Gee, I Wish I Were Spanish…Quick Review

April 21, 2008 | No Comments

Freelance journalist Lori Tharps has just published her memoir, Kinky Gazpacho, written in her breezy, attractive style. Tharps sounds like fun, and I’d love to take her to lunch, however although she has lived an interesting life, I’m not convinced she has mined it deeply enough to tap into its memoir-worthiness.

Tharps spent her childhood and teens in white, middle-class Milwaukee, Wisconsin, trying to keep her blackness under wraps. As the only black kid around, she had to undergo another kid yelling “Nigger Pile-On!” at a party, and being ignored during cultural heritage day at school because “everybody knew that Black people came from nothing.” The drama teacher offered her “perfect” roles as a maid, and the headmaster begged her to deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech during Black History Month. She yearned to find black girls “like me… who spoke ‘proper’, dressed preppy … and didn’t necessarily know how to dance the Cabbage Patch.”
Her solace growing up was her inexplicable passion for Spain, and her conviction that this country would provide a refuge for her own unique identity. On her first visit as a foreign-exchange student, however, her fantasy is sorely dented. Shouts of “Morena!” “Negrita!” and “Chocolate!” follow wherever she goes. After a while, though, she accepts being perceived as exotic by the Spanish, because, “at least I got to define Black for myself. In Spain I didn’t carry the stigma of ‘welfare-queen, ghetto-bitch, ignorant, criminal-minded minority.” Some years later, Tharps connection to her adopted country is cemented by a love affair and by her sudden epiphany about Spain’s own “black” past.
That a young woman as intelligent and curious as Tharps should be astonished to discover that Spain participated in the slave trade baffled me. Why wouldn’t Spain have had its fingers in the same grotty pies as its fellow colonialists, the British, the Dutch, and the Portuguese? True, the Spanish tended to do it second-hand, by granting rights for others to trade in their colonies, nevertheless, didn’t Tharpe ever wonder why so many Latin American countries have citizens of African descent? I doubt they went there on vacation, liked the climate and stayed. Such confusion could have been eradicated by two minutes on Wikipedia.
When I finished reading Kinky Gazpacho, I was reminded of a remark the memoirist, Susan Cheever, once made at a conference. “Writers,” she said, “who use their work in order to ‘find’ themselves aren’t writing memoirs, they are journaling.” The responsibility of the memoirist is not to have their own epiphany, but to inspire an epiphany in the reader. It is the reader who is supposed to be changed by a book, not the writer.”