You Should Read This: The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie
Recommended if you like: anything by James Baldwin
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 rebellious girls defying their pastors
First line: “Ava did not remember the taste of butter.”
Published: 2012 by Black Girl Dangerous Press, 227 pages
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: The Summer We Got Free is the best justification for non-traditional publishing that I have seen to date. Writer Mia McKenzie, who runs the blog Black Girl Dangerous, has a fierce voice and fiercer mission, and she’s put an enormous amount of work into amplifying voices – particularly the voices of queer/trans* people of color – that go unheard, or at least under- and/or misrepresented, in just about every ordinary publishing outlet.
If anyone has a right to be suspicious of mainstream publishing, it’s her, and though TSWGF does have a few rough edges that might have been smoothed out by a more traditional editing process, heck, so does Salman Rushdie’s last novel. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s better than perfect: it’s important.
The Summer We Got Free is the story of a queer woman of color coming into her identity. At least, that’s what it’s about on the surface. And that alone would be important, because it’s an experience that has been largely ignored in literature (and everywhere else) for the greater part of the history of the novel. But though it is relevant, in that sense, in an extremely particular way, the book is also relevant in a completely universal way.
Let me try to explain. The Summer We Got Free is a great novel both because of its specificity and without regard to its specificity. It is absolutely about the intersection of Blackness and queerness and trauma and religion in a particular time in a particular place, and I don’t want that to be lost under that smooth bland word universal; part of what matters about this book is that it’s telling a set of stories that have been repeatedly silenced. But it’s also a human and beautiful and heartbreaking story period, no caveats or qualifications. Its universality, its humanness, is due to the fact that McKenzie isn’t writing one person’s story, but about the intersections of stories, about the ways in which our love and our pain change and affect and touch the people around us.
Whose stories is she telling, exactly? At first glance, the book seems to be the story of Ava, whose childhood creativity and air of wonder and magic vanished after the death of her brother, and how falling in love with a woman for the first time allows her to get free of the things that have been flattening her for so many years. But though McKenzie clearly loves Ava, and has vocally identified with her, she has a gift for seeing the ways in which her characters all lift each other up and hold each other down. Ava may be the hero, but her sister Sarah is achingly lonely and lost and bitter from her time spent in the long shadow of Ava’s magic & charm; George, their father, is struggling with a secret longing on the edge of despair; Regina, their mother, is half-crazed with grief; and Paul, Ava’s husband, who could so easily be a two-dimensional man standing in the way of True Lesbian Love, is alive with the fear of his own dark past. And then there’s the haunting absence of Ava’s dead brother Geo, an absence so glaring it’s a presence of its own.
What’s miraculous about McKenzie’s writing is the depth of her tenderness and empathy for them all, though they are often both actively or passively cruel to each other; she shines a harsh light on them, but she does it with a tenderness I have really only encountered in one other author – James Baldwin. Not because Baldwin was also Black and queer, but because Baldwin has the same enormous tenderness and love for his characters, even as they rage, and make each other suffer, and fight to break their impossible and invisible and unspoken chains.
It’s those intersections – the depth of empathy she has for all her characters, all of whom are deeply flawed, or broken, or both, and the laying bare of the ways they make each other feel – that lead me to call this book important. It is strangely rare to read a novel that really portrays not only a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences, but also the ways in which those perspectives change and shape each other. (Part of me thinks, in all honesty, that this is the secret behind the success of Game of Thrones, but that’s a different conversation altogether.) It gives the book a richness that I absolutely love and am therefore startled to realize I have hardly ever encountered before.
McKenzie is writing about a long list of things that clearly matter to her; in one interview she says that the book is about “the work of freedom[:] to stop investing ourselves in structures that only hold us back from being our fullest selves — including homophobia, rigidly-defined gender-roles and gender expression, colorism/shadism, invisibilization of mental illness in our communities, and religious practice that does not embrace the questioning of everything.” And that’s absolutely what she’s done, but it’s subtle: there’s not “the mentally ill character” and “the queer character” and “the homophobic character” but rather a bunch of humans, all suffering unique and vicious sorrows of their own, who are joined together by their struggle to get free.