“Cinderella Is Dead” Offers an Engrossing Twist on the Classic Fairytale

"Cinderella Is Dead" Offers an Engrossing Twist on the Classic Fairytale

Two hundred years after Cinderella found her Prince Charming, the girls of the city of Lille in the kingdom of Mersailles are now required to attend an annual ball to find princes of their own.

Those who are not chosen or who refuse to attend face consequences, while those who do attend risk being paired with a husband who will mistreat them. In the midst of all this is Sophia, a sixteen-year-old girl who is in love with her best friend, Erin. When Sophia decides to flee the ball and hide in Cinderella’s mausoleum, she discovers that there is more to Cinderella’s story than she has been taught.

One of the most intriguing things about Cinderella Is Dead is the world-building. By setting the story in a post-Cinderella world, author Kailynn Bayron shows us the legacy of Cinderella’s story, her descendants, and those who were around her. Since Cinderella’s story is held up as an ideal, the women of Mersailles are expected to marry young in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Men aren’t bound to this and are heralded as princes and knights in shining armor regardless of how they act toward women. Those with rich families in positions of power can give their daughters an advantage at the annual ball that the less privileged don’t have. Not to mention, being straight is expected of both men and women.

Yet next to no one notices how things are wrong in Mersailles. They see only the glamor of Cinderella’s story—or they are too afraid to fight those in positions of power. One bit of spoken dialogue goes something like, “By repeating a lie often enough, people believe it to be true.” Since Cinderella’s story is held up to be as sacred as religion, it is impossible for many to question it. In fact, the only people who end up questioning it are those who don’t fit the expectations of heteronormativity or submissiveness.

With a complex world comes a complex cast of characters—another strength of the book. It is particularly notable that nearly all of the characters are Black or mixed race Black, resulting in a narrative where race isn’t an issue. Almost all of the characters also have some degree of marginalization: protagonist Sophia is a lesbian, and secondary character Luke is gay but also, as a young man, someone who isn’t required to attend each ball. There are also characters who serve as a twist or extension of established characters, such as the prince, the fairy godmother, and the evil stepsister. Of the upended or legacy characters, the prince and the “evil” stepsister end up being the most interesting and creative.

Protagonist Sophia is someone who wants to make a change and fight social expectations but isn’t sure how to go about it. Due to living in a city with unrealistic expectations of women, Sophia is also unsure of her true potential. It doesn’t help that Sophia’s first love interest, Erin, is too scared to upend the rules of Lille to believe in or help Sophia. Thankfully, Sophia finds Constance, the last living descendant of Cinderella’s family, to help her form a plan to defeat King Manford. Constance is a little impulsive and brash, but she also is also a tender love interest and a thoughtful teacher. Constance telling Sophia some of the truth about Cinderella’s story and teaching Sophia how to use a dagger are some of the best scenes in this book.

The novel’s dialogue is another strong point that enhances its depiction of the characters’ emotions. One memorable conversation happens between Luke and Sophia when Luke dispassionately says, “People who don’t fit nicely into boxes the kings of Mersailles have defined are erased, as if our lives don’t matter. Have you ever heard of a man marrying another man? A woman being in love with another woman? Of people who find their hearts lie somewhere in the middle or neither?” To which Sophia bitterly replies, “Only as a cautionary tale.” This dialogue is reminiscent of how real queer people such as Oscar Wilde and Ma Rainey were criminalized for their orientation and sexual activities.

The budding romance between Sophia and Constance depicts how queerness is marginalized both in this novel and in real life, and it is endearing to read. Sophia initially admires Constance’s beauty and physical features and then begins to find it hard to concentrate or hold things whenever Constance touches her or is nearby. Meanwhile, Constance is keenly aware of Sophia’s budding feelings, and her initial flirting is amusing to watch. Sophia’s and Constance’s honest thoughts about their feelings about each other are especially sweet. I particularly liked when Sophia is admiring Constance and thinks, “Under the glinting moon, her hair is like a smoldering ember, her face so much like the splendor of the stars in the sky above us.”

All in all, Cinderella Is Dead is a dark, engrossing take on the Cinderella fairytale that challenges the reader to consider their role and the stories and history they have been taught to believe. It empowers queer women while also showing how queer and straight women can become a part of an oppressive system—and how men can become too entitled and privileged in this system, even as they are also marginalized. With a compelling cast of characters, magical dialogue, and creative twists, Cinderella Is Dead brings new life to a classic fairytale.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

On Small and Unusual Spaces

On Small and Unusual Spaces

 

by Valarie Frost

Place has always been a complicated topic for me to grasp; to hold still in the palm of my hand.

