After spending the summer in Oakland with their mother and the Black Panthers, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern arrive home with a newfound streak of independence, and the sisters aren't the only ones who have changed. Now Pa has a girlfriend. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam a different man. But Big Ma still expects Delphine to keep her sisters in line. That's much harder now that Vonetta and Fern refuse to be bossed around. Besides her sisters, Delphine's got plenty of other things to worry about-like starting sixth grade, being the tallest girl in her class, and dreading the upcoming school dance (her first). The one person she confides in is her mother, Cecile. Through letters, Delphine pours her heart out and receives some constant advice: to be eleven while she can.
Jodie: Even though we didn't co-review One Crazy Summer I think we're united in our feelings about Rita Williams-Garcia's first Gaither Sisters book. Loved, loved, loved it! You recently said 'it's a story that makes room for several simultaneous truths', and the way the book validated both Delphine and Cecile's feelings absolutely swept me away.
Did you have any particular hopes, dreams and expectations going into the sequel, P.S. Be Eleven because of the way One Crazy Summer developed?
Ana: I guess one of my main hopes was that we'd get to see more of Big Ma. I felt that One Crazy Summer did a good job of portraying her compassionately, even if we didn't see that much of her while the girls were in California. The glimpses we got allowed us to understand that she's the complete opposite of Cecile and the other Black Panthers the three sisters meet in the first book, in the sense that she's subservient around white people. However, the story makes room for yet one more truth: this is not the result of some intrinsic personal flaw on her part, but of the circumstances she grew up in. She needed to survive, and unfortunately she didn't have the kind of affirmation and support the Gaither sisters experience around their mother's friends. Big Ma's subservience is not an effective strategy, in the sense that it doesn't protect her, but it's the result of her limited choices. We're allowed to see that her advice to her granddaughters, which is always along the lines of "keep our head down and don't draw attention to yourselves", amounts to her trying to protect them the only way she knows how. What did you think of the way Big Ma was portrayed in P.S. Be Eleven?
Jodie: Big Ma is quite an aggressive presence in the girl's lives once they return to Brooklyn; in the opening chapter she rails at them from the minute they get off the plane. I think it's a measure of how sympathetically she's set up in the first book that even though I was squirming for the girls I always felt like I understood her perspective. While P.S. Be Eleven doesn't expand much on how the specifics of Big Ma's background cause her to fixate on avoiding conflict with white people, it quickly and effectively reminds the reader that she lived through a violent history when she talks to her son about girls getting 'strung up'.
I read P.S. Be Eleven just after I watched The Butler, and the main character of that film, Cecil Gaines, provides an interesting comparison with Big Ma because he's concerned about the respectability of his revolutionary son. Cecil watched his father get shot for standing against a white man so he worries about the safety of his son Earl who joins protest movements. And he's ashamed that Earl drops out of college and ends up in jail because to Cecil black success means increasing black respectability. In the end, Cecil comes around to view his son's life with pride, but his character also has a very different life than Big Ma. I can see how her history would keep her from believing in change even as the world becomes visibly different around her.
Ana: And I read it at around the same time as Bad Feminist, which includes an essay called "The Politics of Respectability" where Roxane Gay identifies the problem and discusses its context. So I had her definition in mind as I read this book:
[Respectability politics is] the idea that if black (or other marginalized people) simply behave in “culturally approved” ways, if we mimic the dominant culture, it will be more difficult to suffer the effects of racism. Respectability politics completely overlook institutional racism and the ways in which the education system, the social welfare system, and the justice system only reinforce many of the problems the black community faces.
This is of course true — you can't overcome systemic oppression by behaving "correctly", and it's counterproductive to think so. And yet it's human too. As I said above, I really appreciated how Williams-Garcia humanised Big Ma and hinted (in subtle but noticeable ways) at the fact that sometimes rebellion is completely beyond what you can afford to risk or even imagine for yourself. This isn't to say that Cecile, her friends, and all the people involved in the Civil Rights movement didn't also risk a lot to bring about change — they definitely did, but the fact that they weren't isolated, and that the movement had the effect it did in terms of consciousness-raising, meant that they a) had support and b) allowed themselves to imagine change, and that's the first step towards bringing it about.
