Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: APHRO-ISM Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by Aph Ko and Syl Ko

[Image: The cover of Aphro-ism is a brown-gold background with three vertically aligned geometric symbols leading down to the heads of Aph and Syl Ko. Aph and Syl are shown from the side, shoulder to shoulder, and facing opposite directions towards the left and right of the image. They are each dressed in bright, multi-colored astronaut uniforms and the images have a watercolor paint effect filter. Below them is a purple bar with the book's title in pink and white letters.]
Also available on my goodreads.

I have been reading the writings of Aph and Syl Ko since the beginnings of APHRO-ISM and Black Vegans Rock as blog sites. Back then it was already very exciting to see people coming out with ideas that were not only tackling topics at the root of huge fighting and divisions between vegan, animal lib, and social justice communities, but doing so in fresh new ways. Aph and Syl both have brilliant minds and ways of combining their powers together through conversation then reproducing them beautifully on the screen (and now page.) When they put the word out about their book, a lot of us were extremely excited. Many of us have been learning from their wisdom and/or feeling validated by their work.

The essays in APHRO-ISM explore critical theory in ways I find somewhat more accessible than a lot of critical theory out there. Many of the arguments made against academia and critical theory include the reality that some people are trying to tangibly survive while academics sit writing think pieces. But, what Aph and Syl do in this book is show the importance of thinking through things to liberation. There is a call for the defense of thought and culture- of "Black LIFE" not just Black lives and bodies.

Many of the essays are speaking directly to Black people- both vegan and nonvegan. This stays with the consistent theme of the need to decenter whiteness in movements for justice and liberation. Many arguments are well made that white supremacy teaches Black and other people of color to spend most of their time calling out and educating white people rather than decentering them and creating futures without them. The book does a good job creating this literary space in practice. I had the honor of seeing Aph give a presentation similar to the last writing in the book, "Creating New Conceptual Architechture: On Afrofuturism, Animality, and Unlearning/Rewriting Ourselves" at a conference and was incredibly motivated and moved by it. There Aph uses models of the solar system to construct a model of a reality we are not seeing: that the "social solar system" does not revolve around white folks or the most privileged of society, even if it appears that way, just as everything appeared to be orbiting the Earth upon early observation of the night sky. The reality is that the marginalized and oppressed- those seen as subhuman- are the Sun at the center of the solar system, and without them, the most privileged could not survive or exist.

Aph and Syl also focus in multiple ways on how animality is used to oppress people. Even though humans belong biologically to the kingdom Animalia with other animals, and even though marginalized and oppressed human beings are biologically homo sapiens along with ruling class white abled cis male humans, oppressed humans and animals all are forced into a space of "subhuman" that is created by white supremacist patriarchy. As Syl states, "The human-animal divide is the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy. The negative notion of 'the animal' is the anchor of this system." As a result, animality must be reclaimed and factored into our analyses of oppression. This is a genius argument that is made well throughout several essays in the book.

The book is not limited to topics of Black veganism or animality and also goes into discussions of social media, tactics in activism and critical thinking, and others. It is at the forefront of new and needed systems of thinking, moving on from intersectionality as a technique to afrofuturism as a practice and model for the future. APHRO-ISM is a satellite that helps us see who is really at the center of our social solar system. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement

[Image: The cover of the book is black jagged angular lines making boxes that spiral in towards the center of the cover. In the center is a white space with a drawing of a person curled into the fetal position. They have black hair, brown skin, and are wearing an orange prison uniform. Above them is the title of the book in white hand drawn letters and below them is the byline in the same letters. The bottom of the image has both corners blacked out where one side says "edited by..." and the other lists "Jean Casella, James Rdgeway, Sarah Shourd."]
Also posted to goodreads.

Hell is a Very Small Place is partially a collection of essays of people who are or were in solitary confinement telling stories about their experiences. It is also composed of essays from lawyers, professors, psychologists, and journalists about why solitary confinement is unethical and illogical.

The essays telling the stories of peoples experiences are diverse in demographics and eerily similar as far as the abuses and torture suffered in each place. All of the essays tell stories of the descent into madness that occurs when one is deprived of human contact (physically, verbally, and otherwise,) natural light, medical care, food, and other basic necessities. Solitary confinement always causes lasting damage- especially when prisoners are held in it for extended periods of time. The essays by a trans woman and a gay cis man show how being LGBTQ and/or gender nonconforming is a punishable offense in prisons while being couched in the idea of "safety" and "protection" for LGBTQ people in prison. The essays also show how prisons lie to insist there is a need for solitary confinement based on ill-defined parameters such as gang affiliation, mild infarctions such as talking back to guards, or to quell any organized resistance such as hunger striking to improve the conditions in prisons. Once one is placed in solitary, a cyclic nature of getting stuck there for these reasons created by the oppressive institutions that are prisons begins.

