Monday, June 24, 2013

Sister Souljah's "A Deeper Love Inside" ...Book Review

She done did it again.

This woman can write! Sister Souljah has created yet ANOTHER classic novel with the Porsche Santiaga Story, "A Deeper Love Inside" released in January of 2013.

Re-reading "The Coldest Winter Ever" helped to bring the characters of the Santiaga family back to the forefront of my mind. Winter, the spoiled and beautiful princess, Lexus and Mercedes, the twins and babies of the family, the stunningly gorgeous queen of the family, Lana, and of course the charming and powerful Ricky Santiaga...legend, respected drug lord, and eventually the fallen soldier who's demise is the downfall of this envied clan of Brooklyn's finest.

And then there was Porsche. Younger than Winter, older than the twins...she fell in between and was almost an oversight it seemed. Her most impactful moment in "The Coldest Winter Ever" was in the last scene, at the funeral of Lana Santiaga when through Winter's narration, we see Porsche arrive at the funeral, decked out in high-fashion, driving a Benz, and confident. She had blossomed, yet with Winter's tale we never had the opportunity to find out how or why. With Winter's finale thoughts at the end of the book, she wishes she could have warned her younger sister about the lifestyle she had chosen, assuming she has followed in her footsteps of crime, criminal associations, manipulations, and lusting after the fast life. Winter realizes that Porsche would have to learn on her own.

Naturally, with that last glimpse at Porsche, it seemed only natural that she would follow in the footsteps of her glamourous mother, who had been married to the drug don and could rival any fashion model, and her pampered sister who only allowed herself to associate with the finest things in life, and the most important people.

In the slight pause I took between re-reading "The Coldest Winter Ever" and beginning "A Deeper Love Inside" I wondered about Porsche's life, and the lessons she would learn. I originally assumed she might have travelled the same path as Winter, but then also realized that she couldn't...because THAT particular story had already been told. Winter had learned her lesson, or at least had to suffer the consequences of her poor choices. There was no way Porsche would learn the exact same lesson through the exact same circumstances.

Now many of us almost pigeonhole Sister Souljah into the category of "urban fiction" simply because "The Coldest Winter Ever" is SUCH a staple in that genre of literature. But what I've realized through the Midnight series, and now through Porsche's story is that Souljah is taking her readers away from "the hood" where it all began with the Santiaga family, and expanding our minds and experiences through different locales and cultural experiences.

Midnight was in Brooklyn for a good portion of his stories, however he also journeyed to Japan, and Korea, and allowed us to become heavily embedded in the practices and beliefs of Islam. There was nothing inherently "urban" or "hood" about Midnight other than his place of residence, and street smarts/awareness. Likewise, the story of Porsche takes us out of the neighbourhood, and into a juvenile detention centre. And to a Native reserve. The environments are different, and force us to understand and adapt to other cultures.

The "hood" and "urban" factor in these stories has now almost become an oversight, or a minor technicality. These characters are put in situations that challenge their own ideologies, and as a result, bring the reader along for their life lessons. What I like about this approach is that the character (and the reader as a result) is forced to adapt to different cultures, and adjust their own views and values in accordance with a bigger picture.

The codes of the street, or the culture, or the family are no longer enough ammunition to interact with and navigate situations. The rules of Brooklyn may not hold any weight in the detention centre, or any other centre. What I love about Porsche Santiaga is that she is the family member that was challenged to adapt to a new environment, and this is where she came of age.

Porsche. I expected her to be a snob, like Winter. I expected her to be vain, like her mother Lana. I expected her to love money, and power, and luxury, and have her way with men, and be everything that a ghetto princess would be. Like her family influences pre-determined. Due to truly unfortunate circumstances, arrests, and court-ordered separations of her family members, it was almost a saving grace that Porsche was forced into foster care, exiled into detention, and left with no choice but to raise herself, and create her own method of understanding and dealing with the world.

