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Autobiography of the Lower East Side Paperback – April 1, 2014
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The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
Rashidah Ismaili is an internationally-known poet, dramatist, and nonfiction writer. Her poetry collections include Cantata for Jimmy (2004) and Missing in Action and Presumed Dead (1992). Ismaili coedited the anthology Womanrise (1978). Her work is included in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry (1995). A reading of her play Rice Keepers was staged in 2006 at the American Museum. She conducts soirees at her Harlem apartment, Salon d’Afrique, and has taught or presented at St. Peter’s College, Rutgers University, Hunter College, Pratt Institute, and Wilkes University in African, African American and African Caribbean Literature and Creative Writing. Ismaili’s awards include the Puffin Travel Award, PEN, Dramatist League, Kennedy Center for the Arts, STARS, Miami International Book Fair, Zimbabwe International Book Fair, National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, Inc., and the Sojourner Truth Meritorious Award. She now lives in Harlem.
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One of the people we meet is Nusa, a young mother originally from a country in West Africa, who holds several jobs and is pursuing a post-doc in oral literature. She’s torn when her passionate feelings for a man lead her to question certain customs of her Muslim faith. Then there’s James, a pacifist who grew up on a farm in the mid-west—he struggles to keep his underground anti-war acts a secret from his friends who congregate at the local bar. We also hear Charlie, an African-American writer, lament that only white women understand his creative pursuits. This is later contrasted in a story from the perspective of Cecelia, also an African-American writer, who recognizes the glaring double standard when guys like Charlie are angered by black women dating white men. Mixed into these and other intimate character portraits is a moving depiction of a real-life murder of a jazz musician. The imagery, which is superb throughout the entire book, is especially powerful in this gripping scene.
I definitely recommend sitting down with this wonderful book to learn about a past that is not so far, yet seems, in some ways gone, in other ways the same as always.
Any story plucked from the collection could bring laughter, tears or a sharp intake of breath. What will happen to Nusa, the protaganist? Will the City kill her or save her? Is Bill the love of her life? Will her son thrive in this new world? Was it all a terrible mistake?
The Lower East Side - first stop for immigrants and poets, last stop for losers and junkies - is rightfully a character. Gentrified and prettied up as it is today, it is hard to remember when walking Alphabet City meant taking your life in your hands, yet your neighbors fed and clothed you when you were in need. Ms. Ismaili brings it back, beautifully, strongly, memorably.