I just finished reading two of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Both are classic coming-of-age stories, and both just slugged me in the gut. These are the kind of writers that make you grateful to be able to read, that make reading an all-sensory experience that doesn’t leave you for days.
In Leaving Atlanta, Tayari Jones writes from the perspective of three children living in Atlanta during the period of the Atlanta child murders. I found her portrayal of childhood, particularly the social aspects of elementary school, vivid and unromantic and painful and wonderful. Her portrayal of mothers, of poverty that doesn’t recognize itself, of bourgeois aspirations and costs, of the price we pay as humans in a fucked-up society….it’s just brilliant, and I can’t recommend it more highly. Jones also writes a blog (with a beautiful page design), but I don’t really want to read it right now, because I’m still carrying her characters in my head.
I loved Montserrat Fontes’ Dream of the Centaurs, and it’s the one Chicano novel I was able to give to my techie/bourgie brother that we both loved. It’s an amazing historical novel that absolutely entertains at the same time that it informs about Mexico’s ugly slave history in the henna plantations of the Yucatan peninsula under Porfirio Diaz. So I was thrilled to hear that she had an earlier novel, First Confession, published in 1992. I love reading an earlier title by an author I already respect – it’s fun to see the development of their style and talent in retrospect, to see more rough edges.
Like Jones’ novel, Fontes writes in the voice of a young girl, this time growing up on the Mexican side of the border in a relatively privileged family. It’s also a harsh and unromantic portrayal of childhood and a young girl’s coming into maturity. It feels autobiographical because the author is painfully honest and even judgemental about her protagonist. The portrayal pays off because it’s precisely the rupture of this childish egocentricity that marks her emergence as a young adult by the novel’s end. I can’t praise it enough. She brought to mind for me my sense of loss and shame for my mother’s father, who died at the age of 62 when I was only a preteen. I remember him largely in selfish, childish terms–he took us to fairs, bought us ice cream, always took us on walks. I will always regret that he didn’t live long enough for me to appreciate him in a more mature sense. And I will never understand why people insist on actively forgetting the selfishness and cruelty that is also a part of childhood.
Both novels brought to mind a second theme for me as well. The final mother-daughter scene in Leaving Atlanta choked me up completely, and made me think about how many people-of-color-written novels I’ve read that talk about separation. Written by brilliant people who portray some cost, some separation from home, a sense of home, a sense of self, in order to achieve in American society. The cost of “success” is particularly high for poc… still thinking about this.
Finally, two more new texts to write about soon: Angie Chabram-Dernersesian’s new edited collection, The Chicana/o Cultural Studies Reader, and Demetria Martinez’ latest, Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana.