THE BREAK

KATHERINE VERMETTE

The Break is a haunting book full of both love and hate. On a cold winter night, two girls are violently assaulted in an empty lot. One was raped with a beer bottle. The Break shows how the violence affects the families and community, a large rock thrown into a body of water. The raped victim’s aunt saw the assault from her house and called the cops but being night did not comprehend what was really happening. Could she have done more? The girl who was the ringleader of the assault reminds me of Serena Nicotine a troubled sociopath I taught in grade two, who when a teen drowned a little girl, then later when in a halfway house stabbed the attendant to death.

Unfortunately, The Break was the first book voted off the Canada Reads program on CBC. I would have enjoyed hearing the discussion of this great book.

THE DESERTER’S TALE: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq

JOSHUA KEY as told to LAWRENCE HILLdeserter's

Key thought joining the U.S. military was a way to escape the poverty of his youth and get a decent-paying, secure job, perhaps even an education, to support his growing family. In many ways, Key was an ideal recruit: he had a childhood fascination with guns, he was a bit of a fighter but still followed orders, and he was good with his hands. He even enjoyed boot camp where they were taught all Iraqis were terrorist, even the babies. In Iraq, Key took part in acts of cruel and vindictive violence. His squad’s nightly tasks become a routine of violence and the abuse of power: raiding civilian homes, brutalizing the inhabitants, destroying the contents, stealing the valuables and taking the men and boy five feet tall away, never to be seen again. Key does not know where these men, who were not arrested for any crime, were sent: perhaps to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. joshua keyThey never found any terrorists, caches of weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were ordered to do the same thing night after night. At first there was no resistance. Then gradually resistance began to build. Key commented that if a foreign power landed in the US and terrorized the citizens the same way there would be hell to pay.

“We claimed to be bringing democracy and good order to the people of Iraq, but all we brought were hate and destruction. The only thing gave to the people of Iraq was a reason to despise us–for generations to come.”

When home for a two week break Key realized he could not return. He was already suffering from PTSD. Eventually, he made it to Canada where he applied for asylum.

“I will never apologize for deserting the American army. I deserted an injustice and leaving was the only right thing to do. I owe one apology and one apology only and that is to the people of Iraq.”

lawrence-hill_584During the 60’s and 70’s Canada’s door were open to anti-war protestors. I hope that will happen again with our recent change of government. Canada benefited from the creative and entrepreneurial spirit those immigrants brought. One name that comes to mind is the Canadian author Robert Munsch.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

TA-NEHISI COATES

Between is both a treatise on racism in the US and a memoir. Coates wrote itcoates as a  letter to his son, who he is assisting to make sense of blatant racial injustice and come to grips with his place in a world that refuses to guarantee for him the freedoms that so many others take for granted. “I write you in your 15th year, and you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. . . . I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”  With all the young black men who have been killed recently, with little or nothing being done to the perpetrators, Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.” “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

It is a bleak view. “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

It is a powerful book. As I read it I often compared the racism in the US to the racism here in Canada against First Nations people. We too have a long way to go.

LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE MOSQUE

narqaZARQA NAWAZ

Laughing is a hilarious memoir by the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie which was a hit tv show that ran for six seasons. It chronicles Nawaz’s own misadventures inside her community. When an Iman from Saudi Arabia came to her local mosque he insisted there be a barrier between the men and the women who were praying. A shower curtain was quickly hung but Zarqa and a few other women refused to be treated like second class muslims and would go in front of the curtain to pray with the men.  Wanting to be helpful Zarqa joined the DBWC — the Dead Body Washing Committee — at her Regina mosque. Attempting to heave a deceased woman onto her side so she could wash her back, Zarqa exclaimed, “Now we know where the term ‘dead weight’ comes from.” “Jokes will not be tolerated at this time,” responded Auntie Nadia. “I wasn’t joking, I was just commenting about how heavy the body is.” “We don’t comment about the body. Ever.” “Perhaps the DBWC isn’t the best place for you.” “But why?” “Because you say very inappropriate things during a very solemn occasion.” “I just have a bad habit of blurting out stuff that I’m thinking.” “And that’s exactly the kind of person we don’t need.”

Another riotous episode is when Zarqa is explaining to the construction worker why she needs to reach the sink from the toilet. She needs to be able to fill a teapot for washing. After the toilet paper comes washing.

When she first heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, she thought, “Please don’t let it be us.” But, of course, it was, and that evening she told her husband, “Life as we know it is over.” Other muslims had this same reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jian Gomeshi recounted that his father had the same reaction, “Please don’t let it be muslims.” This book helps us see muslims in a much different light. In Asia they have a saying, “Same, same but different.”

Read Laughing. You’ll laugh out loud.

MEN WE REAPED

menJESMYN WARD

“Life is a hurricane,” states Ward, for African-American people living in the south, especially the men. There is a lack of the options available, industry is in its death throes – almost one in 10 young black men are in jail and murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. When a reporter came to interview people in the building where an 18 year old man was shot in the head, one woman told the journalist she “was happy that her 14-year-old son was locked up because it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighbourhood”. Jesmyn Ward attempts to give both humanity and context in her memoir, in which she relates the unconnected deaths in the space of just four years of five young men who were close to her. “By all the official records,” she writes, “here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.” “That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

Reaped is really a story of what it is like to grow up smart, poor, black and female in America’s deep south, Ward memories are somber and introspective. She watched her mother be both protective and disappointed in her father.  “[As a child] I saw the tight line of my mother’s mouth when my father was absent and couldn’t be accounted for … To an impressionable nine-year-old trouble for the black men of my family meant police. It was easier and harder to be male; men were given more freedom but threatened with less freedom.”

“Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

“Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.”

A must read. I thought about the First Nations experience here in Canada, although different there are many similarities.

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE

GENE LUEN YANG

American Born skillfully weaves the stories of Jin Wang who desperately wants to fit in with his peers at school and and the mythological story of the Monkey King. When his family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to an exclusively white suburb Jin finds ridicule and social isolation in the casual racism of teenagers. Danny is a popular blond, blue-eyed high school jock. His social status is jeopardized when his goofy, embarrassing Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, enrolls at his high school. Chin-Kee is a combination of all Chinese stereotypes. Quite hilarious though painful. The Monkey King is unsatisfied with his current sovereign and desperately longs to be elevated to the status of a god but because of “racism” is not allowed to join the ranks of the gods.

This book was ordered for my son’s book club and I quite enjoyed it.