African-American

Let’s Discuss — Self-Inflicted Wounds by Aisha Tyler

self-inflicted wound (n): a spectacularly humiliating, and often hilarious, incident entirely of one’s own making.
see also: you did it to yourself.

Let me preface this discussion by saying I don’t read very much non-fiction. Well…I haven’t since college wherein most of what I read for four years was non-fiction stuff. Often dry, very boring, comprehensive and lengthy things sometimes related to my academic and/or professional interests–many times not. But I still think it’s important to ground yourself from whatever cloud your fiction books might place you upon and read something a little different…or at least in theory that’s how I feel. I do read a lot of news and policy magazines for fun …anyways, like I was saying, I haven’t read a lot of non-fiction of any reputable length or of any serious topic in quite a while*. So to ease back into it, I thought I would start with something light and entertaining: Aisha Tyler’s Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation.

I can admit, I have a mild obsession with Aisha Tyler. Nothing crazy. I admire her success and I feel we have a lot in common (not the success per se, but gender, height, melanin content) Also she’s a gamer and doesn’t take herself too seriously and she seems pretty cool. So I figure hey, why not read her book. In a nutshell, Tyler has compiled a variety of thirty or so very embarrassing and humiliating short stories from her childhood to adulthood; and from what I understand are actually real incidents, give or take a few name changes and vague details. Honestly, some of them are very embarrassing and funny. Others are kind of blah, but that’s to be expected. Not every story is going to possess the same shock value. Some stories are relatable. For example, The Time I Cut Myself In Half, The Time I Almost Set Myself on Fire or The Bunny Fiasco. I can relate in some twisted way to all three–Do you know how many baby birds I tried to save from the circle of life as a child? And I too have a scar that oddly splits my chest in half. I’ve pondered its’ origins for years and still don’t know why it’s there–Tyler’s story poses a good possibility, haha. Or like that one time I decided to place my entire left hand on the face of an iron, which I knew could very well be hotter than Hades…I was nine (that’s my excuse) Good thing I’m right-handed. And yes my lovely mother made me go to school, burns and all. Lesson learned. And that’s kind of the point of all Tyler’s outrageous tales. They all point to a lesson**, or lead to an inspirational “dust yourself off and try again” message.

But even for the stories I didn’t relate to as much, like The Time I Killed a Hobo or The Time I Created My First Sketch Character , I never for a second doubted her sincerity. As a reader I had to accept there are some stories that no matter how many times or ways you tell them, you just had to be there. And sometimes it’s damn near impossible to get into the author’s head. like withThe Time I Fell Asleep on the Patio Furniture at a Birthday Party.  I’m still blank-faced at that one.

Life is short, and no one gives a shit about your problems. Get up, get out there, and as the kids say, get to grinding. Do that hundredth set, and then do the hundred-and first. And then do one hundred more. You’re just getting started (159)

Self-Inflicted Wounds is a super fun and quick read. Here are some things to consider while reading it:

  • Aisha Tyler writes exactly how she speaks. Exactly. No ghost writing here.
  • Don’t feel obligated to read every single footnote. Sometimes it ruins the flow of already short stories. If you read something funny or even not that funny, then think something very childish or dirty about it, and see a superscript–Tyler beat you to it. No need to read the footnote.
  • Don’t read more than four or five stories per sitting. They will probably lose their essence if you read more. Although everyone’s different.
  • Don’t go into this thinking you’ll be on the floor, in tears laughing, spitting your coffee on your lap, cackling out loud. Just don’t. Way to set yourself up for a disappointment.
  • Enjoy each tongue-in-cheek story with a half a grain of salt.
  • Allow yourself to make connections to her stories–think about all the stupid things you’ve done, or embarrassing things that have happened and laugh. Smiling is okay too. I smiled a lot while reading this.

* Last non-fiction I read was The Devil in the White City. Before that–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

** Debatable. There’s the occasional disconnect between the buildup in the story and then the takeaway for the reader and resolution posed by Tyler.

Let’s Discuss — Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

He would have to teach her, instruct her quickly and begin using her at once. He wanted as many children as he could get from her before it became necessary to kill her. Wild seed always had to be destroyed eventually. It could never conform as children born among his people conformed (85) 

So…after reading this book I have questions.

Who is Anyanwu exactly?

Is she an immortal demigod? A “strong, black woman”?*

What are her values? How does she make her decisions? And why does she let the things that happen to her in this story come to pass?

A week ago I jokingly said this reflection would be a series of questions, but now that I’m writing it, I realize I was only half-joking. I do have many questions. And I have many questions because there were many inconsistencies in this book.

I’ll focus briefly on Doro and Anyanwu’s relationship**.

Doro is a jerk***. Point blank. One day he swings by Anyanwu’s place, picks her up, promises her some things, she goes willingly, and then Doro reneges on those promises. Sound familiar? Well this doesn’t just happen once or twice. It happens all the time, over what?—two hundred years?! C’mon…

Seriously. I understand Doro is powerful and controlling and manipulative. However, Anyanwu is powerful in her own right. She and Doro are equals in my mind. But where they are uneven are their motivations.

Doro wants to build a race of immortal and unique beings just like him. To do this, he initiates selective breeding of groups of people across the globe and over generations. With this goal he handpicks Anyanwu, but she is “wild seed.” Or in Doro’s mind, she cannot be controlled…easily. But I beg to differ, he controls Anyanwu quite easily. Too easily. He threatens her children and her children’s children. And her children’s children’s children. So Anyanwu, being the mother she is, does what he tells her. For someone with her strength and life experience it was confusing and downright disappointing to read of Anyanwu’s abuse.

