memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter

Years ago, in my very early 20’s, I was introduced to the concept of female genital mutilation when my online book club read Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziwa Kassindja. Since then, I’ve read other books on the subject, and it never gets any less horrifying. Last summer, my library announced they would read The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) as a book club selection. I’m still not going to in-person events, so I missed out on what I’m sure was an amazing discussion, but I definitely still wanted to read the book. That FGM hasn’t disappeared off this planet yet is a tragedy, but it’s a relief knowing there are still brave women (and men!) out there, fighting so hard against it.

Nice Leng’ete grew up in Kenya, a member of the Maasai tribe. Her parents were more progressive than most, and her father had a deep commitment to ensuring that his children were educated. Unfortunately, both of Nice’s parents died when Nice was still in early elementary school, and she and her sister were shipped off to an uncle who wasn’t much interested in raising his brother’s children. Education remained a priority for Nice, and she fought hard to be able to stay in school, but by the time she turned nine, her family began demanding that she undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation. Having seen these scenarios performed and knowing that its risks included infection and death – and especially knowing that having this done would mean early marriage, babies, and the end of her education – Nice refuses, even running away multiple times to escape the knife.

It’s not easy to avoid being mutilated; pressure is intense and Nice is nearly shunned by her family and her community for refusing (her sister is, unfortunately, not so lucky), but she holds fast and not only gets the education she deserves, she goes on to college and begins a career with a nonprofit, working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation around the world.

What a fascinating book! This is another easy read about a tough subject. It’s not as in-depth as, say, Do They Hear You When You Cry, but it’s definitely more accessible for younger readers and would make a fabulous read for the mature middle-to-high schooler looking to become better informed about issues that affect girls and women around the world. FGM is still happening, even in countries where it’s been banned, and Ms. Leng’ete makes an excellent case for why people like her – girls and women who know the community, who are intimately familiar with the communities – need to be at the forefront of demanding change. There are a lot of great lessons in this book about what amazing modern-day leadership looks like.

This is another book I read quickly, but it’ll stay with me. I’m in awe of Ms. Leng’ete’s bravery, and her commitment to becoming educated despite so many challenges. This is another book I’d love for my own daughter to read in the future.

Follow Nice Leng’ete on Twitter here.

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nonfiction

Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

There has been an amazing crop of history books the past few years that reckon with a lot of the ugly parts of American history, and slavery and racism have been high on the list of subjects covered. I’ve read a bunch of them, with more on my list (I try to space them out; my brain tends to burn out if I read too much on one subject at any one time). How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) is one of the best ones, and it left me not only wanting to learn more, but to read more from Clint Smith.

Author Clint Smith travels around the US and even beyond its borders, in search of the history that continues to bleed from the past and stain the present. Slavery has touched all of American history, no matter how much some groups want to pretend it barely existed or wasn’t a big deal, and Mr. Smith shines a light on much of the history those groups would rather we forget about: Thomas Jefferson’s fathering six children with Sally Heming, his teenage slave; the plantations that dotted the South and were veritable small cities of enslaved people living in hideous conditions while the owner lived in luxury; the plantation-turned-prison that highlights exactly how far we haven’t come (they give tours of Death Row?!?!!?!??).

This isn’t the dry history textbook you read in school. Clint Smith’s voice absolutely shines through, giving this book and the subject the personal, more emotional touch that it deserves. He travels all over the US and even to Africa, where he traces the origins of the slave trade and the scars it left on that continent as well (something I hadn’t yet encountered in writing before, and which made me think). This is history writing at its finest.

The subject matter alone is enough to make anyone with more than one brain cell scream; it’s difficult to read about such horrific injustice, injustice that continues today in different (and not-so-different) forms, without being overcome with rage that people can be so disgusting to each other. But Clint Smith tempers that rage with his calm observances and insight; the people he interviews provide thoughtful commentary and sharp observations on the way the past still affects our present.

