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Pleasure in Times of Darkness.

A Death in Harlem

By Karla FC Holloway

Evanston, IL; Northwestern University Press, 2019, 248 pp., $18.95, paperback

Side Chick Nation

By Aya de Leon

New York, NY; Random House, 2019, 384 pp., $17.50, paperback

Crime novels should be fun. But they can also be subversive and challenging, rearranging expectations about morality and societal conventions. Or maybe the fun comes from the subversion, from recognizing the effed-up aspects of society, how the crime novel splinters hierarchies and saturates us in violence and all the suppressed, disavowed emotions--envy, anger, lust--before the mystery is solved and order is restored.

But recent feminist crime fiction by women of color--Karla FC Holloway and Aya de Leon--sinks into those very pleasures, while also tackling challenges of racism and colonialism, and not granting us immediate release: We collapse into chaotic, disordered spaces, and Holloway and de Leon are very clear that the drama within their imaginary worlds isn't entirely made up. Recent articles in Crime Reads and The Atlantic tease out how crime fiction, when written by the less powerful, can reflect (at least in the case of Latinx writers) real-life concerns about "otherness, immigration, poverty, and crime," or when generated by women authors, "storytelling" that is "perhaps a better fit for these cynical times." Holloway and de Leon craft narratives heavy on the humor and the passion. These books are a square of dark chocolate, or a sweaty, squealing afternoon love-making session. They're pleasure, upended.

The protagonist of Holloway's novel, A Death in Harlem, is a W. E. B. DuBois-loving man named Weldon Thomas, who faces discrimination as Harlem's first Black detective, but the book is also a feminist one--one that centers women's voices. Described in an author's note as a "talking book," A Death, in the author's parlance, reveals how "spoken words--whether whispered, intimated, shouted, shared in conversation, muttered to oneself, or simply intuited--are ways and means of revelation," and so we're in spaces, afternoon society teas, and libraries, where muffled voices fling barbs and observations. It's also feminist in the way it draws from writers like Nella Larsen and pays tribute to Zora Neale Hurston and Jessie Fauset, women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and how women you'd never suspect of committing a crime--librarians and the club women, those who continuously express a commitment to "uplifting the race"--engage in so much bad behavior.

We should treasure how Holloway's meditation on the Harlem Renaissance allows for an exploration of the problems of that era--and our own. Holloway investigates class and elitism within Black communities, through the death of the light-skinned Olivia Frelon, a character based on Clare Kendry from Larsen's 1929 novel Passing. When Frelon falls from a window at a celebration of Black writers (Holloway's satire of the 1925 Opportunity awards banquet), we meet stand-ins for Wallace Thurman (Dr. Reynolds Scott), Jessie Fauset (Earline Kinsdale), and Louise Thompson (Miss Ellie), and an amalgamation of Langston Hughes and Carl van Vechten (Hughes Wellington). These middle-class characters, when contrasted with Holloway's depictions of the poor "wayward" girls and women the scholar Saidiya Hartman writes about, precipitate a discussion of class, colorism, and education. Holloway also codes Hughes Wellington's queerness through another mystery, suggesting Hughes and van Vechten experienced brutal homophobia. These mysteries, literary allusions, and jokes pose (ongoing) questions about what it means to be an "educated" Black person. What knowledge and what language is considered valuable? Why would oppressed peoples mimic the systems that oppressed them? How do we become free to express our most authentic selves? Holloway's novel is post-postmodern, smart, and original.

De Leon's Side Chick Nation is intelligent and sensual. She explores Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria through her protagonist Dulce, who is born on the island. (Dulce's mom, brother and sister are Dominican; Dulce's brother's nationality means he's deported when he's caught selling drugs.) A former sex worker, Dulce fears running into her dead pimp's brother and the violence from her past, and, when she becomes trapped in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria, she undergoes another nightmare. But this is a crime novel, with a mystery to be solved, and we're not to pity Dulce; de Leon celebrates Dulce's bravery, showing us our heroes can look like ourselves, with troubled or really challenging pasts. Dulce helps her old friend and mentor, Marisol Rivera, solve a case that seems a little too real: Who is the business person who "promise[s] to give food and water to struggling people in Puerto Rico," but instead creates deceptive business contracts that rob them of their land? And how can this person be stopped?

So there's a safe full of money and a plan, initiated by strong, self-aware women, that involves more money and even more sex. We see the scales being tilted, readjusted by those interested in defying the system. De Leon questions how we define criminality: Both Dulce and Puerto Rico undergo violence and exploitation, and we're reminded of rules and regulations--we see soldiers and legalese--in the moments when oppression feels heaviest. De Leon achieves something rare; those scenes in the book, those scenes that left me exhausted and happy, reveal desire as personal and specific--but also as generous, expansive. When Dulce meets the handsome, socially conscious, and feminist Zavier Mendoza, de Le6n frees us to think about desire without control. Can we enjoy a person or a place without having to control them?

Maybe so. Dulce becomes comfortable with her past and telling her story, and as she does so, she learns her story represents the stories of other women and people of color. We enjoy her triumph--and I really, really enjoyed it. And by the time another character, a performance poet, asks the question: "How do I send this shame back where it belongs? This third world, side chick, shame back?" we know the answer: sharing our stories as a way to live a life without shame, compounded with pleasure.

Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer

Rochelle Spencer is the author of AfroSurrealism (Routledge, 2019) and co-editor, with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. Wisconsin Press, 2019). This fall, she's teaching AfroSurrealism at Sarah Lawrence College and online at Fisk University.
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Title Annotation:A Death in Harlem; Side Chick Nation
Author:Spencer, Rochelle
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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