For the past four years, there has been constant construction on just about every block in my neighborhood. They’ve painted and planted and made beauty out of decaying dreams. Block after block, strangers kept coming to Jackson Avenue, kept coming and changing and remaking and adding on to and taking away from.
—This Side of Home, Renée Watson
As the twin daughters of two community activists, Maya and Nikki—named for poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni—have been very aware of the ongoing gentrification of their neighborhood. Maya, especially, is resistant to and frustrated by it, but until now, her qualms have been more academic than personal. Now, that change has come directly to their door: their best friend Essence is pushed out of her long-standing rental and forced to move 45 minutes across town. The landlord fixes up the place—finally making all of the improvements he’d promised over the years, and then some—and sells the house to a higher-income white family.
And that’s just the beginning: Nikki and Maya, for the first time in their lives, begin to move in different directions; Essence starts to consider not just skipping out on their life-long plan to go to Spelman College together, but to not go to college at all; their school’s new principal is more interested in celebrating “diversity” than he is in celebrating tradition (let alone Black History Month); and Maya finds herself spending more and more time with the boy who lives in Essence’s old room.
This Side of Home is a solid piece of realistic contemporary fiction. It’s emotionally engaging and philosophically thoughtful; it’s concerned with current issues, but not at the expense of Maya’s voice or her more personal journey. It’s a book that speaks frankly about race and culture and socioeconomics, giving voice to thoughts and feelings that are often swept under the rug in this, our supposedly “post-racial” society:
I can’t remember when I started to have these feelings of pride and shame. I guess they’ve always instinctively been there. From my earliest memories I remember feeling pride when a black person succeeded at something—anything. It was like part of me had succeeded, too. And if a black person failed, I felt embarrassed. Ashamed.
She’s understandably prickly around her new neighbors—questions about her hair and skin get tiresome, the fact that they consider Popeye’s to be soul food is offensive, and their contempt for her high school is obvious—but they, like the rest of the change she’s contending with, are complicated. She likes that her neighborhood feels safer, but resents that the newcomers to the area expect the long term residents to conform to them, and not vice-versa. She likes the idea of being able to order a grilled cheese made with any cheese under the sun, but hates the fact that so many black entrepreneurs were denied the opportunity to pursue a similar dream. In her view, it’s not simply about a higher income bracket displacing residents, it’s about the original residents never having a chance to begin with.
In a story that deals so heavily with social and political issues, it would have been easy for Watson to veer into didactic territory, to allow the issues to overshadow the personal. But she doesn’t. It would have been easy, too, to use Maya—the passionate daughter of activists—as a mouthpiece. But she doesn’t do that, either. Maya has strong opinions, yes, and she gives voice to them… but she’s not infallible, and she’s certainly not incapable of taking a step back and reconsidering another perspective. And while This Side of Home is very much about those big, far-reaching issues, it’s also a story about sisters, friendship, family, and home; about questioning change while also welcoming it; about allowing for differences and conflicting thoughts, even within ourselves.
A note on the cover: In the book, Maya wears her hair in twists long enough that she describes moving it from shoulder to shoulder. As beautiful as the cover is, that was such a distinct, recurring image in the story that it would have been a nice detail to reflect visually.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.