Posted in Book Reviews, Books & Film News, Interesting News & Commentary, Reading Habits

Book Review: Carry On by John Lewis

The following review is courtesy of Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish Rafael Ocasio. The book, Carry On, is available through McCain Library.

Observed in the United States from February 1 through March 1, Black History Month as Jonathan Franklin highlighted for NPR, “honors the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have helped shape the nation” (  In the midst of a lengthy Covid pandemic, this year’s theme, Black Health and Wellness, strikingly resonates in John Lewis’s Carry On: Reflections For a New Generation (2021). The late Lewis (1940-2020), U.S. representative for the state of Georgia (1987-2020), was described by American Civil Liberties Union as “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced” ( Along with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., another notable Black activist, Lewis’s participation in peaceful public demonstrations against Southern segregation practices led to the proclamation of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ( In Carry On, Lewis recalled key moments as a brave Civil Rights fighter (often the target of severe acts of physical aggression), followed by his subsequent career as a vocal public servant. Lewis offered a fresh updated view of his Civil Rights activism; in particular, I enjoyed his comments about undocumented immigrants, bravely claiming that, “There is no such thing as an ‘illegal human”” (149). The book is a beautiful compilation of personal essays that encourages, rather, challenges the reader to consider the power of forgiveness, meditation and prayer as ways to navigate overwhelmingly difficult societal marginalization.     

Posted in Book Reviews, Interesting News & Commentary, The Study Hall

The Study Hall 8/2/21

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Posted in Book Reviews, New Books, Smith Collection

Smith Collection Reviews

…these restaurants are also the stage for inspiring immigration stories that highlight Asian culture’s strong family ties while celebrating the creation of new dishes that define new immigrant traditions.”

Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish

Exploring the rich international cuisine available at local restaurants for many of us is a fun pastime. Indeed, you may have already developed an expertise in tasting certain national dishes (I, for instance, will drive long distances for a new variety of iconic Latin American empanadas), or you may just enjoy discovering new flavors within the exotic settings of the so-called ethnic restaurants. For international individuals, whether recent arrivals, long-time residents or first-generation U.S. Americans, these restaurants are welcoming meeting places, where homesickness is often quenched over that one special dish that brings so many memories of the homeland or homemade cooking. The geographical coordinates of a “homeland” and even “homemade cooking,” are not, however, so easily defined as explored in Chop Suey Nation and Eat a Peach. An ancestral “home” can be found hidden behind the kitchens of Chinese and Korean-inspired restaurants throughout Canada and the United States. As the authors stress, these restaurants are also the stage for inspiring immigration stories that highlight Asian culture’s strong family ties while celebrating the creation of new dishes that define new immigrant traditions. 

Bridging diverse cultures through food is the subject of Chop Suey Nation.  First-generation Chinese-Canadian journalist Ann Hui sets out to explore the origins of “chop suey,” a national culinary innovation that her own family, owners of traditional Chinese restaurants, often belittled as “fake” Chinese food (18). It is a quest that took Hui around the expansive Canadian geography. While traveling by car around the country she visited many family-owned Chinese restaurants where she tried out a variety of local chop suey dishes. Her discoveries, such as “ginger beef is uniquely Canadian” (80), go beyond a simple listing of Chinese contributions to modern popular Canadian eating habits. What started as a documentation of chop suey restaurants led Hui to write about the historical impact of Chinese immigrants in Canada (first arrivals, overwhelmingly large numbers of men, worked in the construction of a national train system beginning in the mid-nineteenth century), leading to the development of “China towns.” Hui’s conversations with owners of restaurants reveal the plight of Chinese immigrants as part of a harsh immigrational history: “They had created a cuisine that was a testament to creativity, perseverance and resourcefulness” (199).

David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, examines the modern cuisine trend popularly known as fusion, or the blending of national flavors as unique dishes. Chang is a celebrated chef and founder of Momofuku, an international conglomerate of Asian-inspired restaurants well-known for their experimentation of traditional Asian ingredients, such as ramen noodles. As Chang traces in his book, his exploration of iconic Asian flavors, although initially a culinary hit, did not go without challenges. At a television interview with CBS Morning on September 9, 2020 Chang stressed his background as a first generation Korean-American chef: “I always felt in between… not ever going to be part of white culture and never going to be part of Korean American culture” ( His memoir fully explores such subjects as “cultural conditioning” and “cultural appropriation” related to the processes behind modern fusion cooking: “I began to question the validity of various cultural truths. Who gets to assign value to certain foods? What makes something acceptable or not?” (210-211).       

