Review: Anatomy of a Girl Gang, by Ashley Little

anatomy-of-a-girl-gang>>Published: October 2013

Kayos shooting that U.P. guy somehow brought it all back, everythin I thought I forgot—everythin I been trying so hard and long to block out—flashed in front of my eyes like I was seein it all again on a movie screen.

I seen a lotta crazy shit on the rez. I seen my cousin Bo get shot in the belly and bleed to death in my kitchen. I seen my brother Lenny get shot in the shoulder, the red flesh all ripped up like the inside of a fish. I seen Lenny stab a guy by the basketball courts, stab him in the neck with a broken beer bottle. I seen my brother, Eugene, get shot in the back, get paralyzed for life over a fifty-dollar debt. I seen one of my mom’s boyfriends smack her across the face with his gun because she smoked his last cigarette. I seen my brother Neil push his girlfriend down the stairs so she wouldn’t have her baby. I seen the cops bash my brother’s hands with clubs until all his fingers were broken and hanging from his hands like bloody sausages. I seen my mom threaten to kill my uncle with an axe. I seen my cousin shoot a dog in the head with a .22. I remember my uncle Leo stickin his gun up my asshole, makin me tell him I liked it. Then stickin it in my mouth. Askin me if I wanted him to pull the trigger. Yes, I’d nod, gaggin on the gun. Yes. Do it. Just do it. Please. And I meant it.

Then he would.

Click.

***

Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang is like an after-school special gone horribly awry—and that’s a good thing.

The novel follows the short, eventful, often frightening existence of a Downtown East Side (DTES) Vancouver gang called the Black Roses. The Roses are five teenage girls: Mac, originator of the gang and the eldest among them; Mercy, the admitted “Punjabi Princess” with an aptitude for theft; Kayos, a teenage mom whose life of privilege is darker than she lets on; Sly Girl, a struggling-to-stay-clean crack addict fleeing the violence and poverty of her First Nations reserve; and Z, a diminutive anti-establishment graffiti artist who speaks and thinks only in tags.

The story begins with Mac and Mercy wanting to distance themselves from another gang, the Vipers—gangsters who want to act like pimps, treating the girls like shit—deciding they’d had enough of living beneath the thumbs of others. They set up shop in a DTES flat and start selling drugs to make ends meet, to build their nest egg for that dream condo in the sky that will take them out of the DTES once and for all. But two girls aren’t a gang; they need extra muscle on the streets, they need someone with a finger on the erratic pulse of the substance underground, and they need their name spread far and wide. Enter Kayos, Sly Girl, and Z.

What unfolds is a tragic family drama (structurally inspired to some degree, according to the author, by Romeo & Juliet) as we learn both what each girl is escaping from—abuse, neglect, violence, or just good old-fashioned oppressive parenting—and the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to carve their gang’s name out of blood and concrete.

The girls begin the Black Roses with the best of intentions: to honour and respect one another, to not get into it with other gangs in the area, to stay clean from drugs, keep out of trouble, and always act in the best interests of the group. In spite of its gangland aesthetic, the story is made relatable through Little’s strong-yet-streamlined characters and their clear motivations—at its core the novel is about finding a niche, a sense of belonging, and building a family. But best intentions only go so far when the surrounding environment all too often resorts to a kill-or-be-killed frame of mind. Gradually, cracks appear in their group dynamic—Mac falling in love with Z and Mercy feeling hurt that she didn’t know; Kayos killing a rival gang member and Sly Girl struggling to process it without falling back to using—and the strain of five disparate, quick-to-boil girls forced far too quickly into adulthood is too much the gang to survive. And when shit does go wrong, it goes wrong spectacularly fucking fast—so fast you’ll feel like you’ve been slapped in the face. And I promise you’ll never look at a curling iron the same way again.

The novel is written as a series of testimonials. Each chapter is from the point-of-view of another member of the gang, written in their own voice: Mac’s chapters have an authoritarian vibe to them, desperate as she is to get that wealth and influence she knows she deserves; Mercy is intelligent and self-aware; Kayos is at odds with her privileged yet abusive past, and sometimes finds herself questioning where she went off the rails; Sly Girl’s chapters are filled with blunt acknowledgement of the hardships she’s endured and a sometimes self-hating desire to rise above it all; and Z’s chapters are written in the broken language of tagging—“i go out @ nyte, do my aRt, den go home & sleep & eat in da daytime when evrybudeez @ werk & skewl. itz aiight. 4 now. i don’t wanna B a product of my environment. i want my environment 2 B a product of me.

