When I initially read the synopsis of Camille A. Collins’ book The Exene Chronicles, part of me expected a novel written as a series of letters and poems.
Part of me expected an angsty, maybe slightly melodramatic book about a young Black female punk rock fan writing letters and poems to the lead singer of her favorite band. Instead, I got something more genuine and relatable.
At the center of The Exene Chronicles is Lia, a fourteen year old Black punk fan in the 1980’s living in Coronado, a San Diego suburb. As one of the few Black kids in the area and at school, she befriends Ryan, a white girl her age acting rebellious and grown up to cope with unwanted sexual advances for her pubescent body. When Ryan disappears, Lia uses the punk rock singer Exene Cervenka as a guide to cope with what happened, what led to Ryan’s disappearance, and Lia’s falling out with Ryan.
One notable aspect of the book is the depiction of the joy and tumult that Lia deals with as a Black punk fan. On the one hand, seeing Lia become enraptured with Exene and punk rock through listening to CDs and viewing the 1981 punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization is enjoyable and relatable. During these moments, Lia reminded me of my teenaged self in the early 00’s discovering alternative rock bands Linkin Park and Evanescence through CDs and YouTube.
Although we lived in different decades and listened to different rock subgenres, I really related to Lia’s feeling of alienation and frustration and how punk rock became the catalyst for her to express herself and feel better about her life. Some particularly memorable thoughts Lia (and Ryan) have about Exene is expressed in the following: “And as much as they admired Exene, watching it all unfold bolstered their perception of themselves also, and made them, for a moment, feel fearless — of every place they’d been and wherever it was they were going.”
On the other hand, Lia also experiences racism, not just in the punk rock scene but also in her daily life. Some of the racism is overt, with Lia being called the “n-word” by white people during certain interactions. As a Black reader, I did find these scenes stinging me a bit, especially during one particularly harrowing scene involving Lia encountering Nazi skinhead youth. Other times, the racism is more subtle, Ryan making race “jokes” and Ryan’s mother thinking “Lia should’ve been the one abducted because Black people are used to suffering.”
Skillfully intertwined with racism is a critique of America’s glamorous white middle class standards, toxic masculinity, and sexual assault and harassment. These issues are depicted not only through Ryan and Lia, but also through secondary characters such as Ryan’s younger brother Jeff and the predatory young half-Mexican man, Neil. The book’s point of view alternates between the main characters and the secondary characters, providing a multi-faceted look at some of the ugliest aspects of the American ideal.
Despite the seriousness of the book, Collins manages to add some beauty in the story with lyrical turns of phrase. This writing style was especially notable when reading from Lia’s point of view, displaying her dreamy side. Notable examples of this include, “Many of the songs began in a flurry, the gates open on a racetrack and the horses fly! Played fast and ending abruptly with the slam of a door that gives finality to an argument, the notes standing on tiptoe.”
All in all, this book is a beautiful, brutal glimpse of 80’s punk culture. Lia is a young, alienated Black female punk fan who must navigate a sea of whiteness and racism to define herself on her own terms. Through the highs and lows of punk rock music, Lia’s story of eventual liberation from confining standards inspires all.