Born from the Fire

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Black women were born with fire raging through their veins. And throughout their lives, they have used that fire to fight for themselves, and for others, in a world that sees that them as less than; as nothing; as non-citizens. While this fire can be empowering for black women, it often burns them in a world that uses black women’s passion and emotion as way to invalidate the very real struggle that they face in a hostile world. We are asked to be quiet, to be respectable, and to be grateful for the small scraps people are willing to throw our way. Yet, it is our emotion, more specifically our anger, that will save us. It is what allows us to fight everyday against the injustices that befall us and all other oppressed minorities. It is the power of this anger that Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers her Superpower takes on.

A mix of personal memoir and the political, Eloquent Rage breaks down the many ways in which black women face disrespect and subjugation, from the way they are treated in romantic relationships to the responsibilities that their churches and communities place on them. In the chapter, “White Girl Tears,” Cooper addresses the relationship that men, black and white alike, have with black women, who they’re happy to have take care of them, but refuse to love. She talks about the ways in which black men are quick to defend white women over black women *ahem Daniel Caesar*, and the way in which black-white interracial relationships can be coded by internalized racism and hatred towards black women. In “Orchestrated Fury”, Cooper argues that respectability politics—”the belief that Black people can overcome many of the everyday,, acute impacts of racism by dressing properly and having social comportment”—has been used by both black and white communities to invalidate black women who don’t play by the rules. Black women that fail to remain poised and respectable, who are seen as “ghetto”, are accused of being a ‘disgrace to the race’. Respectability then, is used as a way of silencing black women, allowing their continued mistreatment. As Cooper says, “respectability might have got us to the highest office in the land, but it could not ensure any level of long-term respect for Black humanity.” In the chapter, as in the rest of the book, Cooper passionate and careful navigation of such politics encourages black women to let go of the rules that don’t serve them and empower themselves.

What’s great about Eloquent Rage is that Cooper doesn’t hold back. The topics that she addresses are controversial any day of the week, and Cooper is quick to call out everyone, from white feminists to Black Panther leaders. No one is exempt from her critique. Even better, Cooper stans hard for black women. While she doesn’t disregard the experience of other oppressed minorities, she makes it clear that she is riding for black women and their experience.

Reading Eloquent Rage was a necessary education. Of course there were things Cooper said that I’d heard before but there were also stories and details that I’d never heard before. And it made me think of how my desire to be likeable and agreeable to people is so closely tied with wanting them to see me, a black woman, as digestible. Without really knowing it, I’ve held the principles of respectability politics like a Bible to the chest. And Eloquent Rage showed me the power that could come from living freely; it showed me that my emotions were completely valid even when the world wants to tell me that I’m being too sensitive.

Support black writers and small businesses, and buy Eloquent Rage at your local independent bookstore

you can’t always take the analytical position

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Normal People.  In a scene from Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Connell Waldron finds himself feeling out of place at a book reading he attends. While everyone around him is gushing about it, Connell finds himself displeased with the experience and questioning its purpose. He thinks: “Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.” Later, he gets home and reads notes for a story he wants to write and he feels an “old beat of pleasure”. He connects these pleasures to a variety of experiences: watching a perfect goal, hearing a bit of music from a passing car. Rooney writes: “Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”

Moments like these are essential to Normal People which, like Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends, perfectly captures the tension between the political and the emotional. In this moment, although Connell finds himself incapable of connecting literature to the uneven world in which he lives, he can still recognize beauty and joy in the world. Normal People is full of social and political questions: Rooney’s characters discuss class differences as they talk about their romantic relationships; they question their access to money and the appeal for of it, the way it can be both “corrupt and sexy”; they discuss the Greek financial crisis at parties. However, the novel does not reject feelings for politics. As much as it functions as social critique, it is equally, maybe more, concerned with the ways we express our feelings, the way we shape ourselves to please other people, the moments we stay silent due to uncertainty. These things define our lives primarily, and Rooney is suggesting that they function simultaneously with the social, political and economic events that also shape our lives. It’s Rooney’s capacity to capture the tension within this relationship that makes her novels so appealing to read.

