White Nights, Black Paradise by Sikivu Hutchinson

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whitenightsblackparadisePublisher/Date:  Infidel Books, Nov. 2015
Genre(s):  Historical Fiction
Pages:  325
Website:  http://sikivuhutchinson.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

In 1978, Peoples Temple, a multiracial church once at the forefront of progressive San Francisco politics, self-destructed in a Guyana jungle settlement named after its leader, the Reverend Jim Jones. Fatally bonded by fear of racist annihilation, the community’s greatest symbol of crisis was the White Night; a rehearsal of revolutionary mass suicide that eventually led to the deaths of over 900 church members of all ages, genders and sexual orientations. White Nights, Black Paradise focuses on three fictional black women characters who were part of the Peoples Temple movement but took radically different paths to Jonestown: Hy, a drifter and a spiritual seeker, her sister Taryn, an atheist with an inside line on the church s money trail and Ida Lassiter, an activist whose watchdog journalism exposes the rot of corruption, sexual abuse, racism and violence in the church, fueling its exodus to Guyana. White Nights, Black Paradise is a riveting story of complicity and resistance; loyalty and betrayal; black struggle and black sacrifice. It locates Peoples Temple and Jonestown in the shadow of the civil rights movement, Black Power, Second Wave feminism and the Great Migration. Recapturing black women’s voices, White Nights, Black Paradise explores their elusive quest for social justice, home and utopia. In so doing, the novel provides a complex window onto the epic flameout of a movement that was not only an indictment of religious faith but of American democracy.

The Jonestown Massacre of 1978 was one of the worst mass casualties of its time. A large number of Blacks, after following leader Jim Jones to Guyana searching for a better life than what America had to offer, were directed to drink a poisonous substance to participate in what was called “revolutionary suicide.” Hence where the saying, “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” gets its origins.

In reading WHITE NIGHTS, BLACK PARADISE by Sikivu Hutchinson I know that the rise and motivations of this movement were far from “revolutionary.” Hutchinson’s book paints a clearer picture of the members of Peoples Temple, but in particular focuses on three fictional women who are the anchor of this book: Taryn, a lesbian who follows her sister, Hy, into the church; and Ida Lassiter, a journalist whose connection to Jim Jones serves her ambitions to expose his warped empire.

It also exposes the beggining of Jones’s obsession with the black church and Black people in general: at first their swagger and cool, but later, their plight, their oppression and their loyalty. He’s a riveting character, in the way one would watch a tyrant come to power, in the way he thinks his actions come from a righteous place.

The novel is a bit slow in the beginning as Hutchinson relays the back story of the Peoples Temple, but picks up steam once the decision to emigrate to Georgetown, Guyana is in effect. Then, the defectors and the Jones’ brown nosers are essentially at war to either turn away from the church’s mission or devote their whole lives to it. This is when the book comes alive in terms of character development because the hard decisions the members make set them on a course that’s difficult to reverse. There’s moments in the latter part of the book that made me cringe watching our Black brothers and sisters follow behind a false prophet, who had his own demons to exorcise.

“Who will save us?” is a thought that stayed in the back of my mind while reading as it seemed his members – many impoverished and neglected black folks – blindly followed Jones because of the promises he offered them about living in world where they wouldn’t be second-class citizens. He preyed on their troubles and manipulated them to leave for what they thought would be a better life. That sad message was conveyed effectively in the novel.

Hutchinson definitely did her research with White Nights, Black Paradise, and if you’re a historical fiction fan, or enjoy reading novels based on real-life events, this novel is definitely for you.

Reviewed May 2016

About Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is an American feminist, atheist and author. She is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2013), Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011), Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (Travel Writing Across the Disciplines) (2003), and White Nights, Black Paradise (2015). Moral Combat is the first book on atheism to be published by an African-American woman. In 2013 she was named Secular Woman of the year.


Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okaparanta

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happinesslikewaterPublisher/Date:  Mariner Books, Aug. 2013
Genre(s):  Short Story, Love, Family, Religion, Women’s Issues
Pages:  208
Website:  www.marinerbooks.com

Rating: ★★★★★ 

When I picked up HAPPINESS, LIKE WATER by Chinelo Okparanta, I saw it profound that I was drawn to this book about girls and women in Nigeria, the same country where almost 300 girls were stolen from their dormitory in April, only to be sold as chattel or hidden away. In Okparanta’s short story collection, her characters wrestle with their own issues of love, faith, and sorrow. Happiness grabbed me at the first couple of pages, and I couldn’t stop reading – and thinking – about a woman’s worth.