 

To paraphrase the big moves in my life: I was adopted from China when I was one year old, raised in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, toured the country as a teenager, and currently reside on the East Coast. Like a horizonless kaleidoscope that transforms endlessly in the light of every slight angle, unusual spaces are the conceptual nodes of a life perceived in remnants. As I write and compile an anthology of sorts about the tiny spaces I’ve inhabited physically, and emotionally from afar, the notion of place morphs into something inconceivably intangible, riddled with the what-ifs of my yesteryears. In spaces where circumstance and spontaneity intersect, the room to vastly dissect notions of self is created.

Small spaces define us because they allow us to reorient ourselves in a reality defined by the fixed settings we’re born into. They brush the tips of our noses, scrape our knees, and we jam our heads into a child’s tactile realm. Defined as we are by the nooks within our larger sense of presence, the composition of our environment dwindles, and we realize that composition itself is indivisible from our situational locus. The center of these small spaces, the gooey impalement in our sternum, is all we have in the long run. To investigate and write about the chimera that are these tiny spaces of emotional heat is to write about the times in between that bridge the present and past; trail markers of our identity. They create us. As someone who’s spent a decent amount of time traveling in these in-between zones, tethered in the liminality of my personal collection of tiny and unusual spaces, I’ve come to learn that spaces are what we take with us after the fact. Small spaces serve as plot points for us to retrace. They’re these ethereal reference points that allow us to lay out ourselves like a character out of a novel.

I used to believe that escaping physically from a place could also release you emotionally—that location alone could ripen the eye and honey the world. But distance only temporarily files down familiarity with the freshness of an unblemished sight. Regardless of where we are, we tend to seek out the same functions of comfort, whether that be the type of crowd we attract or the items we accumulate over time. It makes me think about great writers like the Bronte sisters or Thoreau, who barely traveled far yet still managed to capture the essence of the human condition. Their work interrogates the necessity of excessive travel, but in many ways our civilization today is anchored differently than that of previous decades. Instead of solitude as a choice or purely a condition, solitude has become a form of escapism—the dream we chase after and the chase we dream of.

From Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts, and the unavoidable places in between, travel has always carried an air of distinguishment. The idea of getting a fresh start when you change location is part of an allegory I fell for. With my collection of friend groups, town squares, and signals of a sunny day, I watch closely as they evolve in parallel spaces and often see them develop past myself. I am attentive as time goes on and as I stop to look back. The places I’ve been become alternate timelines of sorts; evidence of what could’ve been. Places move on without you, without permission, but spaces solidify your experience of a place, the space you choose to inhabit or choose to acknowledge or choose to identify with. I’ve become infatuated with tiny and unusual spaces because although they are engrained in the physical world, the value of solitude is all in our heads.

My sense of place was impacted a handful of years ago when my family sold my childhood home and moved out of state. My experience influences my piece particularly heavily because it was a tear in my sense of belonging and broke the bordered shelter that is home. On my last night in town, I was driving home, and I decided to do one last round to all the places that were meaningful to me that I knew I wouldn’t get to see again for the foreseeable future—

The wall of brick behind the high school where I’d pace on overcast days.

The wooded path of dead pines next to the old house.

The bog where I found a dead squirrel.

The nature park railroad only to be navigated at dusk.

The neighborhood tennis court where I gave someone a black eye.

The greenspace that fueled the children with endless dandelions.

The dusty base beneath the acorn tree where all the outcasts went to play.

The panel of cement where I pulled a three-inch-long splinter out of my foot.

The chilled garage step where I told my Mom I was leaving.

The patch of hallway where I built a trebuchet using floss.

The back deck where I dyed my dog hot pink.

The carpeted corner where I hid from my future.

The space underneath my desk where I stored jars of peanut butter.

The shelf of my headboard that hid my embarrassment.

The wooden stage I performed on with my sister when we were close.

The pillow we declared was only to laugh into at night.

The skylight in ‘Grandma’s bedroom’ that attracted soggy leaves and pale light.

The nerdy inside jokes that lined my mouth.

The back of the closet where I hid just to see if I could disappear.

The sitting branch where I engraved my sister’s and my names into the bark.

The yellow of a blazing day that crisped up the grass beneath my step.

