Book 8: The Friends–Rosa Guy

I don’t recall now how this book ended up on my list but I’m glad that it did. Rosa Guy is known for writing books aimed at young adults, this one included, but it didn’t make the novel any less engaging. It was both a coming of age story and the story of culture shock as a young Caribbean girl adjusts to life in NYC. It dealt with the tensions between different diasporic groups (Black Caribbeans v. Black Americans), class differences, the difficulty of having healthy relationships be they familial, friendships, or romantic, and just other relatable life issues.

Just about every book I’ve read on my list so far, has raised the issue of police violence, whether fiction or autobiographical. Its being the focus of my dissertation probably makes me it jump out at me more often than before I started this work, but there’s something to be said about how integral police violence has been, and continues to be, to the “Black experience.” No matter what decade you look at, the literature and artistry produced talks about police violence in a manner that doesn’t really change from one period to the next.  Folks act like Black Lives Matter is much ado about nothing, that it’s just about Mike Brown or Eric Garner, they shove it aside as a “relatively rare” phenomenon, stripping it of its decades- (century-) long history in this country.  The conversations had in the 1970s (when this book was first published) could just as easily be had today without altering the words or the context. The scenario in this book, albeit generic, still rings true 45 years later:

“My husband is so upset about the shooting. He says this police brutality has got to stop. He says that there are just too many black boys who get shot just because they run.”

And Marian’s voice, flat, inexpressive, “But Ma. People are supposed to stop running if a police man orders them to. They know that if they don’t they will be shot.”

Norman answered, “I don’t know about that. If a policeman had a gun and was shooting, I’d be too scared to stop.”

“Yeah,” Orlando’s heavy voice agreed. “Different people react in different ways. no telling what folks are likely to do.” (pp. 140)

On its face The Friends seemed like it would be a quick, easy, young adult, entertaining piece of fiction, and it was, but there was also plenty of meat to the book, especially in the relationships between characters. It will really make you think about what the type of relationships you have, the type of relationship you want, and the type of relationships you accept. In reading a short biography of Rosa Guy, it said that she liked to stress the importance of healthy relationships in her writing, and that definitely comes through in this book.

About Rosa Guy (September 1, 1922, Trinidad, West Indies- June 3, 2012, New York, New York)

In more than 20 books, she confronted the tough social realities of race, sex, class, poverty, violence and crime. Her novels The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976) and Edith Jackson (1978) formed a trilogy dealing with the lives of black adolescent girls. Another trilogy focuses on black boys coming of age amid an unforgiving atmosphere. Her books raise provocative questions about human potential, responsibility and the insidious problems of poverty. She believed young people deserved honesty, and that they could handle it…

In 1965 two of her stories, Magnify and Carnival, were published in the Trinidad newspaper the Nation. Her first novel, Bird at My Window (1966), revisited the desperate conditions of life in 1950s Harlem that Guy herself had overcome. The book was dedicated to the memory of Malcolm X, “the pure gold salvaged from the gutter of the ghetto in which we live”. Her 1985 novel My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl, a Caribbean retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, was adapted into the hit Broadway play Once on This Island, nominated for eight Tony awards. Her other successful books include A Measure of Time (1983), an adult novel with a central character based on her streetwise stepmother who worked as a “booster” – an upmarket shoplifter – to make her way in 1920s Harlem.

Everything Guy did was founded on friendship, notably with a strong core of female writers and artists that included Angelou, Louise Meriwether and Joan Sandler. I, too, was privileged to count her a friend, both before and after being her publisher. Lennie Goodings, who also published her at Virago, says: “Given the harshness of her beginnings, it was quite something to find Rosa to be a gentle, unembittered soul. She had a way about her that was easy-going, languorous, sexy even. I remember meeting her when she was in her late 60s and she was wearing – fabulously – slinky black-leather trousers. She appeared to have not a care, but that belied a deep and passionate drive to tell the truth – especially for young people.”

As Meriwether puts it: “Rosa believed that the responsibility of writers is to try and make the world a better place for us all.”