This is an amazing, intelligent, perfectly-written book on history that some of the loudest groups out there would like for you to forget exists. Read it for that, but read it more because it’s an incredible piece of writing that will stretch your worldview and make you better-informed about history that the US continues to grapple with every day.

Visit Clint Smith’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

I no longer remember how Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford (Little, Brown & Company, 2020) ended up on my TBR, but the library turned out to not have the format I needed for my kindle, so once again, interlibrary loan saved the day!

In her second year at a private Episcopal boarding school in New England, Lacy Crawford is sexually assaulted by two male students. To compound the horror of the situation, she contracts herpes in her throat (deep enough that it’s obvious to medical professionals that there’s no way this could have been consensual), and the school not only learns of this years before Lacy does, they warn other students about her. And when Lacy finally breaks her silence, the school does everything it can to shut her up, including threatening to ruin her reputation by spreading lies about her.

In response, years later, Lacy Crawford wrote this book.

This is one of the bravest books I’ve ever read. It’s tragic, in the way that books are when their authors reveal so much personal pain, but there’s even more tragedy here: Lacy feels obligated to lay out all the details of every sexual encounter she had while at the school- some consensual, others not- in order to not only give a fuller picture of her experiences, but to get ahead of the officials from the school who may have tried to use her sexual history against her (because we all know how that goes. One consensual experience is all it takes to turn a girl or a woman into a raving slut in the eyes of the world. Consent to physical contact with a single man and that means you’re asking for it from everyone. What a disgusting society we’ve created). Women shouldn’t have to go through this in order to be believed, but Lacy knows exactly what she’s up against and bares her soul and her past in a raw, open way on these pages.

This is an emotionally difficult read, but it’s a story that will be familiar to every woman out there (men, I need you to step up and read this book and realize what we go through, what we’re subject to, what your daughters and sisters and mother and friends have lived under the shadow of our entire lives). The school officials threatening Lacy and passing along her private medical information- that SHE hadn’t even been told of- to the student body. The nastiness of the student body. Lacy’s desperation to reclaim some sort of agency over her life and her body. People constantly bringing up the STD Lacy contracted from the assault to her, decades later (on what PLANET is that an okay subject to broach with anyone but your closest friends who have made it known that this is acceptable to discuss?????) The way the school handled this is both utterly horrifying and humdrum at the same time- humdrum because this is how things work in this world. Men are allowed to hurt us, assault us, affect us, and walk free, and we shoulder the blame, the guilt, the costs.

Good for Lacy Crawford for finding her voice and shouting from the rooftops about the cesspool behind the administration at St. Paul’s of Concord, New Hampshire. It’s long past time that women started speaking out about the wrongs done to us and about the many ways these institutions will throw us under the bus in the scramble to protect their own reputation. The language used in this book is powerful and damning, and I’m in awe of Ms. Crawford’s bravery. If you have the emotional bandwidth of this book, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the finest examples of strength and bravery I’ve ever read.

Visit Lacy Crawford’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller

My last read of 2021 was one from my list, and ended up being about one of my pet subjects: prison reform, or, more accurately for this book, life-after-prison reform. I learned about Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) because it appeared on one of those best-of-the-year book lists. I added it and grabbed it on my next library trip. And it didn’t disappoint.

Scores of Americans are affected in one way or the other by our heinous system of mass incarceration. Whether it’s because they’ve done time themselves, a family member or loved one has been inside, or they or someone they know work for the system, few of us escape the burden of what mass incarceration has done to American society as a whole. Reuben Jonathan Miller knows this well. As a Black man, he’s fortunate to have grown to adulthood without having served time (since we imprison Black folks at a much, much higher rate than white, along with imposing longer sentences for the same crimes), but he hasn’t escaped the affects; his brother has served multiple sentences, and Professor Miller deals with the system constantly because of this.

Part memoir and all condemnation of the mass incarceration system that wrecks lives and wreaks havoc on the people tangled up in it, Halfway Home shows the difficulty formerly incarcerated people face in the afterlife of their sentences. How do they find a job when no one wants to take a chance on someone who has done time? How do they find a place to live when so many places have rules and laws against allowing people with criminal records to live there? How is it possible to survive when all the odds are stacked against you and society as a whole is determined to throw you away?