The enormous oak tree that watched over us all.

My essay on tiny and unusual spaces began as an homage to these places and my determination for them not to be forgotten. Small spaces as they were and as we remember them are what we have to move forward with. They’re what we bring along with us. They are coveted planes that remind us of ourselves while allowing us to hide from the dexterity and daedal nature of our situation. While writing on this subject, I came across the word to hide frequently, and, unsurprisingly, I believe this is because isolation is so entangled with escapism. To escape is a luxury, and since we don’t always have the opportunity to run away, tiny spaces aid us in creating emotional bubbles where we can mentally detach from our everyday. Those are the kinds of memories that can resonate with us for a lifetime. Some of them, the ones I look back on often, even escape words. Their familiarity as a pocket of my reminiscence alone surpasses the value of the vision itself—the act of recollection becomes more sacred than what’s recalled. Those are the ones we love, the ones we return to in grim times, the ones that remind us of something we once were caught by. As a writer with this particular focus, to capture these instances is my mission. To let others into our enigmas and to provide reprieve embodies our ability to sympathize and to be understood.

Other spaces offer themselves to us more coyly, in which they only appear to us attached to other flashbacks. They demand us to scan our memory and to pluck out the blooms worth remembering. Only the finest, greenest, thoughts; almost as if we can fool ourselves into thinking that’s what the whole world is like. But when we begin to interrogate ourselves and to look forward in match time, we inherently look back at what we know, which comes in the form of these smaller-than-bite-sized crumbs of an internal space, of the actions we’ve already dotted, and of the experiences whose wholeness has come and gone. Within these small spaces that we recall and the more acute spaces that encompass our recollection of sentience, our lives are stitched together, and we begin to piece together an identity of our life lived.

Vala

About the Maker

 

From Beaverton, Oregon, Valarie Frost (she/her) is a non-fiction writer currently residing in Boston, Massachussetts. Her work centers around the environments we inhabit and the nuances of our perceived identities. She gained a degree in English specializing in Creative Writing from Simmons University and continues to write for local publications.

Akin to many writers, her relationship with writing stems from its ability to heal and to navigate the past. In blurring genre lines, she sees memory as an ever-morphing figure that changes with each recollection. She believes that through the kaleidoscope of reflection, writing can mirror those reflections into the future and provide insight into framing the consequences of our being. In her free time she’s an avid hiker, bicyclist, aspiring climber, and strategist.

Photo by Vlado Paunovic from Pexels.

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

Pride Spotlight: Black Queer YA

Pride Month Spotlight: Black Queer YA

June is Pride Month. With the pandemic still affecting the economic situation of LGBTQ people and current legislation negatively affecting trans youth, it may seem we don’t have much to celebrate.

Yet the fact that we continue to survive, fight, and triumph in small and large ways is worth being happy about. One of the most notable things is the rise of Black LGBTQ+ authors in young adult fiction.

A decade ago, the only Black queer author I knew of who wrote teen fiction was Jacqueline Woodson. Now I can name at least a dozen authors. From verse novels to fantasy, Black LGBTQ+ authors have been leaving a colorful mark for a new generation to see. Check out some of the Black queer YA books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

The Black VeinsThe Black Veins book cover by Ashia Monet

Nothing says summer like a road trip, even a world-saving one. This is what happens to Blythe Fulton, a Black bisexual Elemental Guardian, after her family is kidnapped and taken to the Trident Republic. Of course, she can’t rescue her family on her own, so she must recruit other Elemental Guardians to help her.

In addition to the magic and action, I really enjoyed the downtime the characters experience in this book. The friendship is so fun and heartwarming, especially because there is some flirting but no romance whatsoever.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Not only is this book set during Pride Month in NYC, but it is also about a Black trans demi boy learning to have pride in himself. After his pre-transition photos are leaked, Felix Love must find the culprit while reexamining who he is and the kind of love he wants from others.

Felix’s personal journey is poignant because it shows that one’s gender identity isn’t necessarily set in stone after coming out. Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of standing up for who you are, even if it means having hard conversations with friends and family.

The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

Spending summer working in a bookstore may seem like a lot of fun, especially when it’s a safe space. But what if the bookstore is in danger of closing? Eighteen-year-old Wesley Hudson deals with this with the used bookstore Once Upon a Page. Not to mention, he is struggling to plan his older brother’s wedding, figure out his future plans, and confess his crush on his best friend, Nico Alvarez.

