Monday, November 2, 2009

The Orange Houses Paul Griffin

The Orange Houses by Paul Griffin

15 yr old Tamika (Mik) Sykes is partially deaf. She likes to turn off her hearing aid and shut the would out.

18 yr old Jimmi Sixes is a war veteran, trying to find a reason to live

16 yr old Fatima is a refugee from Africa. All she wants is a new beginning and to see the Statue of Liberty.


I didn't connect with these characters. This disconnection has a lot to do with my not believing the Black characters created by Griffin a white author. A characters believability is subjective. When a Black character doesn't feel right, I lack the vocabulary to say way that is, something is simply not ringing true. So I usually stay clear of Black characters created by White authors that don't hit the mark for me, since I can't put into words what doesn't work. My problem with The Orange Houses goes well beyond the characters. I want to take a moment to point out a few things. Maybe people will think twice about throwing out words like authentic so easily.


Fatima is an African refugee. The author never specifies a country. Last time I checked Africa was still a continent. Griffin not naming a country of origin, like what difference does it make, got me thinking about author Chimamanda Adichie recent talk on the danger of a single story.


I thought Fatima had a lot of money for a refugee.

"Fatima gave the man half of what she had left after the boat ride: five hundred dollars. (pg.13)

She finds are way to the Bronx, and the Orange Houses. While exploring her new neighborhood on the first day, Fatima meets Jimmi. He is impressed by the angels Fatima makes out of newspaper. Jimmi decides to introduce Fatima to Mik. I knew eventually the characters might become acquainted but this was too quick. Rather then allow it to happen naturally, Griffin forces the issue. Fatima and Mik become fast friends. I can't believe in a friendship when I question its beginnings.

The author decides to reveal a pivotal moment in the book before the story even begins, Jimmi's hanging. At the beginning of each chapter there is a countdown.

" Bronx West, a high school classroom, a late October Thursday morning twenty-seven days before the hanging"

The author was probably trying to quickly grab and shock readers with the news of a hanging. The countdown did nothing for me. In order for me to be drawn in by a forthcoming act , I have to believe its possible. Hanging - there is so much pain, and loss in that word for Black people. There isn't an altercation or misunderstanding that would make me believe that a hanging would take place in a Bronx as payback or street justice.

Mik goes to a tough school in The Bronx. A girl, named Shanelle is always harassing Mik. It escalates when the new boy, Jaekwon plays attention to Mik, who does her best to avoid Shanelle. When school ends Fatima is always waiting to walk Mik home. One day Shanelle decides its time that she and her crew gave Mik a beat down. Though Shanelle's crew is so memorized by Fatima's origami that they have a change of heart.

"As Mik stepped through the school doors into the front courtyard a rock zipped past Fatima's head. Crew Shanelle rolled up the sidewalk. "Deaf bitch can't get no real friends, she stuck with a Zulu terrorist." Shanelle got in Fatima's face. "You ain't nothin." Fatima reached into her shawl. Shanelle reached for her back pocket, a bulge that said box cutter. Fatima drew her hand from her scarf. A flock of Day Glo butterflies spun in the breeze. In the afternoon light their sequined wings dazzled Sha's posse. The girls fell on the butterflies as if they were spilled pinata candy. "It's newspaper, one girl said. "Painted newspaper." She drew her phone, keyed it for a new entry. "Yo," she said to Fatime, " I got birthday party coming for my niece. We was gonna get a clown, but y'all gonna work it instead. My sistuh got cash money, yo. What's y'all's numbuh?" (pg.97)

After Shanelle's first attack got thwarted by Day Glo butterflies, she tries again a few days later with a new crew.

"Mik headed for the exit. A girl cut her off, flashed a box cutter. Mik spun back for the principals office. Another girl with a box cutter. The only way out was the back door. She ran for it, blasted into the garbage bay. Between the Dumpsters a third girl waited for her. Mik sprinted for the park woods. When she turned back, the three girls had become thirty. All were new recruits, girls not cool enough to be in Sha's previous crew. They were eager to please her with their chains and broken bottles." (pg.113)

Jimmi comes to Mik's rescue. Shanelle's crew gives chase. Mik rides on Jimmi's back to the safety of the train tunnels. The two hide out underground.

