When I realized I was a lesbian in the summer of 2005, I seriously thought I was one of the only ones in the wide world.
I had never read a book about a lesbian. I had never seen a movie about a lesbian relationship. I had never visited a lesbian bar, or attended a lesbian concert, or gathered in a house with a group of lesbians. I did listen to the Indigo Girls, but they were famous, and the Swamp Ophelia album only reduced me to more weeping. I was twenty-eight, married to a man, and in love with my best friend. No one anywhere had ever had my experience.
The internet told me something different. On Netflix, I found movies, which were delivered to my house in their anonymous red and white sleeves: When Night is Falling (Canada, 1995); Fire (Canada/India, 1997); Aimee and Jaguar (Germany, 2000); Tipping the Velvet (UK, 2002). On Amazon, I searched for “lesbian books,” and found Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Somewhere out there, there were other women who loved women. Their stories, often anguished, but almost always fiercely passionate and true, became my community.
In November of that year, I flew to New York to stay with a college friend who lived boldly in a civil union with her partner. They took me to The Oscar Wilde Bookshop (now closed, sadly) and to Bluestockings, and I loaded my arms with more stories, as if I could, with reading, ward off my fear and loneliness. Rebecca Brown, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Joan Nestle, Lillian Faderman, Elana Dykewomon. Tell me, I pleaded with these other lesbians, who I am. Tell me what to do.
Meanwhile, I wrote mostly about parenting and adoption, about Alaska (where I lived at the time), about climbing mountains. My own story as a lesbian was fragile, in the way a tinder-dry forest is fragile. I feared that if I wrote about my love for Lia, it would flame to ash. And of course, it did, far more violently than I ever imagined. That’s the story Grief Map tells, but Grief Map also tells the story of the lesbian who emerged from that ash, the living woman, writing now about allof her experience because she had no other choice.
But after Lia died in 2011, I once again felt like I was the only one. I crouched in my grief and wondered what it meant to be a woman who loves women all alone. And again, the community spoke to me: the movies and the books reminded me that I was not the only one to have lost, that I could survive. I wrapped myself in those stories. I breathed there. I kept writing.
And yet I still felt as much awed distance from the lesbian community as I did from the Indigo Girls. I was just an isolated lesbian writer in Colorado. When my wife Meredith and I first met in 2014, I was keeping a sad blog called “The Boulder Lesbian,” as if I was the only one. It still felt that way.
I discovered the Golden Crown Literary Society by chance one early morning, when I was taking a break from a scene I was trying to construct in a short story. I wanted connection. Where were the other lesbian writers in the world? I googled “lesbian writers” and Google offered me “lesbian writers conference.” I clicked—and GCLS was the top post. I found myself on a website offering “the premiere lesbian literary event” each year, and an ongoing mission of dedication to “the promotion and recognition of lesbian literature.” I told Brain Mill Press, Grief Map’s publisher, about it, and they submitted Grief Map for a Goldie Award in the non-fiction category. But I didn’t feel part of it. It was another famous place where lesbians gathered, somewhere else.
Then I found myself at the GCLS Conference this July, listening to Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Rachel Gold and Elana Dykewomon and Dorothy Allison read from their work. I told myself, I am part of this community. And I was! For three days, I attended master classes and presentations and panels, readings and speakers in an all-lesbian space. I exchanged my card with other lesbian writers and readers. I discussed story ideas that revolve around lesbian lives. One woman told me she thinks of this annual conference as a sort of lesbian summer camp, and it did have that otherworldly shimmer. With its diversity of age and race and background and expression, the conference had the open-hearted kindness I’ve always imagined those circles of lesbians had in the 1970s communes. How wonderful, to move among these other lesbians in this lovely safe space, a literal haven from the smoke and crowds and din of Vegas.