This was a sad story! Really sad. Because here was an abandoned little girl that really and truly did nothing to deserve the horrific circumstances and ill treatment that she received. She was forced to grow up quickly, and at times you forget that the narrator is a child...instead she comes across as a grown woman with years of wisdom and worldly knowledge. But she's a child, and she's tough as ever as a result of her environment.

Self-preservation. Throughout the entire story, Porsche is fighting. Fighting for her sanity. For her independence. For control. For understanding. She is fighting to stay alive, and her only desire is to be held by her mother, to take care of the twins, and to be in the company of Winter and her father Ricky again.

But she's alone, and her family is nowhere to be found. In fact, despite her love and longing, it is near impossible for Porsche to get in contact with them. This entire book is about Porsche's desire to reunite with her family, and be loved. Genuinely.

While in detention, Porsche obtains a great number of skills that aid in the development of her character. Never once does she rely on her beauty or talents to get by, unlike her sister Winter. Even without any particular efforts in formal education, her survival skills allow her to grow into a financially savvy business woman, her pride makes her work hard for everything she earns, and creatively plot to gain more money at all times.

She has an eating disorder, but the contradiction with the pain she is instilling on her body is that she is also a graceful dancer, built strong, and confident in her movements. This provides an interesting paradox in the book because she clings to her dancing for strength, yet often does not have the strength to do much else, collapsing regularly as a result.

Friendships gained by Porsche are rooted heavily in loyalty and awareness. Porsche only befriends those she can trust, those who can help her, and those to which she also have benefit in their lives. As her character makes these choices, it is evident that she is not playing by codes of the street, as her family once did. She is determined to build a system of support that will also help her reach her goals of uniting with her people.

There's Riot, and Suri, The Diamond Needles, and the Gutter Girls. Now I'm a fool for not realizing until the end that Suri was a manifestation of her imagination, and possible sign of her schizophrenia, but because we are so heavily rooted in her thought processes and actions, even Suri is believable, a necessary addition to the plot, and also accepted/welcomed by not only the reader, but also those closest to Porsche in the story.

The writing in this book is so detailed that no character element is left unturned. We understand the poor circumstances of the girls in the detention centre, and are able to root for the eventual success and liberation of each of these girls, despite their violence, their manipulation, and their erratic behaviours. We understand them, because the author allows us to realize that they are a product of their environments, but really and truly just fighting for their lives.

I love Sister Souljah's ability to bring you RIGHT in the location along with the characters. Walking the straight lines, on the right, at the detention centre. The girls' eventual escape and the gruesome circumstances of this risk. The beauty of the Native reserve where they find shelter and solace after their escape. The terror of the crack houses back in New York City...

The emotions created are also developed strongly as we also feel the love that Porsche has and the desperation in which she longs to be with her family. We feel the building of loyalty and friendships from the beginning, and how the young girls stay true to their promises and act with dignity and strength when it comes to supporting one another.

The emotion that is the strongest and most powerful, to the point where it's almost too painful to bear, is the love and dedication that Porsche has towards her mother, Lana. After returning to New York and discovering that she has an addition...Porsche's life continues to centre around nursing her mother back to health, and making plans to reunite her family. She desperately clings to this possibility, and it is the driving force behind all that she does, and sacrifices.

Sadly, Momma don't care about much. Winter hasn't reached out to find her. She has difficulty getting in touch with her father and the twins, since she is on the run. It is an unfortunate circumstance, to say the least, but yet the strength of this love is the essence of Porsche's journey. Unlike Winter, it's not a love for herself, instead it is an unconditional love and hope for the well being of her family members.

I love love love who Porsche becomes, as a result of this journey. She has every right to develop into a bitter, pessimistic, angry, and hurtful individual, but the opposite happens and she grows into a pure hearted and selfless woman that is able to find authentic love, build a career, and finances, and a comfortable and safe environment for herself all without compromising her dignity or family values.

After escaping from the detention centre, and spending time on the Native reserve under the guidance of  NanaAnna, we really see the nurturing and skills that will help Porsche to become such a woman. She learns to cook, is familiar with nature, and yet still maintains her hard-working spirit and stubbornness to make and earn her own wages and way.

