Love War Stories By Ivelisse Rodriguez
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 200 pp., $16.95 paperback
Training School for Negro Girls By Camille Acker
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 248 pp., $17.95, paperback Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer
Two recent short story collections from the Feminist Press have created something rare: kaleidoscopic portraits of girls of color that demonstrate their innocence, defiance, selfreflection, and joy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us against the danger of a single story, of constructing myths to represent an entire group. Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories and Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls don’t tell a single story of adolescence or childhood; instead, each story provides a new lens on youth and how children of color may experience it. This summer, we’ve seen children of color harassed by police for selling water and delivering newspapers. And we’ve felt the loss of Nia Wilson, who had just entered adulthood when she was murdered by someone believed to be a white supremacist. We realize that, while all children risk having their voices diminished and their movements restricted, youth of color face life-altering and life-ending consequences for trying to live freely.
The two collections, which are structurally and thematically in conversation with each other, examine restrictions on girls of color and pose uncomfortable questions: for girls of color, when does adulthood start? Has society denied girls of color a collective childhood, by positioning them as caretakers and nurturers? Are girls (and boys) of color given the freedom to rebel and make mistakes?
In “El Que Dirán,” the first story in Rodriguez’s collection, Noelia decides she doesn’t want to become like her aunt Lola, whose selfhood is defined by the loss of a man. Noelia decides that while her heartbroken aunt mourns a man who has long forgotten about her, she, Noelia, will defy the traditions of 1950s Puerto Rican society and have sex with her boyfriend without caring whether he stays or goes. The story ends with a celebration of rebellion and defining womanhood on one’s own terms, with sentences whose rhythms and language mimic love-making: “[...]when he arrived, he kissed me and undressed quickly. I watched Lola fling what looked like confetti from her open window ... I pushed his shoulders up, so I could look at him one last time. Then he entered me. And I wondered what her room felt like now, devoid of its past. Had it sunk? Or risen again?” But it isn’t sex that moves Noelia into adulthood; it’s deciding to love, making the decision to be true to herself by being vulnerable with another.
Throughout the collection, Rodriguez suggests this vulnerability as necessary for adulthood. In “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” Veronica, a student at Holyoke High School, lives in a community where you fight or act hard, where “Puerto Rican girls walk in silence, hoping for invisibility if they are alone or in pairs.” The adults Veronica knows are scared to be open, scared to feel, and though Veronica is a secret romantic (“even Holyoke girls are allowed to hope for love”), she’s disenchanted. She has seen too many relationships end because of poverty and stress.
In 2018, we may live with the bluster of Donald Trump and a hyper-masculinity associated with physical strength, guns, and weapons, but Rodriguez shows us we don’t have to accept it. Through “El Que Dirán,” and “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” she dismantles the idea that vulnerability and sensuality lack value, and with “The Summer of Nene,” she suggests new models for strength. Jimmy knows Nene has health problems, but that doesn’t prevent him from falling for him. Emotional vulnerability, this story indicates, increases our capacity for love—and marks us as adults.
How we tell our stories reveals our maturity. “The Simple Truth” parallels the lives of three women—Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, the youthful Maricarmen, and Maricarmen’s mother. Maricarmen admires Julia de Burgos because she displays her emotions deeply and openly. But so does Maricarmen’s mother, who has been betrayed by Maricarmen’s father. While Maricarmen is enthralled with her father, she comes to respect her mother’s stories and storytelling style, her version of fairy tales that “would always lapse into some feminist manifesto, completely changing the story.” Thus, “The Simple Truth” is less about a universal truth than how ambiguity molds storytelling: Maricarmen acknowledges how our stories bend and stretch depending on the storyteller (“But if my father told the story. If my mother told the story”). “Love War Stories,” the culminating story in the collection, is humorous, with multiple literary allusions to other epic love battles. It features Rosie, who, on the verge of becoming an adult, declares a war against love until she realizes even failed relationships can have value. This final exploration of growth reminds us of the continuous process of making ourselves willing to love. Acker, like Rodriguez, explores freedom and vulnerability and the specific cultural histories central to understanding her characters. The story of Washington, D.C., shadows the collection, which opens with an epigraph from educator Nannie Burroughs: “women, barely out of girlhood, were trained to follow society’s rules ... Then, they would be free.” A backdrop of the nation’s capital makes Acker ’s examination of liberation more acute. Referencing Marion Barry or Len Bias makes us aware of the forces—racial stereotypes—that attempt to define the parameters of the characters’ lives. We see young girls and women, nearly drowned by their parents’, teachers’, and neighbors’ need for authority and control, still managing to swim out almost every time.
Divided into two parts, “The Lower School” and “The Upper School,” Acker examines why these forces exist, why children of color are confined and controlled. “The Lower School” is more somber in tone (“The Upper School” is often hilarious), but both sections question why some children are allowed to be vulnerable—protected—and some are not. The first story, “Who We Are,” is told in the collective voice, as the “we,” the voices of youth of color, go to school and hang out with friends. On the subway, “we” describes how “people in suits and ties and nice dresses and heels give us looks ... We talk louder to make them look. And we don’t stop until we see that they’re afraid.” Acker makes us aware that just by being vocal, the adolescents can make other passengers uncomfortable. Perhaps some of these passengers are also of color (D.C. is, after all, a Chocolate City), but this may be Acker’s point. One of her best critiques is how people of color can inflict pain on other people of color. And this pain restricts our ability to live freely and joyously. Acker’s young people want to be free, to be seen, but already they face a wall of stereotypes.
“Cicadas” is another story that sings with subtle metaphor. The story examines a black girl’s piano competition and opens with the scattered shells of cicadas, an insect known for their song. The cicadas are able to fly, to be free: “In the dank of D.C.’s summer heat, cicadas scaled the heights of oak trees, vocal and untrained trapeze artists.” Acker offers her readers a choice—do we want children’s songs to be flattened and oppressed or sail through oak trees? Ellery, Acker’s protagonist, is resilient and smart. After winning the piano competition against wealthier and more privileged students, she better understands her own power and flings the cicada shells, metaphorically breaking out of her shell.
“Strong Men,” set in 1986, references basketball player Len Bias, and seriously examines black teenagers’ ideas about freedom while the laugh aloud funny “Final Draft of College Essay” will appeal to any black girl who has struggled to apply eyeliner, write college admission essays, and find her place in the world. With “Final Draft,” Acker mentally prepares for the second section, which is heavy on irony (“The Ropes”) and humor (“Training School for Negro Girls”).
Acker isn’t easy on her characters; she dissects them and points out the biases they have towards those in their own communities. In “The Ropes,” Dawn, a young and inexperienced black teacher, singles out one of her students—a spirited black girl from a poor neighborhood—for punishment. Dawn decides to teach students values like honesty and integrity (for some strange reason, through political campaigns), but reveals her own limited capacity for empathy. The titular story, “Training School for Negro Girls,” mocks the pretentiousness of D.C.’s black middle class. Its absurdity and its satire of black social organizations shows the destructive side of the so-called “black elite.”
To make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to question or defy the rules and not be unduly overly punished for it are rarities for youth of color. Acker and Rodriguez reveal why girls of color fight for the right to make youthful mistakes, just like everyone else.
Rochelle Spencer is author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge, 2019), co-editor, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and a co-curator of the Let’s Play exhibition and Oakland’s Digital Literature Garden.