Set in a land with lush landscapes and sweltering days, the women’s plights – from coveting a lighter skin color, to falling in love with the same sex – are captured in heartbreaking detail. It deftly embodies what lengths women would go through to have what they believe is happiness.

Lambda-Medal2014

2014 Lambda Literary Award WinnerFrom http://www.lambdaliterary.org

Highlights include “Grace,” surrounding a religion professor with an inquisitive student posing questions about sexuality and the Bible, with both eventually discovering the tough answers lead to each other; “Runs Girl” featuring a young woman who learns there is a price to doing the right thing for the right reasons; and the unreliable narration of “Story, Story!” drew me in to a woman’s despiration to have a baby.

Yet by far, my favorite story from Happiness is “Tumours and Butterflies,” which drew me into the tumultuous relationship between a daughter and father so focused on his child’s missteps he fails to see his own. There’s a loss of innocence one has, even as an adult, when you realize your parents are toxic to your well-being. Okparanta portrays this feeling well.

What Okparanta also does well is convey the realities of Nigerian women and families in America. Okparanta, a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 10, allows us to see how the United States is treated as a promise land of sorts in her native country, where dreams can be fulfilled.

After reading Happiness, Like Water, I can see exactly why Okparanta won a 2014 Lambda Literary Award just a few nights ago because I was enamored with her writing. The way she turns a phrase, even when a story takes a sad turn, is comforting. The lesbian stories are handled with care, providing some of the happier moments. Happiness envelopes you into the life of the characters, who have experiences that could shared by any woman in any country, but are more sentimental to Black women in particular. But the sadness is truly palpable in Happiness. There were only couple of stories I felt had an abrupt ending, but it didn’t take away from the strength or authenticity of Okparanta’s voice.

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Reviewed June 2014

About Chinelo Okparanta

Chinelo Okparanta was born in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, and was raised there as a Jehovah’s Witness. When she was ten, her family relocated to the United States. She received her BS from The Pennsylvania State University, her MA from Rutgers University, and her MFA from the University of Iowa. She has worked as a middle and high school French and English Language teacher, and an undergraduate writing teacher. She is one of Granta’s six New Voices for 2012 and has stories forthcoming from Conjunctions, Subtropics, and elsewhere.


Living With 3 Strikes Against Me: Life Through My Eyes as Black, Female and Gay by Ericka K. F. Simpson

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livingwith3strikeslesbianrealife

 

 

 

 

Publisher/Date:  Amazon Digital Services, Inc., Aug. 2012
Genre:  Lesbian Real Life
Pages:  149
Website:  http://www.ekfsimpson.com

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

After authoring countless novels, such as the outstanding I Am Your Sister, Ericka K. F. Simpson has finally written her own life story in LIVING WITH 3 STRIKES: LIFE THROUGH MY EYES AS BLACK, FEMALE AND GAY.

The messages Simpson imparts descend from her reactions and responses to life experiences. She started writing Living when she was 23 and was still learning her way in the world. Now she’s summoned the courage and confidence to be herself and share this knowledge with others.

Simpson has a testimony. Growing up in a religious household, it didn’t feel right having crushes on girls. She tried to deny it by dating guys, but it was a losing battle. What she felt was real. Denying it and carrying the pain literally made her sick, developing stage 3 colon cancer; stress and anger from trying to please others festered into a tumor that could have killed her. Only then did Simpson begin to live for herself.

Living is divided into seven categories, ones that talk about her early life, love, women, religion and parental controls; a section of Simpson’s poetry is included, as well. These segments provide insight into the author, who displays a maturity that should rub off on younger black lesbians.

Simpson offers these gems:

Love: “Trust me, there is someone out there who will appreciate you for who you are. They will love you the way you need to be loved and most of all, they will fight for that love. Wait for that person, wait for that moment, wait for that kind of love then you fight to keep it.”

Sex: “The point I’m trying to make is this, whether you have good pussy or bad pussy, clean or raunchy, give good head or no head, you’re offering something that all women have the ability to provide. And your pussy being ‘well used’ don’t make it better than most.”

Religion:My point is, for those of you who are gay and love God, worship Him anyway. Don’t let the church make you feel ashamed to love God and someone of the same sex. People do not know your heart but God does and He’ll know if the relationship you have with him is real.”

If you read Living With 3 Strikes Against Me and take it in, you will be blessed with information and humor that you can apply to your life. It’s said that God places people in your life for a reason, and Simpson’s story is definitely not in vain.

Reviewed December 2012