By the time she meets Elisha, despite being afraid to fully love him, she can't help but be a kind-hearted friend, and eventual wife to this ambitious artist.

While her mother passes away, she is able to reconnect with her father and with Winter, and it seems almost anti-climactic because Winter is still a bit of a selfish bitch, and her father is still locked away for life without much contribution to her daily living. Yet she still cares for them, and still has an undying love for them.

The greatest triumph is that she is able to reunite with her twin sisters, who are now under the guidance of Midnight. The story telling is so complete, that with this piece of information, you can only imagine what their journey was like...yet know enough about Midnight as a man, that you trust that they have been well taken care of.

It's like a love and interest that will never end, the saga that is the Santiaga story. And while each story is complete in and of itself, there are still so many anxious questions that you can't help but wonder. For example: how did Midnight transition after his return from Japan with his wives Akemi and Chiasa, to now being the guardian of two young girls? Who is Midnight's 3rd wife, as mentioned? How did the twins adjust to life, after their father's capture? What will become of Winter, after she is released from prison?

Even after the book was complete, I love that while Porsche's story is complete, the tales of this family could be indefinite. While visiting Toronto in May, an audience member asked Sister Souljah if she would stray away from this network of characters and develop a new saga, and her response was simple: why? She basically stated that there were so many branches and elements of this network, that she could write so many more stories as a result.

I agree.

Sister Souljah has challenged me into thinking about the depth of my own story-telling, and the level I go to to understand the characters and their journey. Each of her characters has such a unique and complicated story, that makes their actions and circumstances so real and justified. You never have to second-guess their authenticity, or wonder what they stand for, this is always extremely evident as a result of their life experience.

After reading this book, I believe the story of Porsche is complete. Not because I don't think she'll have numerous adventures and worthy incidents in her life worth writing about...but I trust her character, I trust her judgement, and I know that she'll be OK in the end. I closed this book satisfied with the woman she had become, and satisfied with how this stage of her her journey ended.

She becomes a professional dancer, and is able to support the type of lifestyle and her mother, Lana, and her sister, Winter, never had the intelligence to create for themselves. While they had the street smarts and the looks, they still didn't have the independence to create their own lives. That is why Lana met her demise, and became a victim of her drug addiction. That is why Winter, even while locked up, is still cold-hearted, and still a selfish girl.

Sister Souljah's books have provided me with such insight! She has transcended being an "urban fiction" writer, and is a novelist in every sense of the word. She creates worlds, educates, teaches life lessons, allows you to travel, and gives her readers invaluable lessons about life through character osmosis.

I closed this book feeling satisfied, and feel inspired. "A Deeper Love Inside" was such a powerful example of what a story should be. Empowering. Emotional. Thorough. Filled with escapism. Unpredictable. Liberating.

I've said this many times, and will say it again, Sister Souljah is the type of writer that makes me want to be a BETTER writer, simply because of the feeling of her words and the ease in which I'm able to read and digest them. And think about the characters still, days, and weeks later!

As usual, I look forward to reading the next part in the Santiaga saga, and continued the exploration of this family and their activities. This was yet another TRUE story from Sister Souljah, where the feelings and lessons were so universal that you can't walk away without being changed, by the end of the journey.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Re-Reading Sister Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever"

I read this book over 10 years ago, and it was an instant favourite. In fact, I've never met a person who read this book and didn't automatically crown it as the best book they had ever read. This story was phenomenal. It was groundbreaking. This book, these characters, and this author were the foundation of many great things to come.

Now despite loving this book so much, I actually didn't remember much about it when I found myself ready to read Sister Souljah's latest novel, "A Deeper Love Inside." So with my autographed copy in hand, I realized that I couldn't read Porsche Santiaga's story until I had revisited the journey of her older sister, Winter.

