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  • Writer's pictureChinelo Ikem

reflection: Fifty Words For Rain by Asha Lemmie

~book reflection~~major spoilers~

"It's obvious that you're half-caste," she said, lowering her voice to a chilling whisper. "At best. You're not fooling anyone, with that horrible Negro hair of yours. I see you for what you are. I know you're not some pretty little Eastern blossom. You're a weed."


On Instagram, I follow quite a few big celebrity or ultra notable bookstagram accounts. among these are Oprah's Book Club, Reese Witherspoon's Book Club, New York Times Books, Good Morning America Book Club, etc.

For the most part, their recommendations don't mean much to me compared to what regular bookstagrammers recommend. Their recommendations aren't bad, per se, but I get the feeling I'm not their audience.

But every once in a while, one of these books catches my eye. Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie was Good Morning America's September Book of the Month. I was on my way to ignore this book until I saw their interview with the author, a 26-year-old Black woman. It actually shocked me that she was Black, a woman, so young, and yet I hadn't heard much about this book on here.

So I borrowed the e-book from the library. And having read the book, my general feeling is that I made the right choice in giving this book a chance. but my other thought is that I wish the anti-Blackness in this book was handled a little differently.

The main character is Noriko "Nori" Kamiza, the lovechild of a mother heir to Japanese royalty and a Black-American soldier who meet and fall in love during the beginning of World War II. Her father dies soon after her birth and her mother, wanting to be free of her name, unexpectedly drops Nori off at Nori's grandmother's grand estate and vanishes.

Her mother's one ask of Nori? Obey. "If a woman knows nothing else, she should know how to be silent," her mother tells her. "Promise me you will obey."

This, I feel, is the worst thing you can tell a Black girl about to enter a severely anti-Black household.

To say that her grandmother mistreats Nori is an understatement. Because her grandmother does not want all of Japan to know she has a Black granddaughter, Nori is banished to the attic. Daily, she is subjected to painful bleach baths to lighten her skin, is "weighed every day before her bath" to make sure she stays thin, and her hair is discussed as a negative thing. any infraction, including loud footsteps around the house, is grounds for her grandmother beating Nori with a wooden kitchen spoon.

Because Nori holds dear to her heart the command her mother gave her to obey and is very young, she earnestly accepts the abuse in hopes that her mother will come back soon. There's even a section of the book where her grandmother successfully sells Nori, at the young age of 13, to a "whore" house to get rid of her.

Luckily, Akira, her older full Japanese half-brother, steps in and uses his status to protect Nori. Akira and Nori are very close, almost in an uncomfortable way. There's even a line where it is explained that Nori "wanted to be useful to him so badly that she could taste the desire in her mouth."

Because Akira is the only son of Nori's mother and is full Japanese, he is expected to take over the estate. Therefore, Nori's grandmother is inclined to please him. Akira uses the fortune to buy back Nori from the "whore" house and emancipates them from their grandparents for a short time to negotiate a deal that protects Nori while also setting the terms of his return to take over.

Happily ever after is not the result. There's a plot carried out to kill Nori -and when it fails, Nori is banished from Japan. She goes to live in Europe and the reader watches as Nori grows into a 24-year-old woman by the time the book ends. This book is interesting in that it switches from third and first-person much like Life of Miwako Sumida and Death of Vivek Oji, so you can hear what people think of Nori first-hand.

Though the book is set from 1948 - 1965, the book struck me as being set in a far-gone time. I realized that I felt this way because Nori, though discriminated against in the cruelest of ways, has extreme class privilege as Japanese royalty. Halfway through the book, I realized no one goes to work and yet everyone, including Nori, has maids and other help to do work for them.

The other reason is that although this book is set in a time of political instability, especially anti-war and Civil Rights Era movements, there is little talk about this political reality in the book. Part of me thinks this is okay. But it is peculiar that Nori never meets another Black person, not even when she is in Europe. furthermore, everyone Nori loves in this book, besides Akira, is trash. Alice, for example, her one white British friend who is also noble, calls Nori's hair "a tragedy." After that, I couldn't buy into their friendship, even as they become adults.

I finished reading the book feeling that Nori needed Black people around her. But I thought it was an interesting look into Black-Japanese relations and the reality of being Black in a non-white, non-Black community.

Part of me is afraid, however, that this book misrepresented aspects of Japanese culture. I've been told that the author is a Black woman with some connection to the country though I did not hear any specifics. I would love to hear what readers of Japanese descent think about the cultural depictions in this book.

Overall, interesting, beautifully written but not the most satisfying from my vantage point as a Black woman.

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