Thursday 17 September 2020

The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward #NonFiction

It seemed like it was the right time to finally read this book. 
The Fire This Time was first published in 2016, but my edition is a 2019 Bloomsbury publication. The collection of essays and poems is edited and introduced by Jesmyn Ward.

I like to give space to every essay or article in a anthology; to consider each one in it's own right and to take the time to check out a little more about each author. As I was reading these essays, though, it became apparent that there were quite a few US-specific cultural references and current affairs that I was not particularly familiar with. Therefore, my responses below, may include research I did to clarify what was happening or who was being referred to. 

Many of the essays also gave me pause to consider our own creation myths in Australia, and how the past is still being played out in our present day lives.
  • The Fire This Times opens with a poem by Jericho Brown, The Tradition
    • It's a sonnet that beautifully and brutally compares flowers, blooms and earth to black lives. In just 14 lines, he alludes to the tradition of slavery, the desire for belonging and the current loss of black lives. The poem finishes with three names - John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
    • John Crawford III was a 22 yr old man, shot and killed in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, on the 5th August 2014. 
    • Eric Garner was killed on the 17th July 2014 in Staten Island after being placed in a choke hold by police. 
    • Mike Brown Jr was an 18 yr old young man shot by police on the 9th August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
    • Brown is the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning poet and this poem can be found in his latest collection also called The Tradition.
    • I was so impressed by this poem, I've ordered Brown's anthology in at work. 
  • Introduction by Jesmyn Ward.
    • Begins with the shooting death of 17 yr old Trayvon Martin on the 26th February 2012 in Sanford, Florida.
    • Also Tamir Rice a 12 yr old boy shot & killed by police on the 22nd November 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.
    • Mike Brown (see above)
    • Sandra Bland was found hanged on the 13th July, 2015, after 3 days in gaol for a traffic infringement in Waller County, Texas. Her death was declared a suicide. 
    • Emmett Till was a 14 yr old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955. His body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River three days after he went missing. According to wikipedia,
    • The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till posthumously became an icon of the civil rights movement.
    • She turned to the writing of James Baldwin for 'kinship in this struggle'. 
      • He told her that she was 'worthy of love...worth something in this world...[and]...a human being.'
      • His book The Fire Next Time inspired the title of this book.
    • Which led her to seek out other writers, thinkers, and voices from her generation. Only three of the submitted pieces referenced the future.
      • 'It confirmed how inextricably interwoven the past is in the present, how heavily the past bears on the future.' 
  • Homegoing, AD by Kima Jones
    • A hybrid poem that begins with a prose section about a family funeral and ends with a free form verse about outrunning the 'gators. 
    • Jones is the founder of the Jack Jones Literary Arts whose mission is to 'provide publicity services and support for writers who are unafraid. We work diligently to announce book projects to audiences who seek literary art that is unorthodox, underappreciated, and unparalleled.' 
  • The Weight by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
    • Ghansah won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
    • She is  know for her writing about James Baldwin and his historic home in the South of France, including this piece that discusses her first visit to his home.
    • 'If I knew anything about being black in America it was that nothing was guaranteed, you couldn't count on a thing, and all that was certain for most of us was a black death....a black death was a slow death, the accumulation of insults, injuries, neglect, second-rate health care, high blood pressure and stress, no time for self-care, no time to sigh, and in the end, the inevitable, the erasing of memory.'
  • Lonely in America by Wendy S. Walters
    • 'I resist thinking about slavery because I want to avoid the overwhelming feeling that comes from trying to conceive of the terror, violence and indignity of it.
    • New-to-me word - cathexis -  'the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree).' 
    • Discussion about slavery in the northern states, especially New Hampshire.
    • Black Heritage Trail, Portsmouth.  
  • Where Do We Go From Here? by Isabel Wilkerson 
    • 'We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address.' 
    • After the end of slavery, came the Reconstruction.
    • Then the reversal of black advancement - the Nadir. I had heard of the Jim Crow laws but not the Nadir (1890 - 1940). 
    • 'Six million African Americans fled that caste system, seeking asylum in the rest of the country during what would become the Great Migration. Denied the ballot, they voted with their bodies.'
    • In the north they met with 'redlining, overpolicing, hyper-segregation, the seeds of the disparity we see today.'
    • Wilkerson was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism Feature Writing in 1994.

