Prompted by a glowing review here on WordPress, I borrowed a YA book from the library. It was about queer Black characters and it had bees in it. Colour me intrigued.
Turns out it was a love letter to Black women and to standing up for your right to exist. It mentioned systemic oppression a few times and spelled it out for those who may not have heard of it.
I wish more psychologists had heard of systemic oppression. Just saying.
Now I want to write a love letter to the author, Candice Montgomery. Even as I critiqued her characters, the pacing, the sidebars, and other things I had no right critiquing, I was in awe of this book.
My grandfather kept bees. He loved them and I’m just sorry that he lost his brain to alcohol-related dementia before he was able to teach us about them. All I have are a few photographs and memories of us in the backyard with the hive, the smoker and the space suit.
During a 1990s conservation training course, a friend of the leader offered to take a friend and I into the hills to see how his hives worked. We had a great time. He wasn’t a great teacher and afterwards thought we weren’t even interested, but I often think about that day. I read up on bees and fantasise of my own hives. It hasn’t come to anything yet. It will, though, once I get over my own hesitations.
This book, though. Wow. For me it is almost two books. The romance and the politics. For the entire first half, I felt like my brain was being pinballed around the room by the protagonist’s chaotic thoughts. They were there (in a new location) but not there. They couldn’t wait to leave home, but their thoughts were constantly drawn back. They had a decision to make and not enough support or information to make it. Initially, at least.
This was the point at which I searched for the blog that had led me to this book. Don’t think I even found it again, but I did find multiple other bloggers who were in love with the book. I admired each post and moved on to the next, only stopping when I found someone else who hadn’t really felt the emotional connection between this main character and the bees.
Apart from the youthful language and unfamiliar Black cultural references and the chaotic internal life, this was the crux of my confusion – the bees. I was reading in order to be stretched, so stretching I was, but remained confused about these bees. I wanted to feel it. I wanted to love and care for those bees right alongside him.
Realising now that I’ve been using ‘they/them’ pronouns out of habit, right up until that ‘him’. So yeah, the main character is 18-year old Torrey, a gay Black guy from an LA neighbourhood he’s happy to leave. Or is it his home life that he wants to leave?
You know I’m white and Australian, so although popular media here in Australia is liberally doused with USA culture, I don’t really have the background knowledge to join the dots with a lot of this story. And that’s ok, because it’s not written for me. I have to work for it and I respect the author even more for not making these concessions.
Is this a weird thing for me to say? I don’t know. Despite consuming Indigenous Australian TV shows such as Redfern Now, and every Indigenous and ‘multicultural’ movie I can get my hands on, I still know pitifully little about current realities.
I’ve been forced out of other locations due to gentrification. And I’m all too aware of my current predominately white and gentrified-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness neighbourhood. I mean how many hairdressers, gift shops and cafes do we really need? Our only grocer is small and targeted at hipsters, which is a PITA for a poor and frugal agoraphobe who wants to support small businesses. When this book’s characters spoke of gentrification, all I could think of is how this used to be a working class neighbourhood with shops that provided life’s basic necessities. And that’s only recent history, since white invasion. I’ve no idea what it looked like prior to 1850 or so.
The story also got me reflecting on the role of protest and politics in my own life. About how much I used to learn from turning up to protests and listening to people, back before the internet. Apart from community radio and books and magazines, this was how I learned. Ok, I travelled around Australia and across the ditch, but mostly met other white people. Hmm. Apart from that one remote Aboriginal community in WA, and a few Marae, I’ve not felt ‘other’ in a racial sense. Gender, yes. Class, yes. Not race. I can listen to others, but don’t have that visceral knowledge.
So yeah, it got me thinking about all sorts. And I finally understood the significance of those bees in his life. But mostly I was in awe of Candice Montgomery’s writing and of her ability to weave multiple (bulky) threads into a YA novel. It could so easily have been enough material for at least two. And I still have so much to learn.
Oh, and the friendships! So much love in those friendships! Not to mention the boyfriend. 😉
Thank you to all who recommended BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY, by Candice Montgomery. Brilliant.