All of these things are a part of something that Wesley has been avoiding: adulthood. As Wesley deals with a lot over the course of the novel, he manages to figure out what is most important to him with the help of a colorful cast of characters.

Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann

Being in college is difficult, especially when your girlfriend breaks up with you for being asexual. On top of that, Alice is also trying to figure out her career path. Things become even more complicated when she ends up with a crush on her new library co-worker Takumi. What’s a Black biromantic girl to do?

This book lives up to its title as Alice figures out what she loves to do in order to identify her future career and redefine what love means, both romantically and in terms of friendship. Not only does this book show how complex love can be, it also shows that it’s worth discussing and exploring with others.

Magnifique Noir by Briana Lawrence

College-aged everyday young women by day. Magical girls by night (and sometimes day too). This is the basic premise of Magnifique Noir, a book series about a Black queer team of magical girls. The first book in the series focuses on gamer girl Bree Danvers and boxer Lonnie Knox as they take their first steps as magical girls alongside baker Marianna Jacobs, who is the most experienced of the three.

The second book copes with the aftermath of the first and demonstrates the importance of mental health and taking care of yourself. Both feature short comics and colorful art that enhance the narrative and give the sparkly antics extra shine. They also tackle certain experiences in a mature manner, such as misogynoir, difficult parents, and online trolls.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

My favorite definition of poetry is “imagination written in verse.” When this definition is applied to verse that tries to define the poet’s self, the verses themselves become a source of power. This is the case with The Black Flamingo, which tells the story of Michael Angelis, a Black British gay man with Greek-Jamaican heritage.

Through performance and verse, Michael blossoms beautifully as we read his story from childhood to burgeoning young adulthood. By using a flamingo as a metaphor to figure himself out, Michael learns to stand out and be proud.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

 

“Every Body Looking” Dances with Verse and Self-Expression

“Every Body Looking” Dances with Verse and Self-Expression

Candice IIoh’s verse novel Every Body Looking begins with Nigerian American teen Ada graduating high school and taking account of how she wants her upcoming college experience to be.

Raised by a strict, religious Christian father and separated from her alcohol-addicted mother, Ada wants to take her life into her own hands but isn’t sure how to go about it. Due to past trauma and her shaky upbringing, she is so focused on other people’s expectations of her that she hasn’t really considered what she wants for herself.

One of the best things this book does to illustrate Ada’s personal journey is include poems that present the standard definition of a word before Ada expresses her own feelings about it. An early example uses the word “safety,” showing how the standard definition of the word applies to the definition of safety that Ada’s dad wants for her as she prepares to go to college. It’s a creative way for Ada to literally define herself by examining what she has been told in order to figure out what she really wants for herself.

Another way the book delves into Ada’s personal journey is through flashbacks to her younger years. Some of these flashbacks are vulnerable and harrowing, since they deal with how people inside and outside of Ada’s family made her feel like her body wasn’t her own. In one painful scene, Ada’s aunt comes to visit and ends up fat shaming Ada and reading her private diary. Another scene shows the police coming to Ada’s door when she is home alone blasting loud music. Although these flashbacks might be triggering to trauma survivors, Ada’s experiences of fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse show just how many systemic forces work to destroy Black girls’ sense of self.

Although these flashbacks might be triggering to trauma survivors, Ada’s experiences of fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse show just how many systemic forces work to destroy Black girls’ sense of self.

At the same time, these flashbacks also show glimpses of a young Black girl with dreams of wanting to dance like no one is watching. One prominent image throughout the book is young Ada drawing a Black girl dancing, who she names “Magic.” Ava’s passion for dance is shown when she remembers being awed by church dancers during a service and how she worked jobs to pay for dance lessons without telling her Dad. The image of the “magic” Black girl dancing is strong because it represents Ava’s hopes and dreams for herself.

It is these dreams that allow the reader to root for Ada as she takes the first steps toward achieving them during her freshman year of college. Like anyone at that age, Ada does make a few mistakes. She settles for a Black guy named Derek who only cares about sex because she doesn’t know she can do better. She takes an accounting course she hates because her dad wants her to. These mistakes are part of Ada’s exploration of her sexuality and her personal goals, and it is interesting to watch her stumble through things, especially since she doesn’t have many people to turn to for help.

