Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014: Maximum Shelf: Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow

Fire Shut Up in My Bones

by Charles M. Blow

Readers of the New York Times will no doubt be familiar with Charles M. Blow, the newspaper's visual op-ed columnist. In his twice-weekly columns, Blow starts with cold, impersonal data and statistics and uses his insight to turn numbers into impassioned commentary on political and human issues. Now, in a memoir that juxtaposes Blow's usual elegant and eloquent prose with the brutal truths of his early years, he gives issues of race, poverty, sexuality and belonging a human face: his own.

Blow opens with the night he decided to kill his older cousin Chester for abusing him as a young boy. Twenty years old, a college student with a promising career ahead of him, Blow still considered Chester responsible for the confusion and feelings of disconnection from his peers that had plagued him through his entire youth. Finally, Chester's indifference to his crime had to be rectified. Blow then leaves his younger self, armed and weeping with rage, hurtling through the night with murder in his heart. This agonized young man hovers at the edge of the reader's consciousness as Blow backs up to his first memory and walks us along the path that led to that desperate night.

Born in Louisiana in 1970, Blow was the youngest of five brothers, and "by the time I came along, my mother was a dutiful wife growing dead-a** tired of working on a dead-end marriage and a dead-end job. My father was a construction worker by trade, a pool shark by habit, and a serial philanderer by compulsion." Before his parents split up, the family lived in a small rent-to-own house without steps to its tall porch, necessitating entry through the back door. His father could easily have built steps, and the "not-doing spoke volumes," one more example of how he couldn't commit to his family. When the marriage ended, Blow found himself in a new neighborhood and stepping onto a trail of loneliness he'd follow into adulthood. However, his loneliness was not aloneness, and Blow gives us warm character sketches of the family surrounding him at home and supporting him from afar: his grandmother's husband, Jed, who became his much-loved father figure for a time; stubborn Aunt Odessa, who refused modernization in her home; charismatic World War II veteran Grandpa Bill. However, the family's closest companion in Blow's early years was poverty, and he gives a detailed account of growing their own produce by necessity and using every last bit of it, eating clay from a ditch as a treat, scavenging wounded cattle after a stock truck overturned on the highway, and the back-breaking labor the adults around him suffered through to provide for their families. "These were people whose bodies melted every night in a hot bath, then stiffened by sunrise, so much that it took pills to get them out of bed without pain."

Theirs was a community divided by race as well as socioeconomic status, and Blow recalls side-by-side cemeteries, one for blacks and one for whites, separated by a fence lest anyone try to cross an invisible boundary. While racial tension usually played out tacitly, everyone kept to their roles through a rigid social structure, Blow also recounts the first time a white person tossed a racial slur at him, "a perfect little weapon" that suddenly left him questioning the world around him and the injustices his family faced at the hands of whites, and feeling for a time that white people gave him only "jack-o'-lantern smiles--frozen and hollow with a dim light behind the eyes."

While Blow managed to escape falling into the trap of racial hatred himself, his narrative does concern itself in part with the self-hatred that overtook him for many years. After Blow was molested by his cousin, Chester bullied him into silence by repeatedly accusing him of homosexuality in a cultural setting where same-sex relationships were strictly taboo. When Blow reached adolescence and found himself attracted primarily to women but with a curiosity about men as well, it became a secret shame he couldn't eradicate. To hide it, and to conceal the wounds he still carried from Chester's attacks, Blow found himself creating a public face, one that made him a "popular boy" from elementary school through his selection in college to an elite fraternity and its world of privilege and brutality. Even in the darkest moments of his quest to fit in by going along with the crowd, readers will relate to Blow's motivations, to the so-human need to belong, to be wanted, to be singled out as special. They will come to understand that moment when Blow felt Chester must die at his hands, just as they will glory in the freedom and healing he found after struggling through that critical and impassioned moment. That Blow will survive his struggles and accept his own identity is a foregone conclusion. The amazement lies in watching a young man--and Blow makes readers see him in every detail--use his inner compass, his gift for language and the lessons of a past that dogs his heels to release the talented and strong adult he was always capable of becoming. Blow's story reminds us that each child carries the potential to achieve great things, regardless of adversity, but a child without strong advocates--in Blow's case, family members and teachers--is one who may easily become lost and never find the way again.

Amid the ongoing conversations about race relations, sexuality and poverty, Blow casts a new light on the issues simply by telling his own story, using the details of his life to give shape and reality to what many of us understand only in the abstract. If the adage that you can only understand another person by walking a mile in their shoes is true, then Blow not only hands over his shoes, he ties the laces and nudges us in the right direction. As he recounts his memories, explaining with grace and clarity how each instance impacted his psyche, the written word seems to fade from view until only Blow's voice remains, speaking to the human heart in each of us. Although the emotional impact of this memoir cannot be overstated, the tougher moments are tempered by insight and even laughter. Whether readers recognize their own lives in Blow's or simply have their eyes and hearts opened a little wider, no one will come away unaffected. Blow's book-length debut is a drop of hope in an ocean of sorrows. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, hardcover, 9780544228047, September 23, 2014

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow

Charles M. Blow: Difference Is Not Deviance

Charles M. Blow has been a columnist at the New York Times since 2008, is a CNN commentator, and has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, Al Jazeera and HBO. Blow lives in Brooklyn with his three children. We recently talked with him about poverty and race in America, life as a single parent, and the experiences that led him to write his upcoming memoir.

