Autobiography of the Lower East Side by Rashidah Ismaili
Northampton House Press
In Autobiography of the Lower East Side, Rashidah Ismaili takes readers on a journey back to a time when the neighborhood in question was a hub of artists, advocates and scholars pushing societal boundaries. Rashidah expertly intertwines several plot-lines, told in a series of related short stories, and introduces several distinct voices from this cultured community.
One of the people we meet is Nusa, a young mother originally from West Africa, who holds several jobs and is pursuing a post-doc in oral literature. She’s torn when her passion for a man leads 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 the fact 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 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.
Full disclosure: Rashidah is one of the core poetry faculty members at the Wilkes University Creative Writing Program, where I went to grad school. I didn’t have much direct formal instruction with Rashidah since my concentration was children’s fiction, but she often found time to chat with me about world folklore, theatre, poetry, and New York City. I had a feeling that Autobiography of the Lower East Side would be a treat I’d savor like those fascinating conversations we had years ago. I was right.