Every now and again, Little will also insert a chapter from Vancouver’s perspective, pulling the action out to a bird’s eye view of the city, looking down on the streets and the girls and the brutal life they’re leading through a loving, protective, and somewhat ambiguous lens. These chapters are at first a bit difficult to parse when placed alongside the very down-to-earth realism and in-the-moment threat experienced in the chapters belonging to each member of the gang. However, as the novel progresses and the tragedies begin to stack up, the Vancouver chapters—in how they anthropomorphize the streets and the glass and chrome of Vancouver’s skyscrapers, describing the city as if it were a cocoon failing to protect its most vulnerable contents—take on a sorrowful tone, as if the city itself were a parent filled with regret for its citizens and their lost potential.

Despite the horrible shit the girls do to one another and those unfortunate enough to be pulled into their maelstrom, they remain sympathetic throughout. They’re fighting to showcase their strength and agency, which in each of their cases is something that life and circumstances outside of the gang have taken from them. But they aren’t needless aggressors—they react, they don’t act out. Would any of the Black Roses have killed without provocation? It’s possible, sure, but given the guttural reaction they have to every life taken, accidentally or otherwise, and how quickly the stress resulting from their actions causes them to splinter and move further away from one another, it’s clear they don’t ever lose whatever tenuous grip they have on their humanity. The Black Roses aren’t sociopaths. They’re kids who don’t know how to process the amazing amount of shit they’ve lived through, and they know—or think they know—that their only two options are that they fight and they fight real fucking hard, or they simply curl up into a ball and wait for death.

As the novel nears its end, the sense that they are all of them walking a high wire stretched too tight across a crevasse is almost overwhelming; as a reader I found myself thinking I was watching someone pull a load-bearing piece from the base of a card tower each and every chapter, just waiting for that one, that innocuous Ace of Spades that when pulled would knock everything over. And damn it, the second they mentioned celebrating Mac’s eighteenth birthday, all I could think to myself was “tried as an adult.”

Even knowing to some degree how bad things were inevitably going to get, the emotional impact of the novel’s final chapters wasn’t diminished at all. While I was grateful for even the smallest shred of hope offered by the story’s end, Anatomy of a Girl Gang is a heartbreaking read, a must for high schools across the continent, and just too goddamn real for comfort.

And again, that’s a good thing.

Review: The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, by Teresa Toten

16280081>>Published: August 2013

>>Finally got around to it: September 2013

Step one at this point comprised putting his forefinger and index finger together in a mock blessing. Fingers just so, Adam began outlining the entire door precisely two feet away from it. He had to do this five times to the right and seven times to the left. He heard it on the third time to the left. The crying.

Inside.

His heart sped up. But he couldn’t break through. What was it? Christmas? Another letter? Some fresh new hell? Adam muffed the last trace and had to start again. Now he was sweating despite the cold. First, trace out the door starting on the right side. Focus, Adam! Concentrate! The first round completed, he backed up for fifteen perfect steps and forward in the exact same steps as if they were marked. If he missed one, he had to start again. Not just to the backing up but all the way to the initial tracing. At his second full confrontation of the threshold, he had to extend his right arm as high as it could go and tap out the evil one hundred and eleven times. Again, if the position was incorrect or he got distracted in any way, shape or form, he had to begin all over. The final steps were palming the door handle thirty-three times in one direction and eleven times in the other, then turning it and pushing with both palms flat on the door with precisely equal pressure. The equal-pressure thing was tricky.

***

Adam Spencer Ross’s world is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Still just a teenager, he suffers the twin problems of nearly unmanageable Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—with a heavy focus on counting and thresholds—and needing to be the white knight for everyone around him. His family is splintered; he lives primarily with his mother, Carmella, but spends a significant chunk of time with his father, his stepmother, and his young stepbrother Wendell, also known as Sweetie, each with their own litany of mental and emotional irregularities. When the mysterious and beautiful Robyn Plummer joins Adam’s young adult OCD support group, he immediately falls head over heels in love—and inadvertently adds to his growing list of concerns yet another soul to save.

