Bookmarked’s no-holds-barred personal narratives

Ig Publishing has a new book in its Bookmarked series — James Baldwin’s Another Country by Kim McLarin. The series won me over with Brian Evenson’s Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I wrote about Evenson’s book on the blog, praising his narrative voice “that makes you feel like you’re listening to your best friend.” The same can be said for Kim McLarin, and I’m assuming for the other editions in the Ig series, where authors write about a book that influenced their literary endeavors and otherwise “marked” their lives.

These addictive narratives are more memoir than literary analysis, for woven within the discussion about the book of influence are revealing autobiographic vulnerabilities that have found their perfect forum: the intimacy of confession, self-awareness, and confusion, the “no-holds-barred personal narrative” the series promises flourishing while tucked within discussion of another book’s characters and themes. It’s the reason McLarin’s story becomes so compelling, as she writes about love between men and women in Baldwin’s novel (gay and straight, Black and white) and the issues he explores regarding American masculinity (I love what she writes about pick-up trucks and her phrase “The Truckification of Men”), as well as artistic vision compromised for commercial gain, and what Baldwin thinks it means to be a Black woman.

I didn’t finish reading James Baldwin’s classic novel, which I picked up last summer. I wrote off the fast exit to pandemic-reading syndrome, needing the right book to meet the moment’s mood. It’s one of the reasons I purchased McLarin’s book, to help me get back to the novel, but also because I knew, from reading Evenson’s book, that I’d get an astonishing viewpoint with insights, and important life storytelling beyond Baldwin’s classic novel.

McLarin was “canonballed” from childhood poverty in Memphis into an elite, white private school in New Hampshire for her high school years. “I wouldn’t have made it if not for the Black upperclasswomen,” she writes, who took her under their protective wings. In her college years, at Duke, she came under fire by Black female students who called her “a race traitor” for something she wrote in the college newspaper. She took her junior year abroad, far from her campus troubles, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. McLarin was the only Black student.

Some days I wandered the hilly, cobblestone streets of the city like a circus attraction, drawing catcalls and puzzled looks and open-mouthed stares as I passed … Once, in a pub, a drunken Scotsman insisted that I was Diana Ross and begged me to sing. 

What she’s writing about is the company of Black women, when it was present and when it wasn’t, and its significance to her confidence, sense of belonging, safety, and self-image, especially in the shadow of racism. While McLarin opens up to her personal experiences, she turns to Baldwin’s treatment of women in Another Country, focusing on the book’s Black heroine, Ida. McLarin claims her as “the only clear-eyed character,” with Baldwin putting “blazing truth after blazing truth in Ida’s mouth”. And yet, he does not venture into Ida’s point of view.

What is troubling about Another Country is not Baldwin’s lack of interest in the inner lives of his female characters, but the suggestion that they have no inner lives —  at least none that do not revolve around men. Somehow I missed this notion the first time around, sunk as I was in my own inner life.

McLarin knows Baldwin wouldn’t be so careless as to simply withdraw from female character development. Indeed, Baldwin has a purpose, having to do with what he thinks it means to be a Black woman in America, some great mystery that must be illustrated. McLarin disagrees with him, especially the part about his female characters’ inner lives revolving around men.

She recounts stories from her years working with the Associated Press in Raleigh, NC, the Greensboro News and Record, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The New York Times, in each environment seeking and alert to Black female companionship and support; however, that’s not going on with Ida, who’s “strangely, tragically, disconnected from Black women, trying to navigate the treacherous waters of America without sisters at her side,” and because of that, McLarin says, Ida is doomed.

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series was inspired by Bloomsbury’s longstanding series 33 1/3, short books about popular music that focuses on individual albums. Artists range from James Brown to Pearl Jam, Maria Callas to Neutral Milk Hotel. I’m not familiar with the series, but a musician I know enthusiastically endorsed it. Here’s an example of one, among many books in the series, about a Judy Garland recording, Judy at Carnegie Hall by Manuel Betancourt.

What the recording highlights, and what’s made it an enduring classic in a class of its own, is the palpable connection between the songstress and her fans. “Indeed,” The New York Times reported in its review of the evening’s proceedings, “what actually was to have been a concert–and was–also turned into something not too remote from a revival meeting.” By looking at her song choices, her stage banter, the album’s cultural impact, and her place in the gay pantheon, this book argues that Judy’s palpable connection with her fans is precisely what her Capitol Records’ two-disc album captured.

In McLarin’s Bookmarked narrative, we get a similar kind of intensity from an insightful Black woman’s perspective as she writes about a novel she says is essentially about the salvation of the American man. One of the most memorable moments in her personal narrative is a scene that takes place in a crowded parking lot, where everyone steps aside to make room for a loud, menacing pick-up truck driving too fast, that “truckification” I mentioned earlier.

The driver is male, middle-aged, window down and music blaring, arm hanging out of the window as he surveys the land. He knows what he is doing, wants people to move out of his way and most do, including me. But my husband does not alter his trajectory.

There are two stories that happen here: one of the reason her husband stood his ground and the other of McLarin’s choice to understand why he did that, instead of telling him what he should’ve done. It’s too detailed and too nuanced to attempt to share without missing the fullness of the event, the richness of McLarin’s insights. I can’t help but to mention, however, her husband’s shatteringly real comment about the burden of masculinity: “It’s always an arena.”

Yes, I knew I was probably missing some depth in McLarin’s mentions of Baldwin’s characters. Would her Bookmarked book have been more meaningful if I’d already read Baldwin’s classic? I don’t think so. I understood where she was going and what she was doing and followed her struggles and revelations. I’ll pick up Another Country again, in its own time, and I’ll read it better. Meanwhile, I’ve got Bookmarked’s other newest release waiting on my reading table: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood by Justin St. Germain. He writes about a trip he took to Holcomb, Kansas, where the murders in Capote’s true crime thriller took place, his obsession with Capote’s classic, and the book he was writing at the time about his mother’s murder.