Another thing I read recently was March: Book One, an amazing graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis (who was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement). There's a section where Lewis describes how he met Martin Luther King, who asked to see him after he wrote him a letter about how he wanted to transfer to then segregated Troy State University. King explains to him that he has his full support if he decides to sue the State of Alabama and the Board of Education, but he also tells him what the lawsuit might mean for him and his family: "Your parents could lose their jobs. Your family home could be bombed or burned. You may get hurt, or your family may get hurt." Lewis takes the matter home to his parents (who belong to the same generation as Big Ma), and they decide that they're not ready to face these possible consequences. They are afraid, and understandably so.
It's important to have stories that portray their decision with such respect, and that acknowledge that it didn't prevent Lewis from becoming an activist in the end. This puts me in mind of Audre Lorde's famous quote, "Your silence will not protect you", which again is absolutely true — but it's true in a complicated way, and I'm very interested in exploring the complications surrounding it. You can't change the world by keeping your head down, yet I value anti-racist (and feminist) narratives that embrace those who do and treat them compassionately, if that makes sense. To bring this point to an arena I know something about (and to be clear, this is not me saying you can make direct comparisons between gender and race or that it's ever the same; I know it isn't and you can't), there are brave women out there who speak up against harassment, who refuse to back down, and who draw attention to how adequately the world responds to situations like theirs, and I admire and respect them so much. But there are also women who can't do that, and I also respect them and regret that they were ever put in the position to have to make that choice. We owe a lot to the people who take risks and speak up anyway — they make it easier for the rest of us to to the same. But I like expressing that gratitude in ways that don't doubly punish or shame anyone who doesn't want to do the same, or for whatever reason can't. Your life and wellbeing shouldn't have to be collateral damage, and it's incredibly unfair that the world keeps asking this of people.
Also, I don't think this is a choice we make only once. As you often remind me about feminism, there's more than one person out there fighting for the things we care about, and so the person who chooses to take a stand at a personal cost and the person who chooses not to will sometimes swap places. We'd need all our battles to be fought by superheroes and heroines if that wasn't the case — but what we have instead are real, fragile human beings who are vulnerable and afraid. To me, compassionate narratives empower the person who said no today to say yes at some point in the future, because they won't feel they're a perpetual disappointment or a failure and they will know they have support to fall back on. And this means that the person saying yes today will get to step down and rest, and someone else will take their place and carry on fighting. Who knows if the Big Ma who's so committed to not making "a grand Negro spectacle of herself" won't one day take important stands on behalf of her granddaughters?
As you say, the Big Ma we see in this book doesn't think the world could ever be any different — she believes, because this is what her life experiences have shown her, that the best a black woman can hope for is to live in peace and avoid attracting the notice of people with the power to ruin her life. Her reaction in the parking lot at the start of P.S. Be Eleven shows this very clearly, and readers can tell it comes from a place of enormous fear for her granddaughters' safety. I found that scene moving, even if like you I was flinching for Delphine and her sisters.
Jodie: All good points. Quotes like Lorde's are incredibly useful and relevant, but, as you say, it's still impossible to apply one quote, or indeed one approach, to all life situations. I think that brings us around to the idea we started with: Williams-Garcia is so generous at presenting multiple perspectives, without ever tipping over into "phoney balance" (which we're coming on to later). I would recommend her books to anyone trying to write even handed and explorative novels about complex social periods.
I think P.S. Be Eleven focuses more on Big Ma's personal relationships than the ramifications of her history (although that history is always there informing how she acts). I found her relationships with her sons interesting, especially once Darnell comes home from war. Uncle Darnell's storyline is another place where P.S. Be Eleven creates space for multiple views on an issue - this time without really giving a huge presence or voice to the controversial character. Darnell doesn't talk about the horrors of war at all, but I still came to feel for him. However, I could also understand Vonetta's anger when Darnell stole from his family. Did you enjoy the storylines around Big Ma and her sons? What do you think of Delphine's Pa at the end of this novel, considering he was probably the least sympathetically characterised person by the end of One Crazy Summer?