How did you decide to write something so intensely personal?

I'm not sure if I decided to write a memoir as much as the form chose me. I began writing this book before I knew I was writing it. I had an extraordinarily long commute, so I began writing short autobiographical essays that I thought I might be able to submit to a magazine for publication. In 2009, that all changed. That year, two 11-year-old boys, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, both hanged themselves--just 10 days apart--after experiencing unrelenting homophobic bullying.

I thought: Not on my watch. I knew then that I didn't just need to write scenes from my life, but the whole narrative arc of it, so that I could speak to the pain that Carl and Jaheem must have felt and to help other children--and adults--like them.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I have so many hopes. One is the old cliché that even in the darkness you can see the light, and you can find a way to survive. One thing about children committing suicide is that they don't have the forethought to even write a note. There's nothing to say, no explanation, no examination of that pain. They don't have that language. I have that language, and I know that experience. I thought, I need to write what it feels like to walk up to the precipice that these boys walked up to, and also what happens to your life when you walk back from it. It won't be easy, but it can be done, and you can live, and you can love, and you can be whole as a human being.

Secondarily, I was thrilled that I would get a chance to write about the incredible diversity of the black male experience, all of the heroes and villains and all sorts of ways of being. I feel like in popular culture we're reduced to a perilously narrow definition of being; all men are, African American men even more so. This idea that we can be complicated and sensitive and nurturing and, conversely, cruel just as any other human being can be thrilled me to no end. I wanted to make sure that I painted all of the men as full human characters, and I'm hoping that people will see that.

And I'm hoping people will understand what poverty looks like in America. I think that we often think only of inner-city poverty, but there is also rural poverty, and it is oppressive, and it has none of the advantages of being surrounded by a city where people are philanthropic. None of that exists for the rural poor or the suburban poor, and in that is a darkness that is persistent. I think if you haven't experienced that level of poverty, you cannot even see that people can draw any joy in their lives with it because it is so startling and it is so unreal.

As a single dad raised by a single mom, how do think your mother's parenting style influenced your own?

It's a blueprint. I completely leaned on what I remember seeing of her being a single parent. For the longest time, I didn't think she slept. Because when I went to sleep she would be awake, and when I got up she would be awake and have the kids up, and I just didn't think she went to sleep!

Not only was she a single parent taking care of all of us boys and her uncle--my great-uncle--she was doing so while continuously going back to school. I don't think you can overestimate how powerful it is to see a parent getting an education while you're getting an education. I think there's an abstraction when you're a kid and the teacher's telling you, "This is going to pay off later on," but you can't see how that works. But I'm seeing it in real time with my mother, her going to night classes and getting a better job, and getting a promotion, and I'm seeing the material effects of how education changes a life, how reading changes a life, and it has a tremendous effect on me. Education was an actual ladder out of your circumstances.

Also, her perseverance in all sorts of adversity, the most extreme of which, I think, was poverty. As a teacher, I think she was making $24,000 a year. There were six of us in the house. If we didn't farm and raise vegetables and a cow or a hog or two every year, we would have starved. My mom was absolutely insistent that we would never take government assistance. I don't know if she would articulate this, but this was completely coming through the silence: that she could do it, and there was nothing that was going to keep her from being able to provide for us on her own. She used to say this thing: "You could stay in hell for one day if you knew you were going to get out." That always stuck with me when I was going through a bad time or having a hard time with the kids or whatever. You could deal with this because you knew eventually it would be over, and I live by that motto, and it is hers.

Do you think see any changes for the better in race relations now compared to when you were a child and a young adult? What do you think could help heal persistent racial divides and stereotypes in America?

There are advances, undeniably. No honest observer would deny that. But we are seeing a dangerous trend toward re-segregation, in residential communities and schools.  

I was born in 1970, the year that the parish that I was in finally integrated its schools. What I saw was the experiment of people trying to integrate, and sometimes that's very difficult. What we see now is rising levels of re-segregation, particularly in schools. One study included this fact: schools in the U.S. are now more segregated than when they passed Brown v. Board of Education. That should frighten everyone. Even in the North--a recent study said that New York City schools were the most segregated of any schools in the country. That means that we don't have our children growing up having a communal experience of being with people who are unlike them, whether that's race, different incomes, whatever. I don't know how that gets rectified because it's not legislated, it is self-sorting.

From your struggles, what advice would you give a young person trying to accept him/herself?

I would say, "Difference is not deviance, and you have a moral obligation to yourself to love yourself, just as you are." --Jaclyn Fulwood

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