All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World – Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom, edited by Deborah Santana.
Nothing But The Truth, San Francisco, CA, 2018.
Adult anthology, 365 pages.
NOTES: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Because this book contains 69 pieces, I decided to review it in three parts.
The essays and poems in AtWiMFS are roughly grouped into 8 categories, each containing between 7 and 10 pieces. Most are quite short, but I do like to comment briefly on each one, so I’ve decided to break this up so it’s not excessively long.
Editing Identity: Cultural Identity, Gender, and Sexuality
In Home Going, Naalie Baszile explores why her father left Louisiana, how she rediscovered it, and why they visit but don’t stay there. She evokes place gorgeously.
Look Where You’re Living by Maria Ramos-Chertok tells the story of three moms groups she joined, and the difficulty of passing on her Latina culture in a white suburb. I immediately connected to this one – the loneliness and feeling out of place is so real and common to all new moms.
Indian Territory by Eliana Ramage expresses her anger at the Cherokee removal and vignettes from her own life away from Indian Territory expressing her feelings about being Cherokee and Native in the larger American context. I enjoyed parts of this, but it wasn’t as cohesive as the other essays.
Klansville, USA is Camille Hayes’ study of the worst thing that happened in her life (and some bad things have happened in her life) – when she and her white parents moved from San Diego to North Carolina. What broke my heart about this essay is that these concerns are still real today. We travel a lot, but we are very careful about going south.
Randi Bryant-Agenbroad explores the conundrum of being a “Good Black” in The Bad Black, a surprisingly gripping essay. She writes about the one time her hair was braided, being told “But, you aren’t really Black” and not knowing what to say, and generally facing casual racism throughout her youth.
In The Color of Transparency, Shyla Margaret Machanda writes about her multicultural life in Toronto with two multiracial but similarly-colored parents. She knew her father was Indian and assumed her whole family was despite their significantly different appearances. She writes about strangers not knowing how to place her and her own confidence in herself.
From Negro to Black by La Rhonda Crosby-Johnson explores the way culture changed as terminology changed within only three generations from Colored to Negro to Black to African American. Linguistics fascinates me and the personal/general way she spoke about these changes was perfect.
AWOL WOC by Janine Shiota was another favorite. As a Japanese-American tomboy, she unpacks her lifelong responses to the phrase “woman of color”.
The final essay in this section is an important one. Home: A Transgender Journey by Mila Jam is one of the rare transgender person of color narratives, and I’m so glad it was included. She speaks to her money and fame influencing how she gained acceptance from her family and the difficulty of growing up a Black Christian transgender child.
At Home in the World: Immigration, Migration, and the Idea of Home
Blaire Topash-Caldwell explores the indigenous concept of space throughout time, physical space, linguistics, memories, spirituality, oral tradition, and more in her essay Reclaiming Indigenous Space. She uses her own specific Potawatomi context to explore ideas common to many indigenous Americans.
During her infancy, Sara Marchant was literally marked by her father’s culture as she was tattooed with his family’s symbol. Her essay, Proof of Blood, explores what it is like to be Mexican-American with no connection to her father or his family and no biological children. In Same Family, Different Colors, many people expressed their hurt at looking white and not being accepted in their culture, but for Sara her pale appearance was a way to separate from her abusive father. This essay does contain significant but relevant swears.
In the very short essay The Perfect Life, Fabiana Monteiro talks about how life in Cape Verde differs from her new life in America. Japanese-American Shizue Seigel explores her father’s racism and her own reactions to it in Swimming in the New Normal, a subtle discussion on generational responses. Both are solid, unexpected, but thought-provoking pieces that turn stereotypes around.
Escape from the Cambodian Killing Fields by Tammy Thea manages to pack an overview of the Khmer Rouge into her essay on her life and family, from those who died in Cambodia to her two autistic sons whom she believes were impacted by the war. She also writes sweetly about her arranged marriage love match in this balanced essay.
Phiroozeh Petigara writes about her experiences with her family in Karachi in This Is How You Do. Their hospitality amazes her, but then she experiences a less-pleasant side of the culture – their opinions on her marital relationship and expectations of her as a woman. She writes honestly about her freedom and isolation from her own family due to her more Western lifestyle choices.
In Truth Be Told, Sridevi Ramanathan writes about how Americans perceive Hindus and Indians, particularly her parents’ frustration with the simplistic way the subcontinent is often portrayed in American media, and the way her childhood experiences led to her career facilitating diversity circles.