It was like I was reading the book for the first time, all over again. All I could remember that Winter was beautiful, and the story was gritty and an exhilarating page-turning journey...but the details had been forgotten. After entering the world of Midnight and his family and adventures in Souljah's following novels, the only things I remembered about Winter and her tale were the basics: she was stunning, she came from a powerful family, and she was someone that everyone wanted to be.

As a 30-something, now re-introduced to Winter Santiaga and her tale, I was surprised at how my perspective had changed over the decade since I had last read these words. I recalled Sister Souljah, during her visit to Toronto last month, saying that so many readers approach her saying how they want to BE Winter...and I'm pretty sure back in the day when I read the book, I may have shared the same sentiments.

However, reading the book now was a different journey. While it was beyond interesting to see how Winter enjoyed being a "bad bitch"...I could honestly feel the difference in understanding between what that would mean to a teenager or someone in their early 20s, and what that means to a grown woman.

This time around, I really identified with Sister Souljah's character in the book: she was in the midst of the celebrity world, and familiar with life around her from all sides of the spectrum, however she kept her cool. I could appreciate what it means for Souljah to put herself into the story, and send her message without "sending a message."

The character of Sister Souljah was a fabulous contrast to Winter, because she essentially had the access, the power, and the connections that Winter wanted...however she had obtained them through honest means and respectfully so. This time around I really felt how COLD Winter was, because despite being presented with alternate methods of achieving success, with solid people, and with genuine opportunity, she still remained bad-to-the-bone and still was all about self.

I couldn't empathize with Winter. And the amazing thing about having a main character that you can't relate to or even root for, is that you're able to see their perspective, hear their voice, and know their challenges...but still maintain a separate sense of right or wrong, despite their choices. So while Winter was ridiculously interesting, and it was fascinating to see her achieve, and see her manipulate and work to get what she wanted...deep down, as a reader, I still knew that what she was doing was not right...and may not last or benefit her in the end.

Of course, the lesson is learned by the end of the book, at least by the reader if not Winter herself. You can clearly see that deceipt, and manipulation doesn't pay in the end. You can see that "it all falls down" and her father's empire crumbles, and she (as her father's daughter) also meets her demise due to the nature of her business associations, and the cold-heartededness in which she approaches life.

The message is clear: nothing lasts forever. Especially when rooted in deciept and destruction. And I believe after reading the book the first time, I was probably disappointed that Winter didn't end up the bride of a movie star or famous rapper, or the glamourous and important woman she desired to be. I'm pretty sure as a twenty-something year old, I had rooted for Winter, and hoped that she would have found what she was looking for: permanent financial stability. This time around...I knew that justice had been served.

Now my views on Winter as a woman did not alter my reading experience in any way, despite how my feelings towards her had changed. It changed my level of empathy for Lana Santiaga, and for the twins, and there was an element of sadness attached to it as this exciting and important family fell apart.

The book is still fabulous, and will always be a classic piece of literature. Since discovering Sister Souljah's writing back then, I have still yet to find another author that tells a story like she does. What I most love is that the book took on practically two different meanings for me, based on where I was in my life.

The book was the same, but the context was different. The lessons were the same, but the spirit of it was different. The level of self-reflection was different. The value of choices, and association, priorities and self-worth were now evident. These are lessons that were loud and clear, as a result of Winter's journey, and lessons that will manifest differently with each reader.

Like any book, the meaning, and the lessons will of course vary depending on who picks it up, and how the words speak to them. So again, I'm now looking at this book and realizing the layers of messaging, and examples, and the context of various situations, and how much thought was put into the construction of this plot and the sub-themes that were communicated as a result.

It's more than just Winter, her beauty, her boyfriends, and her vanity. This book is representative of so many woman, both young and old, who allow themselves to focus on the wrong strengths and strive towards achiving the wrong type of security in life. This book is a testament to all women about what is truly inmportant, and what qualities should be exhaulted and cherished.

God bless Winter Santiaga, because her story was the foundation of so many branches of storytelling and the creation of so many other rich characters, and interesting locations, and juicy plots. Her story was the spring board for an entire network of character development, and it's so crazy looking back at the book that "started it all" and seeing how the layers of the story are set.