Ana: Yes, I enjoyed those storylines a lot, and like you I could see both sides. To be honest I'm a little bit in awe of Rita Williams-Garcia's ability to bring so much nuance to her characters with only a few brief scenes or some seemingly casual remarks. There was so much between the lines about Uncle Darnell's struggles, how they fit into the wider political issues of the time, and how they affected the lives of the characters we grew to care about in small and not so small ways.
To answer your second question, I found Pa well-meaning but sometimes frustrating. Some of his actions illustrate how issues of (lack of) intersectionality work to this day: he's a man who has experienced oppression and who wants the best for his daughters, yet he clings to very traditional ideas about gender roles and brings them to his relationship with Miss Hendrix. I loved Miss Hendrix, by the way — I loved how her basic feminism was there for Delphine when so many of the adults in her life were trying to impose limits on what she could imagine for girls and women. Cecile would have done that too, but Cecile was far away, and it was great that she had someone closer at hand to reassure her that there's nothing wrong with thinking a woman could be president. To go back to Pa, I want to believe that a relationship with a progressive-minded woman might change his outlook, but I don't know that that will necessarily be the case. This is one aspect of the novel I don't even read historically: these things still affect relationships today, even if in more covert ways. What do you think?
Jodie: First, I agree about Miss Hendrix. I was so happy to see Williams-Garcia refuse to cast Nzila as an Exceptional Woman by casting Miss Hendrix as a passive, anti-feminist wife. Instead, she sets this wonderful, feminist character alongside Miss Hendrix - a confident, supportive feminist, stepmother. And, although Delphine has some reservations, the girls have relatively come around to her by the end of the book; partly because she is confident, supportive and engages with them honestly. No evil stepmothers here - phew! So many writers write modern day stepmothers who get pulled down by their new kids in misogynistic ways and I'm so glad to get a breather from that.
Ana: Yes, that was such a lovely detail. I thought Delphine's initial reaction — feeling uncertain and seeking reassurance that this didn't erase the tie her parents had once shared — was human and understandable, but it was so nice to watch her come around once she opened up to the possibility of getting to know this new person in her life.
Jodie: I think Pa and Miss Hendrix are going to play a major part if there's a third Gaither Sisters book. It feels like another complicated area of Delphine's life will be her relationship with Pa as she grows up and as she becomes more interested in feminism. How will she deal with her father's paternalistic views of women when she clearly adores him?
I think we get a hint of the conflict ahead in the scene where he drops her off at the dance. He's trying to hold on to her childhood, but at least attempts to be gracious about letting her grow up when she says that's what she wants to do. I think he's going to find that balance difficult to maintain in the future, especially if Delphine wants to become more political as she grows up. I would particularly like to see her confront him about the way he painted over Cecile's words when they were together, because that's still a heartbreaking scene I can't forget and I think the idea of women having a voice is emerging as an important issue for Delphine.
Like you, I don't think being married to a progressive woman will change Pa. I think it's more likely they'll argue once the haze of being newlywed has worn off and her sees her as a whole person he spends time with every day. Perhaps those arguments might slowly change some things about him perhaps? Maybe he's in a different place than when he was with Cecile because the times have moved on? I think it'll be a long road before he really starts to understand Miss Hendrix and his daughters though.
Ana: I want that third book so much! Or alternatively for someone to write an awesome fic that follows that direction. *whistles innocently*
As you point out, P.S. Be Eleven is a story that catches Delphine at a crucial moment, when she's on the cusp of what may well be another big political awakening. Just like her summer with the Black Panthers changed how she and her sisters saw themselves and perceived the racial inequality that permeated their lives, Delphine's education and her experiences as she approaches her teen years are making her more aware of gender. You talk above about how this is likely to cause complications regarding her relationship with Pa, but do you think it could also affect the family's dynamics in other ways? For example, I'm thinking of Delphine's domestic responsibilities and how she's expected to look after her sisters. I feel we already saw some changes in that regard in P.S. Be Eleven, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on those.