“A History of the Influencer, From Shakespeare to Instagram.” What do you think of when your hear the word ‘influencer’? Do you think about girls with itty bitty waists and big butts hawking fitness teas? Do you imagine Instagram shots of young women in six different outfits with a caption that includes the ambiguous term ‘#ad’? Can an influencer be anyone else? Laurence Scott thinks so. In “A History of the Influencer, from Shakespeare to Instagram” Scott explores the way in which influence works in our modern age. He suggests that “the social-media influencer (re: girl with the fit tea) has an eerie double in the hacker who covertly shapes political discourse” in that they are both “flourish in our increasingly networked world”. Put simply, influencers and their influence are everywhere, and take many forms. Yet many of us, including myself, resist the idea that we are influenced. Scott argues that this resistance stems from a desire to  maintain a sense of self. To accept that we are influenced in a neoliberal society is to admit that “we are neither entirely self-determining nor self-contained.” In modern neoliberal society, our greatest fear is the subsumption the individual (and his interests) to the group. Accepting that as individuals we are influenced feels, for many of us, accepting a loss of self. Discussing Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Scott suggests that “to be influenced is to be dominated--to experience an eclipse of personality.” That sounds terrifying. Yet the insistence that the individual exist their own without the interference or influence of others has failed to contribute to a well-functioning society. Adam Smith’s views on capitalism have not worked out the way he thought they would.

Resisting outside forces leads people to have a limited perspective. Over the past few years, we have seen how harmful existing in an echo chamber of your beliefs can be. It seems imperative that we open ourselves up. Maybe not to fitness teas and fast fashion brands, but to other people. At the conclusion of his article, Scott claims that the challenge we must now undertake requires us to “negotiate the inherent inauthenticity and cynicism of an influence economy” while preserving “our ability to be occupied, and perhaps changed for the better, by the alien ideas of other people.” Recently, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m influenced. I’m influenced by everything I read, watch, or listen to. But I don’t feel like my sense of self has been eliminated. In fact, I’m more aware of who I am and who I want to be. That may just be the potential of influence.

”Lie to Me” - 5 Seconds of Summer ft. Julia Michaels. Listening to 5 Seconds of Summer reminds me of being sixteen and finding joy in the most simple things, like listening to a band’s entire discography 24 hours before going to their concert. When their second album came out last summer, I was excited to regain that feeling again. But, after just one listen I found myself addicted to “Youngblood” and not much else. Recently, after succumbing to the suggestions of Spotify, I put the song “Lie to Me” (featuring Julia Michaels) on a playlist and have been obsessed since. “Lie to Me” is not revolutionary—it’s a breakup song filled with regret—but it has all the elements of the greatest bops, from lyrics that feel relatable to music that makes you want to dance at the bus stop. Add it to your summer playlist and thank me later.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

It feels almost wrong to critique anyone’s memoir because it feels as if you’re saying, “your life wasn’t interesting enough; your life hasn’t entertained me” which not only feels a little crass but in instances such as Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is also far from true.

Unlike most memoirs, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays, many of which had been previously published. The beauty of an essay collection is that, on its own, an essay has to do a lot of work to impress itself on its reader; but putting a series of essays together demonstrates the way that life stories coalesce to make something beautiful. A collection like this shows how a series of seemingly insignificant moments are always more than what we originally believe them to be—we just need to take the time to think about it. In choosing to format his memoir in this way, Chee gives the reader the opportunity to find the threads that connect, to piece his life together—an exercise that he has also recently done.

Yet at times, the natural beauty of Chee’s chosen format feels undermined by what feels like the forced lessons that the reader is meant to get out of the essays. Chee loves a great metaphor, and throughout How to Write an Autobiographical Novel he uses many of them to get his point across. Sometimes this works beautifully—a exploration of Chee’s relationship to money that’s really about loss and familial relationships (“Inheritance”); a tale about starting a rose garden that’s a lesson in fierce resilience (“The Rosary”). But at times, these fall flat and stop the reader from having much faith in the lesson they’re supposed to learn.

Because of this, there were times when I found myself feeling disengaged and early on, I was ready to give up and move on. However, I continued and I’m grateful that I did. I found that the latter half of the collection was more engaging and essays like “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “Becoming an American Writer” were both touching and connective. Earlier essays such as “After Peter” and “The Writing Life” were also favourites because they felt genuine to the Alexander Chee that was revealed in the later essays.

Overall, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel feels like required reading for young writers, as both a reality check and a comfort. Nobody said being a writer was easy but Chee’s memoir shows that it can be worth it.