Each morning, I walked through the Bally’s casino and breathed in relief to reach the conference rooms, where we lesbians retreated from the world awhile. Each evening, when Meredith returned to our room from her poker tournaments, I told her the stories I had heard people read during the day: a lesbian pirate, a lesbian doctor in a helicopter, a lesbian who disguised herself as a man in the 1890s, a lesbian who discovered her grandmother’s secret love had been a woman. I told her that Elana Dykewomon’s poetry made an entire room weep, and that Dorothy Allison was just as funny and wise in person as she was on the page. I told her that I had never imagined the power of an all-lesbian space, the way I literally felt all of us were embraced and held up there. Meredith smiled at me and kissed me tenderly and, because Vegas is like this, just outside our sixty-sixth floor window, the Eiffel Tower throbbed purple and blue with a party and the giant digital eyes on the Cosmopolitan reflected in the water in front of the Bellagio. We were in our own lesbian romance story.
At the GCLS Goldie awards ceremony on July seventh, I stood at the podium with Grief Map’s award for non-fiction in my hands, and I said to the gathered community of three-hundred and fifty lesbians, “Thirteen years ago, when I realized I was a lesbian, I thought I was the only one,” and a wave of loving, understanding laughter rolled toward me. I had never been alone at all. Later, when Meredith and I danced in each other’s arms on a dance floor full of only other lesbians, some in suits, some in dresses, some in wonderful ambiguous amalgamations of the two, I kissed my wife and I knew we moved, now, in the community, part of it all.
What’s next? At first, when I came home to Denver, the same slump threatened me that used to threaten me after summer camp when I was a kid, as if the world could never be as supportive and vibrant and connected as camp was. It really can’t. But the stories I tell in the next year can reach toward that energy. My new protagonist Sam can long for it. And then next summer, I can return to that all-lesbian space (in Pittsburgh in 2019) for a few days. I’m excited already.
The blue light from my computer screen illuminates my face as I scroll through my friends’ Facebook posts. This friend has just traveled to Hawaii with her husband. That friend has just hand-made clothes for her children. That friend has completed a Tough Mudder with his boyfriend. I click the thumbs-up icon, or I leave little encouraging comments. An hour passes. Two.
I joined Facebook late, considering that the company began in 2004. In 2007, the summer I decided to adopt my daughter Mitike, I created an account on the blue and white website people were talking about, and shared a photo of me, my mom, and my sister Katie tubing on the Upper Iowa River in Decorah. We are all grinning in the photo. Five people liked it, then ten. People with whom I had lost touch began to request me as their friends. At the time, I lived far away from all of them — all the way in Alaska — and my new cellphone (I was late to that trend, too) allowed me only a limited number of monthly minutes. Facebook was a free way to stay in touch.
A year later, when Mitike came home from Ethiopia, Facebook was a way I could stay sane, a way I could show everyone the sweet and astonishing little person I had promised to raise. I shared videos and photographs, and more people liked them, and more people requested friendships. I connected with adoptive parents’ groups and with Ethiopian culture groups. Every day at nap time, I checked my Facebook account — and I felt a little more connected in a life that, while beautiful, contained mostly cheese sticks and raisins and discussions about poop.
In 2011, when Ali died, Facebook became a place I haunted in my grief. I studied our old posted photographs for clues, and I left cryptic messages on a Facebook page that had outlived its face. The blue website no longer connected me, but encouraged my drifting, alone. For hours, I zoomed in on photographs to examine a smile, a look in the eyes, the clues I had missed. I ignored all my friends’ happy updates, and I dwelled in the darker places.
And then, still later, there were the years — the recent ones — when Facebook functioned as a joyful declaration: I survived! I have found love again! Hey, everyone, this is Meredith! We’re married! We’re happy! I posted photos and videos, links and updates. Mostly, I checked and checked Facebook. What had people said about my photo? Had people commented on my column? Had others liked my link? Facebook was part virtual scrapbook, part live feed into my life. I engaged with friends’ posts; I found and shared exciting events; I shared pictures of the dozen pink pussy hats I had crocheted; I vented my anger about the Trump administration. Morning after morning, I clicked on the little white “f” in the blue square on my phone, and it was like walking into a crowded room — look at this photo of my quinoa plants, have you seen what Trump’s done now?, can you believe how much my daughter’s grown?, there’s a rally downtown next Saturday and I plan to go.
