Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It Ain't Easy (Kesia Alexandra)

Kesia Alexandra has Washington, D.C., in her bones - the "real" Washington where people live their whole lives, not the Washington of transient careerists. Washington is a majority African-American city, although just barely these days (as recently as 1970, the African-American population was 70%). Therefore, you might expect that Alexandra's collection of short stories, It Ain't Easy, would be a lot about race. Well, it is and it isn't. It reflects race, certainly, but is not especially hung up on op-ed-worthy racial issues; it is much more matter-of-fact than that.

I love the line in the story "Felt Like You Held Me" when the teenage girl narrator says of herself and her best friend, "We have no experience with being minorities." The attitude is very like Zora Neale Hurston's: Racism is real, but people go on living their lives anyway. They don't think about racism every minute - and if they did, that would probably be hobbling, just as over-dwelling on "micro-aggressions" can play right into the hands of the aggressor, who wanted to get a rise out of you.

Alexandra's protagonists are diverse in personality, but you could not say of any of them that they are hobbled. Quite the contrary, they've got the spunk and energy to make things happen and to get their way a lot of the time. They are preoccupied in most of the stories with their personal relationships (although in the first story, "Taxes," the narrator is focussed more on money). But I would not say that the stories are "about" young love in the most primary sense. Instead, they are about personal power, and how relationships have an affect on and are affected by that.

Alexandra's stories are not all set in the same social milieu by any means. African-American life in Washington, just as anywhere, has many socio-economic levels and layers. Two of the stories here, "Triangular Truth" and "Fulfilled," are set in prep schools (in each, one key male character is on a scholarship). The first of these stories focuses on what might have been a date rape from several points of view. The second abounds in marvelously sharp sociological observations:

...the thing about expectations, as Robbie was coming to realize, was that very few people met them. Most people in Wellcourt [Prep] weren't quite Wellcourt. The image was based upon a small percentage of the school's actual population. Then there were the wannabes, the almosts, and finally the scholarships.

[Eliza's mother] seemed like the type of woman who had to be partially medicated just to be functional, though what her function was remained unclear. 

"Taxes" and "It Ain't Easy, Girl, It Ain't Easy" take place in what people might think of as the 'hood, where kids often live with adults other than their biological parents and face challenges in getting to functional adulthood themselves because of a lack of guidance. The girl Aneesha in the latter story has to decide whether or not to take her pregnancy to term, and gets the low-down from a friend's savvy and concerned mother: "This isn't a matter of intelligence. What I'm talking about is resources."

The last story in the book, "Felt Like You Held Me," cannily brings the street world and the aspirational world into tension with each other, as the narrator Natasha comes to realize that her plan of attending Howard University is not compatible with holding onto her old boyfriend who's done prison time: "...the distance between our places in life will only keep growing."

Natasha has been homeless, and a lesson that one might take away from this book, beyond simply enjoying Alexandra's fictional craft, is that education is simply so important in allowing young people to find an optimal path for themselves despite unfavorable early circumstances. We might disagree about means - public schools, charter schools, private schools, Head Start, etc. - but we had better not disagree about ends. Education really does represent hope and is nothing to be cynical about.

I get the sense throughout It Ain't Easy that Alexandra is warming up for what could eventually be her version of James Joyce's Dubliners set in Washington. And since Dubliners is possibly the best collections of short stories in the language, and one of the best books about a city, you can tell that I think highly of her potential.

It Ain't Easy

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