But back to this talk of motivations. I tried to take myself out of it and understand. I don’t need to relate with a character to enjoy a book, I just need to understand why they do the things they do. And for the life of me, I couldn’t make sense of her decisions. She didn’t want to procreate with her husband’s son, but she did it anyways. She didn’t want to share her husband with other women, but she did it anyways. She didn’t want to believe Doro, but she did anyways. If Anyanwu was that committed to her community and her children why didn’t she try to eliminate Doro? If Anyanwu truly hated Doro (and she did, the book made this very clear from beginning to end) why have his children? Why show him love, or lust, or humanity? If Anyanwu found solace and freedom living among the animals as an animal (i.e. dolphins) why not remain as one? Why participate in systematic breeding and culling?

I wasn’t looking for a happy ending, or a textbook heroine. I just needed things to be interesting and to make sense. In the right context, “wild seed” might imply an inability to be tamed, or some degree of unpredictability. It might also reference a different or unknown gene pool. But Anyanwu was more like a dandelion seed, going wherever the wind takes it.

*I didn’t have this image in my mind as I read, however, I was constantly wondering when Anyanwu would become a dynamic character–when she would show character development and maybe become said image or not.

** I have another interpretation where Doro and Anyanwu’s relationship is a twist on Adam and Eve…but that’s another conversation for another day.

***Even Doro’s character had inconsistencies. Ex: When he sleeps with Anyanwu’s daughter — way too self-serving, even for Doro. Ex: When he’s begging Anyanwu to live and bargaining his terms of future breeding and enslavement with Anyanwu (like what?!)

Let’s Discuss — Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Fever make you weak at first, tired and confused. That be the disease eating up your red blood cells. Then it make it so you can’t sleep and you start seeing things. Crazy things. And skin that be black or brown or white all turn the same color–chalky yellow. that be your blood failing and your liver giving up […] Your lips crack, your mind go, and you start seeing more things that ain’t there, knowing they coming to get you (21)

For me, successful speculative fiction, specifically, books dubbed as “dystopian” need to have a healthy combination of political and philosophical undertones, and a unique source of conflict. They don’t need to happen during a specific time period. They don’t need to take place in a certain setting. (Although, innovative scenery is almost always appreciated) They just require politics + philosophy + conflict.  I relate this back to my canon of favorite speculative novels, which have not been apolitical or lacking philosophical development, or haven’t taken place on some distant planet. So where am I going with this?

I finished reading Orleans. It follows the journey of Fen de la guerre, resident of Orleans (formally New Orleans), which has been decimated by hurricanes and Delta fever. Almost every state connected to the Mississippi Delta has been abandoned by the United States’ Government, and everyone in them left to fend for themselves. The protagonist, Fen, ends up without her blood tribe, protecting a newborn child and ushering an outsider around the deadly swamps and bayous of Orleans.

While reading, I was impressed by the world-building. New Orleans has been transformed into third-world circumstance and is environmentally unstable for its inhabitants. Barter is currency, blood tribe is family and promise is just that. Established speculative fiction titles have a tendency to rely on Anglo-parallel worlds as found in High Fantasy, or futuristic space, found in hard Science Fiction. With Orleans the reader has a chance to experience something different; the parasitic and hypnotic ruins of the Delta.

When he enter me, it be through the skin. First a swift wipe of a cold cotton pad, then a needle, sharp and hot, into the biggest vein of my right arm. I cry out, but don’t dare move ‘less the needle tear me even more. He be sweating as he pierce my arm, the soft mound of vein inside my right elbow. He stroke my legs as the blood flows out of my body into the waiting bags. So red, like rubies in the firelight. He take from me until I faint (96)

So here we have an innovative setting, but as mentioned above, that is not a requirement for a successful Dystopian.  What I found very interesting about this novel is despite the source of conflict, it was oddly apolitical. Other than the government abandonment, there was no in-depth power struggle. Yes, blood tribes feud, but the reader gets the feeling these clashes are the norm. Where is the tension and build up between each faction? Who has the power?  At one point there’s the introduction of a potentially devastating element, that if placed in the wrong hands could change the future of the Delta forever, but (and this is a huge “but”) nothing happens with it. On another level, it was odd to me that political undertones concerning race and class were briefly touched upon. An entire portion of the South, which contained a significant number brown people, was basically left for dead– Let’s talk about that? No? Okay, then.

And then there’s some confusion (maybe only on my part) about personal philosophies of central characters, Fen and Daniel. And I’ll be honest I’m a little hesitant to bring up philosophy in a Young Adult storyline, but when you write Dystopian , I strongly believe solid commentary on existence or values or knowledge should be included. With that said, I found Fen and Daniel’s perspectives to be very one-dimensional in this regard. We know Fen wants to save Baby Girl. And? We know Daniel might be able to conjure up a cure for Delta Fever. And? The ABs have guns now. And? Fen cuts off her hair. And? These things happen but there is no true gravity behind the decisions or actions. They just happen…

I don’t want to seem like I hated this book because I didn’t. It had some really good elements. Specifically, the hematological ones: blood tribes and hunters.  Very cool. Hypothetically speaking, if my immediate family lived in Orleans, we would be split into different tribes and forced to barter for basic necessities. Good thing we live in the mid-Atlantic.  I just feel there was so much unrealized potential in this storyline. I also don’t think it was a successful dystopian. It can be argued Orleans is more of Southern Gothic set in the future, than Speculative or Dystopian.