This past June, when my family and I traveled west to stay in a rented cabin on the Oregon coast for a week, I decided, on a whim, to take a sabbatical from all technology. For seven days, I did not access the internet in any way; I used my phone only as a camera, on airplane mode. And…I began to take photographs so I could remember the moment, not so I could share it with five hundred strangers. At night, I reflected purely on the conversations I had had with Mitike and Meredith, not on the chatter of that crowded blue room. My mind was clearer, like a desk I had sorted.
For the few months after that, I returned to posting and checking and liking, but my brief sobriety had taught me something essential: I didn’t need Facebook. It distracted me from living my real life. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, and former Facebook creators and executives began to admit that the site is deliberately designed to addict us to more clicking and to direct certain companies’ ads at us, and, like Montag (Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly apt here), I shouted, “No more!”
I deleted the app. It took seconds. I stopped logging on to Facebook every morning as I ate breakfast. I stopped visiting the page when I needed a break from my writing. I stopped scrolling through the 515 “friends”’ posts at stoplights on my way home in the afternoons. I just stopped, cold turkey.
And — I missed it not at all. For the months of September and October, as I moved through my life without Facebook, I did not once wonder what all the posters were posting, or what the likers were liking. When a November New York Review of Books article revealed some of the darker, far more serious reasons we should all free ourselves from social media like Facebook, I happily breathed my free air.
Then, in mid-November, I needed a few photos so I could craft our Christmas card. Like many people, I have not printed photos to store in shoe boxes or leather albums for years; instead, I have stored them on Facebook. Until I spend hours one day downloading all those photos (and Mitike’s baby and toddler videos) and burning the files to a CD, I cannot actually delete my Facebook account. That day, when I logged on to grab the photos I needed, the 6 messages, 68 new notifications, and 2 friend requests nearly seduced me to start scrolling.
But I held to my resolve. Facebook does not improve my life. It does not connect me more deeply to anyone. It does not inform me better than my daily reading of The Guardian and The New Yorker. It may announce events, but mostly, it pulls me away from real engagement in my community. Again, I say: no more.
I have been accused at several junctures of my life of Luddism, mostly because I resist texting everyone constantly, because I watch little TV, and because I have seriously restricted Mitike’s screen time (at age eleven, she still only gets three hours a week; we bought her a flip-phone for emergencies when she started middle school, but her iPhone is years away). Now I am deleting Facebook. However, like the original Luddites, I do not oppose the technology itself, but its threat to genuine human skill and human interaction. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter claim to better connect us, and yet the hallways of the high school where I teach are crowded not with boisterous teenagers but with solitary figures hunched over their iPhone screens, shuffling forward as they scroll through friends’ Snapchats. When I pass these zoned-out kids, I call out “Look up!” to startle them back into their real lives.
The original Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, when a group of angry factory workers smashed textile machinery in protest against low wages and too little work. In the months that followed, the British government deployed soldiers; the Luddites set fire to factories and broke more machinery; the soldiers fired into mobs; people died. Mostly, the Luddites feared, in the words of the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1829, a world in which “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”
In 1996-97, I lived in the Luddites’ Nottingham, in a second-story flat with eleven other American college students. There I knew a far better balance between my humanity and technology. Our flat possessed a single Apple computer that was good only for slow word-processing, a single land-line telephone, and a single television set. Sometimes, I took the bus early to the university so I could send electronic mail to my mom with my new Yahoo account, but that was it. My flatmates and I spent most of our time hanging out, attending plays, frequenting pubs, venturing into the green countryside. I wrote more, sketched a little, took photographs of crumbling walls and pubs on a film camera. When we couldn’t think of an answer or a definition, we engaged in fierce debate, because Google was still an idea in a Stanford dorm room. Except for the parents we called periodically, no one received daily or hourly updates about the pints we drank or the castles we visited.