Through Winter, we meet the Santiaga family: the twins Lexus and Mercedes, the father Ricky, the mother Lana, and all that they represent. We meet young Porsche, and her silent-yet-stunning presence at the end of the book serves as a subtle cliffhanger of more to come. We are introduced to the strong and intelligent Midnight, and get to learn about him. Through Winter's eyes, opinions, and activities, an entire world of interaction is established. And it was so important to see this society and their choices through her eyes because she is so representative of the world they live in, and the miseducation and guidance of many other young girls.

I enjoyed reading this book again, and TRULY look forward to seeing this movie production unfold. While in Toronto, Sister Souljah mentioned that the pre-production of the film was underway, and already I am anticipating who will play Winter, how the characters will look on-screen, and how the story will translate live.

This book, and her others are so influential, without being preachy. So cultural, without being "ghetto" or excessively "urban." She's a fantastic writer, and each time I finish reading one of Souljah's books and close the back cover, I am reminded of the power of story telling, and how a great writer will leave you feeling like you want to change your life, make better choices, and be more aware of your surroundings. Through the eyes and interactions with Souljah's characters, I am able to walk away with a better understanding of human nature, and also self-reflect.

This is why her books are so fantastic. It's more than just the story, it's the message and the method that speak to you long after the last word's are read. Literary brilliance.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Exploring Muslim & Mexican Culture in Film, in "Mooz-lum" & "From Prada to Nada"

I recently watched two movies I had never heard of prior to last week, via Netflix, as a result of a casual browse...and I was really fulfilled by the viewing experience.

The movie "Mooz-lum" was released in February of 2011, and was written and directed by Qasim Basir. It's a story about a young Muslim man, Tariq (played by Evan Ross), and his journey to college and battle with his identity. Raised by a strict Muslim father, Hassan (played by Roger Guenveur Smith), and separated from his loving mother Safiyah (Nia Long) due to her problems with Hassan, Tariq grew up under religious scrutiny from his father and abuse at the private school he was forced to attend.

He knew no other life, and various flashbacks from his childhood show that Tariq always battled his Muslim identity. He was teased in school, he often took off his Kufi cap whenever he was not in the presence of his father. It was an obvious battle, and made him extremely introverted and visibly disturbed throughout most of the film.

Now while his mother, Safiyah, was a pleasant and spiritual Muslim woman, she took Tariq's younger sister and left Hassan while they were children, to be able to exercise even moderate freedoms. She didn't agree with all of Hassan's rules, and while she was still serving Allah, she did so at her own pace.

There were so many important things happening in this subtle look at an American family, living in Michigan. It wasn't overtly preachy or filled with stereotypical artifacts or was a moment in the life of a Muslim-American family, and an interesting insight into the challenges this particular family was facing.

It could have been any culture, any religion...and any family. But I LOVED the fact that it was a Muslim family, because it made me realize that these are images we RARELY if EVER see on the big screen, small screen, or any screen. I love that it was an African-American family, because it was a reminder that people of the Muslim faith come in all ethnicities and races.

So there were power struggles of man vs. woman, religion vs. secular culture, and even battles of keeping the family unified. There were issues of childhood peer pressure and bullying, and coming-of-age as a young man in America. Again, nothing over-the-top, but definitely what I believe to be honest depictions.

When Tariq heads off to college, he is placed with a Muslim roommate (as his father's request), however, is quick to shun his background and traditions, and instead try to blend in with his peers. Blending in proves to be difficult because Tariq is completely unsocialized, having spent most of his time in mosques and religious schools and environments. He doesn't have a protocol for how to behave around a woman he likes. He can't handle his liquor, the first time he goes out drinking with some classmates. He is shy, and awkward, and you can tell that his cultural identity is weighing heavily on him.