In fact, I found myself wishing Ada had more people on her side during such a formative time. The only character who really helps Ava start to figure out what she wants is Kendra, another Black girl with an even bigger passion for dance than Ava. Kendra is delightful to read about because she has a no-nonsense, driven, and confident air about her that ends up having a positive influence on Ava. While Ava and Kendra have a memorable friendship, Ava is also shown crushing on Kendra a bit, too.

Given Ava’s upbringing, there aren’t many moments that allow Ava to explore her orientation other than some interactions with Kendra, rumors that she might “play for the other team,” and secret interactions with another girl that took place when Ava was in second grade. Given the way that heterosexuality is always implied and expected from others, it is nice to see that Kendra is even considering the possibility she might not be straight. Kendra never labels her own orientation, but it isn’t necessary for her, since she is still exploring who she is.

While Every Body Looking was mostly enjoyable, the ending fell a little flat. Without getting into spoilers, we see Ava make a few decisions for herself and for her future at the college, but we don’t clearly know what the results will be. Maybe this open-ended conclusion represents Ava finally putting herself first, even if she doesn’t know where she will end up.

All in all, Candice IIoh’s Every Body Looking dances with verse and self-expression that will surely encourage readers to keep trying for their dreams.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

Take Away: How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages

Take Away

How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages

 

by Katarina Wong

It was the tiles that clinched the deal.

 

My apartment search in Havana had grown cold, and I’d just about given up when the realtor called.

“A new listing just came on the market that I think you’d like,” she said.

We hoofed it up four long flights to the top floor and entered a living room with fourteen-foot ceilings and balconies that opened up to a spectacular view. It spanned from the Capitólio, a near-identical replica of the U.S. Capitol building, across the lush green treetops of the Granma Memorial and out to the malecón, the famous sea wall that marked the edge of the island.

But it was the cement tiles that ran the length of the space like an ornate rug that caught my imagination. Original to the building, one pattern of interlocking brick red, forest green, and ochre delineated the living room from the rest of the apartment, while a different configuration filled the other rooms. I thought about how generations of daily lives had polished them to a silky shine.

It was January 2015, only a few weeks after President Obama announced a reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba. The optimism this announcement ushered in was unprecedented, and I wanted to be part of what I hoped would be a new chapter for Cuba. I wondered too if I might find the next act of my story. I hoped to better understand my Cuban roots and maybe even find my place here—literally and figuratively.

This curiosity was sparked by a long-held feeling that I was a cultural imposter. Despite having visited my mother’s family in Cuba dozens of times—the first as a child in 1979 during the Cold War—I felt like the lite version of my Cuban relatives who lived in Miami, lacking any real sabor and sweetened artificially. English was my native language, not Spanish; I grew up in Florida, but not in the Cuban ex-pat community full of its rituals and large family gatherings; I never had a quinceañera, nor did I know who the Three Kings were until I was long past the age when I could expect gifts from them.

So, after all of these years, I found myself standing on the tile floors of a nearly century-old building in Habana Vieja, the oldest part of Havana, saying yes to the purchase.

Even though the apartment appeared solid to me, my contractor advised me to do a complete renovation and correct any underlying problems. He stripped the cement ceiling and walls down to the metal beams and fixed hidden leaks, upgraded the plumbing, and ran new wiring. I also changed the floor plan to make it more open and welcoming, but one thing I didn’t touch was the original floor. In redoing the bathroom, however, I learned my contractor needed to remove the ceramic tile floor to rerun plumbing lines. It was an opportunity for me to lay a new one, and I wanted cement tiles to complement the rest of the apartment. Like most supplies in Cuba, the challenge was where to find them.

Cuban tiles—referred to losas hidráulicas or mosaicos—were first brought from Spain in the late 1800s, and although Cuba became home to the largest manufacturer of cement tiles in the world within a few decades, by 2015 all of those factories had disappeared. Thanks to a Canadian acquaintance who was in the midst of renovations himself, I eventually found the lone fabricator of losas hidráulicas in Havana.

Walking into the showroom was like seeing the greatest hits of Cuban flooring. I recognized many of the patterns on the large panels displayed on the walls. There were the fat-petaled daisies against a background of dusty pink I’d noticed in a friend’s home; medallion patterns from a nearby hotel; and even designs from my own apartment. For the bathroom floor, I settled on a black, gray, and white geometric pattern that complemented the white bathroom fixtures.

While there, I was invited to see how the tiles were made. The saleswoman led me down a narrow staircase to the workshop where an artisan was attaching a metal mold to a twenty-by-twenty-millimeter (about eight-by-eight-inch) cement slab. The mold was divided into sections, and he filled them with liquid cement colored with mineral pigments. When the pattern was complete, the tile would be put through a press, then soaked in water to set the colors. After drying, each was not only a handmade piece of art, but one with a lifespan. I learned that the hand-poured layer (about four millimeters thick) corresponded to about a century of wear and tear—of children growing into adults, of fiestas, of families expanding and contracting.

I also noticed a curious thing. When Cubans made similar home improvements, many opted for mass-produced ceramic tiles made in China instead of traditional cement tiles. I’m sure a big factor was cost. While a dollar per cement tile was a bargain for outsiders like me, a dollar represented one twenty-fifth of the average monthly pay in Cuba. I also wondered whether having shiny new tiles seemed more exciting than keeping the faded cement ones they were used to living with. Perhaps it was like an American updating an avocado-green 1970s kitchen with clean white subway tiles and stainless steel appliances. I understood the impulse, but it broke my heart to see old, historic tiles covered over.

Even on an island so cut off from outside goods, China’s inexpensive, expendable products had come ashore, and with them a business model that favors quantity over quality, desire over satisfaction. This disposability ran contrary to what my Chinese father had reminded my sisters and me about the longevity of that side of our inherited culture and the inventions that continued to reverberate hundreds, if not thousands, of years later.

As a child, he’d prompt us with bedtime recitations of the glory of our ancestors’ ingenuity.

“Who invented gunpowder?”

“The Chinese!” my sisters and I would say, a chorus of little voices chirping in unison.

“Printing?”

“The Chinese!”

“Paper?”

“The Chinese!”

“Noodles?”

“The Chinese!

The disparity between those mass-produced tiles and the history my father was so proud of stung as I tried to make sense of what was lasting and what was fleeting about my Cuban and Chinese cultural inheritances.

One evening back in New York, I had an epiphany. As I splayed out a carton that held my vegetable lo mein, I noticed the curious angles and cuts that, when folded, came together in a shape known the world over. Here was something designed to be disposable but that was still iconic. What if I juxtaposed Cuban tile patterns on them—not as cartons, but as flat surfaces. What new hybrid thing might emerge?

I ordered a sleeve of takeaway containers, pried off the metal handles, and laid several cartons flat. Using my arsenal of bamboo brushes, I painted a tile pattern from my Cuban apartment across them. I chose a rich yellow acrylic ink reminiscent of a shade called “wong” that was used only by Chinese emperors. This was also the surname given to my father when he immigrated to the United States in 1939 during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

My grandfather had entered the States illegally, so he couldn’t bring his son. Instead, he turned to a friend who was Chinese but had American citizenship. His friend, a Mr. Wong, sent for my father from Guangzhou, claiming him as his own. My father became part of a generation of “paper sons,” and although he was reunited with my grandfather, in the transaction our family name, “Liu,” was erased. This color—this “wong”— references both a royal privilege that lasted through dynasties and a part of my family’s identity that became disposable.

Take Away

by Katarina Wong

(click for full-size images, titles, and captions)

I called my hybrid pieces the “Take Away” series. Sometimes I would scramble the tile pattern, as in “Take Away (Landscape),” which was inspired by misty Chinese scroll paintings, or I’d cut through the cartons, letting the negative space create the image.

Eventually, I wanted to translate these pieces into a medium similar to cement tiles. Porcelain was a natural choice. It is unexpectedly durable, and porcelains play a prominent role throughout Chinese art history. In “Take Away (Runner),” for example, I glazed the Cuban tile pattern purposefully askew across a grid of carton-shaped porcelain tiles, resembling a puzzle that is either coming together or falling apart.

My “Take Away” series ultimately was inspired by a longing for home—a physical one and one I carry in my heart—a way of merging what’s transitory with what endures. My father is no longer here, but my memories of him, stories from his childhood, his pride in his culture, are contained in every brushstroke. These pieces also hold my mother’s stories, my relationships with friends and family in Cuba, and the feeling of walking across the cool tiles in my Havana apartment—floors that stretch across time, back to the building’s beginning in 1928, to the present, and then into the future, where I hope more generations will play, grow, love, and create on them.