Teresa Toten’s ninth book, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, is an unconventional love story that manages to strike a fine balance between a believable and thankfully not melodramatic relationship between two somewhat-scarred teenagers, several small but not inconsequential mysteries, and a deliberately manic tone. The novel is written from the third person perspective, but warps itself stylistically according to Adam’s state of mind, which as the book progresses becomes increasingly scattered between emotional peaks and valleys. As Adam’s stress level increases, so too his counting, his issues with entering doorways/crossing thresholds (even entering his own home becomes a source of incredibly strain and unease), and the manner in which he jumps to conclusions, in his head playing out interactions with others to their greatest possible extremes. With the help of Chuck—Dr. Charles Mutinda—and the support of Robyn, he spends the majority of the novel coming to terms with the realization that the single greatest threat to his health and ability to improve is also the largest unchecked source of self-destructive behaviour in his family. Worse still, he lives with her.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B sidesteps nothing, preferring instead to address OCD and related compulsions, such as purging and cutting, head-on, without dressing them up unnecessarily as demons to be overcome or plagues of the self. The novel treats the disorder with respect, touching on some of the more troubling aspects of it without pretending as if there are any easy answers or dehumanizing the individual at the heart of the suffering.

In spite of his afflictions, Adam is still, at his core, a nerdy, role-playing teenager who wants desperately to be cool in front of the older, provocative new girl in class. The broken family aspect of the novel, while adding some drama to the proceedings, never overwhelms the tender story bubbling up between Adam and Robyn and what they over time reveal to one another. They remain relatable throughout the novel—one of the narrative’s biggest strengths.

The B storyline to Adam and Robyn’s burgeoning love revolves around Adam’s mother, Carmella, and the mystery surrounding the abusive and threatening letters she’s been receiving for some time in the mail. These letters tell her what a horrible person she is, that she’s ruining her son’s life, and that she should just do away with herself and be done with it. While the resolution to this storyline was somewhat obvious, it was no less heartbreaking; Carmella is fear personified—fear of losing her child, her partner in crime, when she’s already lost her marriage—and this fear leads, among other things, to dangerous hoarding.

As Robyn begins to show signs of improvement—a great deal of which occurs as a result of her being honest with herself and Adam about her reasons for being in the group in the first place—Adam gets worse, pulled further and further into the abyss of his mother’s out of control tendencies. The conflict at the centre of everything is Adam’s ability to maintain balance between his needs and the contrasting needs of those around him, which plays heavily into the white knight syndrome—while not name-checked in the story, this is more than apparent via his selfless actions. It’s easy to see how, as a result of this conflict, Adam’s ending is more or less inevitable; however, it’s his awareness of what must happen, and the acceptance of what he must do to arrive at the point that healing can commence (no matter how much of a punch to the gut it happens to be), that gives this story its tragic weight.

Toten’s writing is light and simple, which lends itself well to manic manipulation as Adam gradually loses his grip on the various situations surrounding him. To this end, some of the additional graphic flourishes within the text—particularly the comic book-style shout-outs—seem a bit excessive and didn’t really add anything to the story. On the opposite end of things, the greatest accomplishment of Toten’s writing is in how she helps the reader to better sympathize with and relate to Adam as he uses his compulsive counting to help calm his stepbrother Sweetie after a nightmare:

“Got it,” said Adam. None of them could ever figure out what the triggers were. What was it that set Sweetie off? “Right, so let’s think about something awesome, okay?” More nodding, less tentative now. “Let’s bring out the big guns!” He put his arm around his brother. Again, he felt the little heart thumping much too fast. “Only the prime numbers will do in a situation like this. Seventeen is cool, as is thirty-nine, and neither of us much likes going near the two hundreds, right?” Sweetie shook his head. He couldn’t count to the two hundreds, didn’t much know what they were, but if his brother said that they didn’t like them, then they didn’t like them. “Okay, so let’s both of us think about the real beauty in the bunch, one of our favourite truly superior prime numbers. Let’s think about the number eleven! Got it? The one and the one? You love eleven. See it?”

I also appreciated that while there was a definite religious component to the story, it was identifiable as a bandage and not in any way as a cure—something to help Robyn and the others in the OCD support group to experience a new form of support, one that might assist them with overcoming at least some of what troubled them without imparting any specific views or doctrine.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is a lovely little gem of a book that embraces imbalance and all the horror and wonder that it can spawn. The ending, while painful, carries with it a great deal of hope for Adam’s future. It promises a long road to improvement instead of wrapping everything up in a nice pretty bow, and that degree of restraint affords Toten’s novel a certain amount of quiet authenticity.

Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

9780307271082_custom-63142d41e3791c90bf89428bf6420a4f54b4b3b9-s6-c30>>Published: May 2013

>>Finally got around to it: September 2013

“Please do not go to Kmart and buy twenty pairs of jeans because each costs five dollars. The jeans are not running away. They will be there tomorrow at an even more reduced price. You are now in America: do not expect to have hot food for lunch. That African taste must be abolished. When you visit the home of an American with some money, they will offer to show you their house. Forget that in your house back home, your father would throw a fit if anyone came close to his bedroom. We all know that the living room was where it stopped and, if absolutely necessary, then the toilet. But please smile and follow the American and see the house and make sure you say you like everything. And do not be shocked by the indiscriminate touching of American couples. Standing in line at the cafeteria, the girl will touch the boy’s arm and the boy will put his arm around her shoulder and they will rub shoulders and back and rub rub rub, but please do not imitate this behavior.”

They were all laughing. Wambui shouted something in Swahili.

“Very soon you will start to adopt an American accent, because you don’t want customer service people on the phone to keep asking you ‘What? What?’ You will start to admire Africans who have perfect American accents, like our brother here, Kofi. Kofi’s parents came from Ghana when he was two years old, but do not be fooled by the way he sounds. If you go to their house, they eat kenkey everyday. His father slapped him when he got a C in a class. There’s no American nonsense in that house. He goes back to Ghana every year. We call people like Kofi American-African, not African-American, which is what we call our brothers and sisters whose ancestors were slaves.”

***

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a deeply talented writer. She manages in each of her books to strike a delicate balance between believably flawed and accessible characters and dense cultural commentary. Her approach is sociologically minded, seemingly crafting both character and narrative out of a specific overarching realm of study. In her latest book, Americanah, the splintered long-distance love between Ifemelu and Obinze addresses and dissects in contrasting ways the absorption and possible subjugation of one culture by another, and the rush to adopt a new culture’s ways in order to fill in the holes of the old.

Americanah primarily follows Ifemelu as she travels from Nigeria to America to finish her university education, which had been prolonged at home by continuous educational strikes. As the book opens, Ifemelu is in Princeton on a fellowship. We learn she’s been living in America for thirteen years and currently resides with her boyfriend, a very political though somewhat socially and emotionally immature man named Blaine. For some time now Ifemelu has made her living writing a lifestyle blog of sorts entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. However, just prior to the book’s opening, Ifemelu wrote her final post and closed down her blog; dissatisfied in many ways by life in America, fearing she has lost touch with a part of herself in the time she’s spent away from Nigeria, she has decided to return home to see what kind of life she can lead there after so many years of being half a world away.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Obinze, Ifemelu’s first love with whom she for a time maintained a long-distance relationship. At the novel’s start Obinze is at home in Lagos with his wife, Kosi, who has “an intemperate dislike of single women and an intemperate love of God,” and their two-year-old daughter, Buchi. Though Obinze did not follow Ifemelu to America, as he would have liked, his journey to find himself and make a living in the UK and at home in Nigeria is the working-class parallel to hers.

The division between Ifemelu and Obinze’s journeys—as well as the reasons for their falling out and the ramifications therein—is the emotional core of Americanah. Slowly, over the course of seven emotionally distinct parts, the full scope of their relationship is shown, filtered through the prism of contrasting life and socio-cultural experiences.

As described within the text, an “Americanah” is an African who, after a short time in America, readily adopts the accent, affectations, and/or mannerisms of the adoptive country, coming back changed in clearly identifiable ways. This, of course, is something Ifemelu fears—the loss of connection to Obinze, to her home, to a familiar and much loved way of life. But she has no choice if she’s to finish school.