TROIS CHOSES: Dick Cheney, Book Goals, and Joni Mitchell

Have you ever spent much time thinking about Dick Cheney and what he did while he was vice president? If you’re anything like me (and I hope you are), you probably haven’t. Cheney has never really felt like a main character in the American political saga; more like the supporting character that’s a bit of a joke. But Adam McKay’s Vice changes all of that. The movie follows the former Vice President from his college days to his time as vice president to George W. Bush. It documents his early days as a drunken no-good bum, his eagerness to sink his teeth into the political game, and the lengths to which he was willing to go to gain power. Mixing in real footage and narration, the movie is bigger than Dick Cheney’s singular story. It’s a story about America; it’s a story about power; and it’s a story about what we accept in times of fear. What’s exciting about Vice, and what makes it one of the most important movies of 2018, is that although it’s a story about the past, it ties that past to our current moment, suggesting that America’s past is always relevant to its future. It references a variety of political players, young and less known at the time, who grew to gain access to large amounts of power, including former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia and current Vice President Mike Pence. In doing so, the film reminds its viewers that although Cheney may be a player from the past, the things he did, the actions he took are all precedent for what is going on in America right now. And the amount of power that Cheney was able to yield, despite the assumed boundaries of his position, act as a warning to what happens when we underestimate dangerous men. It reminds us that the attitudes and behaviors that made it possible for the American government to convince the American people to go to war with Iraq are the same that made Trump’s presidency possible. But as much as it is a dark warning, Vice is also expectionally enjoyable. It’s funny, hit you across the face type of watch, and the educational aspects aren’t all too bad. Plus the narrator is Landry from Friday Night Lights.

Sometime in 2018, I decided to embark on a Goodreads Reading Challenge and challenged myself to read 25 books by the end of the year. By December 31st, I had only read 23 books, two of those being for school and two were re-reads. Instead of feeling satisfied that I had read anything at all, I felt  disappointed. I started a new book on December 31st and for a moment I felt a pressure to finish it that very day, just to add one more book to the list. Which was completely silly. And to be quite  honest, up until earlier that week, I had completely forgotten that I had set myself that challenge. What was nice about it was that despite the constant reminder that I should be reading, I still found myself reading more this year than I have in recent years. However, I found myself taking more time with books and being more selective about my choices, which was important to me. Once upon a time, I used to force myself to read books that I wasn’t interested in, just to say I had read them. It made the task of reading less enjoyable and I felt motivated to do it less. That’s why I really enjoyed this recent article from The Cut, “Should I Stop Counting How Many Books I Read?” in which writer, Katie Heaney shares the same premonitions as me about setting reading goal. She discusses how the pressure to meet a goal can outweigh your reasons reason for setting a goal in the first place: finding time to do something you love. In the end, it’s not about ditching goals altogether or setting lower goals. She decides that setting a goal can be a good thing but it’s not the worst thing to not meet one either.

While I’ve loved Joni Mitchell’s Blue for many years, I can’t say that I’m familiar with a lot of her discography. I pretty much love every song of hers I’ve ever heard, so recently I decided I would start listening to more of her other albums. “The Fiddle and The Drum” was a surprise—a song that I had never heard before but was immediately enraptured by. It came on shuffle when I was walking home one night and suddenly the humming street began to sparkle with movie magic. The track is completely stripped down, letting Joni’s deep and rich voice sink right into your bones. It’s the song that plays at the end of a movie that doesn’t have a happy ending; it’s the moment when the car is driving away; the moment when we see all the characters for the last time just going about their daily activities. It’s the perfect song for any winter soundtrack—a little romantic and a little weary.

A Twitch upon the Thread

The most appealing factor about Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was that there was a film version starring Matthew Goode. For me, that’s as good a reason as any to pick up a hefty-ish tome about England in the interwar period.

I didn’t know what to expect of the novel—I knew it was a classic, and I knew that there was an important male relationship between the central protagonist and narrator, Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, a seductive yet elusive character. The novel is told from the perspective of Charles, who at the time of writing is serving in the British Army during World War II. On one morning, he and his troop arrive at Brideshead, the former home of the Flyte family; a site that holds many memories. The story moves through Charles’ life, from his years at Oxford and meeting Sebastian, to leaving England for Paris and becoming an artist. Throughout, the narrative pulls back to present-day Charles as he attempts to arrange and understand the events that led him to the current moment. Because of the retrospectiveness of the narration, memory plays an important role in the novel. At the beginning of Book Three, titled “A Twitch upon the Thread” Charles says of the stories he’s told and will tell: “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me”. In some ways, keeping these memories alive is a consuming task, yet to let go of them is to erase a large part of his life. In holding on to them, the past—and its dreams—never have to fade away.

The desire to hold onto the past is one that Ryder shares with interwar England at large. In the novel’s foreword, Waugh expresses his unhappiness with the novel and the language and speech of its characters. But he also sees it as extremely demonstrative of the types of attitudes that existed in England and therefore necessary in understanding the resistance of the older class. And while Waugh is critical of these attitudes—English traditionalism and its resistance to anything new—there is a certain sense of adoration for that period and those people that lived, hopelessly and happily, in it. The tension of being critical of something and loving it at the same time extends into the world of the novel as well. While the Flytes are devoted Catholics in various degrees, Charles often expresses his distaste for Catholicism, even getting into drawn out disagreements over the ridiculousness of it. And yet, throughout the novel he cannot help but be intrigued by the devotion of the Flytes. More poignantly, in one of the final moments of the novel, Charles finds himself giving over to the power of the religion, begging it to give him reason to believe. It’s a moment that is both surprising and beautiful.

Brideshead Revisited is not an easy novel to dive into. In fact, it took me 250 pages and 2 weeks to get interested and even longer to connect with the characters. However, it’s the complexities, the constant tension and the surprisingly revealing and delicate moments that make the slow burn worth it.

2018: A YEAR

The joy of discovering my personal brand

The joy of discovering my personal brand

In 2018 I:

I learnt:

  • the power of the podcast (and Oprah)

  • why I had so much academic anxiety

  • how to be ok with sitting still

  • how to disconnect

  • Toronto transit system

  • that faltering does not mean quitting

  • that growth isn’t something that stops and begins—it’s always happening

I listened to:

  • lots of Travis Scott and Ariana Grande

  • lots of podcasts including Girlboss Radio and Thirst Aid Kit

  • The songs on this playlist (and this one)

I watched (and loved):

  • Widows

  • Roma

  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (I’ve now seen it 8 times)

  • Frances Ha (rewatched because it will forever be a favourite)

  • Lady Bird

  • Bob’s Burgers (again and again)

  • Big Mouth

  • That’s Chic YouTube videos

** my complete 2018 watched list

I read (and loved):

** complete 2018 read list

What I’m looking forward to in 2019:

  • reading more books

  • Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

  • making more friends

  • growing more confident in my abilities

  • trying new things

  • finding balance in all things

  • more movies

TROIS CHOSES: APRIL

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Trois Choses is a monthly series highlighting three things I consumed each month that excited me or had an impact. 

UN: Jane the Virgin

I started watching Jane the Virgin after my friend, Sara, recommended it to me because we were talking about how I felt so stuck as a writer and that I was currently looking for a mentor and felt like I had little to offer. And Jane is a writer too. I had already been recommended the show a few times but never felt inclined to actually give it a try. At that point, everything felt really dull, my senses felt non-existent and I really needed to watch something that was fun and light-hearted, especially since the last thing I watched was  the very cold, very dark Fargo. SO I started watching and I fell in love. It’s almost embarrassing to admit this but I watched all four seasons this whole entire month. I fell in love with (almost) all the characters and was so invested. And it was also encouraging to me as a writer. I wouldn’t say it inspired me but it’s depiction of the writer’s journey and the ups and downs was very comforting in that I was reminded that there is no straight or easy way to being a writer. And one reminder that Jane always got was to BE BRAVE, which has accidentally become on of my affirmations for the rest of the year. An added bonus: Tyler Posey is in the 4th season and I literally grinned through every episode.

