My first recommendation for '07 is Eisa Nefertari Ulen's debut novel Crystelle Mourning (Simon & Schuster). Eisa is a journalist and an English professor at Hunter College in Manhattan. Let's try to avoid the "literary fiction" moniker because that seems to be a death sentence in this era of hyper marketed "urban/thug/hooker" novels. But Crystelle Mourning is indeed a story rooted in "urban" mould. Eisa recently explained her approach and the novel's general themes:
"It’s not a story about that particular girl, it’s a story about
all the nameless, countless, girls and women who watched, powerless, as the boys
and men they loved most “got shot up or locked up or somethin.” How were their
bodies responding to this destruction of Black male flesh? How were their souls?
I was teaching elementary school in Baltimore in the very earliest 1990s, and I
would often have to stop class because one of the kids born addicted to crack
had taken asthma medication that morning and was, literally, climbing the walls.
“Go get the nearest male!” I’d tell the nearest child as I futilely tried to
physically restrain the power of the nearest crack baby-- now age 9, with an
almost man-like power. One of my students went to five funerals – all her
cousins, all male, all teens – in one school year. She still managed to get low
Bs. How did she? How did her mother remain so resilient and strong? What of the
women who weren’t so strong? Were those many funerals connected to the long bout with pneumonia my student suffered that same year?"
--see ToyariJones.com and see also National Public Radio (interview by Ferai Chideya)
Yours Truly can attest, fanboys and girls. One day Eisa invited me to speak to her class in my former life as a lawyer in Bo'mo' City. That was around 1991 or thereabouts. Day-um...seems like a million years ago but I still recall the experience in vivid detail. So much promise and pain in the eyes of these little kids. Of course, I saw a different species of pain and of promise manifesting--depending on whether I looked into the eyes of a little black boy or a little black girl.
The main character in the novel, Crystelle, is haunted by this promise-pain duality; her life is steered by that other overarching duality many African Americans juggle. That is--what is it to be black, yet educated/upper middle class? Worse, what is it to have been poor, or grown up in "the hood" and then left all that behind for the middle class? Crystelle's haunted by a boy, Jimmie, she loved in a from where she physically separated/escaped/abandoned, e.g., the mean streets of West Philly. Now she's a NYC buppie. Now she's engaged to a bougie professional brotha. Now she's an ad agency wog. Now she's dealing with that level of duality as well:
"Timelessness shifted places with now as soon as Crystelle opened her eyes. So when her lids drifted down, all she could see was the office where she sat and tried to sell hot chemicals for Black women to pour over their hair. Relaxers. She needed to get ready to go to work. She pulled the covers over her head. She had to go to work. Now she could see the pile of old ad copy on her drafting table. That campaign was over, but a new one would be starting soon. She would have to meet with clients early next week. She would have to do some research, come up with new ideas. What should the model say while she rolls her neck to sell the stuff that straightened hair like hers?"
I will dispense with the usual cliches written in reviews of such novels, i.e. "lyrical and intelligent." Those are baselines when it comes to Eisa's work. Nuff said.
There's another reason you should buy and read this, and recommend it to your bookclub. I'm tired of listening to you women (yes I'm calling you out, Baisden style) whine and cackle about how much you want "better" fiction for your bookclubs, yet you consistently throw up your hands and pick the latest churchlady stuff or skank memoir. We want folk like Malaika Adero at S & S/Atria to publish more books like Crystelle, right?