The common theme throughout this book is what it’s like to be a black woman. In almost every story, the main character is a young black woman and you see the world through her eyes. Through her stories, Johnson is trying to show the humanity of black women and their everyday struggles in a predominantly white world. In “Melvin in the Sixth Grade”, you meet eleven year old Avery, she is in middle school and though she may not realize it fully, the other children are nasty to her. She is constantly called names and picked on by the other white children. Avery doesn’t seem to mind, and she is doing her best to fit in with her peers.
Another theme that I found was that all of her characters felt a loss or lost in their stories. The most blatant example is in “Markers” where Avery thinks about finally going to her Mama and saying “’Mama,’ I’d finally say. ‘I’m lost’” (155). Each character is struggling with something in their life, and it stems from an unhappiness. Unhappiness about their job, their relationship, themselves or how they fit in. In the story, “Something to Remember Me By”, the main character is struggling to accept the fact that her cousin is dying. She refuses to face the fact that she is afraid and when he makes jokes about it, she lashes out and runs away. This story is also an example of the fiction shape “Iceberg”. The main character is definitely angry about her cousin dying, and she wants to talk to him about it, but she can’t force herself to. Instead, she lets him make jokes that upset her and tries to ignore the fact that he is terminally ill.
There are many examples of the shapes of fiction in each of these stories. The most prominent example can be seen in the story “Mouth of Sorrow”. There are three shapes that take place in this story: “Iceberg”, “Juggling”, and “Specimen”. In this story, Maybonne is telling her niece about her childhood best friend. Maybonne juggles between telling this story to the young girl and reliving it in her thoughts. She can feel all her old emotions rise to the surface and she feels nostalgia and regret for losing her friend. Maybonne also represents the shape iceberg, within her story she conceals feelings from her friend and doesn’t say everything she wants to. When she learns that Fella is cheating on Addie, she internalizes her feelings and represses them until they burst out. Maybonne also thinks that Addie will never leave her and when Addie says she’s moving in with Fella, Maybonne bursts and reveals her real feelings. The Specimen shape is the main shape of this story since the whole story is about Addie and Maybonne’s friendship. Addie is a unique personality and has affected Maybonne irreversibly.
The story “Bars” represents the shape “Day in the Life”. Norma enjoys drinking at bars by herself and she sees nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t mean she’s desperate or looking for someone. To her it’s what she does to enjoy life. This story takes us through how Norma experiences bars and what happens when she tries something new, such as online dating and then meeting the person in real life. At the end of the story, Norma is back to her daily life, sitting in bars drinking alone and enjoying herself.
The Story markers is a ten to fifteen year follow up to the main character of “Melvin in the Sixth Grade”. Avery has grown up and graduated from college; however, her boyfriend is fairly controlling and she relies on him for everything. Her story embodies the shapes “Onion” and “Aha”. It has the onion shape because there are many different problems that Avery has throughout this story. At the deepest level, Avery is lost and doesn’t know who she is anymore or what to do with her life. Above that, she is having problems with her mother and hates herself for leaving her mother alone all the time. The most superficial level is her relationship and problems with Max. They don’t seem to complement each other anymore and Max’s condescending control of her life is becoming a problem. The Aha shape comes into play in the end of the story when Avery realizes that she needs to start living her own life and that her relationship with Max isn’t going to survive much longer.
I liked the differences of the characters in each story. Every character had a unique story, a different background and an interesting conflict of their own. However, you could relate them to each other usually being that the narrator was a black woman. Other motifs that I noticed were family struggles, tension in the workplace and relationships. Johnson also uses her stories to show the double standard that women face in everyday society. One quote that represents this “kiss my black ass, because you either get thin, with stretch marks, or thick, with a big ass. You don’t get both” (55). Women are judged and upheld to be the beauty ideal. Men want perfect women, you have to be curvy, but not too curvy. But you also have to be skinny and curvy. Plus flawless skin. If you’re not a beautiful woman then you’re deemed less valuable to society and seen as less. The character La Donna who thinks this is trying to keep her man pleased, but at this point she’s beginning to realize that the demands can’t be met.
Another example of the double standard is in the same story, ‘”Break Any Woman Down”. La Donna and Bobby begin to date and he tells her that he doesn’t want her to work as a stripper anymore since she’s his girl. Fair enough argument, except for the fact that Bobby doesn’t tell her he’s a porn actor. La Donna can’t let other men see her naked, but it’s okay for Bobby to have sexual acts performed on him at his work.
I think I would like to try using the double standard as an example of how women are treating by society in my stories. I could feel an underlying feminist perspective in each story and I definitely want to incorporate that into my work. I think a good way to incorporate it would be directly like how it was in “Break Any Woman Down”. Show the double standard and then expand on it. Not only does Bobby expect La Donna not to strip, but he is going tell every detail of their sexual relationship to his best friend. Not only is that creepy, but Frankie now knows way too many personal details of hers and it gives him power of her.
One thing I think the author could do better is identifying the main character earlier in each story and more clearly. I was struggling to figure out the narrator in the beginning of each story and got used to the anonymity, so then when they were named, I was highly confused and thought there was another character. By identifying the narrator earlier, it lets the reader connect to them and build an emotional attachment. It helps to make the characters more relatable, easier to understand and empathize with.
I really liked this book and would recommend it to readers who enjoy realistic literary fiction.
Note: The shapes referred to are from “Making Shapely Fiction” by Jerome Stern and all quotes with page numbers are from the book itself (Break Any Woman Down).