“A Song Below Water” Is a Compelling Story of Sisterhood, Magic, and Police Brutality

“A Song Below Water” Is a Compelling Story of Sisterhood, Magic, and Police Brutality

When I first learned about Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water and how it featured Black mermaids, I couldn’t help but think of mythology, especially the Yoruba orisha Yemaya and the water spirit Mami Wata.

Depending on who you ask, some people interpret them as mermaids. I thought of them because I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.

Tavia Phillips is a siren who must hide her powers in order to keep herself alive. Her best friend, Effie, is struggling with a painful past and strange happenings in the present. While they are trying to navigate their junior year of high school, a siren murder trial shakes Portland, Oregon, to the core. In the aftermath, Tavia and Effie must come together and come to terms with themselves.

One of the most notable aspects of this book is how it blends fantasy and reality almost seamlessly. Mythical creatures such as sirens, elokos, and gargoyles exist alongside humans, albeit not peacefully. Sirens (and other mythical creatures) have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist. Tavia Phillips’s experiences as a Black female siren parallel what real Black women deal with every day, especially when it comes to police brutality. Not only are they considered dangerous for simply existing, but their voices are often silenced and dismissed when they try to speak up.

In fact, I found this book hard to read sometimes because it is a reminder of how difficult living can be for Black girls and women. Tavia is physically and emotionally scarred by a desperate attempt to get rid of her siren abilities as a child, while Effie is battling anxiety and nightmares as a result of a traumatic experience with mythical creatures. At one point, Effie even states, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma. One time I said she’s [Tavia’s] too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Yet what kept me reading the book were the moments of joy that Tavia and Effie experience together and by themselves.

When it comes to Tavia and Effie’s friendship, they are close enough to be sisters. Sometimes I forgot that they weren’t related by blood because their interactions with each other were just as beautiful and memorable as those I’ve seen between real and fictional siblings. A particularly memorable scene is when Effie and Tavia are gushing over fan fiction written for Euphemia, the fictional mermaid who Effie plays at the Ren faire. Scenes like this show that despite the hardships they are dealing with, Effie and Tavia still create moments when they can enjoy their youth.

Tavia and Effie’s individual character development is just as powerful as their sisterhood. Over the course of the book, Tavia learns to embrace her siren abilities and use them as a force for change. The potential of her siren abilities is explored further as Tavia realizes just how powerful she can be. Meanwhile, Effie comes to terms with her past and learns that what’s “wrong” with her can be something that is wonderful, even when the world says otherwise. The mystery around Effie’s past and present keeps the plot intriguing and develops into a wonderful coming-of-age story.

As much as I appreciated many aspects of the book, there were a few I didn’t like. The lack of explanation for what an eloko was resulted in me doing my own research and doing my best to imagine what they looked like in my head. It might be difficult for other visual readers like myself to “see” what elokos are without a fuller description.

Another aspect of the story that made me a little uncomfortable is how Tavia uses spasmodic dysphonia as a cover story for her siren abilities, as well as how she sometimes uses American Sign Language when she can’t speak without exposing her siren abilities. Her use of ASL is understandable, but the author’s decision to have Tavia pretend to have what is a real muscle disorder is problematic from the point of view of disability advocacy.

It’s not clear whether A Song Below Water is a standalone or the first book in a series. Either way, it’s a compelling read. While the portrayal of police brutality and Black trauma doesn’t make the book easy to digest, the sisterhood and magic are major payoffs. A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.

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 Briona Baker on Unsplash.

 

“Who Put This Song On?” Is a Heartfelt Exploration of Identity and Mental Health

“Who Put This Song On?” Is a Heartfelt Exploration of Identity and Mental Health

Due to my intensely personal experience with depression, I was really interested in Morgan Parker’s semiautobiographical debut young adult book, Who Put This Song On?

Set in 2008 in a conservative Southern California town, the book follows the story of Morgan Parker, who is told depression is something that happens to people who lack faith, and that her Blackness shouldn’t be mentioned too much. Following a mental health crisis, Morgan decides to figure out who she is. Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.

Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.

One of the things I immediately liked about the book was the voice of Morgan Parker’s teen self. She sounds tired, but also curious and resilient. She has hit rock bottom, but she is willing to climb out of the hole depression caused her to fall into. Above all, Parker’s teen self has a voice filled with hard-won clarity that results in honest observations about her mental health, her identity, and the world around her.

