Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lori Tharps

Lori L. Tharps is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, an author, freelance journalist and mom. Her books include Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain and Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I'm really into fiction. I'm always interested in seeing how other authors tell stories about race and culture without relying on stereotypical story lines and predictable characters. That's why I loved the last few books I've read, because they cover familiar issues in wholly unique ways.

First I read Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Algonquin). Knowing that the book won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for fiction, I had high hopes for the book. And I wasn't disappointed. The story follows the life of a young girl, Rachel, who survives a horrible accident that leaves the rest of her family dead. While that tragedy provides the backdrop for the action, what we're really reading is a racial coming-of-age tale as Rachel grapples with her mixed-race identity. Rachel's mother was Danish and her absentee father is African-American. After the accident, Rachel comes to live with her paternal grandmother and suddenly has to grapple with that troubling question, "What does it mean to be Black in America?"

Besides the fact that Rachel is a refreshingly original character, I also really appreciated the fact that a story about a little girl coming to terms with her African-American identity takes place in Portland, Oregon and small towns in Europe instead of New York, Baltimore or South Central, Los Angeles. Everything about this engaging read felt fresh and new. And while Rachel's tale was laced with tragedy, it was still a joy to read.

Hungry for more unique tales of race in America I turned to Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House. I actually picked up the book after hearing Grissom speak passionately about her debut novel at the Virginia Festival of the Book. At first glance, the book is about life on a tobacco plantation in 18th century Virginia told from the perspective of a slave. The twist in this antebellum page-turner however, is that the slave narrator is actually a young Irish orphan, Lavinia, who lands on the plantation to pay off a debt. While the daily goings on on a Southern plantation may seem as common as Scarlett O'Hara, Grissom takes the time to deftly explore the intimate and complicated relationships between Black and White. Horrific violence occurs in abundance but there is also a lot of love. Like I said, it's complicated, but a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.

Next on my list is Bernice McFadden's new novel, Glorious. I love McFadden's writting ( which has been compared to Toni Morrison's), and can't wait to dive into this juicy read. The book follows the journey of Easter Venetta Bartlett, "a fictional Harlem Renaissance writer whose tumultuous path to success, ruin and ultimately revival offers a candid and true portrait of the American experience in all its beauty and cruelty." Does that sound amazing or what? I'll be cracking open the cover of this book tonight.
Learn more about Lori Tharps at her website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue