A Denver Post Best Fiction Book of the Year
An elegant, vibrant, startling coming-of-age novel for anyone who has ever felt the shame of being alive
Kenya Curtis is only eight years old, but she knows that she's different, even if she can't put her finger on how or why. It's not because she's black - most of the other students in the fourth-grade class at her West Philadelphia elementary school are, too. Maybe it's because she celebrates Kwanzaa, or because she's forbidden from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Maybe it's because she call her father -a housepainter-slash-philosopher - "Baba" instead of "Daddy," or because her parents' friends gather to pour out libations "from the Creator, for the martyrs" and discuss "the community."
Disgruntled, effortlessly funny and achingly poignant, follows Kenya from West Philadelphia to the suburbs, from public school to private, and from childhood through adolescence, as she grows increasingly disgruntled by her inability to find any place or thing or person that feels like home.
A coming-of-age tale, a portrait of Philadelphia in the late eighties and early nineties, and an examination of the impossible double-binds of race, Disgruntled by Asali Solomon is a novel about the desire to rise above the limitations of the narratives we're given and the painful struggle to craft fresh ones we can call our own.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
ASALI SOLOMON was born and raised in Philadelphia. Get Down, her first book, earned her a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2007, she was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35. She teaches English at Haverford College.
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By Asali Solomon
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Asali Solomon
All rights reserved.
The Way It Was
In the first grade at Henry Charles Lea School in West Philadelphia, when Kenya told kids that she celebrated Kwanzaa, no one knew what she was talking about. By the third grade, led by the tiny tyrant L'Tisha Simmons, the kids were calling her an African bootyscratcher and chanting to a conga line rhythm:
You don't get no pre-sents!
You don't get no pre-sents!
In fact, she did get presents on the last morning of Kwanzaa, seven days after Christmas. By the fourth grade Kenya was down to one friend.
It wasn't just the Kwanzaa problem. And anyway, she could have lied about Kwanzaa like she suspected Fatima McCullers did—Fatima, whose dad had dreadlocks and who always said "Christmas" and "Santa Claus" with a wavering inflection. It was also that she couldn't eat any pork, including the bologna sandwiches that were the everyday fare of the lunchroom—something to do with her father muttering that white people forced slaves to eat hog guts—though as far as Kenya could see, white people loved bologna enough to give it both a first and a second name. It was that she wasn't allowed to watch Gimme a Break!, Good Times, or Diff'rent Strokes because, according to her mother, watching black people on TV acting the fool was worse than not watching any at all. It was that she was forbidden to actually speak the Pledge of Allegiance and had been directed to mouth it with her hand not actually touching her chest. It was that she had to call her father "Baba," and when she'd asked if she could call him "Daddy" like other people, it had triggered what seemed like days of lectures, during which Kenya learned to hate the phrase other people. It was that while her parents said grace like normal people, they directed it to the Creator instead of God. It was that she was never ever allowed to say nigger, even during the step where they had to say nigger boy. In fact, when she first heard someone say it in school—L'Tisha Simmons in the third grade—Kenya said "Oooooooooooh!" expecting everyone to join in. They didn't. Even Aliyah, the pale girl from Sudan (actual Africa—but no one called her a bootyscratcher!), with a long rope of hair, was laughing at her, and when Kenya pointed at L'Tisha, explaining, "She said the n-word!" they laughed even harder.
Kenya's one friend was Charlena Scott, who went to Lea and lived a few blocks away from her. She made Kenya look normal during the times of the year when no one was thinking about Christmas. Her parents were adherents to some offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, and so she wore old lady's cat-eye glasses and long, dark skirts. Aside from the fact that she and Kenya were both forbidden to watch The Dukes of Hazzard (Charlena because it came on after nine o'clock, Kenya because according to her father it "declawed" the racist South), they had little in common. They were both "advanced" readers, but Charlena was more advanced than Kenya and had her own private reading group. She and the teacher, Mrs. Preston, drank cherry soda and casually conversed about the chapter book they were currently enjoying.
The point of being friends with Charlena was to have a partner for lunch, someone Kenya could walk with on the zoo trip, talk to at recess, someone she could sit with on the sidelines of Double Dutch, trying to make watching look fun. Charlena couldn't manage Double Dutch in her pioneer-length skirts and Kenya couldn't manage it at all. And sometimes when her father couldn't pick her up from school, Kenya had to go to Charlena's, because Charlena's mother got home earlier than either of Kenya's parents. Given the UNICEF poster–African wood sculpture–exotic-incense-smelling eccentricities of her house over on Irving Street (less tree-lined and prosperous-looking than Charlena's block), the arrangement was a relief.
Charlena always wanted to play Star Wars—one of the few movies that she'd seen. At least she claimed she'd seen it; her grasp of the plot seemed tenuous. She always insisted on being Darth Vader, declared Kenya Princess Leia, and said if Leia didn't kiss Darth Vader, Luke would be tortured.
Kenya hated to break character during these games, which offered a thrilling escape from real life, but she also hated Charlena's peanut butter–apple juice kisses, which were made worse by her heavy Darth Vader breathing. She played along the first few times, but she finally tried to fight back.
"I will keep my honor," declared Kenya, ducking the kiss. "And if you torture Luke," she cried, "I will swear to God a vengeance on your head!"
"No!" Charlena said in her own, rather than her Darth Vader, voice. "They have to kiss!"
Kenya gave in. When Charlena didn't get her way, the fun evaporated in a damp cloud of gloom. It was also true sometimes that Charlena would occasionally break away mid-kiss and fly off to pout for mysterious reasons.
"What is your problem?" blurted Kenya one afternoon after a particularly nauseating session of tongue kissing had failed to cheer Charlena.
Charlena sighed theatrically. "Nothing."
Bored, but not quite ready to do math worksheets, Kenya watched Charlena fritter with the slats of the mint-green blinds and stare out onto the street. Kenya viewed the blinds with her usual sense of longing. For reasons that were never explained to her, and to the consternation of their neighbor Mrs. Osgood, her own parents had kept the boards on the bottom front windows that had "come with" their small row house.
Kenya tried again. "Come on. Tell me what's wrong."
"Do your parents ever fight?" Charlena asked, turning slowly from the window to face Kenya.
"Sometimes," Kenya said, her face suddenly burning. Did her parents fight? Not all the time, but when they did ... She recalled two Thanksgivings ago, when her father's "wino philosopher" friends, as her mother called them, mysteriously showed up around dinnertime and her mother broke a wooden spoon on a pot.
Charlena's eyes welled up. "I think mine are going to get a—a—divorce!"
Kenya sucked in air sharply. While many of the Lea kids were being raised by single mothers and grandmothers, an actual divorce seemed cataclysmic. It was something so dramatic they made movies, TV movies, and specials about it. In one of the movies her parents had for some reason allowed her to watch, there was a horrible courtroom scene where a judge made a sobbing boy choose which parent he liked better and which one he'd see only on weekends. He chose to live with his mother—and then his father died in a car accident.
Charlena started to cry and all Kenya could think to do was swat at her back. It was what her father would have done. She tried to picture her mother, but she would feel ridiculous crushing Charlena, who was nearly a head taller, into her skinny chest.
"I bet it's going to be okay," Kenya said, wanting to ask more about Charlena's parents and how they fought. She thought again about that Thanksgiving. She had been in the dining room, listening both to her father making a point about the decline of black music, playing snatches from record after record, and to her mother's voice from a distance, "Johnbrown, Johnbrown, Johnbrown ..." Kenya had yelled, "Baba," but he couldn't hear her. A few moments later, the spoon was in splinters and everyone heard her mother call her father the worst curse Kenya knew. In the heavy silence that followed, two of the winos fled. The stuffing, usually Kenya's favorite, tasted like chunks of dust that year. No one had mustered the courage to tell Sheila that there were bits of wood in her hair. Maybe Johnbrown had stayed in touch with those friends, but Kenya never saw them again.
"What makes you think it's going to be okay? You're just saying that," Charlena accused. "You don't even know my parents."
"Isn't divorce against your religion?"
"I think so."
"They're so strict with you. They have to be like that with themselves, too."
"Well," said Charlena. "Maybe."
But in fact, Kenya thought it was only right that Charlena's mother should leave her father. She was beautiful in spite of the plain white blouses, long, dark skirts, and bun she had to wear because of her religion. Her skin looked like fudge; she had long, thick hair and spoke in a soft voice. Charlena's father, on the other hand, was tall with patchy hair, rusty skin, and a permanent frown.
As for her own parents, Kenya wasn't worried. Maybe they fought, but she couldn't imagine life without them fighting. She was sure that they couldn't imagine it either. They were her only family and each other's as well.
* * *
Johnbrown and Sheila were only children, which was the sole feature linking their childhoods.
Sheila was raised by her mother in the Richard Allen projects, which loomed high and gloomy over North Philadelphia. When her mother was heavy with Sheila, the father gave her twenty dollars and then disappeared. According to photographic evidence, Sheila's mother was a thick, dark-skinned woman who had none of the shine of Sheila's eggplant complexion, though she did share Sheila's bushy eyebrows. It was hard to see if she, too, had Sheila's gapped-tooth grin, since this grandmother never smiled in the pictures Kenya saw. Kenya thought she could understand why. The woman had worked two cleaning jobs and ironed for people in the building. She also took in a slightly older foster daughter, to help raise Sheila, and that girl turned out to be a hood. But both the mother and the foster daughter (who eventually came to hate each other) devoted themselves to making sure Sheila was fed and clothed and did her homework; she even got to go to the movies one Saturday a month. Compared with other girls in Richard Allen (and her "sister," Melvina), Sheila's life was leisurely. She did a laughable amount in the way of chores, and did not have to work a part-time job. She loved school, hated being poor, and spent her time at home studying and any free time at school running errands for the guidance counselor. She clawed her way onto the honor roll and stayed there until she had a full scholarship to college.
Sheila graduated from Franklin & Marshall College, one of three black students in her class. As if her work on earth was finished, the grandmother whom Kenya would never meet died of a heart attack in an ER waiting room three weeks later. Shortly after that, Melvina went to prison for knifing a woman said to be her lover. No one came to see Sheila eventually graduate from library school.
Johnbrown was raised in Bryn Mawr, right outside of the city, about a million miles from Richard Allen, by his mother, an elementary school teacher, and his father, one of five black pharmacy owners in the greater Philadelphia area. In pictures that Sheila had rescued from Johnbrown—and the trash—so that Kenya could see them, her paternal grandparents smiled faintly from fair-skinned faces under slick-looking limp hair. Kenya's paternal grandfather had suffered a fatal stroke when she was three, and Johnbrown hadn't spoken to his mother since the funeral. Of his parents, he would say, "They were not good people." Kenya knew that they had enforced some odd rules: for example, he was not allowed to sing at meals, and he had to pass a smell test to leave the house each morning. He would not say much more than that.
"Did they beat you?" Kenya asked him.
"No," he said.
"Did they yell all the time?"
"Did they send you to work in a factory like Oliver?"
"Mo-om," Kenya wailed. "Make Baba answer me."
"This is between y'all and y'all," Sheila said. "It's his childhood."
What made these conversations even more maddening was that Kenya knew her father's mother and she seemed nice enough. In what Kenya later recognized as the second greatest act of treachery in her parents' marriage, every year around the holidays, Sheila would tell Johnbrown they were going shopping and instead she and Kenya went to visit Mrs. Curtis.
Kenya remembered visiting Johnbrown's mother around the time she was five. Quickly taking in the plastic-covered couch and the formal dining room that beckoned beyond, she said, "Hello, Grandmother," in a slightly British accent and bowed. The older woman laughed, but also looked pleased. "Please call me Grandmama," she'd said.
Johnbrown said his parents did not like children, and that his mother became a teacher because she wanted to "crush their young spirits." But it seemed to Kenya that Grandmama liked at least one child very much. She grabbed Kenya's face with cold, fat hands and kissed it, blowing an interesting wind that combined rot, perfume, and the peppermint balls she sucked when she wasn't smoking long, thin cigarettes.
"How are you?" she'd ask, settling into her throne-size brown velvet chair as Kenya and her mother tried not to make weird noises on the couch's plastic slipcover. "What are you learning in school? And tell me the interesting stuff, don't bore me, you know." Then she'd listen with great concentration as Kenya talked about the excruciating difficulties of long division and named all of the planets in the solar system.