Halfway Home will open your eyes to the devastating effects of American mass incarceration. The punishment doesn’t stop when the sentence is served; the punishment never stops, and we keep punishing people until they die, with laws, regulations, and rules that limit where they live, where they can work, who they can spend time with, and the list goes on and on. And as for rehabilitation? No such thing in our system. Bootstraps only, and then we faux-wring our hands and are shocked, shocked, at the high recidivism rate.

Halfway Home will frustrate and likely depress you, but it will also open your eyes to what life is like for incarcerated people after the sentences end- and the frustrations that exist for the people who love them.

Follow Reuben Jonathan Miller on Instagram.

nonfiction

Book Review: Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen

I ran across Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen (Little, Brown and Company, 2019) in the library last year and thought, ‘Ooh, that looks good,’ but at the time, I didn’t know if I could handle more political talk (I don’t remember what was going on at the time, but whatever it was was taking up a lot of my emotional energy). After stumbling upon a discussion of the book again a few months later, I remembered how intriguing it sounded and plopped it onto my TBR, where it sat until I finally grabbed it in my last trip to the library. And boy, am I glad I did.

Samantha Allen, a transgender journalist and author, has lived most of her life in the places known as red states, politically conservative areas with a history of enacting harsh measures against their LGBT population and refusing to accept them as full citizens with the same rights as everyone else. After the 2016 election, she began travelling through these red states, searching out the LGBT communities and learning how their members survive and even thrive in the places they love that don’t necessarily love them back. What makes them stay? Why not flee to somewhere where every day isn’t a struggle?

In traveling and interviewing, Ms. Allen began to clarify the feelings she’s felt about these places. Community is often stronger in places where the fight to survive is at the forefront. Supportive chosen family becomes easier to find, and more cohesive. Nothing changes if no one fights for it, and these are the people who refuse to give up, who refuse to have the places they love taken from them. She makes an amazing case for staying in places that are oftentimes hard to live in (though not always!) and being the kind of person who fights for change.

This is a powerful book, filled with people who have grown strong and resilient out of necessity, and who are using that growth to affect much-needed change in places that have been resistant to it. Ms. Allen made me check my attitude toward those red states; having lived in several, I understand how difficult it can be, and the sometimes PTSD or PTSD-like reactions that can come from the maltreatment received there, but she helped me to understand what it takes to remain there and thrive, what it takes to live there and fight, and that these people should be commended for their determination, not pitied because they choose to remain. They deserve a place at the table where they choose to live, those places they live because they love it there, and they need to be supported in their oftentimes uphill battle to be respected and treated with dignity. I think I had fallen into the trap of wondering why so many people stay in places that don’t want them there, but this helped me to understand the why of it better. (I mean, I’ve long understood having ties to a place; no matter how many times I’ve left Illinois as an adult, I always come back because I love it here so much, but my ability to live here isn’t compromised or threatened because of who I am or who I’m attracted to. I have, however, lived in a town where people are regularly threatened or ostracized due to their political leanings and their sexuality; I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I’m aware of what it takes to stay in a place like that. But seeing it through the eyes of the LGBT+ folks who are on the front lines of this was a much-needed perspective for me.)

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Ms. Allen shares the story of her own transition in such an open, honest way, not just the physical parts, but the emotional parts, the difficulties, the fears, the triumphs, and who and what helped her along the way. If you’re LGBT+ and in a red state, or the parent/family member/friend of someone who is, or if you’re wondering why people choose to stay in places where the politicians regularly sneer at their communities (often on a national stage), you need to read this book, because it’ll help you understand the why of it all and be supportive of their choices. And it’ll also help you understand that even if you live in a blue state or blue area, you still need to fight for these marginalized communities as though you don’t.

Seriously amazing, eye-opening book. It’s inspiring and hopeful in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Thank you, Ms. Allen. I needed that.

Visit Samantha Allen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.