Pickaninny Papers Search
Powered by Squarespace

Book Review: Tina Fey, Bossypants (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

By Lydia Holt
If I weren’t the sleep-deprived mother of a sick child, I probably would have stayed up late into the night to finish 
Bossypants by Tina Fey all in one go. As it was, I had to swallow my guffaws so as not to wake the aforementioned sick child.


I Am Not Descended From Egyptian Pharaohs, and That's OK

By Lydia Holt

I love what the girls of Watoto From The Nile did in their video/letter to Lil’ Wayne. It was a superb critique of misogyny cleverly disguised as hip-hop, and their video brought up an aspect of black American culture that has long been a bur in my saddle. 


Arts & Culture



Entries in Arts & Culture (8)


A Rich Man: Celebrating Edward P. Jones During National Short Story Month

By Nichole Rustin-Paschal

The New Yorker’s hold on me has stemmed less from its vaunted fiction and more from its criticism and reporting. Except for mid-summer in 2003 when it published Edward P. Jones’ short story, “A Rich Man.” I had never heard of him. But his language drew me in, entrancing me with its specificity, materiality, and what was left unsaid. The story recounts the end of a marriage between a long-suffering wife and her philandering husband, the couple who came to be known in their retirement complex as the man and wife who couldn’t stand each other. Loneese and Horace are former civil servants, estranged from their only son, and increasingly so from their only grandson. After Loneese’s lonely death in the hospital, Horace could openly bed women without making feeble attempts to hide his activities. Rather than keep to women nearer his age of 72, Horace rediscovers the pleasures of much younger women. As is just, considering how shabbily he treated his wife during their entire marriage, Horace is felled by his lusts, old and new. In the last scene we see him standing amidst the shards of his prize record collection, wanting to kill but his hand is stayed by the sounds of a crying baby.

Without ever explicitly describing the couple as middle-aged black people, Jones scripted their race through their language patterns and vocal cadences, their clothes, their customs. I knew them intimately. Truthfully though, even as I felt I knew them intimately, I still wondered throughout that first reading whether those were black characters. Had an author told a story that depicted the disappointments, realities, and experiences of black men and women without actually having explicitly stated they were black? I could visualize Loneese and Horace, as well as the other characters, even without Jones providing clues about the hues of their skin or the relative kinkiness of their hair.
Jones’ fiction gets at the heart of what short story telling is about, the creation of fully imagined worlds where characters live and struggle to find meaning in their experiences and relationships. In Jones’ fiction, the world is unapologetically a black world with its norms rooted in black culture. Jones probes those norms to explore universal truths about betrayal, love, sex, family, and work. Jones puts an end to the question of whether one must be either a black person who writes or a writer who happens to be black.   

Jones also charts the complex geography of black Washington, D.C. in the twentieth century in his short story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Washington, D.C. is as much a character as any of the individuals in his stories, with its own story to tell. The city is alive with black migrants from the South, with shifting neighborhood boundaries marked by segregation then integration, with personal grievances and disturbances. Jones, a native Washingtonian, was partially inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners; he wanted people to understand the city as “a place of neighborhoods.” The two story collections are also linked, not as a sequel to the original, but as the reprise of characters and themes, a fuller fleshing out of neighborhood places and inhabitants of 20th century Washington.

Jones, the winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, spent 10 years thinking about his novel, The Known World, a story about a black slave owner in Virginia. The writing took only months. For Jones, putting words to paper comes after he understands the climax of the story. All the writing is toward that end; knowing where the writing is going is the hard part, once there, much of the writing is, as he says, behind you. He speaks candidly of his depression and finding that writing, rather than antidepressants, has seen him through. Even if no one else reads the work or responds to it, the fact of being able to fill the page with characters and events built through his imagination, gives him satisfaction and the feeling of well-being. Whereas some authors seek unfettered time to write, Jones found that freedom because of having a  “day job” working for the federal government. He could think his stories through, working out the characters, and working toward the conclusion without the stress of wondering how he would support himself or whether he was completing the book fast enough so that it could be published, allowing the publisher to recoup its advance. Now he teaches creative writing at George Washington University.    

For Jones, being a writer means always becoming one, there is no “creative bank” a writer can draw on when starting a new novel or story, you are always “starting at the bottom again.” Eschewing the myth that copious research renders fiction authentic, Jones relies on and is in fact freed by his imagination and the remembered details of every day life to create stories and characters that explore the known world of black Americans. His fiction is heart-stopping and wondrous, masterful and simple. We are the richer for reading it.



Book Review: Tina Fey, Bossypants (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

By Lydia Holt

If I weren’t the sleep-deprived mother of a sick child, I probably would have stayed up late into the night to finish Bossypants by Tina Fey all in one go. As it was, I had to swallow my guffaws so as not to wake the aforementioned sick child. Bossypants is equal parts how-to (be successful in a male dominated work place, that is) and memoir sprinkled with life lessons and feminism, all cleverly interspersed with jokes and Tinaliciousness, like this shout-out to my home town in her beauty tips section:

“As you age, you may want to pay someone to shoot lasers at your face. If you are a fancy lady and live in a fancy urban center like New York or Dallas-Fort Worth…” (emphasis mine).

Part of me knows she’s insinuating that my dear Heart of North Texas Metroplex is in fact not an urban center, but the fact that she picked it out of all the other mid-sized middle American cities in the U.S. warms the cockles of my heart. I had to include it in this review.