Morgan’s teenage voice is enhanced with diary entries, emails, and a Yellow Notebook in which she and her friends write about their exploits in sex, romance, and crushes. One of my personal favorite lines is, “I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”

In addition to Morgan herself, the secondary cast of characters is also worth mentioning. There’s her white best friends Meg and James, her Black love interests David Santos and Sean Santos-Orenstein, the racist history teacher Mr. K, and Morgan’s family. All of these characters affect Morgan both positively and negatively, and the nuanced way they are presented adds depth to the narrative. At one point, Meg has to be called out by Morgan when Meg says, “You’re not really Black,” even though Morgan considers Meg a friend.

It’s worth noting, too, that the way Morgan is treated by her small town and family is influenced by mental health stigma, her religiously conservative community, and the 2008 political climate. To her white peers and white adults, Morgan is expected to be excited at the possibility of a Black president as well as an authority on Black history, even as she is asked not to bring up her Blackness too much.

Moreover, Morgan’s family alternates between treating Morgan like a difficult, fragile person to be around and treating her as someone who is trying her best to live. They know Morgan is going through a difficult time, but they don’t quite understand it. They let Morgan see a therapist and help her get access to antidepressants, but they also try to avoid the issue and frequently blame Morgan herself until they realize their mistake.

“I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”

Still, there are characters in the book who are more sensitive toward Morgan’s mental health issues and open-minded about her questioning of religion, Blackness, and her place in the world. Cousins David and Sean Santos fill this role as both love interests and new friends. When David first meets Morgan, he helps her through a panic attack, and they talk about their favorite movies. Both David and Sean are notable for being presented as added emotional support, rather than cure-alls for Morgan’s depression.

Finally, the music references are a fun bonus throughout the book. Although I was only familiar with one or two of the artists, it was nice to see a Black girl coping with her depression through emo music without anyone giving her a hard time about it. Seeing so many different 00’s emo music artists mentioned rang true to my own experiences of my teens and early twenties.

In the end, this book was a heartfelt exploration of identity and mental health. Who Put This Song On? shows that you don’t have to let your mental illness or other people determine who you can be, even if you’re tired of fighting. By questioning what you are taught and forming your own sense of self, you can change your personal potential for the better.

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 insung yoon on Unsplash

 

Tristan Strong Will Sweep You Away with Epic Adventure and African Folklore

Tristan Strong Will Sweep You Away with Epic Adventure and African Folklore

African mythology and folklore aren’t exactly common knowledge. When you think of gods and goddesses, it’s usually Greek and Norse gods like Zeus and Thor that come to mind.

Now characters such as High John the Conqueror and Anansi, along with their stories, are being introduced to a new generation through Kwame Mbalia’s dynamic middle grade fantasy Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. The book will be released on October 15.

Tristan Strong is a twelve-year-old boy grieving the loss of his best friend, Eddie, and smarting from being defeated in his first boxing match. While visiting his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, he accidentally unleashes an evil haint and creates a hole between the real world and a magical world of African American folk heroes and West African gods. Now he must work together with them and undergo an epic quest to retrieve Anansi’s story box to save the world.

One of the best aspects of this book is how accessible the folktale and mythology characters are. These characters are modernized without losing their roots and inspire awe with their strength, humor, and sprinkles of humanity. One of my personal favorites is the character Gum Baby, who was originally a doll the trickster Anansi made to capture a fairy. Although she is commonly known by the sometimes derogatory term “Tar Baby,” the author makes her a fully fleshed-out character who is spunky, hilarious, and a clever fighter.

Another notable aspect of the book is Tristan Strong, the protagonist. Having been exposed to so many images of Black boys and men who are pressured to be hypermasculine at all times, I was pleasantly surprised to see Tristan Strong be a bit insecure and emotionally vulnerable. It is heartwarming to see him grow as a character and come into his own as a hero and as a person. One of my favorite parts of his character arc is Tristan slowly facing his fear of heights. Initially, he screams really loudly at being in the air, but eventually he comes to realize there are things more important than his fear.

In addition to Tristan himself, his friendship with Eddie, another Black boy, is wonderful. Even though Eddie has passed away, he lives on in a journal of stories and memories that become increasingly precious to Tristan. Tristan’s flashbacks to good and bad times with Eddie are a key part of Tristan’s coming to terms with his grief and his journey as a hero.

In fact, Eddie, Tristan, and Gum Baby are just a few of the amazing cast of characters in this book. There is also Ayanna, a Black girl who has the makings of a strong leader and fighter. Another Black girl, Thandiwe, is a fierce warrior who reminded me a lot of Dora Miljae from the Black Panther comic books. Although I would have liked to see more Black female folklore and mythical characters in addition to Gum Baby, I did enjoy seeing two of them embody Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly.

Having been exposed to so many images of Black boys and men who are pressured to be hypermasculine at all times, I was pleasantly surprised to see Tristan Strong be a bit insecure and emotionally vulnerable.