Porochista Khakpour talks about traveling while brown, Muslim, and chronically ill after the Muslim travel ban in Home. As an American Muslim in a post-9/11 world, she shares one awkward experience as an example of her frequent flyer life. I was especially caught by the way she selected a group to sit with (trying to guess the most liberal group of white people) and how she best connected with white airport travelers (talking about Lyme disease… if they’ve heard of it). Her memoir is due out in May 2018 and sounds fascinating.
stay by Michelle Mush Lee concludes this section, and it is the first poem in the book. I struggled a bit with this one because the paragraph format is not to my taste. But poetry is highly individual, so your thoughts may vary.
Trailblazers, Hell-Raisers, and Stargazers: Careers, Work, and Worth
The Tireless Indispensable by Marian Wright Edelman is about the lives and careers of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and other women of color. The excellent thing about this anthology is that besides just having multiple views on a topic, some pieces veer off in unexpected directions.
I’m not sure how I feel about What It Takes: A Letter to My Granddaughter by Belva Davis. I’m not a fan of the second person, but epistolary essays are one of the exceptions. I go back and forth between wanting to put this on my kid’s wall, and feeling that it’s too specific to apply in this book or a larger context.
Forever, for Always, for Luther by Deborah J. McDuffie is another one that I think didn’t impact me as it should have, mainly because it seems Luther is a person of note whom I’m not familiar with (as happened with Trevor Noah). The essay is fine without the cultural context though.
You’re Hired! Being African American in Education by Dr. K.E. Garland explores the emotional reactions of being a “beneficiary” of minority hiring practices through two separate experiences. Since education is one of my fields, this essay was intensely interesting to me. I have seen teachers hired with no regard as to their credentials or ability, and I’ve also seen highly educated and dedicated professionals like Dr. Garland deeply hurt by this type of hiring practice. Another essay later also covers education.
Kelly Woolfolk explores her attempts at feeling comfortable in multiple places during her childhood in Finding Home. She also talks about her parenting choices, including making sure her son has experiences living outside the US so that he is comfortable in various environments and in his own skin, having received some images counter to American negativity.
Veronica Kugler had a lifelong dream – to live in Paris. And she achieved that goal, only to give it all up for love, marriage, and parenting on the California coast. In The Tunnel, she describes how her husband sought a divorce that sent her into a tailspin until she was able to embrace a selfish desire, and how making her own greatest wish come true actually brought greater happiness to the entire family.
In Willie Dee, Lalita Tademy talks about her mother’s many vicarious careers, and her own irritation with/gratitude for them. In The Payat Paradox, Fillipina Charina Lumley discusses the unique challenges of eating disorders in a culture centered around food.
Want Chyi discusses being an Asian American Punk and how it changed her world. I enjoyed this, but did feel that the first line was a bit of a tease based on a later part of the essay. The difficulties of being counterculture when you’re not part of the mainstream culture were fascinating though.
With Liberty and Justice for All: The Struggle for Social Justice and Equality
We Are America by America Ferrera – Still good, and I’m sure many people will enjoy having a copy. But so many people are familiar with this that it felt stale in this otherwise new collection. I also wish it had not led the section as the next essay felt stronger and was less tied to specific national politics.
Dr. Musimbi Fanyoro writes about a variety of women’s issues around the globe in her essay Hope, Justice, Feminism, and Faith. Then Matilda Smith writes about the process of becoming an Outlaw through (illegal) peaceful protest in South Africa. Both are meanful, were moving, and very relevant to my top 2018 nonfiction goal.
The Problem with Evolving by Ethel Morgan Smith is about negotiating her friendship with Sarah, a politically conservative Jew. Post-9/11, they agree not to discuss politics, but in telling her friend about an exciting upcoming event, she inadvertently crosses Sarah’s perception of the line. E-mails are fired back and forth, and their friendship seems to have gone up in smoke. Or has it?
Hope Wabuke examines police brutality with a critical and knowledgeable eye in What is Said, and Menen Hailu does the same for Ethiopian women living with HIV/AIDs in Invisible Women. Both are poignant, heartbreaking, and well-written.
A Hairy Situation by Wanda M. Holland Greene is a bit lighter but still reflective piece on having an emergency hair appointment, only to find a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of the closed salon.
V.V. Ganeshananthan’s essay about life with a long, unusual name, What’s in a Name, is reprinted here from the Harvard Crimson. This piece was spot-on!
The Girl from the Ghetto is Deborah L. Plummer’s essay about her relationship to Beany Malone – first reading the books, then living in their word when her family transplants to the suburbs, and finally coming to an awakening during a summer job babysitting during the Cleveland race riots.
What about the next four sections and my final thoughts on the book? I’ll be posting those later!