Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and The Harlem Renaissance

Although well-known as a poet and pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance movement – an intellectual, social, musical and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, from 1918 until mid 1930’s, Langston Hughes also wrote Not Without Laughter, a semi-autobiographical novel, now considered a classic.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925During the Harlem Renaissance, there was an outpouring of creativity, an expression of how African Americans sought social, political, and artistic change in the US, also influencing francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies living in Paris. This movement turned attention to and invoked pride, in the lives of Black Americans.

An anthology of essays, poetry and fiction produced during this era, edited by Alain Locke, reflects the voice of middle class African American citizens who desired  equal civil rights like their white, middle class counterparts. Langston Hughes however sought to give voice to and remained a humble advocate for the lower, working class.

His authenticity, appreciation and ability to see beauty in simplicity, evoked through the power of his words, proved him to be one of modern literature’s most revered and versatile African-American authors.

Not Without Laughter, written while he was a student at university, and inspired by his own youthful experiences, provides us a privileged insight into the kind of characters who inhabited his world and imagination, giving us today this powerful, timeless novel.

Books That Connect Threads

As I began reading this I was reminded of Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, a story of another young man, in part inspired by the author’s grandfather and pulling on historical references of the time, both general to the population and specific to her own family.

Here it’s semi autobiographical, as Hughes writes of a boy named Sandy, like himself and like Harlan, raised by a grandmother who was more worldly and wise, women with ideas about raising grandsons to reach their better potential, while their daughters were off following husband(s) who liked the road and moved from place to place in search of their dreams. Being a young couple and trying to make a living was challenge enough, the grandmother, though often a working woman herself, was a wise and practical choice for keeping a boy on track towards a worthy future.

When I read more about Langston Hughes, I was reminded too of Audre Lorde and her essays in Sister Outsider, of her travels and observations in Russia, looking at that foreign country through the lens of being black and a woman; Hughes too was curious about the world beyond his home town, travelling beyond his home and country.

Hughes rode steamships to West Africa, toured the American South, traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway, and saw his own reputation shift from Harlem Renaissance star in the 1920s to Communist activist poet in the 1930s to public figure in the 1960s…

Book Review

Not Without Laughter is a coming-of-age story that introduces us to Sandy Rogers who lives with his grandmother who everyone refers to as Aunt Hager and his mother Annjee, who works as a housekeeper for a rich white family, while his father Jimboy traverses the country pursuing a living as a musician.

He was a dreamy-eyed boy who had largely grown to his present age under the dominant influence of women – Annjee, Harriett, his grandmother – because Jimboy had been so seldom home.

It’s 1930’s in small town Kansas and Hughes creates a vivid portrait of African-American family life in a racially divided society, where some try to make the most of the way things are without changing it, some try to help others no matter their colour or creed, some aspire to be like what they perceive are successful white folk and Sandy observes all, in the process of making up his mind about all that he witnesses.

Eventually Annjee follows her husband, whom she only ever sees through rose-tinted glasses believing that one day things will change and their fortunes will change. Sandy gets his knowledge of a man’s world from his part-time jobs at the barber shop and as a bellboy in a local hotel.

Aunt Hager as they affectionately call her, is a great character and the one who truly formed Sandy into the quiet, highly observant child and teenager he becomes, a hardworking washerwoman she is always there for those who are ailing, and worked every day of her life to the last.

We follow Sandy through his opportunities and disappointments, his observations of how his people are treated and the strangeness of those who try to be what they aren’t, moving up in a world that makes some of them ashamed of their humble beginnings and the humble trying to stay good, not allowing themselves to indulge in certain types of disreputable fun should it corrupt them.

Racism is ever present, like the shadow that projects itself in full sunlight, unquestioned, accepted and quickly forgotten by white children whose psyche is undamaged by its selective vengeance. Sandy sees everything, choosing his revolutionary acts wisely, knowing when to run, where to find safety  and paying homage where it is due.

Even when he is at a loss, his new situation offers him the opportunity to learn anew, seeing more of the world his people inhabit, the consequences of the various choices they make, so that by the time he too must make a choice, he is as well informed as he can be.

In the home of the social-climbing Tempy, Sandy discovers a treasure trove of literature, which he eagerly consumes. Life  blossoms for Sandy, who, as he excels at school, grows both in stature and self-confidence.  – from the Introduction by Maya Angelou

Langston Hughes The Racial Mountain Not Without Laughter

Langston Hughes

It’s a heartfelt story that leaves a sense of regret as the last page is turned, when Sandy is deciding whether to leave school as suggested by his mother, to support her, or return to his studies as suggested by his Aunt, who like her mother wishes him to have that chance at bettering himself.

His observations of family dynamics, of the impact of race, community connection, the culture of music and the complications of young love are portrayed vividly and without judgement, leaving it to the reader to note the obvious.

Ultimately the title says it all, the way to cope, the example he admires, the man who finds something in his day to laugh about or someone to laugh with, finds joy right there.

A rich and important work, Hughes shines a light on the black American experience, paying homage to those who formed and informed him, enabling him to leave his own legacy for which we are fortunate to have insight into.

I, too, am America.

Further Reading

Poem: I, Too by Langston Hughes

Essay: Langston Hughes landmark essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Article, New Yorker: The Elusive Langston Hughes by Hilton Als (2015)

An Introduction to the Author: Langston Hughes 101 by Benjamin Voigt

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline