Monday, January 21, 2008

A Meltingpot Discovery at the Library

Let me start off by saying I go to the library at least once a week. I need my library fix like a junkie needs a drug. When I go, I usually don't even have a particular title in mind, the thrill for me is browsing through the shelves of new releases and stumbling on the perfect book for my mood at that moment. I have to remind myself many times not to be greedy and check out too many books at once, for now that I have children and a husband who sometimes expect some of my attention, I can't read three books at the same time like I used to (sigh).

Right now I'm into fiction. I'm looking for books that explore complex human relationships. Preferably there would be an element of race thrown into the mix. Often I have to settle for stories about White people because it seems like the majority of good contemporary fiction is written by and about, White women and men and their emotional landscape. Of course I know there are books that feature "others" but I think you understand my point...

Anyway, so imagine my delight and surprise when I came home to discover that the book I selected at last week's library run, Lost Hearts in Italy featured not only a Black female protagonist, but the author was Black as well. And it truly was a surprise because the summary of the story on the book jacket describes the main character Mira, as an "American" not an African-American. And while I see it now, upon first glance at the author photo on the back jacket, I assumed the author, Andrea Lee, was White.

I enjoyed the book, which examines the dissolution of a marriage when one person cheats. The action takes place all over the world actually but mostly in Rome. Issues of identity and living abroad and race --in a very small way -- are all explored. But there is no way this would be classified as a Black book or even, as they like to put on those little stickers in the library, of "African-American Interest."

I just wonder how much Andrea Lee had to fight to make sure that neither the cover of the book nor the flap copy indicated that Mira was a Black woman. Was it deliberate? Does she know or suspect that if a book has a Black person on the cover, White people won't read it? Is this even true (And Karrine "Video Vixen" Steffans doesn't count)anymore?

I for one will definitely be checking out Andrea Lee's other books, Sarah Phillips and Interesting Women. Although she lives in Italy, she is still a Black American writer with a beautiful writing voice and a keen eye for the complexities of race and culture both here and abroad.



Liz said...

I think about this very issue quite a bit. In my last writing class, I discovered that other people in the class were assuming that one of my main characters was black. And the thing was, the character wasn't black. It came out that they assumed she was because I am black.

I'm going to put this book on my reading list.

Me said...


I'm on my way to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference in NYC next week and the panel I'm most interested in attending is called Writing Across the Color Lines...or something like that. The point is the discussion is about writers writing characters who are racially different form themselves. Can a White woman write authentic Black characters? Can a Black woman write White? What about Japanese?

As writers we're told to write what we know but that would be extremely limiting I think. I think we should write what fascinates us, and for me people fascinate me. All kinds of people.

Thanks for reading the Meltingpot.

Mango Mama said...

Lost Hearts in Italy is the latest book read by my reading club and other than the member who selected the book, most of us panned it. I do agree, however, Ms. Lee deftly defies being hampered by race. I've also read Interesting Women and again, I sense a remoteness/aloofness in her characters which I think I instinctively project (albeit unfairly) onto who I assume Ms. Lee is.

Again, another great post---Thanks!

Me said...

Hey Mango Mama,

You know the book was also panned by many critics, but I never trust the critics.

I didn't LUUUVVVEE the book, but I did luv the original characters.

Thanks for reading the Meltingpot!

Cloudscome said...

I am white and I always look for books by and about people of color or mixed race relationships. Maybe that's because of my family and my special interest, but I think there are a lot of white people who are interested in it as well. I avoid books by and about white males because I was trained in that literature the first half of my life. I have to work to break out of it. I'm like you at the library; browsing the new books and trying not to be greedy. I look forward to reading Andrea Lee.

Me said...

Hello CC,

Thanks for all of your great comments throughout the Meltingpot.

FYI, as a librarian and book lover I think you will especially love this. A new organization/group is forming called RingShout which is "dedicated to celebrating excellence in contemporary literary fiction and non-fiction by Black writers in the United States."

They have created an excellent reading list that you and the rest of the reading world might want to check out. Check

And thanks for reading the Meltingpot!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Sarah Phillips is great.

Andrea Lee is a very interesing writer. She used to write for the New Yorker and is crazy connected. I doubt she had to fight for that cover. Philip Roth is a mentor.

She lives in a villa in Torino with her Italian count husband and their children.

She did a panel at Havard (Lee is an alum) recently with Jamaica Kindcaid. I wish I could have been there to hear them speak. They are both doing their own thing. Writing what they want and not letting themselves be put in any boxes.

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