Mostly, Sheila and Johnbrown's mother talked about dull things like the price of gasoline, the need to be careful on winter ice, and the doings of the president. It was always just before Kenya's mother sighed that it was time to be going that Grandmama would ask after Johnbrown.
"You know, Mrs. Curtis," Sheila said once. "He is the same."
"I think about him every day. And, Sheila, when will you call me Eveline?" Grandmama responded.
"What do you think about?" Kenya piped in. "What do you think about him?"
"Kenya," her mother said, the name a warning.
"That's okay, Kenya," Grandmama said, pronouncing her name KEEN-ya, as she always did. "I guess I just wonder when he will take responsibility for his life. He's so stuck on this business about being black, like he's the first person to have that problem. I wonder when he will do right by the both of you."
After she finished speaking, she reached first for a cigarette from a lacquered box on the coffee table, then instead for a peppermint ball in a yellow glass bowl. Kenya watched her, listening to the ticking of a clock that must have been there all along. She wondered if it had gotten louder. Her mother stared off into space. Sometimes when Kenya recalled this conversation later, she remembered her mother saying, "But he is a good man." Sometimes she remembered her saying nothing at all.
At the end of every visit, Johnbrown's mother reached into her bulky maroon purse and handed Sheila a slip of paper. When Kenya learned that it was a "check," and what a check was, she learned to look away.
* * *
Sheila had what she called "a good job" working at the public library on Fortieth Street near the University of Pennsylvania. But when kids at school asked about Johnbrown, Kenya had two choices if she wanted to tell the truth. She could say he was either a housepainter or a philosopher. She had considered saying that he was dead, but she felt terrible about that.
Though he often gave speeches to Kenya about the importance of doing well in school, Johnbrown did not believe in the ability of Western institutions to educate oppressed peoples like him. He had attended Cornell University, an Ivy League school, but only, he would remind everyone with a sneer, to escape the draft. He'd planned to leave once the war ended, but he lost the chance to drop out when he was expelled for participating in a failed attempt to take over the administration building.
After that he worked in a milk bottling plant, sold knives, and even sorted mail for a few months. But those jobs were too constraining. Saying he wanted to pursue "a life of study," he took up rather sporadic house painting. On the days when Johnbrown wasn't painting a house, he followed a schedule taped to his wall that began with predawn calisthenics. The rest of the day was blocked out for meditation, reading philosophy in a book-choked spare room, and working on The Key. The Key was a contemporary work of black philosophy that would also be a way of living for nonblack peoples who were enlightened. It would draw on Classical thought, as well as West African and Native American ways of knowing. It would unite Du Bois, Ellison, Cleaver, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X. It would be bigger than Karenga, who thought small, definitively refute Freud, and make Spinoza a household name in the community. Only when he finished The Key would Johnbrown go back to school and get what he called "a square job." ("Do you know what cats used to call jobs in the fifties?" he asked Kenya. "What?" "Slaves." "You calling me a slave, Johnbrown?" said Sheila. Cats have jobs? thought Kenya.)
They had a nice stereo and a very large record collection, but not much else. Even though she never had guests, Kenya was embarrassed by their old black-and-white television. Sheila made her slender frame glamorous with thrift store trips, the rich-smelling oil that she bought from street vendors on Fifty-Second Street, and endless variations on a part-cornrow, part-Afro hairstyle. She took Kenya shopping for clothes at the dungeon-like House of Bargains in the summer and at the nightmarishly bright Marshalls at the start of each school year. Occasionally, there was a trip to the glorious Plymouth Meeting Mall, where Kenya was allowed one item of clothing (often, though Sheila didn't know it, a flimsier version of a blouse or skirt that L'Tisha had worn) and one scoop of ice cream (Kenya nearly dreaded this part, so great was the agony of deciding between mint and butter pecan). There was no bright new outfit for Easter, which they did not celebrate.
Excerpted from Disgruntled by Asali Solomon. Copyright © 2015 Asali Solomon. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Way It Was,
Part II: The Little Princess,
Part III: Freedom,
Part IV: Disgruntled,
Also by Asali Solomon,
A Note About the Author,
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