Posted in Book Reviews, Smith Collection

Smith Collection Reviews

Race and gender orientations as visual expressions can radically change when looked at from an international perspective. The following three books take their readers away from their comfortable U.S. social and cultural backgrounds, encouraging an exploration of the different ways such conversations take place worldwide. 

Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish

Tessa McWatt (1959), born in Guyana and raised in Canada, dwells on her multiple racial intersections as a woman of color whose life story crosses several national borders. She is an award-winning novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England). In an interview with the Toronto Star (March 27, 2020), McWatt explained the genesis of her autobiography, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging. “Being a Canadian, actually, is a very privileged upbringing because my family was able to get into the country in a moment where we were given a lot of support. I have a very privileged way of understanding the world in that I was given a lot of opportunity. Yet the very root of my existence in terms of enslaved people and indentured people and Indigenous people is a part of what was oppressed in order to get to that point. The so-called whiteness in me allowed me to be privileged in Canadian society. And that is part of where the shame of the title of comes from.” Indeed, as McWatt painfully notes in her heartfelt autobiography, her life paths are summarized in a series of conversations centering around her sense of belonging: “[r]ace is the story of the self” (197). One such episode condenses her biracial background as a person of Caribbean descent living in England as defined by a white, British friend: “‘You’re socially white, politically black, and culturally both,’ he said, and I was surprised at being described so succinctly, then felt a rising distress about what he meant–that I was fragmented, unintegrated, possibly false, and therefore dangerous? He thought he was affirming me, but I felt steeped in shame” (22). The rest of the book underscores ways McWatt has dealt with such a racial dilemma and, above all, her life-long approach to a simple yet complex question: “What am I? What are you?” (30).

Dominican-born Sili Recio’s children’s book If Dominican Were a Color addresses the strong racial component of blackness in Dominican culture. A brief “Author’s Note” reveals Recio as a strong activist who racially defines herself as a “‘java,’ a term used on the island to describe a person with light skin and black features” (no pagination). Indeed, as Recio traces, her own family reflects the multiple racial components of her native Dominican Republic: “Papá and my two sisters are as dark as the chocolate Embajador they sell in the stores. We have curly hair and the more we played in the sun, the more our brown stood out. We thought our colors were beautiful.” But, as Recio has experienced in the United States as an Afro-Latina, being a dark-skinned Dominican is often not culturally celebrated. This book comes to fill that void, dedicated to “the little boys and girls who were never nourished with the balm of truth–those who may have felt as if they did not belong because of their dark complexions or curly hair texture or with the width of their noses.” Poetic and melodic stanzas trace images of blackness through positive body physical depictions that Recio proudly affirms as “black is beautiful:” “My grandma’s mahogany skin, honey brown eyes. My other grandma’s yellow tint, just like mine.” References to the Dominican Republic’s amazing natural beauty cleverly connects race and national identity as homage to a cultural motherland: “If Dominican were a color…. it would be the sunset in the sky, blazing red and burning bright.” The book is beautifully illustrated with original art by Trinidad and Tobago-born artist Brianna McCarthy. There is also a Spanish version, Si Quisqueya fuera un color, a great addition to a rising Latinx children’s literature for bilingual and multicultural readers.

Harshita Mruthinti Kamath’s Impersonations: The Artifice of Brahmin Masculinity in South Indian Dance is an in-depth critical study of the impersonation of Satyabhama, the wife of the Hindu deity Khrishna as part of a Kuchipudi dance drama, known as Bkamakalapam, a complex musical and choreographic performance. Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma is one of Kamath’s subjects, a member of an upper caste of brahmin families who are traditionally selected to impersonate other female deity characters. Religious traditions are strong in this village, Kuchipudi, in the Telugu-speaking South India, the birthplace of this well-known transnational musical performance which Satyanarayana Sarma has successfully performed since the 1960s. His conversations with Professor Kamath, as both subject and instructor of prescribed religious lyrics and musical choreography, drive the book’s exploration of an extraordinary “male Kuchipudi dancer skilled at donning the stri-vesam, translated here here as ‘woman’s guise’” (1). Indeed, as Professor Kamath states, Impersonations sets out to explore “the practice of impersonation across a series of boundaries–village to urban to transnational, brahmin to non-brahmin, hegemonic to non-normative–to explore the artifice of brahmin masculinity in contemporary South Indian dance” (2). Through a series of interviews and color photographs of actual performers, the reader will be a viewer of these musical performances that since the mid-twentieth century have radically begun to change with the diminishing role of men as female impersonators: “While impersonation in the village is read as a powerful expression of brahmin masculinity, the very same practice is reinterpreted in urban contexts as obsolete, especially given the growing number of women who have begun to learn and perform Kuchipudi dance” (3-4). The reader is in for a compelling multi-disciplinary and linguistic study that traces the historical and religious genesis behind the Kuchipudi dance, as well as a theoretical approach that “bridges feminist theory with studies of Indian performance by exploring ways in which gender, sexuality, and caste are contingent categories” (162).

To check out any of these books, check out the Smith Collection on WorldCat and place a hold to utilize our Grab & Go services.

Listed above: Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging
If Dominican Were a Color
Impersonations: The Artifice of Brahmin Masculinity in South Indian Dance

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