A refreshing debut memoir about growing up in between races and in between families.
Ragusa’s African-American mother and Italian-American father had a torrid fling that petered out after their daughter was conceived. As a child, she was shuttled back and forth between Harlem and New Jersey, living sometimes with maternal grandmother Miriam, sometimes with dad and his extended family. Indeed, this narrative of childhood isn’t so much about the author as it is about the people who raised her. In a loving, humanizing portrait of her Harlem apartment building, for example, Ragusa writes, “The women in the building literally kept it functioning”: cleaning the hallways, watching each other’s kids, taking the landlord to court when necessary. She knew her maternal great-grandmother only as an old lady, but drawing on photographs, a preserved flapper dress, census records and her grandmother’s stories, she is able to recreate the life and times of a bold, ballsy Harlem Renaissance hanger-on who went through husbands with an ease that rivaled Elizabeth Taylor’s. Ragusa is sensitive to the political implications of her life story. She feels ambivalent about light-skinned Miriam’s ability to hire a darker-skinned woman to care for her as a baby: “How do I speak of this without shame? I began my life within the shadow of a past that is impossible to escape.” When it comes to her parents’ failures—her father was a drug addict; her drop-dead gorgeous mother moved to Italy to follow a successful modeling career and a man, leaving Kym with Miriam—Ragusa is stunningly generous. She never sugar-coats, but neither does she indulge in rancor or endless complaining about dysfunctional family dynamics. The book occasionally meanders, the ending is abrupt and the author has a tendency to rely on descriptions of photographs to move the story along. But these are forgivable missteps from a first-time author whose footing will be surer in the future.
Satisfying and surprising.