And yes, I am saying that Luddite life was a better, healthier existence than this one. This fall, when my Nottingham roommate, Sarah, and I decided to move our friendship back into handwritten letters, I was astonished. Sarah and I have remained close for the entire twenty years since Nottingham, but these letters! In our rushed handwriting — while her kids slept, while Mitike did her homework, with early-morning coffee — we dove more deeply into reflections about our lives than we have in years on email and on Facebook. Paper and pen, actual envelope, the imprint of one page’s writing on the next: I read and re-read her letters like I have never done with her digital communication. True, I caught myself wondering why she hadn’t responded yet just an hour after I tucked my letter to her into the mailbox, but these habits are difficult to smash immediately. True, I considered posting a photo of my steaming cup of coffee next to Sarah’s letter with a caption like “Old friends, and a return to real communication,” but I resisted.
Oh, Facebook. I will not grow mechanical in head and in heart. I will not “take things at second or third hand.” I will see this world with my own eyes, experience it as it is, read more actual books of paper, connect with real friends face-to-face. I will look up.
When I was my students’ age — seventeen, eighteen — I didn’t know what a strike was.
I had never witnessed one. In U.S. History, a teacher must have mentioned one of the famous ones — the labor strikes of the 1800s, maybe, or the post-WWII auto strikes. But to me at seventeen, a strike sounded simple: the workers refused to work, the owners tried to hold out, the workers kept refusing to work, the owners tried extreme measures (police, water, threats, firings, replacements), and usually, the workers won. The end. I was a farmer’s daughter when I learned about strikes for the first time, the daughter of a man who daily labored for himself and for his land, and who could not refuse to work a single day, because the hogs would suffer, the corn plants would wither. It seemed a kind of privilege to refuse to work.
On the Friday before the Denver teachers finally went on strike on February 11, I stood before a class of high school seniors and tried to explain to them why I would not be standing there on Monday if the district could not reach an agreement with the union. The students listened quietly, a little warily. The Denver Public School PR machine was regularly cranking out emails to the community insisting the teachers were refusing “millions” on the table and demanding more. The real story — that Denver teachers wanted a traditional salary schedule with dependable annual base pay, limited incentives, and respect for what we already do as professionals — was a more nuanced and thus more-difficult-to-craft soundbite.
I told the students I wanted them to apply to the events of the strike all the college-level research skills we’ve been learning: stay curious, formulate your own deep questions, evaluate each source for credibility and originality, question everything again, compare what you’re finding so you can discern the truth. Still, they watched me from the corners of their eyes.
“You’ll remember this,” I said finally, “far more than you’ll remember any college research skill I could teach you.” This made them laugh, and the room relaxed. Because of course they would. All their teachers were marching out of the building and refusing pay, starting Monday. They’d be in these classrooms with district-paid substitutes, staring out the tall historic windows at us on the picket line. I told them I’d wave, which made them laugh again.
It is a privilege to refuse to work. My family had enough in savings that I could afford the pay cut for a few days, but what I meant was more profound: I work as part of a collective group. I am no single farmer cultivating fields alone. I show up every day to teach in a classroom that is next door to ninety other classrooms, and our school is united with 161 other schools in the district. I’m not alone. When working conditions are unacceptable, it’s our great right to link arms together and demand more. Alone, it would be impossible. That’s what I didn’t understand at seventeen — what my students, each engaged in his/her individual battle for college and future, do not understand.
It’s what the Denver Public School District did not seem to understand, either. It’s what any group of powerful bosses does not understand. They tell us what to do, what to accept, what to swallow, until one day, we rise up as a group and shout “No!” and the bosses realize they never actually had power, that their power all along was dependent on our acquiescence.
On the Tuesday of the strike — day two — hundreds of teachers dressed in red marched down Denver’s Colfax Avenue to Civic Center Park, where we gathered with more hundreds, our signs aloft. The signs said it all. “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” “I choose to change the things I can no longer accept.” “More education, less administration.” “Pay us a living wage.” The one I carried asked, “What is the value of your child’s education?” On the other side, I alluded to the 1912 Massachusetts textile workers’ strike: “Teachers deserve both bread and roses.”
On all sides of us, members of other unions marched, too: firefighters, steelworkers, truck drivers, plumbers. My colleague Nick, from Michigan, often insists that ours is a blue-collar job, which seems strange, since we all have college degrees and many of us have master’s degrees and PhDs, but in these days of marching miles and miles through the city, chanting for fair pay and respectful working conditions, I understood how right he is. The teachers who marched on either side of me just wanted the chance to buy a house in this city; they wanted to have some money to save for their children’s college educations; they wanted to emerge from three decades of teaching other people’s children and find some kind of rest. They are also the most hard-working people I know. They are people who stay late to tutor students, who step out into the hallway to comfort students, who wake early to give students meaningful feedback on papers, who spend all weekend planning lessons that will light learning in students’ minds.
Without teachers in the schools in Denver, the city was eerily silent. True, the schools are open, but most students stayed home, waiting for us to return. Some marched with us. One student’s sign read: “I march because our teachers love us.”
I didn’t know how difficult it would be to strike. It was far harder than teaching all day. Every day, I woke early and put on my long underwear and then my jeans and my three sweatshirts, stocking cap, two pairs of gloves. On the picket lines each day in the cold, we walked nine, ten miles. My hips and lower back ached. And yet: every day it became clearer that if we did not strike, the bosses would continue to do as they please. This was our reminder of who was in power.
In the end, the Denver strike was the shortest in the city’s history: only three days. The district awarded us the salary schedule, and raised everyone’s salaries to meet surrounding school districts’ levels. By Thursday, we stood in our classrooms again, exhausted and exhilarated. By the middle of Thursday, it seemed we had never left; we were badgering students about turning in assignments on time; we were trying to motivate a whole class to care about our content areas; we were again fighting the relatively smaller battles between teachers and administrators. But there was this difference: starting in August, the pay we receive for this hard work will actually allow us to put down payments on houses in Denver, save for our kids’ college years, and maybe travel a little. In Denver, teachers will have enough to buy both bread and roses.
A few naysayers visited us on the picket line. One man squealed the brakes on his shiny silver BMW and jumped out, shaking a fist and shouting, “Get back to work! Get back to work!” I’m sure he believed his tax dollars fund our salaries and that we shouldn’t complain. I’m also sure that, if he had chosen to make a living as a teacher, he would have likely been out there marching with us, too.
The Friday before the strike, a student in one of my colleague’s classes rolled his eyes at her and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset about the pay. You chose this job.”
True. And most of us teachers, at some point, frustrated by student apathy or by parents’ vitriol or by administrators’ hoops or by the long hours of grading papers and planning lessons, have said we wish we could quit. It’s a small salve sometimes in this hard job we chose. But it’s also true that most of us don’t quit. Most of us keep slogging on, because of the shining moments when a student gets it, and cares, because it is actually wonderful to plan educational experiences for teenagers each day — far better than working in an office would be.
Now, in Denver — and in Los Angeles, and in West Virginia, and hopefully soon in Oakland — we’re paid fairly for that work, too, because we chose to walk the picket lines for a few days. It’s connected us. When the bell rings to start each class, we wave at each other down the long high school hallways, and then step into our classrooms, to begin.
I was born in Britain at the tail end of the Thatcher era. My mother was a nurse, my father an accountant, and we moved from London to a suburban part of Essex just after I came along.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about my childhood. I don’t remember any specific toys I liked or what my favorite meal was. I can’t remember the color of my first bike or how old I was when I first learned to ride it. What I lack in specifics, however, I make up for in the memory of how certain things felt: the pride when our neighbor, David, let go of the back of my saddle and I cycled on two wheels by myself, feeling the wind brush sharply past my cheeks. The memory is only a split second long, but it is powerful.
I can’t tell you when I first heard the phrase “playing the race card,” or even when I first came to understand its meaning as a black child growing up in a predominantly white area. What I do remember vividly, though, is what it felt like. As an adult, the only comparable feeling is the frustration of being unable to articulate a point or argument because you are up against someone who is more confident—or at least louder—than you are. They aren’t necessarily right, but you have no choice but to back down anyway, because you’ll never be able to convince them to see your side.
