Monday, June 8, 2009

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff

This is a memoir about a young white woman who according to the blurb on the inside, grows up in "a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black." The author explains: "He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esqe sweater, gold chains, and a Kangol--telling jokes like Redd Foxx and giving advice like Jesse Jackson. You couldn't tell my father he was white."

Mishna grows up trying to please her father, lost in a world that is foreign to her. Eventually she learns to "cap" (insult her friends with sayings similar to yo mamma jokes) and finds enjoyment in playing on an all black basketball team. But she also attends a special school with upper-class white students who find her weird. She learns to navigate these disparate worlds and obviously turned out alright, as she was previously a model and a comedian and now has penned an engaging memoir.

I found this book completely engaging. As someone who formerly taught African American and Latino students, I felt this book gave a me a greater understanding of some of their behaviors. As someone interested in the effects of growing up in poverty, I found Mishna's story something incredibly elucidating. Neither of her parents finished college, but they still supported her enough to get her on the right track in life. While her father may have been more concerned about her standing in the community, and whether she could stand her own in a fight or be cool enough to hang with the sistas, he also encouraged her to try new things: track, music, basketball, swimming. While he clearly wanted his daughter to excel at the things he deemed important, he found a way to accept her for exactly who she was and was incredibly proud of her accomplishments.

Jennifer Weiner recently blogged about how seeing an author's photo can affect one's reading of a novel (she reported that reading a book via Kindle, which meant she had no photo helped her not to prejudge the author and approach the book with a more open mind). Wolff's photo shows that she is clearly gorgeous. But this book reveals so much of the confusion she felt as a young person. I think it would be impossible for someone to read this memoir and not fall in love with the young version of Wolff we are introduced to. She wants so badly to be accepted. She tries equally hard at mastering capping in second grade then she later does swimming, a sport she loves because she doesn't have to worry about letting down teammates the way she did in basketball. She tries so very hard to be accepted in the disparate worlds she navigates. And she never thinks she is better than anyone else.

The book surprisingly offers somewhat of a critique of the upper middle class lifestyle. It is Mishna's friends from her special school that struggle the most with finding happiness. While Mishna's African American step mother struggles to support her family, and blames a lot of her unhappiness on Misha, we see her through a whimsical light as well. Mishna's adolescent friends seem more troubled dealing with absent parents, the pressure of success and their absolute boredom. Overall the book is funny, insightful and interesting.

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