Eating with family members in the intimacy of home is the central subject of In Bibi’s Kitchen, a compilation of delicious family recipes by bibis, grandmothers who have kept alive the culinary traditions from eight African countries along the Indian Ocean border: Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, and Comoros. A handsomely produced cookbook with beautiful photographs in color of the dishes, the central protagonists are a variety of elder women, some of them living in the African cities and rural areas of their birth, some of them refugees in Africa or living abroad. As the editors of the recipes underscore, the cooks speak “this language of food” (1). And the bibi cooks do have a lot to say about African “home cooking,” including their opinions about their favorite blends of African spices and teas, best ways to cook rice and pasta (because of the strong Italian colonial past, pasta sauce with beef, or Suugo Suqaar, is a popular dish in Somalia), or how best to incorporate tropical fruits in their dishes. These charming bibis have lived extremely rich lives and overcame terrible challenges; their outlook toward the future of their native countries is truly inspiring.         
As we thankfully move to an end of the pandemic quarantine, I invite you to support your local family-owned international cuisine restaurants. Better yet, learn about their cooking staff and servers. You will be pleasantly surprised to discover about their rich life stories. Ah, if you check out In Bibi’s Kitchen and you need an unbiased taster, please reach out to me. I do love to try out different kinds of cuisines! Happy reading and may you have a relaxed summer!  

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

Books Reviewed: Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui
Eat a Peach by David Chang
In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan, Julia Turshen, and more

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

Posted in Book Reviews, Interesting News & Commentary, Smith Collection

Smith Collection Book Reviews

In commemoration of October’s celebrations of Filipino American History Month, Canadian Islamic History Month, and LGBTQ History Month, the following reviews highlight autobiographical-informed writings by authors who dwell on a myriad of aspects pertaining to rich Filipino and Islamic cultural and religious traditions respectively. A history book celebrates a queer U.S. activist whose long legal battles constitute the basis for today’s LGBTQ rights.      

– Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish

Filipinos are, according to the Filipino American National Society, the second largest Asian American group in the United States, tracing back their presence to 1587 as inhabitants in the territory known today as California. Indeed, as Grace Talusan traces in The Body Papers: A Memoir, the historical connection between the Philippines and the United States is paramount to understanding the current socio-political conditions of modern Philippines, as well as the circumstances that brought Filipinos as immigrants to the United States. But writing about one’s country of birth and one’s immigrant family’s history can be a daunting chore, as Talusan succinctly notes: “My story is not only my story. While everyone has the right to report their lives, I know that telling my secrets impacts other people” (xi). Talusan is not referring, however, to the actual mechanics of writing but to the cultural limits she had to endure as a writer disclosing intimate details about her life as an individual of Filipino descent. Talusan’s diary takes its reader through a full immersion of native Filipino cultural traditions, both in the Philippines and among U.S. Filipino communities (if you enjoy homemade yogurt, you are in for a treat). Yet the dramatic emphasis of this thrilling autobiography is her heartfelt account of getting over sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. Telling that horrible story was certainly a brave act that went against the grain of “[v]ast kinship networks,” connections that historically had been “crucial to survival during brutal times of poverty, wars, and colonization” (152). 

On October 1, 2020 in an official statement in celebration of Canada’s Islamic History Month, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger challenged Canadians to continue “learning about Muslim communities and sharing truth across our country and by tackling the misinformation that far too often leads to discrimination.” According to World Population Review, “[t]here are approximately 1.9 billion Muslims globally, making Islam the second-largest religion in the world behind Christianity.” Perhaps the most iconic symbol of a Muslim practice is the burqa, the total covering of a woman’s face and body, a marker of their religious devotion, and, controversially, part of a debated narrative that places Muslim women as submissive to a patriarchal religion. But, as the authors of It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race underscore, the wearing of clothing items with a religious value by Muslim women goes beyond its actual religious significance. It is often a daring decision, which is the connection subject of this all-women anthology about “gendered Islamophobia.” In the words of Afia Ahmed, one of the writers, “Viewed as a symbol and marker of Islam, the hijab and veil are now increasingly worn by Muslim women to assert their socio-political and cultural identities and act as an affirmation of their ethno-religious selves” (66). The writers gathered represent a diverse group of Muslim women, some of whom have an international notoriety as activists in pro-women rights associations, writing from the vintage points as immigrant Muslims or native-born practitioners in European countries, cisgender straight and lesbian-identified women, and, above all, individuals who disclose varying degrees of devotion to prescribed Islamic practices. This collection is highly recommended as in-depth personal inquiries, as one of the writers underscores, of their “daring to exist outside my traditional Muslim woman box” (37).                      
Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America traces the celebrated case of Dr. Franklin Edward Kameny, who in August 28, 1956 was arrested for indecent exposure, a legal charge that led the following year to his dismissal from his federal post at the Army Map Service. Unlike hundreds of gay men before him, arrested under similar charges (often as part of a police entrapment in public restrooms), Kameny challenged in court these criminal charges, or deviancy, as unconstitutional. As Cervini carefully documents, it would be a long process for Kameny. After World War II, gay men had been illegally arrested at an alarming rate of “one every ten minutes, each hour, each day, for fifteen years” (4). Their names were published in newspapers as violators of moral codes of proper behavior: “sodomy, dancing, kissing, or holding hands” (4). Like Kameny, many of these men lost their jobs, and worse, saw themselves abandoned by their families. Cervini offers an in-depth biographical portrait of Kameny, beginning with his birth in 1925 in Richmond Hill, a German and Irish neighborhood in southeastern Queens. For a modern LGBTQ generation Cervini effectively draws a realistic portrait of life for young people growing up in a highly homophobic era, socially and politically. His career path includes serving the Army in 1943 and a doctorate from Harvard University, instances lived in the proverbial “down low.” The core of the book takes the reader through Kameny’s long activist fight. Along the way, his path intersected with budding queer activist groups, such as Mattachine Society (founded in 1950 as among the first queer associations), and he was witness to remarkable pro-gay policies (in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder). On June 24, 2009, as Cervini writes, Kameny stood in front of John Berry, President Obama’s director of the Office of Personnel Management, who was the highest-ranking gay official in U.S. history. Berry formally extended to Kameny “our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government” (383). Kameny simply uttered a rather stern answer, “Apology accepted” (383).

