During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I had to stop by Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse before they closed on October 15. Thankfully, I had some time to go to Almagam, look around, and pick up a few books. On the recommendation of someone at Almagam, I got Peter Calloway and George Jeanty’s Shadow Doctor. As well, I purchased Canizales Amazona and Charlot Kristensen’s What We Don’t Talk About. I chose these books because flipping through them, before I even read them, I kept thinking about how I would possibly use any of them in my classes. So far, I’ve only read Kristensen’s What We Don’t Talk About, and her book is, as the back cover notes, an important and powerful work that examines “contemporary issues of race, bigotry, and the challenges that interracial couples face.”

When I initially read the back of the book, I knew I wanted to get it, and I immediately started thinking about teaching it alongside something like Ernest Gaines’ Of Love and Dust, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, or Alice Childress’ The Wedding Band. However, as I started to read it, I began thinking about it in connection with something like Jordan Peele’s Get Out or other works because What We Don’t Talk about addresses, on a very personal, narrative level the psychological affects of racism, specifically through microagressions, and the ways that these acts harm and sever intimate connections between individuals, in this case the two-year relationship between Farai and Adam.

What We Don’t Talk About takes place over a few days when the couple head to Adam’s parents so he can introduce them to his partner Farai. From the moment they arrive, Martha, Adam’s mother, attacks and belittles Farai. She belittles Farai’s parents and their education in Zimbabwe, even though Farari’s mother is an engineer and her father is a doctor. Martha claims that Britain provided Zimbabwe and Africa with everything it has today, she says islamophobic and xenophobic comments to Farai when Farai wears a head wrap, and she spouts racist comments about a gardener they had to “let go.” All the while, Farai looks to Adam for support, but all he does is deflect and cower in the face of Martha’s racist attacks.

Martha’s racism, coupled with Adam’s cowardice, leads to various confrontations throughout the text. In each of these confrontations, Martha or Adam blame Farai for not being able to “get along” with them or for making everything about “race.” While Martha’s comments are straight up racist, Adam is just as complicit in attacking Farai through his inaction and through his audacity to blame Farai for, as he angrily asks her, “Why do you always have to make everything about race?”

Following one of her fights with Adam, Farai retires to the garden to draw. As she sits in the lush landscape, Martha approaches and takes a seat directly across from Farai. Martha crosses her hands under her chin, looks at Farai, and says, “Look Farai, I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot.” She condescendingly continues by telling Farai that she’s “trying really hard to get along with” her but Martha feels like Farai doesn’t like her. Martha acts like she has been a generous and genial host, doing everything in her power to make Farai’s stay at their house pleasant, even claiming that Farai has been unkind to her. Farai merely smiles, looks at Martha and asks, “Really, I was unkind to you?” At this, Martha angrily gets up and storms off, telling Farai to not be late for dinner.

The sequence ends with a lightning flash, signaling the tempest arising as the climax approaches. The final page of the sequence has three panels and narration. The panels begin with ominous clouds, and then we see lighting in the last two panels. Farai narrates over the course of the panels, “People will only see racism when it’s at its most extreme. But racism is more than just slurs and violent acts. I think it’s important to be true to yourself. If something feels wrong, you should speak up.”

Here, Farai sums up, in many ways, the entirety of What We Don’t Speak About. I see her narration as affirming her agency and her actions at the end of the text when she leaves Adam. While we know that Martha’s comments may not be the “most extreme,” we know them as racism, islamophobia, and xenophobia. That is clear. What Farai also makes clear is that Adam’s blatant inaction, under the guise of not wanting to offend his parents or his claims that they’re of a different generation is just as damaging, if not more so, than Martha’s blatant racism. Adam’s inaction hurts Farai just as much, if not more, because she loves him.

At the end, Farai gets on a train and leaves Adam, telling him that she needs him to support her and to stand up to his parents. What We Don’t Speak About ends with two pages and Farai’s narration. The first page has four panels, each depicting rain falling on a cobblestone street as Farai narrates, “Walking away from the person you love is never easy. But if that person refuses to see you for who you really are, if loving them means you have to silence yourself to please them, then that love is not worth it.” The book ends with a panel depicting the sun shining through the clouds, surrounded by a black background as Farai states, “You’re worth more than that.”

The final page highlights Farai’s beauty, her love for herself, and the racism that she endures. Darkness encases the panel, and we can read this in two ways. If we think about the black background as the racism that Farai encounters, then we see it as still encroaching on her, even though the sun shines through the clouds. However, I would rather see this final page in a different way. Rather than connecting the black background with the racism, and thus reinforcing connotations of black with bad or negative, I want to think about the background as Farai herself, her beauty and love for herself. The sun shining through the clouds illuminates Farai, and it reinforces her worth and her beauty. Reading the final page in this manner, we support and love Farai for who she is and condemn Adam’s inaction and Martha’s blatant racism.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.

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