Soups, Metaphor, and Identity: Reading Kinky Gazpacho

A Memoir

Kinky Gazpacho intrigued me right away. It was the title that grabbed me. The double entendre, the photo, the promise of a womyn of color doing her own version of eating, praying, and loving, on another continent, all of which drew me to the book. So you see, I really wanted to love Kinky Gazpacho. Wanted to find out the joys of Spain (of which I’d heard many grumblings from Black friends who visited), wanted to learn how Tharps had negotiated her identity as a person of color, wanted to learn the insights she gained from her traveling and her marriage.

I found myself disappointed. The writing was too loose, too familiar, too colloquial. Tharps also seems to resist delving deeply into her own insecurities, projections, and actions. Lastly, at the completion of the book, I gained no new knowledge, perspective, or sense of being touched by a person digging to uncover profound self-knowledge.

Tharps, who has worked with Entertainment Weekly and Vibe magazine, previously published a book entitled, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, has plenty of experience writing. That experience doesn’t make itself known in the strongest ways, in this memoir. The overall tone fluctuates between stridently dramatic and flippancy. In part, I think because so much was “told” without being shown or adequately contextualized.

Knowing that Tharps is a trained journalist, I made an assumption that she’d follow one of the golden rules of writing: show, don’t tell. And if you’re going to break that cardinal rule, do it with verve – do it superbly.  Throughout the memoir, Tharps reverts to telling – telling us when she’s angry, telling us when she’s depressed, telling us when she’s in love, telling us she felt uncomfortable with her race. As any writer, editor, or writing teacher can explain, telling first, doesn’t build the connection, interest, or compelling narrative that makes a truly outstanding memoir.

As a reader, I felt I had to find clues beyond Tharps’ telling. Clues to balance the telling, which often felt as if Tharps was again 17-years old, reliving the experience, as opposed to revisiting it, for the purpose of building to the key themes in the memoir. In memoir, there is such a delicate balance reliving to draw forth the original emotions and revisiting to ground and contextualize one’s experience. With such great work on children of color in predominantly white schools and environments, I’d hoped that Tharps could understand, contextualize, and even own her pursuit attempts at assimilating more clearly – showing through her actions and thoughts, how she strove to distance herself from blackness, to explain her ambivalence to Blackness.

In one memorable scene, Tharps recounts her attempts to connect with other Black womyn at Smith, her alma mater. Tharps attends a meeting of a Black womyn’s association on campus, but leaves, dramatically and angrily, before the meeting has even begun, when she feels she’s being ignored by the other Black womyn present. I found this scene truly interesting – for the drama of the recounting, the young Tharps’ assertion in the moment that she was being rejected, and for my own nostalgia of those early months of college, where the smallest social interaction, threatens to foretell the future of the entire college social scene. But, just as I felt Tharps was going to address her discomfort with herself, her feelings of shame, and her need for belonging and acceptance, the scene dissumulates into a pep talk, letting her off the hook. We never learn if Tharps returns to the Black community at Smith (but we do learn of a smelly Black man whom she was involved with briefly) and that remains an uncompleted thread.

And there, I think was a great opportunity to learn about how Tharps negotiated and developed her identity.

I would have loved it, if Tharps took that moment of anger, isolation, and hurt and used it as an example of her feelings around belonging to a Black community. As a reader, I assumed that Tharps’ desire for belonging in Spain was a transference and continuance of her desire and struggle for acceptance throughout her childhood in predominantly white environments. Yet, I’m not sure if that’s the conclusion Tharps intended me to draw.

The overly familiar and colloquial tone, while at times very endearing, also serves, ironically to keep the reader away from the deeper heart, both of Tharps’ narrative, but also of Tharps herself. The personable terminology, down home references, hyperbole, and attempts at causal vernacular place a veil between the reader and the insights, which might have made this memoir more in the caliber of Black Ice, rather than a simple snapshot coming-of-age tale.

Lastly, Spain was to be a major protagonist in the memoir. While I do have a better sense of the country, I am still puzzled by a few things – most notably, Tharps’ humility around her language skills. I asssumed that with nearly 10 years of Spanish under her belt, Tharps would be completely fluent. This, I think, has more to do with my own ignorance around language, than it does with Tharps’ depiction of her language skills – though I wonder if perhaps she’s being very humble. I am further puzzled by Tharps’ lack of knowledge before she went to Spain, about Spain’s role in slavery. The role of slavery in Spain’s history, as well as the role of Black people in Spain, becomes an important aspect of the book. As one who’s very familiar with the history of slavery, I did not find these revelations at all new. In fact, I wondered how Tharps hadn’t known. What’s more, the whole south of Spain is a hop, skip, and a jump from Africa – the Moors conquered Spain. How could there not be an African influence? Tharps’ awakening around the role fo Black people in Spain’s history, unfortunately, is another example of ta disconnect in the book. As a reader, I grew more discomifited as Tharps seemed to become more comfortable in Spain as a result of learning  about the oppression of Black people in the country.

Granted, this could be a writing technique. Tharps mentioned she loves Frederick Douglas, who in his writing, particularly in Narratives of the Life of a Slave. In his narrative Douglas feigned lack of knowledge of a subject, in order to draw the reader in, even as he showed how much he knew on a topic (I think the term in English theory is litotes). Perhaps Tharps is using a similar technique to draw in her reader. If so, its a technique that doesn’t quite work.

I’ve always been a proponent of the memoir, believing that the process of writing uncovers an individual’s thoughts, feelings, growth, and challenges. That if a person writes honestly and from a place of their deepest truth, then the very telling of that story reveals layers of perspective, ideas, and an opening of the heart for those who read their narrative. I think it’s a brave thing to write one’s memoir. To commit one’s story to paper. The idea that only older people can or should write memoirs, I’ve found, was an unfair (and possibly ageist) assumption.

I think memoirs are best in the hands of those willing to uncover the most profound angles of themselves. In this way, perhaps then, the memoir is best for those who are reflecting, negotiating, revisiting, and working out the issues that make them uniquely them. Making it all bare; who approach the memoir with a certain amount of reverence, appreciation, and rawness, with no attempt to protect, shield, or hide behind, within, or from issues that reveal themselves in the process of writing. In the hands of those whom have found new levels of maturity within themselves as a result of the arc of their lives, the memoir can be a powerful medium.  I got the sense that Tharps wasn’t completely at ease sharing all the information about her family – there are still aspects of family business, and perhaps her own life, that aren’t meant (or ready) to be all “out in the street.” One of my favorite teachers was always fond of repeating a Kenyan proverb he grew up with, “empty cans make a lot of noise.” In other words, being gregarious all time, talkative and seemingly willing to bare all, doesn’t always mean someone is being entirely forthcoming or comfortable in their sharing. In fact, sometimes the noise distracts us from the lack of substance in the content.

Not to suggest that there’s no substance in Kinky Gazpacho, but I do wonder if the extroversion of the author, creates an assumption of openness, comfort with the text, and a level of self-knowledge and awareness, that without being shown, as a reader I am left to assume or believe, rather than experience or witness. Moreover, I think that Tharps has deeper still to go; certainly deeper than what we’re allowed to witness in her memoir.

As always, I proffer my review, knowing that I haven’t ever written a book. Haven’t ever stretched myself in that way. What do I know about birthing a memoir?

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