When You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kendra Allen’s essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet is an important collection of essays on race in America. Allen writes in several forms, ranging from memoir, to lyric essay, to poetry. What I admire most about these essays is Allen’s willingness to examine her own humanity rather than analyzing society from an objective distance. In the essay “Polar Bear Express,”the narrator reveals that she lies to an old man on the bus to avoid a conversation and later regrets the missed opportunity. I’ve ridden Chicago busses and ignored this kind of conversation, so I can relate and find the honesty refreshing. Allen is often angry at the systematic injustices and microagressions (or just plain aggression) she witnesses in society, yet she also examines the roots of her anger, both in facing ever-present racism and in growing up in a family plagued by addiction (Aunt A), divorce, violence, and PTSD. There are no easy answers, and though I sometimes might disagree, Allen’s essays are always challenging and engaging. For instance, after reading her essay about a creative writing workshop, I would love to rshow Allen Anna Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project and question the instructor’s practice of reading student work aloud to the class. But I am also moved by Allen’s account of her reaction to hearing her white male instructor read the n-word aloud, rather than having her black male classmate read his own piece. Whether I ultimately agree about the politics of who can read this word, I gain by learning how Allen and her classmate experience this situation. The fact Allen exposes her own vulnerabilities allows this kind dialogue between narrator and reader and shows a level of maturity that is rare in a first collection.