Tag: book review

Book Review: “The Town of Babylon,” by Alejandro Varela

Babylon boasts all the hallmarks of suburbia: strip malls, single-family homes, and almost no sidewalks in sight. Andrés hates it. He grew up as one of the few low-income and non-white students in his Catholic high school, sneaking around with his classmate, Jeremy, to make out secretly in basements and the backseats of cars. Now, he’s a professor of public health, and openly (but not happily) married to his husband, Marco. Andrés returns to his hometown to care for his ailing father, but he resents this place where his leftist values are in the minority, and where his brother’s early death dredges up a quiet guilt about his own upward mobility. On a whim, Andrés decides to swing by his high school reunion, catalyzing a reckoning with his hometown.

The Town of Babylon plots Andrés’ family and classmates like data points: mapping their migrations into the town, the racial hierarchies that organized which families were segregated to which neighborhoods, or who held the jobs and who worked them. We follow Varela through the histories of Andrés’ immigrant parents (Álvaro and Rosario), his brother, his first love, his former best friend, and his homophobic classmate. At his high school reunion, Andrés can’t take off the glasses of his public health professorship: he throws around speculative statistics about how many people have diabetes, how many people’s parents are cops, and how many of his classmates are named “Lisa” or “Nicole.”

The scientific lens that Andrés brings to this homecoming tale offers rich ground for exploring questions of agency and social mobility–questions as pressing for a teenage Andrés as a present day one. Why did Álvaro and Rosario have to work so hard? Why was Paul so homophobic in high school? Why did Andrés go to college, and Henry didn’t? Toggling between the past and the present, Andrés struggles against statistics. He understands how our circumstances determine our lives, but he also wants things to be different. The public health perspective holds the power of narrative: to tell a story that might inflate or disappear a person’s agency over their own life. The Town of Babylon unfolds so beautifully because Varela is hyper-aware of this power, and his primary concern is with wielding it fairly. 

So while Andrés can eloquently explain the social forces that caused his father’s ill health, his best friend’s seclusion in a psychiatric facility, or Henry’s death, he struggles with his inability to change these circumstances for the people he loves. To look at injustice and grapple with the question–what can, or what should, any one person do?–is an enormous task, and I’m not sure the novel succeeds in excavating the depths of where this question could lead. We end up lost in the many threads of backstory. The book is most interesting, I think, when Andrés’ optimism is checked by the realities he’s encountering, or when his politics are contradicted by his own desires. Speaking of desire, there’s also a gorgeous story of lost love embedded within Andrés’ homecoming. Jeremy disarms Andrés in a way that transforms his resolve to never look back at where he came from. Andrés has something to offer Babylon, and perhaps Babylon has something to offer him.

Varela’s compassion for his characters brings us sensitive portraits of queerness emerging in the cracks of American suburbia (metaphorically speaking–in Babylon there are still no sidewalks). Varela’s attention to the everyday negotiations of power and resistance are what make his book so fascinating to read. Babylon joins the ranks of books like Memorial by Bryan Washington, All The Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques, or Little Fish by Casey Plett in tackling the generative messiness that arises when queer people return to their places and families of origin. If you want to read more of Alejandro Varela’s work, you’re in luck: his short story collection, The People Who Report More Stress, is out now. –Leo

Black Girl Magic: A Poetry Anthology

In Black Girl Magic, the second volume in the BreakBeats Poets series, the Black girl magic is an undeniable force, igniting the pages and speaking necessary truths. Edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods, the anthology collects poetry from the canon of Black women. The poets write from a range of intersections within the diaspora. But in each poem, there is that special spark of magic. As Simmonds writes in her introduction: “When a Black woman dares to speak her truth, she redefines understandings of womanhood. Her voice echoes out, disrupting and delegitimizing tired stereotypes and tropes. In short, there is magic.”

Exploring themes from self-love and black beauty to white supremacy and the Trump administration, the poems in this anthology offer what Browne describes as “mantras, praters, and promises of our survival.” The voices collected here provide healing and support for other Black women. The collection is also an opportunity for those who aren’t black and/or woman-identified to listen.

You can purchase copies of Black Girl Magic at Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room for $19.95 (plus tax). Drop by the store or order online today!


Danez Smith’s Electric Power

Danez Smith’s Electric Power: Don’t Call Us Dead

by Alison Cooper

To experience the poems of Danez Smith is to witness electricity. I had the privilege of seeing Smith perform in 2015 at a small but packed art gallery in Minneapolis. The performance of their poems, the lyricism and urgency, sent the room into a buzz, igniting conversations that rest in the mind for days that roll into months then years. How incredible to witness a poet whose work remains so poignant and salient with time.

Following the success of their stellar [insert boy], award-winning poet Danez Smith returns with their second collection of poems titled Don’t Call Us Dead, which was nominated for the National Book Award for PoetryDanez Smith explores the intersections of their identity as a queer person of color who is also HIV-positive, and how these identities are politicized in the United States. This is an important and necessary collection.

A link follows from poem to poem: the body that houses this multiplicity of identities. The black body is as a body at risk. Whether at risk to be murdered in the street as in the poem “summer, somewhere”, a 26-page elegy for those boys who have died because of police brutality, or to perish from a chronic, exhausting fight to HIV as in the poem “1 of 2” that begins: “On February 23rd, 2016, the CDC released a study estimating 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.” Often, the threat is both.

Speaking to the intersection of these identities, the poem “every day is a funeral & a miracle” meditates on Smiths’ race and HIV positive status. In a surprising and effective metaphor, Smith compares the virus in his blood to the police:

hallelujah! today i rode
past five police cars
& i can tell you about it

now, what
to do with my internal
inverse, just how
will i survive the little
cops running inside
my veins, hunting
white blood cells &
bang bang
i’m dead

To be a heightened risk of both police brutality and HIV, Danez Smith articulates that “some of us are killed / in pieces, some of us all at once.” At the intersection of race and sexuality, Smith translates these oppressions into power. To read Danez Smith is to witness this electric power.

Purchase copies of Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith at Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room for $16 (plus tax). Drop by the store or order online today.