while we grow and accept change and celebrate difference moving forward.  Little by little we are finding the balance, one family and one community at a time, as brave individuals choose to live authentically and gain support from their inner circle.  I enjoyed this well written novel as it touched on the personal struggles of  each character with the added bonus of Sri Lankan traditions and customs.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies will be available June 13th.

Preorder here on AMAZON.

 

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About the author:

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. Her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, won the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was published by Split Lip Press. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Marriage of a Thousand Lies is her first novel, and will be released by Soho Press in June 2017.