  • The Dear Pledges of our Love: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley's Husband by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
    •  Phillis Wheatley - poet (1753-84)
    • The Age of Phillis published March 2020 by Wesleyan University Press - 'imagines the life and times of Wheatley: her childhood in the Gambia, West Africa, her life with her white American owners, her friendship with Obour Tanner, and her marriage to the enigmatic John Peters.'
  • White Rage by Carol Anderson
    • 'white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors.'  
    • for every 'African American advancement, there's a reaction, a backlash.' 
    • As an outsider, I'm astounded every time I read how easy it is to manipulate the US electoral system - against African Americans, against women, against the poor and disenfranchised. Our system is not perfect, but we make it easy for everyone to vote. Whether you choose to use that right is up to you. It's a right and a responsibility.   
  •   Cracking the Code by Jesmyn Ward
    • on the difficulty faced by most African Americans when creating their family tree. 
    • and on the unsettling & discomforting information that genetic DNA testing can provide.
    • is identity genetics, heritage, personal history, or how others perceive you?
  • Queries of Unrest by Clint Smith (poem) 
    • modelled after the work of poet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
    • Maybe, maybe, maybe...
    • Maybe I'm scared of writing another poem/that makes people roll their eyes/and say, "another black poem." 
  • Blacker Than Thou by Kevin Young
    • the issue of blackface, 'passing' and reverse-passing.
    • I did not know that Thomas Jefferson had a black mistress, Sally Hemings, who gave him six children.
    • Young is the poetry editor for the New Yorker. 
  • Da Art of Storytellin' (A Prequel) by Kiese Laymon
    • 'voices aren't discovered fully formed, they are built and shaped.' 
    • storytelling via hip hop and rap.
    • Read - Octavia Butler | Kindred
  •  Black and Blue by Garnette Cadogan
    •  the art of walking and the difference between walking the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, New Orleans and NYC.
    • 'I could be invisible in Jamaica in a way I can't be invisible in the United States.' 
    • 'walking is an act of faith...we see, we listen, we speak, and we trust...I strolled into my better self...
    • 'walking while black restricts the experience of forces me to be in a constant relationship with others...' Understood. It's the same for most women when walking alone.
  • The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning by Claudia Rankine 
    • the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement - 'an attempt to keep mourning an open dynamic in our culture because black lives exist in a state of precariousness.'
    • Just Us: An American Conversation published September 2020 by Graywolf Press.
  • Know Your Rights! by Emily Raboteau 
    • how to talk to your children about protecting themselves from the police.
    • 'this mural struck me as an act of love for the people who would pass it by.'
    • Raboteau spotted her first social justice mural and went searching for the others (below).

  •  Composite Pops by Mitchell S. Jackson
    • the importance of father figures to kids, especially boys.
    • a lovely homage to the men who mentored him throughout his life. 
  • Theories of Time and Space by Natasha Trethewey 
    • US Poet Laureate 2012 & 2013 .
    • Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry 2007.
  • This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution by Daniel Jose Older     
    • 'unraveling all the creation myths this country has always held most sacred.'
  • Message to my Daughters by Edwidge Danticat
    •  African Americans as internal and external refugees
    • 'You think that your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.' James Baldwin

This was an eye-opening read. 
Many of the writers, though, assumed knowledge than many non-US readers may not actually have. I learnt a lot more about African American history thanks to the googling I had to do to find out the who, what, why, where and when discussed in many of the essays. 

Australian history had a brief but equally unedifying experience with slave labour from the nearby South Sea Islands. Given that many Australians are, to this day, completely unaware of this practice, we can claim no moral high ground with regard to race relations or facing the truth about our own history. 

An historical record that only takes note of one side or one version will always be divisive. Books like this, that open all our eyes to another history, another side, another version are important steps towards understanding and acceptance, and hopefully, one day, justice and equality for all.

Highly recommended, but take you time.

  • Tragically, Jesmyn Ward's 33 yr old husband died in January this year after they all contracted what they thought was the flu. She writes about her grief in a recent Vanity Fair article, On Witness and Respair.
  • Respair - OED: noun and verb, meaning the return of hope after a period of despair—only citation for this dates back to 1425. Sadly, it has now fallen out of use. 


  1. Thank you for doing all this work and research and sharing such a detailed post.

    1. It always takes me ages to read non-fiction, especially when I try to fill in the gaps of my knowledge as I go. I'm learning to make notes on each chapter or essay as I go.

  2. Excellent blogpost...and I ordered this book today.
    You bullet points with additional information was so helpful.
    If you are a reflective reader as you said...poetry is the place to be!
    Jericho Brown is a talent that USA can be so proud of!
    Another poet I read was Shane McCrae. He doesn't get the spotlight too often....but another great African-American poet!
    I've read a few wonderful AUSSIE/NZ poets as well:
    Omar Musa, Alison Whittaker, Selina T. Marsh, Kate Lilley, Cilla McQueen, Therese Lloyd and my beloved Clive James (Injury Time is excellent) (see Amazon). Poetry is the 'beating heart' of a society! After I finish my last 'USA political" book...I'm going right to poetry to heal my soul.

    1. I still have a Kirili Saunders tucked away on my TBR for AusReadingMonth (poet) - your comment has been a timely reminder.

      Adam @RoofBeamReader has a post about Jericho Brown here that you might like too Nancy.

    2. During my walk this morning...I started this audio book.
      So good...!

  3. Such a thoughtful review, thanks for sharing.

  4. I have to share this with you...
    The acclaimed novelist Jesmyn Ward
    lost her beloved husband
    as COVID-19 swept across the country.
    She writes through their story, and her grief.
    I found the essay she wrote about her loss.
    You can read it HERE

    1. Thank you so much for letting me know this Nancy. How heart breaking - I will come back and read it tonight after work.

  5. This does sound timely! As someone in the US, I'm interested by the fact that this collection specifically focuses on events here. Thanks for sharing your review!

    1. It's a book that deserves wider attention - it's personal, accessible and heart breaking. Sadly, though, I suspect the main readers will be those already convinced that systemic change needs to happen. It's not likely to be a book picked up by those who benefit from perpetuating this inequality and injustice.


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