Notes From Bethabara Park: Cheri Paris Edwards & The Other Sister

 

Personal reflections while writing a book review.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Country Way East, Okemos MI, Wednesday, March 16, 2017:

I believe that novels have the mystical ability to enter our lives at a moment in which we find ourselves standing at the crossroads in-search of something that changes our hearts and minds in an effort to teach us a deeper meaning of life and love and purpose. Perhaps this is the point of Cheri Paris Edwards’ novel: The Other Sister.

My love life stinks. For the millionth time, I’d reached the conclusion that my girlfriend and I had no future, besides the meaningless banality of frivolous momentary interludes of empty sex, drama, and random cafe-affairs of aimless chit-chat.

“… I keep replaying the discussion we’d had at Venice Cafe. It rang loudly in my head, trying to capture some profound meaning amidst it all. Anyways, perhaps I spoke too much and didn’t allow you to speak enough. Perhaps there were questions left without space and time to call them out and allow them to be answered. …”

Tom’s Oyster Bar, Detroit MI, Thursday, March 17, 2017:

I pulled into Downtown Detroit and headed straight to Tom’s Oyster Bar to think about Velma’s note. I ordered rum and reached into my jacket for Edwards’ book to read over notes, marginalia, and to think about the impact it had on my immediate circumstances. Edwards’ book is about safety, and the sacrifice of new beginnings, Sanita Jefferson returning to Illinois for an unrealized reunion with her ecstatic parents. Regardless of her sister, Carla’s cold receptions, Sanita plants her feet firmly on the yellow brick road and sets out for new horizons of promise and prosperity. Then she runs into Terrance Catching.

*phone vibrate*

“Confessional: I’m not sure you noticed but I placed my leg next to you on purpose. Today I wanted to touch you. I looked at you and thought of what it would be like to have you hold me, hug me, touch me. Then I thought to myself, no…he would hurt you – not on purpose, not intentionally – it’s just how he is made…how he has come to become in this world….”

St. Michael Hotel, “Whiskey Row” Prescott AZ, Saturday, March 19, 2017:

I arrived in Prescott just before the sun set low when the gentle breeze cooled native souls, where cowboys reminisced, and “Preskitian” residents told olden stories to thirsty tourists at Hooligans Pub. Rowdy, arrogant, raucous mid-westerners (the ones harboring feelings of entitlement and privileged belonging) drank Modelo beers and propped up their Walmart western boots on Hooligans ledge overlooking the nostalgic panorama that is Whiskey Row. Down below, restless vagrants meet at the intersection of South Montezuma and East Gurley Street to discuss the day’s strategy for panhandling enough change to get cigarettes and whiskey. Later that night they would meet up across the street in Courthouse Plaza to divvy up the ante before heading on over to Bird Cage Saloon for the two-dollar draft and cheap Tequila shots.

*phone vibrate*

“In my past relationships, I’m often quick to nurture, fast to heal, to capture and conceal secrets, hurts, pains. Your writing, like mine, is your place of healing…I get that…but where does Jeremy house his love…for himself? for the women both past and present in his life? I know I risk much sharing these thoughts with you. But, the older I get the more I appreciate risks and honestly… from others, from myself to myself…please come and see me when you return to Michigan. I will get you from the airport if you need.”

I would often follow them to BCS where I listen from a short distance to their sullen proclamations of love lost, sacred land long gone, and familial discount. They talk about the futility of life, where they have come from (mostly Chino Valley, Phoenix, and various Native American reservations), and where they are going (mostly nowhere and everywhere). Prescott treats its homeless community very well, offering food, clothes, money, and a warm cot if the weary destitute so desire. Every night around midnight the desperate winos and raggedy hobos congregate at the southern tip of Montezuma Street, just outside of the St. Michael hotel where they plan to head on up to BCS for a little revelry, reflection, and relief. I sat over in the far left corner and thought about the love of my life, Velma Duke, while reviewing collected thoughts and notes on The Other Sister:

  • The Other Sister is a good read…I really like the writing…Edwards is a good writer…
  • Edwards has a gift for story-telling and understands the art and craft of novel-writing. ..
  • Good characters, deftly constructed…
  • Good moral messages…spiritual meanings and good commentary on that which afflicts society today
  • Common current event themes of disease, death, destruction, HIV
  • Good use of biblical themes…thou shalt not judge.
  • Good array of family matters and complex relationships…

Bethabara Park, Winston-Salem NC, Saturday, April 2, 2017:

“Love’s in need of love today… Don’t delay, send yours in right away. Hate’s goin’ round, breaking many hearts. Stop it please… Before it’s gone too far.” –Stevie Wonder

I finished my review of The Other Sister while sitting in the back-booth of a quiet, rural suburban breakfast retreat over near Wake Forest University by historic village of Bethabara Park. I drained my orange juice, left a small tip, grabbed my Chrome Book, got in my car and headed towards University Avenue – toward High Point to visit an old friend. I Jeremyed in Damian Marley’s Road to Zion and thought about Edwards’ overall message, an essential lesson on hope, love, community, and sacrifice – all the things the African-American are in desperate need of. Sanita’s (Jazz) double-life antics catch up with her, sending her back home to face her dubious reality. Carla leads a respectable life of promise and prosperity, committed to excellence, having played by the rules, working hard to achieve and triumph. This is the complex dice both play out in this Christian amalgam of faith, love, and hard-lessons learned. Demonstrably, Edwards is from the old-school, and TOS is saturated with biblical themes, religious characters (conflicted in secular contexts, of course), and goody-two-shoe morality, which at times seemed boring at worst, contrived at best, but typical and unoriginal to say the least. Yet, the point is clear with TOS, and we get it. Love your family, forgive people, and allow for redemption in the face of repressive odds. Love is key….and we need it. All of us.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.
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Book Review: The Turner House

 

A review of Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, left me feeling ambivalent, hopeful, encouraged and nostalgic. I liked her novel but I felt that it didn’t work hard enough to envision southern black life in 1945, to capture an honest and complete snapshot of Detroit. At times TTH read more like a passenger on a train bound for Somewhereville, riding through a Detroit train depot, snapping phone pictures while simultaneous trying to stake awake.

The (Turner) house serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with the dysfunctional Turner family: loss of stability, instability, isolation, community change. Flournoy said in an interview with Miriam Grossman of Kirkus Reviews that she supposed her novel would explore “very specific things that happened to the black population in Detroit that has never really been written about in fiction. I wanted to show the place and the people who live there are not just a sum of crime statistics or per capita income.” The following excerpt places the novel squarely at the doorstep of Detroit’s current issue:

Problem with black folks is that we’re too quick to cut our losses and let white folks decide what happens in the cities we live in. Sure the mayor is black, damn near the whole council is black, but we don’t have the real money or property. That’s how they keep us on the run (203).

Good stuff. I also liked the WWII flashbacks to Detroit’s Hastings Street, Paradise Valley days, and post-Reconstruction Arkansas. Here, Flournoy’s sense of nostalgia is easy and mellow, but I would’ve liked to see more of the violent, racialized reality of southern life rather the subtle allusions to black life in 1945. Most southern blacks were seduced by Ford’s $5-a-day wage promise, many sought peaceful refuge from vicious, unchecked, racist violence. Flournoy gives us none of that, just under-analyzed snapshots hurried away into pointless narratives which seem to go busily everywhere and nowhere. We get no real sense of the duality of (street) danger and (economic) vibrancy for which Hastings Street is famous. (WHERE IS JOHNNY LEE HOOKER?) The colorful ambiguity, the effervescent charm, and the ambivalent dynamics are never fully explored nor do we ever truly understand how the Gotham Hotel (inasmuch as why black entertainers visited this particular hotel) could boast such regular prominent guests as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, B.B. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Count Basie, Langston Hughes, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the inimitable Billie Holiday.

Flournoy’s research for her novel included Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and Elaine Latzman Moon’s Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967 as source material. Sugrue’s study gives some attention to the area known as Black Bottom, who the people were and what the area was about. Moon is an excellent source, too, but there are other sources as well for anyone thinking about Flournoy’s topic beyond her book. The digital archives at Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library is loaded with primary sources on black (and white) life in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

I found my family story in this novel, particularly the men in my family, how they came to the north for industrial jobs, leaving behind families of wives, sons, and daughters, never to return, seduced by big lights, equal rights, sturdy paychecks, Paradise Valley, and sexy, sultry women like Odella Wither. The anguishing alienation of migrant dislocation is captured quite well in TTH (i.e page 112). Even with its minor flaws and mistakes, The Turner House is still worth the read.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.