I have had prison pen pals who have spent time in solitary, including one for extended amount of time due to an accusation of gang affiliation and the other for perceived homosexual activity (which would also garner you a sex offense and placement on a registry for something like two women consensually hugging.) I can say that the stories in this book are not unique. My friend in solitary for the longer time slowly lost his mind in permanent ways and has had a very difficult time readjusting to general population despite wanting to be out of solitary.

Even if one is heartless enough not to care about prisoners and their torture in solitary, it makes no sense as a punitive or rehabilitative measure. When people leave solitary, they are always worse off whether they are in the prison population or back out in the world. They struggle with relationships, open space, authority, and other things far worse than those never placed in solitary confinement.

The essays in the latter part of the book range from descriptions of the researched psychological effects of solitary by outside clinicians and/or researchers, the laws in place to keep solitary confinement going, or stories of those held there as they are perceived by someone on the outside. These essays are mostly good, but I found one topic to be lacking and that was the discussion of LGBTQ prisoners in solitary confinement. Given that multiple stories told by these people existed in the first part of the book, I would have liked to see at least one essay in the latter part focused on homophobia and transphobia in prisons and why such large percentages of LGBTQ people in prisons end up in solitary without even disobeying any written rules. LGBTQ prisoners are some of the most ill treated in prisons, especially when their identities intersect with other oppression such as racism and misogyny. That is why this book gets 4 stars instead of 5.

Overall this book does a good job showing how solitary confinement is literal torture that some prisoners describe as a sentence worse than death and one essay describes as "a living death sentence." It is an important read for anyone interested in prisons and could be handed to any person who is ignorant of how prisons are hellish places that do not rehabilitate or stop future crime.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

[Image: The cover of the book has a watercolor painting effect. It is shade of blue and yellow-tinted white making up an outer-space sky with stars. A Black woman's face is centered taking up most of the image. She is seen from the left side looking towards the viewer. In hand-written text, the title of the book is written in white across her forehead with "ghosts" in all capital letters. Below her chin, the author's name is written in the same font.]
Also posted to goodreads.

When I read the blurb for this book, "a worthy successor to Octavia Butler" stuck out as quite a claim. I wondered if the book would reach the expectations set by that sentence and honestly felt like that sentence might be too much for any writer to live up to. After reading this book, I can say very confidently that the claim is true. Rivers Solomon is a fantastic writer whose prose an ideas have marks of influence from science fiction greats like Butler, but which also stand out beautifully on their own.

An Unkindness of Ghosts takes place on a large space vessel called The Matilda. The ship is basically a fascist hereditary dictatorship and theocracy. It is intensely stratified by race, class, gender, and other measures with the lower decks occupied by enslaved women and others and the upper decks occupied by the rich, predominantly white, privileged classes. Each deck has it's own culture, accents, and sometimes languages. Enforcement of these divisions is often defended as the will of God as the ship careens at near light-speed towards a promised land that has been promised now for centuries. The story is told mostly through a third person narrative centering Aster and her experiences, but also has a brilliant touch of interspersed first-person journal-like entries from other characters in the story. This allows the reader to see the story from multiple perspectives, adding to its richness. The story is part dystopian/apocalyptic science fiction, part afrofuturism, part mystery, a little bit coming of age, and a dash of romantic and platonic love.

Solomon did her research regarding the medical and scientific aspects of relativity, medicine, psychology, and other tools used to propel the story forward. A story like this could have easily become boringly structured around blatant hierarchy, or a cheesy space saga, but it does not. The story is rich with believable and interesting characters, honest understanding of the daily affects of and reactions to complex trauma, nuanced expressions of hierarchical interactions and identities- including when oppressed groups can be pinned against one another, and captures what it truly feels like to be powerless and powerful at the same time.

Topics tackled in the book include slavery and indentured servitude, Mammy archetypes, gender nonconformity, female masculinity, male femininity, androgyny, intersexuality, queerness, consent, racism, fascism, sexual abuse, suicide, authoritarianism, and many others. The presence of all of these themes makes the story complex and more believable rather than bogging it down. In my opinion, this story shows the reality of places like the United States- and some other areas of the "West"- through the use of science fiction and allegory. This is my favorite kind of scifi when done well as I believe it can change the world. Rivers Solomon does it amazingly well.

I hope that this book takes off and is seen for just how great a feat it is. I would be completely interested in a series that continues or expands upon the story told in this novel as well as completely new stories from this author. I look forward to seeing much more from Rivers Solomon in the future.