Deux: Startup, Season 2

I’ll basically read or watch (or listen to!) anything about starting a business, but often times the material can be more discouraging than encouraging. It focuses on mostly the positives and the ways in which the people who start businesses were built for it, whether they were selling lemonade at 6 or working at Subway and knowing that wasn't their path. Even their challenges felt overly positive and I found it hard to relate to that. That’s what makes Startup so special. Their goal is to give a direct look into the creation of business, the ups and downs, as they're happening. Sometimes it's cringey and uncomfortable, but ultimately it's really encouraging to see people have worries and concerns that I get because it makes me feel less alone, less of an anomaly. Even if starting a business is the last thing on your mind, it’s still a really good listen for anyone that has to work with other people. Season 2 is especially good because compared to Season 1, the drama and the struggle that come with starting a business with other people was off the charts. Season 2 followed Dating Ring, a matchmaking/dating service founded by Lauren Kay and Emma Tessler. It follows the duo through a positive start, losing a teammate and major fights. My favourite episode was the one where they go to visit the CEO Whisperer, which was such an enlightening thing to listen to. At the time of listening I was definitely feeling conflict in my working life, and this season gave me a lot of perspective on what I was dealing with.

Trois: "Every Goodbye Ain't Gone" by James Baldwin

"You drag your past with you everywhere, or it drags you."

This is one of those essays that I ended up reading by accident, but turned out to be exactly perfect for the moment. I feel like this whole month was full of happy accidents. So far 2018 has been pretty tumultuous for me and when I thought I was getting pretty settled in April, everything went topsy-turvy again. And this essay felt like such a comfort. A good essay for me has always been about finding a connection, not feeling alone in the world. And this essay was that and also explored that feeling. That moment when you can recognize that you're not alone, that you can explore and break away from you've known and still find your way back, or find the way to where you're supposed to be. 

The Days of Abandonment

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I'm not sure when I decided that I had to read an Elena Ferrante novel. I had been clued into the hype for a long time--EVERYBODY recommended her My Brilliant Friend series, but I didn't find myself falling for the hype. It was just another thing people loved to talk about just to talk about, like avocado toast or Snapchat filters. But then, Gabby Noone,nail polish influencer and my idol, mentioned that she had just finished the first book in the MBF series and all of a sudden I was like, all over that shit. I decided to read a book outside of the series, just incase I didn't love it and then I wouldn't feel obligated to finish the series. I grabbed Days of Abandonment when I went to the Strand (!!) which gives it an extra element of specialness.

The book took me longer to finish than expected; it's barely 200 pages but is so intense, the emotion so tangible that I had to take a break from it for a few days. The book is about a woman named Olga, whose husband one day declares that he's leaving her and is gone so quickly, I could barely close my mouth from the shock. The abandonment completely overtakes Olga and she is submerged in a haze of feelings she can't comprehend. She becomes disconnected from her body, her life, her children. and as she seeks to understand her husband's choices and her future without him, she falls deeper and deeper into abandonment. 

One of the most difficult parts of reading the book was that Olga's feelings were so intense, so raw, that the more she descended into abandonment, the more I felt as if I was losing grip with myself. There were moments when I want to grab Olga and shake her and scream at her; I felt like doing the same to myself. Ferrante writes as if she is laying everything bare and it's rare to experience such emotion in words. When I read the last page of Days of Abandonment I felt exhausted--like I'd been caught in some rapids and barely made it. That's how books should make you feel, isn't it?

Love is a 1000 Piece Puzzle

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I've never been in (romantic) love before but like any optimistic heroine in a Katherine Heigl-style romantic comedy, I am lovesick. I am intrigued by love--it's complexities, it's vulnerabilities, it's enigmatic nature. No matter what I learn about love, I still don't have it figured out. But after reading Rookie on Love, the newest book to come out of the RookieMag universe, I felt more excited about love than I had in a long time. What the book does particularly well is immediately establish that there is no one story about love. While that seems fairly obvious, it can be hard to believe when every movie about love (even the "indie" ones) follows the same formula and pattern, and rarely captures the nuance of the emotion. The writers in Rookie on Love are a diverse group of people with different experiences of love so the lessons that come out of their experience are varied. Because of this, I felt like I was being guided by 20+ older siblings all armed with a beautiful and relevant lesson to teach me. This is the magic of the book: it is both a guide and companion--it made me feel understood and cared for in a moment when I felt like pain was just pain, and life was hopeless. Essays like Danielle Henderson's "You First" reminded me of the importance of saying yes to myself (and my future and my happiness) as an act of self-love. In Gabourey Sidibe’s insightful and hilarious essay “Karma”, she writes about making mistakes in love and finding love that you deserve. The book is not about figuring out a definitive statement about love--it's about saying "I'm figuring it out" and being ok with that.