 

Jareen Imam author photo

About the Maker

I’m an artist and writer based in New York City. Through my arts practice, I merge disparate aspects of my Cuban, Chinese, and American cultures. As a first-generation American, I’ve never felt fully claimed by any of these cultures, and my work is a way of reconciliation and reclamation. I use a variety of media, including installation, drawing, painting, and porcelain, and create work that merges iconography and meaning from my diverse cultures. My artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.; the Chinese American Museum and California African Art Museum, both in LA as part of the 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative; El Museo Del Barrio and The Bronx Museum, both in New York City; The Fowler Museum in LA; the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden; Fundacíon Canal in Madrid, Spain; and the Coral Gables Art Museum in Miami. I’ve received numerous grants and awards including the Cintas Fellowship for Cuban and Cuban-American artists and a Pollock-Krasner grant, as well as residencies at Skowhegan; Ucross Foundation; Ragdale Foundation; the Kunstlerhaus in Salzberg, Austria; and the Open Art Residency in Eretria, Greece. My work is in numerous private and public collections including the Scottsdale Museum of Art and the Frost Art Museum in Miami, FL. In addition to my visual arts practice, I write about immigration and Cuba issues, including Cuban artists, as well as professional development articles for artists. I’ve written for The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, Entrepreneur, the Art Business Journal, and the Two Coats of Paint blogazine. My essay “Between the Lines: Messages from my Family in Cuba,” was included in the Bronx Memoir Anthology, Vol. 3 published in 2019. I am currently working on a memoir about my Cuban Chinese American heritages. I have an MFA from the University of Maryland, a Master of Theological Studies in Buddhism from the Harvard Divinity School, and a BA in Classics from St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD.

Photos courtesy Katarina Wong. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

April is National Poetry Month, so I wanted to celebrate it with some Black YA novels in verse.

Novels in verse are my personal favorite YA subgenre because they combine poetry with narrative storytelling to enhance the thoughts and experiences of the characters. As a teen, the first novel in verse I read by a Black author was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which was about a diverse poetry club at a high school in the Bronx.

Two decades after its publication in 2002, there are now a plethora of middle grade and YA novels in verse by Black authors old and new. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, but I get excited whenever I see a new novel in verse. I love reading them and seeing different poetry forms used and experiences told. Here are some of the most compelling Black YA and middle grade novels in verse.

Legacy by Nikki Grimes

This is more of a collection of poems and visual art than a novel in verse, but I’m including this book because it’s become one of my new favorites. Using the Golden Shovel poetry form, Grimes takes one line or short poem from a Black female Harlem Renaissance poet and uses it to make her own poem. The book itself is formatted so you read the Harlem Renaissance poem first and then the poem it inspired Grimes to write. Each set of poems is also accompanied by visual art by Black women, including Vashanti Harrison and Shada Strickland. As a whole, the poetry and illustrations work together to bridge the past and present.

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington

A novel in verse aimed at a middle school audience, this book tells the story of Keet, a young Black girl from Alabama who loves talking and tellling stories. When she moves away, she isn’t sure how to cope until a fishing trip with her grandfather teaches her how to listen before speaking. However, her grandfather suddenly has a stroke and that makes him feel further away from her. In order to reconnect with him, Keet must find her voice again through stories.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

In an elevator, a teenaged Black boy named Wil is on the way down with a gun in his waistband to take revenge for his older brother, who was murdered by someone in the neighborhood. But each time the elevator stops on a new floor, Wil is visited by ghosts who make him question everything he thinks he knows about revenge and emotions. Through a true-to-life cast of characters and powerful verse, Reynolds delivers a poignant tale of gun violence through both its victims and those left behind. This book lingered in my mind long after I read it because of how skillfully Wil’s conscience is represented and questioned through the characters and words.

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Filled with both music and poetry, Solo features the tale of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star named Rutherford. When Rutherford’s legacy threatens to overwhelm him, Blade finds a letter about his parentage that leads him to Ghana. From there, he undergoes a journey to find out who he can become outside of his father’s influence and whether he can live up to the expectations he has for his life. I really appreciated how Alexander wove together various cultural influences, such as rock music and Ghanaian culture, to shape Blade’s character development.

Every Body Looking by Candice Ihoh

A coming-of-age story starring a first-generation Nigerian American female protagonist, this book explores the impact of heavy familial expectations and the desire to break free and express your true self. When Ada attends a HBU, she finds herself following her passion for dance while exploring her sexuality. At the same time, she also comes face to face with past issues as she tries to claim ownership over her body and future. It is rare to see a YA novel set in a college space, so finding one that is also in verse is extra special.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.