In my teens and twenties, I feared speaking out about how I really felt in certain situations, worried about being branded as “playing the race card.” I didn’t want to be seen as difficult or angry—I just wanted to keep my head down and blend in. The problem is, as a black, female, second-generation Muslim growing up in post 9–11 and 7–7 Britain, blending in was never going to be possible. That’s when I really started to notice how the “race card” was being used to silence valid and legitimate voices.
In January this year, the London mayoral battle started to get pretty messy, with Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith accusing Labour’s Sadiq Khan of “playing the race card.” In terms of my personal vote, I’m not gravitating toward either candidate. I’m not even convinced that any one person is enough to be the mayor of London. If it were up to me, there would be a group of at least four people with separate areas of expertise who could each bring something different to the table—like the Power Rangers, or the kids from Captain Planet. That said, the use of the phrase awoke a frustration in me that had remained dormant for many years.
The idea of a “race card” suggests a privilege. The race card is a go-to argument that everyone who considers themselves an ethnic minority is free to pull out of their pocket and play whenever they need—a theoretical free pass to victory.
Doctor: What kind is it?
Midwife: It’s a brown baby girl, doctor. Parents are Muslims.
Doctor: A brown Muslim girl? Oh dear, best give her two race cards then. She’ll need them.
But this isn’t what the phrase has always meant. Historically, “playing the race card” meant to pander politically to racists. The race card was a political trump card that could beat all others.
Following an influx of immigrants into the UK in the 50s and 60s, there was known to be a degree of racist discontent amongst the predominantly white indigenous population [and] there was an informal gentlemen’s agreement not to benefit electorally by pandering to this racist element. Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary seat of Smethwick in the 1964 General Election, was accused of using the slogan, ‘If you want a n****r neighbour – vote Labour’, in an attempt to capitalise on the electorate’s fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Later, once the phrase ‘play the race card’ had become part of the language in the 80s, commentators wrote pieces suggesting that Griffiths ‘played the race card’ in order to get elected.
So to play the race card means both “to attempt to gain advantage in an election by pandering to the electorate’s racism” and “to attempt to gain advantage by drawing attention to one’s race.” There is reversal suggested here: what used to be the racist’s tool has become the ethnic minority’s asset.
What the two meanings have in common is the idea that the race card trumps all arguments and shuts down debate. Whoever holds the race card wins.
Yet who really wins, in this day and age, when one person accuses another of playing the race card? The person who does so effectively removes the possibility of debate by dismissing and invalidating the other party’s opinion. When we remove the opportunity for debate, we substantially minimize the opportunity for understanding—and when we are unwilling to understand each other, we become separated.
In the past, we’re told, white politicians played the race card, pandering to racism as a way of shutting down their opponents’ arguments. Today we are to understand that people of color hold and play race cards of their own—but in fact it is the accusation, not the “card,” that holds all the power.
My frustration at Zac Goldsmith’s words extends so much further than it being a turn of phrase that irks me. These are not words that can be ignored and brushed off: these are words that are being used every day to ignore and silence people who are attempting to voice their frustrations.
I’m now thirty years old, and I’ve been trying for years to put into words how and why race is such a huge deal to people of color like me. The closest I’ve come is this: being able to exist and not have to think about race issues is a privilege. I always felt that until I could say something helpful, different, and poignant on the subject, I may as well keep quiet. The trouble with this “race card” thing is, I just can’t sit quietly while a prominent public figure perpetuates a term whose use results in people being shut down—people like me, who are people like everyone else, whose thoughts and feelings are equally valid. People like me, who have grown up experiencing first- and second-hand what it actually feels like to exist as a minority in a world where the playing field between those who are white and people of color is not level.
To me, the “race card” is not a card at all. A mere card couldn’t possibly fit all of the reasons I need to challenge and call out racism. My reasons for speaking out span the three continents that form a part of me and hundreds of years of colonialism, immigration, and experience. My race card is not a card: it’s the lives of my ancestors distilled into speckles of my genetic makeup. I’ve accumulated a “race book” full of experience, of bittersweet memories and difficult-to-process feelings, and I stand ready to explain to anyone willing to listen why I will no longer sit down and accept the dismissal embedded in this phrase.