She has proven she is a funny and witty writer through her work on sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, skillfully lampooning that week’s news headlines; on the NBC comedy 30 Rock, where she has turned her experience working on SNL into a show of her own; and in writing the screenplay for Mean Girls. What I didn’t expect was the revelation that her father was the Bernie Mac of the Silent Generation. She doesn’t put it exactly that way, but you’ll understand that about Don Fey if you read the book. I won’t spoil it for you by going into further detail, but with a Bernie Mac type as her father, there’s no wonder she grew up to be one of the hardest working comediennes in the business.

From her childhood in a suburb of Philadelphia to becoming head writer of Saturday Night Live and creator of 30 Rock, to motherhood and agonizing over whether or not to have a second child, Tina Fey lets the reader into her mind’s inner workings, revealing what she thinks has and has not worked in her life so far. Being a “mean girl” doesn’t work, but doing her own thing and not caring who likes it works (to the tune of 10 Primetime Emmys). Fey expertly exposes the absurdity of contemporary life:

“Luxury cruises were designed to make something unbearable—a two-week transatlantic crossing–seem bearable. There’s no need to do it now. There are planes. You wouldn’t take a vacation where you ride on a stagecoach for two months but there’s all-you-can-eat shrimp. You wouldn’t take a vacation where you have an old-timey appendectomy without anesthesia while steel drums play.”

And the lessons to be learned from improvisational comedy:

“To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”

There is also an especially delicious treat in a chapter Fey spends answering mean-spirited Internet posts. Who wouldn’t want to loud talk cowards throwing insults from the safety of cyberspace? It is most satisfying. I sigh just thinking about it.

I had the added pleasure of reading the e-book enhanced edition which includes an audio introduction, an audio chapter read by Tina Fey (featuring her reading script excerpts in which she impersonates the voices of Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan) and bonus pictures not available in print.

Bossypants. I read it. I liked it. I think you’ll like it too.


I Am Not Descended From Egyptian Pharaohs, and That’s OK

 By Lydia Holt

Bust of Nefertiti from the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin collectionI love what the girls of Watoto From The Nile did in their video/letter to Lil’ Wayne. It was a superb critique of misogyny cleverly disguised as hip-hop, and their video brought up an aspect of black American culture that has long been a bur in my saddle. Since the Black Power Movement we’ve been calling ourselves “kings” and “queens” as if a royal cloak were a requirement for respect. This is especially true for girls and women. The girls of Watoto From The Nile are smart and articulate. But why isn’t being a girl enough to garner respect? Must you be a queen to be respected and critique the words and actions of a man? Being a decent human being unafraid of speaking her mind in the face of ignorance and degradation is enough.

Have you ever heard your common English man or woman boasting that they come from royalty? No. And they actually have a royal family. So why do we feel the need to affirm ourselves, our blackness, our worthiness, with claims that we come from kings and queens? More often than not, accompanied by images of Egyptian pharaohs? (And by the way, Cleopatra was Greek.) Don't get me wrong, I understand the need to remind ourselves that we weren't some slack-jawed, half-human, bottom dwellers, taken from the heart of darkness and thrust into the light of American slavery, but human beings with a rich cultural heritage. I get that. However, most of my ancestors, like most of us Americans that are descended from slaves, came from West Africa, and I doubt very highly that they were royalty.

More than likely, they were ordinary people. My many times great-grandparentslet’s call one of these couples Kwame and Afiahad a house, perhaps even a small compound, where they lived near Kwame’s parents and male siblings in a quiet village. They tended a small garden and had some chickens and maybe even a goat or two. One day all hell breaks loose. Hoodlums from a neighboring village overrun the compound burning down houses, brandishing strange weapons with exploding tips and throwing crudely made rope nets over people as they try to escape. Next thing Afia knows, Kwame has disappeared and is maybe even dead. She's tied to a bunch of other folk, walking through the bush for days on end until they reach the coast.  

Ashanti woman with her daughters, Ghana, c. 1874
Can you imagine seeing the ocean for the very first time having spent your entire life living inland? I grew up in North Texas and didn't visit a beach until I was nine or so, but even now, as an adult, I am often awestruck by the power and beauty of the ocean. Afia must have heard the roar of the sea long before she saw it. Who knows if she could fully take in its magnificence, traumatized as she must have been, and who knows what she thought of the white men she saw. She sees the ocean only briefly before being shuttled into the belly of a fortress to wait for days maybe even weeks, huddled together with her fellow captives, sitting in her own feces, urine, and menstrual blood.  

My sister and I joke that the only way anyone survived the Middle Passage was through the will to survive and a sense of humor. We picture Afia, shackled to a dead body, cracking jokes with a friend she's made in the cargo hold of the ship, and talking smack about their captors between bouts of agonizing pain and sadness. We all know it didn’t get any better once she reached the Caribbean and then the U.S. A few generations later my ancestors made the treks from the Carolinas (on my mother's side) and Virginia (on my father's side) to the Great State of Texas, and five generations later, here I am in Brooklyn, NY.

I respect and revere my ancestors not because they were chiefs or kings or queens, but because they are my people. They endured more pain and sorrow than I could ever possibly imagine with strength and dignity, and I like to think, cracking a few jokes along the way. To Afia and Kwame, respect!

Page 1 2