Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Get Down, by Asali Solomon

Get Down: Stories is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award-winning compilation from little-known author Asali Solomon. In Get Down, Solomon gives her readers fleshed out, unique characters set in the not-as-near-as-it-once-was past of the 1980s. As a book with an African-American author, whose characters all happen to be black, it would be easy to categorize this book as the cliche "exploration of what it means to be black in America." And there is some of that, to be sure. But Solomon achieves something much greater. Her characters are not defined by their skin color or their culture, as seems to be the case in so many so-called "ethnic" novels. Instead, she creates her characters with specific quirks and goals, such that their blackness is just one part of their multifaceted identity.


The first story, Twelve Takes Thea, is probably the most focues on the "minority issues" in America. It features a twelve-year-old girl, the titular Thea, struggling with fitting in among her classmates, most of which are white. Her best friend is another young black girl, who happens to transfer to a different school soon after the story begins, and an Indian girl whom Thea cannot quite wrap her mind around. This story twists and turns toward an emotional ending, though Solomon uses a sort of strange flash-forward device that I feel is somewhat unnecessary. Twelve Takes Thea would be something I would highly recommend to younger (middle school) readers, both because of relevant reading level and subject matter (though, the rest of this book does not follow this trend at all).


That Golden Summer and Party on, Vorhees! are two of the book's shortest stories, both checking in at around 10-15 pages. I'm lumping them together because they share a common theme and structure: an adolescent trying to embrace their approaching adulthood, and getting into a dangerous situation because of it. Both stories are somewhat lacking in plot -- Vorhees in particular seems to just ramble on without any real goal -- but they make up for it in character. While Golden Summer focuses mainly on the child, Vorhees has a group of children, as well as an older woman who recounts her days as a mischievous youth, hopping from party to party. Solomon is able to reveal a lot about her characters simply by the way this woman tells her story, the way the children react to it, and the way the main character, who has presumably heard it time and time again, recounts it to the audience.


William Is Telling A Story is quite a departure from the other pieces in the book. It features a young man named William who is apparently struggling with his sexuality -- but not in a commonly seen way. He is comfortable relating to his friends that he had a sexual experience with a man named Kelly, and he still seems interested in chasing women. However, he can't seem to get Kelly off of his mind. It's an extremely complex tale -- probably the best one in the book, though maybe not the most enjoyable -- so I won't try to do it justice here. Suffice it to say that Solomon takes a complicated and sensitive topic and draws it in a fresh, respectful light.

My favorite story has to be The Star of the Story. This story is unique among the others, in that it features the viewpoints of two character weaved in and out of each other. The mother, Akousa, is an older woman seeking to rekindle a flame she had in the past, while her son, Eduardo, is a large outgoing boy with an unhealthy obsession with his cousin. The story isn't perfect -- Solomon takes a risk putting the two largely unrelated narratives together, and I don't think she treats the topic of child rape with the sensitivity it really deserves -- but it's engaging and thought-provoking.

I won't talk about the other two stories, mostly because they are fairly simplistic, when compared to the other pieces. One is cute and enjoyable to read -- the other, not so much.

Finally, I have to address the comment a woman in my reading group made. She said she thought the book was "crap," not because of the writing, but because they weren't "her type of stories." I'm pretty sure I know what she means -- she's white, so she feels like she can't connect with the characters and immediately turns herself off from the writing. That's unfortunate. I'll be blunt, and say that there are stories where a certain demographic is writing for that demographic, and they don't expect or desire anyone outside of that to be a part of the readership; there are many examples of men-writing-for-men or women-writing-for-women where the opposite gender is not encouraged to participate. However, Get Down does not even approach that sort of genre. For all its flaws, Get Down shines brightly at its best moments, and its casual-yet-masterful style pulled me in and held me tight. Solomon does not put forth the idea that she prefers one type of reader to the other -- if you have problems "relating" to her story, that is most certainly your problem.

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