So after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, Tariq's campus (like most of America, at the time) becomes heightened with cultural tensions, and anti-Islamics sentiments. This brings about the climax of the movie when Tariq is faced with a choice: to embrace and acknowledge his roots and defend his culture and family...or to continue to blend in with his classmates and attempt a life of "normalcy."

I really enjoyed this movie because the problems were heavy, however the solutions were quite simple. It took one of the most fearful and uncomfortable eras of recent American history, and humanized it. Humanized the family members, and their experiences, and showed the beauty of their religion, which is something that is often forgotten in media hoopla and negative circulated beliefs.

I commend this film for presenting the story as a day-in-the-life American tale, and not a sensationalized series of events with radical results. I appreciate the deeper understanding of Muslim life/culture just by watching the young Tariq washing his feet in the bathroom sink, or his sister taking off her hijab when she arrives at school and fixing her hair before class. The personal moments. The real moments.

There should be more of these on screen.

Now the movie "From Prada to Nada" (also released in early 2011) was definitely more lighthearted with occasional attempts at comedy, but the cultural take-away was just as fulfilling to me. This is a story directed by Angel Gracia, based on the plot of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility."

It's about two "rich" Mexican-American sisters who are forced to leave their lavish lifestyle and spending habits behind after the death of their widowed father. They move from their Beverley Hills mansion, to East Los Angeles to live with their estranged aunt (played by Adriana Barraza). The sisters, Nora (Camille Belle) the academic law student, and Mary (Alexa Vega) the superficial shopaholic, couldn't be more different, but the adjustments are huge for both of them.

Nora is focused on finishing up school, and her internship, and trying not to fall in love with Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto) who would inevitably take her away from her career goals. She is embracing the change and aware of her culture, but so focused on succeeding that she forgets to take care of herself at times.

Mary is the typical privileged child, who is in denial about her Mexican roots and unaware of her culture to the fullest extreme. She is afraid to move to East LA and a definite snob when it comes to her neighbours, their lifestyles, and of course the local handyman-turned-love interest Bruno (played by the ever-hot Wilmer Valderrama).

It's a predictable-ass story, but I easily sat through it, and actually enjoyed it. I loved to see even these seemingly "white" American girls have to deal with culture shock, and identity, and finding out who they are and what it means in a context outside of Rodeo Drive.

I enjoyed seeing Mexican culture intimately, albeit fictional and possibly very surface, I did like to see how they got down. Again...this is not something that you see on a "day-in-the-life" basis regularly on television, so it was refreshing to see these cultures normalized on screen.

So needless to say, Nora eventually gives in when Edward gets engaged, expresses her love for him after much resistance, and the two of them get married and open a free legal clinic in her aunt's Mexican neighbourhood. Pleasantness.

Mary falls for a hot Mexican assistant professor, Rodrigo (played by Kuno Becker) because he's rich, he is planning to buy a home in Beverley Hills, and he is a ticket out of East LA and back into the lavish lifestyle she is accustomed to. But low and behold...Mr. Perfect already has a WIFE, he BUYS Mary's father's house that they were exiled from (by her mystery half-brother and his bougie wife...long story), and Rodrigo dismisses Mary and their love affair in public, breaking her heart.

But wait...she DOES get into a car accident, and rusty Bruno from the neighbourhood cleans up nicely (this IS Wilmer Valderamma we're talking about, after all) and he's by her side the entire time. They kiss. They fall in love too.

OK, so "From Prada to Nada" isn't as morally rich as "Mooz-lum" was, but it was equally rich in culture, which is what I walked away with from both films.

After an afternoon of movie watching, I really felt like I had new insight. I felt like I had seen something that I have rarely seen, and had spent time looking intimately into the lives of those we rarely get media access to...let alone positive media access.

Without the stereotypes, or controversy, or over-the-top depictions, I think that both movies were just common stories of American life. The additional labels are important...but also a non-factor. At the root of both movies were human tales about acceptance, about identity, and about realizing what is important in life. Simple things. Family. Love. Support. Self-respect. This is the same no matter what cultural lens we use. It's just nice to see different versions of the same tale.

 Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.