In addition to the characters, the world building is also very well done. Although there is a lot to keep up with without a map or index of places, I found the author’s decision to make the world of the African folk heroes and gods parallel to the real world compelling, especially given how that world has allegorical references to postcolonialism and slavery. Some parts of it are dark, but it is subtle enough that middle grade readers won’t be terrified. Also, the world building as it applies to the book’s main antagonist is brilliant.

All in all, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is a dazzling adventure that will sweep you away. Reluctant middle-grade readers will tear through the book’s four hundred pages for the action and magic, while older readers will appreciate the book’s in-depth world building. It is a grand start to a new series and a perfect introduction to African myth and folklore.

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 Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

 

“Opposite of Always” Teaches How to Value Love through Time Travel

"Opposite of Always" Teaches How to Value Love through Time Travel

Most romance stories usually follow the same formula. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl have some misunderstandings but somehow manage to declare their love for each other and live happily ever after.

In Justin A. Reynolds’s Opposite of Always, this formula gets a little more complicated thanks to a four-month time loop.

Jack Ellison King is an African American teen who never quite succeeds at important milestones. When he meets Kate on the steps of a house party, he’s hoping to somehow succeed at romance. Then Kate tragically dies of an illness, and Jack is sent back in time to the day they met. Given the second of many chances, Jack strives to prevent Kate’s death while weighing the consequences of his choices and the people he chooses to be with.

One of the first things I enjoyed about this story is its main protagonist, Jack. He is awkward, funny, and is trying really hard to have the romantic relationship he feels he and Kate deserve. All of this comes through his voice, which entertains the reader in dialogue and Jack’s internal thoughts. Take, for example, the opening lines: “My face is mashed sideways against the trunk of a police cruiser when Kate dies for the third time. The box meant to save her life is smushed near my feet. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. For instance: don’t waste time on clothes.

Given the second of many chances, Jack strives to prevent Kate’s death while weighing the consequences of his choices and the people he chooses to be with.

In addition to Jack himself, I also enjoyed the people he’s surrounded by, including his parents, his best friends, Franny and Jillian, and sometimes Kate herself. Jack’s parents are really good parents who want Jack to be happy while expecting him to honor his commitments. Franny and Jillian are dating each other and still manage to be good friends to Jack, setting a good example for him. Meanwhile, Kate is a really sweet love interest who can’t dance, wants to be an architect, and has a caring and protective family.

All of these characters really enrich the romance, comedy, and drama in the storyline. The farther you get into Jack’s attempts to save Kate, the more you learn to appreciate Jack and Kate’s romance and the higher the stakes become when it comes to his other relationships. As a result, you want Jack to succeed, but you also want Jack’s friends and family to be happy. A personal favorite subplot involves Jack trying to help Franny mend things with his absent father, Mr. Hogan.

Though I enjoyed the book, there were a few flaws that I couldn’t help but notice. One involves the characterization of Kate, who is not a stick-figure love interest but is not as fleshed out as I would have liked her to be. As much as I appreciated reading a romantic dramedy with two Black leads, I wish we had a chance to see more of Kate’s character in terms of her personal interests and skills.

All in all, Opposite of Always is an entertaining coming-of-age romantic dramedy that teaches the value of small moments and decisions. Love from a partner, a friend, or a family member matters, and it is important to cherish all the love that comes your way for as long as you can.

I had mixed feelings about the time loop as well. This might have been due to my limited exposure to time travel in pop culture, but I was expecting the time loop to be shown differently than it was. As a result, I was left a little disappointed by it at the end of the book. Yet I was willing to overlook a plot hole with the time loop when I realized that the author was doing his best to balance two different fiction genres in the same story.

All in all, Opposite of Always is an entertaining coming-of-age romantic dramedy that teaches the value of small moments and decisions. Love from a partner, a friend, or a family member matters, and it is important to cherish all the love that comes your way for as long as you can. The book was refreshing and enjoyable, and I hope its movie adaptation will be, too. 

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 Beth Tate on Unsplash

 

If It Weren’t for Daphne Gottlieb

If it weren’t for Daphne Gottlieb, I wouldn’t be a poet.

That sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true. Okay, I might have been a poet even if I’d never read her work but my poems wouldn’t be as brave. Since the summer of 2001, when I bought Why Things Burn at Quimby’s in Chicago, her poems have given me a map for writing about the hard things—rape, addiction, mental illness—right alongside poems in praise of love, desire, rebellion. (But hard love, desire like a car crash, rebellion because you’d die otherwise; which is the way I’ve always experienced those things.) For eighteen years her poems have taught me ways to write the truths of how women, queer folks, and other non-normative bodies move through the world. How we armor ourselves, adorn ourselves. How we survive and find joy.

from “Anti-Nowhere League” [Why Things Burn, 2001]
from “Anti-Nowhere League” [Why Things Burn, 2001]

Daphne’s poems often involve an insertion of herself/the speaker into pop culture, history, or the literary canon. Much like Kathy Acker did in her prose (Daphne was a recipient of the Acker Award for Excellence in the Avant-Garde), taking source texts from the canon and making her hero(ine)s pirates and knights, Gottlieb’s poems ask: why can’t a girl be an outlaw, an adventurer, the author of her own story? Why can’t a girl be a Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty, rather than just a Camille or Marylou?

from “Manifest Destiny (Great American Novel Remix)” [Final Girl, 2003]
from “Manifest Destiny (Great American Novel Remix)” [Final Girl, 2003]

Daphne’s poems aren’t easily categorized. Her work blends elements of performance poetry and “academic” poetry (as her official website bio states: “[Gottlieb] stitches together the ivory tower and the gutter just using her tongue”). Form-wise, her poems run the gamut from a more traditionally structured lyrical style to prose poems and other experimental forms. (I once nearly got into a bar fight with a dude who dismissed her entire oeuvre because she writes prose poems, and he said, “prose poems aren’t really poetry.”) So this is another thing Daphne has taught me—how to use my words as a bridge between school and street, stage and page. How to be both glitter and gutter, simultaneously.

Here’s a hard truth—sometimes people like us and those we love don’t survive. But maybe more than anything else, Daphne’s poems have shown me that I can use words to give my ghosts breath. Poems can be houses for the dead to inhabit, and every time someone reads those poems, they are again briefly, gloriously, alive.

from “Calliope” [Kissing Dead Girls, 2008]
from “Calliope” [Kissing Dead Girls, 2008]

About the Author

Jessie Lynn McMains is a poet, writer, and publisher. They are the author of multiple chapbooks, most recently The Girl With The Most Cake and forget the fuck away from me. You can find their personal website at recklesschants.net, or follow them on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram @rustbeltjessie

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

The Turf Chick

Some said I was the female Pac, Some said I was the female Biggie, some said I was the female Rick, and some said rappers can’t mess with me

–The Turf Chick, Untitled

I get up every day with a new goal on my mind, the same frown and the same broken spirit from doors opening and shutting right before my eyes. It feels like I’m working overtime. Overtime with no pay.

Some days I just want to give up and live a regular life, you know? Go to work, pay rent, and enjoy the rest of my funds doing the things that excite me.

But no. I was given the gift of song, and no matter how much I try to be normal, my soul releases words that move the world!

Music is the only reason I am still alive. You get me? Being a homosexual and a woman and, I may sound cocky, but extremely talented — better than some who are very well established — it’s hard! It’s hard to prove a point. It’s easy to make you listen, but when men see me they realize I’m good for nothing because they can’t get anything out of me in exchange for a deal.

Sometimes I hate being a woman. You can tell, right? Sometimes I wish I wasn’t used as a sex symbol, used to get the things I work so hard for in life. Coming up in the music industry is tough, because you have to have the mind of shark and the heart of a beast! But the soul of pure woman. Give yourself away or work harder with the same amount a faith after every door has been slammed in your face for being a woman in the music industry.

Honestly at this point I don’t wonder when I’m going to make it or when I’m going to finally get through that door… All I want to know is, when are people actually going to listen. Before they look.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/251043465″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

On 2229

When everything was all alright, and momma held my head when I cried on 2229, I watched my brother come in and out of jail thinking how he get that phone in his cell.

On 2229

–The Turf Chick, “2229“

The realest people crossed me and now they’re fake as ever so I’m ready for whatever

–The Turf Chick, “Whateva”

I never knew my day ones, wasn’t really there for me, they wanted my dream and everything that came with it, all us eating living life was the plan for me.

–The Turf Chick, “FearFull”

Local rising star Gabrielle Gilbert, who goes by the stage name of “The Turf Chick,” was born in East Palo Alto and raised in Sacramento since age eleven. In the beginning, Gabrielle Gilbert, with the childhood nickname “Gi-Gi” performed for her brothers, sisters, and cousins. When she was only thirteen years old, she made her first recording at a friend’s studio in South Sacramento, rapping “I GO.” From then, Gi-Gi became “The Turf Chick,” writing and rapping messages of hope, street life, and personal struggles. Inspired by music icons Lil Kim, Messy Marv, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Eve, Gabriel says her fans best describe her music as “urban and underground hip-hop with a mix of hard-core bursting lyrics.” The Turf Chick was the only solo hip hop performer at the 2007 Hub Choice Awards in Sacramento, performing in front of nearly 1,200 people.

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BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.