So the author wants me to believe that thirty girls armed with box cutters are chasing one girl in the middle of the afternoon. Why is Jimmi the only one who heard all the noise that Shanelle's crew was making. Where is everyone?

Forty- nine mintues before the hanging Jimmi is charged with abducting Mik, its all over the news. I know its unprofessional to use a certain three letters together when talking about a book, but I've never claimed to be a professional, so WTF really. No one sees 30 girls armed with box cutters but they see Jimmi with Mik. I was floored by this.

The people spot Jimmi and Mik as they try and make it to the hospital.

"They came down on him fast, tens of them, seeming like a hundreds as they ripped Mik from him. Pinned against a truck. He broke free with a pair of punches that jacked the men into a fury. Their hatred stunned him. They were his neighbors, his friends. Why now did they kick him? He called out to them by name, and they struck him harder. Somebody kicked the back of his skull. Numbness spread over and through him. String 'im up," said the lead vigilante, some gang banger. They roped him by his ankles, threw the line over the street lamp's arm and heaved him high." (pgs. 128-129)

Griffin was at least smart enough not to have vigilantes (the author's word) hang, Jimmi, the 18 yr old war veteran by his neck. Though I am still wondering where the rope came from. Streetlamps are pretty high. Where was everyone else while this was going on? No one had a cell phone?

Out of the blue vigilantes is ridiculous. Jimmi and Mik are from the same neighborhood. Black men couldn't so easily beat and hang another Black man they know. They know Jimmi's an 18 year old war veteran is trying to kick a drug habit. They know Jimmi's girlfriend had a late term miscarriage and committed suicide while he was still at war. These men know all this and yet they still attack. Unbelievable.

I could continue but I won't. I am not sure of what angers me more this book or the reviews calling it authentic and real. It scares me to think that someone in small town USA, will read The Orange Houses because of one of these reviews and believe its a good literary representation of teen urban life.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

doret, it hurts my heart, soul, blood, marrow, every fiber that is me, when a white author gets it wrong (i'm going by your review becasue you are an authentic African American). i haven't read the book, thus i can't give you my honest input/opinion except for that it kills... thanks for this review. i wish you, susan, zetta and other afam bloggers/authors would engage the author in some direct questions or be able to comment on your thoughts... this would be fascinating and it would allow him to explain...
mayra

zettaelliott said...

WTF, indeed...this sounds appalling. I actually heard him read the "hanging" excerpt and couldn't figure out what the heck was going on...this is one of those books I fear I'll have to read just so I *can* have an opinion informed on the writing itself and not just my outrage. Thanks for slogging through it, Doret.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

This is the reason we need awards like the CSK and Pura Belpre, given to authors of color. Otherwise, publishers would rely for their books about less popular topics on big-name authors, most of whom are white, because their big name would carry weight among book buyers more than an unknown or midlist author. A typical pattern is this: a white author becomes highly successful writing about white characters and then turns to writing about characters of color, even though he or she doesn't really know anything. (Hence the girl from the "African village" in The Orange Houses.) And since publishers count on their big name authors to publish two or more books a year, the authors don't really have the time to do the research.

campbele said...

Doret, We've discussed this a bit along with the other white authors who choose to use their familiarity with African American culture to write about what they see but don't really understand. We've both applauded authors for being inclusive in their writing. For me (I'm not going to speak for anyone else--that's part of the problem here!!) its about writing about something you don't understand. The story becomes so superficial that it is nonsense to those who know better! For me, it's about white authors who only choose to write about poor, urban youth with some serious issues. It's about writing based on stereotypes.
This book rates right up there with the Blufords and Strasser's 'If I Grow Up".
Volponi, another white author with urban characters seems to get it.

Unfortunately, I bought Orange House for my media center based on reviews in major publications. Most people of color who are reviewing are bloggers who get the books late.

Doret said...

Edi - I hate knowing this book is finding its way into libraries because of reviews in major publication.