Jodie: I think there's likely to be some kind of clash with Miss Hendrix over gendered responsibilities. Delphine's already mentioned Martha's cooking, and she's taken a lot of cues about how women should act from her Pa and Big Ma. It'll take her a while to move away from those ideas, but maybe learning more about her mother and father's relationship will help with that if she comes to fully understand why her mother couldn't stay.
I think her sisters have demonstrated that they're ready to take more responsibility for little things. And I think Miss Hendrix will be a staunch supporter of Nzila's idea that Delphine should be allowed to be more of a child, and that her path to growing up doesn't have to involve learning how to be responsible for kids and a home just because she's a girl. I don't think Delphine will ever get over her need to be the responsible one, but I do think she could be on a path to allowing herself a little more freedom.
Ana: Also, I felt that Delphine's sixth grade teacher, Mr Mwila, was an ambiguous character in more or less the same way as Pa. He was politically engaged, he challenged Delphine and expanded her intellectual horizons, he made her aware of Chinua Achebe, and he's an important figure in her life — and yet his thoughtfulness didn't necessarily extent to gender. He doesn't make any overtly sexist remarks like Pa, but his handling of the classroom debate about women in politics put me in mind of what Mark Henderson calls "the fetish for phoney balance" — giving two sides of an argument equal airtime in the name of "fairness" when one side is clearly damaging. There was also the incident about Delphine's mistake regarding Merriam-Webster's gender and his less than sensitive response to that. And yes, it was the 1960s, but I don't think it was necessarily impossible for a male educator to challenge sexism overtly then, or to acknowledge how it affects his female students. There were people who did it, and to attribute everything to history is to erase them. I do think that the fact that Mr Mwila doesn't is a meaningful choice on Williams-Garcia's part: a subtle and effective way for the novel to draw attention to the blind spots that people otherwise committed to equality and change were (and still are) susceptible to. What did you think of Mr Mwila and his role in the story?
Jodie: Did you also feel like Mr Mwila subtly favours the boys team that he sets up during the class discussion about Zambia? When he offers the boys a bonus point for one correct answer, so they have the chance to draw level with the girls, it looks like he might just be aiming to keep the competition alive and encourage his students, but after I saw the way he handled the later debate about a female president I felt like he was displaying bias. If he were a real educator I might view his actions differently, because I feel like when I was in school teachers taught issues by encouraging us to always identify two perspectives no matter what, so that we would learn how to write essays that would please examiners. As he's a fictional character, and throughout her book Williams-Garcia quietly lights up people's prejudices for the reader to see, I agree that there probably is some sexism in the way he addresses his class.
I also found it interesting when Mr Mwila said 'I see' after Delphine told him that her mother is from America but has taken an African name. I've just finished Alice Walker's Complete Stories which features several stories about younger African Americans who dress in African prints or talk about reconnecting with African heritage. Walker's stories nearly always make them out to be laughable or untrustworthy characters, and I thought Mr Mwila might be hinting at the same kind of cultural attitude (although as he's from Zambia his perspective would be different from that of Walker's stories).
Ana: That's an excellent point, and it reminds me of Americanah and what Adichie says about blackness not being a homogenerous experience and the dangers of assuming that American racial narratives are universal and therefore erasing important differences. Now that you've pointed it out, I can see how this is Williams-Garcia doing her awesome thing yet again: subtly highlighting her characters' blind spots and the complications surrounding their attitudes and actions.
I don't think we can wrap up this discussion without talking about the letters between Delphine and her mother and the lovely PS that gives the novel its title. Any thoughts and/or feels to share?
Jodie: Only that I wish they had exchanged more letters. I love their growing relationship and I hope Cecile/Nzila (as she switches between names when signing letters) is even more present in that future book we think we're getting.
Ana: Yes, I hope so too. It really moved me to see Cecile (who, as we know from One Crazy Summer, didn't get to have much of a childhood and teenhood herself) urge her daughter to allow herself to relax and enjoy her childhood while she can. Her letters are somewhat wry, but always in an affectionate way, and reading them was always a delight.
Fingers crossed that we do get that third book, and that we get to discuss it here in a few years' time.
The Book Smugglers