The transition to life in America is not easy, with finances being Ifemelu’s first and largest hurdle. However, after some troubling instances of both her race and her gender eliminating her from job contention (and one truly horrifying experience in which she experiences emotional and physical rock bottom, and the immediate resulting loss of what innocence remained), Ifemelu finds work with a wealthy family as their nanny. From this one connection, a great many opportunities arise, each one a split between greater economic and class benefit, and further arrogance and ignorance on part of the social upper crust:

Laura picked up the menu again. “In graduate school I knew a woman from Africa who was just like this doctor, I think she was from Uganda. She was wonderful, and she didn’t get along with the African-American woman in our class at all. She didn’t have all those issues.”

“Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford,” Ifemelu said.

Americanah does not hesitate in openly discussing American tribalism and hierarchies. Ifemelu’s blog entries, which are peppered throughout the text like capsule-sized social and historical dialogues, illustrate not only her experience, but the gulf she encounters between expectations, reality, and the ways in which all sides of race-related conversations in America seem to contradict both one another. As the novel progresses and Ifemelu finds her way through a number of differing social circles—from the wealthy old-money Curt who exoticizes her at practically every turn to the politically motivated Blaine and his friends and sister who present an air of opposition to the ruling class while simultaneously doing what they can to become a part of it—she begins to feel as if her personality is gradually being compromised and she is in essence disappearing into her blog.

I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative’s progression because Ifemelu is one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across this year, one I think readers should come to know on their own terms. She’s driven and highly intelligent, but also deeply flawed and harbouring a mild penchant for self-sabotage. Her journey is relatable in a way not too many authors manage to convey, regardless of ethnic background or specific social umbrella/backdrop utilized.

As the novel nears its conclusion, the idea of an “Americanah” evolves interestingly from being a type of individual into the cultural and behavioural myopia of so many Americans, regardless of race; on a macro scale it’s about the aggression of social agendas, no matter their benevolent origins. For example, as Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine deepens, he tries to change her from an observer into an activist, and is angered when she opposes his attempt to mould her as such. In this sense Blaine, an African-American and not an American-African, is guilty of assuming, due to his high intellect and very expensive education, he knows and is capable of accurately criticizing the third world, and is more concerned with being right than he is with learning something new. In behaving in this manner he is truly no better than Curt, Ifemelu’s “hot white ex”, who was guilty of exoticizing her but did not try to limit or redirect her individual perspective.

While I highly recommend this title, I do have a few issues with the book—none so damning they overwhelmed the high quality of both the writing and the narrative being told, but worth pointing out nonetheless.

Overall the novel is incredibly unfavourable to both academics and the wealthy. Occasionally this felt like a bit of an unrealistic imbalance, as it sometimes felt as if there were no other people in Ifemelu’s life but political activists, lifelong academics, or white people of ridiculous wealth and privilege. However, given the Ivy League environment in which she spends a great deal of the novel, that is more than likely a fair assumption to make of at least a large swath of the surrounding population.

Additionally, while the resolution of Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is satisfying, I will admit to being frustrated with some of her late-in-the-narrative actions—specifically the harsh and unforgiving manner in which she criticizes him for not being quick enough to leave his wife and declare his love only for Ifemelu—for a woman who, in the past, abruptly cut off all contact with the man she loved and left him floundering on his own, without his strength and confidante, without verbalizing any rhyme or reason to her actions. While this goes a great distance in further humanizing Ifemelu and cementing the ways in which life abroad has changed her, it did, in the novel’s final pages, wound the sympathetic image I’d built for her in my head—because trust is not so easily earned back once it has been lost, and it was understandable that Obinze would feel at least some residual trepidation.

My first impressions of this novel were that it was a fish-out-of-water story, which it is not. Americanah is instead a story of cultural upheaval and transposition—like changing musical keys or a volatile chemical reaction—as new elements are introduced into an established personal ecosystem, upsetting the established balance. Ifemelu embodies this upheaval as she struggles to find peace within herself; any relationship she enters into, apart from her first with Obinze, removes personal agency over how and to what degree she decides to change her life and situation. In many ways, Ifemelu is caught in a love triangle between differing evolutionary paths: maturity through life experience (Obinze), maturity through education and activism (Blaine), and maturity through wealth and privilege (Curt). How these things and the culture of America affect her and help her to grow into a strong, independent character, and her changed and somewhat distant view of Lagos upon her return, provide Americanah with its core ideological ethos: No matter how much you might want to, you can’t always go home again.