BIPOC Books: Our Weekly Reads
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Publisher: Viking Books, 2021
People like to say that love sees no colour, that love is blind. While that is true, this slow and steady tale of black love told through the eyes of a young Londoner teaches us that love is also about seeing. Our protagonist is a photographer, and it is no coincidence that Open Water is told in a Calvino-esque, immersive second-person narrative trained on the subject at hand. While their love is strong enough to withstand the slights of her jealous past lover and community taboos around stealing another brother’s girl, it struggles under the pressure of the excruciating martyrdom of being a black man in a white supremacist world that wants you dead. As the protagonist is ultimately reconciled to his love interest, who has now also picked up photography, the motif of seeing is finally turned on the black man who is rarely seen “as [he] is meant to be seen”. Despite its countless victims, like Stephen Lawrence and those of the New Cross Massacre, Britain loves to profess itself innocent of white supremacy and police brutality, quickly pointing an accusing finger at its wayward offspring across the pond. Open Water makes it clear that the difference, if any, lies solely in gun legislation.
After a tragic summer of black men not breathing, the title image of this love’s peaceful and painful open waters where the two “surface … only to plunge once more” becomes increasingly powerful with every appearance. This is a story of love – for black men, for black selves, for black life, for black art, for the black community, and for black love itself.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Publisher: Hot Key Books, 2020
Clap When You Land is a powerful story about loss, grief, family secrets and sisterhood. This novel is beautifully written in verse, and its lyrical strength provides a solid foundation for the heavy, albeit important, issues that are discussed. The protagonists, Camino and Yahaira, are bound together by grief and secrets but are separated by distance. The dual narrative provides a heartfelt insight into their lives as they deal with their father’s death and the news that they are sisters.
Camino lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic, but she arrives at the airport to the tragic news that her father’s plane has crashed. Meanwhile, in New York, Yahaira is called to the principal’s office and also hears that her father’s plane has crashed. Two girls who do not know the other existed are now being faced with life-changing news.
Acevedo brings attention to the heartbreaking crash of Flight AA587 from New York to the Dominican Republic in 2001. The story is a raw and poignant view of grief and the many forms it takes. It tackles a lot of current issues and provides an insight into Dominican culture. The novel is inspiring, and ideas of sisterhood and unity are what I have taken away from it.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2013
In Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan took it upon himself to describe the extreme wealth of these families, but the characters themselves lack depth. The descriptions of luxury and wealth quickly overwhelmed any plot or character building. Characterisations only went as far as cartoonish caricatures: the stern Asian mother, food-loving Singaporeans and rich, spoiled brats. The writing was erratic; the narrator would switch without warning, and flashbacks would occur out of nowhere.
Despite the attempts to include Singaporean culture through food and slang, the book did not show the intricacies of multicultural Singapore. Other ethnicities, such as South Asians and Malays, are not included, even though they are very much present in Singapore’s multicultural landscape. Instead, readers are given a westernised perspective of Singapore, along with many Asian stereotypes thrown into the mix. This idea is further discussed in this article. Of course, books can be just for mindless entertainment, without the burden of representation. However, after being put in the spotlight for being diverse and representative, both the movie and the book cannot escape these criticisms.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
At its heart, Such a Fun Age is a story about mistakes, money, and misconceptions.
After being apprehended at a supermarket whilst babysitting her white employer’s child, Emira, a young black woman, embarks on a transformative journey that will shape her and her employer’s lives forever.
Written in the first-person, each chapter alternates between the narrative voice of Emira Tucker and Alix Chamberlain. We are tossed between two drastically different lifestyles: one where Emira worries about upholding two jobs just to pay rent, and Alix worries about expensive gifts, social media followers, and working on the Clinton campaign. The differences between Emira and Alix are palpable.
Such a Fun Age discusses many important topics: love, class, privilege and race in the 21st century. Illustrating modern-day gender politics as it intersects with race, Kiley Reid shapes a powerful narrative that is both entertaining, heartbreaking, and necessary. The struggle for her characters to understand one another and their role in society is effective in placing our own internal biases under scrutiny and challenging us to do better.
Both light-hearted and hard-hitting, Kiley Reid’s debut novel is one that will resonate as I navigate spaces in society that are not meant for people like me.