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: The Body Papers: A Memoir
It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race
The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America

Posted in Book Reviews, Interesting News & Commentary, Smith Collection

Smith Collection Update & Reviews

This year has been a time of many changes, among these being our expansion of the Shuronda Gardner Smith Collection at McCain Library. We are in the process of purchasing several multicultural books to add to the collection, aided by the funds awarded to McCain Library by the President’s Mini Grants for Social Justice. Many thanks to Kat Greer (Digital Systems & Acquisitions Librarian at McCain Library) for spearheading the grant application and the team working to expand the collection.

To celebrate Latinx Heritage Month, we have added a few books to the Smith Collection donated by Professor Rafael Ocasio, who has written a review (below) for the new materials.

It is an honor to write the inaugural post for books earmarked for the Shuronda Gardner Smith Collection. I worked closely with Dean Shuronda, and I can give testimony to her strong commitment to bring to the forefront dialogues pertaining to multicultural and racial issues both as an activist for social causes and as a leader among the first Black staff members working in upper-level managerial positions at the College. I am also proudly celebrating Latinx Heritage Month with my book, Race and Nation in Puerto Rico Folklore: Franz Boas and John Alden Mason in Porto Rico (Rutgers University Press, 2020), which explores the founding father of American anthropology’s historic trip to Puerto Rico in 1915. This is my first book written about the island of my birth, which I dedicated to a dear friend and mentor, Judith Ortiz Cofer, the late Puerto Rican-Georgian poet and novelist, and first Latinx writer nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  The three books briefly commented upon here, Sonia Sotomayor’s Turning Pages: My Life Story, Reyna Grande’s A Dream Called Home: A Memoir, and Aiden Thomas’ murder mystery novel Cemetery Boys, reflect not only the socio-economic complexities of the Latinx communities in the United States but also ways in which native Latin American cultural traditions continue to exert such an important role in the daily lives of Latinx diasporic groups.

 I worked closely with Dean Shuronda, and I can give testimony to her strong commitment to bring to the forefront dialogues pertaining to multicultural and racial issues both as an activist for social causes and as a leader among the first Black staff members working in upper-level managerial positions at the College.

-Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish

Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, in her loving memoir, Turning Pages – a short powerful text – highlights those books that most impacted her as a child of Puerto Rican parents in New York City. Sotomayor remembers her childhood activities, which included reading, as “Books were [a] lens, bringing into focus truths about the world around me” (np). Books were her refuge from an often convoluted world that included the plight of the Puerto Rican community’s struggles to adapt to financially overwhelming urban settings. Indeed, a strong theme shared among Latinx communities is an appreciation for education.

In A Dream Called Home (also available in Spanish as La búsqueda de un sueño), Grande’s expansive autobiography concludes that access to books is a basic right for “the millions of immigrants in the U.S. who fight every day for their dreams, for their right to remain, for their stories to matter” (324). Grande’s poignant life story, which began in the rural Mexican town of Iguala and continues to her childhood in California, documents her efforts to become an educator and fiction writer, being later inspired by the commercial success of a handful of Latina writers to tell her life story as a Mexican migrant. Like that of Sotomomayor, Grande celebrates her resilience in the face of social injustices.

A different kind of voice is that of Thomas’ Cemetery Boys, the first novel by an up and coming Latinx writer, whose activist voice is fully expressed in their Twitter account as “queer. trans. latinx. himbo. he/el/they. Oakland native.” Set within the traditional narrative mode of a mystery novel, Cemetery Boys is an innovative exploration of Mexican ancestral belief systems that managed to adapt to the passage of time and geographical setting. Set in Los Angeles, California, the plot challenges how manageable these traditions are when a transmale youth defies a group of brujos, who maintain a rather rigid definition of male gender identification as a prerequisite for admission in their all-male association as a novice for religious training to be a so-called “witch.” As a whole, these three books are a small window to the diversity of life experiences among various Latinx social groups and a tribute to the endurance of Latinx cultural traditions adapted to the always changing social and political settings and challenges encountered in the United States.

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: Turning Pages
A Dream Called Home
La Búsqueda de un Sueño
Cemetery Boys