Next time I’m accused of playing the card, I’m throwing down the book.
As a poet and lover of music, fiction, and other creative media, I’ve always considered art to be magical.
There is something fantastic about how a poem or a song goes from the creator to another person and makes them connect to things. In Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago uses art to reclaim her magical heritage and strengthen her community.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Latina teenager who just wants to enjoy her summer vacation with her friends. When she notices a neighborhood mural fading and the expression of the subject growing sad and angry, she is urged to finish her own mural by Manny, a friend of her grandfather Lazáro. Then, a walking corpse of a neighborhood man crashes a summer party and Sierra is thrust into the magical world of the shadowshapers. In order to protect her loved ones, Sierra must uncover the shadowshapers’ connection to her family and become a shadowshaper herself.
As an urban fantasy book, the real world manages to feel just as wonderful as the magical world. This is mainly due to the wonderful cast of characters that make up the people in Sierra’s life and the personal backgrounds that they come from. Two of my personal favorite characters were Tee and Izzy, lesbian girlfriends that were funny and loyal. Other favorites included Sierra’s Uncle Neville and Sierra’s intelligent, fashion opposite friend Bennie.
Besides their personalities, each character has a way of speaking that feels magical. One bit of dialogue that caught my attention features a back-and-forth between a group of domino-playing older gentlemen that were friends of Sierra’s grandpa Lazáro. In chapter six, Sierra pays them a visit and hears the following:
“Trouble at school, Sierra?” asked Mr. Jean-Louise. “Public school is a cesspool of poisonous bile.”
Manny threw his hands up, “¡Cállate, viejo!The child needs her education. Don’t ruin it for her just because you dropped out of kindergarten.”
Since the characters have strong ties to each other and their neighborhood, having the magical world of shadowshaping just underneath it makes them even more memorable. Shadowshaping involves giving spirits of departed loved ones and ancestors a physical form by fusing them with art. For Sierra and the other shadowshapers she encounters, the art is mainly visual, but shadowshaping can also be done through other creative means such as storytelling. The purpose of shadowshaping is to remember those who have come before and recently passed, preserving the past and present for the future generations.
In the real world, we already use art to remember and pass on the memories, traditions, and cultures of departed loved ones. Murals painted around cities become memorials and certain songs are sung, listened to, and written in tribute. However, Shadowshaper takes these things a step further by using the magic of shadowshaping to fight back against forces that try to eradicate an entire heritage. Protagonist Sierra Santiago must learn not only about shadowshaping, but also to stand up for the neighborhood and the culture that makes her who she is.
At the same time that the shadowshapers are being eradicated, Sierra’s multi-cultural neighborhood is experiencing gentrification. Places that Sierra and her friends used to go to are being transformed into establishments for white, middle class consumers. When the book opens, Sierra is in the middle of painting a mural on a building known as The Tower, a large-scale incomplete building that looms over the junklot where Manny and his friends play dominos. It is later revealed that Manny has a connection to the shadowshapers and that Sierra painting the mural was his way of trying to protect the neighborhood and the remaining shadowshapers.
Not only is Sierra fighting a battle within her own neighborhood, but she is also fighting an internal battle as well. Although she is confident in herself, there are times that she doesn’t feel she is enough of an Afro-Latina girl. Tía Rosa, her aunt, makes comments that contain anti-blackness and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on how light or dark one’s skin tone is). She says that Sierra’s friend Robbie is too dark and that Sierra’s hair is too nappy. In addition, Sierra also deals with sexual harassment while walking around her neighborhood, being shamed by her mom for her interest in shadowshaping, and sexism as a female shadowshaper.
Given all that Sierra experiences in her daily life, her heroic journey is deeply compelling. Sierra uses her artistic talent and shadowshaping to protect her neighborhood and reclaim a magical heritage she learns to appreciate through her family and friends. As a poet, I can’t help but admire Sierra Santiago and see part of myself in her. With paintbrush and chalk, Sierra Santiago shows that an artist can be a hero, a creative making something from shadows in order to express herself and preserve and protect what is important.
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.