I assume libraries are allotted a certain amount of money for new books. Librarians get taken in by the unwarranted praise for The Oranges Houses and buy it. Meanwhile there is a YA book by an author of color that's getting little attention that would be a greater addition.

When I searched for other reviews of The Orange Houses, everyone praised and loved it. I began to doubt my opinion. Maybe I am The Orange Houses is really good and I am the blind one.


That moment of doubt got me thinking about readers who will be exposed to this book because of the great reviews, who aren't too familiar will books with Black characters.

Many of them will probably think The Orange Houses is a really good book, because someone told them it is.

Someone reads a review, that compares The Orange Houses to Woodson, Booth, or Garcia's Jumped.(sadly I've seen all these comparsions) and if they don't have the reading history to know any better, they will think The Oranges Houses is the real thing.

Jo Ann said...

Thank you Doret for your excellent reveiws. AS for the three letters, once in a while doesn't hurt. You have the skill to step back and write about this outrage in a stylistic way. Me, I just rant. Hate they get publish when a whole bunch of us are working so hard on our craft. Thank you for the courage to speak your mind. That is a dangerous occupation.
Jo Ann

biku said...

This novel sounds like plain bad writing, before you even get in depth with anything else... :S

Neesha Meminger said...

Doret, I'm going to write about this more on my own blog (I will point to your post, of course), but wanted to post a quick comment here, as well.

I always turn to reviews by authors of colour about books with characters of colour. It's just an instinct. It's the same way I'd turn to women on films/books about women's issues or feminism, or LGTB reviewers on books/films about the LGTB community. If the book or film is about, and affects, that community, *their* opinion is the one I want. Especially since, as we all know, representations have tremendous impact on the lives of children and teens within those communities/demographics. So, I thank you for this review. And, like Zetta, I may have to read the book to make my own informed decision, but I will make sure to comment on it honestly when I do.

Neesha

Doret said...

What upsets me about the praise for The Orange Houses is its not even about Black and White but believable writing.

You don't have to be Black to question why Fatima the refugee from a nameless African country knows a little American Sign Language before she even arrives in the U.S.

Nor do you have to be Black to question why Fatima's is not given a country of origin.

Nor do you have to be Black to question that an 18 yr old could be a veteran

Nor do you have to be Black to question a group of girls deciding not to beat up another girl because of Day Glo Butterflies.

WTF, that's just makes no sense. This book has too many holes. Asking the reader to forgive too much.

I simply don't understand why many people are so willing to accept The Orange Houses as is, without wondering about any of these questions.


Tamika says Knocking Boots on page 45. No one says Knocking Boots anymore. It's dated slang. It may seem like a small thing but its not. It was cringe worthy.

It told me a lot about this book and how real it was.

Olugbemisola (Mrs. Pilkington) said...

Thanks so much for this review, Doret. I will have to take a look at this; what you've said is upsetting already -- the "unnamed African/African country" is a pet peeve of mine. What's the other title you mentioned, the one that's being overlooked? I'd love to check that one out. I'm always looking for MG and YA recs for our school library.

Anonymous said...

Fatima is from a refugee camp in Sudan

Anonymous said...

Doret said...

"Out of the blue vigilantes is ridiculous. Jimmi and Mik are from the same neighborhood. Black men couldn't so easily beat and hang another Black man they know. They know Jimmi's an 18 year old war veteran is trying to kick a drug habit. They know Jimmi's girlfriend had a late term miscarriage and committed suicide while he was still at war. These men know all this and yet they still attack. Unbelievable."

Uhm...Jimmi is White. He's an Italian-American. He also burned his last bridge with the drug dealers in the neighborhood when he broke into a dealer's apartment and stole his gun.

While it does seem a bit over the top that his assailants would hang him from the street lamp, I don't think we should assume that they would simply let him go. Especially if we consider that the news is showing a White guy on a skateboard kidnapping a sixteen-year-old Black girl.

Anonymous said...

im a 10th grader reading this book for a book report and i could only get to page 70 its is very boring and just about everything u said i couldnt have agreed more