WHEN YOU LEARN THE ALPHABET by Kendra Allen

WHEN YOU LEARN THE ALPHABET

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, a slender book that moves across genres—blended poetry and prose, memoir, journal, academic and personal essay—to speak of life as a young African-American woman.

“People who love me but not my skin tell me at least I’m a pretty dark-skinned girl, an insult as salutation,” Allen writes of the layers of her experience and the larger African-American experience, from surface appearances (“they do not see caramel, yella bones, creole, good hair, bad hair….They don’t see chocolate, bleaching creams, sunscreens, brown skin, light skin, they just see African”) to family dynamics to the power of words. A standout piece on the last matter is her essay “How to Workshop N-Words,” which should be required reading for writing instructors everywhere: She writes of the self-satisfaction of nonblack professors assigning texts by black writers who “taught them something about their whiteness” and the inevitable moment in which the N-word arises. “It just doesn’t sound good,” she writes. Collective conditioning, collective guilt, respectability politics, institutional racism: Though only 10 pages long, the essay packs a lot of punch into a short space, and with luck it will produce at least some of the desired effect of lessening the use of a word that, Allen writes, produces “an instantly unstable, volatile feeling.” The author turns the lens on herself when examining the fraught place of gayness in the African-American community, confessing to comfortable accession to “straight privilege” and challenging those who “have used God as a rationalization for their made up minds all their lives.” Some of the pieces are less consequential, among them a notebook-ish account of a visit to Paris, but most are memorable indeed: “We all stay broken," she writes in one essay, “and are all good at breaking.”

A promising debut from a writer with much to say.

Pub Date: April 15th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-60938-629-0
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Univ. of Iowa
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2019




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